Sunday, February 25, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; drama, USA, 2017; D: Martin McDonagh, S: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Željko Ivanek, Peter Dinklage

"Raped while dying". "And still no arrests." "How come, Chief Willoughby?" These are the sentences displayed on three billboards on a road near Ebbing, Missouri, paid for a year by Mildred Hayes, who wants to put pressure of Sheriff Willoughby to find the criminal who raped and killed her teenage daughter, Angela. After Willoughby commits suicide because he had cancer, the local townspeople are even more against Mildred, but she still wants to continue with the billboards. Mildred is also plagued by her divorce and her other teenage kid, Robbie. Police officer Jason overhears a man bragging about rape in a bar and thus gets into a fight with him to get some of his blood. The DNA analysis is negative, though. Jason and Mildred become friends and go on a trip to kill the man, anyway.

Better in its concept than in its execution, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is a good and lively independent drama film that speaks about the determination of a mother who wants justice for her killed child, despite enormous opposition, and works first and foremost due to its excellent actors who give it spirit, especially Frances McDormand as a strong, stoic woman who rather kicks ass than to cry, and Sam Rockwell, whose character of police officer Jason undergoes a transformation from an unlikeable racist to a more understanding and peaceful man. The film works the best in its first quarter due to its plot, yet somehow loses its energy later on due to too much empty walk and an overstretched running time: it became somewhat flat in its second half, and needed some director's intervention or more inspired writing to add it more versatility. Some of the dialogues are still very good, from the exchange between Mildred and Jason in the police station ("So, how's it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?"- "It's 'Persons of color'-torturing business, these days, if you want to know.") up to a golden little, intimate moment where a crushed Mildred is sitting on her bed, comforting herself by "talking" through her two pink bunny slippers on her feet ("What are you gonna do, Mildred? You're gonna crucify 'em? [rabbit voice] Yeah, I'm gonna crucify 'em."). However, as great as McDormand is, she cannot completely amend everything in the film, because the final act simply does not work. A plot point near the end in a pub hinted at a different conclusion than we got in the end, which unfortunately abrogated Jason's character arc half-way through. The film ends on a very incomplete note, on an anticlimax, since it hints at a fourth act which never materializes, which weakens the strong impression at the start.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How Iva Left on September 16, 2016

Kako je Iva otišla 16. rujna 2016.; drama short, Croatia, 2016; D: Tomislav Šoban, S: Nika Mišković, Pavle Matuško, Petra Mikolić, Ivica Gunjača, Dino Mileta

Iva (30) graduated from a University, but could not find work in Croatia. She thus studies Norwegian language to prepare herself to emigrate to that Scandinavian country. She has a tender farewell with her boyfriend one last time before she departs at the airport.

One of the most mature and grown up movies to ever come out of Kino Klub Zagreb, Tomislav Soban's 18-minute short is a movie that defies the cliches of the Croatian "social drama" genre: even though its topic is about unemployment and young people emigrating out of their homeland, it refuses to be melodramatic, sentimental or sappy, and instead presents all of these issues so subtly, so neutrally that many will not even be bothered by them while they watch the film. "How Iva Left" has two erotic sequences that stand out, both of which are surprisingly sad and melancholic: one is the sequence in which Iva is lying on her bed in underwear, nostalgically masturbating one last time at her home before departing into an unknown country where she will be a stranger, and part of this moment is filmed from another building, as the camera films her through the window. The other is when she is in a freezer storage room, to simulate the cold Norwegian weather, and gives her boyfriend a hand job (off screen) one last time before their inevitable break up. "Iva" is a tender, though also bitter film, with astringent and uncouth beauty, where Soban chooses a shaky, hand-held camera to give it a more authentic feel of realism, whereas its main actress Nika Miskovic is an astounding discovery in the independent film world.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Drama is Overrated

Precijenjena dramaturgija; documentary / satire / short, Croatia, 2017; D: Sunčica Ana Veldić, S: Sunčica Ana Veldić, Goran Dević, Igor Bezinović, Nikica Gilić, Bruno Kragić, Hrvoje Turković

Suncica Ana Veldic is doing a documentary about herself, from her life on a farm, her job as a veterinary up to, finally, her love for film as she studies at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, where she often clashes over how to direct a film with her professor Goran Devic.

One of the best movies from Kino Klub Zagreb of the decade, "Drama is Overrated" is an incredibly fresh, playful and ironic metafilm documentary that shows that an art-film can be a fun form, as well. Just like Charlie Kaufman was frustrated with the assignment to adapt a screenplay for the "The Orchid Thief", and thus instead wrote a movie about himself writing a movie in "Adaptation", so did Suncica Ana Veldic overturn the assignment given to her to make a documentary by making a metafilm movie about herself making a movie. Unlike many authors who clumsily slipped over this self-referential task, Veldic delivers an incredibly even balancing act that is always elegant and fluent, while she at the same time spoofs the tendency of indoctrination of filmmakers by the Academy, advocating that their creativity should be given more liberty.

There are two fantastic sequences in the film: the first one is the opening scene filmed in reverse, showing how Veldic and her dog are walking backwards from the entrance into the Academy, symbolically displaying how she is a rebellious outsider who always goes "against the flow". The other one is a delicious sequence that first shows a clip from "The Limits of Control"—just to then "jump" to another level to Nikica Gilic commenting on the said clip from the film in the class—just to then switch again another level to Goran Devic looking at the said clip of Nikica Gilic and complaining to Veldic that her process of making a movie is questionable because she "cannot just randomly film professors at her class"—just to then switch again (!) to a neighbor watching the said clip of Devic on a computer screen and commenting on the whole thing. Veldic has a field day playing with the film medium, taking her frustrations out in creative ways (while she extracts weeds from her garden, she mentions that she was taught from the Academy that a "movie should be cleaned from unnecessary parts, like weeds"), while she managed to assemble a whole array of endlessly quotable lines: "I don't feel inhibited. I feel badly directed"; "Dramaturgy is overrated"; "You will never finish this film, because this film is the truth!" A nicely done playing around with structure, fun and accessible, with the only complaint being that "Drama is Overrated" feels too short with a running time of 21 minutes—the viewers would have certainly loved to see even more.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

Enter the Dragon

Enter the Dragon; action, Hong Kong / China / USA, 1973; D: Robert Clouse, S: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Shih Kien, Ahna Capri

Superlative martial arts fighter Lee defeats his opponent at a tournament. He is then approached by a British investigator who pleads for Lee's help: criminal Han killed a lot of people and is selling drugs with impunity, so Lee's assignment is to go to his island in Hong Kong and collect evidence against Han. Lee uses a fighter tournament as a guise to enter the island, where he also finds American Roper and Williams. During the day, Lee fights, but investigates during the night. In a duel, Lee kills brute O'Hara, who used illegal tricks, such as broken bottles, to attack Lee. Han kills Williams and shows Roper a cave where he produces drugs, but Roper refuses to join his forces. Lee raids the hideout, the prisoners are freed. In a duel, Lee kills Han and waits for the police.

Martial arts film "Enter the Dragon" is good, yet would have been quickly forgotten due to cliches, a conventional storyline and some 'rough edges' hadn't it been for Bruce Lee's legendary performance. His charismatic looks, a blend of wisdom and coolness, are the main highlight of the story: the movie is ordinary, yet his virtuoso fighting is extraordinary. Due to Lee's efforts (and his unfortunate early death which secured him cult status), the martial arts subgenre of the 70s hit the ceiling, leaving an unprecedented cultural impact and world success, leaving the West in fascination with Eastern fights the following decades. Lee participates in only five battle sequences, which makes for a sparse, though precious time in which they are used in the film. Unlike the meticulously choreographed fight sequences by Jackie Chan (who appears in the film as one of the villain's henchmen whom Lee kills in a quick 10 second fight), Lee uses a 'down-to-earth', realistic and grity style, without glamour. Despite a rather routine, standard writing, there are a few refreshing moments outside the fighting sequences that stand out: one example is the sequence in which a bad guy asks Lee how he can "win a battle without a fight", so Lee tells him to enter a boat, only to then hold the said bad guy captured on the sea by holding the rope attached to the boat. The episodic characters sometimes lead the storyline too much, and one of the curiosities involves the villain Han who exchanges his fake hand with an iron claw in the finale. It is impossible to predict how Lee's career would have prospered had he lived after the huge success of the "Dragon", yet the film offers just enough to stand as a monument to the actor's ability and talent.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

The People vs. Larry Flynt

The People vs. Larry Flynt; drama / satire, USA, 1996; D: Miloš Forman, S: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli, Donna Hanover, James Cromwell

Larry Flynt is a striptease bar owner in the 1 9 7 0s who quickly finds out that he can earn a lot more money by selling erotic images of women in a magazine, called the Hustler. Thanks to the magazine, he gains a fortune and marries his co-worker, Althea. However, he also becomes the victim of Christian persecution when he is charged for obscenity and sentenced to 25 years in prison by a local court. Luckily, due to his lawyer, Alan, the conviction is overturned on appeal. From there on, Flynt becomes an unlikely hero for the freedom of the press and the speech. An assassin shoots at Flynt and leaves him paralyzed. Althea dies from AIDS. After a satiric article in the Hustler, which published a fake interview of pastor Jerry Falwell who allegedly having sex with his mother, Flynt is sued by Falwell. Flynt loses the case, but appeals at the Supreme Court, which allows satirical articles of public figures as a right of free speech.

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski seem to be fascinated with outsiders who were persecuted or shunned in society only because some people at the top did not like them just because they were different: "Ed Wood" showed the enthusiastic title hero who was declared the 'worst director of all time' yet still went on to follow his dream whereas "Man on the Moon" showed the alienation of comedian Andy Kaufman who was misunderstood due to his bizarre humor. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" follows this theme by depicting the title hero who showed incredible tenacity by demanding to live the way he wants: this is not so much a depiction of Flynt's porn magazines as much as it is a legal case study of development of civil rights and some "grey areas" which had yet to be determined by law. Flynt was a complex, sometimes even a shady character, yet by demanding to have the right to publish his magazine despite conservative opposition, he became an unlikely defender of human rights and a promoter of the freedom of speech, thereby consolidating the system.

Director Milos Forman starts the film with a prologue in Kentucky, depicting Flynt and his brother living in extreme poverty as kids, and thus selling liquor in order to earn money and escape from this misery anyway they can. Some of the court speeches are highly intelligent: when the lawyer asks: "Isn't a community allowed to set its own standards?", Flynt replies: "No. That's a disguise for censorship. This country belongs to me as much as it belongs to you." Later on, when Flynt was sentenced to prison, he tells this to one reporter: "Why do *I* have to go to jail to protect *your* freedom?" Upon people complaining at the nudity in his magazine, he says: "Don't complain to me! Complain to the manufacturer!". This helped in progress of law, since it clearly showed that nobody can be sentenced or punished just because a judge does not like that individual. Woody Harrelson is excellent in the leading role, giving for a lively and engaging show by embodying this character who never gives up on himself. The storyline is rather chaotic and meandering at times, skipping several chapters of Flynt's life, which somewhat leaves the screenplay feeling rushed. For instance, after surviving the assassination attempt, the story suddenly jumps forward to five years, without giving a clue what happened during that time. Flynt's secret tape involving a cocaine selling is another subplot that just suddenly "disappears" and is never brought up again. Forman also politicizes some of Flynt's trials, even in those in which he was just plain ridiculous or silly, yet overall gives a fluent and interesting depiction of that time: it is not just a story of Flynt's life, but also a small depiction of how history was written due to some groundbreaking verdicts that allowed people more room for free speech and less room for oppression of authority figures.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Gods Must Be Crazy II

The Gods Must Be Crazy II; comedy, South Africa / Botswana / USA, 1989; D: Jamie Uys, S: N!xao, Lena Farugia, Hans Strydom, Eiros, Nadies, Erick Bowen, Treasure Tshabalala

Bushman Xixo still lives an ancient tribal life in the Kalahari, his tribe being unaware of modern civilization. Curiosity gets the best out of his kids, Xiri and Xisa, who board a truck of two poachers, but when it drives off at high speed, they get stuck in it, so Xixo follows its tire trail to find them. At the same time, American lawyer, Ann Taylor, arrives in Namibia for a conference. She boards a light plane of a man she met for a Safari, but he lands and the Zoologist Stephen becomes the new pilot. Ann and Stephen crash land after a storm and get separated in the wilderness. Ann stumbles upon an Angolan and Cubanese soldier fighting, who came there from the Angolan Civil War. When the poacher captures Xixo, Ann, Stephen and the two soldiers unite to stop and capture the poacher villain and apprehend him. Then they depart back home. Xixo finds his kids in the desert and they also head back home.

Director Jamie Uys' final film—and his only sequel—is a worthy follow-up to his surprise hit "The Gods Must Be Crazy" that surpassed the boundaries of its country of origin and attracted worldwide attention and appeal. International box office hits of non-American countries are hardly predictable, though part of that winning formula seems to lie in the blend between some endemic features of that said "exotic" country with Western civilization: "Crocodile Dundee" had the hero from the Outback go to New York; "They Call Me Trinity" had Italian actors pretend to be in an American Western; "Enter the Dragon" had Eastern martial arts presented as an international tournament which included Americans. "Gods" seemed to have hit that niche when it presented a culture clash of one of the last ancient "hermit" tribes, the Bushmen, getting in contact with Western civilization. Even though the impact of the sequel at the box office was lesser than the 1st film, part 2 is equally as good, with the American co-production allowing Uys to improve the story even technically. The critics complained that the sequel is silly and just a repeat of the 1st film, yet even the original was silly.

Part 2 stays true to the spirit of the original, this time presenting the theme of separation and a search to unite again (N!Xao's character is separated from his kids and thus goes on a quest to find them; the American lawyer, Ann, and Zoologist Stephen, are separated in the desert and thus try find their way back home) while again showing Uys' playful side who pays homage to silent slapstick comedies (certain scenes are filmed in fast motion of 12 frames/second in order to give them that burlesque tone) and uses the Kalahari fauna to interact with the protagonists in various creative ways (one of the most memorable sequences involves Ann trying to extract water from a wind-reservoir, yet she must manually turn the turbine at the top of the ladder, while a mischievous monkey keeps stealing the water coming from the pipe in a can at the ground). Certain moments are contrived (just like in the 1st film, a civil war subplot seems superfluous even here, involving a Angolese and Cuban soldier fighting over who will be whose POW) whereas others are clearly staged (the costume of the rhinoceros), and it is a pity that N!xao has been almost reduced to a supporting character this time, yet the story still has some sparks of wonder (the light plane entering a storm of almost Biblical proportions and then landing on an ancient tree offers exquisite shot compositions; a Bushman running under a giant giraffe; the Bushman kid holding a part of a tree over its head to appear taller than the hyena) and innocence that enables it to even get away with butt-naked Bushmen throughout the entire screen time. Uys does not shy away from absolutely goofy moments (one comical scene has the poacher holster its pistol in his belt, but the weapon falls down in his pants) yet also gives a genuine commentary on human differences and similarities (love, friendship, justice), which help alleviate the rather rushed finale.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Angels with Dirty Faces

Angels with Dirty Faces; crime drama, USA, 1938; D: Michael Curtiz, S: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, Billy Halop

Juvenile delinquents Rocky and Jerry attempt to rob a train at a station, but the police catches Rocky. As years go by, their paths diverge: Jerry becomes a priest, while Rocky becomes a criminal. After being released from prison, Rocky meets up with Jerry again, as well as with a girl with whom he often argued, Laury. Jerry is disturbed that Rocky takes six teenagers under his wing and introduces them to small time crime. Rocky's lawyer, Frazier, gives Rocky a 100,000$ and they use the moneys to bribe the city officials to gain immunity for their racketeering. When Jerry teams up with an newspaper to expose Rocky's crime web, Frazier wants to kill Jerry, but is killed by Rocky. The police capture Rocky in a raid who is sentenced to death. Jerry then persuades the six teenagers to abandon crime and take on the right path in life.

A magnificent masterpiece, one of the best crime films of all time, "Angels with Dirty Faces" is an intelligent, concise, incredibly measured, sophisticated and genuine film experience, in short, an all-encompassing depiction of crime and its effects on people, while offering James Cagney in his finest hour. As with many films, even "Angels" are a 'product of its time': during the Great Depression, poverty fermented circumstances for numerous people to turn to crime in order to survive in America, and thus the gangster film genre was born in the 30s, trying to cope and understand such a grim situation. The whole film is meticulously set-up, from the opening act that already establishes the relations between Rocky, Jerry and Laury as kids (Rocky's and Laury's exchange is inspired writing: "Scram before I wipe the floor with you!" - "You better wipe your nose, first!"; followed by him descending down the ladder, knocking her books on the floor and pulling her hat down over her face), only for this to come full circle in the second act, when Rocky, now a grown up, returns from prison to his neighborhood, while Laury recognizes him and "settles the score" by slapping him and pulling his hat down his face, causing him to chuckle. The cast is impeccable, including even Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role of Rocky's lawyer, Fraizer.

Director Michael Curtiz rises to the occasion by enriching the story with several cinematic techniques and stylistic touches (the frame of Rocky shooting at the camera's POV "freezes" and shrinks in order to become a photo of a news headline about Rocky's crimes; the camera pulls away from a newspaper title of a corruption scandal to reveal a hand that drops the newspaper, belonging to lawyer Fraizer, who is directly involved in the case...) though the screenplay by John Wexley and Warren Duff is the undeniable highlight, creating a rich storyline that enables the cast to all have their moments. The Hays Code forbade extreme moments in film during that time, and thus gangster Rocky was juxtaposed with his childhood friend, priest Jerry, for moral counterbalance, showing that people can resist social fatalism, yet several subversive moments managed to avoid turning this story too preachy or melodramatic: in one sequence, Jerry appeals to the six teenagers to abandon the underground shady pub and its vice, yet the boys won't listen to him. Disappointed, Jerry walks away from the casino, but as one man cynically asks him: "What's the matter? Boys won't follow you to heaven?", Jerry just turns and smacks him in the face. Later on, Jerry also tries to reason with Rocky to stop corrupting the kids, but admits this in a powerful line: "What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy? That the hoodlum and the gangster is looked up to with the same respect as the successful businessman or the popular hero?". Jerry's attempts to try to expose Rocky's crime web is also subversive filmmaking, giving an incredibly sharp commentary at society (big criminals, once they have enough money, can bribe city officials to gain immunity and even try to censor the press), which, together with the film's theme of a distorted meritocracy, shows Curtiz and classic Hollywood at its Zenith, achieving a full artistic width and a spectrum of viewing experience.


Sunday, February 4, 2018


Cobra; action, USA, 1986; D: George P. Cosmatos, S: Sylvester Stallone, Brigitte Nielsen, Reni Santoni, Brian Thompson

California around Christmas. A sect led by the Night Slasher is randomly attacking and killing civilians across the area. One of their members enters a supermarket and takes all the people there as hostages in order to attract the media, but he is stopped and killed by Cobra, a special forces agent who does the dirty work for the police. When the sect starts persecuting a witness of their murders, Ingrid, she is taken under the custody and protection by Cobra. When they are attacked in a desolate motel, Cobra uses his gun to go into a big confrontation with the criminals, and kills the Night Slasher in a factory.

One of those 'hard boiled' action films from the 80s, which sprung like mushrooms after the rain, "Cobra" is objectively not quite a good film, yet it is still a fun 'guilty pleasure'. It is a decent alternative to "Dirty Harry", presenting the same kind of "tough, but fair" enforcer of justice who just treats people the way they deserve: he treats peaceful people with peace, and violent people with violence. It is interesting to notice what kind of an influence Reagan's conservative era had on "Cobra", since it follows a right-wing perception that violence is getting out of hand because the administration is treating criminals too leniently, giving them too much rights instead of simply stopping them with people like Stallone's Cobra. By content, it inserts untypical villains, displaying a critique of "Herostratus-fame" in a time when the bad guys only want to gain fame in the media through violence, advocating that too much liberty leads to anarchy and chaos.

This is inconsistent and underdeveloped, especially in the subplot where the sect is persecuting Ingrid for being an eyewitness to their murders (if they want media attention, why suddenly try to hide themselves?). The opening shots are aesthetically pleasant, showing a silhouette of a man riding a motorcycle against a red background, who is such a villain that he already shows his intention by parking on the handicapped spot before entering a supermarket, while the opening narration slyly states: "In America, there's a burglary every 11 seconds. An armed robbery every 65 seconds. A violent crime every 25 seconds. A murder every 24 minutes. And 250 rapes a day." Stallone's Cobra is interesting at the beginning when he displays a few eccentric touches (for instance, he uses scissors to cut his pizza (!) at home) and the finale when he says a few cynical lines ("This is where the law stops and I start, sucker!"), yet is an overall bland and standard character throughout the middle part, which leaves the film lacking highlights. It would have worked even better if it had more of such irony, yet it is a fairly solid film on its own, with an interesting action finale involving orange trees and a suspenseful siege of a motel.