Thursday, January 28, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens; science-fiction adventure, USA, 2015; D: J. J. Abrams, S: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill

Some 30 years after the last events, Luke Skywalker has disappeared and is hiding on an unknown planet. In the meantime, a new threat appeared: the First Order, a successor of the Galactic Empire, which wants to destroy the Republic. It is led by leader Snoke and Han Solo's renegade son Kylo Ren. Scavenger girl Rey finds plans of Skywalker's hideout in a droid ball BB-8, and thus becomes the target of the First Order. However, she is helped by Fin, a dissident who quit being a Stormtrooper, as well as Solo and Chewbacca. Soon the alliance helps them, led by general Leia Organa. They manage to destroy another Death Star and find Skywalker - but Ren kills Solo.

When J.J. Abrams became the first person to direct both a "Star Trek" and a "Star Wars" film, huge responsibility was placed on his back to make it right - while this 'commerical pressure' can be sensed in the too "safe" way he rehashed old storylines of the original "Star Wars" film, which made it too predictable at times, he still managed to add some minuscule amounts of wit and vitality into the franchise. The first half of the film works really well and gains momentum: Rey and Finn, played wonderfully by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, are refreshing characters who manage to carry that innocence that made the original trilogy so popular in the first place. What makes it even more interesting, is that Finn is actually a dissident who decided to quit being a Stormtrooper (an effective scene when all the Stormtroopers shoot at the civilians in the village except for him, who refuses to do it), which is untypical, though a lot more of his personality and a whole subplot could have been explored (we do not know where he came from or who he was before that, or who are the other faceless soldiers who interact with him). Rey is also a surprisingly independent girl at times (when Finn comes to her rescue and runs holding her hand, she lets it go and shouts: "I can run without someone holding my hand!"), though more of that wit would have been welcome. Some details and ideas are also inspired in that first act (the villain Ren uses his Jedi power to 'freeze' a laser beam fired at him; several iconic relics of spaceships from the previous war are seen on the desert planet Jakku; the 'droid-ball' BB is really cute when he gives a "thumbs up" using a lighter), as well as the fact that Rey and Finn escape in the Millennium Falcon - which, of course, unavoidably leads them to Han Solo and Chewbacca, in a grand entrance.

Unfortunately, the second half loses its inspiration and becomes too routine, with the ad nauseam repeated plot points from the "Star Wars" narrative: there is again a map in a droid; again on a desert planet; again a Death Star which again has the same weak spot (one wonders how they could not learn from that mistake and make a different design) and is again about to destroy the hero's planet in 15 minutes. Another glaring error is that there is no explanation as to what happened in those 30 years since the last (true) film "Return of the Jedi": how (and why?) did the First Order get those spaceships, weapons, soldiers and money when the Republic won over the Galactic Empire? What is their grudge against the Republic, anyway, and are the people from the First Order now not the rebels? Even more bizarre is that Solo is still doing a petty job as a smuggler - a hero who helped re-establish the Republic was never awarded and given a military pension? And his Millenium Falcon just stands on a desert planet and rots? It is as absurd of a plot point as if battleship Yamato would have survived just to rot in an amusement park somewhere in Shikoku or that Ronald Reagan had to support himself by smuggling goods across the Mexican border after the Cold War. The new villain Ren is very scarcely explored and may get a better treatment in the next movie, but unfortunately, in this one he is just a one-dimensional character whom the viewers do not understand. Luckily, co-screenwriter Michael Arndt manages to save that second half from debase with a few inspired lines: one refreshing exchange between Leia and Solo is welcomed ("I always hate it when you have to go." - "That is why I always go. So that you would miss me."), yet he was not allowed to completely polish and ferment the potentials of the script to the fullest due to the rush. Though "Star Wars" were always "Legend of the Galactic Heroes"-light, aimed more at entertaining. Overall, it is a rather well made sequel, though it left the impression that its principal point of continuing is only the commercial value, and not the motivation of the characters.

Grade;++

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Goodbye Girl

The Goodbye Girl; romantic comedy, USA, 1977; D: Herbert Ross, S: Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings

New York. Former dancer Paula and her 10-year old daughter Lucy return to their apartment and find out that Paula's boyfriend left her to make a film in Europe. Worse, still, he sublent the apartment to an actor arriving from Chicago, Elliot Garfield. When Elliot arrives, Paula reluctantly lets him stay in the apartment, since she is short on cash. However, he has his own problems: he stars in a play in which the director wants him to play Shakespeare's Richard III as a gay. The premiere is a disaster, yet Paula and Elliot fall in love. Elliot is hired to play in a movie in Seattle, but convinces Paula that he will return and will not dump her like her ex-boyfriend.

"The Goodbye Girl" is one of those gentle comedies about humanity, where there is no conflict or a real plot, and the storyline is instead focused on the small 'slice-of-life' moments that warm the viewers' hearts. It is somewhat clumsily assembled, with a a few weak episodes (for instance, the episode in which Elliot is hired to be a doorman in a strip club is corny) and Paula is the weak link (Marsha Mason plays her theatrically, but even worse is that her character whines too much and is at times too exclusive to buy that Elliot would fall in love with her), yet its three characters are so lovely and kind you cannot resist but to simply smile at their interactions and small nuances.

A great deal of credit to that has to be given to writer Neil Simon, whose delicious lines sometimes even reach elevated comic-melancholic dimensions of J. L. Brooks and B. Wilder: whether they come from Elliot (after a terrible premiere in which he had to play Richard III as a gay, he snaps and announces that he will suddenly start eating bad food: "I thought you didn't put unnatural things in your body?" - "I don't...I put it into Richard's body! I'm trying to kill that son of a bitch!"), Paula (Elliot announced that he plays his guitar nude in his room. Paula knocks and asks: "Are you decent?", he says "Yes". She enters, and he is playing the guitar naked: "I am decent. I am also naked."; "I wouldn't like him even if I would like him.") or even the 10-year old Lucy ("He is not my type." - "Your type never hangs around to stay your type."). Richard Dreyfuss is great in the leading role: he maybe plays the typical role of a struggling actor, which is always beloved by film awards, but still delivered a genuine and charming performance since his Elliot is such an excellent, sympathetic character.

Grade;+++

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy; science-fiction action comedy, USA, 2014; D: James Gunn, S: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro

In '88, a boy named Peter is taken by an alien spaceship of space pirates led by Yondu. Years later, Peter travels across planets and finds a mysterious orb. He is arrested together with bounty hunters Groot, a humanoid tree, and Rocket, a humanoid raccoon, as well as alien woman Gamora, and sent to a space prison. They escape together with Drax and figure that Peter's orb is wanted by alien dictator Ronan, who wants to use its energy to rule the Universe and destroy planets. Ronan obtains the orb, but just as he is about to commit a global Holodomor against planet Xandar, he is stopped by Peter, Rocket, Groot, Drax and Gamora. The five are pardoned for their crimes and take on the name 'Guardians of the Galaxy'.

So many big budget Hollywood films get intimidated by the high costs of their own production, and thus become petrified and stiff from this realization, which inhibits their creative spirit - yet James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" is one of the rare positive exceptions of that rule, since it is refreshingly relaxed and simply just plain fun - so much fun in fact, you may get the impression that the authors filmed the actors in their cozy back yard for a nickle. Certainly, it is a superhero film of the Marvel franchise, yet few of their adaptations contained such a contagiously positive energy and wit, unlike some other films whose viewing seemed more like homework for Marvel fans. The characters are irresistibly conjured up, and have much more layers to them than your 'run-of-the-mill' superhero: even the seemingly one-dimensional humanoid tree Groot proves to have a far more sympathetic personality than expected in the end.

The opening act starts almost as some sort of a melodrama: a kid, Peter, witnesses how his sick mother dies in the hospital, runs away - and then gets abducted by a spaceship! This is a testimony to the narrative with enough twists to get away with it, even though it does become slave to the standard action sequences and explosions here and there. However, the comic lines are a delicious treat, whether they come from Earthling Peter ("I always keep my promises, when the're to muscle-bound whack jobs who will kill me if I don't") the dense muscle-bound Dorax ("His people are completely literal, metaphors will go right over his head." - "Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are fast! I will catch it!") or the raccoon Rocket's 'deciphering' of Groot's lines, who can only say "I am Groot!", which mimics and spoofs Han Solo's "communication" with Chwebacca, who can only howl. One of the highlights is definitely Peter's plan which clashes with Rocket ("I have 12% of a plan!" - "12%" (laughs) - "That's a fake laugh..." - "That's the most real, authentic, hysterical laugh of my entire life because that is not a plan!"), though there are also enough other moments with irony and charm, which help elevate "Guardians..." above the mass of the other films of that genre.

Grade;++

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Man Who Would Be King

The Man Who Would Be King; adventure, USA / UK; 1975; D: John Huston, S: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Saeed Jaffrey, Karroom Ben Bouih, Shakira Caine

19th century, British Raj. Rudyard Kipling gets a visit from an old acquaintance, Peachy, who tells them about his adventure with Daniel Dravot. Peachy and Daniel decided to go to Kafiristan, a small kingdom in central Asia, where the last time a Westerner set foot on it was over 2200 years ago, when Alexander the Great came there. After crossing the mountains, Peachy and Daniel arrived there and decided to support one local warrior in order to make him and king and then rob his treasure. However, the people mistaken Daniel for a God, and crowned him king. Daniel's ego became too big and he decided to stay there. However, when he was scratched by a woman and started to bleed, the people realised he was a fake and threw him down the bridge into a canyon.

An adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's eponymous novel, John Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King" is one of the finest adventure films of the 70s in the first 2/3 of its running time, though several omissions and clumsy decisions slightly ruin the high impression in the last third. The main concept is deliciously tempting and stimulative: two British soldiers, Peachy and Daniel, decide that "India is not big enough for them anymore", and then decide to go to one of the last unknown regions on Earth, Kafiristan, where the last time a Westerner set foot on it was during Alexander the Great. This conjures up a sense of mystery and anticipation, since nothing is known about the land they are entering. At least a quarter of the film is a pure comedy, since Sean Connery and Michael Caine share such a contagiously positive chemistry that they even enhance some comical situations. In one of the most insanely absurd moments, after the natives mistakenly started to think that Daniel is a God because he was not wounded by a shot of an arrow, Peachy says this priceless line: "He can break wind on both ends simultaneously, which is probably more than any god can do!" Another golden dialogue is when Peachy and Daniel are stuck in the snowy mountains, and then remember one military campaign, when a soldier lost his purse with his money, and then turned around to get it back, but accidentally initiated the whole army to start charging with him against the enemy, for which he was even awarded. Their plan to find some anonymous warrior, help him become a king, only to topple him and steal his wealth, is practically a dissertation of colonialism in small, while the locations create a feeling of exotic spark with ease, though a few ellipses leave the film feeling episodic. Unfortunately, the last third lost its path and left the impression as if the authors did not know what to do with the king subplot anymore, which concluded in a rather vague finale that does not do the rest of the film justice.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Entr'acte

Entr'acte; silent experimental short, France, 1924; D: René Clair, S: Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Börlin, Inge Frïss

Two men jump into the screen on the rooftop, and fire a cannon. A series of montages: a ballet dancer turns out to be a bearded man; two men play chess on the rooftop until they are interrupted by a splash; a ship in double exposure "swims" across the city. A hunter shoots at an egg attached to a string, and a pigeon comes out of it and lands on his head. However, another hunter shoots at the pigeon and instead kills the man. A camel drives the coffin for a funeral, but the carriage runs away and everyone has to run after it.

The film that Ante Peterlić considers the "first chef-d'œuvre of the French Dadaist film movement", "Entr'acte" is principally a film exercise and director Rene Clair has a field day playing and joking with the audience through his wide array of cinematic techniques. With a running time of only 20 minutes, it is luckily also compact enough not to strain the patience of the viewers too much, even though its stylistic practice is inspired enough to warrant even a longer running time. The first half is assembled out of vague, standalone episodes that still mirrored the efforts of the early cinema artists to articulate what the movie media could all do, whereas it features some interesting cinematic techniques (double exposure, slow motion, Dutch angles, close ups). However, the second half is certainly the best part of "Entr'acte", since it combined all that surreal chaos into a harmonious story - the episode in which a hunter gets killed by a hunter, and a camel pulls his coffin on a carriage, only for the carriage to get loose and roll downhill, forcing all the mourners to literally run after it - evolves practically into an epic slapstick chase (involving even ships and cars) of burlesque (black) humor. It is the highlight, and luckily takes up over half of the film. Clair assembled a small classic, a one that would later influence a lot more surreal-abstract films, especially the ones by Bunuel.

Grade;+++

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; fantasy action comedy, USA, 2014; D: Jonathan Liebesman, S: Alan Ritchson (voice), Noel Fisher (voice), Johnny Knoxville (voice), Jeremy Howard (voice), Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Tohoru Masamune, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub (voice)

New York. While investigating about the activities of the criminal Foot Clan, reporter April O'Neill stumbles upon four humanoid teenage ninja turtles: Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo. They mutated into their form after O'Neill's father destroyed his laboratory, realising his experiments about mutations would be misued by Mr. Sacks and Shredder. The Foot Clan attacks and kidnaps the three turtles to extract their mutagen and use it as a poison gas, which would enable them to ear a lot of money by cleaning it later up. However, April and Raphael save the turtles. In the showdown on the roof of a building, the poison is stopped while Shredder falls from the building.

Those who complained at Barron's original live action '90 film, should watch the 2014 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and realise what a real weak Turtles film would have looked like. The first 15 minutes are actually quite well made, as only April O'Neill (Megan Fox in a good performance) is seen investigating the criminal activity of the Foot Clan, which conjures up a slight sense of mystery and anticipation, but as soon as the Turtles show up, slide down the sever - and one of them farts - it all goes downhill from there. The whole film is one giant action sequence - which would not have been a problem if it was as inventive or as brilliantly choreographed as a J. Woo film - which are the predictable 'over-the-top' stuff with little spirit or wit.

Also, the design of the Turtles themselves is misguided: they look intimidating, extreme, like Turtles on steroids; a blend of Schwarzenegger and the Orcs from "The Lord of the Rings". The '90 film tried to be so unobtrusive, casual and down-to-earth, it was as if it shared our world, and you could almost imagine that a Turtle might enter your living room. Here, you know everything in this world is exggerated and fake, and thus impossible. In the entire film, there are only two good jokes. One is the post-credit scene of the two Turtles "camouflaging" themselves as a bra cup on a poster. But in the sole film, it takes a while, yet then a minute of greatness shows up: while the four Turtles are in an elevator, waiting, the monotone "blip" sounds of each storey is heard - and spontaneously, Michelangelo starts drumming in tune to it, and creates music out of it, while the three other Turtles join him. It is so full of life, charm and wit, you realise it is their finest hour - and that this is the entire dimension of the good part of the film. The cinematography, visual effects, editing, etc., everything technical is done perfectly - but they deliver a product as bland and forgettable as a glass of water. Barron and the original '90 "Ninja Turtles" can sleep safely with this remake: they are still the unreachable ideal.

Grade;+

The Visitors

Les Visiteurs; fantasy comedy, France, 1993; D: Jean-Marie Poiré, S: Jean Reno, Christian Clavier, Valérie Lemercier

In the 12th century, knight Godefroy and his servant Jacquouille arrest a witch. However, she pours a magic potion into his water and causes Godefroy to hallucinate and kill the father of his fiance, Frenegonde. In order to correct his mistake, Godefroy and Jacquouille go to the wizard Eusebius to drink a magic potion which will send them a few hours back in time to stop this. However, they end up in year 1993 instead. Confused by the roads and machines, Godefroy is at first sent into a mental asylum, but finds pitty in Beatrice, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Frenegonde, who takes him and his servant in her house. After a lot of chaos, Godefroy finds the great-great-great-grandson of Eusebius, drinks a new magic potion, and returns back in the 12th century, right in time to stop himself from killing the father - and marries Frenegonde.

"The Visitors" is a real curiosity of cinema: back in 1993, it was the highest grossing French film of the year, with 13.8 million tickets sold at the box office, but in the rest of the world, it did not manage to repeat even a fraction of that success, since it became obvious to objective audiences that it is just plain a mess, a bad film. Already in the opening act in the 12th century, when knight Godefroy uses his sword to cut off the head of a knight, hallucinates that people around him are pigs while Jacquouille travels back in time by turning into shit, one already gets the idea what kind of a low, primitive humor the authors chose. The concept that French people from the middle ages travel to the modern times and experience a culture shock is great, but unfortunately the authors decided to take the worst possible direction of the story and insist on grimaces, vulgar, crude or intolerably vile jokes, thereby contaminating it entirely. In the entire film, there are only two good jokes: the genuine reaction of awe when Jacquouille and Godfrey stumble upon a road in the meadow and attack a yellow car; Jacquouille's tendency to say "OKAY" at every questionable occasion, suggesting that he is "acceptably" rude just because of an American influence. However, that's it. Nothing else is even worth mentioning. The rest of the film is just one forced empty walk full of contrived moments. It is a bad sign when the audience realises that the film ran out of ideas, and yet there is a full hour remaining. Sloppily assembled and catastrophically unimaginative, "The Visitors" is a terrible French attempt at appealing to the wide audience, with utterly underdeveloped potentials - when the best the authors can think off is Godeferey and Jacquouille taking a bath in clothes or making animal noises over the telephone, you know it should be done off with. Not even the charisma of the great Jean Reno cannot salvage this derangement.

Grade;-

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road; action, Australia / USA, 2015; D: George Miller, S: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

In a post-apocalyptic desert world, Max is kidnapped by War Boys, the army of the dictator Immortan Joe, and held captive for blood transfusion in Citadel. When Joe's female warrior Furiosa escapes in a truck with five slave women, to free them, Joe sends the War Boys to catch them. In the pursuit, Max is freed, and he joins Furiosa and the five women, together with ex-War Boy Nux, to find a green valley. Upon realising that the green valley became a swamp, Max, Furiosa and the five women turn around and head back to Citadel before Joe's army gets there. They blow up the canyon and thus block the entrance, killing Joe. Once in Citadel, Furiosa and Max are treated as liberators.

For all the hype, "Mad Max" reboot called "Fury Road" is principally one thing: a 2-hour 'Monster Truck rally' - and once that is understood, everything else falls into perspective. For all the great action stunts and chase sequences, they can only go so far. Not that the previous instalments were great pieces of art, but they at least had some sense for a story and characters. Here, already in the opening, Max narrates: "I was reduced to only one instinct: survive." And unfortunately that sums up every character in the film: they are all reduced to one-dimensional ploys for the action, the only personality development being that one character beats the bad guys differently than the other one. The cinematography is crispy clear (the fog in the swamp at night), the set designs and costumes are imaginative, the action is done with a lot of effort and thus has its moments (for instance, while chasing the truck, the bad guys swing on poles over to the back seat to pick up one of the women; in another instance, they shoot a harpoon into the steering wheel, thus jamming the truck) whereas director George Miller manages to insert a few comical touches here and there, which help alleviate the mood (one vehicle of the bad guys has a rock star playing a guitar bass, while another one has an accountant with a fancy suit (!), in all seriousness lamenting about the expenses of the chase).

Still, the story is disappointingly thin: Max and Furiosa escape with five women in a truck, chased by Joe's army; they stop and turn around to go back, chased by Joe's army. That's it. One could lament that Keaton's "The General" was also basically just one giant train chase, but that classic operated on so many levels, while "Fury Road" operates only on two: action and some vague allegory. Also, it is detrimental for being so sadistic, vile and crude (a pregnant woman falling out of the truck and getting ran over by a vehicle; Max spending the first third of the film strapped to a car with a metal jaw on his head...), with pointless, grotesque mutants, compared to which not even the events in Bosnia in the 90s were that primitive. A plus point is the refreshing feminist subtext (Furiosa and the five women trying to escape from Joe's Totalitarian society, where women are treated as things and only called "breeders"), yet it is in disparity with the film's approach itself: the authors are ostensibly feminist, yet on the other hand the female characters are so one-dimensional, they are treated as things as well, as mere extras. The five women have no personality, no traits or features, and after the film is over, the viewers will not even remember their names: one stands out because she is pregnant, but that's it, the rest lack any depth, humor, wit or charm. This is a revealing error, and is a inherent to the storyline. "Fury Road" conjures up an extreme pace to cover up its plot holes, yet the action and thrills cannot compensate for the lack of soul.

Grade;++

Friday, January 15, 2016

Mission: Impossible

Mission: Impossible; action thriller, USA, 1996; D: Brian De Palma, S: Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Béart, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave, Emilio Estevez, Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė

Jim Phelps, the head of the Mission Impossible team, is given an assignment by the CIA to arrest Golitsyn - a man who stole one half of the disc containing covert names of secret agents in Eastern Europe - when he tries to sell the disc to his contractor. However, the mission fails and everyone is killed except for agent Ethan Hunt - who thus becomes the main suspect of being the mole. In order to prove his innocence, Ethan contacts Golitsyn's contractor, Max, and feigns that he will get her the main disc. With the help of Claire, Luther and Franz, Ethan manages to enter the CIA headquarters and get the list. When he finds out that Jim is alive, and the he was the mole who killed everyone, Ethan contacts agent Kittridge and enables him to arrest Max in a train, while Jim and Franz in a helicopter crash.

Tom Cruise chose well when his production company decided to place the film adaptation of the famed TV show "Mission: Impossible" into the hands of Brian De Palma, who directed the film with a fresh voice, striking a fine balancing act between an entertaining action thriller for the wide audience and clever, innovative art-film that also pleases the more demanding audience. The basic storyline is complicated, with double - and triple - layers among the espionage world, featuring several plot twists, yet the writing is surprisingly consistent throughout the entire film, even upon multiple viewings, with only minimal flaws or omissions in the last act (the contrived standoff with the main bad guy, just before the last action sequence, for instance). Maybe the characters could have been more versatile and better developed, yet the movie compensates for that by having De Palma direct it with a lot of style: in the opening act, in which the CIA tape destroys itself after playing, a puff of smoke comes out of the machine, while Jon Voight's character lights up a cigar and puffs his smoke into it, whereas the highlight is definitely the almost 20 minute long sequence of breaking into the CIA headquarters, with Cruise's Ethan hanging from the ceiling on a rope, trying not to touch the floor to avoid sounding the alarm, which is virtuoso crafted - and just like in Hitchcock's finest moments, plays out almost without any dialogues.

Grade;+++

Tangerines

Mandarinebi; drama, Estonia / Georgia, 2013; D: Zaza Urushadze, S: Lembit Ulfsak, Giorgi Nakashidze, Elmo Nuganen

In a desolate village, Ivo and Margus and the only two Estonians left in Georgia in '92, during the start of the Abkhaz war of independence. They plan to harvest the tangerines in their orchard. Two Chechen mercenaries, hired by the Abkhaz, show up at Ivo's home, and he gives them food. In an ambush by Georgian soldiers, three people are killed - and Ivo is left with nursing the wounded Ahmed, the Chechen, and Niko, the Georgian soldier, in his home. Despite initial hatred, Ivo manages to make friends out of Ahmed and Niko. When some Russian soldiers arrive, they start shooting and kill Niko and Margus, but Ahmed kills them. Ivo buries Niko near his son's grave, and decides to go to Estonia, while Ahmed leaves.

A measured and unbiased approach at the Abkhaz war of independence against Georgia, "Tangerines" uses the small story of an Estonian man nursing a wounded Chechen mercenary and a Georgian soldier as a synecdoche for the conflict, with some noble universal observations, pacifist messages and contemplations about the detrimental nature of territorial nationalism - as well that friendship and humanity can overcome and overgrow hatred. However, the movie suffers from a considerable empty walk here and there, since its simple one-note story almost seems like a short film which was overstretched into a feature, and it lacks a richer movie language. The best parts are subtle, though, and most viewers almost miss them - for instance, Ivo, an Estonian living in Georgia, was obviously a victim of ethnic cleansing himself during Stalin's deportations, and who knows how many Soviet genocides he survived; whereas it is by no chance that Ahmed is a Chechen, since two years later Chechnya would suffer a ten times worse fate than Abkhazia during its war of independence. The cinematography is well done, director Zaza Urushadze has a good sense for a minimalist style, whereas the main actor, Lembit Ulfsak, is excellent in the leading role of a man lost in a foreign homeland.

Grade;++

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge; drama series, USA, 2014; D: Lisa Cholodenko, S: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher, Jr., Zoe Kazan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Martha Wainwright, Bill Murray

Olive Kitteridge is an English teacher in her 40s, living in Maine. Even though her husband Henry is a nice man, she is not happy in marriage and only misses to have an affair with another man because the latter died in a car crash. Olive and Henry have a son, Christopher, who cannot understand his mother's cynicism and moves out to New York when he grows up. Upon retiring, Olive and Henry lead a monotone life at their home. Henry has a stroke and is thus sent to a nursing home. Olive visits Christopher whose new wife, Ann, already had two kids with two previous men, which leads to further conflict between them. In park, Olive meets a widowed man her age, Jack, and they go out on a dinner. Olive wants to commit suicide, but changes her mind and goes to Jack's home.

A critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's eponymous novel, "Olive Kitteridge" is a bitter and brave take on the taboo topic of the lives of old people, as well as the notion that old age has no perspective. The level of the storyline is not always even - episode #2, for instance, is so overstretched that the only things that happen appear at the beginning and the ending (a spiteful Olive taking and hiding an earring of her son's future wife during wedding), leaving the whole middle as one empty walk, whereas the story is overall slightly too melodramatic and conventional at times. Still, there are some quality moments here - the robbery of a hospital in episode #3 suddenly changes its priority when the main event suddenly becomes the arguing of the hostages, in which Olive suddenly admits to her husband, Henry, that she would have left with another man a long time ago if the latter had not died, which gives it sharpness and power. It is also interesting by breaking some family cliches and ideals, especially in the subplot where Olive realizes that in Christopher she practically never even had a son. Frances McDormand delivers a fantastic, and complex, performance - her Olive is both fragile, sad, misunderstood and tragic as well as absurd, cynical and crazy - though a close second would be the amazing performance by excellent Bill Murray as Jack, a widowed man in the last and best episode, who at first seems to only have a sense of humor (when she meets him lying on the ground in the park, there is a great comic exchange: "Are you dead?" - "I don't know." - "Can you move?" - "I don't know, I haven't tried." - "You sure sound less and less dead to me"; which continues even later, when he calls her and she asks: "You're still alive?"), but later on symbolically turns into Olive's positive side which wants to continue living, and awakes her dormant life essence, even when all is lost, which gives her some comfort by showing some light at the end of her tragic tunnel.

Grade;++

Saturday, January 9, 2016

How Do You Know

How Do You Know; drama / comedy, USA, 2010; D: James L. Brooks, S: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Dean Norris, Mark Linn-Baker, Tony Shalhoub

After she was removed from her softball team, ex-player Lisa does not know what she should do with her life anymore. She goes on a date with executive George Madison, an acquaintance of her friend, but the man is later found in the middle of a stock fraud scandal, and is investigated by the authorities. Lisa starts a relationship with famed baseball player Matty, but he is a famous for being a womanizer. When George finds out that his father, Charles, may be responsible for the mess in the company, and subject to an indictment, he decides to find out if Lisa loves him - if she does not, he will plead guilty and go to jail. Lisa chooses him over Matty.

The 6th and final film directed by James L. Brooks has been met with a lukewarm reception, but it is a matter of another wonderful, unassuming little movie that is terribly underrated. With Brooks, everything is clear: his movies are either great or weak, there is no middle ground, and luckily, except for "Spanglish" and "I'll Do Anything", all other of his movies, including this one, articulated what the author wanted to say and follow his warm view on life and humanity. More than being a director, Brooks is first and foremost a writer - he knows how to assemble wonderful characters which feel alive, and their personalities actually lead the storyline. But more than being a writer as well, Brooks is primary a humanist who gives great observations about life and emotions. Just as with his "Terms of Endearment" or "As Good as it Gets", "How Do You Know" also has no real story, but is an example of a melancholic 'slice-of-life' with humor. There is a lovely little moment where Lisa goes on a date with George and enters a restaurant. She asks the waiter and he points out to a desperate man holding his head in his hands, standing alone at a table, and asks: "Is that him?" Lisa replies: "You know, I bet that is him. That is the kind of day I am having".

Another charming moment arrives when Lisa, a wreck after a difficult day, arrives to her apartment and her emotionally charged friend asks her what she needs. Lisa simply honestly replies: "Insensitivity". The film could have been more emotional, more intense and better written, and there seems to be a lack of chemistry and interaction between the actors (for instance, even though this was his final film performance, Jack Nicholson's character never interacts with Lisa or Matty, and is underused), which are drawbacks. Its title is weak, but movies are more than just their titles, anyway. The main theme is clear though: it is implied that Lisa became too old for her softball team, and thus has to decide which path in her future she should take - either Matty (sport, denial of age) or George (family, settling down). Brooks inserted some precious examples of wisdom, which are also a bonus: the highlight is a fantastic joke in the psychiatrist office, where Lisa wants to cut the whole procedure short and simply asks: "Is there one general thing that you've found over the years to be generally true in a general way that would help anyone in any situation?" The psychiatrist replies with: "I would say figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it." Though the ending is a little vague, the movie has a lot of such wonderful lines, which are easily overlooked, but just get better and better with subsequent viewing.

Grade;+++

Friday, January 8, 2016

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah; adventure, USA, 1949; D: Cecil B. DeMille, S: Victor Mature, Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Henry Wilcoxon, Angela Lansbury

Judea, over a 1000 years BC. The Hebrews are ruled and oppressed by the Philistines. Despite of this animosity, Hebrew Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman, Semadar, yet neglects the fact that her sister Delilah is in love with him. After he defeats a lion, Samson is rewarded with the engagement to Semadar, but the wedding guests, among them the jealous Ahtur, start an argument over a bet, which ends with open hostility in which Semadar dies. Samson is hunted down, and is not captured all until the revengeful Delilah seduces him and finds out that the secret of to his strength lies in his long hair. Samson is blinded by Ahtur and held captive, but when his hair grows back, he uses it to crash two pillars and cause the temple of the Philistines to collapse.

The 4th highest grossing film of the 40s of the 20th century, "Samson and Delilah" epitomises Cecil B. DeMille's archaic-safe style of film making: on one hand, it secured him a wide appeal among the audience of that time, but on the other hand, it did not also secure him a permanent value, which is why it is not that engaging for the audience of today's time. He only took care of the audience of his time, not of the audience of all time. DeMille crafts the film in a stiff, conventional way, with only a few refreshing moments in the pompous story (one great example that stands out with ease is the humorous anecdote in which Samson managed to defeat a whole army in a canyon using only the bone jaw of a donkey, which later becomes an embarrassing tale for the commander to report to his superiors, who thus repeat it several time), whereas the overlong running time of over 120 minutes is a burden, and it is not immune to some small moments of religious propaganda. However, there are still some worthy ingredients in this film, especially in the noble messages about self-sacrifice for the greater good, as well as integrity even when faced with obstacles, whereas a few dialogues are surprisingly well written ("A tax collector is worth more than a thousand soldiers", says a governor who raises the taxes to a third until the peasants hand Samson over to the authorities; "I could have loved you with such a fire that it would have made all other feel like ice in comparison") and some stunts are daring (Samson wrestling with a lion),

Grade;++

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

True Detective (season 1)

True Detective; crime-drama series, USA, 2014; D: Cary Joji Fukunaga, S: Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts

In the present, former Louisiana detective Marty Hart gives an interview to a team about his crime case in '95: back then, he teamed up with the eccentric Rusty Cohle to investigate the murder of Dora Lange, a prostitute, who was found naked with deer antlers on her. During that time, Marty was having an affair, even though he was married to Maggie and had two kids, whereas Rusty was very philosophical about the world. They found clues which they thought led them to the killer, Ledoux, but Marty killed him in disgust when he found slave kids in his atic. After Maggie slept with Rusty, Marty broke all contact with her. Back in present, Marty and Rusty team up because they realize that they did not catch the real killer. Childress, who is a distant cousin to the governor. They find and kill Childress, but get wounded in the process.

"True Detective" is another TV show that offered what a lot of movies did not in 2014, namely a thoroughbred crime investigation story that keeps the viewers intrigued and hooked to their seats. Its mood is similar to A. Parker's "Mississippi Burning" and "Angel Heart", two crime movies that also explored America's South, and whose investigation process was also just a skillful catalyst for a wider depiction of the mentality and customs of the people in that area. The first four episodes are undoubtedly excellent, with fantastic narrative and a remarkably ambitious directing by Cary Joji Fukunaga (a real treat awaits the viewers in episode #4 - where a heist of a gang disguised as police officers to break into and rob a house goes badly - since it features a delicious 6 minute long scene filmed in one take), but the last four episodes are not quite on the same level, since the writing is weaker, especially in the somewhat standard episodes #5 and #6. Some subplots also lead nowhere - for instance, Rusty's hallucinations proved to be without a point or a function in the final episode, and should have been written out, whereas it features HBO's tendency to show some sex scenes only for the sake of it, just to demonstrate that it can show them while other TV shows cannot, yet without that much role in the sole narrative itself.

The finale is very good, but not as intense or as rewarding as it could have been, since a lot of time was spent just listing names which do not mean much alone when they are not enacted - show, don't tell. Despite flaws, the major highlight is undoubtedly the excellent character of Rust Cohle, who is almost some sort of a modern philosopher stuck doing the detective's job, and features Matthew McConaughey in his finest hour. Actually, Cohle is the only one who benefits from character development even during weaker episodes. Writer Nic Pizzolato shows a 6th sense for some inspired dialogues with philosophical edge, and Cohle uses it plentiful ("Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. Nature created a separate aspect of itself." / "This place is like a faded memory of a town. It is fading." / "If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible" / "Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel... Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain"), though his partner Marty has a few moments as well ("If things were so great back then, they would never change").

Grade;+++

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ace High

I quattro dell'Ave Maria; western, Italy, 1968; D: Giuseppe Colizzi, S: Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Eli Wallach, Brock Peters, Kevin McCarthy

After their adventures, where they eliminated outlaw Bill, Cat Stevens and Hutch arrive to a small town, and in a bank persuade Bill's former partner, manager Harold, to give them a substantial amount of cash to keep quiet about their ties. However, Cat and Hutch are soon robbed by Cacopoulous, a small thief. When Cat and Hutch find him in another village, he agrees to return their money if they help him track down and kill three of his former friends who, after robbing a bank, shot his horse and left him at the mercy of the locals, after which he spent 15 years in prison. Cacopoulous already killed Harold, and then eliminates also Paco. The third one is Drake, the owner of a casino full of staged bets, and thus Cat, Hutch and Cacopoulous eliminate him as well, whereas they are teamed up with an African-American circus entertainer.

The 2nd film in Giuseppe Colizzi's western trilogy, "Ace High" is arguably the funniest of the three, with some intentionally highly comical moments between Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (the sequence where Spencer's character Hutch is awkwardly posing with a pigeon in his hand for a photo - but then releases the bird, it is shot by a man shaving, and then Hutch walks towards him and slaps him as a punishment - cannot be regarded as anything but pure comic escapism) which already started to slowly conjure up the feeling that the duo should lean towards comedy, two years before their incredible "They Call Me Trinity" where they would, fully demolishing the Spaghetti-Western cliches through humor. However, despite these exceptions, this is still a 'serious' Western. The movie starts off with a direct continuation of their adventures from "God Forgives, I Don't", where hero Cat Stevens arrives to a small town, goes to the Sheriff's office and tries to collect ransom money for outlaw Bill - but only shows Bill's boots as evidence, since the bad guy died in an explosion. Colizzi uses all the tried ingredients of the genre (money/gold as a leitmotiv for greed, betrayal, revenge...) and even uses Eli Wallach who almost seems to reprise his role from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" at times, though the narrative is strained and overlong, changing directions several times, until the grand finale in the casino. Colizzi is not quite the calibre of Leone, but has a sense for stylish takes and good details at times (Cacopoulous turn with the rotating chair when Harold throws a knife at him, thereby hitting only its back, and when he rotates again, he shoots Harold with a gun), whereas his actors were more than grateful.

Grade;++

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens; erotic grotesque, USA, 1979; D: Russ Meyer, S: Kitten Natividad, Ken Kerr, Ann Marie, June Mack, Pat Wright, Uschi Digard

People in a small town are having sex at their homes. All except the busty Lavonia, whose husband Lamar either does not want to have sex or he only wants anal sex, which she despises. She thus decides to find pleasure with other men, like with a teenager who was swimming naked in a lake or a door-to-door salesman. In the meantime, Lamar has a tough time at work in the junk yard, since his superior, the equally busty Sal, orders him to sleep with her. Lavonia disguises herself wearing a wig and dancing in a striptease bar, where she puts a sedative in Lamar's drink and later has sex with him while he is unconscious. A marriage counsellor does not help, either. Finally, after Lamar has sex with a busty evangelical radio host, Lamar can have normal sex with Lavonia again.

Russ Meyer's last film got the most sex scenes out of him, but arguably the least creativity or imagination out of the author as well. Among the curiosities of this bizarre erotic satire is also that is was co-written by film critic Roger Ebert, and a few comical lines indeed manage to ignite here and there, such as when the narrator illustrates that a character had such a large penis that he needed a "firearms license", or the fact that the two main protagonists, Lamar and his wife Lavonia, are much more likable, sympathetic characters than some of Meyer's more violent previous films. Nonetheless, "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens" is an incoherent, episodic satire on the marriage and sexual problems, with too many wacky moments, some of which are just plain silly, to assemble itself into a meaningful whole. The opening act, where Lavonia is "jumping" and touching herself with a vibrator all alone, naked in bed, while at the same time her Lamar is just passively sitting in the next room, calculating a homework at his desk, is ironic in its blend of two opposites, the sexual and asexual, yet Meyer never treats them as real characters, but just as caricatures. The vague plot goes from one sex sequence to another, yet without much of a point, though Meyer once again rallied some beautiful buxom women here, from Kitten Natividad up to Ann Marie, in a crazy little role as a evangelical radio host with large breasts. It seems all the wit was once again absorbed only by Meyer's breasts, though the film has its moments.

Grade;+

Lone Wolf

Vuk samotnjak; drama, Croatia / Slovenia, 1972; D: Obrad Gluščević, S: Slavko Štimac, Željko Mataija, Ivan Štimac

A village in Lika during winter, shortly after the end of World War II. Ranko is a little boy who works as a shepherd with his friends, but they are plagued by the wolves that kill their sheep. There are also rumors of a wild German Shepherd, "Hund", a remnant of WWII, who also kills the animals. While in forest, Ranko finds that particular dog, with a name tag which says "Hund", and thus calls it like that. He releases him from the trap, but the villagers and his father want to shoot the wild dog. While protecting Hund, Ranko is wounded by a gun shot. Hund appears in his house to help him recover, and thus the villagers decide to let him live.

A Yugoslav version of "Lassie", "Lone Wolf" is a simplistic, yet proportionally well made children's film about a misunderstood friendship between a boy and a wild dog. The story seems slightly dated by today's standards - for instance, the tendency of the villagers to resolve everything by force, such as their inexplicable urge to shoot the stray dog even though it is obviously friendly to the boy, seems contrived - and the narrative is not richly developed, yet for a good-spirited film with a noble message about tolerance, it still has charm and emotion, while it is further strengthened by a few neat camera angles and lovely snow landscapes of the mountains. A great performance was delivered by the title dog, since the animal was surprisingly cooperative in many complicated situations, especially in the scene where it lies still and wait for Ranko to save his paw from the trap.

Grade;++