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:++