Saturday, September 28, 2019

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

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

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

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

Grade:+++

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Wire (Season 2)

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




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

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

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

Grade:+++

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Bicentennial Man

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

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

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

Grade:++

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

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

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

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

Grade:+

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Big Sick

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

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

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

Grade:++

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:++