Monday, September 25, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 2)

Rick and Morty; science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2015; D: Wes Archer, Bryan Newton, Dominic Polcino, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

Morty is again doing crazy adventures with his eccentric scientist grandfather Rick, travelling through various dimensions or alien planets: Rick meets his ex-girlfriend again, an alien beehive entity called Unity; an alien instills fake memories in them and disguises as hundreds of absurd cartoon characters, claiming to be part of the family in the house; Rick has to visit a miniature AI world inside his battery, created to generate energy for him; Jerry and Beth undergo an alien marriage counseling; after a wedding goes awfully wrong and the groom, Birdperson, is killed, Rick gives himself in to the Federation so that his family can return safely to Earth.

Even the second season of the highly popular "Rick and Morty" comedy series did not manage to lift itself up from the level of a "mixed bag", since it contains both moments of genius which are then followed by several ill-conceived or misguided ideas, most notably in a couple of disturbing depictions of murder which are treated with an incompatible lightness, as if nothing happened, which is suppose to be funny, but only falls flat as morbid. Two and half great episodes — 2.1, 2.3 and one half of episode 2.5 (the first half involving a satire on religion is brilliant, but the other half involving Rick and Morty trying to sing for the giant heads in the Universe are lackluster and lame) — yet the remaining seven are a lot weaker, whereas this is also a ratio that is weaker than the first season — meaning that in reality its quality is still a notch bellow all the hype surrounding it. The worst episode is probably 2.7, involving a bizarre marriage alien counselling in which a machine depicts Jerry's vision of Beth as a black Xenomorph while Beth has a vision of Jerry as a slimy, disgusting worm, and their visions then escape and start killing everybody for no good reason justifying this concept, while the worst joke is probably found in episode 2.10, where Rick and his family go to an exile on an Earth-like planet — only for the Sun to rise and "scream" at them, which is just plain stupid. Yet, it deserves to be seen for two highlights: one is episode 2.1 which features a "fractured" time, presenting a split screen in which Rick, Morty and Summer are in two parallel times, with only minimal differences: the viewers will have to pay twice as much attention to notice all the details in it. The second one is 2.3, featuring a surreal metaphor of Rick having a relationship with the "beehive" alien entity Unity whose consciousness spans millions of people on a planet, which offers him the opportunity to sleep with several women wearing Unity's mind at the same time. And it ends with a striking philosophical, even emotional contemplation about how even controlling a million people cannot compensate for the emptiness of life, the nature of free will and Totalitarianism, the question if a character is willing to either change to keep his love or to stay alone to keep his own identity he loves. There are some interesting themes here in several episodes, ranging from artificial intelligence, infinite regress or the unreliability of memory, but it would have been far better if all the garbage surrounding them was edited out.

Grade;++

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Victor and Victoria

Viktor und Viktoria; musical comedy, Germany, 1933; D: Reinhold Schünzel, S: Renate Müller, Hermann Thimig, Anton Walbrook, Hilde Hildebrand

Viktor is a struggling actor, but cannot find a job because his dramatic interpretations are often comical. During an audition, he meets actress Susanne who also cannot find a job. Viktor informs her that he sometimes plays a woman, Viktoria, in a Cabaret, but since he has a flu, he persuaded Susanne to jump in to save the show. Susanne thus pretends she is a man playing a woman, and finds great success among the audience. An agent approaches Susanne and she signs a contract to continue performing. In London, she meets Robert, who falls in love with her, insisting that she is a woman, even though Susanne tries to pretend she is a man. Even more problems arrive when a woman, Ellinor, falls in love with Susanne, thinking she is Viktor, a man. Finally, Susanne and Robert kiss, while Viktor takes over the role of Viktoria as a comedy act.

Even though it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm by German film critics during its premiere, and subsequently gained the status of a classic in its country of origin, Reinhold Schunzel's transvestite comedy "Victor and Victoria" feels dated by today's standards due to its stiff narrative and dry-overlong musical sequences, some of which are even used in ordinary dialogues that rhyme. It is axiomatic that Edwards' film "Victor/Victoria", filmed 49 years later, is easily superior, displaying a rare situation where an American remake towers over an original. While the two main actors, Herman Thimig and Renate Muller, are very good, they are not convincing at playing the opposite gender, which is especially aggravating for Muller who is suppose to carry the film as a woman pretending to be a man playing a woman on stage, since her high, feminine voice leaves little ambiguity. Worse still is that all the rich potentials of the tantalizing premise were scarcely exploited, leaving many situations underused. Some of the best jokes still arise from the man-woman confusion  — for instance, Viktor releases four geese from a cage so that the two performers have to chase them and leave the male locker room, giving Susanne a chance to change clothes without anyone noticing that she is not a man. In another good scene, Robert jokingly informs Viktor that he is challenged to a pistol duel due to a bar fight, so Viktor shockingly leaves the room, only to accidentally stumble into some sound stage where a performer wearing Cowboy clothes is randomly practicing shooting. While good is exploring the men-women relationships and identities, "Victor and Victoria" still seems like a 'rump' version of these themes, too timid to truly give them justice, most noticeably in the abrupt ending, though it has charm.

Grade;++

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 1)

Rick and Morty; animated science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2013; D: John Rice, Bryan Newton, Stephen Sandoval, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

The 14-year old Morty is annoyed by his eccentric grandpa Rick, a scientist who often brings him along on his misadventures, ranging from trips to another dimensions through aliens to problems involving Rick's inventions going out of control. Morty's sister Summer and their parents, Jerry and Beth, whose marriage is on thin ice, also unwillingly get involved into Rick's misadventures.

Justin Roiland's and Mark Harmon's surprise hit animated show is the ultimate example of a mixed bag: episodes 1.3, 1.4 and 1.10 are excellent, but the quality of the rest of the first season is highly uneven, since some are solid, some OK and some outright bad. Aggravating all of this is the fact that even in some bad episodes the authors can still conjure up some incredible examples of wisdom about life, using the most surreal and bizarre grotesque as a metaphor for something in our society. It is almost like 'Sophocles meets "Family Guy"': rarely has there been a show that offers a whole spectrum of quality, ranging from genius to garbage. Episode 1.3 is one of the best, turning into the most black humored Christmas episode in TV history: in it, Rick brings a man dressed as Santa Claus home, but the latter falls into a coma, so Rick shrinks Morty to a size of a microorganism and sends him into the man's body. At the end, Rick simply loses his patience since he cannot find a microscopic Morty, so he takes the naked dead body of the Santa Claus, flies off into space and instead enlarges the man's body ten thousand times, thereby inevitably returning Morty back to his normal size. This results in a Zenith of absurdist humor, rarely seen anywhere, with the expressionistic sight of a giant naked Santa Claus floating in orbit over the whole of America, his toes being spotted in L.A. and his head in New York. Episode 1.10 also rises to the occasion, involving a situation in which Rick is confronted with hundreds of Ricks from hundreds of parallel Universes, which gave a wealth of potentials, ending in a remarkable "hidden" compliment Rick makes to his Morty: "I am the Rick-est of them all, which means you are the Morty-est of all Mortys". Throughout these wacky stories, "Rick and Morty" displays a secret philosophy on life and the Universe, yet it is not always presented in an intelligent way. Episode 1.4 is a sly satire on the 'brain in a vat' argument, but episode 1.7, on the other hand, is a rather lackluster take on sexism: the concept of an alien civilization in which women rule while men are kept as an inferior race does not offer anything new that hasn't already been explored in "He-Man" episode "Trouble in Arcadia", for instance.

Too many episodes focus only on degenerate monster aliens (the above mentioned episode 1.7 has these women having extra hands on their ears (!?)) or shock, and attempt to seize the attention of the viewers more through bizarreness than through some genuine inspiration. Aren't the praying-mantis-human mutants in episode 1.6 pure trash, for instance? Isn't the alternate Universe TV commercial in episode 1.8 of two people eating Leprechaun's intestine pure junk? And yet, just when the viewers dismiss such stuff, the authors suddenly redeem themselves thanks to an unexpected example of genius. Episode 1.6, for instance, is terrible, but has a fantastic beginning and an ending, by presenting Rick who explains to Morty his unrequited love:"Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people call "love" is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage!" Episode 1.8 is also just a random collection of inconceivable, surreal and disturbing TV channels from alternate Universes, but it ends in one of the most inexplicable, genuine, miraculous, virtuoso and beautifully touching endings ever seen, a small gem: throughout the episode, it has been established that Morty's and Summer's dad, Jerry, has never married in an alternate Universe and became a major movie star. At the same time, Beth finds out that without being married to Jerry and not having kids, she could have pursued a great career as a real surgeon in that world. This leads a crisis of their marriage. But at one point, Jerry observes his alternate Jerry driving in underwear on the street on alternate TV. At the same time, Beth is watching her alternate ego through special goggles, living alone in a house with birds. Suddenly, these two realities become one when alternate Jerry stops and knocks on the door of alternate Beth, to announce: "Beth Sanchez, I have been in love with you since high school. I hate acting, I hate fame... I wish you hadn't had that abortion and I never stopped thinking what might have been." Jerry and Beth, back in the real world, then realize that they are living precisely in that 'what if?' Universe, drop everything, reconcile and kiss in the living room. This is a highlight that, although unable to fully compensate for all the questionable content before, is still going to be remembered for a long time.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer; silent drama / musical, USA, 1927; D: Alan Crosland, S: Al Jolson, Mary Dale, Eugenie Besserer, Warner Oland

Jackie Rabinowitz wants become a jazz singer, but when he is caught singing in a pub, his strict, orthodox Jewish father forbids him to continue and beats him up, because he wants Jackie to succeed him and become a cantor in a Synagogue. Jackie flees from home and makes great progress as a singer in New York, falling in love with Mary, a stage dancer. Now renamed, Jack returns to his home to see his mother, but is again chased away by hist father. On the premiere of a career defining performance on stage, Jack decides to not show up and instead sing as a cantor in a Synagogue because this was the last wish of his dying father. However, he gets another chance and performs as a singer in a theater.

"The Jazz Singer" signalled a new era of cinema, an era of sound film, yet even though it was a smash hit and the highest grossing movie for almost a decade, it was kind of a cheat: the movie is 20% a sound film and 80% a silent film. It was still an incomplete, semi-sound film where the audio was used only for the singing of the hero and one sequence when he talks with his mother while playing the piano for her, yet the majority of the story is still a silent film, even using intertitles for dialogues of the characters for most of the time. Despite this technical innovation, "The Jazz Singer" remained only a footnote in film lexicons since it feels very dated by today's standards. It is basically a simplistic story of a man torn between following his dream and the tradition of his family, yet it never rises to the occasion, neither in writing nor in execution. This storyline is a dime a dozen, basically almost a soap opera with banal narrative flow, whereas it simply lacks highlights. There is very little to see, stylistically or story-wise, and the long sequences of singing tend to become tiresome and dry. That is why "The Jazz Singer" is today only valuable formally for the cineasts, yet does not hold a special place in the heart of many movie goers.

Grade;+

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Jigoku

Jigoku; fantasy / drama / horror, Japan, 1960; D: Nobuo Nakagawa, S: Shigeru Amachi, Yoichi Numata, Utako Mitsuya, Akiko Ono

Shiro is a young student who is engaged to Yukiko, the daughter of his University professor, Mr. Yajima. One night, he was together with the classmate Tamura who drives a car and accidentally hits and kills a yakuza member on the street. Shiro is plagued by guilt, but Tamura tries to whitewash any wrongdoing from them. Shiro's life just goes downhill from there: while trying to report everything to the police, the taxi he was in has a crash from which Yukiko dies; Shiro returns to his home where his mother dies from a disease, while his father is cheating on her with a mistress; the yakuza's girlfriend, Yoko, tries to kill Shiro, but dies by falling from a bridge... Finally, all the inmates in the house die from poisoned fish and find themselves in hell. Shiro observes how all the people he knew had dark secrets one way or another, and how they are punished for these in hell. He is stuck trying to save his and Yukiko's unborn baby who is rotating on a giant wheel.

"Jigoku" is a dark and depressive fantasy-horror drama in which director Nobuo Nakagawa displays a grim perspective on life that is doomed to end in all kinds of tragedy and despair: for him, there is no escape from this "doomed if they do, doomed if they don't" cicyle, depicting how his characters are plagued while they were alive, only to be plagued once again in hell. However, it seems Nakagawa lost context from the film, almost as if he himself is unsure what this has to do with the overall theme of the storyline. The "normal", first part of the film, could have worked much better if it was changed just a little bit: the protagonist, Shiro, is plagued by guilt of a man who was killed in a car he was in, and the hell could have been just a symbolic representation of his bad conscience. If Shiro drove the car himself, this would have worked, but since the car driven by his friend, all of this guilt is not quite fitting. Unfortunately, Nakagawa somehow lost this simple perspective and included numerous other characters who also landed in hell, even those who had no fault, which seems uneven and pointless, unless it is a sardonic commentary on life that crudely punishes everyone, from those who are guilty to those who are innocent. The film drew attention thanks to its bizarre hell sequences which comprise the last 38 minutes, which stand out thanks to their outstanding special effects for that time (the "dune" valley with a river underneath it; demons sawing a man in half or taking the skin away from another man, leaving him only with a skeleton and organs underneath; the row of skeletons on a dark valley...). It is also interesting that the movie demolishes all the institutions in this segment by including all the characters in hell, from the police (an inspector who framed an innocent man), journalism (a false news article ruined the life of a man) up to medicine (a doctor erred with false diagnosis, but was too proud to admit his mistake). Still, all this could have been presented in a better way, since the ending is rather abrupt and pointless.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

Dr. Mabuse der Spieler; silent crime drama, Germany, 1922; D: Fritz Lang, S: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Bernhard Goetzke, Aud Egede-Nissen, Getrude Welcker, Paul Richter

Berlin. Dr. Mabuse is a seemingly respectful doctor of psychology, but in reality he is secretly a criminal boss who wants to rule the underground. His henchmen steal a secret Swiss-Dutch contract from a train, which Mabuse uses to gain a fortune on the stock market. He also uses hypnosis to persuade a rich man, Hull, to lose a poker game and give him a lot of money. State prosecutor von Wenk suspects that all these crimes can be tracked down to one criminal, but he doesn't even know his name. Mabuse orders dances Carozza to seduce Hull in order to spy on the rich man. When Hull is killed in a casino, Carozza is arrested, but poisoned by Mabuse who fears she might reveal his name. Von Wenk manages to capture a henchman, Pesch, who placed a bomb in his office, but Pesch is killed by a sniper. Mabuse falls in love and kidnaps Countess Told, but she rejects him. Finally, the police starts a raid of Mabuse's mansion. They finally arrest him when he loses his mind from visions of the people he killed.

Widely considered to be Fritz Lang's breakthrough film as a director, silent crime movie "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler" is still a notch bellow all the hype that surrounds it: for a running time of over 4 hours, it is decisively too long, and the 'cat-and-mouse' story doesn't pick up until the third hour. It is without doubt a fine, quality film with an elegant narration and clear storytelling, yet the longer a film gets, the more ingenuity it needs to invest for the viewers not to quit the screening—for such extra long time it demands, a movie needs to grow exponentially in quality to cover for it, and "Dr. Mabuse" somehow lacks highlights for such a megalomaniac task. Lang's visual style is not quite as grand or innovative as it was in his finest classics, including "M" or "Nibelungen: Siegfried", yet the story flows smoothly, with remarkable elegance, despite the pacing issues. Two sequences are truly excellent and show Lang in his true glory as a filmmaker: one is when state prosecutor Wenk and criminal Dr. Mabuse meet for the first time, both in disguise, both unaware of each other's identity, in a secret casino where they engage in a poker game. Mabuse again tries out his regular trick of hypnosis in order to find a victim from whom he can extract large amounts of money. This is conveyed through an effective scene in which the whole background becomes black and only Mabuse's face is left visible, whereas it is slowly magnified on the screen as it tries to command to Wenk.

The other moment is their third encounter, in which Mabuse is disguised as a magician and calls up Wenk on the stage. Wenk finally recognizes his nemesis behind the mask, yet is unable to resist the hypnosis. Mabuse then orders him to drive with a car off the cliff into the Melior quarry. The sequence of Wenk driving the car through the forest is remarkable, displaying the subtitle "Melior" on his windshield, and then the word "Melior" is repeated four times as it slides from right to left side of a whole row of trees along the road, in a fantastic mise-en-scene. With a better editor, who would have cut out many of the unecessary subplots, this would have been a far more compact film. Still, it is an interesting essay on the chaotic time in Germany of that era, focusing on all sorts of underground thugs who have arisen from thee, noticeable in Lang's commentary on contemporary existentialiast and nihilist tendencies in a highly intriguing moment in which Countess Told admits: "I am afraid there is nothing on this world that I can be interested in for a long time... Everything I can see from my car, from my window is partially revolting, partially uninteresting." This causes Mabuse to reply that the only interesting thing is "to play with people and their destinies", revealing that money was not his interest at all, but sheer exploration of how psychology can be misused to exploit people.

Grade;++

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Mircale of Morgan Creek

The Miracle of Morgan Creek; comedy, USA, 1944; D: Preston Sturges, S: Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Brian Donlevy

Governor McGinty recieves a phone call from a distressed man, informing him about a bizarre story that is unfolding in Morgan Creek: teenager Trudy Kockenlocker participated in a farewell-party for American soldiers leaving for war, but the next morning she woke up and realized that she was so drunk she got married to one of them, but forgot his name or how he looks like. Worse still, she is pregnant. Trudy tells this to her 14-year old sister Emmy, but hides it from her father. Trudy thus asks the guy who was in love with her all these years, Norval, to marry her to conceal the scandal. She dresses Norval as a soldier and tries to marry him under a fake name so that she can get divorced through the marriage certificate, but Norval is arrested for impersonating a soldier. When he tries to escape from jail, things get even worse for him. On Christmas, Trudy gives birth to six boys, while McGinty arranges for Norval to get released so that the two can be a good couple.

Even for Preston Sturges, this is one of the most insane and audacious comedies from the Hays Code era, a satire that dances on thin ice of the allowed themes at that time, yet manages to still pull it off. The joke premise of a girl who was so drunk she forgot whom she married the previous night was so influential that is was copied a thousand times in movies or TV shows (a similar concept was even used again is Sturges own later film "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock") and offered huge potentials for a screwball comedy, with jokes ranging from witty dialogues ("I don't believe it!" - "Well, nobody asked you!") up to pure physical sight gags (one of the most howlingly funny scenes is the wacky stunt in which the 14-year old Emmy scorns her father that he should be "more rafined" and then turns around to walk away, but her dad is so angry at that remark that he swings his foot to kick her butt, but slips and falls down, loosing his shoe). Sturges rises to the occasion in this story, poking fun at everything and everyone, from conservative institutions up to small town mentality, and in a sheer stroke of genius even has his old Governor McGinty back from his film "The Great McGinty" as the framework of the story. The range of burlesque jokes is simply astounding, some of which are just plain crazy and batty, yet one has to give him credit for at least having the courage for trying them out: near the end, in a weird clip, the film makes fun of the scandal of Morgan Creek getting so out of hand that it even switches to a military camp where Hitler gets informed about the birth of the sextuplet babies, only for the newspaper to announce the headline: "Hitler demands a recount!" The best joke in the entire film is probably the sequence in which the clumsy Norval is trying to hint to Trudy's father (brilliant William Demarest) that he wants to propose his daughter, but dad is cleaning his pistol and accidentally fires pass him. Norval then quietly walks through the glass door (!) and towards Trudy, exchanging a dialogue which is comedy gold ("What was that gunshot about?" - "It was just your father. He was practicing"). The ending seems slightly too chaotic and sloppy, ruining somewhat the impression, yet "The Miracle of Morgan Creek" is still a fine screwball comedy that works thanks to its anarchic humor.

Grade;+++

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Candyman

Candyman; horror / psychological drama, USA, 1992; D: Bernard Rose, S: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkley, Vanessa A. Williams

Chicago. Helen, a graduate student, intends to write a thesis on modern myths and is intrigued when she hears about the urban legend of the Candyman. He was once an African-American painter in 19th century, but when he impregnated a white woman, the mob hacked his hand off and killed him by tossing thousands of bees onto his body covered with honey. According to a source, Candyman can be summoned if his name is told five times in front of a mirror, and allegedly someone was murdered by him in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Helen investigates the murder, but suddenly gets hallucinations. She wakes up in the apartment of Anne-Marie, whose dog has been killed and her baby kidnapped. The police send Helen to a mental asylum, but she escapes when she summons Candyman who kills the psychiatrist. Candyman wants Helen to continue his legacy, but she manages to kill him and herself in fire, but saves the baby. Helen's boyfriend, Trevor, summons Helen's name five times in the mirror - and is subsequently killed by her, who succeeded Candyman.

A surprisingly refined psychological horror, this is a quality made independent film that managed to lift itself up above the typical cheap-trash slasher films from that era, thanks among others because it dedicates a lot of time to its main heroine, Helen, played very well by Virginia Madsen, and an elegant visual style. "Candyman" still missed a golden opportunity, however: its title antagonist, an African-American, was a victim of racial violence in the 19th century, and the story could have benefitted a lot if it followed that lead and turned into an allegory of a dark past that haunts the modern US. Unfortunately, almost nothing in the film itself seems to consider this potential: Candyman could have very well been white, or any other race, since it makes no difference in the narrative. The theme of racial relations is utterly ignored for the rest of the film. Likewise, the film lacks highlights: the second half is just one long hallucionation after hallucionation that Helen endures, while she lands in the mental asylum, yet potentials for more suspense could have been exploited. There is one great scary moment: the flashback of a couple who jokingly dare each other and tell Candyman's name five times in front of the mirror. At first, nothing happens, and they dismiss it as a myth. The guy leaves the bathroom, while she stays and then turns off the lights—only for Candyman to suddenly appear in the dark. This scene is a sophisticated example of horror, and the film could have used some more of it. Still, it is an all-around clever and patient little film that manages to deliver a horror film with a difference.

Grade;++

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness; silent documentary / adventure, USA / Thailand, 1927; D: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Shoedsack, S: Kru, Chantui, Nah

Kru is a farmer who lives in a desolate house in the jungles of Nan. He lives there with his wife Chantiu, their three children and a pet monkey. When a leopard jumps over their fence and kills a goat, Kru builds a trap and manages to capture the predator. He also teams up with other nearby farmers and captures and kills a tiger with a rifle. A new problem is the heard of elephants, though: one of them tramples and destroys his rice crop, so Kru captures a baby elephant. This however brings the elephant mother to free him and chase away Kru and his family, who find refuge in a village. A heard of elephants destroys the village, so the people unite to trap a heard, dispersing it. Peace returns for Kru, but it is only temporally.

Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack stayed remembered for only one film, classic adventure "King Kong", while all their others achievements remained just a footnote in film lexicons, which is a pity since they had a fairly rich opus, regardless of a lack of popularity. Among them is "Chang", their second feature length film, an unusual blend of documentary and fictional adventure that offers a glimpse inside the 'slice-of-life' habitat of Kru and his family living in the jungles of the Nan province, which is basically a forerunner to "Kong", hinting at Cooper's and Shoedsack's fascination with the interaction of man and beasts in the wild. "Chang" has no overarching storyline and instead just follows the daily routine of these people, unflinching at their attempts at survival: one episode has them capturing a giant lizard in the river, killing it and then roasting it for its meat. The authors were really daring and went out of their way and comfort zone to record some incredible, extraordinary rare footage of wild animals (staged or not), resulting in at least two highlights: one is the sequence of a tiger trying to climb up a tree where a man is hiding on top, and the other is the elephant stampede which demolishes a village. Several moments were staged, yet the authenticity was kept thanks to the use of non-professional actors as well as exciting or just plain silly (the pet monkey sequences) moments from the jungle, delivering an all-around successful film that also contemplates about some bigger themes in life, such as the endless struggle of humans against the never ending dangers from the forces of nature.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim; silent comedy short, USA, 1923; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mack Swain, Sydney Chaplin

An escaped convict disguises himself as a reverend and randomly buys a train ticket to a small Texas town, to escape as far away as possible. There, he is mistaken for the new parson and has to hold a sermon. He is invited to Mrs. Brown's home, where he is attracted to her daughter. However, Peter, also an ex-convict, recognizes his jail inmate and invites himself to Mrs. Brown's home, where he steals her money. The Pilgrim returns the money, but is arrested by the Sheriff. However, the Sheriff allows him to escape across the Mexican border.

Charlie Chaplin's final movie for the First National Company, "The Pilgrim" is an amusing comedy short, yet a one that is much more amusing in the first half than in the rather overstretched second half. Chaplin's gags here are a hit-or-miss affair: some of them work early in the film, especially through the often used technique of slowly revealing more and more details which get the hero into more trouble (for instance, while in train, the Pilgrim shares the same seat with a man reading newspapers. Suddenly, the Pilgrim is shocked when he spots his wanted poster on the newspaper. But as the man unbuttons his jacket, it is revealed he wears a Sheriff's badge, causing the Pilgrim to finally run away) or the more subversive jokes of poking fun at religion (the Pilgrim holding a sermon about: David and Goliath!). However, the jokes seem to lose their inspiration after a while, and the worst joke is probably the one involving a little kid slapping the Pilgrim or anyone around him. The subplot revolving around the Pilgrim's love interest also seems like a "third wheel". However, despite a rather abridged and abrupt ending, it is still a good contribution to Chaplin's early film opus.

Grade;++

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Rambo

Rambo; action, USA / Germany / Thailand, 2008; D: Sylvester Stallone, S: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Tim Kang, Maung Maung Khin, Matthew Marsden

War veteran John Rambo has retired and now spends his peaceful time in the jungles of Thailand. One day, this changes when he is approached by a couple of American volunteers who persuade him to drive them in his boat to the isolated Burma to bring medical supplies and help the wounded Khang people there. Reluctantly, Rambo agrees. The missionaries are arrested and abducted by Burma's military junta during their attack at an village. Upon hearing that, Rambo decides to go back once again to save them, together with five American mercenaries. They storm a Burmese outpost and save the missionaries and other abducted people. Rambo then machine guns all Burmese soldiers. Afterwords, Rambo returns back home in America.

20 years after "Rambo III", Sylvester Stallone was finally persuaded to return one last time in the shoes of one of his most iconic movie roles, but part IV was predictably just a rehash of the previous film, except that the villainous Soviets were replaced by the military junta in Burma. The 2008 "Rambo" is a surprisingly thin, terse film, with a simplistic story that can be practically summed up in one sentence: the Burmese military junta abducts American missionaries from a village, Rambo arrives to save them, they leave Burma, the end. It is almost tempting to ask "Is that it? Are there really no surprises or twists in the story?", yet it seems the authors were not preoccupied with creating some especially interesting, memorable or versatile characters, but to set up one-dimensional extras just to have an action terrain for Rambo. Stallone is still in great shape, and the democratic message is noble, but one would have hoped to find out more about Rambo as a character if this was suppose to be his final appearance. In the final scenes, he is seen walking back to his deserted home in America. Wouldn't it have been interesting to find out how he feels back home? Are there are relatives of friends whom he missed? Unfortunately, none of that is the concern of the (limited) scope of the abridged storyline. As some film critics have pointed, this just might be the bloodiest "Rambo" film: while in first film, the hero was cautious not to kill anyone, just wound them, here he machine-guns the Burmese military junta, whose bodies literally explode in piles of blood from heavy bullets. For action fans, a solid film, yet for the cineasts, more could have been served.

Grade;+

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Life of an American Fireman

Life of an American Fireman; silent drama short, USA, 1903; D: Edwin S. Porter, S: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

A fireman has a dream of a woman and a child in trouble. Later, an alarm goes on and several firefighters rush from a fire station to their carriages in order to go to a house on fire. The fireman breaks the window, enters the house on the first floor, and saves a woman and her child from the burning building by climbing with them down the ladder.

One of the movies from the early days of cinema, "Life of a Fireman" is also an example of an "exercise" in cinema, a time when film was a new medium and various directors and pioneers still had no ways of finding out how their stories should look like or how to achieve that, except through a long 'trial-and-error' process while making movies. Like most movies in the 1900s, this one is also "rudimentary", presented in static, long wide shots — except for an interesting, albeit rudimentary example of the cross-cutting technique: the scene of a bedroom burning is presented in an interior shot, showing the fireman entering through the window and saving the woman and the child by carrying them outside; and this scene is then repeated again in the exterior shot of the house. This is not quite an example of cross-cutting, since it is shown only once in the entire film, while it also seems more like an error since the action is repeated, instead of switching from one half of the scene to another. Still, some film scholars thus often cite it as helping in the progress of cinema techniques. The only other interesting moment is the scene where the fireman has a "dream bubble" of a woman in danger, while the rest is routine, standard, though still valuable from the perspective of cinema ontology.

Grade;++

Under the Skin

Under the Skin; experimental film, UK / USA, 2013; D: Jonathan Glazer, S: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kevin McAlinden, Krystof Hádek

Somewhere in Scottland, (an alien in the form of (?)) a woman is driving a van on the streets at night, trying to pick up men. One man is attracted to her, she brings him to a desolate house and undresses. As he undresses as well, and walks towards her in the dark, he falls into a liquid - and his body is dissolved in it, leaving only his skin. Sometimes, the woman also walks on foot and browses several bars. One night, she picks up another man, who has a disfigured face and never had a girlfriend. He is also absorbed in the liquid in the house. However, after that, the woman leaves the van and escapes. She tries out a piece of cake, but it is disgusting to her. She meets a man, stays in his house and tries to have normal sex with him. She leaves again, stumbles upon a logger in the forest who tries to rape her, but only accidentally peels her skin away, revealing her black alien body. The logger then pours gasoline on the alien and sets her on fire.

Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" polarized the audience, since many were surprised to encounter a rare example of a pure experimental film featuring one of the most popular Hollywood stars of that time, Scarlett Johansson, who plays a nameless (alien) woman in a very vague, cryptic story that deliberately refuses to go anywhere particularly. Even though it is ostensibly a science-fiction movie, "Under the Skin" is highly allegorical and may be interpreted similarly like Polanski's "Repulsion", namely an exploration of a woman's genophobia, i.e. fear and disgust of sex. She seemingly picks up men and brings them to her desolate house, but they then fall into a liquid naked and are killed. This seems like a radical feminist revenge tale, except that all these men never did anything (on screen) to deserve this. Their demise is presented in peculiarly-hermetic-stylistic shots of the woman and the man seen in front of a completely black background, until he makes a few steps forwards towards her and sinks bellow into the unknown. One encounter makes a difference, though, and is highly interesting: when the woman picks up a 26-year old lad with a disfigured face, who claims to have never had a girlfriend. He is also ultimately killed, but this seems to trigger a change inside of her. Did she feel pity for the first time? Did she recognize the lad's loneliness and his wish to find someone to love, which she defiled? Was she in human form for so long until she started to feel human emotions and empathy as well? All these are interesting points, but are presented frustratingly cold and indifferent, only objectively following the woman wondering aimlessly in the last third, without preparing a point at the end. This "empty walk" and a lack of situations to identify with exacerbates the effort of the viewers to "decipher" the movie, yet it might please some more 'adventerous' cinema buffs keen to find something alternative in cinema.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Time

Sigan; drama, South Korea / Japan, 2006; D: Kim Ki-duk, S: Ha Jung-woo, Seong Hyeon-a, Park Ji-Yeon

Seh-hee and her boyfriend Ji-woo have been in a romantic relationship for two years now. However, she is perplexed at him for staring at other girls from time to time, and thinks he might have gotten bored with her. Without any explanation, Se-hee leaves him and decides to have a plastic surgery that will change her face. 6 months later, Ji-woo meets a woman and starts a relationship with her. But he finds out it is actually Seh-hee with a new face. He then leaves her and undergoes a plastic surgery as well. A lonely Seh-hee tries to find him, but without success. She runs after a man she thinks might be Ji-woo, but the man runs away and gets killed by a truck on the street. Seh-hee then undergoes another plastic surgery.

"Time" is Kim Ki-duk in "light" form, since the director does not raise to the occasion in this edition. Many of Ki-duk's stories can be basically summed up in five pages of a script, yet at occasions, he manages to justify prolonging them to feature length movies thanks to his (often Buddhist inspired) contemplation of spiritual beings living in a harsh, crude material world. Such is not quite the case with this film which, as the title reveals, contemplates about the transience and how a love couple copes with that: the girl thinks she might be getting old for her boyfriend, so she undergoes a facial plastic surgery, signalling a "rebirth" into a new person, in order to "rejuvenate" their relationship. However, since her "rebirth" is fake, her nirvana will also be fake. She expects happiness from things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness. There are some interesting philosophical thoughts presented subtly throughout the story (if her boyfriend changes his face during the surgery, and is a complete stranger afterward, is he basically "dead" anyway?) wrapped up in the interesting final image which speaks about time that "floods" all beings, and the highlight is the Baemikkumi Sculpture Park (including a sculpture of two giant hands with fingers that allow people to climb up on them like stairs), yet the movie seems overlong and overstretched, with too much banal dialogues, all of which start exhausting the viewers concentration, revealing that he should have stopped the story an hour into the film, instead of continuing it artificially for another half an hour of empty walk.

Grade;++

Monday, August 14, 2017

Round the Bend

Round the Bend; comedy series, UK, 1988; D: John Henderson, S: Jon Glover, Jonathan Kydd, Philip Pope, Kate Robbins 

Doc Croc is the host of an underground sewage TV show, using his associates - Vincent and other rats; David Colemole, the sports commentator; John Potato's newsround - to run the program. They broadcast several cartoons for the viewers, among them "Wee-Man", "Loud Lucy", "Pzycho the Magnificent", "Spambo", "Ricky" and others.

Independently produced "Round the Bend" was briefly shown in the UK during its premiere in the late 80s and after that disappeared in a "bunker", never even receiving a DVD release, thus quickly affirming unbelievable cult reputation as a "lost treasure". Even from today's perspective, it is still a remarkably fresh TV show consisting out of a live action (puppets) and animated (short cartoon clips) segment that form a blend of sheer delight. "Round the Bend" is one of the rare examples of a comedy show that is both unbelievably grotesque-bizarre and yet innocent, benign, harmless and childish at the same time: even though not all jokes work (the parody "False Teeth From Beyond the Stars" looks particularly dated and unfunny, for instance), many of its concoctions conquer with an incredible wit, ingenuity and comic inspiration.

For instance, one cartoon clip is called "Loud Lucy" and features an eponymous 10-year old girl who always talks annoyingly loud. One episode has Lucy in the church commenting at the people around her out loud, from her cousin who has acne ("Why does cousin Kevin smell so much?! Is it because his spots keep buuursting, mom?!") up to the bride ("Gosh, she looks even uglier than you said, mom!"). Many other cartoons are spoofs of numerous popular animated shows, from "He-Man" ("Wee-Man", featuring the hero who wears a diaper), through "Care Bears" ("Couldn't-Care-Less-Bears", featuring bears who fart, bathe in mud or outright pick their nose) up to "Batman" ("Botman", featuring the hero who has a giant butt, yet when he only puts away his mask, nobody can recognize his distinguished rear), very often ending in hilariously exaggerated satire. The highlight is arguably a howlingly funny animated parody on Little Red Riding Hood, which reaches cosmic heights of hilarity ("What snaggly, yellow teeth you got... And what bad breath you got... And what hairy legs you got...", says Riding Hood, until the old lady warns her that she in the wrong house again, and stands up from bed to shoot at the girl). The ratio of humor between the live action and animated segment is 1:3, making the Doc Croc segment sometimes irrelevant, yet it is still a worthy example of children's satire that also appeals to grown ups as well.

Grade;++

Friday, August 11, 2017

Lovefilm

Szerelmesfilm; drama / romance, Hungary, 1970; D: István Szabó, S: András Bálint, Judit Halász, Edit Kelemen, András Szamosfalvi, Flóra Kádár

Jancsi, a man in his 30s, finally gets the permission to travel from Budapest to Paris to see Kata, whom he hasn't seen for years. During his train trip, he remembers their childhood: during World War II, his father died and Kata teased him for that, but he could not be angry at her. They witnessed hunger and how their neighbor was killed. Kata and Jancsi became friends, but as students, when he tried to kiss her, she refused. Later on, they still became lovers. However, in '56, the Hungarian Revolution marked another crisis, and Kata was among the many thousands of refugees who fled to the West. Back in present, Jancsi meets Kata and they spend a couple of romantic days in her apartment. They also travel to the sea. However, Jancsi departs back to Budapest. He tries to stay, but feels like a stranger in Paris. He marries another woman in Budapest, Jutka, and recieves a letter from Kata, who said that she got married to an Englishman in Paris.

Istvan Szabo's 3rd feature length film is a melancholic, tragic and gentle elegy of a failed romance of a young couple, who in the end lament about their "rotten childhood" during World War II and the '56 Hungarian Revolution, and thus also symbolically represent the lost generation of that failed era, whose lives were ruined. Similarly like Fellini's "Amarcord", "Lovefilm" also has a 'stream-of-consciousness' narrative, structured like a vague recollection of childhood memories of the protagonist, except that Szabo's movie is far more bleak and sad, with only a couple of minuscule moments of humor that manage to liven up the mood (in one example, Jancsi remembers how he and Kata, when they were kids, planned to dissect a dead fish, but wanted to make sure it is dead so they decided to electrocute it with wires from the doorbell - but only caused a power outage in the whole street). There is some undermining tragedy in Jancsi and Kata who are surrounded by war and turmoil, but who insist on trying to live their fragile lives normally, through snow sledding or falling in love, trying to make "the best days of their lives" during the worst times. This makes even their romantic reunion in Paris bitter, since they became citizens of two separate worlds in the time of being apart. However, at a running time of 120 minutes, the movie is slightly overlong and exhaustive, lacking a certain ingenuity or inventiveness to truly cover up for the slightly routine episodes here and there, which could have been presented in a far more compact way.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone; drama, USA, 2010; D: Debra Granik, S: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser

Ree (17) lives with a poor family in the Ozarks: she has a sick mother and thus has to take care of her younger brother (12) and sister (6). Her family in is trouble: Ree's dad, previously arrested for cooking "Meth", has disappeared for weeks, and unless he shows up at the court hearing, her family is going to lose their home that was set up as the bail bond. Ree thus decides to find her dad and travels from house to house, including her uncle Teardrop, but to no avail. Finally, after a lot of trouble, some women bring Ree to a lake where she finds her father dead. They cut of the hands of the corpse from the lake to serve as proof that he is indeed dead. This is sufficient for the court to decide not to evict Ree's family.

Despite critical acclaim, this is a routine social drama, a movie genre that is a dime a dozen. "Winter's Bone" presents a story in which the heroine, Ree, goes from door to door to search for her missing father. The thing is - why should anyone care? The characters, events and situations are all standard, conventional, lifeless, humorless and bland. The whole movie is, unfortunately, completely unmemorable. So unmemorable that, in two-three years, the viewers will probably not be able to remember any scene, situation or dialogue from it. It is not a good sign when the only thing you might remember about a certain film is Ree teaching her younger brother how to skin an animal and removes its intestine. The dialogues all unravel like a typical, everyday writing on "autopilot", with actors reciting long and ponderous lines that are obvious and redundant. That may have been the intention, but it was a wrong intention: if the movie is boring, why make it? If it does not stand out at all, why bother? If it is mundane, why should it be considered special, anyway? It may be realistic, but is makes for a very unexciting watch. And then the finale just shows up and the movie just ends there, without any conclusion. It is a solid movie, yet one wishes that the authors inserted just a tiny bit ingenuity, energy, creativity or life in it, something that would offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience than this.

Grade;+

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Neighbors

Neighbors; comedy, USA, 1981; D: John G. Avildsen, S: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cathy Moriarty, Kathryn Walker, Lauren-Marie Taylor, Tim Kazurinsky

Earl is a middle-aged man living with his wife Enid in a suburban home. One night, neighbors move to a house next door and introduce themselves: Vic and Ramona. Earl is immediately annoyed by Vic who borrowed his car and 32$ to buy a dinner in the city, only to keep the money and hastily prepare spaghetti in his own house. Ramona constantly pretends to seduce Earl, only to always betray and trick him. Further problems arise when Earl's teenage daughter Elaine shows up. The next morning, Vic accidentally burns his own house with a small airplane. When Enid and Elaine leave, Earl decides to escape into the unknown from his life together with Vic and Ramona in the car.

Comedian John Belushi appeared in only eight films in his entire career, before his much too early death, four of which involved a collaboration with his friend Dan Aykroyd. And while some hoped that their teaming up would again result in a phenomenal comedy such as "The Blues Brothers" or "The Rutles", their final film was the disappointing mess "Neighbors". It is peculiar how a film that starts off with such a stimulating and good opening can exhaust all its potentials and sink into juvenile buffoonery so fast. The first 40 minutes of this "annoying friends that won't go away" flick are comedy gold: director John G. Avildsen shows a good sense for comic timing thanks to observational humor or measured comic exaggerations, from the tantalizing scene where the coiled Earl hears a doorbell and opens the door when he spots the attractive Ramona in front of his entrance (equipped with almost cartoonish music) up to his interaction with the extroverted Vic who borrows his car and 32$ under the pretext that he will "buy him dinner" in the city (there is a deliciously long sequence of Earl sneaking off into the night to peak at his neighbor's window, only to spot Vic how he parked the car behind the house, kept the money and lazily just prepared spaghetti in his kitchen, nonchalantly picking up pasta that fell on the floor).

Unfortunately, 40 minutes into the film, and there is nothing more to see since "Neighbors" completely lost all of its good ideas for the rest of the running time. The remainder is only assembled out of crude, cheap or lame attempts at jokes, all of which backfire. In one sequence, Vic, wearing some diving mask, shoots at Earl in his back yard, but then recognizes him, invites him for some coffee, mentions his daughter's sex life, and then they both kick each other in the crotch. Why waste so much time on such a long, elaborated and pointless sequence that leads nowhere? In another, Earl's teenage daughter presents her edible panties and gives them to Vic to eat them. Again, a pointless scene. Even more problematic, the character's motivations change to complete opposite without explanations: throughout the film, Earl wants to get rid of Vic and Ramona, only to in the end invite them to stay and even join them on their trip and escape from his house. Why? Why would Earl suddenly switch his hate from Vic to his wife? All of this is left unexplained, leaving an uneven taste in the viewers' mouth. "Neighbors" would have worked as a short that ends after 40 minutes, because it forcefully tries to extend the thin storyline into a feature, and it shows. It was obvious someone fiddled with the script by the talented Larry Galbert, since the story seems as if someone else wrote the whole last two thirds by inserting crazy concoctions, completely ignoring the first point, though Belushi shows his comic talent as the coiled Earl in the opening act, and the movie should be seen only for this intro alone.

Grade;+

Monday, August 7, 2017

Re-Animator

Re-Animator; horror, USA, 1985; D: Stuart Gordon, S: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton

Medical student Dan Cain has a relationship with Meg, the daughter of the dean of the medical school, Dr. Halsey. Dan accepts the eccentric Herbert West, a new student, as his lodger. However, Cain finds out that West is performing an experiment with a green liquid that manages to bring dead back among the living. Unfortunately, the re-animated corpses are all mindless zombies who attack people, and Dr. Halsey is one of their victims. When his professor, Hill, finds out about the invention, he wants to steal it, so West decapitates him, but revives both Hill's severed head and body. Hill escapes and captures Barbara in a morgue. West injects too much liquid into Hill's body, causing it to mutate and melt away: its intestine attacks West. Barbara is killed, so Cain inject her with liquid, reviving her.

Even though it gained cult status, Stuart Gordon's horror grotesque is a fairly routine and standard film, settling to seize more attention of the viewers with gore, violence, blood and disgust than with intelligence, sophistication or some ingenuity. There isn't much to see: the first third is a soap opera, the last third just a standard cheap scare. "Re-Animator" has two great scenes of a visual style: the one is when West shuts the door while the camera follows its movement and swings to the left, towards Cain and Barbara; the second is when Barbara enters the hallway of the morgue, while the camera drives away from her. Unfortunately, that is basically it, since the jokes all backfire or seem just plain forced (one is the grotesque sequence of the decapitated head of Dr. Hill ordering his body to get something, but its body constantly stumbles upon something) whereas the finale falls too often into trash (the sequence of the body tying up Barbara naked to the table, only to hold Dr. Hill's decapitated head that wants to lick her between the legs; a mutated body whose intestines attack West). The critics mostly complimented Gordon for managing to achieve such good effects despite his limited budget, yet the story is an ill-conceived mess whose blend of horror and comedy are uneven.

Grade;+

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Boys Town

Boys Town; drama, USA, 1938; D: Norman Taurog, S: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull, Frankie Thomas, Bobs Watson


Father Flanagan visits a convict in jail who is sentenced to a death penalty. Before his execution, the man blames the state for not being there to help him when he was an orphan and had to become a criminal to survive. This deeply affects Flanagan who decides to found an orphanage for juvenile delinquents, named "Boys Town". He gets a mortgage and establishes a place that takes care of 200 children, hoping to correct them all so that they can leave as honest citizens when they turn 18. However, a new kid, the 14-year old Whitey Marsh, strains the community by rudely acting exclusive. When a kid, Pee Wee, is injured by a car for trying to prevent him from leaving "Boys Town", Whitey feels remorse. He meets his criminal brother, Joe, who robs a bank. In order to escape being charged himself, Whitey tries to beg Joe to give himself in. Flanagan and the boys storm the hideout and arrest Joe. Whitey returns to "Boys Town" and gets elected as the president there.

"Boys Town" stayed remembered for securing Spencer Tracy his second Oscar for best actor, after "Captains Courageous" from the year before, making him the first actor in history to win that award twice in a row. Peculiarly, both films share the same theme: a problematic kid who is reformed thanks to a wise mentor. It is basically a tale as old as time — a heartless person undergoes a colossal change and finds his humanity at the end — yet still works here thanks to the classic style from the "Golden age of Hollywood" where characters and emotions were the highlight, not various technical gimmicks. Unobtrusive, unassuming, honest, touching and remarkably effective despite its conventional narrative, "Boys Town" is a prime example of a movie with class from that era, a one that also contemplates about some problems in society at the same time, without being preachy: the opening is remarkable for clearly establishing why Father Flanagan decided to form the eponymous orphanage after he hears how a convict, sentenced to death, had no other means to survive as an orphan kid than to turn to crime. This hit the nerve of the viewers, who were still recovering from the poverty of the "Great Depression" just a few years before.

Upon seeing so many angry, aimless orphaned kids on the streets who fight and destroy private property, Father Flanagan decides to save them from such social determinism, claiming "These boys were cheated on for a chance to live a decent life" and this makes for an engaged storyline. He is a truly fascinating character, noble, dignified, yet also complex and practical, while Tracy plays him wonderfully and compassionately. Mickey Rooney almost surpasses him, however, in the fantastic role of the tough, problematic kid Whitey. One of the funniest moments in the film arrives when Whitey is reluctantly brought to Boys Town and is annoyed by the innocent, naive 8-year old mascot of the refuge, Pee Wee, who constantly follows him. Pee Wee is carried at one point by another kid 'piggyback' style, and then turns and asks: "Why don't you carry me, Whitey?" who replies sarcastically: "No, I might drop you!" Rooney gives a 'tour-de-force' performance, and even though he was praised by the critics, he was not nominated for any award for this film. The highlight of the film is definitely the dialogue between Flanagan and a wounded Whitey near the end, which displays some pure humanity and emotions rarely seen in modern cinema: "I've always said that there is no such thing as a 'bad boy' in this world. You're the only boy in all these years who never had a heart somewhere, I could not reach somehow, sometime." It is a beautiful moment, a sequence with an aura, a one that amends all complaints and elevates it to heights for a brief moment despite some previous omissions.

Grade;+++

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo

Last Men in Aleppo; documentary, Syria / Denmark, 2017; D: Firas Fayyad, S: Khaled Omar Harrah

Aleppo. The Syrian war rages on while the city is constantly under siege. In 2016, the Syrian government launches another offensive against the rebels, while the civilians are caught in the middle. Khaled, a father of two children, is a volunteer for the White Helmets, an emergency organization that saves wounded people under the rubble. He runs in ambulance from apartment to apartment, but the casualties just keep mounting. He contemplates fleeing, but it is already to late. In the end, Khaled dies in bombardment while trying to save a family.

More than being a documentary, "Last Men in Aleppo" is a horror film. But even more than being a horror film, it is a monument to life and humanity of its protagonist, Khaled Omar Harrah, who sacrificed his life trying to save others, making this a chronicle of his last days. The battle of Aleppo received little attention in the media in the West, and thus this film by Firas Fayyad gives a rare, brave glimpse inside hell on Earth: it is brutal, depressive, sad and unbearable, but it forces the viewers to think. It makes not only for a strange chronicle of how something like this can happen in the civilized world of the 21st century, but is also a document to war crimes committed by those who were pounding these people to death: the Syrian government and Goreshist Russia. The film shows a clip of Khaled saving a living baby buried under a tone of destroyed walls, through which he became famous, but also follows him on his daily drive to fresh rubble, trying to save other wounded people under the rubble. It is like watching the modern day Sisyphus: no matter how many he saves, war planes strike and kill some more. It just goes on and on. Several scenes illustrate the bleak, dark situation these people are in: a war plane dropping forbidden white phosphorus that glows in night or cluster bombs that explode throughout entire neighborhoods. A cat crawls under and enters a house, trying to find safety, but its lower legs are almost crippled. Khaled buys some living fish on the market, thinking it can be used as food in case hunger breaks out due to siege. The film does not take any side in the war. It just follows and objectively shows things how they were in Aleppo. It is full of contrasts: on one side, we have heroes, the White Helmets, who are seen and who save the people, and on the other we have villains who are hiding, cowardly killing from far away. It also contemplates about some bigger issues in life, such as helplessness and frailness of good among the people. This film is a tough watch. It is like watching people being destroyed through a meat grinder for an hour and a half. But is refuses to turn away, through which it implores the viewers to think about the value of life and the importance of humanity in dark times.

Grade;+++

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian et la Cité des mille planètes; science-fiction action, France, 2017; D: Luc Besson, S: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), John Goodman (voice), Mathieu Kassovitz, Rutger Hauer
In the far future, Earth Alpha station has merged with other space station from alien civilizations. It has grown to be the largest space station in the Universe, employing millions of workers from over a thousand planets. Federal agents Valerian and Laureline are summoned by commander Filitt to investigate a mysterious unknown sphere in the station. After alien creatures kidnap Filitt, Valerian and Laureline figure it must have something to do with a "converter", a small reptile-like creature that can multiply pearls. They enter the sphere and find out that Filitt, while fighting a war, used a powerful explosive and thereby committed genocide against planet Mul, which was destroyed as a collateral damage. The Mulian aliens just want to have the "converter" creature back to try to reconstruct their civilization. Valerian and Laureline oblige, while Filitt is arrested.

With a budget estimated to run somewhere between 170 and 200 million $, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets" became the most expensive European film till date, signalling the Zenith of financial power of director Luc Besson who rallied all the talent from France and foreign specialists and who became the only non-English director in the history of modern cinema who managed to make a European film that topped Hollywood. Just for that treat alone, and the sheer audacity to film the popular eponymous Sci-Fi comics, "Valerian" should be respected more. Overall, the film is not perfect — more charm and humor should have been attributed to the two main leads, agents Valerian and (sometimes feisty) Laureline; the illogical plot holes become apparent in the finale where not everything is neatly tied up whereas some sequences, though pretty, were just added for the pure "eye candy" since they had no function in the storyline — yet it is simply fun and Besson's (French) ingenuity comes to full expression in the virtuoso directed 20-minute action sequence in which Valerian uses a cube on his hand to enter another dimension of a desert black market and escape from the villains who chase after him, which is played down to a T.

The stylistic highlights in that sequence arrive in various technical innovations, such as when a villain throws thousand metal marbles that get attached to Valerian's cube device on his hand, making him unable to run, but the agent escapes by using the heavy weight to crash down a manhole and fall several levels underground. When he finally falls on a stable surface, he throws one metal marble at another villain - and then reprogrammes all the other marbles to follow that marble as a magnet, and now all the weight is transferred to the villain - who now crashes down the next floor himself. The way Valerian and Laureline escape from a giant monster-dog that got attached to their spaceship by simply turning on the warp speed is elegant and fitting as well. Some of the dialogues between the two leads are neat ("Can you survive 20 minutes without me?"), though more such comic ideas could have been added. The main plot on the space station that accompanies over a thousand species sometimes falls into 'patchwork': numerous aliens are presented, though only for a couple of seconds, and thus they seem more like 'throwaway' material that seems more random than something that completes each other (for instance, the character of shapeshifter Bubble is cool, but is disposed off after only 10 minutes). "Valerian" is also different from many big-budget films by defying some Hollywood cliches, staying true to its European roots: there is no main bad guy, and instead the story is one giant allegory on genocide denial, contemplating if the protagonists have enough integrity to accept that someone is wrong from their own ranks. Several inconsistencies and a too colossal narrative may bring the movie down near the end, yet Besson again proved that he still has some freshness left in him.

Grade;++

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Timbuktu

Timbuktu; drama, Mauritania / France, 2014; D: Abderrahmane Sissako, S: Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Kettly Noel, Hichem Yacoubi

In 2012, Islamist Jihadists conquer Timbuktu and impose a theocracy: due to Sharia law, women are suppose to wear scarfs and gloves; football, music and smoking are forbidden. People who disobey are punished by lashes or, in extreme cases, stoning to death. Kidane, a cattle herder, lives a peaceful life with his wife and their 12-year daughter Toya. However, one day, a crying boy, Issan, tells him how fisherman Amadou killed his beloved cow GPS because it accidentally got stuck in his fishing net in the lake. An angry Kidane confronts and accidentally shoots Amadou. Kidane is brought to trial and sentenced to death. His wife tries to prevent this and thus they are both shot and killed.

A quiet, meditative, minimalist film, "Timbuktu" found its way to widespread critical recognition due to its honest tone and emotional characters the viewers can identify with: even though its story speaks about the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu in 2012, this is also a 'slice-of-life' movie that depicts the customs, mentality and philosophy of the daily life of its people. Even though a Muslim himself, director Abderrahmane Sissako crafted a rejecting picture of Islamist fundamentalism and its negative effects through theocracy: at times, "Timbuktu" seems almost like a local version of "Idiocracy" insofar that it shows how backward people impose their will on everyone: in one scene, a Jihadi kidnapped a girl and married her by force, and when the girl's mother comes to complain, the Jihadi leader just brushes it off; in another, kids play "invisible" football on the field because the ball is forbidden; the Jihadis stage a video, but during recording the lighting malfunctions. Sissako shows violence, but unlike many other African directors, he does so with measure: the murder of a cow, for instance, is shown with emotion, with lingering shots of its legs faltering, showing sympathy for the creature, while the stoning of a couple is reduced to only three seconds. Did the fisherman kill the cow due to negative effects of the Jihadis who introduced violence as means of solving everything? In a time where so many directors just show violence explicitly, a director who does it subtly is something worth complimenting. The storyline is episodic and long at times, yet its center was nicely found in cattle herder Kidane, who confronts the fisherman and tries to do the right thing. Another plus point are the aesthetic images of the old city of Timbuktu that give the movie another layer and speak about some ancient traditions (and emotions) that last even in modern times.

Grade;+++

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Expanse (Season 1)

The Expanse; science-fiction crime series, USA, 2015; D: Terry McDonough, Jeff Woolnough, Rob Lieberman, S: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Cas Anvar, Chad Coleman, Florence Faivre

In the future, human colonies exist both on Mars and on Ceres in the asteroid belt. However, the "Belters", people in the asteroid colonies, are denoted to de facto slave labor, performing dangerous extraction of gas, water and other resources from asteroids for Mars and overpopulated Earth. Detective Joe Miller is given the assignment to find Juliette Mao, the missing daughter of a rich man. At the same time, ice trawler Canterbury is destroyed by mysterious spaceship Scopuli, and only workers Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex survive. They meet Fred Johnson, the leader of the militant OPA faction that fights for the rights of the Belters, who gives them the assignment to retrieve the only survivor of Scopuli. Holden, Naomi and Amos team up with Miller at Eros station, where they find out that the only survivor from Scopuli was Juliette, who died from an unknown virus. A martial law is proclaimed, while both Mars and Earth suspect the other created the virus as a biological weapon.

The first season of "The Expanse" sets up an interesting premise: the anger of the "asteroid mine workers" who contemplate fighting against their exploitation from Earth and Mars reminds of a futuristic vision of Emile Zola's novel "Germinal"; the various political ploys played by the UN politicians on Earth are reminiscent of a science-fiction "Game of Thrones" whereas the finale even adds another ingredient in the formula when it introduces a mysterious virus which could be used as a biological weapon. Unfortunately, for some reason, "The Expanse" follows the often trend of TV shows of its time: since the first 10 episodes last for about 7 hours in total, it takes way too much time to set up its storyline, and thus the real plot tangle, a one that awakens the most interest, only starts in the last two episodes — which leaves the viewers forced to watch season 2. The plot involving Detective Miller (played brilliantly by the charismatic Thomas Jane) works the best, yet the plots revolving around Holden, the UN Assistant Undersecretary Avasarala and the OPA leader Fred Johnson often cause the viewers to question why so much running time is invested upon them.

Despite the overarching story leading to a point in the last two episodes, the said three plots are not always inspired, but sometimes insipid, with your 'run-of-the-mill', standard dialogue. This could have been condensed into only 5 episodes, not 10. The futuristic setting has some interesting details in the first episodes — for instance, a couple has sex in zero gravity, floating two feet above their bed. When one astronaut runs out of oxygen in his spacesuit, the other astronaut saves him by attaching his suit to his own oxygen supply. There is also a poetic moment of Miller on Ceres colony observing a bird that flaps its wings only sporadically, since the lower gravity allows it to fly with only half of effort. However, these technical wonders are abandoned in later episodes, when the plot focuses more on character development and political intrigues. Sadly, some of these plus points are nullified by humorless, lifeless episodes, which cannot be quite camouflaged by great cameras or effects. The 1st season is thus a good "origins" series — it spans a colossal narrative range from Earth to the asteroid belt — yet its true "boiling point" and inspiration seem to be left for the next season.

Grade;++

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Barry Levinson, S: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Chintara Sukapatana, Tung Thanh Tran, Bruno Kirby, Robert Wuhl, J. T. Walsh, Richard Edson

Saigon during the Vietnam War. Adrian Cronauer is brought from the US to work as a radio DJ for the American soldiers. Adrian's insane comedy broadcast is an instant radio hit for the listeners, but he makes fun of everyone, including Richard Nixon and the US military. Adrian also wants to start a relationship with a local girl, Trinh, and also becomes friends with her brother, Tuan. Private Eddie loves Adrian's show, but Lieutenant Hauk constantly argues with Adrian, who is free-spirited and refuses to follow his guidelines and constrictions. After a bomb kills people in a building, Hauk wants to censor the information - but Adrian reports it on the radio anyway, and is thus fired. After hundreds of letters, Adrian is brought back, but is shocked to find out Tuan planted the bomb because he considers every American an occupier. Adrian's relationship with Trinh leads nowhere due to their differences, and thus he leaves back for the US.

The first comedy based on the Vietnam War, "Good Morning, Vietnam" marked the beginning of the "golden age" of Robin Williams' career which would last for a whole decade, and rightfully so since the comedian here is such a sensation that is unbelievable: his casting was simply perfect since he brings a rarely matched energy, vitality and irresistible charm to the role of Adrian Cronauer (even though the majority of the storyline was fictional or amended for the film). Williams fits ideally as a radio DJ with a big mouth and non-stop jokes, and he acts almost like Jerry Lee Lewis: it doesn't matter if he destroys everything in sight as long as he entertains his audience. Already in the opening, when Adrian exits from the plane in Saigon and meets Private Eddie, does he prove a distinctive comic wavelength in their dialogue about the weather ("That is warm." - "Warm? No, this is the setting for London broil!").

The movie owes 90% of its appeal to his improvisational skills and without Williams this wouldn't be half as fun, whether the jokes are politically incorrect ("The Mississippi broke through a protective dike today... what is... what is a protective dike? Is it a large woman standing by the river going: "Don't go near there!"), political (the fake interview featuring the voice of Richard Nixon) or just plain defying authoritarian figures (after a major argument with his superior, Seargent Dickerson, Adrian, before leaving the office, says this legendary reply: "You are in more dire need of a blow job than any other white man in history"). Unfortunately, the last third of the film lost inspiration and ended on a routine note: the sequence where Adrian talks to the soldiers who all want him to return as the radio DJ is not that funny, and neither is the lame baseball game featuring fruits instead of a ball at the end. Adrian's love interest with a local girl, Trinh, could have been handled better, as well: the only highlight is when he spots her in an English class and spontaneously jumps in as replacement to the teacher, in order to find out more about her. It is interesting that both "Vietnam" and another Williams film "Dead Poets Society" feature the same theme: an individual arriving to an authoritarian institution that turns against him for his free spirit and disobedience, only to leave heartbroken that nothing changed. Easily the best out of three collaborations between Williams and director Barry Levinson, "Vietnam" still seems fresh today, and although it is not as versatile or as focused as "M*A*S*H", it is still a sadly neglected (and rarely talked about) quality film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Machete

Machete; action, USA, 2010; D: Robert Rodriguez, S: Danny Trejo, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan

Machete was once a Mexican Federal who fell into a trap and was betrayed by his partner, Torrez, who advanced into a drug lord. Years later, Machete now works as an illegal immigrant in Texas. He is approached by a certain Booth who offers him $150,000 to assassinate the far right Senator McLaughlin, who wants to forcibly eradicate every Mexican in the US. Machete accepts, but quickly figures it was a set-up: McLaughlin will win the re-election by claiming a Mexican wanted to kill him - even though Booth works for him - while the police are now after Machete. Luckily, with the help of Luz, agent Rivera and Mexican immigrants, they manage to expose McLaughlin and his ties with Torrez. In a duel, Machete kills Torrez while Rivera falls in love with him.

The eternal supporting cast member Danny Trejo was finally given a leading role in the action exploitation film "Machete", a spin-off of Robert Rodriguez's fake trailer for the "Planet Terror" film, who even went so far to give such stars like Robert De Niro and Jessica Alba a second billing. "Machete" is a homage to stupid B-action movies from the 80s and, just like Tarantino's films, dances somewhere between trash and inspiration: there are some good scenes and some bad scenes, yet Trejo is very sympathetic, humble in the leading role and several ironic moments give this a 'tongue-in-cheek' feel that refuses to take itself seriously, thankfully, whereas Rodriguez even managed to insert a surprisingly relevant theme about illegal immigration, Xenophobia and racism in the US, which gives it a dose of the subversive that increases its meaning - among others, Senator McLaughlin brags about building a wall along Mexico and even calls Mexicans "terrorists". There are a few good jokes here (for instance, Machete was shot at, but the bullet was stopped - by a previous bullet already inside his body) and even some moments that twist the expected cliches: when the attractive girl Rivera (Alba) is drunk and lies in her bed, we see Machete taking his jacket off and "jumping" into the bed. However, the surprise is next morning, when Rivera wakes up in her clothes and spots Machete simply sleeping next to her side, in clothes as well. She then smiles and calls him a real "gentleman". For such class alone, the movie deserves some extra credit. The inspiration wears off in the exaggerated, routine and over-the-top action finale, which ends predictably, though "Machete" is still a good 'guilty pleasure' - and is notable for being one of only two good movies trash actor Steven Seagal ever starred in his entire career (the second being "Under Siege").

Grade;++

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz; comedy, UK, 2007; D: Edgar Wright, S: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, Olivia Colman, Timothy Dalton, Edward Woodward, Paul Freeman, Martin Freeman

Police Constable Nicholas Angel is one of the most successful and award-winning people in the history of police in London. A little bit too successful, in fact, since he makes the London police "look bad" in comparison and thus his office decides to transport him to a small provincial town of Sandford. Nicholas is annoyed by the lazy police without any effort, especially by his new partner Danny. However, when several people start dying in mysterious circumstances, he suspects there is a mass killer on the run. He uncovers a conspiracy: the village officials - Skinner, manager of a supermarket; Frank, the police Inspector, and others - who kill people who are "disrupting" the perfect reputation of the village. In a grand shootout, Nicholas and Danny manage to arrest the bad guys.

Director Edgar Wright picked another right thing when he decided to make a comic 'buddy cop film', something which is rarely produced in British cinema, and thus delivered a refreshing flick. Basically following the same formula of a conspiracy in a small town which would be used in his other Simon Pegg collaboration, "The World's End", "Hot Fuzz" is a peculiar and daft film which cannot quite get pinned down, yet it is a fun comedy that is simple and accessible. Some heavy handed moments contaminate the innocent tone of the storyline, mostly revolving around sometimes unnecessary crude or gory blood scenes of murder, whereas not every joke works, yet those that do ignite with delight (one irresistible joke, for instance, has Angel answering a phone call at the police station: a man, in all seriousness, called the police because a "swan escaped from the castle", but the protagonist has to oblige and try to catch the bird, even though he thinks this is clearly beneath his honor), whereas Wright gives the 'Mary Sue' protagonist cop Nicholas Angel a neat story arc in which he manages to both change (by accepting to 'lighten up' and stop being so aggressively perfect all of the time) and stay the same (his work ethic and integrity manage to crack the criminal conspiracy, after all) at the same time. A light fun. At least one sequence is howlingly hilarious, though, and demonstrates Wright's delight on comic territory which reaches cosmic heights, easily forming a highlight of the entire film: it is the insane finale in which Angel returns to the village, only to get attacked by retired locals who are aged 65+. One grandmother even calls him a "fascist" and then starts shooting  at him with a machine gun. And just when you think this cannot be topped, it gets topped - when a priest implores Angel to stop, appealing to the church - only to draw two guns and start shooting himself! If anything, this sequence is a small comic gem.

Grade;++