Friday, November 17, 2017

Once Upon a Time in China

Huang Feihong; action, Hong Kong / China, 1991; D: Tsui Hark, S: Jet Li, Yuen Biao, Jacky Cheung, Rosamund Kwan

Foshan, China, 19th century. Martial artists Wong Fei-hung cannot tolerate the British and American colonialists who are imposing their rule on the area more and more, exploiting the land and the people. He also has to take care of his 13th aunt, Siu-kwan. The criminal Shaho Gang teams up with the American official Jackson in order to get rid of Wong, but their assassination attempt during an opera performance fails. They kidnap Siu-kwan in order to use her and many other women for human trafficking, but Wong and his apprentices, Wing, So and Kai save her. In a fight, Wong defeats Yim and kills Jackson.

The originator of the popular Hong Kong movie hexalogy which spanned another five sequels in the next six years, "Once Upon a Time in China" was a smash hit in 1991, and even though it features a thin (and decisively overlong) storyline which is basically just an excuse for the virtuoso martial arts fights featuring Jet Li, it still holds up well today. One of the ingredients that probably appealed to the audience was the element of patriotism embodied in the folk hero Wong Fei-hung who rebelled against the British colonialism and irredentism, turning into a "Chinese Hasan Israilov", yet director Tsui Hark refused to turn the film into a Hong Kong version of "Braveheart" and instead delivered a relaxed, unassuming and fun little action flick without pathos, thereby avoiding any potential accusations of Xenophobia. The film is unusually humorless and bitter at times, especially in the sequences where the foreigners capture the 13th aunt to use her as a prostitute for human trafficking, yet the movie's energy and vitality are assured in several great battle sequences, from Wong using his umbrella to fight off a bad guy to him and the villain Yim swinging from ladder to ladder across the warehouse. Hark has sympathy for the Wuxia mythology, yet concedes that times are changing with the turn of the century in the sequence where one fighter is shot by a bullet, and before his death says this to the shocked Wong who is holding his bloody hand: "Our kung fu cannot compete with their guns!" It may be a considered as a dark commentary on the Wuxia genre which was slowly disappearing at that time. All the actors delivered a good job, which together with a few neat camera moves and lighting choices give an overall good impression of "Once Upon a Time in China", which took on a heavy theme, yet presented it in a light way.

Grade;++

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes; drama, UK, 1948; D: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, S: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Leonide Massine

A ballet is performed by impresario Lermontov, but one of the music conservatory students, Julian Craster, is disappointed that part of his music was plagiarized by his professor. Julian writes a letter to Lermontov, in which he confesses his dream to work for him as a composer, and surprisingly, Lermontov accepts the proposal. Lermontov oversees the ballet rehearsals in the theatre, and also gives another person a chance to join: dancer Victoria Page. During a performance of Swan Lake, Victoria is so fantastic that Lermontov decides to give her the lead in The Red Shoes. Victoria falls in love with Julian, but Lermontov insists that an artist cannot focus on his work when in love, and thus fires Julian. Victoria then leaves the company as well. Victoria returns to perform The Red Shoes again, but Julian shows up and gives her an ultimatum: she must leave with him or he will leave alone. Unable to decide between love and art, Victoria dances in her red shoes and jumps off the balcony into death.

"The Red Shoes" are on ode to both the art in its purest sense as well as people behind it, the artists who undergo various emotional states while trying to change themselves - and others - in order to obtain that ideal state of creativity. In this case, as it is implied in the title shared with the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, this dedication and orthodox obsession for perfection can lead to an overkill, until the art consumes the artists. This theme is summarized in Lermontov's single line, when he says: "Don't forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit!" Director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger craft the film in a remarkably fluent way, and the result is that the story still seems equally as modern today as it was back in its premiere in 1948. They achieve the most when they insert a few of unusual cinematic techniques (such as Victoria's POV when she is doing a pirouette, but as she turns on stage for 360 degrees, she constantly looks towards the audience, where Lermontov is sitting and observing her; the 15-minute sequence of the live performance of the ballet "The Read Shoes" without any dialogues, with a scene of a giant shadow of two hands falling on the ground around Victoria dancing), yet for the most part, they restrain their visual style and instead focus more on conventional narrative, in order to give room for the actors and the characters they are playing, most notably in the love triangle between Lermontov, Victoria and Julian - but also the love romb that encompasses a fourth component, the love for art (in this case, the ballet). All the actors are great, but the charismatic Anton Walbrook stands out the most as the harsh perfectionist Lermontov. Unfortunately, once the ballet "The Red Shoes" is over, the film seems to lose its inspiration and power, leaving the last third somewhat routine, stiff, until it is debased into a kitschy melodrama in the final act, with too much sentimental, ordinary dialogues that are in stark contrast with the creative first two thirds. The high impression is still not affected by it, yet sometimes, less is more.

Grade;+++

Friday, November 10, 2017

Electra, My Love

Szerelmem, Elektra; drama, Hungary, 1974; D: Miklós Jancsó, S: Mari Törőcsik, György Cserhalmi, József Madaras 

Electra still cannot accept the state of things in which tyrannt Aegisthus is now the ruler, after killing her father Agamemnon several years ago. However, all the citizens and servants are obedient to the ruler and pretend that everything is perfect. Electra's brother, Orestes, returns to the kingdom pretending to be a messenger who claims that Orestes is dead. Electra stabs Orestes, but he comes back to life. They capture Aegisthus in a net and have him walk on top of a giant boulder. Electra and Orestes shoots Aegisthus, and then themselves. However, Electra and Orestes come back to life and enter a red helicopter that flies away.

Director Miklos Jancso once again used his cinematic technique of long takes to create a modern retelling of "Electra", crafting a film that has only around a dozen cuts throughout its running time of 70 minutes, with long takes that routinely last for 8-9 minutes, all of which are filmed in exteriors, yet, just like many political films, "Electra, My Love" does not hold up well by today's standards. Some of his long shots remind of Antonioni, yet the latter one was better in theme and style: while Jancso is only interested in political movements of the masses, Antonioni is interested in the individual. While Jancso is interested in political messages (in this case, Communist ones, showing Aegisthus as the oppressor of the proletariat) which will inevitably become dated as the flow of time washes away ideologies, Antonioni is interested in some eternal emotional states of the person, which makes him more compelling even today.

Jancso crafts some bizarre, puzzling and surreal images as his camera moves around and follows Electra, who walks between two rows of people lying on the ground, only for the said people to then hold each others hands and then roll down the meadow like cylinders. In another perplexing scene, the camera arrives at a human pyramid, consisting out of a naked boy, some peasants and a man looking at a topless girl. Not much sense can be made out of this 'patchwork', except to make the story more colorful, since the characters all seem like machines or walking propaganda pawns, and not like real people with feelings. The highlight is definitely Electra's long monologues at the end, which still has some genuine spark and flair among the artificial narrative overburdened with symbolism ("There was once upon a time, or it wasn't, but it was true. There lived a miraculous bird. It was brighter than the Sun, more luminous than the rainbow, prettier than the most beautiful jewel. Because she was born out of man's eternal wish. Her father was freedom, and her mother hapiness. Where ever the Fire-bird flew... the suffering of the people was eased... But her strength betrayed her because she gave all her strength to the people... When everyone can equally take from the casket of wealth... Then, and only then, will life on Earth become worthy to mankind").

Grade;++

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Deep

Djúpið; drama, Iceland, 2012; D: Baltasar Kormákur, S: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Joi Johannsson, Stefán Hallur Stefánsson, Jón Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Thora Bjorg Helga

Westman Islands, south of Iceland, '84. Gulli and another four fisherman board a boat and sail into the Atlantic Ocean to catch fish. During night, their trencher catches too much weight, which capsizes their boat. Gulli and two other men, Palli and Jon, swam at the surface of the sea. However, the two vanish and Gulli is the sole survivor in the ocean, in the middle of the night. Despite freezing cold water, he manages to swim to the island, walk another two hours barefoot and reach a house to contact for an ambulance. Gulli recovers and is sent first to Reykjavik, and then to London for tests, since scientists cannot imagine how he managed to survive for six hours in the freezing water. Finally, Gulli returns home and visits the widow of one of the fishermen.

Based on true events, this is a solid, albeit conventional example of the 'survival film' subgenre, depicting a remarkable odyssey of a fisherman, Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who managed to survive in the freezing Atlantic Ocean and swim back to the shore. Unlike "All is Lost", that narrowed the story only to Redford's character trying to survive in the ocean, "The Deep" takes the opposite approach and reduces this raw survival segment to only 10 minutes, in order to depict the protagonist's life before and after the event. The opening act is interesting, showing Gulli's routine (he wakes up early in the morning in his home; the fishermen throw bad fish out of the net back into the sea, thereby attracting dozens of hungry seagulls nearby...) and hits the high with his boat sinking, leaving him in the scary situation where he has to swim all by himself in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, once he reaches the shore and is saved, the remaining third of the film rides on a false momentum, never truly justifying why the story couldn't have simply ended there, instead of prolonging another 30-40 minutes on boring, tiresome sequences of scientists making tests on him in laboratory, trying to find out how the survived in the cold. The consequences or some sort of guilt that is implied to Gulli who survived, while other fishermen perished, seems contrived and misplaced, straining the patience of the viewers in this finale without a point. Still, director Baltasar Kormakur made a competent job, delivering an unassuming and interesting little film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Thomas in Love

Thomas est amoureux; science-fiction drama, Belgium, 2000; D: Pierre-Paul Randers, S: Benoît Verhaert (voice), Magali Pinglaut, Aylin Yay, Micheline Hardy

The future. Thomas (32) suffers from agoraphobia — a fear from open spaces — and thus it has been eight years since he left his apartment for the last time. He has sex with a CGI woman through a virtual reality world on a computer, whereas he uses Skype to talk to his mother or a mechanic when he needs a repair. A psychiatrists recommends Thomas to find a girlfriend. Thomas talks with Melodie through the monitor, and has sex with her through Internet, but this relationship falls apart. But then he meets Eva, which causes enough sparks for him to overcome his fear and leave the apartment to meet her in person.

"Thomas in Love" is one of the most unusual movies of the decade: the entire story, set in a near future, is filmed exclusively through the POV perspective of the title hero, and thus the main actor Benoit Verhaert is only seen in the final scene from the back, when he finally leaves the apartment, and the viewers mostly only hear his voice off the screen. This is both legitimate and problematic at the same time: on one hand, it stays true to the theme of alienation and deterioration of social skills in the modern (Internet) world, yet that way Thomas ends up as an un-affirmed character, while all the supporting characters (who show up on the visual telephone on his monitor) end up more effective. The opening 3-minute long sequence is highly interesting and memorable, since it shows a CGI animated space station in which a CGI woman is floating, taking her clothes off until she is naked and has "sex" with Thomas (again, all from his POV) — even though bizarre, it is an erotic and cleverly directed opening act, showing already how Thomas feels more comfortable interacting in a virtual than the real world. While not completely great, it is an interesting psychological drama with good moments (the driving psychiatrist talks with Thomas via the monitor, already showing their inappropriate relationship where private, intimate confessions are treated as fleeting routine) and a very solid theme that is worried about the future of humanity, a one where the whole society might become alienated and only have contact through the Internet, posing the question if real emotions can survive such an artificial state in the long run.

Grade;++

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron; black comedy, Sweden / Germany / Norway / France / Denmark, 2014; D: Roy Andersson, S: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson

Three people have a heart attack and die on three different places. Jonathan and Sam are two traveling salesmen who try to sell their useless "comical" products, including vampire teeth and masks. A man on a horse enters a bar and then leads the 18th century Swedish army into war, but they return wounded and decimated. An instructors teaches a class how to dance ballet. A girl recites a poem about a pigeon reflecting on existence in front of a school theatre. Jonathan and Sam argue over their business and separate. Jonathan has a dream about British men doing something terrible to some Natives and is plagued by this.

One of the most noticed examples of Scandinavian "Neo-Dadaism" and surreal humor, Roy Andersson's bizarre film is a strange experiment without a plot, revolving only around episodic vignettes that show up and disappear without any sense of urgency to the storyline, framed only by two travelling salesmen, yet its 'daft' mood and peculiar sense of humor assure it a certain (hermetic) charm. Just as the title hints at, "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a film essay about the banalities, contradictions, peculiarities and mysteries of human existence, and Andersson crafted them almost as if the characters are watched by some aliens puzzled by this life form: the entire storyline is filmed in static wide shots, without any cross-cutting, or without a single close-up even, all adding to its distant tone, with an almost comic-book mise-en-scene, following a strange rule that each sequence is narrowed down to only one scene. Even the two main protagonists are distant and elusive. Andersson follows his theme by making fun out of art, including dance and theatre, as well as patriotism and war, de-masking them as human constructs, and thereby showing the human limitations that need to be transversed. This is also evident in the two most disturbing sequences: a scientist is making a phone call, asking if a person is all right, all the while ignoring a small monkey "crucified" onto a lab equipment, getting electric shock every once in a while; a group of 19th Century British soldiers locking up Natives in a giant barrel and setting it on fire underneath, which is reminiscent of the Khaibakh massacre — they both show how human existence can be completely indifferent to the suffering of other existences around them. As Jessica Kiang proposed in her review, the modern day depression of people may lie in this guilt from the crimes in the past, "a kind of original sin, a stain in the blood". "Pigeon" is not for everyone's taste, yet its strong shot compositions and uneasy thought provoking points assure it validity.

Grade;++

Monday, October 23, 2017

Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun; drama, China, 1948; D: Fei Mu, S: Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Zhang Hongmei

A small town in China after the Second Sino-Japanese War. Yuwen is a sympathetic woman married to Liyan Dai, who has been sick for six years. They respect each other, but love eludes them, as Liyan thinks he is a burden to his wife who always have to take care of him, and feels guilty for the destruction of his family estate during the war. He has a younger sister, Xiu (16). One day, an old family friend, Zhang, now a doctor, returns after 10 years to visit them. He still feels affection for Yuwen, but does not want to intrude on her marriage. Liyan contemplates about marrying Xiu to Zhang, but he refuses, considering her too young. Feeling as a burden, Liyan drinks an overdose of sleeping pills in order to commit suicide. However, Zhang saves him, and then leaves. Yuwen waves goodbye to Zhang as she stays with Liyan.

Near the beginning of the 21st century, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association released a list of Top 100 Chinese films, and Fei Mu's last film, "Spring in a Small Town", was ranked first place on that list. While that reputation is a little bit overrated and misplaced, since many better Chinese films appeared during the 20th century, "Spring" still conquers today with its elegance, calm, minimalistic style, as well as sympathetic characters whose problems are easy to identify with, whereas its restrained, authentic and genuine performances, especially by excellent actress Wei Wei, give it an additional touch. "Spring" owes a part of its high reputation to the therapeutic "healing after a devastating war" subgenre that appeared in many countries after World War II (its equivalents are found in many films, such as the German "And the Heaven Above Us", Italian "Bicycle Thieves" or Yugoslav "The Unconquered People"), obvious even here in the character of the sick husband Liyan who is a symbol for the devastated, small Chinese man after the war who feels lost and aimless (he laments to his wife that he has been "married to her for eight years, six of which he was sick", and thus feels like a burden to her and contemplates suicide), yet Mu gave a far more optimistic note to it, suggesting that life goes on, that people should just keep standing and that this simple investment can blossom into a bright future. Similarly like Y. Ozu, even Mu decided to focus only on subtle details and nuances (in one sequence of the characters on a boat on a river, Yuwan, Liyan and Xiu are happily singing - except for Zhang, standing behind them, who has a serious face, mirroring his concern for the frailness of this family), and thus "Spring" revolves only around these four characters and their possible love triangle. The film really is too slow at times, with too much empty walk and lingering shots, as well as a too "modest" style to offer a broader spectrum of a viewing experience, yet its emotional depth still evokes power, especially in the contemplation that loyalty and friendship can be stronger than fatalism.

Grade;++

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Attack on Titan (Season 1)

Shingeki no Kyojin; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 2013; D: Tetsuro Araki, S: Yuuki Kaji, Marina Inoue, Yui Ishikawa, Daisuke Ono

In a post-apocalyptic future, mysterious, 200 ft tall giants appeared, called Titans, and killed off most of humanity. The remains of mankind live in a town shielded by giant walls, yet Titans attack once again and kill the mother of teenager Eren Yaeger, who thus swears revenge and joins the military to fight the Titans. His friends are Armin and Mikasa. During another attack, Eren is eaten by a Titan, but somehow mysteriously survives and finds out he can transforms into a Titan himself when he is wounded. The military capture a female Titan, who turns out to be also a human, Annie. This gives military the reason to explore further.

One of the most hyped animes of the decade, "Attack on Titan" is basically a restructuring of the popular "mecha genre", except that instead of giant robots, the people have to fight humanoid, Zombie giants, yet the story lacks highlights, pathos and the grandeur of "Evangelion" to truly overwhelm on a higher level. The setting is mysterious and stimulative, posing many questions about the origins of the Titans that attack and eat humans, yet, unfortunately, the 1st season refuses to answer any of those, leaving the viewers rather stranded and frustrated by a lack of any conclusion. The characters are one-dimensional, humorless and stiff, which exacerbates the impression (especially since Eren, Armin and Erwin all have a similar sounding name, which leads to confusion at times), yet the action sequences do have their moments of impact, especially the "Spiderman"-style way the warriors use wires to swing from building to building to maneuver around the Titans in order to try to hit the back side of their neck, their only weak spot.

The best episodes are arguably 17, 18 and 19, because they display a genius strategy of the warriors who leave the walls for their expedition: since they have no technology, they ride on horses and disperse on a meadow for several miles, acting as a "human radar" since flare guns fired by the edge of the group will be seen from the horizon and signal if a Titan is nearby, thus allowing for the core of the group to avoid dangers by going left or right on their route. This leads to several exciting situations, aesthetic shot compositions and a sense for adventure in the open, culminating with a group having to go through a forest to ditch Titans running after them. Unfortunately, except for maybe episode 25 (featuring several great sequences, including a religious community attending a mass that gets squashed by a female Titan when its foot crashes through the church, or the epic scene of the female Titan grabbing onto a wall with its fingers to stop, thereby causing several people to get ejected from the windows of the building) and a few deeper meanings (the leitmotiv of birds that fly over the walls as a symbolism for the protagonist's yearning for freedom), a majority of the episodes suffers from a too slow pace which takes too much time to finally get going, relaying too much on a dark tone, yet it cannot compensate for the standard execution. Answers will be found in season 2, but on its own, the viewers are simply stuck with the impression that season 1 did not progress and develop the storyline to a truly satisfying level.

Grade;++

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire; drama, USA, 1951; D: Elia Kazan, S: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Peg Hillias


New Orleans. Blanche DuBois, a woman nearing 40, lost her family estate, "Belle Reve", as well as her job as a teacher in Laurel, Mississippi, and thus, now bankrupt, has to stay at the apartment of her pregnant sister, Stella. Blanche is cultured and refined, which causes her to clash with Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, a Polish worker. Blanche meets Mitch and starts a relationship with him, hoping that she will finally marry and settle down. She also feels guilty for the death of her husband, who committed suicide after she scorned him for sleeping with another man. However, Stanley discovers her dark secrets: back in Laurel, Blanche slept with numerous men, even with her students. This causes Mitch to give up on his plans to marry her. As Stella goes into labor in the hospital, Stanley again argues with Blanche and rapes her. Blanche loses touch with reality and is thus sent to a mental asylum.

One of the most critically recognized films of the 50s, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is still an excellent film adaptation of the eponymous play, even by today's standards — though it is somewhat overburdened with too much symbolism and excessive dialogues here and there. It is an "actor's film", and thus director Elia Kazan decided to minimize his director's interventions in order to maximize the focus on the four actors who carry the film, all of which are fantastic, ranging from Marlon Brando up to Vivien Leigh, and their electrifying dialogues. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who was gay, constructed "Streetcar" to reflect his often theme of society's prejudice towards an individuals inner desire: despite the censorship of the conservative Hays Code, it is obvious that Blanche caught her husband in a gay relationship and caused him to commit suicide due to her intolerance towards his desire. This theme goes full circle, since she is also intolerant towards Stanley's hedonistic desire, which she considers primitive, while Stanley and Mitch later judge Blanche due to her promiscuity. Blanche is also the one who judges Stella's desire in the form of a sexual addiction towards the brute Stanley: in one scene, Stella is in bed after reconciling with her husband, and has an interesting exchange with Blanche ("He smashed all the lightbulbs with the heel of my slipper". - "And you let him? Didn't run, didn't scream?" - "Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it!").

The conflict between the two main protagonists is the driving force of the storyline: Blanche is liberal, feminist, trying to be independent or at least equal to men, living in an imaginary world ("I don't want realism, I want magic!") serving as escapism from the harsh reality and her fear of staying alone as she approaches 40 ("I'm fading now! I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick!"), whereas Stanley is conservative, patriarchal, primeval, a lower class worker, and despises illusions since he wants to live in the world the way it is. In order to underline the clash between Blanche and Stanley, Kazan even added a metafilm touch by casting two actors of completely opposite ways of acting: the "raw", method acting of Brando which is juxtaposed with the "artificial", idealized acting of the old school Hollywood of Leigh, giving it another layer of dynamics. They are allegorical for id and super-ego, each trying to conquer the other one's psyche. Certain complaints could be aimed at the overlong running time and too lengthy, ponderous monologues that do not always have a clear point, as well as a "too theatrical" setting of the "confined" storyline at times, though the latter can be somewhat given amnesty since it was adapted from a play. Nonetheless, "Streetcar" is a strong, powerful and ambitious film, a one that works like a fuse on a dynamite that slowly burns until it explodes, congruent to the explosive inner dissatisfaction of the protagonists who simply have to snap near the finale.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Forgotten Ones

Los Olvidados; drama, Mexico, 1950; D: Luis Buñuel, S: Alfonso Mejía, Roberto Cobo, Stella Inda, Miguel Inclán, Alma Delia Fuentes

The slums of Mexico City: poverty caused groups of kids to rob people and turn to criminal activity. El Jaibo, a teenage delinquent who escaped from jail, returns as the head of one these gang and they plan to steal the money of a blind man singing on the street, but he stops them and hits the leg of one of them. As a revenge, Jaibo and his gang follow the blind man and later beat him up. Jaibo blames his prison sentence  to Julian and thus kills him, thinking the latter is a snitch. The murder is witnessed by Pedro, Jaibo's gang member. Jaibo visits the Pedro's poor family because he is attracted to Pedro's widowed mother. Pedro finds a job at a blacksmith, but when a silver knife is stolen, Pedro is blamed and sent to a farm school. Pedro is aggressive, but the principal gives him 50 pesos to buy him cigarettes, in order to build his trust. On his way, Pedro is robbed by Jaibo, who also stole the knife. Later, Jaibo kills Pedro. In an ambush, the police shoot Jaibo.

Often regarded by film critics as one of the finest movies of Mexican cinema of the 20th century, Luis Bunuel's "The Forgotten Ones" is a dark and depressive social drama that realistically takes a glimpse at the theme of poverty, which is even more intense since it is shown from the perspective of children and teenagers. Congruent with such an unglamorous topic, Bunuel crafted a blunt, direct, almost explicit film in order to show such reality without any "false idealism": teenage delinquent Jaibo and his gang want to rob a blind man, and later do not even hesitate to beat him up; Pedro's mother says this to the surprised civic service officer: "Why should I love my son? I don't even know who his father is."; Jaibo gropes and forcefully wants to kiss a girl, Meche, while her brother does not care when he hears his sister screaming while working outside; a kid drinks milk directly from the udder of a donkey in a farm.

The only break from this reality is Pedro's surreal dream, filmed in slow motion, which hints at the director's frequent fascination with fantasy as the escape from depression. Throughout these scenes, Bunuel illustrates a bigger strategy by giving a case study of poverty — already in the opening scenes of fancy, grand images of skyscrapers of a modern metropolis, the narrator says: "Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London hides behind its wealth poverty-stricken homes...", hinting at the divide between the upper class which is built at the expense of a lower class, almost as in Yin and Yang, whereas he even hints at the theories of poverty, such as restriction of opportunities and a distorted meritocracy in which the only way to survive and climb through the ranks is through theft, murder, violence and other criminal activity. Even Pedro, who is given a chance to reform in a farm school, is sunk back by his old friend Jaibo, giving the movie a gloomy perspective of social determinism in a cycle of poverty from which there is no escape, evident also in the dark ending. An excellent film, reminiscent of the 'raw' aesthetics of 'Italian neorealism', and a surprisingly "normal" storyline for Bunuel.

Grade;+++

Monday, October 9, 2017

Rick and Morty (Season 3)

Rick and Morty; science-fiction comedy series, USA, 2017; D: Juan Meza-Leon, Bryan Newton, Dominic Polcino, S: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Sarah Chalke, Spencer Grammer

Rick manages to escape from prison and destroy the Galactic Federation by ruining their currency, even though he was also persecuted by Ricks from alternate dimensions, who wanted to kill him, as well. The aliens abandon Earth, but Jerry seeks divorce from Beth, since she is unwilling to choose Rick over her husband. Rick thus continues his many adventures with Morty into parallel Universes. Finally, Jerry and Beth reconcile while Rick is abandoned.

Season 3 was the tipping point where "Rick and Morty" definitely lost the balance between the good and bad, falling into meaningless, repetitive episodes without any kind of point or strategy. Each season was weaker than the previous, and congruently, season 3 offers the least: it has only two truly great episodes (3.1 and outstanding 3.7), while the remaining 8 are weak and fall too often into trash. Similarly like "South Park" or later seasons of "Family Guy", even "Rick and Morty" sailed into 'extreme entrtainment' by deciding to keep the viewers' attention through splatter violence, disgust, ill-conceived ideas, shlock and shock, instead of relaying on some sophisticated narrative and inspiration. Rick is far more interesting as a character when he talks about his cynical philosophy about life, yet here he was demoted to a simplistic action figure. Episode 3.3, in which Rick has transformed himself into a small pickle, and thus has to battle cockroaches in the sever, is probably the worst episode of the show till date, whereas bad ideas run galore, from a giant Summer whose skin has been turned inside out by a laser ray in 3.5 through Morty vomiting a three feet long green worm hanging from his mouth for a minute in 3.8. Actually, in one episode, 3.9, it is discovered that a kid, Tommy, has been trapped in the imaginary world of "Froopyland", and thus mated with the creatures there so that they could breed creatures with human flesh, which he would then eat himself to survive, so Rick himself ironically says: "That's it! I'm out of here!", and then opens a portal and escapes as soon as possible with Beth. There is no reason for the viewers not to feel the same, as well. The only highlight is episode 3.7, a stroke of genius and intelligent writing, by showing the Citadel, a place where all the thousands of Ricks and Mortys from other dimensions gather to form their own society, yet fall into the same corruption and injustices against themselves - but alas, to get to that episode, the viewers have to pave their way through a mass of rubbish of inferior episodes.

Grade;+

Friday, October 6, 2017

Fast Five

Fast Five; action, USA, 2011; D: Justin Lin, S: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris bridges, Matt Schulze, Sung Kang, Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot

Dominic is about to be transported to a prison, but his sister Mia and friend Brian crash the bus with the convicts and free him. They also steal cars from a traveling train, but Dom and Brian are captured by criminal Reyes who wants to know the location of one specific car with a microchip in it that contains data about the drug lord's money. Brian, Dom and Mia then escape to Rio de Janeiro and decide to to escape Reyes' persecution by teaming up with Han, Roman, Tej, Gisele and others and steal Reyes' money. At the same time, agent Hobbs works with the Brazilian police to arrest Brian and Dom. Dom and his team break into the police station, attach the vault with Reyes' money and escape with cars. A car chase ensues in which Reyes is killed. Hobbs gives Dom a 24 hour break to escape. Brian and Dom split the money and enjoy their exile.

Part five of the long and hyped "Fast and Furious" action film series was probably the first contribution that amounted to a good film, managing to somewhat lift itself up from the routine chase sequences, even though the writing and dialogues are still often dry, ordinary and conventional. The convoluted plot takes a while until it agrees with itself where it wants to go, but once it does, it sends the franchise outside the usual car races and instead turns it into a heist film, offering a few interesting new elements that give it freshness, whereas it also helps that the plot does not take itself too seriously, often resulting in amusing irony. One of the best examples is when Gisele (excellent Gal Gadot, who is especially responsible for adding more charm to the cast) walks towards criminal Reyes in a bikini and sits on his lap, whereupon he touches her butt. However, later on, it is revealed Gisele did that only because she had a special layer on her bikini which captured Reyes's fingerprints, which her team intends to use for the heist, which is amusing. The final 10-minute chase sequence in which the two cars are dragging a giant vault across the streets of Rio de Janeiro, which sometimes smashes into cars and walls during the street curves, all the while being pursued by police cars, is great and almost reaches the insanity of "The Blues Brothers" in its sheer comic destruction. The simplistic storyline was thus saved thanks to a few new ideas, as well as by performances of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

Grade;++

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Zulu

Zulu; war / action / adventure, UK, 1964; D: Cy Endfield, S: Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, James Booth, Jack Hawkins, Ulla Jacobsson, Mangosuthu Buthelezi

The British Army has established a base in Rorke's Drift, serving as its outpost for colonialism and irredentism into Southern Africa. On 22 January 1879, some 150 soldiers assembled into the 24th Regiment on Foot find themselves surrounded by a 4,000 men strong Zulu tribe that wants to attack and destroy their base. Even though greatly outnumbered, Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead are determined to stop the attack. The Zulu tribe attacks them from both sides, some of their soldiers manage storm into the base and set the hospital on fire, but the Regiment manages to repel them and survive. The next day, the Zulus retreat.

One of the most popular British movies of the 60s, a real life  depiction of a British army Regiment resisting a siege of an army 20 times their size in 1879, "Zulu" still seems fresh and exciting even today, owing that to a good sense for suspense and action sequences, as well as authentic locations in South Africa, which are aesthetic and offer good shot compositions. Even though some of its themes are rather dated or seem questionable (especially by reversing the event to seem as if the Zulus are the enemy for resisting, and not the British colonialism and imperialism which tried to enslave the peoples of that area), "Zulu" is still a fine film and even established the then unknown actor Michael Caine as the new hope of British cinema. The first half drags, spending too much time on the life of the British army in the base, even though numerous characters are so flat they are barely distinguishable from each other, yet that is overturned an hour into the film when the Zulu siege starts, displayed through exciting images and anticipation of suspense: the camera pan of a thousand Zulu warriors standing at the top of a whole giant hill, overlooking the base, still sends shivers down the spine. Equally as great is the moment when the British soldiers are confronted with Zulu warriors shooting at them from the hills, almost as if they are standing right above them or the long line of hundreds of Zulu warriors stretching across the meadow, to a warrior in a close up. This siege last for the almost the whole second half of the film, and works splendidly. "Zulu" is basically a British 'African western', depicting a stand-off where the weaker ones manages to stop the enemy despite all odds, and despite a slow start, it manages to ignite and keep the viewers attention for the whole second act.

Grade;++

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism

W.R.: Misterije organizma; documentary / erotic satire, Serbia / Germany / USA, 1971; D: Dušan Makavejev, S: Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg, Zoran Radmilović, Jackie Curtis

A film crew is making a documentary about the controversial German scientist Wilhelm Reich who escaped from Europe to the US and developed a theory in which sex is the ultimate means of liberation of people, and that all the dictatorships were just manifestations of repressed sexuality. He died while his books were declared pseudoscience and burned. Numerous people are interviewed... A man with a machine-gun is walking through the streets... Women are sent to sexual therapy... In Belgrade, Milena is highly sexualized woman who thinks that Communism should include sexuality. She meets a Soviet artists, Vladimir Ilyich, a highly political communist, and tries to seduce him. He reaches an orgasm - but immediately kills Milena by cutting her head off, not being able to cope with the liberation of his repressed sexuality.

Dusan Makavejev's bizarre satire "W.R.: Mysteries of Organism" became the only film from the whole of Yugoslav cinema that Roger Ebert included into his "Great Movies" list, yet it seems that this is more the result of the critic's lack of knowledge about the cinema from that country than some genuine greatness of the movie in question. Dozens of superior Yugoslav movies were made, yet "W.R." was remembered for its numerous controversies, resulting in a ban from Yugoslav authorities, and even by today's standards the movie can shock the conservative audiences. A part of its disconcerting impression lies in the fact that this is practically five short films glued into one, yielding a narratively confusing picture, since the film starts off as a documentary about Wilhelm Reich (claiming that each person has an average of 4,000 orgasms during their lifetime), then switches to numerous interviews about artists and their sexual art (one scene even has Nancy Godfrey stroking the penis of a lying man, only to then make a cast of his erection), then finally to the main story involving Milena (excellent Milena Dravic) who wants to promote free sexuality.

Her highlight is obviously her comical "political" speech towards people in an apartment complex ("No excitement can ever equal the elemental force of the orgasm. That's why politics attracts those among us whose orgasm is sub-standard, defective, disturbed or premature!... Deprive them of free love, and they'll seize everything else! That led to revolution. It led to fascism and doomsday. The goose-stepping, mass-marching orgasm! The bloodstream orgasm of the alcoholic or junkie! The cerebral orgasm of dogmatics or religious mystics!"). It implies that all the dictatorships are just manifestations of sexual repression, resulting in a black humored, but delicious ending in which a Russian communist reaches an orgasm - only to then kill Milena, unable to cope with the fact that all his loud ideology was just a sexual compensation for his virginity and impotence. This message was so subversive, even implying the Tito-Stalin split as a fight of sexual liberation, that the movie was even banned in the USSR, as well. Makavajev's attempt to blend sexual revolution with communist revolution is not for everyone's taste, especially since numerous archive footage is sometimes garbage and could have been cut, yet there is a deeper meaning in all of this mess, when one thinks about it at the end, which makes its cult reputation somewhat justified.

Grade;++

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;++