Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Ides of March

The Ides of March; drama, USA, 2011; D: George Clooney, S: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright

Governor Mike Morris is fighting to get a nomination as a potential Presidential Candidate during the Democratic Party primary. Stephen (30) is his junior, while Paul is his senior campaign manager. One day, Stephen gets a phone call from Duffy, the campaign manager of Pullman, the rival of Morris. Duffy offers Stephen a job if he joins his side, but Stephen refuses. Stephen starts a relationship with Molly, a young intern, but is shocked when discovering that she had an affair with Morris and now wants to get an abortion. Morris refuses to accept the endorsement of Thompson, feeling the latter is incompatible with his views. When Molly dies from drug overdose upon hearing that Stephen is threatening to sabotage Morris' campaign with his affair, Stephen blackmails Morris into accepting Thompson's endorsement and securing a nomination.

George Clooney's 4th feature length film as a director, "The Ides of March" fulfils the author's fascination with politics, delivering a bitter story about disillusionment with any ideals. Surprisingly, even though liberal himself, Clooney depicted the dirty behind-the-scenes ploys of the Democratic Party, not the Republicans, making the whole topic even more challenging. The movie is somehow lukewarm and never really goes beyond the good grade, except for some isolated moments of greatness thanks to strong performances by the actors. In one of these moments, Stephen, the junior campaign manager for Democratic candidate Morris, meets his rival, Duffy, who tries to persuade him to switch sides. Stephen counters that this is "something Republicans would do", but Duffy is quick to respond: "You're right, this is exactly what the Republicans do, and it's about time we learned from them. They're meaner, tougher and more disciplined than we are. I've been in this business for twenty five years and I've seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn't get down in the mud with the elephants!" While this is surprising, nothing of this has such a revelatory punch as it was expected. It is kind of standard, with a limited creativity. Stephen's character arc goes a fine path, depicting him change from an idealistic man who believes in his candidate to a blackmailing liar who only wants to win the race, realizing that in politics, even people with the most noble intentions have to compromise to achieve their goal. The most intense moment is actually non-political: when the journalist, Ida, who snitched him in her story, is not allowed to go beyond a backstage pass blocked by bodyguards, Stephen tells her: "You are my best friend". That Stephen came the closest to a friendship with someone who just tolerates him and barely sees him is already indicative of what kind of world of schemes he got himself into.

Grade:++

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral; romantic comedy, UK, 1994; D: Mike Newell, S: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, John Hannah

Charles wakes up in his bed, realizing he is late for a wedding where he is invited to be the best man. He forgets the ring, but the wedding still succeeds. Charles' friends Fiona, Tom and Gareth are also there, yet what intruiges him the most is one of the guests, American Carrie, with whom he spends the night with. The 2nd wedding: Charles meets Carrie again, but she is now engaged. He still lands with her in bed. 3rd wedding: Carrie marries Scottsman Hamish, while Charles can only mourn for himself. A funeral: Gareth died, and among the guests, Charles again meets Carrie. 4th wedding: Charles is about to get married himself, to Henrietta, but meets Carrie who divorced Hamish. Charles breaks up the wedding and starts a relationship with Carrie.

"Four Weddings and a Funeral" became an extraordinarily successful British film which works thanks to its charm and wit, which manage to lift it up from some occasional convulsive or clumsy moment, and a major kudos should be given to the wonderful performance by Hugh Grant, who delivered one of his finest roles. The simple, yet effective storyline is the most interesting part, creating a time frame consisting exclusively within only five events (hence the four weddings and a funeral from the title) through which the two protagonists, Charles and Carrie, meet while attending them as guests, and this "restrictive" narration gives their interaction a certain preciousness, since it is rare and can only exist within these five parameters. The script by Richard Curtis has inspiration: in one example, Matthew holds a speech at the funeral for the deceased Gareth, which masterfully transitions from funny and ridiculous ("...his recipe for "Duck à la Banana" fortunately goes with him to his grave...") to surprisingly emotional and magical, all within one sequence ("He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest; My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song. I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood, For nothing now can ever come to any good."). Even though this is a romantic comedy, the director Mike Newell even allowed it to include some goofy and ludicrous jokes (such as the closing credits which reveal that Fiona got married to Prince Charles). Andie MacDowell is both sweet and funny as the American girl Carrie, creating chemistry with Grant, and contributing to the positive impression of the overall film.

Grade:+++

Monday, February 3, 2020

Au revoir les enfants

Au revoir les enfants; drama, France / Germany / Italy, 1987; D: Louis Malle, S: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Philippe Morier-Genoud, François Négret, Francine Racette




France, World War II. Julien Quentin (12) is unwillingly sent by his mother to a rural Catholic boarding school for boys. The daily routine is underwhelming: they study math, until they are interrupted by air raids and have to hide in a bunker; food rations are scarce, whereas the rich kids exchange their food for cigarettes thanks to Joseph, who is punished for it when this is discovered. A new kid is brought in the school, Jean Bonnet. Julien discovers a notebook in Jean's locker, confirming Jean's real last name is Kippelstein, meaning the latter is Jewish. One day, Nazi officials enter the school and arrest Jean, three other boys and the priest who was hiding that they were Jews. The arrested people are deported, and die in concentration camps.

Louis Malle waited for a long time unil he thought he was mature enough to film this painful autobiographical story from his childhood—he only made three more films after this—yet the wait was worth it, since the critics rewarded his "Au revoir les enfants" with acclaim and recognition. "Au revoir" is very good, yet still a little bit overrated. It has a great, fantastic, very touching and intense finale, yet the entire story up to it is at times bland, sometimes even boring, with routine episodes from the boarding school and numerous episodic characters who do not stand out as especially memorable, except for the two main protagonists, Julien and Jean. It is stronger as a therapy—for Malle's own torment and guilt of his passivity as a child, yet, when you are a kid, you cannot make such a difference, anyway—and humanistic message, yet weaker as a cinematic achievement. Presented without music, with minimalism and a realist narrative, "Au revoir" is deliberately de-dramatized, and thus not even the arrest and deportation of the kids by the Nazi officials creates any suspense, instead just presenting the events as something that just happened. Malle is wise enough to avoid depicting the myth of "innocent youth", instead choosing a more realistic description of 12-year old boys, who are starting to dominate each other, or are fighting, bullying, being vulgar or talking about sex in 1001 Nights, with his alter ego Julien standing as an intellectual who tries to "endure" this stage of his life, even when it is not that easy (the sequence where he wakes up during the night after having a "wet dream", and has to clean the stain from his sheet). A problem is that Julien and Jean do not bond until the end, when they become friends for only some 10 minutes before the finale, and thus their relation is not that strong, yet Malle was maybe just being honest about this episode, refusing to glamorize or distort it into a typical mainstream film that some have wished. It is both a small glimpse of the Holocaust and a coming-of-age study about loss: in the final close up of the film, Julien has grown up.

Grade:+++

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Elevator to the Gallows

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud; crime-drama, France, 1958; D: Louis Malle, S: Maurice Ronet, Jeanne Moreau, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Jean Wall, Iván Petrovich, Félix Marten, Lino Ventura

Paris, Saturday. Julien Tavernier has an affair with Florence Carala, the wife of his boss, Mr. Carala. The lovers decide to kill Mr. Carala. Julien devises a clever plan of using a rope to climb up to the top floor of the company, shoots Mr. Carala and locks all the doors from inside, making it look as if the boss committed suicide. Julien exits the building, but then realizes he left the rope hanging. Julien enters the elevator, but gets stuck inside when the janitor switches off the electricity for the weekend. On the street, Julien's car is stolen by teenagers Louis and Veronique. As Florence sees Julien's car, she assumes he abandoned their plan. At a motel, Louis shoots a German couple with Julien's gun, and therefore the police suspect Julien is the perpetrator. When the power is switched back again in the morning, Julien finally exits the elevator, but is arrested for the murder of the German couple. Florence realizes the mistake and informs the police that Louis is the one to blame. The police develop the photos from the motel, showing Louis with the German couple, and thus arresting him. Bu they also arrest Florence who is seen with Julien on the photos.

Louis Malle's feature length debut film (if his documentary "The Silent World" is disregarded), excellent "Elevator to the Gallows" caught the director instantly on the right foot, crafting a remarkably polished crime-drama film. A story that could have developed as your run-of-the-mill crime flick about two lovers who conspire to kill the husband of the woman is enriched with a lot of twists and unexpected de-tours, which, although they may seem too "knotty" at first, eventually all align into a harmonious whole in the finale, confirming that the script was meticulously written and planned in every little detail which is justified at the end. One of the surprises is that the main character, Julien, gets trapped in a shut down elevator, and thus spends 60 minutes of the film's running time inside. In another, even though he perpetrated a seemingly perfect crime, concealing all the traces behind him, after killing Mr. Carala, Julien is arrested, anyway, for a murder he (ironically) did not commit, but a teenager who stole his car and used his gun, implying the fatalism and inescapable determinism of Julien's fate. Filmed mostly with natural lighting, "Elevator" conjured up an elegant, relaxed form of realism, giving Jeanne Moreau a juicy leading role, whereas some critics consider it a precursor to the French New Wave.

Grade:+++

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Death Wish 3

Death Wish 3; action, USA, 1985; D: Michael Winner, S: Charles Bronson, Gavan O'Herlihy, Ed Lauter, Deborah Raffin, Martin Balsam, Alex Winter, Ricco Ross, Marina Sirtis

Paul arrives to New York to visit his old friend, Charley, but finds him murdered in the apartment. The police arrive and arrest Paul, mistaking him for the murderer. In jail, Paul has a fight with Fraker, the leader of the street gang who killed Charley. Police Chief Shriker releases Paul, who decides to stay in Charley's empty apartment, hoping to get revenge. Gang members break into the apartments and assault the tenants. When Fraker's gang arranges for Paul's new girlfriend, Kathryn, to die in a car crash, Paul buys a gun and starts shooting gang members one by one. Shriker joins him. When Fraker is about to shoot Shriker, Paul uses a rocket launcher to blow up Fraker and half of the apartment. Once their leader is dead, the gang dissolves, and Paul heads back home.

While the 1st "Death Wish" film was actually a good contemplation on the murky topic of vigilantes and ethical problems arising from it, its sequels quickly went the route of "Rambo" sequels, embracing killings as some sort of action-fun roller coaster without any major consequences. Part III is so over-the-top that it is a guilty pleasure, with several unintentionally comical moments that secured it cult status. The villains, the gang members, are presented in such a cartoonish way that "Death Wish 3" becomes a ridiculous experience, a trash fest that resembles a parody at times. The main protagonist Paul turns into an extremist right-wing shooter, using excessive violence against gang members which were dumbed down and distorted so much as to secure the viewers a safe cheering at their killings without any bad conscience. In one fight sequence, a thug stabs a knife into Paul's lower back, but Paul just nonchalantly pulls out the knife, as if it is super easy, barely an inconvenience to him, as if it is an epidural anesthesia. In another exaggerated moment, after being assaulted by the thugs, Maria dies in the hospital from a broken arm (!), while in the finale Paul even uses machine guns and heavy artillery to shoot and blast dozens of thugs on the streets, in a finale that turned a New York suburb into a war zone. Even the government is presented as incompetent: two police officers take away a gun from a Jewish old couple, and sure enough, cut to the next scene of robbers breaking into their apartment through the window at night. There is even a sequence of a grandpa trying to use a heavy machine gun from the Korean War against the thugs, but since the weapon is jammed, the punks storm his place and throw him from the stairs on the ground. What is too much, is too much. Only two features are worth seeing—the aesthetic cinematography by John Stanier, who uses a wide lens at times; and the elaborate action sequences, with some impressive explosions of buildings—but one has to admit that there is no point in the story, which is just there to indulge the lowest battle and hate urges of the viewers.

Grade:+

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The General

General; war drama series, Croatia, 2019; D: Antun Vrdoljak, S: Goran Višnjić, Mustafa Nadarević, Goran Navojec, Tarik Filipović, Boris Svrtan, Borko Perić, Nataša Janjić, Jasmin Lord, Rene Bitorajac, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Olga Pakalović, Ivo Gregurević, Armand Assante




The life of Croatian General Ante Gotovina. As a kid, he ran towards an exploding land mine, and his mother died while trying to protect him. As a young lad, Gotovina fled Yugoslavia under the Communist system and enrolled into the French Foreign Legion, in which he was wounded during a mission in Africa. He went to Colombia as an instructor in the fight against drug dealers, but fell in love with Ximena, who gave birth to their child. In 1 9 9 1, Gotovina heard about Croatia’s war for independence, and thus returned to his country, joining the army. Under Chieff of Staff Janko Bobetko, Gotovina was appointed as a General in Livno, Bosnia, in order to prevent Serbs from Bosnia linking with Serbs from Croatia. In ‘95, he oversaw Operation Storm, which ended the war, but was later indicted by the ICTY Tribunal for war crimes. Gotovina spent years in hiding, until he was arrested and sentenced by the ICTY, but later acquitted of all charges in the appeals process.

"The General" is a work comprised just out of two features: patriotism and idealism. Antun Vroljak’s film, the most expensive in Croatian cinema at the time, with a reported budget of 3 million $, which was later extended into this 8-episode series, is an attempt to make a biopic about Croatian General Ante Gotovina. Vrdoljak, though, took Gotovina’s interesting and adventurous life and placed it at the service of ideological patriotism. And as the old saying goes, beware of movies made only for an ideology. Gotovina was very secretive about his motivations and ambitions at a particular stage in life, and thus Vrdoljak had a difficult task, scrambling to sometime interpret why his protagonist did this or that, or decided to join the French Foreign Legion, for instance. Some plot points are just confusing. For instance, during the childhood segment, there is a badly directed sequence in which an explosives expert, in the middle of the square, shouts that he is about to detonate a land mine. Everyone takes cover, naturally - except for the little kid, Gotovina, who for some reason runs directly towards the land mine (?!), causing his mother to run after him. It is unclear why a kid would run towards an explosive device, how did his mother hear about the warning while he did not, nor what happened in that accident. The extended series also contains a puzzlingly artificial sequence in which a teenage Gotovina and a lad are caught in the middle of a storm on a boat: instead of shouting or hiding, they deliver impossibly poetic sentences and elevated contemplations (“This is the end. God, take our souls!” - “Hold on to your rosary and pray!”), when in reality they would just take cover until the danger is over. An inspired filmmaker would also not waste the opportunity to somehow foreshadow the path of Gotovina: he could have symbolically linked this storm with the future Operation Storm, for instance, by showing the young Gotovina as a defiant ship commander who somehow emerges from the event.

The series gets a little better after the start of the Croatian war, since the story gets more interesting, with a tighter narrative and a certain sense of a purpose, a sense that the protagonist knows where he is going with his decisions. However, ridiculous patriotic exaggerations and illogical plot holes again hinder the story. For example, after a TV program showing Croatian civilians being deported from Aljmaš, General Janko Bobetko suddenly starts talking how the most important thing about a war is memory, claiming that those who forget, lose. Would a General talk to his officers about memory for some future generations during an invasion or would his priority be how to plan to stop the enemy? This whole talk about memory sticks out like a soar thumb, revealing it to be more of an inclusion from modern time, from the political party which commissioned “The General” to constantly remind its patriots-voters about the glorious past, then something someone would ponder about during a crisis. Another example is when a Commander tells Gotovina about the clash in Borovo Selo, pointing out that the Serb paramilitary gouged the eyes of Croat soldiers. He then again goes: “Can you imagine, gouging the eyes of living people?” And then he again goes: “They gouged the eyes of people”, whereupon he gives Gotovina a photo of a mutilated corpse. It is unnecessary to point this out three times, overemphasizing the obvious, since just telling it once would have been sufficient, but the director obviously does not believe in the subtle. An even bigger, more problematic sequence shows up, a one which is a real struggle to sit through its 6 minutes of running time, and makes you nauseous as to when it will finally end. It is the one where the Croat soldiers bring a captured Serb, Ilija, an old Partisan who now fights for the Serb Krajina army, directly to General Bobetko’s office, also an ex-Partisan, who spends the entire sequence - not talking to Ilija - but rather preaching to him about the betrayal of the homeland. At the end of the rant, when Bobetko turns his back towards him, Ilija takes a gun from his pocket - one would think that Ilija is going to shoot Bobetko. But no, Ilija actually draws the gun against himself and commits suicide, ostensibly because he cannot live with his bad conscience anymore. That Croatian army would be so incompetent and not check a POW for a gun before leaving him alone in a room with their Supreme Commander is simply astounding.

There are some virtues, though: episodes 4, 5 and 7 are actually good, while episode 6 is at least good at parts. However, Gotovina is shown as a figure not particularly contributing to the war until Operation Storm, and thus many moments of the conflict are presented through the perspective of various supporting characters, small soldiers, many of which are never seen afterward, while Gotovina mostly just sits in his office and listens to field reports. Moreover, it is interesting that the series does not hide Gotovina’s affair with a Croatian reporter, during which he forgot about his wife and child in Colombia, showing that he is not that noble and idealistic of a person after all. Episode 6 has an insanely written monologue by an older lady who is looking at a young woman, the victim of war rape (“She is afraid that bandit will take away her baby, so she decided not to give birth to it yet. She is hiding it in her womb. It has been two years since she was raped, she is not pregnant, but she imagined she is in her head”). The sole Operation Storm episode is surprisingly underwhelming, without any major action or battle sequences as many hoped for. Puzzlingly, episode 8 spends more time on some 13-minute scene of two Serb Krajina commanders going back and forth about who is to blame, drinking at a table while Knin is bombarded around them, than actually on Gotovina's hiding, arrest, trial and acquittal at the ICTY at the Hague, which was allocated only 3 minutes of archive footage to it. A few moments of Vrdoljak’s old sense for crafting stories still manage to ignite here and there and come to the rescue, though, such as the sequence where a hunter says to Gotovina that “orphans were always the kindest people” or the poignant military observation that during a conflict of two sides the international community tends to be inclined towards the stronger side. There is also an almost poetic scene in the last episode where, instead of enjoying the victory, Gotovina is lost in contemplation, saddened about his friend being wounded, and walks while leaning on to the old, long ancient walls of Knin, the old capital of the Medieval Kingdom of Croatia, symbolically showing how he fulfilled his purpose, completing both his life and the history of the new Croatia. There are some traces of sparks in that scene, almost of Ford's heroes filled with pathos, and one wishes that the entire series beforehand would have had the same inspiration as well, which it lacks.

Grade:+

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Shoah

Shoah; documentary, France, 1985; D: Claude Lanzmann, S: Richard Glazar, Rudolf Vrba, Raul Hilberg, Filip Müller, Mordechaï Podchlebnik, Simon Srebnik, Jan Karski

Director Claude Lanzmann interviews various witnesses of the Holocaust, including those Jews who survived the said ethnic cleansing of the World War II. Some of the events covered include testimonies from the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto and gas vans. The film concludes with the interview of the surviving members of the Jewish Combat Organization, which led the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

One of the most elaborate and all-encompassing documentaries ever made, Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" is a harrowing collection of memories of the Holocaust, the worst genocide in human history. With a running time of over 9 hours, it is overlong, and yet, one could not name a single episode that could have been cut. This is a movie that transcends time and creates its own frequency of film experience. "Shoah" is both a fascinating and therapeutic experience, interviewing some 30 survivors and witnesses, allowing for their memories to be recorded and remembered in history, but refuses to use archive footage, and instead just films the now empty locations of the crime, including the deserted barbed wire of modern Auschwitz. Lanzmann even uses an inconspicuous secret camera to make a "sneak" recording of German perpetrators, including an interview with Franz Suchomel (who claims he only thought he would be a guard at a workshop, and was shocked when he arrived and found out the Treblinka camp was a place to murder people), Franz Schalling and Walter Stier, which is used to corroborate the crimes, since their testimonies overlap with those of the victims and survivors.

Several stories will remain entrenched in the viewers' memory. In one of them, a Polish man recounts how people would bring water to the Jewish people trapped in trains through the window, and how a woman with a child tried to escape but was shot by a soldier in the heart. A farmer allegedly worked on his field just a 100 yards away from a death camp. Filip Muller, an Auschwitz survivor, recounts an episode where new inmates started singing in defiance, and suddenly stops the interview and collapses crying, remembering how he wanted to die with them back then, since he felt his "life was not worth anything anymore". There is also a fascinating "excursion" into the island of Corfu, to interview the local survivors. In New York, Jan Karski, a Polish resistance member, barely manages to tell his story of how he was smuggled under a tunnel into the Jewish ghetto, struggling to recollect his traumatic "paralyzed" reaction by what he saw, including naked corpses on the ground, Hitler Youth boys roaming and malnourished people. He also adds a comment he heard: "The Allies will win the war. But what good will it do to us? We will not survive this war". "Shoah" is a film of peculiar duality: it is both disturbing and full of tranquility at the same time; both angry and calm; both emotional and distanced; both inhumane and deeply humane; both intimate and objective, dwelling on an intellectual historical analysis of what happened and how to interpret all of these events, without any ideology or secret agenda. A giant monument to victims of the dictatorship, it is a unique and cathartic experience, a true "movie event". 

Grade:+++

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Parasite

Gisaengchung; drama, South Korea, 2019; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Choi Woo-shik, Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Park So-dam, Jeong Ji-so

The Kim family—father Ki-taek, mother Chung-sook, teenager son Ki-woo and daughter Ki-jeong—is unemployed and barely survive through various tricks and ploys. One day, Ki-woo's friend asks him to be an English instructor for Da-hye, the teenage daughter of the rich Park family, who live in a mansion. Ki-woo gets the job, but then suggests to the mother of the Park family to hire an arts instructor for her son, Jessica—in reality Ki-woo's sister Ki-jeong. Later, the Kim's manage to get the driver of the Park's fired, and suggest they hire a new driver—in reality Ki-taek, Ki-woo's father. They fire the maid, Moon-gwang, and hire their mother as the new maid. Now the whole Kim family is employed at the Park's. But Moon-gwang returns to the mansion, revealing that her husband Geun-sae was living under its bunker, hiding from a loan shark. When the Parks return, the Kims kick and throw Moon-gwang down the bunker, who dies. Upon being freed, Geun-sae takes a knife and stabs Ki-jeong during a party, but is killed by Chung-sook, while Ki-taek stabs Mr. Park. Ki-taek hides in the bunker, while Ki-woo wovs to earn enough money to buy the mansion to see him again.

"Parasite" is a sly commentary both on nepotism and the clash of the upper and lower class in society, done with enough specific humor of the director Joon-ho Bong, though not to the fullest: the first half of the movie, establishing the Kim family's scheme to in insert each other into the employment of the rich Parks, is very good—but after a plot twist in the middle, the movie is de-toured and starts to irrevocably debase itself. A few delicious moments in the first half give "Parasite" spark: in one of the best, father Ki-taek is preparing himself for a dramatic speech in front of Mrs. Park, reading from a script while his son Ki-woo tells him to tone down the melodrama, in order to fire the maid by faking she has tuberculosis, and have her replaced with the mother of the Kim family. In another, Ki-taek is amazed at the computer skills of his daughter, Ki-jeong, who forges a document of Ki-woo's student status at a prestigious University, concluding: "If Oxford University had a department for forgery, my daughter would be the best student!" Some illogical omissions can be forgiven here (for instance, while it can be accepted that the Parks would be paying their tutors in cash, it is a stretch that they would not ask the bank account and ID of their new driver and maid, which would reveal that all four share the same last name—the rich are not naive).

The shot compositions and the 'kammerspiel' concept, in which practically the entire film plays only on one location, the mansion of the Parks, are energetic, whereas Bong has a sense for establishing little details for later pay-offs even when the viewers don't register them: the opening act, for instance, shows how the Kims live in a basement, which later proves to play a crucial role during a heavy rain sequence. Unfortunately, the plot twist kind of "hijacks" the original movie and does not feel as harmonious as the first half. The story should have stayed with these original characters, and not switch focus on another subplot. Father Ki-taek's drastic act in the misguided finale does not work—his motivation makes no sense and feels like an "intruder" in the plot, except if it is interpreted as a symbol for the poor rebelling against the rich—which takes away from the storyline. "Parasite" is good, but it is still Bong-"light"—the true Bong can be found in his "peak" creative phase with his two magnum opuses "The Host" and "Memories of Murder" a decade earlier.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Joker

Joker; psychological thriller-drama, USA, 2019, D: Todd Phillips, S: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Glenn Fleshler 

Gotham City, 1 9 8 0s. Arthur Fleck is an aspiring comedian, but is hindered by his disorder which causes sudden uncontrolled laughter, his infirm mother and people avoiding him. He works as a clown, but get’s fired when he drops a gun inside a hospital, given to him by colleague Randall. His mother tells him that his father is the rich Thomas Wayne, but the latter rejects this, claiming she was only his maid, fired for insanity. Sick and tired of this existence, Arthur rebels: he kills his mother and then Randall. When he is invited at a live comedy show to be mocked, Arthur shoots its host, Murray Franklin. This causes an uprising among outsiders in the city.

DC Comics' biggest coup at the time dazzled the audience and the critics, but for all of its virtues, "Joker" is still a movie nowhere near as good as the hype surrounding it. It suffers from too much empty walk, 'autistic' direction, while it is not particularly inspired nor well written (the acts of violence and revenge are routine, without a clear or better thought out solution to the problem). However, if there is one thing that it did right, it is that it captured the essence of its time, namely by showing how we, as a society, treat those who are different: instead of helping an angry loner in a constructive way in order for him to get out of that state, the people rather choose the easy way of blaming the said loner for all his problems, isolating him further, which just exacerbates the situation, until he simply "snaps". Moreover, "Joker" implies that when these outsiders become a majority, and the neglect piles up, they will collectively rebel against the order. It is a dark essay on the origins of mass shooters, a frequent phenomenon in the US. In that regard, "Joker" is eerily reminiscent of "The Bicycle Thieves", by showing how a broken system creates its own criminals—which just break the system even more. It is a fascinating thought experiment, but it is hard to watch—because the movie is at times so banal. In this edition, "Joker" is sadly humorless and not that fun, except for a few minuscule moments involving a dwarf, Gary, such as when Randall asks him about "miniature golf" or when Gary is free to leave Arthur's apartment after a murder, but is unable to reach the high chain lock on the door. Joaquin Phoenix is very good, giving these depressive outsiders a sense of "coolness", whereas one cannot but not be shaken by his sentence he wrote in the notebook: "I hope my death makes more sense than my life". An experimental pseudo-comic-book art film with an appeal to include the outsiders, instead of exclude them into creating their own parallel anti-society.

Grade:++

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry

Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry; animated fantasy, Japan, 2017; D: Tatsuma Minamikawa, S: Tetsuya Kakihara, Aya Hirano, Rie Kugimiya, Yuichi Nakamura, Sayaka Ohara

After the villain Zash from the Kingdom of Stella, steals a magical staff, Dragon Cry, from a frozen fortress, the Kingdom of Fiore sends the Fairy Tail wizards—Natsu, Lucy, Happy, Gray, Erza Scarlet, Wendy—to get it back. Their plan in a tavern is disrupted and ends in chaos, though. Stella's King Animus is actually a dragon in disguise, while Zash wants to use the staff to destroy Fiore, which banished him for using dark spells. Sonya, Animus' aide, is reluctant to further escalate this situation. In a duel, Animus transforms into a dragon, but is defeated by Natsu, whereas the staff de-transforms into a ribbon.

The 2nd feature length film of the popular fantasy anime series "Fairy Tail", "Dragon Cry" is flawed, but sporadically remarkably catchy, opulent and uplifting little flick. Viewers detached from the series will at times feel disoriented due to several elements tied to the main narrative, yet the movie has just enough charm and wit to stand on its own. The best moments arrive through some swift, deliciously "cartoonish" jokes and sweet ideas, which lift the movie up at times: in one of them, the Fairy Tail team decides to sneak up at the villain Zash in the Kingdom of Stella, and thus disguise themselves as staff in one of his favorite night clubs, so the busty Lucy is—of course—assigned to be the night club dancer, entertaining the male audience, wearing only a yellow bikini, causing her to comment to herself: "Why do I always have to do these kind of things?!", and Gray to reply behind the stage: "Stop complaining! You look good." Another golden moment is so good one has to kneel down in front of it: Happy, the cat-like sentient creature afraid of even the smallest dogs, has to confront Zash's monstrously big terror-dog, which is just slowly approaching Happy, who does not want to let it eat Sonya. The dog then roars threateningly, Happy shakes from fear, is taken aback, but then resumes a calm attitude—and then just defeats the dog with ridiculous ease by simply blowing fire at him, until the monster falls down. The typical good vs. evil story still has some universal appeal, which together with "Dragon Cry's" sympathetic tone compensates for lack of other characters, which do not get a chance to shine as much as Lucy or Natsu.

Grade:++

Monday, January 6, 2020

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla; fantasy / disaster movie, Japan, 2016; D: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi, S: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara

One day, a strange anomaly is spotted off the coast of Haneda. It quickly turns out to be a giant, reptile-like creature, nicknamed Godzilla, which arrives at the surface and starts wrecking havoc in Tokyo. 3.6 million people are evacuated. Various politicians and the military hold long meetings in order to decide what to do. The military attacks, but the explosions only make Godzilla stronger. Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, is teamed up with Kayoco Anne Patterson, Special Envoy for the President of the US. They find out that Godzilla feeds off nuclear energy. They thus manage to freeze Godzilla with a special coagulant which was inserted into its mouth by trucks.

After a 12 year lull, the Japanese "Godzilla" movie franchize returned with the 29th installment of the series, directed by Hideaki Anno: he managed to make the first good "Godzilla" film ever since the '54 original, which makes it better compared to the other editions of the monster series, but still weaker than some of Anno's best achievements. Anno seemed to have directed "Shin Godzilla" in the style of his masterwork "Neon Genesis Evangelion", except that he did not have that strong and memorable characters as in "Evangelion". "Shin Godzilla" is thus often marred in long, monotone, repetitive meetings of politicians, officials and military personal, with subtitles giving descriptions of this and that location, all talking ad nauseam as to what to do. While this can be seen as an allegory on the boring, ineffective bureaucracy, it also takes up way too much time and hinders the story. The only character that is worthy of Anno's "Evangelion" is the surprisingly lively Kayoco Anne Patterson (excellent Satomi Ishihara), a Japanese-American who sometimes does a few snappy lines with a charmingly bad English accent (upon complaining that she rushed to the meeting and didn't have time to change her clothes, she randomly asks: "Where's Zara?"), yet the other characters are just pale extras, speaking text only to disappear and not grow on the viewers. The action and destruction sequences are effective, thanks to great visual effects which improved the annoying rubber suit of previous "Godzilla" movies. Some great moments include a wide lens view of Godzilla's giant tail passing above the roof of a house; a POV shot of a vehicle driving through the street with Godzilla in the city seen in the background and the clever idea of the military shooting at the bottom of a tall skyscraper, which tips and fall on the monster's back, knocking it down on the ground. A huge step forward for "Godzilla" movies, but a step back for the "Evangelion" master.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 2, 2020

My Grandpa Is an Alien

Moj dida je pao s Marsa; science-fiction adventure, Croatia / Bosnia and Herzegovina / Luxembourg / Norway / Czech Republic / Slovakia / Slovenia, 2019; D: Marina Andree Skop, Dražen Žarković, S: Lana Hranjec, Nils Ole Oftebro, Petra Polnisova, Ozren Grabarić (voice)

Una (12) is an ordinary girl living with her two siblings, Alex and Sven, and her mother and grandfather in a desolate house. One night, a UFO takes away her grandfather, while her mother becomes inexplicably ill and must go to the hospital. Una discovers grandpa's little robot, Dodo, who reveals to the truth to her: he is from a far away planet, where aliens transformed into beings made just out of energy, but sent expeditions to Earth to see how people find happiness. However, several decades ago, the spaceship accidentally caused an explosion of the house, so the alien merged with grandpa, in order to save him from his wounds, and acted as a battery for the wounded mother. Now that grandpa has been taken away, mother is ill because her battery is too far away to sustain her. Una and Dodo take on a trip to find grandpa. They find him in an abandoned castle. Grandpa-alien dies in order to give his energy to mother, who survives. The aliens also find the solution to happiness: being friends.

A rare example of a feature length science-fiction film in Croatian cinema, this modern retelling and restructuring of "E.T." is a sympathetic little film that comes as a refreshing contribution to the country's movie market. "My Grandpa Is an Alien" is still rather standard and old-fashioned, nonetheless: it lacks that more elevated humor expected from modern movies, where jokes work both for kids and for the more demanding grown ups. A consequence of that is mostly felt on the lacking personality of the main protagonist: Una is a rather underwhelming character, a one who only has time to shine sporadically, which is a pity, since she is played by Lana Hranjec, who is a much better and more charming actress than the movie lets her to be. A rare moment where Una shines is the one where the boat gets stuck on a top of a small waterfall, with her and the robot Dodo in it, but Una just loses her patience, stands out of the boat (!) and steps into the water, until she pushes the boat down the stream again. The story needed more of these kind of moments, since several sequences that had potential for more, such as Una's confrontation with bullying girls in school, ended up rather underdeveloped. Among the plus points are great visual effects, surprisingly up to the task for a country outside Hollywood, as well as an interesting little subplot in which the aliens are described as beings who transitioned into a state made out of pure energy, reminiscent of Clarke's idea from his novel "2001: A Space Odyssey". "My Grandpa Is an Alien" is a neat little film that somehow enabled Croatian cinema to expand its horizons, shyly taping into some more unusual and unique genres outside of the usual safe drama genre prevalent in the country.

Grade:++