Saturday, July 20, 2019

One Hundred and One Dalmatians

One Hundred and One Dalmatians; animated film, USA, 1961; D: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, S: Rod Taylor, Cate Bauer, Betty Lou Gerson, Ben Wright, Lisa Davis, Martha Wentworth

London. Pongo is a Dalmatian dog living with his owner, songwriter Roger. In a park, Pongo manages to charm Anita, the owner of another Dalmatian female dog, Perdita. Roger falls in love with Anita, Pongo with Perdita. 15 Dalmatian puppies are bred. However, Anita's schoolmate, Cruella De Vil, intends to make fur coats out of the puppies, and thus sends her henchmen, Jasper and Horace, to kidnap them. With the help of a cat, the puppies, together with another 83 other Dalmatian puppies who were kidnapped previously, escape from Jasper's and Horace's house and flee with Pongo and Perdita. Cruella tries to capture them again, but her car crashes with Jasper's and Horace's. Back in London, Roger and Anita embrace all of the 101 Dalmatians.

By selling over 99,000,000 tickets at the American box office during its premiere and four subsequent re-issues, "101 Dalmatians" is the 2nd most popular Walt Disney animated feature film of the 20th century, though not among their finest achievements. In spite of its charming, lovable characters, its biggest impact was left by the villainess, Cruella De Vil, who was ingrained in collective cinema memory as one of the sleaziest and nastiest antagonists in animation. The start of the film is inspired: the intro is wonderfully creative (dots are used, among other things, as music notes) whereas the opening line has style, with the camera descending from a panorama shot of an apartment building while the protagonist narrates his introduction ("My story begins in London... At that time, I lived with my pet in a flat...") and we see Roger through the window, composing music while his dog lays next to him, only for the viewers to quickly find out that the narrator is not Roger, but actually the dog, Pongo ("Oh, that's my pet, Roger, I'm the one with the spots").

The way Pongo manages to "initiate" contact for his owner, Roger, in the park, is irresistible: the dog uses the leash to "laso" both Roger's and Anita's leg, thereby pushing them closer to each other, in a neat romantic move. The rest of the story is somehow rushed and hasty, never managing to simply slow down for the viewers to enjoy its narrative and absorb what is going on. Out of the 15 Dalmatian puppies, none is that well developed as a character (except for one who is fat, and thus his only personality is that he loves eating), and thus the sympathy for them is restrained, which is really problematic in the finale, when the viewers are suppose to root for them. The last third of the film is just one giant escape and chase sequence, without much ingenuity, leaving a rather standard, though still solid impression. A little more imagination or versatility in the story, revolving around the 15 Dalmatian puppies, would have improved the film, whereas a few sugary Disney moments happen here and there. However, there are still moments that ignite a good chuckle (in one great 'throw away' joke, Roger listens to his song on a radio, revolving around the evil nature of Cruella), which makes "101 Dalmatians" a fun film.

Grade:++

Friday, July 19, 2019

Yesterday

Yesterday; fantasy romantic comedy, UK, 2019; D: Danny Boyle, S: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Joel Fry, Sophia Di Martino

Suffolk. After a traffic accident, Jack Malik, an aspiring songwriter who makes ends meet by working in a store, wakes up in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed. He uses this opportunity to simply copy every Beatles song he remembers and present it as his own. His best friend / manager, Ellie, helps him make an album, and little by little, the word of mouth spreads. Musician Ed Sheeran invites him for a concert and is amazed by the songs Jack plays. Quickly, a new, American manager steps in, Debra, and soon Jack becomes an international star. He meets two other people who remember the Beatles. During a concert, Jack finally admits the songs were composed by the Beatles and ends up with Ellie.

This charming comic take on the 'Mandela Effect', in this case presenting a man in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed, is an amusing, light and heartwarming little film, though the the range of possibilities of its concept could have been exploited more. "Yesterday" starts off nicely, presenting the hero Jack as a would-be musician who gives up on his dream, admitting to his best friend Ellie: "I think my music is something special, you think it is something special, but nobody else does". It is an effective scene, both bitter, somber and charming. It is topped by the best sequence in the film, the one where Jack manically googles the word "Beatles" on his laptop, but only gets ridiculously absurd results, such as the image of a beetle insect, or when he types in "John Paul McCartney" but only gets the image of "Pope John Paul", which is a riot. Sadly, nothing after that manages to be equally as great. The rest of the film is good, but somehow strangely ordinary, calculative and normal for such a fresh and unique concept, never leading to some especially relevant point congruent to it. The actors are all great, especially Lily James who steals almost every scene as Jack's love interest, Ellie, whereas it is a treat to simply listen a whole array of The Beatles' songs, sung here by Jack, from "Love is All You Need", through "The Long and Winding Road" up to "Help!", performed with gusto.

Grade:++

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Husbands and Wives

Husbands and Wives; drama, USA, 1992; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Lysette Anthony, Cristi Conaway

New York. Gabe, a literature professor, and his wife, Judy, are shocked upon finding out that their friends, Jack and Sally, are filing for divorce. Jack finds a younger new lover, Sam, and thinks she is great in bed, but soon has to conclude that she very immature and incompatible, so he reconciles with Sally. In the meantime, Gabe starts talking with his student, Rain, who is a great admirer of his. During a rainy night, they kiss, but Gabe decides to not pursue this any further. However, Gabe's wife Judy leaves him to be with another man, Michael.

Unjustifiably overshadowed by Woody Allen's infamous break-up with Mia Farrow, who here ironically plays his wife leaving him, excellent "Husbands and Wives" offers far more than many other movies exploring the theme of human relationships, managing to be both realistically intimate and artistically satisfying. Already the opening scene manages to set up an engaging intro, staying true to Allen's typical comic taste: on TV, a man mentions Einstein's quote: "God doesn't play dice with the Universe!", upon which Allen's character Gabe changes the channel and comments: "No, he plays hide-and-seek with the Universe!" Unlike his previous, static films, this is one untypical for Allen: he uses hand-held cameras with sudden, shaky pans, even jump cuts that interrupt Gabe in the middle of a sentence, making one wonder if he was the first to use this documentary-like style, before Dogme 95. However, he always forces the viewers to engage more with the characters than with his style. The bitter story sums up a harsh, sad truth, namely that people can either find someone who is sexually compatible with them, or spiritually compatible, but that they cannot find a person who is both, which causes a disappointing "martial dichotomy". Following this disillusionment that destroys the idealism of a perfect love, Allen managed to tap onto some deeper truths in life, yet he still has more than enough inspired jokes, all of which stem from his writing, from "Art doesn't imitate life, it imitates bad Television", up to Gabe's very sympathetic quote in which he compares Turgenev to a fine "dessert" but Dostoevsky to a "real meal with Vitamins". Even though he was disputed by some critics, Allen really had an incredibly proliferate creative phase spanning over three decades, from the 70s up to the 90s, when he made one great film after another, and always had new ideas.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Stuber

Stuber; action comedy, USA, 2019; D: Michael Dowse, S: Dave Bautista, Kumail Nanjiani, Natalie Morales, Betty Gilpin, Iko Uwais, Mira Sorvino, Jimmy Tatro

During a raid, LAPD Detective Vic tries to arrest criminal Teijo, but the latter kills his partner, Morris. Six months later, Vic has underwent a laser eye surgery, but then gets a tip that Teijo is going to have a smuggling operation this evening. Since he cannot see that well from the surgery, Vic hires Uber driver Stu to drive him from house to house, in order to arrest Teijo's henchman. This overlong crime chase is very inconvenient for Stu, since he planned to try to woo a girl he always liked. In the showdown, it turns out Vic's boss, Captain Angie, is the police mole who is on Teijo's payroll, but thanks to Stu's help, Vic manages to arrest Teijo. Stu starts a relationship with Vic's daughter, Nicole.

It is a pity when a movie has such potentials to be more, yet in the end settles to be just the most generic, the most routine version of itself, as it is the case with "Stuber". It has two great actors, Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, who show chemistry by playing the two opposites in this 'buddy' film, a tough cop and a sensitive, intelligent Uber driver, and the opening act starts off well (equipped with a genius action sequence where the bad guy Teijo tries to escape from the upper floor of a building by jumping from balcony to balcony, and clinging on to it, but Vic then simply takes a table and throws it from the top on him, causing the villain to fall on the floor immediately). However, the film stubbornly refuses to pursue these good moments, and instead just pursues the dumbest, the most primitive and the most populist inane situations, never showing faith that it can engage the broad viewers by being simply smart. The whole setting that Vic has to spend the entire film half-blind after his eye laser surgery is misguided, whereas too many dumb supporting characters wreck the mood, such as the one of Richie, the vulgar owner of a store who constantly humiliates Stu, and whose subplot leads nowhere. A rare moment of inspiration shows up here and there, though: in one delicious sequence, Vic beats the teenage gangster, trying to force him to give him information about Teijo's whereabouts, but then Stu has a better idea. Stu simply takes the gangster's mobile phone, logs in to his social media web page, and writes that the gangster is in love with Ryan Gosling, citing "The Notebook" as the latter's favorite film, until the gangster confesses everything to stop this Internet embarrassment. A lot of moments in the story make no sense (the low point is the stupid fight between Vic and Stu in the warehouse), ending on a confusing note, since its good ideas are too sparse.

Grade:+

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Getting Away with Murder

Getting Away with Murder; black comedy, USA, 1996; D: Harvey Miller, S: Dan Aykroyd, Lily Tomlin, Bonnie Hunt, Jack Lemmon, Brian Kerwin, Jerry Adler

Jack Lambert is an ethics professor who just found a new girlfriend, Gale. However, he finds out that his neighbor, Max, may be an ex-Nazi commander of an concentration camp, Karl Luger, but the news is still unsure of this rumor. Upon finding out that Max intends to move to South America, Jack poisons him, unwilling to let him get away unpunished for his crimes. However, the news reveals that Max was just a cook during World War II, and that the reports just misidentified him for Luger. Out of remorse, Jack breaks up with Gale and marries Max's daughter, single mother Inga. During their voyage to Düsseldorf, Inga confesses that her father was indeed Luger, and that he just forged the fake identity of Max to hide. Jack confesses of killing him, and lands in jail. However, due to a lack of evidence, Jack is freed and he makes up with Gale again.

Harvey Miller's final film, this strange black comedy is a rather uninspired and confusing thought experiment on the ethics of a vigilante taking justice into his own hand, without a trial, yet has too little to offer to carry this premise through. "Getting Away with Murder" has a noble theme, a one about justice being served even if the suspected war criminal in question is now an old, frail man, yet it does so in too many preachy or didactic moments, which are ultimately too dry for a functioning narrative. Dan Aykroyd is good as the ethics professor Jack torn between his dilemma, yet has little to do in the thin screenplay. One bad joke is there, though, the one where the camera, for whatever reason, lingers terribly on the scene of a white dog licking the crotch of Jack, in a moment that just screams "deleted scene". However, one has to hand it to Jack for his way of eliminating the suspected war criminal Max, which has ingenuity: knowing that Max enjoys eating apples from his garden, Jack simply enters the latter's back yard and uses a needle to inject cyanide into the apples on the tree. Another good moment is when Jack finds out that Gale wants to establish contact after his drumming session, and thus narrates: "It makes it a lot easier when someone likes you first. That way they have to come up with an opening line." Unfortunately, after the murder, the film loses all its steam, and just ends up stranded there, not knowing what to do next, and thus the last 40 minutes are just one long empty walk which just goes around in circles of the twist of whether or not Max was a criminal or just someone with a mistaken identity, until the abrupt ending. A small crumb of pleasure is the supporting role of Lily Tomlin, an always competent comedienne who here manages to somewhat salvage her one-note role.

Grade:+

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Caddyshack II

Caddyshack II; comedy, USA, 1988; D: Allan Arkush, S: Jackie Mason, Robert Stack, Jessica Lundy, Dyan Cannon, Jonathan Silverman, Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, Dan Aykroyd

Teenager Kate eagerly wants to become an upper class member by joining the prestigious Bushwood golf club, and thus her rich (and obnoxious) father Jack goes with her. In the club, Jack makes a lot of enemies with senior member Chandler. Their arguments escalate, so Jack persuades member Ty to sell him the majority rights for the club, which Jack then turns into an amusement park. Jack's misbehavior also causes a falling out with Kate. When Chandler gets a restriction notice forbidding Jack to build estate in the city, the two make a bet: whoever wins a golf tournament, wins the club rights. Even though Chandler hired an assassin to eliminate Jack, the latter manages to win the game.

By title, setting and an occasional actor, this sequel to the golf comedy "Caddyshack" is a tiresome and uninspired follow-up which ultimately destroyed the franchize. While weaker than the 1st film, which was a "broad" populist comedy itself, there are still some traces of that good old comedy writing by Harold Ramis who penned the 1st draft of the script, and one can practically pin down the point at which he left the film which was then taken over by far less talented writers: this is obvious in the last 30 minutes of the film, where "Caddyshack 2" completely exhausts itself and spends the rest of the running time on an empty walk with zero successful jokes. However, the opening act has a few chuckles. A movie can't be that bad featuring these dialogues: "What is your background?" - "My father was Armenian. My mother was half Jewish, half English, half Spanish". - "That's three halves". - "Oh, she was a big woman!" In another moment, when Jack in arguing with a woman over whether an old shack is a cultural heritage, and thus no estate can be built on it, they have this argument: "That was a brook". - "That's not a brook, lady. It's a sewer." - "Originally it was a brook." - "And originally your family comes from monkeys. What does that have to do with it?" In another moment, Jack mentions: "She was an ugly girl. She had a coming-out party, and they made her go back!" In these better moments, it seems as if R. Dangerfield's spirit is somehow with Jackie Mason's character. Unfortunately, in lesser moments, there are a lot of failed gags. Chevy Chase is wasted and delivers a lesser version of Ty Webb than in the 1st film. He has one good moment, though: when a random club member taps his shoulder, Ty taps the latter's as well, and leaves his ham on the guy's shoulder. Dan Aykroyd and Randy Quaid leave disastrously unfunny performances behind, unworthy of their talents. And each scene featuring the gopher is vulgar and misguided. As the old saying goes, even in weak films, one can find a moment of greatness. This is true in "Caddyshack 2", which features a fantastic song, Kenny Loggins' "Nobody's Fool", which proves that sometimes a soundtrack ends up being better than the movie.

Grade:+

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club

HaMoadon LeSafrut Yaffa Shel Hagveret Yanlekova; black comedy / drama / romance, Israel, 2017; D: Guilhad Emilio Schenker, S: Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein, Alex Ansky, Leah Koenig

A seemingly normal literature club run by Madam Yankelova hides a dark secret: its purpose is actually for its female members to lure attractive men there, who will then be killed and their meat used as hot dogs. Sophie has already won 99 awards for bringing the best man to the slaughter, but she is aging, and thus cannot seduce them anymore without the help of her friend Hannah. One member tells Sophie that either she will win her next 100th award and be promoted or lose and be demoted to the sanitation department. As a librarian, Sophie meets Yosef and falls in love with him, since they both enjoy novels. Sophie wants to leave the club and save Yosef, a detective, but he goes there anyway, eager to find out what happened to his father who also disappeared. Sophie and Yosef run away from the castle, which gets blow up in an explosion caused by a barrel filled with gasoline.

This peculiar film is a strange feminist hybrid of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Dangerous Liaisons": the first association is warranted because of an organization that kills men and uses their meat for hot dogs, but the second one is warranted for a surprisingly subtle and measured love story in which one person who initially just feigned love actually falls in love. "Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club" is not for everyone's taste: the initial black comedy is deliberately suppressed for the development of the love story in which Sophie falls for her prey, Yosef, yet it has a certain twisted logic. The bizarrely allegorical story actually shows Sophie's maturing from only a physical relation with men to a spiritual bond—she is aging, and thus cannot rely on her good looks to lure men to the club, but for the first time actually finds something deeper, something cathartic, a soulmate in Yosef who enjoys literature. There is a neat joke in which Sophie only managed to get an old, bald man to the club, and is thus threatened by her superior to either bring a man who scores at least 8.8 out of 10 for the next time or she will be demoted to sanitation. Therefore, when she meets Yosef, she tranquilizes him on the couch temporarily and measures his skull and nose, calculating a score of 9.75, jumping up and down from joy. Some of the plot points were left unexplored: the reasons for the macabre ritual "menocide" by the all female club in never satisfactory explained, with only a hint that they represent angry women disappointed in love or toxic feminism. In the end, Sophie has to choose: either promotion in the club or exile for love. The ending is somewhat forced and too neat, yet there are enough twists in the characters to keep the interest going, whereas the director Guilhad Schenker has an elegant mood that flows smoothly throughout.

Grade:++

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Black Panther

Black Panther; science-fiction action, USA, 2018, D: Ryan Coogler, S: Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

A long time ago, a meteor struck Africa. It contained vibranium, an unusual metal which helped five local tribes to slowly create a technologically advanced society, Wakanda. In the present, Wakanda uses that technology to uphold a hologram of a forest around it, in order to be kept safe and unknown from the rest of the world. The new king becomes T'Challa, who together with warriors Okoye and Nakie goes to Busan to arrest Ulysses who wants to sell stolen vibranium on the black market. In the chaos, they bring an injured CIA agent, Ross, to Wakanda for treatment. Ulysses is killed and brought by Erik, who challenges T'Challa to trial by combat, wins and becomes the new king. Erik wants to give Wakandan technology to Black people around the world, in order for them to start a war and become the new rulers of the world. T'Challa stops and kills Erik, but decides to end isolationism and announce Wakandan technology to the world.

There is a reason why "Black Panther" stirred up such a hype during its premiere: while there were other African-American superhero films preceding it, rarely has an American film done so much to give a feeling of restoring pride and honor to the African community. Through its story of an African nation that is a hundred years technologically more advanced than the rest of the world, it turns the geopolitics and the world order upside down: Africans are not a symbol for third world or poverty anymore, but for progress and prosperity. Wakanda is a dream of an African superpower. Leaving these politics and good intentions aside, "Black Panther" is still one of the better Marvel films, though still with several flaws in it. Some scenes showing Wakandan technology are fascinating: in one example, Shuri places two soles on the ground, T'Challa steps on them and they lace up into shoes, forming a perfect fit, even with sound isolation during walking. Another is Black Panther's suit, which is programmed to absorb any hit and use its energy as a counter-shield, which becomes useful in the neat scene where villains throw a hand grenade into a building with people, but Panther simply jumps on it, "absorbing" the explosion. The action sequences in the first half are incredibly creative, never before seen, the highlight being the bald female warrior Okoye, who in one scene even uses a spear to stop a car.

One of the problems in the story is the underdeveloped notion of certain aspects of the Wakandan society. For instance, why would a highly developed country use a trial by combat to determine its leader? By that logic, wrestlers would always rule over the country, and not people with intelligence or innovation. It is also unusual that Black Panther is the king: why would a king go to foreign countries, practically all by himself, to fight and hunt for Ulysses? Wouldn't his guards do that for him? What were his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, doing in the country during peace? The second half of the film is a little bit of a letdown: instead of a more philosophical approach and character development, it is just the typical "let's search for and revive the wounded hero" (with too much flimsy deus ex machina solutions) and then followed by the typical action finale—equipped with the ridiculous idea of rhinoceros in armor. Likewise, it is a pity that the biggest reveal in the film, the one where T'Challa is about to announce Wakandan technology in front of the UN, is interrupted, ending in an anticlimax. However, despite them being underdeveloped, there are still some deeper, more complex themes in the film. One is the re-questioning of isolationism when the world around them needs help. Another is the clash between T'Challa and Erik, which, as Andreas Busche observed, parallels the clash of ideas between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: should Africans improve their status through merit, peace and intelligence, or through violence? Masking such subversive themes as a popcorn movie certainly was brave and refreshing by director Ryan Coogler, who should thus be given a little extra credit.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Spice World

Spice World; musical comedy, UK, 1997; D: Bob Spiers, S: Melanie Chisholm, Emma Bunton, Victoria Beckham, Melanie Brown, Geri Halliwell, Richard E. Grant, Claire Rushbrook, Naoko Mori, Roger Moore, George Wendt, Richard O'Brien, Alan Cumming, Barry Humphries, Meat Loaf, Elton John, Bob Hoskins, Bob Geldof

The five Spice Girls—Mel C, Mel B, Emma, Victoria, Geri—are under stress because their manager Clifford is pushing them to constantly perform, without any break to relax. They have a huge concert planned at the Royal Albert Hall. A tabloid editor is bored of only good news from the Spice Girls and thus hires a paparazzi to find "dirt" on the girls in order to sell bad news about them in his newspaper. The girls get into an argument with Clifford and disappear. They help their friend, Nicola, deliver a baby and rush in a bus to their concert at Albert Hall. Two film producers pitch  a movie idea about Spice Girls to Clifford.

During the 'peak' Spice Girls era, when the band already became one of the icons of the 90s, a decision was delivered to make this movie as some sort of a vehicle to promote them even more, in the vein of "A Hard Days Night" or "ABBA: The Movie". However, unlike the said two movies, "Spice World" is not that fun, or creative or as inspired as it could have been, though it is still a solid fun. The movie works the best in the first 30 minutes, when the five girls manage to conjure up some charm, but it loses its steam later on, when it gets lost in the sea of random, unconnected episodes chaotically scattered throughout (a drill Sargent; aliens demanding an autograph; Roger Moore feeding a little pig with a milk bottle). The five girls act too often like a collective, and thus, sadly, we do not find out much about their individual characters on their own, which makes them less than the "sum of their parts", yet there are still a few good jokes in the film. In one charming moment, the five girls wake up in the middle of the night in a castle, and recount their nightmares—and when it is Victoria's turn, she goes: "I had the exactly same dream, but mine was much, much worse. You see, I had a head... but there was no make up on it". In another good joke, an associate informs the villain, the slimy tabloid editor who wants to find bad news about the Spice Girls, that the girls may not perform at their biggest scheduled concert. The bad guy then stands up from his chair in a strange expression and has this exchange: "Something strange is happening... What is it? Something is happening to my face!" - "You're smiling." There are also some traces of magic, of joie du vivre in the sequence where the girls perform "Wannabe" from start to finish in an empty pub, just for the owner who is their only audience member. "Spice World" is a 'guilty pleasure': it could have been better, but has some inexplicable charm to it. It is actually a pity there was never a second Spice Girls film, since one gets the impression there is more to this girls than just what was shown here.

Grade:+

Friday, June 21, 2019

Kingdom of Heaven — The Director's Cut

Kingdom of Heaven; adventure drama, UK / USA / Germany / Spain / Morocco, 2005; D: Ridley Scott, S: Orlando Bloom, Marton Csokas, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Ghassan Massoud, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Michael Sheen, Liam Neeson, Velibor Topić, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

A French city, 1184. Balian of Ibelin mourns his wife who committed suicide after the death of their child. Balian's father, Godfrey, shows up and invites him to sail to Jerusalem to fight in the Crusades. Godfrey succumbs to his wounds after a fight defending Balian, who travels to Jerusalem by himself. Balian joins the ranks of the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but its king, Baldwin IV, dies from leprosy, while the new king becomes Guy of Lusignan, a Christian fundamentalist who persecutes Muslims. Saladin of Ayyubid Sultanate attacks the city. Seeing they are outnumbered, and disillusioned by religion, Balian agrees to surrender Jerusalem to Saladin in exchange for the safe evacuation of all inhabitants. Back in Europe, Balian starts a new life with Princess Sybilla.

The three hour director's cut of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" is better than the abridged cinematic version, elaborating the characters and giving them more room to develop, and thus helping the viewers to understand their motivation, though this was still not enough to give the story more inspiration. As film critic Dean Jovovic observed, Scott is the director who "explores the human senselessness", and thus this Crusade epic is a very bitter deconstruction of any ideology and the people tricked to die for it, which ultimately leads to fundamentalism, showing in this case the protagonist's disillusionment with religion. Several quotes are thus remarkably sharp and poignant: in Jerusalem, during the Christian rule, one priest is the loudest, fanatically imposing the dogmatic rule. However, near the end, when Saladin's army is threatening, the priest is the first to suggest: "Convert to Islam. Repent later!", causing the protagonist Balian to reply: "You've taught me a lot about religion". Other lines are also cynical during the siege of Jerusalem: "I've traveled a lot to die for nothing". Another one goes like this: "I thought we were fighting for God. But then I realized we were fighting for wealth and land. And I was ashamed".

When Balian and Saladin finally meet, they have a wonderful exchange ("What is Jerusalem worth?" - "Nothing... And everything"), which hints how all the interests are vague and subjective, how they can be perceived to be worth a lot during one era, and then nothing after the passage of time. Scott's other theme is also the origin of the Christian-Islam conflict, which dates much further in history than just the 9/11 event, yet he did not explore this so much. The middle part of the film drags, failing to be anything more than a neat picture book—once he gets to Jerusalem, Balian plays no role until the finale involving the siege—whereas some moments end up in splatter violence, though Scott completes Balian's journey in a remarkable circle, hinting at how he lost a wife at the start, but found a new wife at the end. A few ponderous, dry or grey moments show some typical flaws of the pompous monumental epic genre, yet the historical reconstruction of the era is well done, showing why some people would travel from Europe all the way to the Middle East. While this could have been a greater film, it still has enough food for thought.

Grade:++

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Winnetou

Winnetou; western, Germany / Italy / Croatia, 1963; D: Harald Reinl, S: Lex Barker, Pierre Brice, Mario Adorf, Marie Versini, Walt Barnes

The Wild West, 19th century. Apache Winnetou is disturbed by a company that is building a railroad over Indian land. German engineer Old Shatterhand also complains, concluding that, according to the plan, the railroad was suppose to run around the Indian land, and not go straight through it, since the corrupt company contractor Santer wants to save money intended on buying the longer railroad, build a shorter one and keep the surplus in his own pocket. When Santor kills an Indian, Shatterhand and his friends start a siege of Santor's building, aiming to bring him to court. This is interrupted when angry Indians attack the entire town: Winnetou wounds and captures Shatterhand. In a trial of combat, Shatterhand convinces Winnetou that he is his friend. Santer and his gang attack the Indians on a mountain, but is killed. Winnetou and Shatterhand remain friends.

Rarely has a German film reached such mythical status and appeal that it is even today ingrained in the cinematic subconsciousness of its homeland as did "Winnetou", an adaptation of Karl May's adventure novel. The ingredient that appealed to the audiences was probably the feeling of "their own", German version of the Wild West, which all conjured up a 'Euro Western' that somehow managed to work, unlike numerous others which failed. While "Winnetou" is somewhat dated by today's standards, featuring a heavily glamorous and idealized account of the Wild West, where good and evil people were clearly divided, without any grey area, this all adds to its charm. As one German review observed, 53 years after the film's premiere, the film is "wonderful in its own kind of way". There is something endearing in the friendship between Old Shatterhand, a German, and Winnetou, an Indian: even though their cultures divide them, their sense for justice, a universal good, brings them together. The villain, on the other hand, is easily identifiable: Santer enjoys shooting and killing Buffalos just out of boredom; he wants to torture an Indian to discover where he found the gold whereas he even uses an associate as a human shield on the window. Two supporting characters are there to add some humor in the story: one of them is an impossibly polite Englishman who can never make the Indians stand still for a minute in order to make a photo of them; the other is Sam, who wants to flirt with an Indian woman, but then walks under a tree, and its branch takes his wig off. Another plus point are the idyllic locations in the Dalmatian hinterland, including the Zrmanja river and rock formations, which really give the film its distinctive identity.

Grade:++

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight; western, USA, 2015; D: Quentin Tarantino, S: Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Dana Gourrier, Zoë Bell

Wyoming, 19th century. A terrible winter storm leads a stagecoach to find shelter in Minnie's desolate lodge. The guests are bounty hunters, African-American Warren and Ruth, who handcuffed Daisy, a wanted criminal, and intends to hand her over to the authorities for hanging, as well as Sheriff Mannix. The lodge also hosts five other people, but the owner, Minnie, is suspiciously missing. When someone poisons coffee, which leads to Ruth and two others dying, Warren and Mannix deduct that some of the tenants are Daisy's henchmen. The Mexican, Gage and Mobray are killed because they previously killed Minnie and took over the lodge to wait to free Daisy. Her brother, who was hiding in the atic, is also eliminated. Warren and Mannix are wounded and execute Daisy by hanging.

Quentin Tarantino's eight film (or ninth, if "Kill Bill" is considered two films), "The Hateful Eight" once again shows the director's divisive features: a few great moments of passionate high art, which are then contaminated by his inability to resist inserting trash and bad taste. The set-up of an isolated lodge where several character are trapped inside by snow, but don't know who of them is the villain, is a genius western remake of Carpenter's "The Thing", even featuring Kurt Russell in an inspired performance of bounty hunter Ruth (who talks like John Wayne). However, at a running time of three hours, the storyline is way overstretched and wonders off into several directions, featuring strangely boring, overlong dialogues for Tarantino, who was known for his witty writing. Some traces of that inspired writing are still there, though, just not in enough of a quantity: in one fine moment, two Civil War veterans, Warren, a Union Major, and Smithers, a retired Confederate General, clash with each other, so one guest simply suggests to divide the whole lodge into two sides, the North and South, with each side for someone, in order to avoid any further escalation. In another, Sheriff Mannix wonders if it is justified to hang a woman who committed crimes, with Mobray replying: "Well, 'till they invent a trigger a woman can't pull, if you're a hang man, you're going to hang woman." As always, Tarantino has troubles constraining himself, falling into excess and sadistic primitivism (Warren's story of how he forced a man to walk naked in snow at gunpoint; poisoned people vomiting blood...) whereas he misses some golden opportunities: Ruth is eliminated far too soon in the story, whereas the best character in the entire film, the wonderfully charming Zoë Bell as Six-Horse Judy, is given only 3-4 minutes in a flashback, but is way more interesting than any of the other main characters. Still, there is almost some sort of Hawksian touch in the sequences of the protagonists eating stew in the lodge, getting to know each other, which gives "Eight" some plus points.

Grade:++

Monday, June 17, 2019

Mr. Billion

Mr. Billion; action comedy / road movie, USA, 1977; D: Jonathan Kaplan, S: Terence Hill, Valerie Perrine, Jackie Gleason, Slim Pickens, William Redfield, Chill Wills

A tycoon and CEO of a conglomerate dies when a building sign falls on him. His testament stipulates that his last family member, Guido Falcone, should inherit a billion $ and his company, but he has to show up in San Francisco in 20 days or the offer will expire. Falcone, an Italian auto mechanic, accepts, but decides to take a ship and train to San Francisco. Cutler, who wanted to take over the company by himself, hires con-artist Rosie to seduce Falcone and trick him into signing the power of attorney document, giving Cutler all the power. Falcone realizes he was seduced, but still decides to save Rosie captured in the Grand Canyon, even though that leaves him without time to reach San Francisco. Still, a company employee gives Falcone a jet, enabling him to reach San Francisco and collect the fortune with Rosie. 

Terence Hill remained an unforgettable movie star in his Italian homeland, thanks to his partner B. Spencer, yet did not manage to "break into" the American cinema "solo" with this light comedy that lacks highlights. Covering the often theme of a chase to inherit a fortune, "Mr. Billion" needed much better jokes to attract the interest of the audiences. Some of the best jokes arrive swiftly, such as when two henchmen are chasing the two protagonists, but in the rush they crash their car into a bus, which turns out to be a police bus, with dozens of police officers exiting to aim their gun at the crooks. In another, a big fight erupts in a bar, so a Sheriff wants to restore some order by using his pistol to shoot in the air, but accidentally hits the sign of the said bar, causing it to fall onto his own police car. It is indicative, though, that none of these above mentioned jokes involve the main hero, Hill, who rarely gets a chance to shine in the story and is underused. Hill has very good English language skills, though his accent is slightly "off" at times, yet he is given little scenes to talk. The film lacks ingenuity and creativity, and several jokes do not work: the opening act shows Falcone in a restaurant, enacting a shooting scene with a kid, so Falcone pretends to be dying, and ruins his shirt by placing a tomato on it, simulating blood, and then ruins even the dress of a woman and the clothes of the kid, whom he both hugs with his tomato-drenched shirt. The scene is pointless and should have been cut. Too many contrivances strain the story: Falcone and Rosie stop their truck after a chase, just next to a hired hitman who conveniently waited there in an ambush. What are the odds of them driving for hundreds of miles and stopping precisely there? "Mr. Billion" feels rushed and not well thought out, since there is not that many inspiration in here, yet still works as a solid fun.

Grade:+

Friday, June 14, 2019

Louise by the Shore

Louise en hiver; animated drama, France / Canada, 2016; D: Jean-François Laguionie, S: Dominique Frot

The end of summer on a beach resort in Normandy. Louise, a retired grandmother, watches how the tourists leave the city, leaving it completely empty. When the last train leaves, Louise stays alone in her home. Autumn and Winter follow, so she spends her days walking around the beach or remembering her childhood, such as the episode when she was a teenager and her lover fled from a place when he saw a dead parachuter hanging on a tree. Louise meets a dog who becomes her companion. She sinks in the sea, but the dog saves her from drowning. The summer returns, and the tourists return, too, with the train. Louise again returns to her previous state, commenting on the nuisance of the tourists.

A quiet 'one-character character study', this animated film is an ambitious, but boring, sluggish and uneventful art-film. Quite simply, watching a grandmother wondering through an empty beach resort during winter for 75 minutes—with such highlights as sweeping her doorstep from sand, stumbling upon a scrapheap or watching the horizon across the sea without using marine binoculars—is not that engaging. When there are several characters in a film, there are good chances that at least some of them are going to end up interesting or fun, but when you have a film like "Louise by the Shore" where its story follows only one character, and she is uninteresting and doddering, then the whole concept does not work. There are traces of some more philosophical themes by director Jean-Francois Laguionie, such as aging, transiency and loneliness, yet they were not developed that much since the ending has no point: there is no conclusion that leads to somewhere, it is just a circle where everything returns back to square one. Some rare moments work, including a one where Louise "talks" to her dog, humorously mentioning how people now call her retired generation ("'Best agers', or 'Generation gold'"). This would have worked as a short, but not as a feature film, and not even surreal dream sequences manage to ignite some greater sympathy for this fable.

Grade:+

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Look Who's Talking

Look Who's Talking; comedy, USA, 1989; D: Amy Heckerling, S: Kirstie Alley, John Travolta, Bruce Willis (voice), Olympia Dukakis, George Segal

New York. Molly has an affair with Albert, a married man, and ends up pregnant. Since he refuses to leave his wife, Molly has to give birth and raise to her baby Mikey all alone. Her only support is James, a taxi driver who drove her to the hospital and remained her friend. Molly dates other men while James babysits Mikey. When Mikey gets lost and ends up in the traffic on the alley, James and Molly rescue him and become a couple. Molly gets pregnant again and gives birth to Julie.

There has probably rarely been such a cringeworthy and infamous intro to a movie during the entire 80s as in "Look Who's Talking" in which hundreds of sperms are racing to an ovum in tune to The Beach Boys' song "I Get Around", equipped with voice over of teenage cheers. Such is the beginning of Amy Heckerling's semi-autobiographical comedy about the women's biological clock and problems of single parenthood, which is honest and thus the movie has some traces of charm and humor—which are then ruined with lame caricatures and misguided ideas. The most pointless ideas revolve around Molly's fantasies: in the worst, she imagines that Albert tells her he will "explode" unless he kisses her, and then his head explodes (!), which is such an obvious revenge urge of the director who had a fling with a real life filmmaker to get pregnant, and now searches for a scapegoat. Another unnecessary idea was to have babies "speak" in voice over, thereby having Bruce Willis "dub" baby Mikey, but such wisecracking lines rarely get to somewhere more than Mikey commenting how he wants breakfast while watching the cleavage of a woman. A rare exception that proves otherwise is a scene in the park, where a baby girl is moving her lips as if she really is talking, which is sympathetic. This makes the movie moderately fun, since its concept is relevant. The two main actors are great, since Kirstie Alley and John Travolta have chemistry and treat the story with much more dignity and emotion than Heckerling herself did.

Grade:+ 

Monday, June 10, 2019

Design for Living

Design for Living; drama / comedy, USA, 1933; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Isabel Jewell

Paris. During a train ride, Americans Tom, a playwright, and George, a painter, meet quirky girl Gilda, who works in an advertising agency owned by Max. Tom and George fall in love with her, but neither is willing to give her up. Surprisingly, Gilda proposes to live with both of them in the apartment, and they agree. However, Gilda one day runs away with George. Tom achieves great success with a hit play, "Good Night, Bassington". He meets Gilda again, and this time she falls for him. When George returns, an argument ensues and she leaves them both. Later, Gilda marries Max. During a party, she is bored with her life. Tom and George return and she runs away with them.

Even though directed by classic director Ernst Lubitsch, with time it is apparent why this pre-Code drama-comedy forerunner to "Jules and Jim" did not achieve a status of a classic: "Design for Living" takes on a daring, surprisingly controversial topic of polyandry, yet its inspiration is never as sizzling or as tantalizing as its initial theme. For some other director, this is a good film, yet for someone of Lubitsch's calibre, it seems strangely pale, overstretched, melodramatic and tiresome at times. The opening gag evokes memories of Lubitsch's finest hours: Gilda enters a train and spots the two protagonists, George and Tom, sleeping and snoring, so she proceeds to draw them. Several moments seem remarkably untrammelled for today, such as the scene where Gilda persuades both men to live with them, in a threesome relationship, but says: "No sex!", as they all place their hands together to make an "gentlemen's agreement". Later, while she is alone with George, Gilda lays on a couch and just says: "We had an gentlemen's agreement. But I'm no gentleman!" In one scene, she even kisses Tom first, and then George a second later. Despite all of this, Lubitsch is overall restrained and elegantly measured, never falling into bad taste, while not dwelling or exploring this situation further. More of some great ideas would have been welcomed, since the abrupt ending leaves an incomplete impression.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Bluebeard's Eight Wife

Bluebeard's Eight Wife; romantic comedy, USA, 1938; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Edward Everett Horton, Elizabeth Patterson, David Niven

The French Riviera. Millionaire Michael Brandon meets the quirky Nicole in a store, where they buy the upper and lower part of a pajama, respectively. He falls in love with her, and tries to buy her affection by buying a useless bathtub of her father. Nicole accepts his engagement, but is shocked to find out he already had seven marriages. She accepts to marry him under condition that she gets 100,000$ in case of a divorce. After the wedding, Nicole is distant and avoids Brandon. She even feigns having an affair, until Brandon snaps, divorces her and lands in a mental asylum. Nicole's father, now wealthy, buys off the asylum and puts Brandon in a straight jacket, thus forcing him to listen to Nicole. She tells Brandon she only divorced him to have enough money to be his equal, and now that she returned, he knows she didn't do it for money. They thus kiss and embrace.

One of Ernst Lubitsch's lesser films, "Bluebeards Eight Wife" has funny moments, but they are built on a fundamentally misguided concept: that a woman shows her love towards a man by making him hate her. The screenplay, one of the early works by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, works the best in the 1st half, displaying their sense for wit, charm and humor: the opening sequence shows the protagonist Brandon arguing with a clerk in a store, because he insists on buying only the upper half of a pajama, since he sleeps without pants. One superior talks to the other, until the "half pajama" case reaches the manager—who exits his bed wearing a pajama without pants himself—and rejects the bid of "selling in parts" on the telephone, saying: "No, no, never. That is communism." When Nicole shows up and teams up with Brandon to buy the entire pajama and share it, because she only needs pants, anyway, the story elegantly teams up the future couple, already setting up how she will "wear the pants" in the household. The joke also pays off wonderfully later on, for the second time, when Brandon rejects a business offer of a Marquis, laying in bed, but then changes his mind when the Marquis stands up from bed, revealing he wears Nicole's pajama pants, and is her father.

Some details are also classic example of Lubitsch's elevated humor, such as the beach sequence, where Nicole tells to Albert how her proprietor demanded she pays an old bill when she was having a manicure, and then displays her fingers—with only two colored fingernails. Great dialogues give some delicious quotes: one is the entire sequence when Brandon starts naming all his ex-wives (Marjorie, Linda, Elsie...) in front of Nicole, who makes a petrified face, and then he adds: "Am I boring you?" This culminates in a hilarious gag ("Michael, in one word, how many times were you married?" - "Have you heard of Henry VIII?"). The first half is excellent, but the second half is a terrible disappointment that devalues the high impression. The biggest problem is that the audience is not given a reason as to why Nicole suddenly treats Brandon is such a demeaning way right from the start: is she doing it to force him to divorce her, to get his money? Or because she is just mean? Her explanation (and catharsis) comes only in the last three minutes before the end, but by that time it is too late for the viewers to emotionally engage in her character and ill-conceived strategy or forgive her nastiness. Maybe if Brandon treated her as a property he bought for a long time, it would have made sense for her "rebellion", yet this way, the direction of the story went a wrong way, treating her convoluted reasoning as something romantic, and not even references to "The Taming of the Shrew" manage to save it.

Grade:++

Monday, June 3, 2019

Predator 2

Predator 2; science-fiction action, USA, 1990; D: Stephen Hopkins, S: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Rubén Blades, Kevin Peter Hall, María Conchita Alonso, Bill Paxton, Robert Davi

Los Angeles, '97. Members of two battling Hispanic-American gangs are suddenly mysteriously found massacred, hanging upside down, but there are no suspects. LAPD Officer Harrigan takes it personally when his partner is also killed. His investigation leads him to agent Keyes who reveals that the murderer is actually an alien, the Predator, who uses unknown technology to hunt people down and disguise himself with an invisible cloth. Keyes' men set up a trap in a warehouse, but the Predator escapes and kills them all. Harrigan then takes a gun and attacks the Predator personally. Harrigan follows the alien to its spaceship and kills it. Other Predators show up, but let Harrigan go, leaving in the spaceship.

While it took three films for the the "Alien" franchize to debase itself, already the first sequel of the "Predator" undermined the series, showing that sometimes certain stories can only sustain themselves in one film. While it has some fans, "Predator 2" is a chaotic rehash of the 1st film, just relocated from a jungle to an urban area, presenting a routine narrative that doesn't have much going for it, simply because it has no inspiration. The new main protagonist, Danny Glover, is one of the few competent ingredients in the film, delivering a reliable performance as police Detective Harrigan, yet little else is of interest here in the rushed storyline. The Predator's murders are banal, exploitative and vile, with several bizarre ideas (the alien holding a victim's skull with a spine (!) attached to it, boasting on the top of a building, while a lightning bolt strikes him from the sky) whereas one of the most misguided moments is when the Predator "speaks" the infamous line: "Shit happens!" There is also no reason for the movie to be set in the "future", in the (then) distant year '97, save for the throw-away moment where a forensic expert puts the Predator's weapon under computer analysis. "Predator 2" has two good sequences, though: the first one is the effective, genuinely suspenseful subway attack, where Detective Leona stops the train through an emergency break, and then proceeds to walk back to the last wagon, where the alien was seen. The second one is the finale, where agent Keyes set-up actually quite a clever trap for the antagonist, deducting the Predator can only see through an infrared heat-sensor, so he sends his men dressed up in temperature neutral suits, and sprays the warehouse with particles that confuse its sensors. More of such moments would have been welcomed. "Predator 2" is a solid, but underwhelming, disorganized sequel without a clear point.

Grade:+

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Mother Joan of the Angels

Matka Joanna od Aniołów; psychological drama, Poland, 1961; D: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, S: Mieczyslaw Voit, Lucyna Winnicka, Anna Ciepielewska, Maria Chwalibóg, Kazimierz Fabisiak 

17th century. Catholic priest Jozef Suryn is sent to a secluded covenant to investigate the alleged demonic possessions of some nuns. The local ex-priest, Garniec, fathered two kids and was accused of magic craft, and thus executed by burning. Jozef performs an exorcism on abbess nun Joan, which has only limited effect. Joan tries to seduce him. Jozef visits a Rabbi who questions his religion. Jozef then decides to save Joan by taking her demons on himself. He then takes an axe and kills two stablemen. Joan is cured while Margareth is abandoned by a squire, her ex-lover, and thus returns to be a nun.

One of Jerzy Kawalerowicz's more overrated films, "Mother Joan of Angels" is a peculiar film that is not quite sure what it wants to be in the end. It intends to be a horror, but its dry scenes are too static and too long to conjure up suspense. It also intends to be a psychological drama, which works better, but also lacks emotional investment. Just like many art-films, this one also falls into the trap of overlong, ponderous monologues by characters talking by the camera, which last for the entire film, instead of incorporating these philosophical topics into the story. One of the more interesting choices was to imply that the "possessions" in the covenant are just suppressed sexuality by the nun, just a subjective mental state, which works as a (vague) criticism of the Catholic church dogmas. Priest Jozef is a multi-layered character who is torn by his religion, and thus somewhat works in the story as a self-reflection or review of handling the unknown and hysteria with panic.

Grade:++

Monday, May 27, 2019

Pillow Talk

Pillow Talk; romantic comedy, USA, 1959; D: Michael Gordon, S: Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter

New York. Interior decorator Jan is annoyed that she still has to share her multiple apartment telephone line with a man from the same building, Brad, a Broadway composer and womanizer who spends hours of talking to dozens of his girlfriends. Jan presses the telephone company to separate her phone number, but there are thousands of applicants seeking the same. During a date, Brad overhears a guy mentioning Jan by her name. Since she never met him, Brad puts on a Texas accent and introduces himself as "Rex",  a tourist, and starts dating Jan. Brad is able to keep on the different identity, all until Jan's friend, Jonathan, exposes him. Jan is heartbroken and cuts off all ties with Brad. However, Brad apologizes, hires her to decorate his apartment and she falls in love with him again.

Every now and then, all the stars allign and somehow inspire an author to take a "frowned" upon sub-genre, change it, restructure it and make a representative film that surpasses its limitations. Screenwriters Stanley Shapiro, Maurice Richlin, Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene took the sub-genre of kitschy, sugary romantic comedies of Doris Day and somehow rearranged it into a small gem with this wonderful little film: it all could have went wrong, but somehow, accidentally, it all went the right way. A lot of kudos should be given to delicious, creative and irresistible lines which have so much wit and humor that they still sound fresh even today. For instance, in one sequence, Brad spots Jan in a restaurant and thus gives his date this exchange: "Shouldn't you be getting into your costume?" - "Well, there's not much to be getting into, honey-lamb". When Jan's date falls unconscious from too many drinks, Brad puts on a Texas accent, picks up the man, puts him over his shoulder like a puppet and says: "We have a saying in Texas: never drink anything stronger than yourself!" Another fine addition are the supporting characters: one is Brad's friend Jonathan (who complains that he is a part of a "minority group" who will "fight for their rights", the millionaires), and the other is maid Alma, who loves to drink and always shows up in a state of hangover every morning (going so far that she is even irritated by the "speed" of the elevator, complaining to the lift boy: "You shouldn't break the sound barrier!"). "Pillow Talk" takes a romantic comedy of mistaken identity of "The Shop Around the Corner" and changes it into a fine vehicle for all the stars in it, who all benefit from it, whereas it even uses some charmingly dated ideas (such as the iconic triple split screen of Jan "intercepting" a phone conversation between Brad and his girlfriend talking) to somehow work. Day has rarely been so precise in a performance, but Rock Hudson is the biggest surprise: his character Brad has a lot of sense for humor, and plays Jan like a fiddle, though he is never for a moment mean-spirited, which is refreshing.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones (Season 8)

Game of Thrones (Season 8); fantasy series, USA, 2019; D: David Nutter, Miguel Sapochnik, David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, S: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Jacob Anderson, Sophie Turner, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Iain Glen

In the North, the unlikely human coalition sticks together to fight the invasion of the Zombie "White Walkers" led by the Night King. The Zombies start the siege of the castle, killing numerous soldiers, and even use one of Daenerys' dragons, now also a Zombie, for the assault. However, just as the Night King approaches Bran, Arya assassinates the former with the Valyrian dagger, and thus the entire "White Walkers" army disintegrates. Daenerys then re-directs her army south to attack Queen Cersei. With her dragon, Daenerys burns and destroys the entire city of King's Landing, killing also every civilian in it. Disgusted by such insanity, Jon Snow kills Daenerys. In the aftermath, Tyrion suggests Bran as the new King, which is accepted by the six kingdoms, except the North, where Sansa declares independence. Jon is banished to live in the North.

The final season of the highly popular nihilistic fantasy series "Game of Thrones" ended not on a high note, but on a highly polarizing effect. The characters are all still here, but their personalities seem to have been lost somewhere in the previous season: congruently, it seems their random, contradictory actions and choices in the story are coming from some pre-designed plot points set up by the writers, and not from a natural unraveling of motivations of their personalities. The first two episodes are talkative and quiet, establishing a good mood of anticipation before the ferocious battle against the Zombie "White Walkers" in episode 8.3, which was done very well. This is then followed by episode 8.5, which is half-excellent, and half-detrimental. Its excellent half shows the battle for King's Landing with a lot of grandeur, style and 'raw' power, featuring epic scenes, which is all very cinematic (the dragon landing on Dubrovnik's landmarks; the Biblical fight between the Hound and Gregor on the stairs...). Its detrimental other half, however, is apparent. For one, Daenerys flies on a dragon to attack the port city, but she defeats the fleet defences way too easy. Considering that the fleet actually killed one of her dragons in the previous episode, 8.4, with a crossbow, one would have expected from her to concoct some sort of a strategy this time around—for instance, maybe to use her dragon to throw giant stones on the fleet from the sky, breaking holes in their ships and thus causing them to sink.

Another major controversy was the switch of her character: Daenerys orders the dragon to raze the entire city to the ground with its fire. Yes, sacking of cities was unfortunately common during the Middle ages, and urbicide and war crimes against civilians on a massive scale are perpetrated even in modern times, for instance in Grozny or Aleppo. However, you don't establish one character to be good for 71 episodes, only to make her suddenly evil in just one episode before the end of the show. It is an undeserved twist. The twist involving Ned Stark at the end of Season 1 was also unexpected and shocking, but consistent, since the Lannisters were established as selfish and treacherous right from the start. It seems Daenerys was arbitrarily made the villain just to be liquidated in the last episode, 8.6, which is the weakest episode of the entire series. This final episode is a joke. For a story that built up such a high impression (at times), such a low, bland, schematic ending is a disappointment. The ending has no point, whereas its resolution is not earned. It is an anticlimax. Jon Snow ending as some sort of a watcher of a ski resort in the North and Arya turning into Christopher Columbus could not please anybody. It simply offers no satisfaction to this vast storyline. Maybe the original author George R.R. Martin is himself guilty for piling up a hundred characters and so many subplots that they simply could not be tied up in a neat bow at the end, but they could have offered at least some explanations of the mystical, especially regarding the origin of the Night King, Quaithe, the Lord of Light, the Three-Eyed Raven... This way, Bran's whole existence in the story has no point, even though it was announced that his visions would be essential. It seems the story itself is surprised at how the characters switch and change from episode to episode, so much, in fact, that in the end this all doesn't fit.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ordinary People

Ordinary People; drama, USA, 1980; D: Robert Redford, S: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, M. Emmet Walsh, Dinah Manoff

A seemingly normal suburban family is hiding a troubling guilt problem: Calvin and Beth, husband and wife, try to live on after their teenage son Buck drowned in a sailing accident during the storm, but his surviving brother, Conrad, is plagued by bad conscience because he couldn't save Buck, and hanged on to the boat instead of swimming to rescue him. In high school, Conrad quits the swimming team, but starts dating Jeannine and seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. After Conrad finally speaks up about his guilt to Dr. Berger, and how his mother is cold towards him, Calvin and Beth separate on Christmas.

Roberd Redford's feature length debut film as a director is a competent, highly delicate and quiet little family drama, but, as its title already indicates, it is a tad too ordinary. During its premiere, it was heaped on with numerous awards and prizes, some of even for best film, and while some predicted that it would become a classic, with time this didn't happen: it is a good film, yet rarely goes beyond that—its extraordinary rarely surpasses the ordinary. The story about a teenager who has bad conscience because he survived a fatal boat accident, while his brother didn't, offers for a meditative psychological essay, yet not enough to truly carry or justify its running time of over 120 minutes. Some dramatic situations turned out melodramatic and overdone—for instance, in one sequence, Conrad announces how he quit the swimming team in front of his parents, and his mother, Beth, makes a huge drama out of it, as if it was some sort of a big deal. What for, though? Strangely enough, the movie seems to have missed the opportunity to use that plot point as Conrad's hydrophobia for some dark twist in the swimming pool, which never manifests.

Several other moments also seem somewhat awkward, such as the scene where Conrad gives a tragic description of his state, of how it feels like "falling into a hole", in front of Jeannine, only for this to be interrupted when some teenagers storm the diner and cheerfully parade around, causing Jeannine to laugh; or the moment where Beth and Calvin are going back and forth over who will make a photo for the album, only for Conrad to finally snap and shout: "Just give her the God-damn photo, already!" A little more finesse, ingenuity and creativity in dialogues would have been welcomed. If there is one thing that Redford knows how to do as a director, it is the way he manages to get the maximum from his cast, who all delivered emotional, strong performances. Timothy Hutton is brilliant as the teenage Conrad, suffering from anxiety, unable to move on from the emotional burden that was set on him, yet Donald Sutherland is also very underrated in his subtle performance as the father, who tries to understand and mend the problems in his family after the accident. One of the best sequences in "Ordinary People" is when Beth wakes up in the middle of the night and spots that her husband isn't in bed with her. She walks in the house and spots Calvin sitting in the living room, just crying, "in private". One of the most subtle details is that Beth actually loved the deceased child more than Conrad, which makes for a slow-burning mother-son conflict. The opening sequence featuring Canon in D major Composed by Johann Pachelbel in a choir is also an example of wonderful music. A good, honest depiction of inner problems that the past can leave.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 12, 2019

After

After; romance, USA, 2019; D: Jenny Gage, S: Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Shane Paul McGhie, Pia Mia, Khadijha Red Thunder, Selma Blair, Inanna Sarkis, Dylan Arnold, Samuel Larsen, Jennifer Beals, Peter Gallagher

Tessa (19) has just moved into College, leaving her high school boyfriend, Noah, to wait in her hometown. She shares a room with Steph. Tessa refuses to kiss Hardin, a dashing guy, in a "truth or dare" game during a party. He invites her for a drive to a lake and she accepts, where they swim together. Slowly, she falls in love with him and they kiss, causing a break-up with Noah. When her mother threatens her to quit Hardin and study or she will cut off her money, Tessa refuses. She moves together with Hardin and loses her virginity. However, she finds out from Molly that Hardin just started a relationship as a bet. Even though Hardin admits he fell in love with her, Tessa rejects him. However, the two meet again at the lake.

An adaptation of Anna Todd's eponymous novel, this romance film is appropriately emotional, uncynical and honest, yet not that much inspired. Too much of its storyline seems like an ordinary teenage love story found a dime a dozen, just combined with the concept of that all-time classic "Dangerous Liaisons", to go somewhere new and do something fresh. The best parts are found in the first act, where the two main protagonists, Tessa and Hardin, show some moments of charming character development, as in the amusing sequence in the classroom where they are angrily debating over whether Elizabeth was in love with Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" or not. More of such moments would have been welcomed, since a fair share of scenes seem too melodramatic or sappy at times, with some questionable choices (would Tessa really allow for Hardin, a stranger to her, to drive her in his car in the middle of the woods?). It is interesting that the director Jenny Gage breaks with the "male gaze" tradition and instead focuses her camera shots into "female gaze" since she lingers more on the male body of her protagonist during love moments, than on the girl. While thin and overstretched at times, there is one beautiful moment of poetic romance: it is the one where the couple is in a bathtub, and Hardin is "typing" letters on her back with his finger, daring her to try to "decipher" what he wrote, and in one moment writes "I L-O-V-E Y-O-U" on her back.

Grade:++

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies; drama / mystery, Hungary, 2000; D: Béla Tarr, S: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, János Derzsi

An isolated city during autumn. Janos is a young lad delivering newspapers. He lives in a house with György, an older intellectual who contemplates about the disharmony of the musical scale defined by Andreas Werckmeister. One night, a circus shows up on the street, consisting just out of one truck charging people to see a stranded whale inside, and a performer known as the "Prince". Rumors of crimes start spreading. György's ex-wife, Tünde, shows up, threatening him to accept the task of enlisting dozens of people for "clean up the town movement" or else she will move back with him. György reluctantly accepts. Janos sneaks into the truck and overhears how the circus master cannot control the "Prince", a Slavic foreigner, who wants to be a revolutionary. The masses accept the "Prince's" cult and start a mob that attacks a hospital. They are dispersed and Janos is wrongfully arrested, sent to an asylum. György observes the abandoned truck with the corpse of the whale.

While a lot more concise and "reasonably long" than his excessive 7-hour "Satantango", this film once again confirms the director Bela Tarr's frustrating filmmaking: great composition of long takes, but too cryptic and 'autistic' assembly which is difficult to decipher, which in turn aggravates the viewers' attempt to understand what is going on. Tarr crafts "Werckmeister Harmonies" as a surreal allegory, consisting just out of some 40 takes, but he has difficulty to align them into a coherent narrative. Consequently, these scenes work when isolated, but not that much together as a film. The opening 10-minute scene at the tavern is great, showing how Janos persuades three men to play the Sun, the Earth and the Moon in orbit, with the former standing still, and the latter walking around him, in a comical moment à la Three Stooges. The plot tangle, where a mini-circus shows up in the city during night, after which bad things start happening, reminds of "Sailor Moon SuperS", painting a metaphor: the circus truck charges people to see a whale outside a tank (!), on dry, thus already implying how people are attracted to something impossible, something contradictory, in this case the "Prince", a figure in the shadows, who appears only once in the film, and on top of that off-screen. The "Prince" is a symbol for any emergence of a new ideology which deludes the masses, and which inevitably turns violent in order to overthrow the current system, to take a foothold, since it cannot do it with reason. This is where the film takes off. It culminates in a brilliant sequence of masses walking on the streets, and then erupting into a riot in the hospital, which is so artificially staged it seems almost grotesquely fake, especially in the scene where one rioter is dragging a man from his bed. Unfortunately, the whole first 70 minutes could have easily been cut, since too much time is wasted on "empty walk" of Janos eating or walking, when the whole film could have as well started from this scene of Janos overhearing the "Prince" trying to dominate the society.

Grade:++ 

Friday, May 3, 2019

Pharaoh

Faraon; drama, Poland / Uzbekistan, 1966; D: Jerzy Kawalerowicz, S: Jerzy Zelnik, Piotr Pawłowski,  Emir Buczacki, Krystyna Mikołajewska, Wiesława Mazurkiewicz, Leszek Herdegen

Ancient Egypt, 1100 BC. Two scarabs walk strangely in the sand, and the high priests interpret this as a divine sign that the Egyptian army should walk around an area. Consequently, they have to bury a canal to cross over it, causing a farmer to commit suicide. Prince Ramses XIII, who led the military exercise, is annoyed by the priests, led by Herhor, who control the country too much, even influencing and advising Ramses' father, the Pharaoh. Ramses wants to attack the Assyrians to get more money for Egypt's failing economy, but the priests press for a peace agreement. Dagon, a Phoenician merchant, designs a plan to persuade Ramses to attack the Assyrians, employing Phoenician Kama who becomes Ramses' mistress, replacing his wife, Sara, a Jew. When his father dies, Ramses becomes the new Pharaoh and plans to get rid of the priests. He incites people to attack their temple, containing the labyrinth with gold, but the priests use a Sun eclipse to feign the intervention of the gods, thereby dispersing the rebellion. Ramses is killed by his double, Lykon.

One of the most untypical movies from the Polish cinema, both by its scale and setting, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's "Pharaoh" is a set up almost as some sort of a lesson towards American monumental epics, since it is an intimate essay on politology and the struggle for power, much closer to Machiavelli's "The Prince" or the animosity between the High Sparrow and Cersei in "Game of Thrones" than "The Ten Commandments". Kawalerowicz also has an aesthetic visual style which helps him stand out sharply from the stiff shot compositions of the above mentioned monumental epics: the film starts off with a long camera drive as it follows a priest running through hundreds of Egyptian soldiers standing in a line in the desert, from his front. The fact that he insists that the entire military should walk around a whole area because of the movement of two scarabs, already neatly sums up the motivation of the protagonist, Ramses XIII, considers them a superstitious 'parasite' caste that almost has more power than the Pharaoh himself.

Other great visual moments include a tracking shot of soldiers walking up and down across sand dunes as they approach their enemies from afar, while dozens of them fall when hit by spears, in the end even switching to a POV shot of a soldier who is hit, when the entire screen is filled with red blood. In another creative set piece, a line of thousands people march across the horizon, over the dune, but constantly stop to kneel down, almost as a set of dominoes. The tricks, ploys and intrigues with which Ramses and the priests try to outsmart each other are fascinating, albeit a little dry and dialogue driven, and one never knows who will prevail, especially when there is also a third party, the Phoenician merchants, who want to weaken them both. The highlight is probably the storming of the temple, incited by Ramses: upon hearing of the plan, the high priest actually encourages the rioting people to attack as soon as possible. One soon finds out why: the priests have knowledge of astronomy, and thus use a Sun eclipse to scare off the ignorant masses by claiming it is a divine punishment. "Pharaoh" is a dark allegory on the reign of autocracy, where the only way of reform or change is through bloodshed and violence, and an essay on atavistic class trying to cling on to power, assembling an overlong, but clever little exotic film with great details, unknown to the most of moviegoers. Krystyna Mikołajewska is excellent as Ramses' "forbidden" Jewish mistress, Sara.

Grade:+++