Monday, August 31, 2015

Serpico

Serpico; crime drama, USA, 1973; D: Sidney Lumet, S: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Barbara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Tony Roberts, Biff McGuire, James Tolkan, M. Emmet Walsh, F. Murray Abraham

A young police officer, Frank Serpico, gets his enthusiasm demolished when he starts working for the New York police. He is shocked at the police brutality, but even more at the corruption in the precinct, since some criminals pay regular bribes of 800$ per cop each month as to not get arrested. Serpico refuses to accept the bribes, which causes tension among his fellow police officers. He informs two superiors, and they suggest that he collects evidence undercover. However, after a year and a half, no action has been undertaken. Serpico's friend Blair persuades him to go to the mayor, but nothing happens, either. Finally, after an article in the New York Times, a commission is formed to investigate the precinct. Serpico is set up to get shot during an assignment, but survives and testifies in front of the investigation.

Often regarded as one of the classics of the 70s, "Serpico" is a very noble and honest ode to the idealistic title hero who bravely dared to report police corruption among his colleagues, and is often considered one of the performances where Al Pacino had his finest hour. Torn between his ethics and loyalty to his police colleagues, Serpico is indeed a fascinating character, and the screenplay by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler tried to portrait him as concise as possible, without falling into sentimentality (except in the melodramatic sequences between him and his girlfriend). The crafting by Sidney Lumet is not always spot-on, though; the scenes of Serpico's private life seem strangely uneven and disjointed from the rest of the storyline, and thus we here have unfortunate moments of the hero's interest in ballet, adopting a puppy or randomly meeting characters at a party, all of which smell of a "deleted scene". However, when the film follows Serpico's career in the police, this is where all the highlights launch. One sequence in particular is extraordinarily effective: Serpico's arrest of drug dealer Corsaro, who thinks he is safe because he bribed the police. Almost every detail in that sequence is charged with power, from Serpico's anger when he spots Corsaro chatting friendly with four detectives, through Serpico loosing his patience and stripping Corsaro until he rips his pants from his butt, up to the four detectives standing there, sour, so the hero drops a chair in front of one of them to make him move. Lumet managed to make Serpico's discomfort very palpable, especially in the old technique where the perpetrator blames the victim for everything (upon refusing once again to take the bribe, his colleague decide to split his part between them, and call him a "schmuck"), and manages to establish him as the conscience of the police, which is rare and intriguing.

Grade;+++

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Lola Montès

Lola Montes; drama, France, 1955; D: Max Ophüls, S: Martine Carol, Peter ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner, Lise Delamare

Somewhere in the US, 19th century. The circus master presents the main circus attraction: Lola Montes, the famous Irish dancer and courtesan who had a sheer endless list of lovers in Europe, and thus the people from the audience ask any question about her private life for 0.25$. Lola remembers her life parallel with the circus act: as a young girl, she refused to accept an arranged marriage from her mother, and married lieutenant James, but he turned out to be an aggressive alcoholic, and thus she ran away from him. She started performing as a dancer, and toured numerous cities: Warsaw, Dubrovnik, Madrid, Vienna... Along the way, she had numerous lovers, from Franz Liszt up to conductor Claudio Pirotto. Finally, she became intimate with King Ludowig I in Bavaria, and thought she finally found her peace. Unfortunately. the 1848 revolutions broke out, and Lola had to flee. Back in the circus, Lola has one last assignment: each man from the circus audience can kiss and hug her for 1$, and there are hundreds of them waiting.

Max Ophuls' first film in color, and also his last one in his career, "Lola Montes" seems to parallel the director's own life by showing a once famous artist, the title heroine, who failed to achieve a permanent status, and is now reduced and humiliated by surviving as a circus attraction, trying to attract the wide audience with sensationalism and glamour. The movie itself seems strangely full of sensationalism and glamour, with opulent set-designs and extensive costumes, in order to attract the audience, even though Ophuls also shows a clever allegory about life and its disappointments, especially through the perspective of fading glory and transience, which is interwoven in the story. As an ambitious project, "Lola Montes" succeeds, but is also strangely dated at some occasions: the stiff cinemascope seems lax and static, and the story is filmed almost exclusively in long shots - with very sparse close-ups - which makes the characters distant, instead of emotional, whereas the fast pace of the movie is odd in itself, since almost all of Lola's lovers barely get more then 3 minutes of running time (the only exception being the last one, King Ludowig I).

However, even though he is reduced to a mere extra, Franz Liszt has a touching farewell: he wants to sneak out of the cabin at dawn, without waking up Lola, but just as he is about to close the door, she says to him: "You don't even want to say goodbye?" Liszt, ashamed, thus returns back inside, and sits next to Lola in bed, and they share a proper, loving last moment, embracing and comforting each other by telling they will meet again, anyway, somewhere, even though they both now they never will and this is their last minute together. Set as a series of flashbacks inside a circus act, the movie is strangely episodic, but so was Lola's life, since she travelled across Europe, trying to become famous only to finally find a husband to settle down. As such, she is - probably deliberately - an ambiguous character, a woman who ended up prostituting and exploiting her life in the extreme (obvious in the final scene), but a one who only longed for true love and a man with whom she can be at peace, even though only bad things were ultimately granted to her. One character says a pivotal line to the heroine: "We both know the audience is not there to see you dance. The audience is there to meet you when you leave. You are a beautiful woman." Strange how Lola's beauty brought her to so many places when she was young, only to ultimately lead her nowhere, just as Ophuls' talent led him to acclaim, only for the audience to forget him.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Conan the Destroyer

Conan the Destroyer; adventure / fantasy, USA, 1984; D: Richard Fleischer, S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia d'Abo, Grace Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, Mako, Tracey Walter, Sarah Douglas

By promising to resurrect his dead girlfriend Valeria, Queen Taramis tricks Conan into searching for a magical horn, accompanied by Taramis' niece, the teenage virgin Jehnna, who will help find the horn. Conan, Jehnna, and the company - thief Malak, wizard Akiro, Amazon warriot Zula, Bombaata - thus go to a castle, where they have a clash with a wizard and obtain his gem which leads them to an underground city where the horn is located. When Bombaata tries to kill them, Conan finds out that Taramis wants to sacrifice Jehnna and use the horn to resurrect a statue demon, Dagoth. Conan manages to kill the demon, and save Jehnna.

The sequel to "Conan the Barbarian", Richard Fleischer's "Conan the Destroyer" is actually that what all the critics were complaining to the first '82 film. While "Barbarian" walked on a thin line between art and trash, it managed to outweigh to the former thanks to director and writer Milius, who wrote some lines so beautiful they seemed as if they were poetry, and enriched the simple story with some deep philosophical questions. "Destroyer", on the other hand, handles the source material at face value: it never attempts to be anything more than a dumb, banal and trashy adventure 'sword-and-sorcery' B-story, and thus it contains not a single memorable line or quote. At best, it tried to surpass the 1st film by being funnier, and thus several jokes appear here (Conan meets the camel he knocked out from the first film and appologizes, but the animal just spits on his chest; Zulu trying to teach Jehnna how to fight with a bo, but Conan interrupts, saying: "If you want to teach her how to fight, do it the right way, and not with that tooth-pick!"). Unfortunately, except for the aesthetically pleasant image of a castle standing in the middle of a lake, there is too little to see here, and numerous characters are just wasted without having almost anything to do in the storyline. The scene where the hooded mutant is holding Conan by his legs and swirling him around the castle chamber seems almost as if it came from "Airplane!", whereas the only highlight is the finale where the title hero fights a demon that came to life from a statue, even though it is only a 'highlight' in this edition, but for some other occasion it would be deemed too trashy. Overall, a watchable film if one does not take it too seriously, but it cannot compensate for its numerous flaws and omissions, especially when compared to the 1st film that got it right.

Grade;+

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Decalogue VII, VIII, IX, X

Dekalog; drama, Poland, 1988; D: Krzysztof Kieślowski, S: Anna Polony, Maja Barelkowska, Teresa Marczewska, Ewa Blasczyk, Jerzy Stuhr, Zbigniew Zamachowski

Part VII: the 22-year old Majka abducts her own daughter, Ania, who was raised believing that Majka was her sister, and that her grandmother - Ewa - was actually her mother. This was done because at the time of Majka's pregnancy, she was 17 and pregnant with Stefan, her high school teacher. Insisting on the truth, Majka boards a train alone when Ewa and Stefan find Ania... Part VIII: Elzbieta, a Jewish Holocaust survivor in her 40s, confronts the ethics professor, Zofia: Elzbieta was a 6-year old girl during WWII, who was refused shelter in Zofia's apartment, allegedly because Zofia did not want to lie. Zofie admits that her home was spied on by Gestapo and that she could not take Elzbieta in due to that... Part IX: after finding out her husband, Roman, is impotent, his wife Hanka has an affair, but regrets it and returns to him... Part X: two brothers, Jerzy and Artur, inherit a valuable stamp collection from their later father, but are robbed by a store owner.

The final four parts conclude Krzysztof Kieslowski's modern philosophical essay about the Ten Commandments, serving as some sort of annotation to its incomplete rules compared to the complexity of the modern society, as well as questioning numerous cases that show an exception to them due to various 'grey areas'. An appropriate example is in part VII, in which the 22-year old Majka abducts her own daughter Ania who was lied to that Majka is her sister, and that her grandmother is Ania's mother. This situation brings almost a triple insertion of commandments in one, not only "Thou shall not steal", but also "Thou shall not bear false witness" and "Honor thy parents": by abducting, "stealing" her own daughter - i.e. breaking the 7th commandment - Majka is actually invigorating commandments number 4 and 8, by forcing the grandmother to finally tell the truth and by getting her rightful status as a mother. Unfortunately, part VII is arguably the weakest contribution, a far too overstretched and lax story, which ends in a rather inconclusive manner. Part VIII gives another take on commandment 8, and a very tricky one: is it morally justified to uphold the commandment that someone should not tell a lie, even when it means to save a Jewish girl from the Holocaust? Is her life not more important in that context than to lie that she was baptised? Kiewslowski cleverly shows how life outrules some commandments.

After that strong, very thoughtful and very aesthetic segment, parts IX and X somehow finish "The Decalogue" on a lesser finale. However, they are still very good. Part IX gives another unorthodox take, in this edition on commandment "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife": when a husband, Roman, finds out he is impotent, is his wife allowed to have an affair with another man? The segment may not be as powerful as the previous ones, or it may just be that the viewers already got used to the storyline, yet Kieslowski is very subtle and thought-provoking even here, a lot in the terms of spiritual faithfulness in a couple, and especially in the clever notion in which he subtly ridicules the sexist message of the commandment, namely that it only applies to "thy neighbor's wife", but not also to "thy neighbor's husband", thereby showing how one-sided it is. Finally, part X is - surprisingly, and refreshingly - a comedy, and a welcomed change from the previous episodes, even though parts III and IV were already quite cheerful as well. This final part is somewhat less effective, it drags and ends without some decisive point that circles out all the stories into a grand conclusion (as it was the case in Kieslowski's "Three Colors: Red"), but it must be noted for the golden comical performances by the brilliant Jerzy Stuhr and Zbigniew Zamachowski as the two brothers who become paranoid when they inherit a valuable stamp collection (several humorous moments here, as in when Jerzy finds out that Artur bought a dog to guard the apartment, which end in this dialogue: "Show me the dog. It must get used to me." - "I locked him inside the bathroom. I'm a little scared of him, too").

Grade;+++

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Breaking Bad (Season 5)

Breaking Bad; crime-drama series, USA, 2012-2013; D: Vince Gilligan, Michael Slovis, Adam Bernstein, Rian Johnson, Thomas Schnauz, S: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte

The "cook" is back in business: in order to hide all the evidence of his involvement in Gus' meth organization, Walter White uses Jesse, Mike and the others to destroy Gus' laptop found by the DEA. In order to continue "cooking" meth, Walt robs a train filled with methylamine, but has to team up with shady criminals led by Todd's uncle Jack in order to achieve his goals. However, Hank finally figures that Walt is Heisenberg, and teams up with Jesse in order to get evidence by luring Walt into the desert location where he buried his tens of millions of $ in barrels. Jack's gang shows up in order to protect Walt, and - disobeying his orders - kills Hank and enslaves Jesse as their new cook. When Skyler and Walt Jr. disown him from the family, Walt flees to Nebraska all by himself. He returns to give the money to his family, kill Jack's gang and save Jesse.

The final season of "Breaking Bad" gave a rather worthy conclusion to the saga, and pretty much even managed to be even more clever than the previous seasons. Some elements do not lead anywhere even in this last season (the Ted subplot; Marie's kleptomaniac urges), but there are practically no more 'filler' episodes, and smart ideas abound: in the very first episode, 5.1, for instance, Walt, Jesse and Mike are faced with a huge problem because the incriminating evidence against them are all on Gus' laptop, which is stored in a police file basement. But instead of simply breaking in the police headquarters, Walt has a genius idea of simply parking a truck in front of it, and destroying the laptop hardware with a giant magnet that simply destroys every technical device in the range. Another brilliant example of inspired writing is the equally unorthodox train robbery in episode 5.5, where Walt stops the train by feigning a broken truck on the railroad, while the last waggon stops conveniently under a bridge, where Walt's team has thus ample time to suck out the methylamine from it, before the train starts again. Several episodes are also masterfully crafted, such as the last episode featuring Mike - his last line ("Just shut up and let me die in peace!") is unforgettable, and the setting and the locations are beautiful, almost as if the nature is crying for his last act.

Another great addition is the inclusion of small crumbs of delicious humor: it would be a shame to spoil it, but Walt's "confession" video in episode 5.11 is just quietly, howlingly funny. Everything works fine, and the story sets up the unavoidable confrontation between Walt and his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank, in episodes that announce and hint at ultra-suspense. However, this announcement disappoints in episode 5.14, "Ozyamndias", which is like an anticlimax: even though that episode has an incredible rating of 9.9/10 on IMDb, in reality it deserves at least 2.5 points less. Compared to the electrifying, inspired "Face Off" in the previous season, the good, but overhyped "Ozymandias" feels almost lazy, as if instead of giving the viewers another ingeniously inspired finale, they just decided to give up and simply end, in a very conventional way. Luckily, the very last episode, 5.16, written and directed by the series' author Vince Gilligan himself, gives a worthy conclusion, a one which is both thrilling, and then deeply touching and emotional. The story about a decent, terminally-ill man who suddenly turns to crime to earn enough money for his family after his passing, has already been used in previous films, like in Wenders' excellent crime-drama "The American Friend", yet "Breaking Bad" manages to seem unique and genuine on its own, by giving a twist that the hero actually starts enjoying his new path in life, thereby turning into a villain. The characters are so well written that it is difficult to hate many of them - the viewers are constantly torn between rooting for Hank or Walt - even though Walt is theoretically a criminal by the end, who is responsible for a lot of suffering. This is why the last episodes, where he goes into such a sudden path of redemption and regret, back to his good self, by trying to correct his mistakes, is so effective and powerful, and gives the story an aura of humanity.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Decalogue IV, V, VI

Dekalog; drama, Poland, 1988; D: Krzysztof Kieślowski, S: Adrianna Biedrzyńska, Janusz Gajos, Miroslaw Baka, Jan Tesarz, Olaf Lubaszenko, Grażyna Szapołowska

Part IV: after he father, Michal, goes on a trip, his daughter, the 20-year old acting student Anka, decides to secretly open a letter that was left to her by her late mother. When Michal returns, she claims that she read the letter and that in it, her mother wrote that Michal is not her real father. When this disrupts their relationship, Anka suddenly claims she made that all up and never read the letter. Together, they burn the unopened letter... Part V: a 20-year old delinquent cruelly kills a taxi driver. Despite his idealistic lawyer, the delinquent is sentenced to death on a trial... Part VI: Tomek, a young postman, curiously observes the window of his neighbour's apartment, the attractive Magda, at night. He feigns fake notices in order for Magda to visit his post office. Finally, they go out on a date. After a premature ejaculation, Magda belittles him, and a humiliated Tomek runs away and tries to commit suicide. He survives, but has no more interest in Magda, much to her disappointment.

Krzystof Kieslowski continued his legendary TV decalogy with parts 4, 5 and 6, arguably the most unusual instalments in the "Decalogue" series, which are all symbolically congruent to the Ten Commandments - but also, at the same time, show how today's modern society became so complex that these 'rump' commandments are not sufficient enough to encompass all the "grey areas". Part IV is one of the highlights, showing how the 20-year old Anka claims to have found out that Michal is not her biological father, which leads the story into unpredictable directions. For one, Anka even tries to seduce her adoptive father, taking off her shirt and bra, hinting at incest, but he refuses. In this story, Kieslowski not only explores the relationship between parent and child, but also the relationship with identity when faced with an information that places a person in a different context: while Anka is willing to forget Michal, the father, and build a new relationship with Michal, the lover, he remains a person of integrity, since this information does not change anything in his relationship with her, and he decides to treat her as his daughter, regardless. A neglected, small, subtle touch is added by the fact that Anka is a student at the acting Academy, and that this whole segment may have been just her "method acting" experiment, reminiscent somewhat of a restructuring of Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author". All in all, a small jewel.

Part V changes the mood again, and offers something for thriller and crime fans. It is untypically cruel and bloody for Kieslowski's mentality, but gives a brilliant thesis on the 5th commandment "Thou shall not kill": not only is murder a shocking, devastating and psychologically-pervasively damaging to both the victim and the criminal - the taxi driver died as a being, while the criminal died as a human being - but it gets a new dimension when the author gives a critique at the whole state that allows a death penalty. To Kieslowski, when the state enforces a death penalty, even justifiably against such unsympathetic delinquents as the anti-hero, it is equivalent to the whole society killing. This segment is filmed in filtered, brown-gloomy colors, compatible to the worst deed someone can do, and engaged even those viewers who are otherwise unwilling to engage in philosophical films, without them even knowing they actually did, and that they have not just watched an ordinary crime-thriller. It is also shorter and far more effective in this edition, than in the overstretched "A Short Film About Killing". Part VI switches the mood further still, this time going into the genre of a (shy) erotic film. Since the commandment in question is "Thou shall not commit adultery", it gives a slightly lesser, but still an interesting essay about a postman, Tomek, who is attracted to his neighbor, Magda, until she disrupts this attraction by bellitelling love, and thus belliteling herself, as well, which causes a shift and she loses her attraction to him, which in the end seems as if she is sad that she lost a fan. Overall, another great contribution in Kieslowski opus.

Grade;+++

Monday, August 17, 2015

I Am Cuba

Soy Cuba/ Ya Kuba; drama, Cuba / Russia, 1964; D: Mikhail Kalatozov, S: Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, Joe Gallardo, Raul Garcia, Luz Maria Collazo, Jean Bouise
Four stories of life in Cuba before the revolution: a poor girl, Maria, introduces herself as Betty and dances with rich Americans on a party in Havana, until she is forced to become a prostitute and sleep with one of the Americans for money in her hut. The next morning, her fiance finds her in the hut in bed with the American, who quietly leaves... Upon hearing that his entire land was sold to the United Fruit Company and that he must leave it, old farmer Pedro puts his entire sugar plantation on fire... A group of students does not believe the rumors that Fidel Castro has been killed and wages a protest march against the government of Fulgencio Batista... A poor farmer allows Castro's rebel to have a lunch in his hut, but throws him out quickly because his gun makes the farmer nervous. The government bombs indiscriminately, destroying the farmer's house and almost killing his wife and family. Thus, the farmer joins the rebels.

Mikhail Kalatozov's penultimate film, "I Am Cuba" ofers another excellent achievement of the author, which gained cult status when it was, surprisingly, poorly recieved by the Soviet and Cuban authorities and remained in a "bunker", even though they "ordered" the film about the Cuban revolution in the first place. Ironically, despite its anti-Americanism, it was precisely the American cineasts who helped the film achieve a small revival in the 90s, since such a quality would be a shame to forget. Leaving the ideological aspects aside (one can ironically contemplate that Castro's pro-Soviet Cubans probably never heard of "Animal Farm" or Holodmor), "I Am Cuba" is a marvel, a fabulous movie that shows how artists can overcome a propaganda message and enrich it into something more, a universal piece of art. Kalatozov demonstrated a dazzling and unique visual style even in his previous films ("The Cranes are Flying", "Letter Never Sent"), reminiscent of his colleague S. Parajanov: it is interesting to point out that both of them were born in Georgia. However, it is about time that Kalatozov's cinematographer gets a due credit as well, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the mastermind who planned and organized these camera tricks, and who should get his own monument for what he accomplished.

The four stories that show the life in poverty stricken Cuba before the revolution are probably good, but they never would have had such an impact if it were not for Kalatozov's trademark virtuoso visual style, with unbelievable camera drives that seem like a forerunner to Steadicam: the opening 5-minute scene, filmed in one take, has the camera achieve a fantastic stunt when it observes a party with attractive women in a bikini on a roof top, and then it descends down, several stories, to a lower roof top, and follows another woman into the pool, until it submerges bellow water. Equally amazing are the unusual camera angles and takes of the sugar farm, filmed in wide angles, like most of the film - and arguably one of the most "impossible" camera drives of the 20th century cinema, a one that will make the viewer's head spin, the funeral scene in the 3rd story, where the camera first follows the crowd in the funeral, but then suddenly "flies" up several stories above it, reaching a roof top, and then goes on (!), "jumps" over a roof fence, passes through dozens of people sitting on a rooftop and emerges on the other side of the building, floating some 50 yards above the funeral march, which passes through the houses. How these - and other - painstaking shots were done in the 60s, remains a mystery. It is unfair to wonder what the film would have looked like if it were directed in a conventional camera style, yet that only underlines what an amazing power Kalatozov and Yevtushenko had, and what a pity it is that their own homeland forgot about them, but the rest of the world simply could not, after all these unforgettable images.

Grade;+++

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Letter Never Sent

Neotpravlennoye pismo; adventure / drama, Russia, 1959; D: Mikhail Kalatozov, S: Innokentiy Smotunovskiy, Tatyana Samoylova, Vasiliy Livanov, Evgeniy Urbanskiy

Three men - Andrei, Sergei, Konstantin - and a woman - Tanya - arrive via plane in the forest somewhere in the Siberian Irkutsk Oblast, in order to spend the summer in the wild in search for diamonds. They spend months there, digging and browsing the river banks, but fail to find any precious minerals. Andrei gets into trouble when he accidentally angers Sergei upon discovering that the latter is writing letters to a woman who loves someone else. When they finally find diamonds in autumn, they wake up one morning to find that a forest fire surrounded them. Sergei is killed by a falling tree, while Tanya and Konstantin have to drag the wounded Andrei on a travois to reach a spot where they will be rescued by helicopters. However, realizing he is dragging them behind, Andrei leaves, whereas Tanya dies from cold when the snow covers the v alley. Konstantin is the only one saved.

Mikhail Kalatozov's 13th film, "Letter Never Sent" once again caught the director on right foot and demonstrated a 'tour-de-force' visual style that only enriched the already rich and exciting adventure story. Almost as some sort of a sharper version of his own previous film, the rather corny comedy "True Friends", where three characters embark on a journey on a raft down the river, only to constantly get back into civilization, "Letter" shows the opposite: characters who ends up in the wild and encounter only wilderness there, without any fancy or neat solution. The forest, and nature in general, were always great locations to conjure up a gorgeous mood on film, and the Siberian forests provided for an opulent setting for only four characters in the entire film.

Just like in his best film, "The Cranes are Flying", Kalatozov once again raises the level of the film by at least 20% thanks to the mobile camera: the highlights are the scene where Tanya and Andrei finally find a diamond and run through the forest from joy, which looks as if it came from a dream because it is, it seems, deliberately over-illuminated; the scene of the fire burning in the lower foreground of the screen while the montage of the characters walking through the meadow, browsing for diamonds on the river bank and digging is seen in the background; the shot of Andrei's immobile face placed in a close up in horizontal position while he is being carried and trees pass by him; the majestic hallucination of Vera's ghost that Konstantin has while he is slowly going mad while freezing on a raft that carried him through the river... These are delicious mise-en-scenes, and give the film edge and sharpness. The forest fire, which starts some 40 minutes into the film, is a tad problematic though: it looks great and suspenseful on the screen, but from the ecological perspective, burning acres of trees just for a movie is a disaster. Luckily, the fire does not consume too much of the film's running time, but the finale, where only two protagonists remain in the snow, is a little overstretched and overlong, as well, and could have been shortened by about 10 minutes. Still, "Letter" is overall excellent, one of the best movies from the 50s, and gives a rare treat as being one of only 16 movie or TV appearances featuring the sadly underused Tatyana Samoylova, one of the most magical, tender and charismatic actresses of her generation.

Grade;+++

Friday, August 14, 2015

True Friends

Vernye druzhye; comedy, Russia, 1954; D: Mikhail Kalatozov, S: Vasili Merkuryev, Boris Chirkov, Alexander Fyodorovich Borisov

Three kids and best friends - Vasili, Boris and Sasha - enjoy floating a raft on a small river near Moscow. Decades later, Boris and Sasha team up to find Vasili again, who is now a respected director of the academy of architecture in Moscow, and persuade him to make a long planned voyage on a raft down the Volga river, which is still natural and free of cement and urban constructions. They embark on a raft, but Boris loses his shoes in the river, so they stop in a town to buy new ones, but get confused for three singers and are forced to sing in a full theatre. They continue they journey and stop in another town, where Sasha meets his old love again, Natalia, whereas Vasili gets arrested because he lost his ID and clashed with Nekhoda, an arrogant architect who was placed there by his administration and who thinks that he can construct the town's infrastructure as a personal fiefdom. The confusion is resolved, and Vasili replaces Nekhoda, thereby returning with Sasha and Boris on a draft back home.

"True Friends" seems to be a Russian version of those kitschy American musicals from the 50s, and is equally as dated. The adventure plot in which three friends embark on a journey on a raft down the Volga river sounds interesting and tempting, but is quickly "stranded" due to boring episodes of them singing while playing a guitar and mediocre comical adventures when they stop and land twice in two cities. Unfortunately, that is pretty much it and the film does not embark on a richer or more imaginative (movie) excursion of the potentials of the original concept, except in a dramatic subplot when one of them, Sasha, finds his long lost love again in the town. When the best comedy moments are only scenes of characters accidentally losing their shoes on the raft in the river or the misunderstanding of Vasili trying to convince his subordinate, Nekhoda, that he is his boss even though he does not have any ID, it is clear the humor is not enough to sate a viewer, though some could probably enjoy the story due to its nostalgic touch since it shows three business men trying to "run away" from the stressful city life and enjoy in the nature one last time. A far more dramatic version of this story was achieved in Boorman's "Deliverance" 18 years later, whereas Mikhail Kalatozov surprised when he directed a far more brilliant achievement three years later with his masterwork "The Cranes are Flying".

Grade;++

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Decalogue I, II, III

Dekalog; drama, Poland, 1988; D: Krzysztof Kieślowski, S: Henryk Baranowski, Wojciech Klata, Krystyna Janda, Aleksander Bardini, Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis

Part I: Warsaw. The 12-year old Pawel is a curious boy who enjoys calculating equations on a computer with his atheist father Krzysztof. Pawel is disturbed by the prospect that there is nothing after death, though his aunt teaches him that God is love. One winter day, Pawel and his father calculate that it is safe to skate on the frozen lake. However, the computer was wrong and the ice breaks, drowning Pawel... Part II. Dorota is in a dilemma: her infertile husband may die from a disease in a hospital, so she ponders if she should live with another man with whom she had an affair and stayed pregnant. The doctor swears that her husband will die, and that she should not abort the baby. However, the husband wakes up from coma, alive and well... Part III. On Christmas Eve, taxi driver Janusz is persuaded by Ewa, a woman he once had an affair with three years ago, to help her search for her lost husband Edward. Janusz is reluctant, because he wants to spend Christmas with his wife and family, but agrees to help Ewa. The two of them spend the night searching for Edward in a shelter and hospital, until Ewa confesses that Edward left her a long time ago, and that she just wanted to spend the holidays with someone.

Krzystof Kieslowski's 10-part TV series "The Decalogue" received a small revival and surge in popularity when Roger Ebert included it on his list of 10 favorite films in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll. Loosely based of the Ten Commandments, "The Decalogue" uses them more thematically and playfully, and is not preoccupied with strictly following them (for instance, parts II and III overlap more with commandment nine - "Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's wife" - than with commandment two and three), but maybe it is deliberately ambiguous, just to show that more than one commandment can show up for each episode. The results are sometimes dark, sometimes positive and charming, but always magical. Kieslowski knows how to create a wonderfully aesthetic mood out of small things in life, and some images really are poetic. Part I, for instance, starts comically, when the 12-year old Pawel asks his father to quickly come up with a playful mathematical task, the the father says: "Kermit the frog is running away on skis that go 64 km/h from Piggy the pig who's skis go 87 km/h. How soon will she catch up with him if he has a three minute head start?" The mysterious man who stands along the fire and observes the winter gives it a dose of enigma, whereas there is an inspired moment where the father tips a shrine and a candle falls, dripping under the eyes of a painting of the Holy Mary, in a poetic image that seems as if the painting is crying. The mood in extraordinary: it is Warsaw, and yet, it is not. It is realistic, and yet, it is magical. It gives a mythical input of the first commandment, and gives a modern output: a computer is not perfect, and science may not replace God in this world.

Part II is slightly weaker: the theme seems slightly overstretched and, as already pointed out, seems to have more in common with the 9th commandment. It takes for way too long until the story gets to the point, and the main plot - a woman, Dorota, who wonders if she should abandon her terminally ill husband and continue living with a new man - seems somewhat like a soap opera. However, it has two strong melancholic, emotional scenes that stand out: the sad scene where Dorota "plucks" all the leaves of a plant and then breaks it in frustration, and the bee that saves itself from drowning in a cup. Part III is again on the right track, and is such an unorthodox departure from the previous two segments it is unbelievable, a charming, uplifting 'Christmas story' that deserves to be shown each time on that holiday. Basically, it shows a lonely woman, Ewa, who is apparently tired of spending the holidays alone, and wants to "steal" Janusz away from his family, to spend Christmas with him by fabricating a silly excuse that will have them tour the city all night. Quite different from the previous metaphysical parts, episode III is a relaxed excursion into the holiday genre, and adds a lot of optimism and genuine charm. It may seem that some episodes lack what others have - some are contemplative, others are relaxed - but it only shows that Kieslowski tried to give a whole spectrum of a human experience and emotion, so that everyone will eventually get his treat, and thus the first three episodes are excellent overall.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

House, MD (Season 1-2)

House, M.D.; drama series, USA, 2004-2006; D: Peter O'Fallon, Bryan Spicer, Greg Yaitanes, Deran Sarafian, S: Hugh Laurie, Jesse Spencer, Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, Robert Sean Leonard, Lisa Edelstein

Dr. Gregory House is a bitter, but brilliant doctor at the Princeton-Plainsboro hospital in New Jersey. His assistants are doctors Eric Foreman, Robert Chase and Allison Cameron, whereas oncologist Wilson is his only friend who moves to his place after separating from his wife. Under the supervision of the hospital boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, House is assigned to the most bizarre, surreal medical cases that leave all other doctors without an answer - except for him. He also gets into a quandary after his ex-girlfriend, Stacy, briefly shows up to ask help for her husband. At the end of season 2, House is shot and wounded by a former patient.

In 2004, David Shore created "House, MD", which would soon make a progress into one of the most hyped and acclaimed TV shows in the 2000s, featuring a phenomenal role for the brilliant actor Hugh Laurie. However, the first two seasons where not House's finest hour. It is evident the authors were still adjusting and finding their own ground while creating the storyline: some of the episodes were too melodramatic (the pretentious, bloated symbolism in which the new born baby comes to life while his mother dies simultaneously in episode 1.18, for instance), while others were too explicit in some extreme medical diseases (in episode 2.24, a man's swollen tongue bloats to such a proportion that it squeezes out his right eye and causes it to fall out, and later causes his scrotum to explode from blood), some of which are so tasteless they are more suitable for a horror movie, and thus drop the overall quality of the two seasons by a notch. Unfortunately, the dialogues are also not as inspired as it will be in later seasons, and alas, cannot compensate for these flaws. Some of the lines are fantastic and give the typical "House" style of charm, yet they should have been at a double or even triple rate compared to the conventional disalogues in order to salvage them. However, when they get there, the writers truly hand over some delicious lines, whether it is between House and Wilson ("Mom won't give her consent yet." - "Godot would be faster"; "Did your pager just go off or are you simply trying to dodge this conversation?" - "Why can't both be true?"), House and a guest character ("Is it true what they say about Jewish foreplay?" - "Two hours of begging?" - "I heard four." - "I'm only half-Jewish") or House childishly bickering with the husband of his ex-girlfriend, Stacy, who also has her fair share of a juicy comment ("This is like watching Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward in the 3rd grade"). Despite the unsure, shaky path the show had in the first two seasons, equipped with a few empty walks, it also proved it has outbursts of greatness hidden in there, such as a couple of multi-layered episodes, like in episode 1.21, "Three Stories", where the 'unreliable narrator' method gave a very clever plot twist.

Grade;++

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Breaking Bad (Season 3-4)

Breaking Bad; crime-drama series, USA, 2010-2011; D: Vince Gilligan, Adam Bernstein, Jim McKay, Tricia Brock, S: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte

Albuquerque, New Mexico. After he accepted the offer, Walter White now "cooks" meth in an underground lab for Gus Fring, a drug distributor who hides behind the ostensibly innocent looking dry cleaning and fast food businesses, which he uses for cover. Walter finally confesses that he earns money through meth to his wife Skyler, who is at first disgusted, but eventually accepts that and returns to him. Walter's brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank, is wounded after two Tuco Salamanca's and Hector's cousins tried to kill him. Walter ditches his lab assistant Gale for Jesse. However, after Jesse gets into direct confrontation with two of Gus' drug sellers because they killed a child, Walter intervenes in Jesse's favor and kills the sellers. This causes an ever bigger mistrust between him and Gus, which escalates when Gus decides to kill Hank, and presumably replace Walter with Jesse. Walter thus kills Gus by luring him into a retirement home where Hector is residing.

Following critical acclaim, seasons 3 and 4 actually even topped "Breaking Bad's" first two seasons in suspense. Episode 3.6, "Sunset", in which Hank corners Jesse and wants to get inside his RV, not knowing that Walter is in there was well, which is highly incriminating, immediately returns the series right on the track, thanks also to the neat trick the situation is resolved (Walter phones Saul, whose secretary tricks Hank into leaving for the hospital after feigning that his wife was injured in an alleged car crash), but the next episode, 3.7, "One Minute", even overshadowed the previous one and immediately became the best episode of "Breaking bad" until that moment: in it, Hank is in his car on a parking lot, when he receives an anonymous call, warning him that someone will try to assassinate him in a minute, and then two killers, Hector's relatives, show up and surround his car from two sides. You can nitpick it as much as you care, because "One Minute" is watertight and flawless, with so many references that almost every detail, word and movement has its point, cause and effect in the grand finale of things. Exquisitely written by Thomas Schnauz, "One Minute" truly is a small masterwork, and reaches a grand finale whose intensity reminds almost of a showdown in "Rio Bravo" set in the modern times (in one scene, Hank looks at his car clock, which shows 3:07, which is a reference to the fact that it is the episode 3.07; unarmed, Hank drives backward and causes tight pressing of one assassin with the car's rear end; the irony of a flashback in which Hector wanted to drown the kid assassin in water in 'one minute' and the "free bullet" that the other assassin drops by accident on the ground and is found by Hank...). The continuation of the storyline in season 3 is, despite that, actually rather stagnant and uneven: while these two aforementioned episodes are small jewels, there is a strange lull in the episodes before and after them, almost as if season 3 peaked there and suddenly dropped before and afterwards. Too many episodes are wasted on ponderous, exhausting family matters in Walter's private life, several supporting characters (Brandon and other drug addicts) waste the series' time because they are insipid, whereas some episodes, like "The Fly", are poorly, boringly written.

However, the story once again gains momentum with the beginning of season 4, where it reaches its heights and a 'golden age' of creativity. "Breaking Bad" takes a long time for a set-up. A very, very long time. But just like a sling, the more it takes to stretch it, the more velocity it releases in the end. And the finale features a pay-off of such monumental proportions it silences any previous questionable moments, which all align into a harmonious whole and have a bigger purpose in the spectacular ending. The last four episodes, from 4.10 to 4.13, are a magnificent demonstration in suspense, and the last episode, 4.13, "Face Off", directed and written by Vince Gilligan, even denotes "One Minute" to 2nd place and overtakes the throne as the best episode of the series. "Face Off" - and particularly the whole sequence where Gus goes to the retirement home in it - is an example of Hitchcockian thrills, a sophisticated lesson in ultra-suspense which gains such intensity of almost unparallelled proportions and catapults "Breaking Bad" on the Parthenon of best crime TV shows of the 21st century. Any mention of the details in "Face Off" should be a shame to spoil, but it is sufficient to say that the cat-and-mouse game between Walter and Gus reaches its climax, in a bravura crafted and conceptualized episode that gave such satisfaction that one immediately realizes how petty it is to waste any further time on remakes, sequels or any other unoriginal lesser forms of entertainment, and how "Breaking Bad" gave a genuine lesson about how the quality of (a large number of) films in the 21st century evaporated, but how it found its new fortress in the TV format. Rarely do you get such a kick out of a TV show as in this finale.

Grade;+++ 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Carnage

Carnage; black comedy, France/ Germany/ Poland/ Spain, 2011; D: Roman Polanski, S: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz

New York. After an argument, two boys clash: Zachary hits Ethan and breaks his two teeth. Their respective parents thus meet in an apartment to settle the matter. Zachary's parents are of mixed views: Nancy feels remorse, but Alan is trying to whitewash Zachary's action by claiming that violence is constant in human nature. Ethan's parents differ as well: while Penelope is strongly trying to advocate that all violence is wrong and demands punishment for Zachary, Michael tries to remain neutral and appease Alan and Nancy. In the end, they end up in an argument as well, until they agree to disagree.

The movie adaptation of the play "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza, "Carnage" is a half-jewel of a film: it starts in a fantastic fashion, but somewhere half way loses steam and ends in a rather abrupt, anti-climatic finale that is not entirely satisfying. The storyline in which parents of two kids who had a fight themselves start to childishly argue, because each couple seems to whitewash their kids wrongdoings, mirrors some eternal flaws when it comes to human interests which disrupt objectivity, and is thus congruent with Roman Polanski dark and nihilistic worldview about human nature. The film/play has a masterful sense for comic dialogues, some of which are so inspired, sharp and brilliant they bring down the house (Michael trying to de-escalate the situation by mentioning how he gave his wife the nickname "Darjeeling" instead of "Darling"; Penelope subtly trying to insert her worldview in each conversation with Nancy, such as when they talk about art and Penelope says: "We really believe that culture can be such a powerful force for peace!"; the argument between Michael and Alan after the latter's phone conversation: "Pharmaceutical companies are the worst. Just profit, profit, profit..." - "Nobody said you should listen to my conversation." - "Nobody said you should have it under my nose." - "I'm forced to have it here."). The four performances are also all fantastic. However, it seems the 'kammerspiel' setting inside only one location makes the film slightly monotone, which is sensed in the second, weaker half that has far less good moments, and the subtle mood is disrupted by the unnecessary explicit, tasteless scene of Nancy throwing up on the table. The confrontation, which gives a typical clash of revisionism and apologetics reminiscent of the Balkan mentality, seems to be building up for a physical fight between the two couples, but it never comes, and thus the ending is much tamer and benign compared to the first half.

Grade;++