Tuesday, November 19, 2019


Hitchcock; drama, USA / UK, 2012; D: Sacha Gervasi, S: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel, James D'Arcy, Michael Wincott, Ralph Macchio

In 1 9 5 9, director Alfred Hitchcock is enjoying the success of "North by Northwest", but feels somehow "too safe", unsatisfied due to his lack of challenge. He thus decides that his next project will be the shocking horror-thriller "Psycho", and intends it to be without compromise. However, his wife and screenwriter Alma Reville feels she is always just in his shadow, and thus goes off to write a script together with Whitfield Cook on a secluded hut near a beach. Hitchcock suspects she is cheating on him, but she assures him the opposite and ditches Cook. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are in the movie, but Hitchcock becomes sick due to stress, yet recovers soon. Paramount gives "Psycho" a limited release, but Hitchcock is able to attract huge interest of the audience, making it a huge success.

"Hitchcock" is a wonderful little film that shows a small glimpse inside the life of the famous "Master of Suspense", in this case being restricted to him directing the cult film "Psycho", and its biggest highlight is the excellent actor Anthony Hopkins who gives a delicious performance of the director, nailing his impeccable English accent and charming sense of shrill humor. The portrait is intimate and surprisingly emotional: Sacha Gervasi shows Hitchcock as a man who was obsessed with blonds, but knew he was ugly, overweight and bald, without a chance for such an ideal love encounter, and thus felt as if he was stuck with his "underwhelming" wife Alma, with this rift causing outbursts of dissatisfied psychological projections onto Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, whom he tried to control and subconsciously "cast under his spell". It is as if his own life was boring, so he yearned for excitement and adventure in his films. Alma even jokingly tells him outright she is not one of his "contract blonds". The film shows how making "Psycho" was not an easy piece of cake: Paramount executives were reluctant to finance the controversial film, but there is a scene worth gold when Hitchcock's agent confronts Barney, the studio executive: "Barney, it's very simple. This is Mr. Hitchcock's next film. Are you in, or are you out?" Another nuisance were the censors, who objected to showing a toilet in an American film, prompting Hitchcock to reply: "Maybe we should make the movie in France, with a bidet?" Hitchcock even made every cast and crew member make a public oath on set, that they will not reveal any secrets from the film before the premiere. The hallucinations of Hitchcock seeing the real life killer, Ed Gein, fare less, whereas the supporting characters are nowhere near as interesting as the title protagonist, yet the cineasts were grateful for this adaptation from the cinema history.


Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Wire (Season 4)

The Wire; crime drama series, USA, 2006; D: Joe Chappelle, Christine Moore, Seith Mann, Agnieszka Holland, Jim McKay, S: Jermaine Crawford, Maestro Harrell, Julito McCullum, Tristan Wilds, Aidan Gillen, Jim True-Frost, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Domenick Lombardozzi, Andre Royo, Chad Coleman, Robert Wisdom, Dominic West

Baltimore. After the Barksdale crime gang was arrested, a new one appeared, led by Marlo Stanfield, who distributes drugs in even more vicious manner, employing kids as his clerks and killing any kind of opposition through his henchmen Chris Partlow and Snoop, who hide the corpses inside abandoned buildings. After Detective Freamon finds out about the pattern, the Police Department now has scores of corpses to identify. Councilman Tommy Carcetti manages to win the election for Mayor, beating the African-American Mayor Royce due to a crime wave. Ex-Detective Prez now works as a teacher in a high school, but has troubles reaching the rebellious teenagers, yet finds a friend in the neglected Duquan. His teenage friend Randy is assaulted because he reported about the murders by Marlo. Disgusted by his friend, Michael, who turned to Marlo's crime ring, Namond decides to quit this path and is adopted by ex-police major Colvin.

The fourth season of the popular series by David Simon shifted its focus on the arena of high school and position of the Mayor, confirming once again two things: "The Wire" is very good, but still a little bit overrated. Its major problems were never mitigated and remained even until this season: too much dry babble, without much inspiration in writing these standard, routine dialogues with too much exposition; whereas it is also indicative that the viewers respect these characters, they tolerate them, but never truly care or root for anybody of them—only Herc and Carver are truly sympathetic; there is a surprisingly touching minuscule relationship between Prez, now a teacher, who helps out impoverished teenager Duquan by washing his clothes; but for the majority, all the characters are just plagued by selfish, depressive, backward or aggressive behavior, which leaves little room to act anything else beyond such fatalism. The details give "The Wire" a sense of almost documentary realism: Marlo's men give 200$ to kids, "investing" into them in order to later "draft" them into selling drugs and the like, and thus there is an ironic moment when a police officer finds the said 200$ bill in the pocket of one of the kids. The kid resorts to lies, claiming his stepmother gave it to him, upon which the police officer keeps the money for himself and says: "Your stepmother gave you 200$? Tell her to come to the precinct and I'll return it to her!" The homicide department is afraid to pick up a call, fearing to get another unsolved "John Doe" corpse which will deteriorate their already low quota of solved cases. But when one of their associates gets a break, they say: "Better be lucky than to be good."

When Freamon discovers a whole chain of corpses hidden in abandoned buildings, Seargent Landsman looks at the case board, now filled with red names of new unsolved cases, and calls him a "Vandal". Prez also has a genius random quote: "Nobody wins. One side just loses more slowly". A whole subplot involving an election race between Royce, the old Mayor, and Carcetti, the Councilman, is fascinating, demonstrating how Royce tries to conceal one murder case until everyone votes, and even hires a construction crew to drill the entrance of Carcetti's office with a jackhammer in episode 4.3, sending an angry message towards his rival. It is highly ironic that the murder case which caused such a negative publicity, and ultimately loss of office for Royce—since everyone assumed the protected witness was killed by criminals—turns out to be a "false alarm". Namely, in episode 4.7, Detective Kima goes to the crime scene to search for clues herself, looking at a bullet stuck in a drawer, and finds out that some kids were actually shooting at empty bottles, but that a stray bullet accidentally hit the protected witness, who was just randomly passing by the street. Upon hearing that, Norris sums up the entire case: "So our guy is dead because a bullet misses a bleach bottle, and Corcetti gets to be Mayor because of this stupidity. I f*** love this town!" Even though Corcetti truly wants to make a change, it seems the entire destiny of Baltimore is unchangeable, and the young new Mayor has to make compromises and concessions which ultimately leave the things just as they were. The most disturbing death is found in episode 4.10, where the criminal Chris Partlow beats Devar, Michael's stepfather, suspected of paedophilia, into pulp, implying that Partlow himself was abused as a kid, and that this cycle lead him into the world of crime, as well as that it foreshadows Michael's own future path. Unfortunately, the last four episodes of the season lose steam, and end on a rather standard, grey note, failing to truly circle out some threads into a more satisfying finale.


Friday, November 8, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel; science-fiction action, USA, 2019; D: Robert Rodriguez, S: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley 

In the 26th century, cyborg technician Dr. Ido finds remains of a derelict cyborg which was thrown down into trash from Zalem, a floating city. Ido manages to revive the cyborg, giving it the name Alita. As she makes friends with teenage boy Hugo, Alita starts having flashbacks of her past, but she can only figure she was a fighter cyborg. Ido turns out to be a bounty hunter who is after Brewishka, a killer cyborg working for Vector, who in turn sells human organs to Zalem, which its Head, Nova, uses for rejuvenation. Alita enlists into a tournament in order to secure cash to help Hugo achieve his dream of going up into Zalem. But Hugo dies while trying to climb the cable connecting Zalem. Alita kills both Brewishka and Vector. She continues working as a fighter cyborg. 

Despite its three year long troubled production plagued by delays, the live action adaptation of the eponymous manga, "Alita: Battle Angel" is a surprisingly refreshing and alive achievement, containing enough energy to easily sway the viewers and turn equally as good as the ‘93 OVA "Battle Angel", though still less bloody than the latter. Kudos should be given to the excellent actress Rosa Salazar portraying the heroine - even though her eyes were artificially augmented by CGI in order to make her more anime-like, this actually made her even more expressionistic, whereas her character was already remarkably strong, feminine, charming and resourceful (when an assassin cyborg attacks her by throwing a chain that captures her leg, Alita simply unties herself and throws the chain into a nearby rotating metal grinder, which slowly pulls the cyborg attached to the chain, thereby squashing it). Several plot points regarding Alita’s lost past and the entire nature of the floating city Zalem were left rather vague, though that could be excused since the filmmakers intended for a sequel which would have elaborated on this world more. The relationship between Alita and Hugo could have been developed more, yet one has to admit that it has at least two endearing moments: one is a humorous scene in which a fallen Alita, lying on her back, still holds onto her control panel which keeps rotating the wheels of the roller blades on her feet in the air, the other being Alita’s crazy-sweet idea of removing her robotic heart from her chest for a second in order to tease Hugo that she is giving her heart to him. As with many movies with cyborgs or androids as protagonists, this one also follows the allegorical growing up of a child, from clumsy mistakes and naive innocence up to the bitter realization that the world has much more dark characters and an interwoven top-down system of crimes for them to be so beneath the surface than expected, which all give "Alita" a small round of applause


Thursday, November 7, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home; fantasy action, USA, 2019; D: Jon Watts, S: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, J. B. Smoove, Jacob Batalon, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, Marisa Tomei 

Peter Parker embarks on a high school summer-trip to Europe with his classmates, and intends to reveal his feeling for MJ, in whom he has a crush on. However, once in Venice, they witness a giant water-monster appearing and wrecking havoc, but it is defeated by Mysterio, a superhero whose name is Beck, and who claims to be from another dimension, battling these kinds of creatures which allegedly threaten the world. Parker, as Spider-Man, becomes his ally when he hears that even Nick Fury believes him. Another creature attacks in Prague. However, Beck is actually one of Tony Stark's ex-employees, who was fired and thus has a grudge against Stark. All the creatures were just his holographic illusions created by his drones. When Spider-Man finds out, he is able to stop and kill Beck. MJ also finds about Parker's superhero identity.

The 23rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Spider-Man: Far From Home" pretty much sums up the entire film series in one: it is fun, positive, carefree and amusing, just don't expect anything deeper or more than its light surface level. Restructured as a school road movie, with several teenage problems, this edition is also dynamic, with several well already established elements from the franchise. The movie works the best during its pure comedy moments: whether it is the "stolen" little moment of MJ (Zendaya) holding out her hands to carry pigeons in Venice; the sequence where MJ simply figures out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man all by herself, so he just has to reluctantly admit it or the quietly hilarious sequence where Parker is in his Spider-Man costume in front of MJ, so when his friend Ned suddenly enters the room, he immediately has a "cover-up" reaction ("Oh, so you are ready... for that costume party..."), almost all of humorous moments work, even when they are rather corny or too simplistic at times. The main plot involving a villain, Beck, who uses holograms to trick people, works as well, yet it could have been much more subversive in the long run. Marvel movies became somehow predictable and strangely routine by this time, and thus even though it is a good film, "Far From Home" does show some traces of fatigue or a lack of closure in the long storyline. A small gem here is the closing credit sequence featuring Go-Go's song "Vacation", which is a blast.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019


Aladdin; fantasy musical comedy, USA, 2019; D: Guy Ritchie, S: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen

In some far away kingdom in the Middle East, Aladdin and his little monkey Apu live as small-time thieves to survive. The evil sorcerer Jafar, an advisor to the Sultan, persuades Aladdin to go into a dangerous cave to get him a mysterious lamp. The cave collapses, but Aladdin finds out the lamp is able to summon a blue Genie who can grant him three wishes. Escaping from the cave, Aladdin wants Princess Jasmine to fall in love with him, so he presents himself as a rich Prince Ali, thanks to the Genie. Jafar gets the lamp, topples the Sultan and intends to invade other countries. Luckily, Aladdin tricks Jafar into transforming into a Genie, thereby capturing the villain in a lamp. For his last wish, Aladdin sets the blue Genie free.

This live action remake of one of the most popular animated films from the Walt Disney studios of the 90s, "Aladdin", pretty much follows the well established "remake label" of the film critics: it is almost the same as the original, just worse. Directed by Guy Ritchie without any vision, creativity, ingenuity or passion, this film is just a mechanical "fast-food" product in the long assembly line of live action adaptations of their animated classics, their only point being, it seems, to recycle their profits twice. Everything here is boringly predictable, with little to no energy or wit that would engage the viewers familiar with the better original, with awkward and heavy-handed musical and dance sequences. One of the rare new jokes is the little scene where Princess Jasmine accosts Aladdin, posing as a Prince of a fictional kingdom of Ababwa, and demands of him to show her the location of his country on the map. Aladdin points at a blank spot, but the Genie just quickly draws a fake kingdom on the map, thereby appeasing Jasmine. Unfortunately, mostly due to the narrow writing, Will Smith is largely anemic as the blue Genie, and is not even able to hold a candle to the comedy genius of R. Williams from the original. It is ironic, and indicative at the same time, that one of the best moments in the film—Jasmine and Aladdin flying on a magic carpet while singing the enchanting song "A Whole New World"—is precisely that because it is almost a scene for scene copy of the identical sequence from the original, done 24 years ago. It shows that the original film should thus be given praise, and not this one.


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

The Kid Who Would Be King; fantasy adventure, UK / USA, 2019; D: Joe Cornish, S: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Doris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart

Alex (12) is living with his single mother. In school, he stands up to his friend Bedders who is bullied by two older kids, Kaye and Lance, but figures the world cannot be changed in the long term. One night, he pulls out a sword stuck in concrete in a construction site, and it turns out to be Excalibur. Merlin, in the form of either a teenager or an older man, shows up and tells Alex that he is chosen to stop the witch Morgana because she will attack the world in four days, during the eclipse. Reluctantly, Lance and Kaye decide to yield and serve under Alex's command. When Morgana's army attacks, the whole school fights them, while Alex kills off Morgana, now turned into a semi-dragon, by cutting her head off.

An amusing modern retelling of the King Arthur myth, Joe Cornish's "The Kid Who Would Be King" is a good, but rather uninspired little flick. It uses the plot points to articulate its theme of an outsider kid overcoming bullying by turning his enemies into his allies and gaining self-respect and self-esteem by fighting against witch Morgana, which works as an escapist-therapeutic tale that intends to give a boost to the small people who want to change the world towards better. All the actors are great, yet, as a whole, "The Kid" never really seems like a truly passionate film with some genuine energy that will grip the viewers to the fullest and elevate it to something more. Everything is done correctly, but it simply lacks highlights. The most was achieved out of the double depiction of Merlin, who appears both as a daft teenager (Angus Imrie) at whom students start throwing their plastic cups at during lunch, and a wise old man (Patrick Stewart). Another nice bit is when Alex decides to prove to his mother that something not so normal is happening by ordering a hand holding Excalibur to show up in his bathtub.


Monday, November 4, 2019

The Wandering Earth

Liu lang di qiu; science-fiction / disaster film, China, 2019; D: Frant Gwo, S: Chuxiao Qu, Jin Mai Jaho, Jing Wu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Mike Kai Sui

In the future, the expanding Sun starts turning into a Red Giant, threatening to engulf Earth in 300 years, and then the entire rest of the Solar System. In order to save Earth, humanity unites and builds giant thrusters which start moving the Earth out of the Solar System. Liu Qi is one of the surviving 3.5 billion people living in underground cities, still bitter at his astronaut father Li Peiqiang who abandoned him as a kid in order to help coordinate Earth's evacuation from its nearby orbiting space station. Qi and his adoptive sister DuoDuo secretly leave to see the Earth's surface, now frozen while far away from the Sun, but their truck malfunctions on the trip. While passing by Jupiter, it was predicted that its gravity will catapult the Earth away, but it actually starts pulling it towards it. Earth's collision with Jupiter is prevented, though, thanks to Peiqiang's sacrifice: he flies the space station into Jupiter's atmosphere, causing an explosion which propels Earth outside of its orbit. The Earth then continues its journey towards Alpha Centauri.

A rare example of a Chinese science-fiction film, based on Liu Cixin's acclaimed eponymous novel, "The Wandering Earth" became one of the highest grossing films in Chinese cinemas during its premiere, yet leaves a rather mixed impression. Its sole concept is incredible and monumental: scientists create thrusters which enable a colossal migration of Earth outside of the Solar System towards the Alpha Centauri. While the '62 disaster film "Gorath" also had a similar idea of thrusters "moving" the Earth away from its orbit, it was done only a little bit, whereas here it involves a complete "evacuation" of Earth away from the Solar System. The problem is that the story shows only one small episode from this space journey—Earth passing by Jupiter—but completely ignores all the rest steps and perspectives, thereby not exploiting all the potentials of the imaginative concept. The story starts in medias res, with the frozen Earth already travelling, while the prologue just gives a short summary of how this all started, thereby narrowing its narrative. For instance, what happened when the Moon was left behind? What happened to all the animals? Have some of the animals been placed in underground cities to support the human population? Is life on surface possible around volcanoes which still generate heat? What happened when Earth passed by Mars? Or what will happen when the Earth travels 2,500 years to Alpha Centauri? All these elements were ignored, when the concept offered for a much more versatile storyline.

Another detriment is that all the characters are very bland and featureless, acting only as insects trying to frantically ensure its biological survival. Sadly, the majority of its running time is spent only on Liu Qi and his crew trying to fix a broken truck stranded on the frozen surface or on his father Peiqiang trying to fix a problem from his space station, yet watching this for two hours gets exhausting quickly, especially since the director's style is grey, lifeless and immotile. The image of a giant Jupiter seen through the clouds of a snow storm in the sky is impressive, and one wishes the movie had more of such moments. The themes of obedience, self-sacrifice and resilience of life have a few plus points, as well. The finale tends to become too melodramatic and syrupy for its own good, unable to somehow steer away from it, until the bizarre abrupt ending. Instead of showing a bigger picture of psychological and philosophical aspects of people faced with such a total disaster, as it was done in such a simple and effective way as in the animated series "Queen Millennia", "The Wandering Earth" wastes too much time on lessons of obedience or fixing technical stuff, yet still has several attractions, including very good visual effects and set designs.


Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Last Metro

Le Dernier Metro; war drama, France, 1980, D: François Truffaut, S: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Heinz Bennent, Jean Poiret  

Paris during World War II. Theater Montmartre is preparing a new play, "Disappearance", but its Jewish director, Lucas, fled from the Nazi dictatorship. His wife, Marion, is thus the sole owner of the theater, taking the burden of preparing it herself, since she also plays the leading role in the play. Bernard has been cast as the male protagonist. Unbeknownst to all but Marion, Lucas never fled but is actually hiding beneath the theater, in the cellar, while Marion visits him at night. The play is a hit, but the regime journalist Daxiat attacks it in his review based on antisemitism. The German secret police inspects the cellar, but fails to find Lucas. After the war, Daxiat fled the country, while Lucas returns to direct the play. Marion had sex with Bernard, but he rather decided to leave her alone with Lucas.

In his own elegant-laconic style, the director Truffaut is telling a restructuring of sorts of his previous film, "Day for Night", with the exception that here he is not observing the insider problems of artists trying to make a movie, but to put a play on stage - with an additional burden that the story plays out during the German occupation in World War II. The actors are equally as relaxed, staying in tune with Truffaut’s vision which is amusing, but never just light entertainment. Several humorous moments give "The Last Metro" elan: Bernard tries unsuccessfully to flirt with a woman working on the play, even "reading" from the palm of her hand and concluding there are two women inside of her, only to receive a quick response: "And neither of these women wants to sleep with you!" In another, Bernard chases away Marion’s suitor who gave her roses, claiming that "its thorns made her hands all bloody". The subplot involving the Jewish director Lucas hiding under the theater, listening to rehearsals, could have been handled much better, though: as some sort of unlikely Phantom of the Opera, Lucas could have tried to influence the rehearsal through Marion much more, which would have led to clashes with the substitute director, or even disguise himself as a new director, but except for two or three scenes, his involvement with the play was disappointingly passive. Despite a rather rushed and lukewarm finale, "The Last Metro" has charm in its own way (the sly finale in which the destinies of Lucas and Daxiat are switched), making it a pleasant viewing experience.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

Zombieland: Double Tap

Zombieland: Double Tap; horror comedy, USA, 2019, D: Ruben Fleischer, S: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stona, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Bill Murray, Anthony Dilio

Several years after the last events, Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita and Little Rock are still fighting against the Zombies, but manage to find refuge in the abandoned White House. When Columbus proposes to Wichita, she and Little Rock flee with their vehicle. However, Wichita returns when Little Rock fled from her in order to live with her new boyfriend, musician Berkley, in Babylon, a hippie commune. Tallahassee, Columbus and Wichita, together with a dumb blond Madison, go to search for her. Once in Babylon, their weapons are confiscated and melted, which proves detrimental when an army of Zombies attack. Luckily, Tallahassee manages to trick all the Zombies into following him to the top of the building and falling from it into their doom. Little Rock breaks up with Berkley while Wichita accepts Columbus' marriage proposal.

10 years after the sleeper cult film "Zombieland", all the cast and film crew joined their forces to deliver a sequel which did not quite justify for such a long wait: there is too much improvisation which is just there to fill the running time, as if the actors and screenwriters were making stuff up as they went along, whereas the inspiration is scarce. "Double Tap" is thus one of those "tolerable good films": they work overall, but do not overwhelm or engage the viewers. The director Ruben Fleischer follows the expectation pattern of the sequel, which involves more danger and more new characters for the protagonists, some of which do not have that much of a function in the story (Madison, Albuquerque), though the original cast is still contagiously fun and sometimes stumble upon a good joke (such as when Columbus has to put post-it papers over the eyes of a painting of Abraham Lincoln while he is about to land in bed with Wichita). The film works, albeit in a very routine manner. However, two moments of sheer creativity raise the level through the roof. One is Bill Murray's "comeback" cameo in the film. The other is a small comic chef-d'œuvre, an insane outburst of untrammelled ingenuity in the "Zombie kill of the year" sequence in which an Italian guy lures Zombies on the street and then uses a jack to tip the Leaning Tower of Pisa (!) in order for it to fall and squash the Zombies, triumphantly shouting "Vaffanculo!", which perfectly encapsulates that temperamental nature of the indestructible Italian spirit. That sequence alone is about two levels above the rest of the film.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game; war drama, USA, 2014; D: Morten Tyldum, S: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance, Mark Strong

Britain, World War II. Mathematician Alan Turing joins a secret British operation consisting out of cryptologists Hugh Alexander, John Cairncross, Peter Hilton, Keith Furman, Charles Richards and Joan Clark in order to decipher the "Enigma machine", the Nazi device which sends coded messages about attacks around Europe. Turing's antisocial behavior irritates his colleagues; the superiors want to shut him down fearing his proto-computer device is a waste of money whereas he marries Joan even though he is gay. Figuring out that each coded message is signed with "Heil Hitler", Turing is able to program his device to decipher the Nazi messages, but must keep it a secret. Cairncross is outed as a Soviet spy, but the British government let's him send only controlled information. With the help of the decoded messages, the war ends, but Turing is forced into a therapy to suppress his gay side, which was banned by the government at the time. He commits suicide at the age of 41.

Excellent biographical war drama about Alan Turing is easily one of the best movies of the 2 0 1 0s, one of the weakest cinema decades in history, standing out as a highlight in 2014, the year which marked a rare return of great films in that era. While it may sound like a predictable "award bait" film at first in its concept (a gay outsider; a World War II topic), "The Imitation Game" rises above these cliches thanks to a sovereign, genuine, creative and honest screenplay by Graham Moore, who, it seems, uses it as a personal therapy since he was gay himself: he avoids turning Turing's life into a hagiography, and instead shows even his flawed side (he was way too antisocial and even a jerk at times), but always keeps respect towards his positive achievements, placing him as a person who marked a new era, the era of intellectual breakthrough and innovation. Moore imbibes his characters with fascinating little details and personality traits which make them feel alive: for instance, when he was a kid, Turing would obsessively separate his green peas from his orange carrots on his plate during lunch, already hinting at his specific need for making order out of chaos. In another, during school, some bullies locked him up in a coffin of sorts, sadistically enjoying listening to him crying for help, so Turing cleverly decided to simply remain passive and indifferent, thereby taking away their satisfaction, and ultimately making them go away in boredom. It is an "actor's film", allowing for the ensemble to deliver a few wonderful, touching dialogues, mostly by its two main cast, Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley as Turing and Joan Clark. In one of the most fascinating moments, Turing reveals that he is gay to Joan, with whom he is engaged, but she just shrugs it off, as if it is just a minor inconvenience ("But we're not like other people. We love each other in our own way, and we can have the life together that we want!"). Other lines also shine, coming either from his superior ("You are exactly the man I always hoped you would be.") or Joan when she tells Turing it was good that he was not normal like the others. It is indeed rare to find modern films with such wisdom, sharpness and universal appeal, worthy of the "golden age" of cinema from the classic era of Hollywood.


Sunday, October 13, 2019

River of no Return

River of no Return; western / road movie, USA, 1954; D: Otto Preminger, S: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Tommy Rettig, Rory Calhoun

The Wild West, 19th century. Mark (9), a little kid living in an outpost, is picked up by his father, Matthew, who was just recently released from prison for shooting a man in his back, defending another man. Mark says goodbye to Kay, a Saloon girl who took care of him. Matthew and Mark live in an isolated farm, on the countryside, but stumble upon Kay again when she arrives with her boyfriend, gambler Harry, on a raft via the river. Harry wants to go to Council City, where he won a piece of land with gold on it in a gamble. Matthew does not want to lend Harry a rifle, fearing the farm might be defenceless against an Indian attack. Harry takes the rifle and a horse by force, but Kay stays behind to nurse the wounded Matthew. The Indians attack, and Matthew, Mark and Kay have to flee on a raft down the river, encountering many dangers. In Council City, Kay encounters Harry again and tries to persuade him to apologize to Matthew. Harry instead draws his gun at Matthew, but Mark uses the rifle to shoot Harry behind his back to save Matthew.

One of Otto Preminger's standard films, "River of no Return" is one of those westerns that were a dime a dozen in the 50s and 60s: while undoubtedly a good film, it has little to offer to stand out from so many other movies of the said genre. Setting the story as an "Anabasis" road movie of sorts, where the three protagonists (a man, a woman and a kid) try to evacuate themselves through the dangerous wilderness on a raft through the river, eventually forming a proto-family features, Preminger took a too conventional approach, presenting the story just at face value, instead of also going into some more creative or multi-layered levels. It all feels too much like a "contract job", and not a true labor of love for the director, with too many banal, routine dialogues, though it has its moments: the sequences where Indians on a cliff are throwing rocks down at the trio, trying to make holes in their raft and sink them in the river, or the attack of a puma, are expressionistic and have spark, whereas the plot point of Matthew having to justify his shooting of a man behind his back in order to defend another man comes full circle in the ending involving the little kid. Despite some plot holes and illogical moments (Matthew wrestling with an outlaw, while the other outlaw just continues eating meat, with no interest at helping his companion), the actors give the story a sense of dedication, with Robert Mitchum and the underrated Marilyn Monroe delivering fine performances.


Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Wire (Season 3)

The Wire (Season 3), crime series, USA, 2004; D: Ed Bianchi, Steve Shill, Rob Bailey, Dan Attias, Agnieszka Holland, Alex Zakrzewski, S: Dominic West, Idris Elba, Wood Harris, Robert Wisdom, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, Aidan Gillen, Robert F. Chew

Baltimore. Due to constant pressure to lower crime rates in the city, police major Colvin has a radical idea: he will allow the drug dealers to deal drugs freely in an abandoned area, a sort of free zone nicknamed "Hamsterdam", far away from the city. This "evacuation" actually works, the crime rates decline, but when his superiors find out, including Commissioner Burrell, they have Colvin fired and hastily arrest anyone before shutting down the free zone. Councilman Carcetti wants to exploit this public anger to run for mayor. Avon Barksdale, the head of the Barksdale drug organization, is released from prison, and allows Omar and Mouzone to kill his lawyer, Stringer Bell, who wanted to set them up to kill each other and to build Federal buildings to legalize the crime business. Officer Jimmy McNulty and his crew used wired phones to catch Avon possessing weapons, in violation of his probation. Avon is thus again sent to prison, while his rival, Marlo, fills the vacuum with his own drugs.

The third season of the hyped crime series "The Wire" started to lose steam: only episodes 3.8 and 3.11 are great, while the rest is good, yet somehow strangely routine, predictable, calculative, mechanical and stale. A certain "The Wire"-fatigue can be sensed here. It is getting predictable that these kind of shows use "hit-and-miss" tactics by throwing 50 characters at some 20 stories, hoping at least some of them will stick. One of these subplots really does work: major Colvin's fascinating thought experiment on simply allowing drug dealers to deal in a far away "free zone", in order to remove them from the city, figuring that this is simply in their nature, and that fighting against this kind of determinism is futile. Other subplots fair less: Stringer Bell's plan to go into real estate and councilman Carcetti's ploys to get elected for mayor lead to lukewarm conclusions, without much payoff, whereas McNulty's wire tapping team seems too often like a rehash from the previous two seasons at times (a rare exception is a genius trick in which McNulty's men arrest Bodie and empty his pockets in order to take his mobile phone and secretly replace it with an identical, "wired" mobile phone, which they return to Bodie).

The subplot involving Dennis is interesting at first, showing how the character is so disenchanted by hard work of mowing the lawn that he decides to take the easy way out and work for Avon Barksdale as a criminal, only to realize he cannot kill people, and thus changes his mind again and returns back to his normal life. But this happens already half-way into the season, and it is puzzling why the rest of the season is wasted on just showing Dennis training boxing, again and again, even though this does not serve any purpose in the story anymore (at least not in this season). Too much of this is repetitive, and one feels these 12 episodes could have easily been summed up into just four or five. The series needed more inspiration akin to episode 3.8 (one genius moment has Barksdale set up a "date-trap" for his nemesis Marlo, but goofs when one of Barksdale's solders exits the van and goes to buy some drinks at the restaurant, and is recognized by Marlo's friend Snoop) or 3.11 (the significant conversation on the rooftop between Avon and Stringer Bell is ostensibly about business, but in reality one is giving the reasons for why the other must be eliminated) and a better editor to trim down this whole affair, since just randomly cramming more and more subplots does not automatically make for a great series.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Second Service

Second Service; crime, USA, 2017; D: Serge Bodnarchuk, S: Matthew K. Lane, Shane Rhoades, Coral Lamar, R. Scott Purdy, Guy Wicke

John Greene, a washed up private detective, gets a new intern in his office, Tim, and explains him the bad sides of the job. Luckily, a new client shows up: she is Natalie, who asks Greene to find out who is following her. Greene tracks down her stalker, Hodges, and through him finds his boss, the rich Bradford Guinness. Greene feigns he is willing to spy on Natalie, but Guinness rejects him. Still, Greene visits him again and asks why he is following Natalie. Guinness admits he wanted to recruit her for his shady business of camgirls, intending to bring back virtual brothels and the mob back in Chicago. Greene had the conversation recorded and talks with Natalie and Tim about trying to find a lawyer to sue Guinness.

Serge Bodnarchuk's feature length debut is an amusing independent movie in the vein of film noirs such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep", and thus it is easily identifiable that the main actor Matthew K. Lane is trying to conjure up the "frequency" of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, though with a stronger emphasis on the comical side. At times, Bodnarchuk demonstrates that he has inspiration, whether it is in elegant visual ideas (for instance, the aesthetically pleasant opening scenes: the camera pans over a table, and all of a sudden the main protagonist, Greene, "stands up" into the frame, in tune to the credit "Matthew K. Lane" showing up on the screen), clever observations (at a bar, Greene points out to Tim that a couple at the table wears two different wedding rings on their fingers, deducting that they must be having an affair) or shrill dialogues ("Thank God for the Hindenburg, or else that would have been the worst idea in human history!", says the cynical Greene after hearing a crazy proposal on his phone). Sadly, the story starts losing energy and steam in the second half, which is too often marred on routine dialogues, when the boring lines start slowly replacing the good ones. A good deal of these could have been either cut or written in a more interesting way, whereas it is a pity that the main heroine, Natalie, does not have that much to do or place to shine in the story, leaving her a too passive of a character for a female lead. Throughout the film, Greene is trying to find out one thing: why is Natalie being followed by Guinness? The resolution is disappointingly anti-climatic, illogical and silly. However, Guinness is at times a fascinating bad guy, a person who actually has reasons why he is a villain, set as a metaphor for the greed in corporate world, whereas at least two of his lines—the Tunnel-Perspective-Vortex comment from the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the rare historical footnote from the Battle of Ramla (1102) in which the Muslims defeated the Christians, but one Crusader, Conrad, was so undefeatable and killed everyone that they had to allow him to be peacefully evacuated—are so deliciously written that not even Tarantino or Chayefsky would have been ashamed of them.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights; romance / drama / tragedy, USA, 1939; D: William Wyler, S: Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Flora Robson

Barren Yokrshire moors, England, 19th century. During a winter storm, a man enters an isolated cottage in search for shelter. After imagining he heard someone say said the words "Cathy", the owner, Heathcliff, runs outside. Housekeeper Ellen tells Heathcliff's tale: 40 years ago, the owner of the house, Mr. Earnshaw, returns from his trip in Liverpool with an orphaned gypsy kid, Heathcliff, and adopts him. Mr. Earnshaw's biological children act differently: Catherine becomes his friend, but Hindley hates and abuses Heathcliff. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley turns Heathcliff into a servant. Heathcliff falls in love with Catherine, but she marries the rich Edgar Linton, their neighbor. Heathcliff returns from America as a rich man and marries Edgar's sister, Isabella. When Catherine falls ill, she kisses Heathcliff before she dies. Back in the present, Heathcliff dies in search for Catherine in the snow.

Described as the best film adaptation of Emily Brontë's eponymous classic and her only novel, William Wyler's "Wuthering Heights" is a tragic meditation on unrequited love. It explores this through the relationship of the main couple, which is hindered by social circumstances: Catherine decides to ignore her love for the adopted Heathcliff, who is full of vitality, but poor, in order to marry Edgar, who is a wimp, but rich, which underwent several thematic interpretations—she aims for climbing up the social hierarchy (which is given an interesting twist when Heathcliff returns later as a rich man himself, thereby obtaining "equal status" in order to adapt to her needs); or for dedicating herself to nurturing reason at the expense of completely neglecting her passion and nature; the detrimental nature of stubbornness; whereas others have even seen the story as a secret incestuous fantasy. A fascinating dialogue between them manifests when Heathcliff comments her empty marriage with Edgar: "If he loved you with all the power of his soul for a whole lifetime he couldn't love you as much as I do in a single day."

Another strong quote arrives when Heathcliff is torn between sadness and anger: "Cathy, I never broke your heart. You broke it! Cathy, you loved me! What right did you have to throw away love?" Laurence Olivier delivers one of his finest performances as Heathcliff, showing both his brutish and vulnerable nature in one, whereas the desolate barren land in the middle of nowhere gives the film a touch of isolation. The highlight is the long sequence where a woman plays Mozart's "Rondo Alla Turca" while all is said in just the facial expression of Catherine and Heathcliff who watch each other at the party, in a moment of exquisite subtlety. Some small omissions bother here and there, though, preventing "Wuthering Heights" to turn into a true classic equal to the best movies appearing in 1939, one of the strongest movie years in American cinema: it is never explained how Heathcliff found his fortune; his more morbid elements from the book were toned down in favor of a more romantic approach; the final act from the book is omitted; the ending is rushed whereas a couple of melodramatic moments "slip" in several scenes.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin; satire / black comedy, UK / France / Belgium, 2017; D: Armando Iannucci, S: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse

In 1 9 5 3, bank robber Joseph Stalin dies. Since he just happened to be the leader of the Soviet Union, the other politicians already start wondering who will succeed him: Nikita Khrushchev represents the camp that wants to reform the country and turn it more humane, while the Head of the NKVD, the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, intends to become the new leader and continue the hardline course of the dictatorship. Georgy Malenkov is placed as the temporary leader, but is clearly manipulated by Beria. After Stalin's funeral, Khrushchev is able to gain support by Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army, as well as Vyacheslav Molotov: the army stages a coup which arrests and executes Beria. Khruschev then eventually takes power.

Armando Iannucci's satire on dictatorship, in this case the Soviet Union, is a contemplative lesson in history: had it not been a comedy, this would have been one of the most depressing movies to sit through. Iannucci cleverly observes that each dictatorship, including Stalinism, is just one grotesque, immature manifestation of someone's Narcissistic personality disorder, unable or unwilling to tolerate any kind of self-review of self-criticism. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale look nothing like Nikita Khrushchev and Lavrenity Beria, respectively, but they deliver a heck of a performance in each role. The movie abounds with surreal, batty jokes and situations: for instance, after Stalin, who pissed himself in his pants, is found unconscious in his living room, lying on the floor after a stroke, Beria enters the room but forbids calling the doctor, ostensibly waiting for the Committee to arrive in full capacity for a quorum to bring a decision, already showing his true opportunistic and selfish nature, aiming to take over. It is even more satirical than that: after the Doctor's Plot, good doctors have been eliminated, and thus they have to be imported into Moscow to check Stalin's health. After Stalin's death, as soon as the Committee departs, upon Beriya's orders the NKVD soldiers arrive and immediately start removing all traces of Stalin from his mansion (his bust, paintings, and even his staff is evacuated outside; his lookalikes are informed that their "contract is up"), and as these people are transported in trucks, they see in distance one soldier already shooting the other standing next to him, starting the "blood inheritance" battle. The irony that even the wife of Deputy Premier Molotov, Polina, was convicted of treason, or that Stalin's own son, Vasily, had no say in inheritance of power, is not lost on the movie. Despite some historical "straining" and a lot of babble, the movie succeeds as a political satire, revealing Soviet Russia for what it was: an idiocracy.


Saturday, September 28, 2019

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story; documentary, Australia / USA, 2018, D: Jessica Leski, S: Elif Cam, Sadia, Dara Donnelly, Susan Bower

Four stories about fascination with boy bands. Elif (18) adores One Direction ever since a friend played one of their songs to her, visited several of their concerts and plays a guitar, even though her Turkish immigrant family does not want her to study music. Dara likes Take That. Sadia (25), of a Pakistani immigrant family, loves the Backstreet Boys. Finally, Susan is over 60, yet still enchanted by the Beatles who were a big part of her childhood.

A case study on mass fascination with boy bands (and idols in general), this documentary manages to illustrate the phenomenon through the perspective of four very different women. Watching these women analyze their own behavior while they talk about their motivations, actions and projections is very revealing, and, it seems, they sometimes catch themselves wondering why they are doing all of this. At one point in the film, Dara coins the "boy band theory", implying that it is just a marketing ploy with always the same restructuring of ingredients (there is always one "older brother" boy in the group, and a cute one, and a wild one) since the Beatles introduced it first. Initially, this fascination with musicians seems fun and sweet, but then it gets strange (in one scene, Sadia admits telling her boyfriend she loves the Backstreet Boys more than him; Elif imagines that One Direction is singing the compliments in their song "What Makes You Beautiful" directly to her) and ultimately one wonders what kind of a relation they are expecting when in one decade Sadia only managed to talk to them for 5 minutes— and on top of that with a barrier separating them backstage. This is rather evident in the cruise sequence where three dozen women are going after one Backstreet Boy swimming in the sea— they are not searching for a musician, they are searching for a boyfriend. One wonders if this "fake-hope-for-love" is just an accidental byproduct or a calculated ploy to subconsciously attract more fans— mostly among outsiders. The exception is Dara, a lesbian, who has this introspect: "Even know, like, what is it about boy bands that I need in my life? Whenever things are going wrong, I'm, like, boy bands are the answer, but what does that even mean?", and concludes that she needs a boy band because they "create joy" for her. In Sadia’s case, too much is revealed from her, since she admits she could not find a stable relationship and contemplated suicide. For exploring this topic in which formal entertainment spills into personal emotions, and contemplating if everyone needs some sort of obsession in life to keep motivated, this documentary succeeds as a testament of its time, presenting this infatuation as a process of growing up.


Friday, September 27, 2019

The Wire (Season 2)

The Wire; crime series, USA, 2003; D: Ed Bianchi, Elodie Keene, Steve Shill, Dan Attias, S: Dominic West, Chris Bauer, Idris Elba, Amy Ryan, Lance Reddick, Wendell Pierce, Pablo Schreiber, James Ransone, Bill Raymond

Baltimore. Detective Jimmy McNulty has been assigned to work on a boat as harbor patrol. One day, he finds a dead woman in the sea. At the same time, a dozen dead women are found in a container, shipped from Eastern Europe. McNulty and the others are brought on the case, led by lieutenant Cedric and aided by police officer Russell. The dead women were suppose to be prostitutes and were transported by the Greek, a local mobster, but one of his subordinates killed to hush up the murder of the first dead girl. The Greek thus has the man executed. Frank Sobotka, the leader of the dockers at the harbor, secretly smuggles illegal stuff for the Greek. He is thus put under surveillance by the police team. When his son Ziggy shoots Glekas, the aid of the Greek, Sobotka agrees to cooperate with the police, but is executed by the Greek. Several people are arrested, but the Greek escapes. Meanwhile, Stringer Bell starts cooperating with "Proposition" Joe in order to get quality heroin, contrary to the wishes of his boss, Avon Barksdale.

The second season of the critically recognized TV series "The Wire" transports the heroes into the world of ports and dockers, offering again an interesting case study about various interest groups who clash in order to get what they want. The first episode has a genius, delicious little detail—Stringer Bell orders a criminal to drive a car from a parking garage in Philadelphia to Baltimore, which allegedly has heroin hidden in it, and that he has to write down the original mileage of the car (4243) which will be later compared to make sure the thug did not make any de-tours, but drove straight to his goal—yet, the series again repeats the same mistake from the 1st season: it takes way too long to set up the story. The first five episodes are disappointgly routine, overlong, suffering from constant "exposition, exposition, exposition" treatment and "empty walk". Yet, luckily, the story improves dramatically from episode 2.6, presenting a much tighter writing which wastes no more time. The episode has an amusing scene in which McNulty visits the office of his ex-wife and jokingly hugs and disrobes a mannequin in front of him. Another comical moment, in episode 2.7, has police officers Herc and Carver who place a surveillance bug inside a tennis ball, and then place the ball under some paper on the street, in order to listen to criminal Frog, but then the criminal picks up the ball and throws it across the building, which lands on the street and is run over by a truck.

Other clever observations give this season spice as well: Frank Sobotka, the shady leader of the dockers, notices that he hasn't paid his phone bill for three months, but that the operator still hasn't disconnected his line, concluding that his phone must be secretly "flagged" by the police. Another great moment has the police officers placing surveillance bugs under the cars of the suspects, and then McNulty observes their driving routes on the city map, speeds them up, and extrapolates that the only place where all these cars meet at a certain point must be their secret base. There are again too many characters in the story, overstuffing it, since 30 added subplots do not automatically make a story better, yet some of these personalities "grow" on the viewer. It is difficult to pin-point which ones stand out the most, but Amy Ryan delivered a wonderful, genuine performance as the sweet police officer Russell who suddenly has to take on a big assignment for the first time; Chris Bauer is thoroughly believable as Sobotka, the head of the dockers who took on a Faust-like offer by the mafioso the Greek to smuggle stuff in order to pay for his workers who are barely surviving; whereas James Ransone is also remarkable as Ziggy Sobotka, who wants to earn money the illegal way, but is always ridiculed (which somewhat explains his sudden, unpredictable impulsive reaction in episode 2.10, which changes everything). Writers David Simon and Ed Burns again demonstrated a sixth sense for conjuring up a realistic, unglamorous world of crime, but again failed to truly overwhelm to the fullest, leaving the impression that "The Wire" is ultimately still a little bit overrated: they needed an editor who could have shortened all the overlong episodes by a half in order to make them more fluent.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial Man; science-fiction drama, USA, 1999; D: Chris Columbus, S: Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Wendy Crewson, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren

In the future, Richard buys an android for his family, nicknamed Andrew. With time, Andrew starts developing unusual signs of creativity and autonomous thinking, surprising Richard. Little Miss, Richard's daughter, becomes Andrew's friend. When Richard dies, Andrew sets on a quest to find out if there are other robots like him, and stumbles upon inventor Rupert Burns, who gives Andrew human skin. Little Miss dies, but Andrew moves into the home of her granddaughter, Portia. Andrew wants to experience full humanity, and thus falls in love with Portia. He also initiates a legislature in order to be recognized as a human. At 200 years, Andrew, who by now exchanged his entire robotic body with an organic body, dies, but the government recognizes him as a human being.

Despite his commercial peak in the 90s, comedian Robin Williams sometimes picked small, unusual, intimate films which reflected on some problems in humanity, and one of them was the 1999 "Bicentennial Man", an adaptation of Isaac Asimov's eponymous classic science-fiction novella written 23 years prior. "Bicentennial Man" thus stands out as one of the more experimental big budget Hollywood films, something which major companies are not willing to risk anymore. It is a philosophical thought experiment on some ancient questions—what does it take to be human? What is consciousness? What is the meaning of life?—and the director Chris Columbus already showed he has a more dramatic side with his previous tragicomedy "Only the Lonely". "Bicentennial Man" is, unfortunately, rather "flat" at times, with some corny or lame attempts at jokes (Andrew's first encounter with the "groovin'" Galatea or his wonder at achieving his first fart stand out as cringe worthy), whereas it lacks more inspiration. Williams gave in to his comedy persona in one funny little sequence in which the robot tries to tell jokes in front of the family, but just talks super fast without pause for the people to absorb it: "What is a brunette between two blondes? A translator! Do you know why blind people don't like to sky-dive? It scares their dogs! What's silent and smells like worms? Bird farts!" However, the sole concept is so genuine, one must feel for it: Andrew is basically an allegory on growing up, from the first child steps in which a young mind needs to comprehend the world, up to the need to experience life to the fullest, in all of its forms. The love subplot, not found in Asimov's original work, feels shoehorned, yet, at the same time, it gives the story that final layer or Andrew's life experience. Despite all of its omissions, only someone without a soul could dismiss this emotional story about self-improvement and recognition.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dora and the Lost City of Gold; adventure comedy, USA, 2019; D: James Bobin, S: Isabela Moner, Jeff Wahlberg, Eugenio Derbez, Madeleine Madden, Michael Peña, Eva Longoria, Danny Trejo (voice)

Dora is an adventurous teenage girl living in the South American jungle. Her parents, Cole and Elena, send her to Los Angeles to attend high school and stay at her cousin's place, Diego. However, Diego is embarrassed by Dora's naive attitude. During a museum visit, Dora, Diego as well as students Sammy and Randy are abducted by criminals and brought to South American jungle, intending to blackmail Dora's parents into revealing them the location of an ancient Inca city of gold. The teenagers are saved by a man, Alejandro, who follows them on the search for the city. Later, when they find the city, Alejandro is revealed to be one of the kidnappers, but the guardians of the city arrest him and let Dora and the others go, reuniting them with Dora's parents.

Live action adaptations of cartoon shows are a tough task, and many simply cannot translate well to the real world or they are not true to the spirit of the original. One of them is this odd mish-mash, "Dora and the Lost City of Gold", which is an adaptation of the educational cartoon "Dora the Explorer": casting Isabela Moner was a stroke of genius, since she is excellent in the leading role—but nothing else in the film works. In fact, it is almost as if the movie hinders her. The script has trouble resisting keeping with the tone of Dora's innocence, and thus inserts several strange, misguided or heavy handed "raunchy" gags at times, which clash badly with the attitude of the title heroine. One example is the sequence where Alejandro is sinking in quick sand, but all of a sudden two scorpions show up, climb on his head and mate. And then they leave. So what was the point of these two scorpions? Other jokes are just plain bland. The movie has no inspiration or spark to sustain the attention of the viewers. A rare exception that proves otherwise are the joke where the high school "Diva" Sammy says to Dora "If you aim for the Queen, you better not miss!" or when the monkey, Boots, secretly unties the rope on hands of the teenagers behind the villain's back, but when the said villain turns each time, the monkey pretends to be just hanging around, not doing anything in particular. Some moments also address that awkward feeling of adolescence and transition, yet it does not ring that true. However, one has to admit one thing in the movie: Dora is an irresistibly optimistic and contagiously positive character, something rarely seen in the often pessimistic tendency of movies, and thus one can only hope that Moner will someday bring this "frequency" to a worthier film.


Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Big Sick

The Big Sick; drama / comedy, USA, 2017; D: Michael Showalter, S: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher

Chicago. Kumail is a Pakistani-born national who wants to make it as a stand-up comedian in the US, but has to work as a Uber driver to pay his bills. During one of his stand ups, a girl, Emily, contacts him and they end up in his apartment, sleeping together. Although reluctant to commit, Emily eventually starts a relationship with Kumail. When Kumail reveals that he does not intend to marry her, since his family would reject him due to already in advance planned marriage with a Pakistani woman, Emily breaks up with him. However, upon hearing that Emily became sick due to an unknown disease, and that the doctors induced an artificial coma on her, Kumail returns to take care of her, and meets Emily's parents, Beth and Terry. Due to such a stress, Kumail is unable to perform at a Montreal comedy festival. Emily wakes up from coma and rejects him, but changes her mind and meets him again in New York.

A gentle restructuring and amalgamation of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "While You Were Sleeping", this unusual romantic comedy is actually based on true events of screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani (who here basically plays himself) and Emily V. Gordon (here played by Zoe Kazan), depicting their tumultuous love story. Never as funny or as inspired as it could have been, "The Big Sick" is nevertheless a refreshing little independent film about real people and real emotions, showing how during a time of crisis, people show their true self: in this case, upon hearing his ex-girlfriend is sick, Kumail dropped everything and simply went to the hospital to help her anyway he can, revealing they still had a genuine connection even after their break up caused by their culture clash. The jokes are moderately amusing: in one sequence, while talking with Emily's dad, Kumail has this comedic conversation: "What's your stance?" - "What's my stance on 9/11? Oh, anti. It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys". - "Huh?" - "That was a joke." A great little "stolen moment" has Kumail listening to Emily's voicemail on the phone, fondly remembering her personality before her coma, showing both her gentle side ("Hey it's me. If you just wanna come over and like kiss me for two seconds, I'd really love that tonight.") and her sense for spontaneous silliness ("Hey it's me. So did you want to meet at the gallery, or - Oh my god! Oh my god, a bird just hit me in the head. Oh my god I'm not kidding"). A few moments of "empty walk" and a rather rushed first 20 minutes which too hastily sets up their falling in love aside, "The Big Sick" is a film on the right place in cinema, whereas it also offers a dignified role to comedian Ray Romano as Emily's concerned father.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Fantastic Woman

Una mujer fantástica; drama, Chile / Germany / Spain / USA, 2017; D: Sebastián Lelio, S: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Amparo Noguera

Santiago. Marina Vidal, a transgender woman, works as a waitress and night club singer. Her older boyfriend, Orlando, presents her with a voyage to surprise her during a dinner. They have sex in the apartment, but later in the night, Orlando wakes up feeling sick. While Marina tries to bring him outside, he falls down the stairs and injures his head. At the hospital, Orlando dies from an aneurysm. His son, Bruno, wants to expel Marina from the apartment; Orlando's ex-wife Sonia wants to forbid Marina from attending the funeral, whereas a police officer is suspicious of Orlando's head injury, trying to put the blame on Marina. Marina holds out, and sings at a night club.

A quiet, gentle, honest and intimate depiction of transgender people and the (passive) discrimination they encounter in the society is the topic of Sebastian Lelio's "A Fantastic Woman", a film that works because it refuses to turn melodramatic or unbearably sappy, whereas a lot of kudos should be given to the main actress, Daniela Vega, who delivers a great, subtle performance as the title heroine who endures all of this with stoic dignity. However, the film suffers from too much "empty walk" and lacks a broader spectrum of a viewing experience: it is directed very straightforward, without ingenuity or innovation, which turns slightly monotone in the second half, whereas the story, it seems, follows the footsteps of those art-films where nothing is resolved in the end, and everything is just left vague. One can sympathize with the heroine, Marina, since the people around her want to isolate and shun her, or humiliate her into simply "going away": one obvious example is the female police Detective who interrogates Marina at her work, where she works as a waitress, constantly implying that her lover was killed, but Marina is called upon a colleague from work because "there is trouble at a table". When the Detective leaves, the colleague admits to Marina she just made up the emergency to save her from further interrogation. In another moment, an examiner orders Marina to take her clothes off, and raise her hand up, to make photos of her, humiliating her. While interesting, this story does not lead to some deeper or more creative paths, and thus its awards are probably more the result of sympathy with the plight of the LGBT community than an actual result of a great cinematic work.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman; fantasy action, USA / China / Hong Kong, 2017; D: Patty Jenkins, S: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Robin Wright

The mythical island of Themyscira. The Amazonian women, created by Zeus to protect human kind, train there, among them Diana, aka Wonder Woman. Their ancient enemy is the god of war, Ares. When an American soldier, Steve, accidentally crashes on the island, Diana hears about World War I waging on, and travels with him to London in order to find Ares and kill him, hoping this will stop the war. She meets British speaker Sir Morgan. Diana, Steve and a couple of allies travel to the Western Front in order to find German General Ludendorff, who plans to stop the armistice with a gas attack, since Diana assumes the latter is Ares. In a battle, Diana kills Ludendorff, but the war wages on. The real Ares then shows up, Morgan, who wants Diana to help him kill humans and cleans the world from them. Steve dies by flying the airplane with the gas bomb into the sky, letting it explode outside of populated area. Diana kills Ares, World War I ends, but she also realizes that there is both good and bad within humanity.

"Wonder Woman" is the best DC superhero film of the decade: it starts off with a rather clumsy and convoluted opening act, yet slowly builds up momentum and ends on a strong second half which leads to a poignant, even emotional finale with a point. Some flaws in the story remained unmitigated—for instance, it is illogical that Diana would be so surprised at war since the Amazonian warrior women constantly train to battle themselves, whereas it is somewhat vague as to how she intends to find or track down Ares if she doesn't know anything about him—yet the film is different and rare in its subgenre for showing a superhero who does not only battle fictional villains, but actually tackles a real world issue, in this case World War I. Through it, "Wonder Woman" contemplates about the debasement of worth of life in a deadly conflict, as well as the contamination of such a self-defeating mentality, where people are not able to get out of such a state, and instead just get consumed by a "culture of murder", which might lead to the end of the civilization. Ares, the god of war, thus becomes an allegory: Wonder Woman is not there to fight a specific enemy, but to try to tackle the sole notion of evil hiding inside every person.

Sometimes, there is a defining moment in film which establishes its tone and sustains it until the end. Here, it happens half-way into the film, when Diana gets out of the trench, puts on her Wonder Woman outfit, and simply runs on the Western Front battlefield, dodging every bullet with her bracelets, and even stopping heavy ammunition with her shield, in a sequence so magical that it sends shivers down the spine. Another great moment is Diana's reply to Ares, who claimed that people must be destroyed because they are evil: "You're wrong about them. They're everything you say... but so much more." Gal Gadot delivers the role of the lifetime as the title heroine, balancing both her innocence and strong warrior persona, even adding some humor at times. Chris Pine, on the other hand, is weaker, since he is too goofy as her partner. Some naive moments also bring the story's credibility down at times (for instance, the too simple way Steve steals the top secret book from Doctor Poison). Due to the strong finale, and the surprisingly sombre ending which contemplates about human duality, presenting good and evil as yin and yang, "Wonder Woman" lives up to its hype, and offers a rare treat of a strong woman ideal that feels genuine and cool, something not seen since "Sailor Moon" and "She-Ra".


Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Founder

The Founder; drama, USA, 2016; D: John Lee Hancock, S: Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern

1 9 5 4. Ray Kroc is a petty traveling salesman trying to sell milkshake mixers, while his wife Ethel is quietly underwhelmed by him. One day, while in San Bernardino, Ray stumbles upon a small, but effective fast food restaurant McDonalds and offers the two brothers running it, Dick and Mac McDonald, a business partnership, aiming to expand their restaurant into a franchize. The McDonalds brothers are reluctant, worrying about quality control of far away restaurants, but agree upon a contract. Ray opens several McDonalds restaurants in various cities, but his share of the profit is only 1.4%, not enough for a major expansion. Upon an advice by financial advisor Sonnebron, Ray buys off the land upon which the McDonalds restaurants are built on, and slowly takes charge of the business. In the end, he buys the McDonalds brand from the McDonalds brothers, becomes a millionaire, divorces Ethel and marries Joan Smith.

Even though it is very direct and straight-forward, "The Founder" is an excellent biopic that reminds of the era of "classic Hollywood" movies where the fascinating story and characters alone are enough to sustain the viewers attention until the end. The director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Robert Siegel give enough room to elevate the true story about the creation of the McDonalds fast-food chain a dimension above the average documentary flicks, kudos also to the great ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton as the sleazy traveling salesman Ray Kroc, who undergoes a bizarre character arc from a modest, fragile traveling salesman to a selfish, manipulative business shark. It also gives a sly commentary on the nature of capitalism: what matters is not who is the best, but who is the most appealing and the most marketable. In the end, the movie is a tale of two establishments: the McDonalds brothers founded the McDonalds restaurant, but Ray founded the McDonalds franchize. The irony that the two McDonald brothers are in the end not even able to open a restaurant under their own name is not lost on the story. The sequence alone where the two brothers are telling Ray how they came up with their fast-food restaurant is engaging already in itself: they realized that the three most sold items are burgers, fries and drinks, and thus focused only on that; in order to cut costs to the maximum, they got rid of the waitresses, persuading the customers to get their own orders, and switched to fully disposable dishware which can be simply thrown into trash; finally, they drew an outline of their restaurant on the ground and used dozens of employees to figure out which of the room compositions would be the most efficient, until they chose the one where the kitchen is in the centre of the location. Some of the changes are not quite well explained (for instance, how Ray was able to circumvent the contract in spite of McDonalds' objections), but the story is full of juicy details and analytics of how this system was established.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Devil's Backbone

El espinazo del diablo; war drama, Spain / Mexico, 2001; D: Guillermo del Toro, S: Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Íñigo Garcés, Irene Visedo

The Spanish Civil War. A little boy, Carlos, is sent to an orphanage led by Dr. Casares and Carmen, a Republican sanctuary of sorts, since his father died fighting against the Franco's Nationalists. Jacinto, a young lad, helps in the orphanage. As a newcomer, Carlos is teased by the other boys, and after the water bowl is spilled at night, he is forced to secretly go to the kitchen to get some for the morning, but sees a ghost of a boy there. It soon turns out that the missing boy, Santi, was killed when he found out Jacinto is actually a Francoist, who thus threw his corpse into the pool. Jacinto puts fire on the orphanage, killing Carmen and Casares in the process, hoping to get their gold from the safe, but only finds old photographs inside. Carlos and the boys use spears to stab and throw Jacinto into the pool, where Santi's ghost holds him until the latter drowns.

A loose forerunner to his "Pan's Labyrinth", "The Devil's Backbone" already signalled the director Guillermo del Toro's fascination in blending the trauma of the Spanish Civil War with fantasy elements that serve as a form of escapism from the said depressive reality. The cozy setting of an isolated orphanage in the middle of a vast, empty countryside conjures up a neat mood, whereas del Toro has great cinematography and uses it frequently to underline the contrast between dark and light, indicative in the constant fight between good and evil. Several good moments and observations grace the screen: for instance, Carlos is forced to get another bowl of water during the night, even though it is forbidden to enter the kitchen. He succeeds, but the bullies simply use a sling to throw a rock and destroy the bowl he held in his arms, thereby spilling his water. Since Carlos is caught in this, the principal, Dr. Casares, knows the kid will not snitch his co-perpetrators, and thus uses a trick: he allows the hungry kids to eat their breakfast, but releases Carlos to walk at the table, and thus observes three boys who look at Carlos. Thereby, Dr. Casares concludes that the three were the co-perpetrators, since all other kids would be too hungry to pay attention to anything else besides their plate. More of such details would have been welcome, since the movie is sometimes dry and takes a long time to ignite, but the finale is not as inspiring as it could have been. The ending is rather chaotic, though it neatly uses the ghost of the boy as a symbol of bad conscience that follows the orphanage as a shadow. Ultimately, del Toro reveals the meaning of the title: the devil's backbone constitutes any evil misdeed done by anybody.