Thursday, May 30, 2019

Mother Joan of the Angels

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

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

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


Monday, May 27, 2019

Pillow Talk

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones (Season 8)

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ordinary People

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 12, 2019


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

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

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


Saturday, May 11, 2019

Werckmeister Harmonies

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

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

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


Friday, May 3, 2019


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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Step Brothers

Step Brothers; comedy, USA, 2008; D: Adam McKay, S: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Richard Jenkins, Mary Steenburgen, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn

The unemployed Brennan (39) lives with his single mother, Nancy. In another part of the city, the unemployed Dale (40) lives with his single father, Dr. Robert. When Nancy and Robert meet, they fall in love and move in the same house. Consequently, now as one family, Dale now has to share his home with Brennan. At first they argue, but then join forces since they both hate Brennan's successful brother, Derek. Moreover, Derek's wife Alice starts an affair with Dale. Robert and Nancy plan to cruise the world with their yacht, but once Dale and Brennan accidentally wreck it while trying to make a music video, the couple files for divorce. Brennan and Dale find stale jobs and help Robert and Nancy make up. Robert then persuades them to open up a karaoke bar.

When watching some of director Adam McKay's earlier comedies, such as "Step Brothers", one realizes the creative quantum leap he made later on with "The Big Short" and "Vice". "Step Brothers" is the darnedest thing: it is so funny, and yet so stupid and primitive. The movie is wrecked with typical "bad comedy" cliches, since its vulgar, misguided ideas kill it (farting; licking of dog feces; Brennan unzips his pants to play the drums with his testicles; throwing up...), as if the authors had no self-confidence that their concept would hold the viewers' attention on its own merit. Will Ferrell's juvenile performance already signalled his dated comic skills, but he hasn't got much to work with. The movie is utterly demented, obnoxious and batty, but precisely because of that tone it is almost guaranteed that the viewers will sooner or later burst into laughter from all these deranged combinations: in one of the most howlingly funny sequences, Brennan shouts at Dale's father up the stairs: " sit down and you write Dale and Brennan a check for $10,000. Or I'm gonna shove one of those fake hearing devices so far up your ass... you can hear the sound of your small intestine as it produces shit!" And then Dale's angry father descends down the stairs and beats him up. In another hilarious moment, Brennan and Dale are sleeping in the same bedroom, and then Dale starts a conversations while whispering ("Hey, you awake?" - "... Yeah". - "I just want you to know I hate you." - "Well that's fine. Cause guess what? I hate you too. And this house sucks ass." - "Well the only reason you're living here, is because me and my dad decided that your mom was really hot, and maybe we should just both bang her, and we'll put up with the retard in the meantime"). There are some isolated moments of genuine laughs, but they are wrapped up in a very narrow, juvenile film. There is a difference between the comedies of B. Keaton, Chaplin, B. Murray and "Step Brothers". The former appealed towards the highest in humanity. The latter appealed towards the lowest in humanity.