Saturday, September 28, 2013

Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon; animated crime series, Japan, 2006; D: Sunao Katabuchi, S: Daisuke Namikawa, Megumi Toyoguchi, Mami Koyama

Rokuro is a Japanese businessman who lives with his "head low", humbly and insignificantly, because he is afraid of his strict bosses. When he is sent to Borneo to deliver a disc for his company, he is taken hostage by the pirate ship Black Lagoon consisting of African Dutch, blonde Benny and wild girl Revy. Upon realizing how quickly his company abandons Rokuro because they do not care about their employees, Dutch takes pity on him and decides that he should join their team as Rock. Now living in Thai city Roanapur, Rock and Black Lagoon encounter numerous adventures, ranging from hijacking, smuggling, deliveries and involvement with the mafia Hotel Moscow, led by Balalaika.

"Black Lagoon" is a 'down-to-earth' version of "Cowboy Bebop", flickering on the same frequency ranging from the stylish mood, cynical-pessimistic view on harsh life and 'tough girl' Revy who reminds a lot of Faye Valentine, except that the main hero here, Rock, is indeed an exception and an untypical protagonist who is the complete opposite to Spike. The first episode works and engages precisely because he turns from an obedient businessman wimp in his company into a rebel who had it up to here with such kind of fear and decides to live with his "head up", whereas the story gives a sly-cynical comment: when the pirate boss Dutch "adopts" him in his team, it shows that even gangsters have more dignity and honor than corporations. This leads to a fascinating example of courageous integrity in episode 7 when he stops Revy's gun from shooting him and gives a remarkable rant about how she has become almost like his former bosses.

"Lagoon" works the best when it steps into the territory of comedy: for instance, episode 17 is almost hilarious when showing how Jane is running away from gangsters through the hotel from one side to another, following drawn arrows on the walls, which lead her to smuggler girl Eda - disguised as a nun! - who can "save" her, for money, of course. The following battle is very good, too: since their hideout is under siege from gangsters, Revy goes to other side to shoot, but says to Eda before leaving: "Survive this." The submarine episode, though uneven, also has a strong moment when Rock asks Revy is she has any ideals, and she just replies how "money and guns are so much better than God, and a lot more useful, too". Unfortunately, due to its episodic tone, the storyline's level goes up and down. Episodes 13-15, involving underage (!) assassin twins are so deliberately offensive beyond measure (the twins are incestuous, star in paedophilia movies, kill and enjoy torture) that it is almost a joke, whereas the other half of the 'Black Lagoon' team, Dutch and Benny, get less and less screen time until they are almost made to "go away" in the second half of this anime. The uneven tone is further deteriorated when one has in mind that the last five episodes are not even about Rock and Revy anymore, but about supporting characters who are introduced as late as episode 19 (!): teenage girl Yukio in love with yakuza Gin. That way, you almost get the impression that another team of authors "pushed out" the original team and made the finale about something else than originally planned. And some ideas really are silly (the cliche that Gin and Revy can kill a dozen gangsters without even getting a scratch; Gin slicing a shot bullet in half). It is no wonder that the anime left an impression of unfinished business, which is why a sequel OVA series was made four years later.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 19, 2013

In a marriage with the Swiss

U braku sa Švicarcem; documentary, Croatia, 2013; D: Arsen Oremović, S: Vedrana Rudan, Jadranka Kosor, Zoran Milanović

The documentary explores the strange case of mortgage loans in Croatia after it entered the capitalistic system, specifically the mortgages involving Swiss francs. At first, when the exchange rate of Croatian kunas to Swiss francs was 4,8:1, the banks persuaded citizens to massively take mortgage loans in francs instead of euros or kunas, because they were "easier to pay off". However, in a few years, by 2011 the exchange rate increased to almost 7,2:1, which effectively doubled the loans ordinary citizens had to pay. Numerous debtors thus became stuck with astronomically increasing money they have to pay back, and at least one girl died from stress. It is estimated that they amount to 130.000 people, or over 3% of Croatia's population.

A long suppressed topic in Croatia, the affair of Croatian citizens being tricked into taking a mortgage loan in Swiss francs, a currency that almost doubled in a few years and thus brought their debt to skyrocket to such an extent that only Bill Gates would be able to pay it off, was just crying to be put on the screen, and it was done by none other than the legendary film critic Arsen Oremovic. Even though he is a debtor himself, he gave a proportionally neutral and objective presentation of the situation, while the absence of bankers, who refused to participate in the film, is indicative: refusing to answer is also a kind of an answer. A fine amount of sarcasm wriggles through "In a marriage with the Swiss", too: the opening titles says: "A state that does not care about the fate of its own citizens, a state that allows its own citizens to perish, is doomed to perish as well"; a debtor says how he now has to "pay off a loan for two additional apartments besides his own" after the jump of exchange rates and thus interest rate loans whereas one woman jokingly says how, considering that her own husband shares his debt with her, she should "kill her husband". The presentation is simple, accessible and without unnecessary flashy film tricks to allow the viewers to focus on the people themselves, even raising the question if making a mortgage loan in foreign currency was legal in the first place. Lastly, and most importantly, the movie is simply engaging and interesting to watch, succeeding in being both a social commentary, a document of a time and an very good piece of entertainment.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

iCarly

iCarly; comedy series, USA, 2007-2013; D: Steve Hoefer, Adam Weissman, David Kendall, S: Miranda Cosgrove, Jennette McCurdy, Nathan Kress, Jerry Trainor, Noah Munck

While having to film a casting for new talents for their school, two teenage girls hosting the event, Carly and Sam, start making wisecrack jokes about the candidates. Their cameraman and classmate, Freddie, finds them so much funnier and more interesting than the candidates that he uploads a small clip of them on the Internet. Carly and Sam are at first outraged, but once the fan mail starts to pile up, they decide to make their own web comedy show, "iCarly", in their basement while Freddie would film them. Quickly, the web shows gains fame and they are aided occasionally by Gibby and Carly's older brother Spencer.

"Wayne's World" with teenage girls - "iCarly" may have picked up some traits of the above mentioned film, yet also picked up its contagiously fun, shrill and positive vibe, just presenting it in a more harmless edition here to align itself with the family friendly Nickelodeon network standards. As with most movies and TV shows, a large part of the storyline relies on the charisma and talent of its main protagonist, and Miranda Cosgrove and Jennnette McCurdy truly carry the show thanks to their relaxed charm and wit, whereas the show's creator and producer Dan Schneider allows for a care-free fun, though with a few 'rough' edges here and there (in the later seasons, for instance, too much of the show degenerated only into empty vessels of Sam being mean to Freddie or Spencer doing wacky things that aren't funny). This may be a kids' show, but some jokes truly are very funny (the hilarious slow-motion scene of Carly's and Sam's lips while making the horse neigh noise; Freddie showing up all excited and saying: "You know who just contacted us? Kevin Colt!", upon which Sam replies in an equally "excited" language: "Kevin Colt?! *The* Kevin Colt I never heard of?!"; Carly jokingly rotating while sitting on a rotating chair, but when she stands up she is dizzy and almost falls to the ground) whereas at least one episode, the one where Sam and Carly travel to Hollywood to confront lazy writers of a TV comedy show that constantly steals their jokes from "iCarly" but say they cannot do anything about it, is an example of comedy gold that could qualify for the World Heritage Site. For a long time, the viewers may wish for Carly to show another layer or extension of her character, another feature of her persona, but she remained only defined by one feature solely, a simple funny girl, not that it is necessarily a bad thing. Overall, a good and fun show that demonstrated how the most childish storylines can be plausible. And one supporting character almost eclipsed the heroine near the end of the show - "Gibeeeeh".

Grade;++

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Big Heat

The Big Heat; crime drama, USA, 1953; D: Fritz Lang, S: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Alexander Scourby

Corrupt police officer Tom Duncan commits suicide. His wife Bertha finds out he left incriminating papers for mobster Lagana, and thus sways him to pay her to keep quiet. Honest Sergeant Dave Bannion buys Bertha's story that Duncan killed himself due to poor health, until he is contacted by Duncan's mistress Lucy who contradicts that. The next day, Lucy is found dead so Dave figures she was right. After his wife is killed by a car bomb and the Chief commissioner presses to close the case under Lagana's orders, Dave is suspended from the police, but meets Debby, the girlfriend of Vince, one of Lagana's henchmen. After a lot of investigation, Debby shoots Bertha, while Dave arrests Vince and is returned back to the police force.

One of the best movies from the 50s, excellent crime drama "The Big Heat" once again highlighted how the underrated Fritz Lang's sense for directing and adroit conjuring up of situations comes to full expression even outside his homeland, yet a big deal of kudos should also go to the brilliant screenplay by Sydney Boehm that knows for no empty walk. The movie starts when a man's life ends: in the opening sequence, police officer Tom Duncan commits suicide, thereby triggering a very thoroughbred story about corruption and schemes of mobsters behind the curtain, as well as the hero who stands in their way, Dave (Glenn Ford), who follows his ethics and integrity even when half of his life gets blown to pieces. "The Big Heat" has a lot of geniusly set up moments (one particular highlight is when Dave asks the suspicious bartender about Lucy, but he says he does not know anything. As soon as Dave leaves the bar, the bartender rushes to make a phone call in the next room and inform someone about the Sergeant asking about Lucy. But as soon as the bartender finishes his call and turns back - he spots Dave who was waiting there all along, and never left in the first place. The bartenders expression is priceless, Dave's line "Take your coat, we are going to the precinct" also, but the simplicity of the twist of the old clichee is delicious), yet today it is mostly remembered only for the bitter scene where gangster Vince (Lee Marvin) pours hot coffee on Debby's face. A complaint or two could be directed towards the rather conventional story and the slightly standard finale, and possibly the incriminating papers that are just a typical 'MacGuffin' ploy, yet they are in the minority and can hardly corrode the overall powerful accomplishment of this unassuming little 'film noir' classic.

Grade;+++

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson

Šerlok Holms i doktor Vatson; crime, Russia/ Estonia, 1979; D: Igor Maslennikov, S: Vasily Livanov, Vitaly Solomin, Rina Zelyonaya, Maria Solomina

London, 19th century. Dr. Watson moves in into Baker Street, to live with the eccentric Sherlock Holmes. At first puzzled by his strange disguising and experiments in the laboratory, Watson eventually finds out that Holmes is a detective and has a remarkable eye for trifles and small details that enable him to solve cases. Their first case involves Ellen Stoner, whose twin sister mysteriously died of "heart failure" whereas her stepfather has the motive to eliminate them so that he could inherit all of their money from their deceased mother. Holmes and Watson spend the night in her bedroom and save her when the stepfather wanted to throw a poisonous snake into her room. In another case, Mormon Drebber was found poisoned in an abandoned mansion, and his assistant Stangerson is soon killed, too. It turns out Drebber took the girlfriend of a man as his fourth wife, sparking jealousy.

This Russian two-part TV mini-series is among one of the most exotic adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's novels about the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes: watching the protagonists talking Russian and walking through an Estonian city substituting as London is a strange experience at first, yet once when the viewers get engaged into the story, such a 'dislocation' is quickly moved to the background. The first part, "The Acquaintance", starts off as rather lax 'necessary introduction', especially with a few strange details (eye in the glass in Holmes' laboratory), yet it starts to exalt itself the moment the two protagonists start investigating their first case involving Ellen Stoner, with a minor highlight being the proportionally well picked location of the isolated mansion and the eerie mood while waiting in her bedroom at night, waiting when and how the assassination attempt might happen. The 2nd part, "Bloody Inscription", is all crime and, despite a number of styleless moments, also manages to ignite interest, even when some of Holmes' deductions are slightly far fetched at times. Vasily Livanov is great in the leading role and gives the character a range of peculiarity, as if he is more of an outsider than a charming hero.

Grade;++

Ask Father

Ask Father; silent comedy short, USA, 1919; D: Hal Roach, S: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Snub Pollard

Harold is in love with a girl and wants to propose her, but first has to ask her father's permission. Unfortunately, her father is a very busy boss who has so much work that people regularly wait for weeks just get an appointment with him. Harold does not want to wait so long and tries to take a short cut through the office and pass dozen of receptionists. When he does get a chance to talk to the boss, it turns out his girl already married someone else. Still, he finds a new girlfriend, the secretary.

One of many silent comedy shorts featuring the legendary comedian Harold Lloyd, "Ask Father" has a running time of only 13 minutes, but it doesn't seem like every minute counts in the storyline: for such a sparse amount of time, even a minute of empty walk is noticeable. The variations of the hero trying to talk to the busy boss to ask his permission to marry his daughter have charm, but its sharpness is not always top-notch. Still, as a simple fun and example of 'good old school' filmmaking, "Ask Father" works. Also, one stand-out highlight simply must be mentioned, since it is among one of top three, if not even the best best joke Harold Lloyd ever made in his career: when he descends down the street, he stands holding two pistols behind his back - not realizing that two burglars are behind him and, seeing two guns, raise their hands. Harold turns left - the burglars turn left - Harold turns right - the burglars turn right - and then, not spotting anyone, he just walks away still holding the pistols behind his back, and the burglars follow him, because they think they are "captured".

Grade;++