Friday, November 17, 2017
Foshan, China, 19th century. Martial artists Wong Fei-hung cannot tolerate the British and American colonialists who are imposing their rule on the area more and more, exploiting the land and the people. He also has to take care of his 13th aunt, Siu-kwan. The criminal Shaho Gang teams up with the American official Jackson in order to get rid of Wong, but their assassination attempt during an opera performance fails. They kidnap Siu-kwan in order to use her and many other women for human trafficking, but Wong and his apprentices, Wing, So and Kai save her. In a fight, Wong defeats Yim and kills Jackson.
The originator of the popular Hong Kong movie hexalogy which spanned another five sequels in the next six years, "Once Upon a Time in China" was a smash hit in 1991, and even though it features a thin (and decisively overlong) storyline which is basically just an excuse for the virtuoso martial arts fights featuring Jet Lu, it still holds up well today. One of the ingredients that probably appealed to the audience was the element of patriotism embodied in the folk hero Wong Fei-hung who rebelled against the British colonialism and irredentism, turning into a "Chinese Hasan Israilov", yet director Tsui Hark refused to turn the film into a Hong Kong version of "Braveheart" and instead delivered a relaxed, unassuming and fun little action flick without pathos, thereby avoiding any potential accusations of Xenophobia. The film is unusually humorless and bitter at times, especially in the sequences where the foreigners capture the 13th aunt to use her as a prostitute for human trafficking, yet the movie's energy and vitality are assured in several great battle sequences, from Wong using his umbrella to fight off a bad guy to him and the villain Yim swinging from ladder to ladder across the warehouse. Hark has sympathy for the Wuxia mythology, yet concedes that times are changing with the turn of the century in the sequence where one fighter is shot by a bullet, and before his death says this to the shocked Wong who is holding his bloody hand: "Our kung fu cannot compete with their guns!" It may be a considered as a dark commentary on the Wuxia genre which was slowly disappearing at that time. All the actors delivered a good job, which together with a few neat camera moves and lighting choices give an overall good impression of "Once Upon a Time in China", which took on a heavy theme, yet presented it in a light way.
Tuesday, November 14, 2017
A ballet is performed by impresario Lermontov, but one of the music conservatory students, Julian Craster, is disappointed that part of his music was plagiarized by his professor. Julian writes a letter to Lermontov, in which he confesses his dream to work for him as a composer, and surprisingly, Lermontov accepts the proposal. Lermontov oversees the ballet rehearsals in the theatre, and also gives another person a chance to join: dancer Victoria Page. During a performance of Swan Lake, Victoria is so fantastic that Lermontov decides to give her the lead in The Red Shoes. Victoria falls in love with Julian, but Lermontov insists that an artist cannot focus on his work when in love, and thus fires Julian. Victoria then leaves the company as well. Victoria returns to perform The Red Shoes again, but Julian shows up and gives her an ultimatum: she must leave with him or he will leave alone. Unable to decide between love and art, Victoria dances in her red shoes and jumps off the balcony into death.
"The Red Shoes" are on ode to both the art in its purest sense as well as people behind it, the artists who undergo various emotional states while trying to change themselves - and others - in order to obtain that ideal state of creativity. In this case, as it is implied in the title shared with the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this dedication and orthodox obsession for perfection can lead to an overkill, until the art consumes the artists. This theme is summarized in Lermontov's single line, when he says: "Don't forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit!" Director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger craft the film in a remarkably fluent way, and the result is that the story still seems equally as modern today as it was back in its premiere in 1948. They achieve the most when they insert a few of unusual cinematic techniques (such as Victoria's POV when she is doing a pirouette, but as she turns on stage for 360 degrees, she constantly looks towards the audience, where Lermontov is sitting and observing her; the 15-minute sequence of the live performance of the ballet "The Read Shoes" without any dialogues, with a scene of a giant shadow of two hands falling on the ground around Victoria dancing), yet for the most part, they restrain their visual style and instead focus more on conventional narrative, in order to give room for the actors and the characters they are playing, most notably in the love triangle between Lermontov, Victoria and Julian - but also the love romb that encompasses a fourth component, the love for art (in this case, the ballet). All the actors are great, but the charismatic Anton Walbrook stands out the most as the harsh perfectionist Lermontov. Unfortunately, once the ballet "The Red Shoes" is over, the film seems to lose its inspiration and power, leaving the last third somewhat routine, stiff, until it is debased into a kitschy melodrama in the final act, with too much sentimental, ordinary dialogues that are in stark contrast with the creative first two thirds. The high impression is still not affected by it, yet sometimes, less is more.
Friday, November 10, 2017
Electra still cannot accept the state of things in which tyrannt Aegisthus is now the ruler, after killing her father Agamemnon several years ago. However, all the citizens and servants are obedient to the ruler and pretend that everything is perfect. Electra's brother, Orestes, returns to the kingdom pretending to be a messenger who claims that Orestes is dead. Electra stabs Orestes, but he comes back to life. They capture Aegisthus in a net and have him walk on top of a giant boulder. Electra and Orestes shoots Aegisthus, and then themselves. However, Electra and Orestes come back to life and enter a red helicopter that flies away.
Director Miklos Jancso once again used his cinematic technique of long takes to create a modern retelling of "Electra", crafting a film that has only around a dozen cuts throughout its running time of 70 minutes, with long takes that routinely last for 8-9 minutes, all of which are filmed in exteriors, yet, just like many political films, "Electra, My Love" does not hold up well by today's standards. Some of his long shots remind of Antonioni, yet the latter one was better in theme and style: while Jancso is only interested in political movements of the masses, Antonioni is interested in the individual. While Jancso is interested in political messages (in this case, Communist ones, showing Aegisthus as the oppressor of the proletariat) which will inevitably become dated as the flow of time washes away ideologies, Antonioni is interested in some eternal emotional states of the person, which makes him more compelling even today.
Jancso crafts some bizarre, puzzling and surreal images as his camera moves around and follows Electra, who walks between two rows of people lying on the ground, only for the said people to then hold each others hands and then roll down the meadow like cylinders. In another perplexing scene, the camera arrives at a human pyramid, consisting out of a naked boy, some peasants and a man looking at a topless girl. Not much sense can be made out of this 'patchwork', except to make the story more colorful, since the characters all seem like machines or walking propaganda pawns, and not like real people with feelings. The highlight is definitely Electra's long monologues at the end, which still has some genuine spark and flair among the artificial narrative overburdened with symbolism ("There was once upon a time, or it wasn't, but it was true. There lived a miraculous bird. It was brighter than the Sun, more luminous than the rainbow, prettier than the most beautiful jewel. Because she was born out of man's eternal wish. Her father was freedom, and her mother hapiness. Where ever the Fire-bird flew... the suffering of the people was eased... But her strength betrayed her because she gave all her strength to the people... When everyone can equally take from the casket of wealth... Then, and only then, will life on Earth become worthy to mankind").
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Westman Islands, south of Iceland, '84. Gulli and another four fisherman board a boat and sail into the Atlantic Ocean to catch fish. During night, their trencher catches too much weight, which capsizes their boat. Gulli and two other men, Palli and Jon, swam at the surface of the sea. However, the two vanish and Gulli is the sole survivor in the ocean, in the middle of the night. Despite freezing cold water, he manages to swim to the island, walk another two hours barefoot and reach a house to contact for an ambulance. Gulli recovers and is sent first to Reykjavik, and then to London for tests, since scientists cannot imagine how he managed to survive for six hours in the freezing water. Finally, Gulli returns home and visits the widow of one of the fishermen.
Based on true events, this is a solid, albeit conventional example of the 'survival film' subgenre, depicting a remarkable odyssey of a fisherman, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who managed to survive in the freezing Atlantic Ocean and swim back to the shore. Unlike "All is Lost", that narrowed the story only to Redford's character trying to survive in the ocean, "The Deep" takes the opposite approach and reduces this raw survival segment to only 10 minutes, in order to depict the protagonist's life before and after the event. The opening act is interesting, showing Gulli's routine (he wakes up early in the morning in his home; the fishermen throw bad fish out of the net back into the sea, thereby attracting dozens of hungry seagulls nearby...) and hits the high with his boat sinking, leaving him in the scary situation where he has to swim all by himself in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, once he reaches the shore and is saved, the remaining third of the film rides on a false momentum, never truly justifying why the story couldn't have simply ended there, instead of prolonging another 30-40 minutes on boring, tiresome sequences of scientists making tests on him in laboratory, trying to find out how the survived in the cold. The consequences or some sort of guilt that is implied to Gulli who survived, while other fishermen perished, seems contrived and misplaced, straining the patience of the viewers in this finale without a point. Still, director Baltasar Kormakur made a competent job, delivering an unassuming and interesting little film.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
The future. Thomas (32) suffers from agoraphobia — a fear from open spaces — and thus it has been eight years since he left his apartment for the last time. He has sex with a CGI woman through a virtual reality world on a computer, whereas he uses Skype to talk to his mother or a mechanic when he needs a repair. A psychiatrists recommends Thomas to find a girlfriend. Thomas talks with Melodie through the monitor, and has sex with her through Internet, but this relationship falls apart. But then he meets Eva, which causes enough sparks for him to overcome his fear and leave the apartment to meet her in person.
"Thomas in Love" is one of the most unusual movies of the decade: the entire story, set in a near future, is filmed exclusively through the POV perspective of the title hero, and thus the main actor Benoit Verhaert is only seen in the final scene from the back, when he finally leaves the apartment, and the viewers mostly only hear his voice off the screen. This is both legitimate and problematic at the same time: on one hand, it stays true to the theme of alienation and deterioration of social skills in the modern (Internet) world, yet that way Thomas ends up as an un-affirmed character, while all the supporting characters (who show up on the visual telephone on his monitor) end up more effective. The opening 3-minute long sequence is highly interesting and memorable, since it shows a CGI animated space station in which a CGI woman is floating, taking her clothes off until she is naked and has "sex" with Thomas (again, all from his POV) — even though bizarre, it is an erotic and cleverly directed opening act, showing already how Thomas feels more comfortable interacting in a virtual than the real world. While not completely great, it is an interesting psychological drama with good moments (the driving psychiatrist talks with Thomas via the monitor, already showing their inappropriate relationship where private, intimate confessions are treated as fleeting routine) and a very solid theme that is worried about the future of humanity, a one where the whole society might become alienated and only have contact through the Internet, posing the question if real emotions can survive such an artificial state in the long run.
Monday, October 30, 2017
Three people have a heart attack and die on three different places. Jonathan and Sam are two traveling salesmen who try to sell their useless "comical" products, including vampire teeth and masks. A man on a horse enters a bar and then leads the 18th century Swedish army into war, but they return wounded and decimated. An instructors teaches a class how to dance ballet. A girl recites a poem about a pigeon reflecting on existence in front of a school theatre. Jonathan and Sam argue over their business and separate. Jonathan has a dream about British men doing something terrible to some Natives and is plagued by this.
One of the most noticed examples of Scandinavian "Neo-Dadaism" and surreal humor, Roy Andersson's bizarre film is a strange experiment without a plot, revolving only around episodic vignettes that show up and disappear without any sense of urgency to the storyline, framed only by two travelling salesmen, yet its 'daft' mood and peculiar sense of humor assure it a certain (hermetic) charm. Just as the title hints at, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a film essay about the banalities, contradictions, peculiarities and mysteries of human existence, and Andersson crafted them almost as if the characters are watched by some aliens puzzled by this life form: the entire storyline is filmed in static wide shots, without any cross-cutting, or without a single close-up even, all adding to its distant tone, with an almost comic-book mise-en-scene, following a strange rule that each sequence is narrowed down to only one scene. Even the two main protagonists are distant and elusive. Andersson follows his theme by making fun out of art, including dance and theatre, as well as patriotism and war, de-masking them as human constructs, and thereby showing the human limitations that need to be transversed. This is also evident in the two most disturbing sequences: a scientist is making a phone call, asking if a person is all right, all the while ignoring a small monkey "crucified" onto a lab equipment, getting electric shock every once in a while; a group of 19th Century British soldiers locking up Natives in a giant barrel and setting it on fire underneath, which is reminiscent of the Khaibakh massacre — they both show how human existence can be completely indifferent to the suffering of other existences around them. As Jessica Kiang proposed in her review, the modern day depression of people may lie in this guilt from the crimes in the past, "a kind of original sin, a stain in the blood". "Pigeon" is not for everyone's taste, yet its strong shot compositions and uneasy thought provoking points assure it validity.
Monday, October 23, 2017
A small town in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuwen is a sympathetic woman married to Liyan Dai, who has been sick for six years. They respect each other, but love eludes them, as Liyan thinks he is a burden to his wife who always have to take care of him, and feels guilty for the destruction of his family estate during the war. He has a younger sister, Xiu (16). One day, an old family friend, Zhang, now a doctor, returns after 10 years to visit them. He still feels affection for Yuwen, but does not want to intrude on her marriage. Liyan contemplates about marrying Xiu to Zhang, but he refuses, considering her too young. Feeling as a burden, Liyan drinks an overdose of sleeping pills in order to commit suicide. However, Zhang saves him, and then leaves. Yuwen waves goodbye to Zhang as she stays with Liyan.
Near the beginning of the 21st century, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association released a list of Top 100 Chinese films, and Fei Mu's last film, "Spring in a Small Town", was ranked first place on that list. While that reputation is a little bit overrated and misplaced, since many better Chinese films appeared during the 20th century, "Spring" still conquers today with its elegance, calm, minimalistic style, as well as sympathetic characters whose problems are easy to identify with, whereas its restrained, authentic and genuine performances, especially by excellent actress Wei Wei, give it an additional touch. "Spring" owes a part of its high reputation to the therapeutic "healing after a devastating war" subgenre that appeared in many countries after World War II (its equivalents are found in many films, such as the German "And the Heaven Above Us", Italian "Bicycle Thieves" or Yugoslav "The Unconquered People"), obvious even here in the character of the sick husband Liyan who is a symbol for the devastated, small Chinese man after the war who feels lost and aimless (he laments to his wife that he has been "married to her for eight years, six of which he was sick", and thus feels like a burden to her and contemplates suicide), yet Mu gave a far more optimistic note to it, suggesting that life goes on, that people should just keep standing and that this simple investment can blossom into a bright future. Similarly like Y. Ozu, even Mu decided to focus only on subtle details and nuances (in one sequence of the characters on a boat on a river, Yuwan, Liyan and Xiu are happily singing - except for Zhang, standing behind them, who has a serious face, mirroring his concern for the frailness of this family), and thus "Spring" revolves only around these four characters and their possible love triangle. The film really is too slow at times, with too much empty walk and lingering shots, as well as a too "modest" style to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, yet its emotional depth still evokes power, especially in the contemplation that loyalty and friendship can be stronger than fatalism.
Sunday, October 22, 2017
In a post-apocalyptic future, mysterious, 200 ft tall giants appeared, called Titans, and killed off most of humanity. The remains of mankind live in a town shielded by giant walls, yet Titans attack once again and kill the mother of teenager Eren Yaeger, who thus swears revenge and joins the military to fight the Titans. His friends are Armin and Mikasa. During another attack, Eren is eaten by a Titan, but somehow mysteriously survives and finds out he can transforms into a Titan himself when he is wounded. The military capture a female Titan, who turns out to be also a human, Annie. This gives military the reason to explore further.
One of the most hyped animes of the decade, "Attack on Titan" is basically a restructuring of the popular "mecha genre", except that instead of giant robots, the people have to fight humanoid, Zombie giants, yet the story lacks highlights, pathos and the grandeur of "Evangelion" to truly overwhelm on a higher level. The setting is mysterious and stimulative, posing many questions about the origins of the Titans that attack and eat humans, yet, unfortunately, the 1st season refuses to answer any of those, leaving the viewers rather stranded and frustrated by a lack of any conclusion. The characters are one-dimensional, humorless and stiff, which exacerbates the impression (especially since Eren, Armin and Erwin all have a similar sounding name, which leads to confusion at times), yet the action sequences do have their moments of impact, especially the "Spiderman"-style way the warriors use wires to swing from building to building to maneuver around the Titans in order to try to hit the back side of their neck, their only weak spot.
The best episodes are arguably 17, 18 and 19, because they display a genius strategy of the warriors who leave the walls for their expedition: since they have no technology, they ride on horses and disperse on a meadow for several miles, acting as a "human radar" since flare guns fired by the edge of the group will be seen from the horizon and signal if a Titan is nearby, thus allowing for the core of the group to avoid dangers by going left or right on their route. This leads to several exciting situations, aesthetic shot compositions and a sense for adventure in the open, culminating with a group having to go through a forest to ditch Titans running after them. Unfortunately, except for maybe episode 25 (featuring several great sequences, including a religious community attending a mass that gets squashed by a female Titan when its foot crashes through the church, or the epic scene of the female Titan grabbing onto a wall with its fingers to stop, thereby causing several people to get ejected from the windows of the building) and a few deeper meanings (the leitmotiv of birds that fly over the walls as a symbolism for the protagonist's yearning for freedom), a majority of the episodes suffers from a too slow pace which takes too much time to finally get going, relaying too much on a dark tone, yet it cannot compensate for the standard execution. Answers will be found in season 2, but on its own, the viewers are simply stuck with the impression that season 1 did not progress and develop the storyline to a truly satisfying level.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
New Orleans. Blanche DuBois, a woman nearing 40, lost her family estate, "Belle Reve", as well as her job as a teacher in Laurel, Mississippi, and thus, now bankrupt, has to stay at the apartment of her pregnant sister, Stella. Blanche is cultured and refined, which causes her to clash with Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, a Polish worker. Blanche meets Mitch and starts a relationship with him, hoping that she will finally marry and settle down. She also feels guilty for the death of her husband, who committed suicide after she scorned him for sleeping with another man. However, Stanley discovers her dark secrets: back in Laurel, Blanche slept with numerous men, even with her students. This causes Mitch to give up on his plans to marry her. As Stella goes into labor in the hospital, Stanley again argues with Blanche and rapes her. Blanche loses touch with reality and is thus sent to a mental asylum.
One of the most critically recognized films of the 50s, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is still an excellent film adaptation of the eponymous play, even by today's standards — though it is somewhat overburdened with too much symbolism and excessive dialogues here and there. It is an "actor's film", and thus director Elia Kazan decided to minimize his director's interventions in order to maximize the focus on the four actors who carry the film, all of which are fantastic, ranging from Marlon Brando up to Vivien Leigh, and their electrifying dialogues. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who was gay, constructed "Streetcar" to reflect his often theme of society's prejudice towards an individuals inner desire: despite the censorship of the conservative Hays Code, it is obvious that Blanche caught her husband in a gay relationship and caused him to commit suicide due to her intolerance towards his desire. This theme goes full circle, since she is also intolerant towards Stanley's hedonistic desire, which she considers primitive, while Stanley and Mitch later judge Blanche due to her promiscuity. Blanche is also the one who judges Stella's desire in the form of a sexual addiction towards the brute Stanley: in one scene, Stella is in bed after reconciling with her husband, and has an interesting exchange with Blanche ("He smashed all the lightbulbs with the heel of my slipper". - "And you let him? Didn't run, didn't scream?" - "Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it!").
The conflict between the two main protagonists is the driving force of the storyline: Blanche is liberal, feminist, trying to be independent or at least equal to men, living in an imaginary world ("I don't want realism, I want magic!") serving as escapism from the harsh reality and her fear of staying alone as she approaches 40 ("I'm fading now! I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick!"), whereas Stanley is conservative, patriarchal, primeval, a lower class worker, and despises illusions since he wants to live in the world the way it is. In order to underline the clash between Blanche and Stanley, Kazan even added a metafilm touch by casting two actors of completely opposite ways of acting: the "raw", method acting of Brando which is juxtaposed with the "artificial", idealized acting of the old school Hollywood of Leigh, giving it another layer of dynamics. They are allegorical for id and super-ego, each trying to conquer the other one's psyche. Certain complaints could be aimed at the overlong running time and too lengthy, ponderous monologues that do not always have a clear point, as well as a "too theatrical" setting of the "confined" storyline at times, though the latter can be somewhat given amnesty since it was adapted from a play. Nonetheless, "Streetcar" is a strong, powerful and ambitious film, a one that works like a fuse on a dynamite that slowly burns until it explodes, congruent to the explosive inner dissatisfaction of the protagonists who simply have to snap near the finale.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
The slums of Mexico City: poverty caused groups of kids to rob people and turn to criminal activity. El Jaibo, a teenage delinquent who escaped from jail, returns as the head of one these gang and they plan to steal the money of a blind man singing on the street, but he stops them and hits the leg of one of them. As a revenge, Jaibo and his gang follow the blind man and later beat him up. Jaibo blames his prison sentence to Julian and thus kills him, thinking the latter is a snitch. The murder is witnessed by Pedro, Jaibo's gang member. Jaibo visits the Pedro's poor family because he is attracted to Pedro's widowed mother. Pedro finds a job at a blacksmith, but when a silver knife is stolen, Pedro is blamed and sent to a farm school. Pedro is aggressive, but the principal gives him 50 pesos to buy him cigarettes, in order to build his trust. On his way, Pedro is robbed by Jaibo, who also stole the knife. Later, Jaibo kills Pedro. In an ambush, the police shoot Jaibo.
Often regarded by film critics as one of the finest movies of Mexican cinema of the 20th century, Luis Bunuel's "The Forgotten Ones" is a dark and depressive social drama that realistically takes a glimpse at the theme of poverty, which is even more intense since it is shown from the perspective of children and teenagers. Congruent with such an unglamorous topic, Bunuel crafted a blunt, direct, almost explicit film in order to show such reality without any "false idealism": teenage delinquent Jaibo and his gang want to rob a blind man, and later do not even hesitate to beat him up; Pedro's mother says this to the surprised civic service officer: "Why should I love my son? I don't even know who his father is."; Jaibo gropes and forcefully wants to kiss a girl, Meche, while her brother does not care when he hears his sister screaming while working outside; a kid drinks milk directly from the udder of a donkey in a farm.
The only break from this reality is Pedro's surreal dream, filmed in slow motion, which hints at the director's frequent fascination with fantasy as the escape from depression. Throughout these scenes, Bunuel illustrates a bigger strategy by giving a case study of poverty — already in the opening scenes of fancy, grand images of skyscrapers of a modern metropolis, the narrator says: "Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London hides behind its wealth poverty-stricken homes...", hinting at the divide between the upper class which is built at the expense of a lower class, almost as in Yin and Yang, whereas he even hints at the theories of poverty, such as restriction of opportunities and a distorted meritocracy in which the only way to survive and climb through the ranks is through theft, murder, violence and other criminal activity. Even Pedro, who is given a chance to reform in a farm school, is sunk back by his old friend Jaibo, giving the movie a gloomy perspective of social determinism in a cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, evident also in the dark ending. An excellent film, reminiscent of the 'raw' aesthetics of 'Italian neorealism', and a surprisingly "normal" storyline for Bunuel.