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.

Grade:++

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".

Grade:++

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.

Grade:+++

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.

Grade:++

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Dark Side of the Sun

Tamna strana sunca; romantic drama / tragedy, USA / Canada / Montenegro, 1988, D: Božidar Nikolić, S: Brad Pitt, Cheryl Pollak, Guy Boyd, Constantin Nitchoff, Milena Dravić, Gorica Popović, Sonja Savić

Rick is a young lad who suffers from a rare skin disease which prohibits him to come in contact with the Sun or ever any light. he thus has to wear a black mask when he goes out of the house. Rick's father brought him to the Yugoslav coastline to see a healer, hoping to cure him. During a masquerade party at a local town, Rick, under the mask, meets an American girl, Frances, but is afraid she will reject him for the disease and thus leaves. Fed up with this state, including his mentally frail mother, Rick decides to take away the mask and simply introduce himself to Frances. They become friends, but she insists at seeing the masked guy she met. Rick does not reveal his real identity,  appears under the mask, and makes love with Frances in the dark of a cottage at night. The next morning, Frances spots Rick's necklace, and realizes he is the masked guy. Frances arrives at Rick's mansion, but he, now under terminal skin inflammation, leaves on the motorcycle into the sunset.

One of the most incredible coincidences in cinema involved Montenegrin director Bozidar Nikolic—the author of the cult satire "Balkan Spy"—holding an audition for his 1988 film "The Dark Side of the Sun", casting an unknown American actor in the lead, only for the said actor to later advance into one of the most famous stars of his time—Brad Pitt. Retroactively, this sparked new interest for "Dark Side", which is a rather standard example of the romance subgenre where one of the lovers has only a short amount of time to live—it comes dangerously close to a soap opera due to its routine dialogues, always walking a thin line between a sappy melodrama and an intimate tragedy, yet its honesty and genuine emotions are so refreshingly tender, uncynical that the viewers simply adapt to this frequency and go with it after a while. Pitt's character Rick does not take his black mask off until 35 minutes into the film, but already displays that distinctive charm that helped his ascent: when Rick, wearing his mask, mingles freely during a masquerade ball, he sits at the table of a young actress, Frances, and they have this exchange when she asks: "What brings you to Yugoslavia?" - "You!" Their slowly building relationship is interesting, because Rick appears once under the mask, and then without the mask, feigning two different guys, in fear that Frances will reject him upon finding out about his light sensitivity disease. In a way, she is Roxanne, and Rick is both Cyrano de Bergerac and Christian in one. The movie is a gentle thought experiment about a person who would rather live his life to the fullest for a short amount of time than a long life of constant hiding. The father pays large amount of cash to a local healer, hoping to cure Rick, but in the second half of the film, the healer unexpectedly arrives at the father's mansion and returns his money to the full, which is an example of honor rarely seen on film. Despite the too narrow approach, the narrative has its moments (Rick swimming for the first time in the sea, while a dolphin shows up) whereas the ending is much more touching, poignant and swift than the viewers might have expected at first: everything leads to it, yet it still hits you like a ton of bricks.

Grade:++

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Saragossa Manuscript

Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie; experimental film, Poland, 1965; D: Wojciech Jerzy Has, S: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzyńska, Joanna Jędryka, Gustaw Holoubek, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Bogumił Kobiela, Zdzisław Maklakiewicz, Leon Niemczyk, Barbara Krafftówna, Elżbieta Czyżewska

Saragossa, Aragon, during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite being at two opposite sides, two army officers stop fighting in order to read a book they found at a tavern. Its author is the the grandfather of one of the officers, Alfonso: in the manuscript, Alfonso is travelling to Madrid, but loses his servants and thus decides to stay overnight at an abandoned tavern that is allegedly haunted. In it, he finds two attractive women in the basement, Emina and Zibelda, who claim they will be his lovers, but only if Alfonso converts to Islam. Alfonso drinks a potion and wakes up outside near corpses. He meets a Christian Hermit to warns him to confess his sins, and his servant, Pasheko. Pasheko tells a story where he was seduced by two ghost women in a tavern at night, similarly as Alfonso. Fleeing from Inquisition, Alfonso rests at a castle, where gypsy Avadoro recounts a tale in which he was given an assignment to spy on a wife suspected of infidelity, but actually contacted her lover, Toledo, and of Roque, who helped reconcile two feuding families, Soarez and Moro, by engaging their kids in love, Lopez and Inez. Alfonso meets Emina and Zibelda again in the tavern, and finds out that the Hermit is actually their Sheik, who arranged for all the people to test Alfonso's character. Alfonso wakes up again in the countryside, writes something in the book and leaves it in the tavern.

"The Saragossa Maunscript" achieved an almost mythical reputation among the cineasts—among others, M. Scorsese oversaw the restoration of its original print while it was even included in the book "1001 Movies You Must See" by Steven Schneider—but in reality, it is an overrated film with meandering narrative that seems more like ten different short films glued together than one cohesive whole. In Nolan's film "Inception", the narrative is assembled like a neverending dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream, fracturing deeper and deeper, and the same can be said of "Saragossa": its constant inclusion of flashback stories, and even flashbacks within these flashbacks, make the movie more complex—but not better. The main story about Alfonso (legendary Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski) wondering around the countryside and constantly meeting two girls who may or may not be ghosts is never as engaging as it should be. Ironically, the gigantic "de-tour" subplot that unravels in the second half of the film, and takes up almost an entire hour (!) of the "Saragossa's" 180 minutes of running time, should have been the "main meal" of the film, whereas the main story revolving around Alfonso could have been easily scrapped altogether.

This huge subplot leads to four different stories, but connects in a satisfying manner, leading to an ending with a point (unlike the underwhelming Alfonso story), and almost acts as a movie on its own, with several romantic, inspired and elegant moments: in one great little sequence, Frasquetta is sitting near the window, watching the street through the bars, until a suitor appears and asks if she dropped anything on the ground, insisting that he would cherish anything she lost as his "favorite memory", so she tears a cross hanging from her neck and throws it down—and as the suitor kneels to pick it up, he instead stands up with a bouquet of flowers in his hand, giving it to Frasquetta. She takes off the ring holding the flowers together, and puts the ring on her finger, kissing it, in a genius visual moment that says everything. It is also amusing how some of these subplot stories complete each other: for instance, during a stormy night, Toledo hears a voice claiming to be "stuck in purgatory", and later on sees the corpse of his friend, who died in a duel, and thus assumes it was the ghost of the latter. Toledo thus gives up his life and decides to live in repentance, but in the next story, this just turns out to be a misunderstanding: Lopez, a guy in love, wanted to see his beloved Inez, so he climbed up the stairs, yet Toledo just then opened his window, and Lopez fell, got stuck in a barrel, and thus said he is "stuck in a purgatory". Sadly, the remaining two hours lack the wit, energy or power to engage the viewers, since it takes way too long for the director Has to set up the story—except that the long patience of the viewers is not rewarded.

Grade:++

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad; action / fantasy, USA, 2016; D: David Ayer, S: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Leto, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Karen Fukuhara

Fearing that a superhero human could in theory kill the US President and nobody keep him in check, intelligence officer Amanda is greenlit to assemble a secret paramilitary group from convicted criminals: these include assassin Deadshot, former psychiatrist Harley Quinn, pyrokinetic Santana, Harkness, crocodile mutant Killer Croc and Weiss. They all have to cooperate or they will be killed by an explosive capsule implanted inside their body. One recruit, June Moone, is possessed by the Enchantress, a Witch who wants to take over the world, so the Suicide Squad is sent to stop her. As a reward, Amanda reduces each of the convicts' sentence by 10 years. Deadshot gets a chance to talk to his daughter again. Harley is freed from prison by the Joker.

After a wealth of superhero films at the start of the 21st century, DC Comics decided to craft something different, a sort of "Dirty Dozen" anti-superhero film, where the bad guys save the world. Unfortunately, "Suicide Squad" is a bizarre patchwork, a hectic, over-edited, flashy, rushed action film that suffers from 'autistic direction' reminiscent of those depressive Nolan copycats, stuck in a confusing storyline where it is sometimes not even clear who is doing what—or why. This is mostly obvious in the supporting character of the Joker who is reduced to just a 5-minute appearance, even though it was hinted at that he played a bigger role in the film. The only interesting character is Harley Quinn (excellent Margot Robbie) who plays the "cheerleader" of this group, and—to a lesser extent—Will Smith as Deadshot, yet all the other members are just extras who stay far behind their shadow, unable to shine in the story. Neither is it clear what were the criteria for recruiting these members: their common denominator are not superpowers (because Harley and Deadshot don't have any), and thus it is strange why ordinary people are included into a group of people with superpowers. "Suicide Squad" is dressed in a washed-out optic and a pseudo-aesthetic, yet if its perfect technical aspects are removed (editing, cinematography, make up, special effects...), the concept is revealed to be as disappointingly ridiculous as it is: the squad has to fight a Witch (!). One of the best moments comes on the street, when Harley randomly breaks a window on a store, and the Army officer asks what is wrong with them. Harley then just replies: "We're bad guys. That's what we do!" Sadly, these moments of humor, wit or life rarely ignite in the "suffocated" atmosphere of "Suicide Squad", which practically commits a cinematic suicide.

Grade:+

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Sonja and the Bull

Sonja i bik; romantic comedy, Croatia, 2012; D: Vlatka Vorkapić, S: Judita Franković, Goran Bogdan, Dejan Ačimović, Ivo Gregurević, Elvis Bošnjak, Csilla Barath-Bastaić, Barbara Prpić, Mila Elegović

Zagreb. Sonja is an animal rights activist who is collecting petitions against bull fighting. Upon hearing of this, the owner of the black bull Garonja orders his son Ante, a insurance salesman, to take a drive from Dalmatian hinterland to Zagreb to confront Sonja about her allegations. Ante arrives at Sonja's apartment and persuades her to travel with him in the car to Dalmatian hinterland for a bet: if Sonja is brave enough to approach Garonja within three meters, she can ask what she wants. Sonja wins the bet and orders all the bull fighting to stop. Back in Zagreb, Sonja and Ante fall in love, but constantly argue over her animal rights activism. When a bull fight is nevertheless held, and Garonja loses, the owner wants to slaughter him, but spares his life upon hearing that Ante and Sonja fell in love.

This "rough" and "rustical", but somehow strangely refreshing and charming comedy surprisingly became a huge hit at the Croatian box office, offering an amusing commentary on the clash between the idealistic, vegetarian animal rights activists (Sonja) and the pragmatic meat eaters (Ante). Too many of the jokes either fall flat or end up lame, yet the said romantic yin and yang reaproachment  between Sonja and Ante gives "Sonja and the Bull" an element of something better than the average Balkan comedy, advocating for their relationship as a symbolic way of finding a middle ground between their two opposite world-views. The opening joke is fun (the owner is transporting the bull Garonja in the truck, but cannot pass the Croatian-Bosnian border because the bull's papers are not valid. So he simply drives the truck a little back and simply releases the bull to cross the border on foot), as are other small details that play with animal humor (Ante's iPhone has a bull's sound ring tone; Ante jokingly asking Sonja if she ever saw a cow or a bull in person, and she admits she didn't). Likewise, the director Vlatka Vorkapic inserts two erotic sequences rarely seen in Croatian cinema: one is when Sonja and Ante wake up naked in bed, and she stands up to turn on the TV. "Sonja and the Bull" is one of those rare films where the good intentions make it so sympathetic that they surpass its flaws and routine execution, while excellent Judita Frankovic managed to achieve a breakthrough role as the title heroine.

Grade:++

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Popeye

Popeye; musical comedy, USA, 1980; D: Robert Altman, S: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul L. Smith, Paul Dooley, Richard Libertini, Ray Walston, Donald Moffat, Roberta Maxwell, Linda Hunt

Popeye the sailor arrives in a boat to a small coastal harbor town in search for his long lost father. He decides to stay at a boarding house owned by Olive Oyl, who changes her mind at the last moment and refuses to marry the brute Bluto. Popeye and Olive find a baby and adopt it. Popeye also finds his father at an old ship, but Bluto kidnapped Olive and intends to find a lost treasure that Popeye's father kept secret. At a bay, Popeye finally accepts his father's advice and eats spinach. This gives Popeye strength to chase away Bluto and beat up an angry octopus, thereby saving Olive.

It is unusual that a thought experiment in which Robert Altman directed a live-action Popeye film is something that actually happened in our dimension. Yet this 1980 adaptation of the popular comic-book and cartoon is a solid, easily watchable little flick, with a perfect casting: Shelley Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, while the big-chinned Robin Williams fits as Popeye, and even nails his idiosyncratic accent. "Popeye" works the best during the first 30 minutes: Altman (who was probably chosen after the producers thought he could show more of his comic talent akin to "M*A*S*H") has a few surprisingly well choreographed scenes with style (for instance, a piano swings from a bridge, tied to a net, but misses Popeye who accidentally ducked just in time to pick up a pipe on the floor; during the cafe fight, a sailor swings a chair at Popeye, but it gets stuck to a hanging ventilator on the ceiling); the cartoonishly exaggerated characters and set-pieces have some charm while Williams already shows his sixth sense for comic improvisation ("Your name is Olive Oil? Sounds like some sort of a lubricant...").

Unfortunately, after some 40 minutes, the movie starts faltering, failing to find new inspiration that can fill up the rest of its running time, which feels like an empty walk in the second and last third. The storyline is too episodic and inconsistent later on: there is a subplot in which Wimpy thinks that Swee'Pea can predict the outcome of horse races, and another one where there is a boxing match, yet they all seem shoehorned and without a purpose, and even worse, without a worthy payoff. While the jokes work half of the time, the forced musical numbers work zero times, which is especially palpable in Duvall singing "He's Large" and "He Needs Me" which are both cringe worthy, and, it seems, the editors were complicit in trying to shorten them as much as possible. Popeye himself somehow feels strangely removed from the events: he should be the main protagonist and catalyst of events, but is not given that much room to "loosen up". His reunion with his father feels strangely unmoving and irrelevant, as if it was not needed in the film at all. Still, Altman has his moments, and it would have been interesting to see him do more comedy films with more creative freedom.

Grade:+

Monday, August 26, 2019

Dracula

Dracula; horror, USA, 1931; D: Tod Browning, S: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan

Transylvania. Solicitor Renfield travels in a carriage to the castle of Count Dracula for a business agreement, in spite of warnings from locals in a village. Once in the castle, Renfield signs a contract leasing a real estate to Dracula. However, Dracula is a Vampire. When their ship arrives at London, all the crew is found dead, while Renfield, the only survivor, is sent to a mental asylum led by Seward. Dracula appears and starts killing people by drinking their blood, but also finds Seward's daughter Mina attractive. Dracula puts Mina under his spell and brings her to his estate, but Renfield brought Harker and Professor Van Helsing to the place. As the dawn approaches, Dracula goes to sleep in the coffin, and Van Helsing takes the chance and kills the Vampire by impaling its heart.

Rarely has a villain left such an enduring memory in the history of cinema as Count Dracula in Tod Browning's eponymous 1931 film, in which Bela Lugosi delivered a career high performance. It has been copied, imitated and spoofed for decades after its premiere, and thus it is amusing to see the original before it was "spoiled". The movie itself does not seem that fresh anymore: the first 30 minutes are excellent, conjuring up a deliciously creepy mood thanks to expressionistic cinematography, locations (the sequence where the carriage is traveling on a "mountain bridge" to Dracula's castle up on the hill), details (when a coffin opens up for the first time, and a hand emerges from it, there is a cut to a rat turning away, as if the rodent itself is disgusted by it) and Dracula's appearance itself, but once the movie switches to London, the remaining 45 minutes slowly but steadily lose its steam, faltering until it ends in an anemic anticlimax ending. The characters of Mina and Harkin are just shoehorned in the story, it seems, and their overlong dialogues dilute the suspense. "Dracula" is a classic of early horror, yet Murnau's earlier 'pirated' film "Nosferatu" seems much fresher and inventive today.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Other Guys

The Other Guys, comedy, USA, 2010; D: Adam McKay, S: Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Steve Coogan, Ray Stevenson, Rob Riggle, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson

Detectives Highsmith and Danson are the best working for the police department. However, they die in a chase, which finally gives the opportunity to Detective Allen, an accountant, and Detective Terry to get out of the office and try to solve a case on field work. They arrest millionaire Ershon for a scaffolding permit violation, yet quickly find out that he hides a much bigger affair. However, police Captain Gene orders them to drop the case, citing pressure from above. Terry and Allen refuse and continue their investigation against Ershon. They find out about his billion $ embezzlement and financial fraud, and have to fight criminals. In the end, Ershon is arrested and Terry and Allen are rehabilitated.

The director Adam McKay assembled several "broad comedies" early on in his career, all starring comedian Will Ferrell, yet, luckily, "The Other Guys" is a notch above the typical stupid comedy genre, though not that much. In this edition, McKay restrained Ferrell, not allowing him to go overboard with the latter typical grimaces, shouting or juvenile attitude, and instead gave him glasses and ordered him to play a more intellectual type, Detective Allen, which is refreshing. The movie is still an outrageous comedy at times, cramming several insane, absurd or downright batty jokes, but it also seemeed to have planted seeds for McKay's later foray into more ambitious territory with "The Big Short", since the police case here revolves around financial fraud involving embezzlement, accounting forgery and the infamous Ponzi scheme. The gags are full of surprises: for instance, in the opening sequence, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson play seemingly invincible super cops, who survive shootings, car chases and explosions without any scratch. And then, during their next assignment, they get a bit "carried away" when they chase criminals, so they simply decide to jump from a 20-story building and land in the bushes. Except that they land on the concrete. Cut to the next scene of their police funeral, in a sarcastic conclusion. Michael Keaton shows up as the police Captain Gene: in his best joke, it is revealed that Gene works a second job as a clerk in a warehouse, which is hilarious. For all the omissions and some silly or questionable solutions, McKay once again proved that he has an ace in his sleeve, at least one howlingly funny gem of a joke that is impossible not to laugh. Here, it involves the seemingly fragile, old Mama Ramos, who has to secretly transmit messages between her daughter Sheila, who is under house surveillance, and her husband, Allen, who is hiding in the bushes. It would be a shame to spoil the joke and its royally juicy laugh, but suffice to say that Mama Ramos is annoyed by transmitting their private messages, including the insane line: "She wants to walk wrong for a week... because you guys did it so hard."

Grade:++

Saturday, August 24, 2019

After Hours

After Hours; black comedy, USA, 1985, D: Martin Scorsese, S: Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, Verna Bloom, Linda Fiorentino, Teri Garr, John Heard, Thomas Chong, Cheech Marin, Catherine O'Hara, Will Patton

New York. Paul is bored with his office job in a huge building. One evening at a cafe, while reading Henry Miller's novel, he is approached by a girl, Marcy, who gives him her number, under the pretext that her friend, sculptor Kiki, is selling plaster paperweight. Later on, Paul calls her number and arrives at her apartment, but only finds Kiki there. When Marcy arrives, she acts strange and mentions her husband, prompting Paul to leave. However, since he lost his money, Paul falls into numerous misadventures that night, and is chased by a mob who mistakes him for a burglar. He hides in a basement, where an artist puts plaster around him to disguise him as a sculpture. He is stolen by two sculpture burglars, but falls out of their van on the street, right next to his job building. The cast breaks and he just walks into his office.

Numerous filmmakers figure out which genre "suits" them the best and then stick with it for the majority of their careers, and there is a reason the director Martin Scorsese avoided comedy after this film. It is a fascinating departure from the director known for gangster and crime dramas, yet, just like his previous film, "The King of Comedy", Scorsese demonstrated that he doesn't have a sense for comic timing, making the entire film seem "off". Griffin Dunne is excellent as the annoyed Paul who gets into numerous misadventures when he falls into some sort of 'Murphy's law' period after midnight —whatever step he does, everything goes wrong, and in one scene, after witnessing a random murder through the window, cynically says to himself: "I'll probably get blamed for that!"—but "After Hours" is assembled almost deliberately, it seems, as an experimental film without a goal, without a three act structure, without a character arc, where characters appear and disappear as swiftly as a merry-go-round (the second billed actress, Rosanna Arquette, for instance, plays a character who commits suicide already a third (!) into the film, whereas Teri Garr is given only five minutes of screen time as the waitress before being "removed" from the picture), leaving the film feeling ultimately too episodic, disjointed and without a meaning. The only interesting theme is the ending which makes a full circle, arguing about the futile attempt of people to do anything to get away from their grey routine, only to in the end just get back to the said routine. "After Hours" is an interesting exercise for the director, but still proved to be part of his meandering phase in the 80s until he would recover with the excellent "The Last Temptation of Christ".

Grade:++

Friday, August 23, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; drama / satire, USA / UK, 2019, D: Quentin Tarantino, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry

Hollywood, 1 9 6 9. Rick Dalton is a TV actor struggling to try to make it into film roles, but is only suggested for Italian Spaghetti-Westerns. His best friend is his stunt-double Cliff Booth. Their neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Rick gets a role of a villain in a new TV series "Lancet". In the meantime, Cliff picks up a hitchhiker hippie girl who brings him to Spahn Ranch, where dozens of girls are part of Charles Manson's commune. Cliff leaves the place with his car. Several months later, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel arrive around midnight, intending to kill Sharon Tate. However, they enter Rick's house, where Cliff kills all three of the cultist with the help of his dog. Upon hearing what happened, Jay Sebring invites Rick to Polanski's house.

Out of all of Quentin Tarantino's films, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is arguably his most misunderstood one: attacked for all the wrong reasons, from people who claimed that "Bruce Lee would never say this" or that "Sharon Tate has too little lines", through people who objected that there is too little violence in the story (the only violent scenes are at the start and ending of the film, while the entire 90% middle part is remarkably calm and measured) up to those who claimed that the movie is too long or too slow—this nostalgic essay is actually Tarantino's most humanistic film ever. Ditching the crime, thriller and revenge tropes which were his trademark, Tarantino offered a confirmation of the old saying that "each film is a product of its time": it is a sly metafilm commentary on both the transition of 'old Hollywood' into 'new Hollywood' of 1 9 6 9 and the contemporary transition of 2019 which seems to be an end of an era, where the 'modern Hollywood' is succeeded by a 'Hollywood of CGI, brands, sequels, remakes and prequels'. It is almost as if it is Tarantino's contemplation about his own place in such time of cinema, where the auteur now has to be a commercial manager.

There is an underlying sadness in protagonist Rick Dalton who thinks his best days are behind him, and who cannot adapt to the 'new Hollywood' rules. The film is very untypical for Tarantino, surprisingly relaxed, taking its time to enjoy the little details and interactions, almost as if he is doing a 'slice-of-life' film without a real goal. "Once" is filled with quirky dialogues ("What are you looking at?" - "At a dope whose jaw is about to get punched!"; "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans!"), inventive ideas (using special effects, DiCaprio is "inserted" into Steve McQueen's role in Sturges' actual film "The Great Escape"), delicious moments of details and numerous film references, whereas it also gives an excellent performance to Brad Pitt as Cliff, who hereby gave the role of a lifetime. Not all the subplots work, nor do they all connect at the end or have a point, though. Some of it falls into 'empty walk', and too many side characters make the film too episodic at times. For instance, Steve McQueen makes a cameo where he cleverly points out that Jay Sebring, Sharon's ex, is just sticking around hoping that Polanski will sooner or later goof, and that she will thus return to Sebring, but after that, McQueen never appears in the film again. Several sequences also lead nowhere. One in particular has a great, mysterious set-up, where Cliff insists at seeing the owner of the Spahn Ranch, even though all the girls are trying to stop him from entering the shack: one expects a trap or a huge reveal, but it just ends without any particular point. However, the 'Mandela effect' twist ending is brilliant, being both respectful towards Sharon and providing 'out-of-this-world' justice at the same time, taking the power away from the Manson murderers and giving it to the victims—this ending breaks the bleak reality, and thus suggests that hope can live on in movies, since Sharon is the symbol for the spirit of "classic Hollywood" which is indestructible and may stop its own death.

Grade:+++

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Accountant

The Accountant; drama / thriller, USA, 2016; D: Gavin O'Connor, S: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, J. K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

As a kid, Chris Wolff's peculiar behavior has been diagnosed as autism. Even though his mother abandoned the family, Chris' dad, a military official, teaches him and Chris' brother Braxton, how to fight against bullies. Decades later, Chris works as an accountant, since he can trace the most undetectable irregularities from a mass of data in financial records. He is hired by Living Robotics to do an audit of the company, and finds that 61 million $ disappeared from the records. He also makes friends with an employee, Dana. The CEO of the company, Chilton, is forced to commit suicide by an assassin, while the other Head of the company, Lamar, hires the said assassin to kill Chris and Dana to hide the embezzlement. Treasury official Ray is also searching for Chris, who did an audit for criminal enterprises. Chris is a master fighter, though, and manages to kill dozens of assassins, until he finds out the main one is actually his brother, Braxton. The two brothers reconcile and kill Lamar.

One of the biggest surprises in Ben Affleck's career was this daringly original and unusual film about the "distant genius-outsider" sub-genre by director Gavin O'Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque which captivates right from the start and keeps the viewers engaged until the end. Unlike his other roles, where he played dashing beaus, Affleck is here cast deliciously against type as the autistic Chris who turns his adversity into advantage: his obsession with finding impossibly hidden details in a mass of data is used to work in the audit, demonstrated in the fantastic sequence where nobody can trace the irregularity in the financial records of a company, until Chris is brought in—as a fish in its element, he reads 12 years of financial books of the said company, prepares six black and six red markers, and then spends a long time writing down the figures on a giant blackboard and even on the glass of the office. Nobody could find the error, but he is able to find where the money disappeared and isolate the source. It is a mini-bravura sequence. The film works better in this first half than in the second, where it switches to an action film, turning Chris into a 'Rambo-like' fighter who can defeat and eliminate dozens of assassins trying to kill him. It's as if "The Accountant" did not trust itself that this drama concept could keep the viewers attention, and thus decided to add this action segment to try to appeal to the mass audience, which is a pity. The twist ending is interesting, and the film has some lines of wisdom (such as when Ray says: "I spent my whole life only recognizing my lucky breaks after they were gone"). The story is a tad too overcrammed with a subplot too much, yet it rightfully enjoys cult status for its unusual take on self-improvement in the theme of an outsider who refuses to become a victim and instead aims to lead a normal life. Anna Kendrick also has an excellent little role as Chris' friend, the equally 'geeky' Dana.

Grade:++

Friday, August 16, 2019

Written on the Wind

Written on the Wind; drama, USA, 1956; D: Douglas Sirk, S: Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith, Grant Williams

New York. Kyle, an alcoholic millionaire whose father Jasper is a Texas oil tycoon, meets secretary Lucy in a bar, who was there with Mitch, Kyle's friend. Spontaneously, Kyle invites her to his private plane and flies her off to Miami. Even though she is reluctant at first, Lucy eventually marries Kyle. Jasper tries to persuade Mitch to marry Jasper's daughter, Marylee, but Mitch is secretly in love with Lucy. Kyle is devastated when the doctor tells him he might never have children due to low fertility. Marylee is arrested for massively picking up men on the street, which devastates Jasper who dies. When Lucy reveals she is pregnant, Kyle incorrectly assumes she cheated on him with Mitch. Kyle takes a gun to shoot Mitch, though in the struggle with Marylee shoots himself.

The director Douglas Sirk always walked on a thin line between a soap opera and an art film, which is why he is today met with mixed reaction, depending on the taste of the each viewer. One of his most famous films, "Written on the Wind", is a lush and unapologetically thoroughbred melodrama— sometimes even too much for its own good—combining themes of alcoholism, forbidden love triangle, jealousy and torment hidden behind a perfect facade of the rich, yet it has enough virtues to still seem relevant. Sirk wrote one of the best roles in the career of actor Robert Stack, who plays the alcoholic Kyle with a lot of emotion: he acts tough and extroverted, trying to impress Lucy by flying her to Miami in his private plane, but then reveals his fragile side and simply honestly asks her for a relationship in a genuine monologue later on: "I think seriously about all the things I used to laugh at. Like having a wife, and a home, kids." Stack was always a charismatic actor, and when given enough room, he could show how versatile he is. Surprisingly, the main protagonist Mitch (Rock Hudson) fares much less, since his role in paler in comparison. He is secretly in love with Lucy, yet the movie is never as inspired in his presence as it is during Kyle's screen time. Dorothy Malone plays an interesting character, Kyle's nymphomaniac sister Marylee: one guy who met her on the street is brought to Jasper and admits that "nobody picks her up, it's always the other way around". However, even her part is not that integral to the mail love triangle involving Kyle, Lucy and Mitch, and she thus sometimes feels like a "fifth wheel". The film loses a part of its sophistication and subtlety later on, revealing too much of the banal melodrama, yet still serves as an subversive commentary on the society which was not that perfect as it always seemed.

Grade:++

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Hitcher

The Hitcher; thriller road movie, USA, 1986; D: Robert Harmon, S: C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn

During one night of his long car trip, Jim Halsey picks up a hitcher along the road, John Ryder. But Ryder turns out to be a psychopathic serial killer, and Halsey barely manages to throw him out of his car. However, along his trip, Halsey keeps encountering Ryder, and spots a family massacred in their car. Halsey stops at a diner, makes friends with the waitress Nash and calls the police. However, the police arrest Halsey, since Ryder framed him for the murders. When Halsey wakes up in the jail, the notices that everyone in the entire police station was killed by Ryder. Halsey flees and teams up with Nash. They stop at a motel, but Ryder finds them and kills Nash by pulling her in two parts with a running truck. Ryder is arrested, but flees. Halsey finds and shoots him.

There seems to have been a discord in "The Hitcher" between what the screenwriter Eric Red intended to make and what common sense should have incited him to actually make. Red had a good basic idea about a hitcher who persecutes a young driver, imbibing it with some 'Hitchcockian' moments of helplessness: for instance, after picking him up in the car, the hitcher hits Halsey's right leg and thus also hits the gas pedal, in order for them to quickly pass one abandoned car on the road, until the hitcher later on admits he killed the driver in the said car. In another, Halsey spots the hitcher in the back seat of a family car, and thus wants to alert the family to kick the hitcher out of their vehicle, but to no avail. The aesthetic cinematography also helps at building up the mood. Unfortunately, instead of the entire film following this direction, it quickly sails into such illogical waters that it can make the viewers' dizzy. It namely introduces a subplot where the hero Halsey is framed for all of the murders, as he becomes an epic scapegoat, giving the hitcher practically supernatural powers. When Halsey calls the police, they actually arrest him—even though it makes no sense. It turns out that the hitcher stole Halsey's ID and placed it among the corpses, but that was never previously established in the film, not in a single frame.

Halsey later wakes up inside the jail, pushes the door—and finds out it is unlocked. As he walks inside the police station, he finds all the officers massacred. Several problems right there. How could it be that he didn't hear anything while sleeping in his jail cell? Was he drugged by the hitcher? Why did the back-up police show up right then when he woke up? Later on, upon spotting two police officers, Halsey threatens them with a gun and forces them to enter the police car and drive him inside. Would an innocent man react this way? And just as Halsey was about to give himself in, the hitcher shows up out of nowhere, in a van, and shoots the two police officers, thus framing Halsey even further. Not even "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" had such an impossible timing at being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The hitcher shows up everywhere, anytime, to such an extent that this becomes an elision of common sense. Two or three such lucky entrances could have been tolerated, but to show up like this always at the right time and at the right spot, that is ridiculous. When Halsey and the girl, Nash, are in the motel, far away from the places of the events, the hitcher shows up in the middle of their room. How? If Red had any sense for realism, he would have either tried to explain this or write something else. Take for instance Carpenter's "The Ward": the serial killer inexplicably appears always near the heroine, until it is revealed he is just a split personality of the heroine herself. If it would have been revealed that the hitcher was just a split personality of Halsey who is suffering from Schizophrenia, this could have helped in amending these flaws. During its premiere, "The Hitcher" was attacked by the critics for all the wrong reasons. It is not that "The Hitcher" is too violent. It simply that it is too implausible.

Grade:+

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The High Sun

Zvizdan; drama, Croatia / Serbia / Slovenia, 2015; D: Dalibor Matanić, S: Goran Marković, Tihana Lazović, Nives Ivanković, Dado Ćosić, Stipe Radoja, Trpimir Jurkić

Three stories set in the Dalmatian hinterland. 1 9 9 1: Croat Ivan is in love with Serb girl Jelena, but Slobodan Milosevic is supporting the creation of the pseudo-state Republic of Serbian Krajina in the area. As the war is imminent, Jelena is abducted by her brother, a paramilitary, and brought to their village in a car. Ivan wants to see Jelena, but her brother kills him... 2 0 0 1: Nataša and her mother, Serb refugees, are returning, and Croat handyman Ante is helping them assemble the abandoned house, but Nataša hates him because her brother was killed by the Croatian army. Passion prevails and they have sex, but Nataša does not show interest in him staying, so he leaves... 2 0 1 1: Luka visits the home of his ex-girlfriend, Marija, with whom he has a child, but whom he abandoned on the insistence of his family because she is a Serb. He has a chance to have sex with another girl at a party, but declines and returns to Marija's home. She exits the house, sits next to him and then gets back inside, but leaves the door open.

Similarly as Mančevski's "Before the Rain", director Dalibor Matanic assembled "The High Sun" as a triple anthology of stories which all have the similar theme of ethnic conflict, but decided to set them all in a Romeo & Juliet concept and have the two actors—Tihana Lazovic and Goran Markovic—each play three different couples in the three time periods of the film. Matanic crafts the three love stories as a Schrödinger's cat experiment, contemplating if the Croat-Serb love couple could have had a hypothetical chance of succeeding if it were not set in the middle of the Croatian War, but during another time era, and thus "resets" Lazovic's and Markovic' romance to square one in the next decade, and the decade after that. Matanic, usually known for grotesque ideas, is untypically serious and honest in this edition, trying to establish a "raw" meditation on tolerance, though his dialogues are too routine and schematic at times, lacking more inspiration. The first story, set during the war, takes too long until it gets going, but has a strong point in the sequence where Ivan is playing on his trumpet nonstop, trying to persuade the Serb paramilitary to let him pass a checkpoint to see his girlfriend. The second story is equally as good, revolving around Serb refugees trying to integrate back, and culminates in a very passionate moment: Nataša is lying on her back, with her feet going up and down on the wall, until she stands up, kisses Ante and has sex with him in the house. The third story is the weakest, as if it lacks that raison d'etre since it has no real threat or obstacle for the Croat-Serb couple, though one can argue that Matanic was contemplating that the couple was interrupted during the war, and then post-war era, but that they do not have any more (external) excuses for failing in the third story anymore, and that all is now left on them. Despite omissions, the film has more to it than the typical social issue bait.

Grade:++

Monday, August 12, 2019

Split Second

Split Second; science-fiction horror crime thriller, USA / UK, 1992; D: Tony Maylam, Ian Sharp, S: Rutger Hauer, Alastair Neil Duncan, Kim Cattrall, Alun Armstrong, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael J. Pollard

London in the future is semi-flooded due to global warming. Cynical police Detective Harley Stone is searching for a bizarre serial killer who rips the hearts of his victims. Harley is annoyed that he is assigned to a new partner, Durkin. One day, someone delivers suitcase with a ripped hearts inside at the police precinct. Harley had an affair with Michelle, the girlfriend of his ex-partner Foster, who was also liquidated by the serial killer, but Harley broke up with Michelle. Harley and Durkin find the serial killer in an underground subway, and find out it is a demon. Harley rips the demon's heart out and shoots it.

A strangely underrated flick, this independent syncretism of "Sam Spade meets the Predator" works thanks to a good futuristic mood established thanks to a few aesthetically photographed images, fast pace and an actually interesting protagonist, the cynical Detective Harley, played by the excellent Rutger Hauer. Harley in "Split Second" acts almost as if he is in his own reality—upon trying to enter a night bar, a dog barks at him, but Harley just holds his badge in front of the canine and says: "Police, dickhead!" His new police partner, who is annoyingly "by-the-book", Durkin, compulsively cleans the lights on their police car, but Harley then just sticks his bubble gum on the glass. In another amusing moment, the police officers are speculating at who the mysterious cannibalistic serial killer might be, and Harley adds: "The only thing we know for sure is that he is not a vegetarian!" These auto-ironic moments give "Split Second" charm and wit, yet it still has flaws. For instance, why is the film set in the future? Why not in the present? The global flooding subplot leads nowhere. The viewers probably assumed that the demon serial killer might be connected to some sort of ecological forces taking revenge on humankind, yet that potential was unused. Harley's connection to the demon is also left unexplained, as is the creature's sole existence, which shows that the script was rewritten as they went along, and was left without a final point that connects all these threads. Despite its omissions and shortcoming, "Split Second" is still a much better film than its forgotten reputation hints at.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 11, 2019

The 300 Spartans

The 300 Spartans; adventure, USA, 1962; D: Rudolph Maté, S: Richard Egan, Diane Baker, Barry Coe, David Farrar, Ralph Richardson 

In 480 BC, king Xerxes pursues Persian irredentism and invades Greek lands with the aim of their annexation. Unfortunately, the Greek cities are disunited, so in Corinth politician Themistocles urges everyone to unite to stop the invasion. Spartan king Leonidas is chosen to lead the army against the Persians. When the council decides to wait until a religious festival is over, Leonidas refuses to waste time and sends his personal guard to the narrow pass at Thermopylae, to ambush the Persian army. Clinched between a mountain and the sea, the Persian army loses in every attempt at charging against the Spartans. When he is rejected by girl Ellas, shepherd Ephialtes goes to Xerxes' camp and gives him information about a secret route behind the mountain. Hearing the Persian army is about to attack from their rear, Leonidas orders other Greek soldiers to retreat. Leonidas and 300 Spartans stay behind and die trying to stop the Persian army.

The incredible 'David vs. Goliath' story of the 300 Spartans during the battle of Thermopylae was subsequently adapted into several media, and one of them was this film by Rudolph Mate, which is today actually better remembered for inspiring Frank Miller to write the famed comic-book "300". The director Mate crafted a solid, albeit somewhat standard and routine history film, yet the core of the story—integrity, honor, self-sacrifice, the underdog keeping his stand against a bigger enemy—still has enough pathos that it is able to engage the viewers even in the most dry execution. Richard Egan delivers a passionate, energetic performance as king Leonidas, heightening the drama: when the Persian envoy warns that king Xerxes has so many soldiers that, when they shoot, their arrows will "darken the Sun", Leonidas is quick to reply: "Then we will fight in the shade!" It takes about an hour until the clashes at Thermopylae start, and they have interesting moments. In one of them, the Persian cavalry charges, but the Spartans simply lie on the ground and cover themselves with shields. Once the horses have crossed over, the Spartans stand up again, and attack the Persian cavalry both from the front and the back. In another moment, they let the Persian elite guard arrive close, but one Spartan then puts hay on fire behind them, effectively blocking them from retreat and reinforcements. While "The 300 Spartans" could have used more ingenuity, they still have enough enjoyment value.

Grade:++

Bride of the Monster

Bride of the Monster; horror, USA, 1955; D: Edward D. Wood Jr., S: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy, Loretta King, Harvey B. Dunn, Paul Marco

Two people seek refuge from a thunderstorm at a mansion on Lake Marsh, but one is killed by a giant octopus from a lake, while the other is kidnapped by Lobo, a brute mute who works for a crazy scientist, Dr. Vornoff, who uses the guest for experimentation in the lab. Vornoff intends to create a new race of superhumans to take over the world. Since these mysterious disappearances of people keep piling up, reporter Janet decides to investigate herself, despite the objection of Lt. Craig. She also gets kidnapped by Lobo in the swamp and brought to the mansion. Vornoff wants to use her for the experiment, but Lobo rebels and releases Janet. In the ensuing chaos, the police shows up and chase Vornoff outside. Vornoff falls off a cliff and is killed by his octopus.

Out of many weird films by Edward D. Wood Jr., "Bride of the Monster" is arguably his most closest to being actually semi-competent: it owes that to a solid budget, building off the popular theme of a threat of misuse of science during the atomic age as well as Bela Lugosi's effective performance as the mad scientist Vornoff, whose enthusiasm may stem from identifying with the outsider character who was rejected by his country and thus has to live in exile, as identified in Burton's "Ed Wood". However, "Bride" is still only a lukewarm film with several flaws. At best, Wood manages to insert a few moments of humor, such as the scene where the police chief pours a glass of water in his office, only to give it to his parrot that drinks it. At worst, Wood is unable to conjure up real suspense due to too many naive, too serious or trashy elements: for instance, in the swamp, one character actually draws a gun and shoots continuously at an alligator approaching, instead of simply running away. The alligator and the octopus are isolated in their own world, since they are just stock footage from a different film, and thus one cannot quite buy into the idea that they are a threat. This is especially obvious in the octopus case: when it is not a real octopus swimming in the sea, a rubber puppet just lies in the puddle, while some guy just (unconvincingly) pretends its tentacles are encompassing him. Wrestler Tor Johnson is also solid as the mute Lobo. Overall, "Bride" is a guilty pleasure, if one simply does not expect too much from it.

Grade:+

Saturday, August 10, 2019

She's Funny That Way

She's Funny That Way; comedy, USA, 2014; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston

Now famous actress Izzy gives an interview about how she ended up this way: she was a call girl, hired by theatre director Albertson who invited her for dinner. They landed in bed and he then persuaded her to quit the job and do what she wants. Izzy decided she wanted to be an actress and went to audition for a play about a call girl, directed precisely by Albertson. Izzy quitting her job upset a judge, who then went to see  psychotherapist Jane. Albertson did not want to cast Izzy, among others because he is married, but the playwright Joshua and actor Seth insisted she had to play the part. The play was a hit and Izzy became a famous actress.

After a 13 year pause, director Peter Bogdanovich returned with this film, yet his inspired touch from the 70s did not return with him, as well. "She's Funny That Way" is intended as a modern homage to classic screwball comedies of the 30s, except that it is strangely without energy, inspiration or wit of the latter. There are only two good jokes in the film: in the first, Izzy, the call girl who auditions for a play about a call girl, gives a smashing audition, and reads the text to her friend, about how she has "bad", "very bad" and "very, very bad news" (that she is a call girl; that she accidentally became pregnant; and that she is pregnant with the boyfriend of her best friend); the other is when Albertson and a woman argue while traveling in a taxi, but then the cab driver just suddenly stops the car and walks away. Sadly, there is little else to see in the story. It is hectic, tries a lot of crazy subplots, yet none of them manage to ignite or engage. Not even the random cameo by Quentin Tarantino at the end manages to lift it up a notch. Ironically, despite the fact that her role is so underwritten and scarce, the leading actress Imogene Poots is unexpectedly excellent, as if she manages to fake charm even during many scenes of empty walk, saving the film. An interesting footnote is Bogdanovich's shout to Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown" through the "Squirrels to the Nuts" line.

Grade:+

Monday, August 5, 2019

Funny Girl

Funny Girl; drama / comedy / romance / musical, USA, 1969; D: William Wyler, S: Barbra Streisand, Omar Sharif, Walter Pidgeon, Kay Medford, Anne Francis, Lee Allen, Mae Questel

New York, early 20th century. Fanny Brice (born 1891), a young Jewish woman, is trying to make it on the stage, but the producers do not like her. When she gets a chance to perform among other girls on roller skates in a play, the audience loves her humor. Fanny catches the attention of producer Ziegfeld and becomes a star in his plays, while she also falls in love with Nick Arnstein, a poker gambler, but he is often away. After a lot of back and forth, Fanny and Nick are married and get a baby. But while Fanny becomes a bigger star in show business, Nick gets into financial troubles and succumbs to a phony bond deal. His jail sentence marks the end of their relationship.

From today's perspective, it seems strange that the producers originally intended someone else to play the leading role in "Funny Girl", since the casting of Barbra Streisand is simply perfect. This biopic about Fanny Brice is an example where one character, the main protagonist, is the entire film, and Streisand takes this burden and rises to the occasion by performing a whole plethora of emotions, from sadness, tragedy, romance up to sheer comedy, since she is not afraid of being sometimes completely silly. The 10 musical sequences are redundant are could have been cut (the low point is when Omar Sharif sings in one of them); the overlong running time of 150 minutes sometimes drags whereas the second half turns more towards typical melodrama, demonstrating that the director William Wyler was not always inspired in this edition. Yet Streisand is such a highlight, being both genuinely fragile and winningly funny at the same time, that she gives "Funny Girl" a specific comic taste, sometimes with pure stylistic moves. Already the opening act gives her character sympathy: Fanny is rehearsing on stage with other girls, until the boss, Mr. Keeney, interrupts them and yells: "Hey, you with the skinny legs!" Upon hearing that, the oblivious Fanny looks around at the legs of other girls, hoping he didn't mean her, but he did: "Yes, you, with the bloomers!"

Fanny's first break on stage, where she played a part even though she could not roller skate, was a surprise hit with the audience, and this gives her some credit with Keeney, who adamantly refused to have her in his show. Later on stage, when they talk about him hiring her, he says he will "think about it", turns around — while Fanny makes an "angry claw" gesture with her hand behind his back. These kind of little details and bits that Streisand does give her character wit and energy. Fanny is such a fascinating character, not only because of her weird "comic outbursts" (one exchange between Nick, whom she secretly loves, and herself is insane: "I'm from Kentucky. I breed horses." - "Can't they do it themselves?!") but also because of her wild personality that was difficult to restrain for a performance. One sequence in particular has a great payoff: she refuses to sing the final song "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" on the stage, fearing it is corny and unnecessarily self-congratulatory for her not so typical physical looks, but Mr. Ziegfeld insists that she must do it. Fanny reluctantly agrees — but then performs the song wearing a giant pillow under her wedding dress, as if she is pregnant, turning this romantic song into a pure comedy that has the audience laughing until the roof, much to Ziegfeld's shock. As with many such biopics, this one is also a secret story of "rise and fall" of an individual, with sometimes rather underdeveloped plot points, yet it is a rare example of a star being far better and more appealing to look at than the sole film itself.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Ghostbusters of New Hampshire: Spilled Milk

The Ghostbusters of New Hampshire: Spilled Milk; fantasy comedy short, USA, 2010; D: Kevin J. James, S: Kevin J. James, Jonathan St. Pierre, Pat Harmon, Jim Boucher, Derek Dandurand, Jillian Lee Aldrich

A skeleton ghost scares a girl working in a store, but the New Hampshire Ghostbusters show up, fire the lasers from their proton packs - and blow up the gas station. As a disciplinary measure, a man shows up called Sketch who tries to drill the five members of the office into shape. However, Sketch later admits he only pretended to be their superior because of a bet. A new assignment brings the Ghostbusters to another store where they meet the skeleton ghost again. Even though another ghost shows up, the Ghostbusters manage to capture them.

One of the better fan films based on the "Ghostbusters", this amusing comedy managed to fill out the potentials of the concept, considering its 16 minute running time. A lot of kudos should be given to the charming script and performance by director and actor Kevin J. James. In one great joke, Sketch, an inspector, arrives at the office of the New Hampshire Ghostbusters after they blew up a gas station, and orders them to stand in a line. He then points at the chubby Derek and orders him: "Yeah, you, suck in the gut!" Derek just responds: "It's sucked, Sir." James steps in to try to reason with him, saying: "Let's be reasonable here. We all messed up last night! That much we can agree on", but is interrupted by one of the Ghostbusters, Jim, who protests: "I wasn't there!" These and similar lines manage to conjure up the tone and "comic frequency" of the original film. The laser proton packs are well done, though the visual effects of the skeleton ghost are kind of sketchy, consisting just out of a mask and drapes. The enthusiasm and energy of the "Spilled Milk", combined with even one nice sight gag (the "no gluten" logo rip-off), resulted in a film that is worthy of fitting the shoes of its ideal it was inspired by.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Last Movie

The Last Movie; experimental film, USA / Peru, 1971; D: Dennis Hopper, S: Dennis Hopper, Stella Garcia, Don Gordon, Julie Adams, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, Samuel Fuller, Henry Jaglom, Michelle Phillips, Kris Kristofferson, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, Tomas Milian

Kansas is a stunt man working on a western movie directed by Samuel Fuller, filmed somewhere in a village in Peru. A man dies during a stunt. After the end of filming, Kansas stays in Peru and starts a relationship with a local woman, Maria. He meets several other Americans in pubs, and once goes to a brothel. Maria becomes more demanding and wants expensive gifts. Kansas' friend has a goldmine in his possession, but the idea to dig for gold is abandoned since its mining is too remote and too expensive. The locals starts imitating the filming, forcing Kansas to star in their game, but they demand real violence. Kansas is wounded and falls on the ground, but then stands up again.

"The Last Movie" demonstrates how the experimental disjointed anti-narration, adopted in the 60s during the counterculture movement and introduced by Godard and others, seems terribly dated today. It wanted to go against the mainstream, to be "art in spite", to be modern, yet just feels confusing, chaotic and hard to follow. It also takes the viewers out of the film and disrupts their engagement: in one scene, for instance, Kansas falls wounded on the ground, but then just looks into the camera and stands up, breaking any illusion of potential suspense. Following his success with "Easy Rider", Dennis Hopper directed this peculiar film without a plot, which has some interesting moments: for instance, the title "A Dennis Hopper Film" appears only some 10 minutes into the film, while the title "The Last Movie" appears even 10 minutes later after that. In another amusing meta-film moment, Kansas and Maria are driving in a car, while all of a sudden a black screen appears for a second with the title saying "Scene missing". More of such refreshing interventions would have been welcomed, since a fair share of the film's point seems lost. There are great shot compositions in "The Last Movie", though they are, for the aforementioned reasons, "detached" from the storyline. Hopper's unusual worldview is presented through a few quirky ideas (Kansas and Maria are naked under the waterfall, having sex, while a priest accidentally walks kids for a sight-seeing tour of nature above, and thus rushes the kids to move on before they can look down), incorporating themes of an outsider lost in an isolated place, a one who can never find closure, whereas he also adds a sly critique of Hollywood in the best subplot, the one where locals were so fascinated by the film crew making a western film, that they themselves spontaneously start to imitate them, even using a fake "camera" and" microphone" made out of sticks (!), but want to use real violence for their filming game, which hints at the negative effects of violence shown on film.

Grade:++

Monday, July 29, 2019

Molly's Game

Molly's Game; drama, USA / Canada / China, 2017; D: Aaron Sorkin, S: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Kevin Costner, Angela Gots, Natalie Krill, J. C. MacKenzie, Graham Greene

Molly Bloom was persuaded by her overbearing father, Larry, to ski at the Olympic games, but slipped, fell and hurt herself badly. Assuming that her father loves her two brothers more, Molly moves to Los Angeles. Instead of applying to a law school, she finds a job as a waitress, and then as a personal assistant to Dean, a real estate developer, who holds private poker games in a club. Seeing that many rich people are into poker, including Hollywood star X, Molly one day gets fired, but invites them all to a new location, her own. She earns a lot of money since they bet hundreds of thousands of dollars. When X ousts her, Molly moves to New York and finds new players, but they also include Mafia members. When she refuses a racket, a mobster enters her apartment, beats and robs her. She is finally indicted by the FBI and seeks lawyer Jaffey for help. She meets her dad again and they make up. She is convicted to a mild sentence.

This feature length debut film of the critically recognized writer Aaron Sorkin is a proportionally well made biopic, filled with densely stuffed, long dialogues, which makes it twice as talkative than other two hour films, whereas Jessica Chastain is excellent in the leading role, who is both cynical and vulnerable as the title heroine, the "poker game Queen". However, one cannot escape one observation: all these ostensibly "scandalous" underground poker games are never as interesting as Molly's intimate relationship with her family, especially her father. The poker game segment copies the dynamic, explosive style of Scorsese's "Goodfellas", yet rarely something interesting happens there, except that Molly exploits all the compulsive game addicts. A few good dialogues appear, such as when Molly narrates that an advisor set up to make the "Cinemaxx version of herself" or when she has a strong argument with her lawyer Jaffey since she is willing to plead guilty in order to at least save her name, the only thing she has left. But the real highlight of "Molly's game" is the subplot involving her relationship with her father. There is this wonderful little sequence where Molly exits an FBI hearing during a break and randomly goes to skate on ice in the park. At one point, she starts charging, as if she remembers her youth when she was skiing, and all of a sudden she hears her father's voice, telling her to "bend her knees" while skating. They later sit on a bench and have a genuine, honest father-daughter talk. He, a psychologist, tells Molly he is going to do what all the patients beg him to do: to condense a lifetime therapy in three minutes, by just giving her the answers. The way he talks to Molly—demonstrating that she is so pessimistic and negative because she sensed he was cheating on her mother, but was still sucessful—is magical, and this whole sequence is either a slice of perfection of very close to perfection. One almost wonders if the entire film should have been just about that, and ditch the whole poker main plot.

Grade:++