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Life of Pi (2012)
Powerful storytelling and splendid performances presented in a brilliant 3D
With his latest movie, "Life of Pi", Ang Lee further establishes himself as one of the greatest contemporary movie directors. Starting from his Taiwanese beginnings, and his highly enjoyable, family-harmonizing "Father Knows Best" trilogy (1992-1994), through his Academy Award winning works on gracefully choreographed, highly spiritualized Far East martial arts tour de force "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000, best foreign-language film) and on an uncommon yet nostalgic portrayal of the Old West in "Brokeback Mountain" (2005, best director), to his other titles like "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), "The Ice Storm" (1997), and "Lust, Caution" (2007), quality and Kubrick-like versatility shown in his movies offer continuous attraction for wide audience of his admirers.
Lee's latest and, so far, easily, greatest movie, "Life of Pi" is based on a screenplay adapted from the acclaimed fictional adventure novel written by Canadian author Yann Martel.
Throughout his childhood, due to matching pronunciation of French word "piscine" (pool, swimming pool) and English word "pissing", Piscine Molitor Patel, named that way after later abandoned Parisian swimming pool, so predictably suffers from being nicknamed "Pissing Patel". In order to avoid it, once in high school he finally shortens his name to Pi Patel... Nowadays middle-aged Pi tells the story of his life to a visiting writer, apparently a book author Yan Martel's alter ego, who is seeking for the literal inspiration. Retrospectively, Pi divides his childhood and adolescence into three segments. In the first segment he gives shorter account of his life until the age of 16, describing his interaction with his family and schoolmates, in particular his relationship with his father and a girlfriend, concentrating on his exploits of God and spirituality, meandering between multitude of religious practices while in the last one he briefs about his testimonial given to officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport, investigating the reasons why the ship his family was relocating on from India to Canada sank. Most detailed, and therefore the longest, is recollection of his 227 days in a lifeboat, an extraordinary ordeal he went through after the ship has capsized and everybody else, crew and passengers, died
Well, everybody human, but not everybody living. Namely, a number of terrestrial animals from their discontinued family zoo, offered for sale and brought along with other family belongings, have survived, too. But, not for long, because, while confined in the most limited space as they were, surrounded by vastness of the ocean, the law of the "survival of the fittest" prevails, takes its tall, and pretty soon Pi finds himself in a company of a single one topping the food-chain, a Bengal tiger curiously named Richard Parker.
Not to reveal the story further, it is with greatest pleasure to inform that cinematic excellence has been achieved in several categories: in an engaging talewhether allegory or depiction of realistic, believable events, filled with protagonist's rarely matched curiosity, imagination and his often reasonably unanswered doubts, encouraging the same in viewersof an uncommon character, indeed, brought to on-screen life by outstanding performances from two contributing leads, remarkably presented via ubiquitous, yet inconspicuous animation, exceptional, CGI aided visuals and superb usage of 3D photography, all along complemented with an uplifting score. All these assets work seamlessly together in unfolding an intense relationship between Pi and Richard Parker, complex yet basic, difficult yet simple, initially charged with Pi's dreadful fear, swiftly shifting to respectful care, instantly boosting his never overbearing confidence and relentlessly improving his survival skills. Wholesome artistic experience reaches and maintains its pinnacle particularly in clever tactics and constructive survival techniques 16-year old Pi usesamply benefiting from his instructive lifestyle of a zoo owner's attentive son, certainly well acquainted with animal psychologyto suppress the fear and convincingly impose himself as an equal to the one of the most elaborate "killing machines" among mammals, desperately striving for his own survival, nevertheless, generously, for survival of his seemingly sufficiently tamed companion, but still, initially and ultimately, magnificent adversary, Richard Parker, as well.
"Life of Pi" is, certainly, one of the most impressive movies of 2012, year that has just come to a close.
The Guard (2011)
Character-driven, raucously thrilling crime comedy
Screenplay writer John Michael McDonagh's directorial debut, "The Guard" (2011) is really a fine movie, relying the least on the originality of its story, describing criminal proceedings of the group of cocaine drug-smugglers and their interaction with local police, set against the backdrop of small-town western Ireland, however, filled with crackling good dialogue, sparkling with wisecracks, accompanied with nice scenery and pleasant, unobtrusive music. But, what makes it the best is its protagonists' performances.
Brendan Gleeson is usually natural, making the character he plays fit like a glovewhether the robust and humorous loyal buddy and the warrior, as in "Braveheart" (1995), or a quiet and subdued aspiring politician, as in "Gangs of New York" (2002), or a non-supportive father, civil war volunteer-turned-deserter, as in "Cold Mountain" (2003), whether the gentle, mentoring, culture-exploring hit man in hiding, as in "In Bruges" (2008), or on the other side of the law, the grouchy police sergeant with defiant, often dissident sense of humour (provocative in one-liners like "being FBI, don't you prefer to fight unarmed women and children "), as in this movie--and Don Cheadle, in the role of FBI agent Wendell Everett, a bit in the shade of Gleeson's Gerry Boyle, but nevertheless, sufficiently competitive ("Langley is CIA, I'm FBI "), neat and convincing in his performance as always. (I admit to have a soft spot for this actor since his impressive role of the manager of Kigali Mille Collines hotel in the movie "Hotel Rwanda" (2004), the very same hotel I have been frequenting for two months in 1995, just a year later to tragic events described in the movie.)
To a pretty frequent movie goer like myself, who hasn't seen a single en par (or better?) leading actor in this year that is rapidly advancing towards its end, it is hard to believe that very many better acting performances could be demonstrated in the remaining two months or so. Therefore, if Brendan Gleeson does not find himself at least among top nominees for any yearly awarded film prize, I'll have a problem finding such decisions just.
As a marginal note, I was lucky to watch this movie back home in my motherland, because having it subtitled was very helpful in order not to miss any of sergeant Boyle's wisecracks, delivered often in heavy Irish accent, and to understand at all occasional lines, uttered by marginal characters, spoken completely in Gaelic. Of course, point was not to be understood by English native speakers, but it was still interesting to know what usual "advices" (if not insults) were given to English speakers, though eventually not English (as FBI agent!) at all. As Irish colleague of mine once said
"We don't sing songs in Gaelic so English people cannot understand how badly we talk about them, they know it already! We sing in Gaelic simply because that's our traditional language (N.B. official whatsoever), and songs sound much better and sweeter in it."
Word of honour tempted by hopelessly budding forbidden love
It has taken almost a year and a half before Lea has fully understood the responsibility, resolve, dedication and devotion, ergo the true nature of the ultimately tempting and utmost sacrificial personal protection she's been subjected to...
The year is 1914, when young couple of school teachers, a Serb Filip (Nebojsa Dugalic) and a Slovenian Lea (Iva Krajnc), find themselves working in the secondary school of the south Serbian provincial town, himself as a principal and herself as a teacher of rhythmics and dance. On the outbreak of the war, initially declared by Austro-Hungarian Empire to Serbia, eventually escalating to become the WW1, Filip is instantly called up by military and sent to Belgrade to serve in the forthcoming war effort, leaving thus his young and attractive wife alone. Having no one else to turn to, he asks Azem (Miki Manojlovic), the school custodian, to take care of her. Being a patriarchal Albanian, by accepting to do so, he gives to Filip his pledge, 'besa', to look after and protect Lea. In Albanian tradition such a word of honour is so obliging, that--in order to hold to it--one would even stake his life on it.
Suddenly Lea finds herself in dire straits, and not only for being worried enough about the whole war situation, as well as for extensive detachment from her husband, but even more for becoming practically a prisoner to this simple Albanian (Arnaut in local language), overzealous to keep his word and protect her. On top of it, local community suspects her of spying for enemy. Namely, Slovenia, at the time, was part of Austro-Hungarian Empire... Fortunately, not before long Azem gains her full trust, because it becomes obvious that he's the best chance she could ever have in order to survive through the most difficult times, with her integrity preserved and honour untarnished.
However, by having their interaction evolving towards gaining mutual trust and respect, they start playing with the fire that could've easily been ignited by what clearly appeared to be a spark of forbidden love between two people from such profoundly different backgrounds: well educated Christian woman, brought up as a Catholic, ergo having enough to deal with already, due to her marriage and conversion to Orthodoxy, and an almost illiterate man, yet, for all he knew, a traditional practicing Moslem Dealing with multitude of intertwined questions about cultural and ethnic differences, religious and language barriers, social and class divisions, the ultimate question arises: whether the given word will stand the challenge of apparently honest and true, yet unexpected and forbidden love budding?
With his well known, fluent narrative style, adding frequent spontaneous comic relieves even when dealing with heaviest subjects, director Srdjan Karanovic in his latest movie, "Besa" (2009), tells another, apparently, almost a centennial old, true life events inspired, engaging story, yet describing an infinitely older, nowhere-near-to-resolution conflict, and therefore, in its essence, still remaining right up to date and very well worth of contemporary audience's time and interest. Slovenian actress Iva Krajnc has fully justified her engagement in this complex role of Lea, while Miki Manojlovic, having had impersonated already, throughout his rich acting career, a multitude of individuals, most naturally predominantly of his own, Serbian but also Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Roma(ni)
origins, has added yet another among numerous Balkans ethnicities to the spectrum of the characters he has successfully brought on to the screen.
Fictional viral outbreak plausibly dramatized in docu-like fashion
Stephen Soderbergh's latest direction, "Contagion" (2011), even though bringing less than expected excitement, is an absorbing movie to watch, efficient as a social and behavioural study, but no less as an accomplished collection of individual case studies, offering sufficiently thought-provoking arguments, such as the fact that--despite all the scientific advances and exhaustive efforts of the thousands of specialists--humankind still stands pretty helpless in the prevention of new viral outbreaks and their many strains occurring globally, when even seemingly well organised societies easily slip into chaos, leaving all individuals to fend for themselves in the ultimate fight for survival, all further fuelled by unstoppable leaks (however, lucrative sensationalism, as well) on an almost inevitable, mutually supportive (money and power shouldn't mix, but mostly they do) corporal and governmental cover-ups. Surely it is a disturbing reminder that even at the most difficult of times, humanity's good traits still get so easily overpowered by the seed of all evil--selfishness and greed.
Many good actors partake in the movie: Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, to name a few, though one cannot expect remarkable character development when action is dispersed and story spread on so many leads. Nevertheless, Soderbergh knows how to make people count and, albeit somewhat shy about it, he's sufficiently confident in decisive difference their increasingly frequent, self-sacrificing actions could make, having faith in ultimately predominant selflessness and benevolence, kindness and compassion, whether among pre-organised, or ad hoc gathered communities, down to the last individual, rediscovering--now under extreme conditions--their altruism and, as implied in a reserved hope raised towards the end, having--this way or another--humanism in humankind still prevail.
Cactus Flower (1969)
A feel-good comedy with its title symbolism well justified
Florigraphists, fluent in the "language of flowers", revealing a symbolic, underlying meaning to sending or receiving floral arrangements, describe cactus flower as a symbol of lust (in Japan), as well as courtship and romance (among Native Americans). All three and many other modest or excessive feelings, relationships, experiences... are nicely wrapped up in a comedy suggesting same symbolism in its title.
1969 film "Cactus Flower", directed by Gene Saks (who has already introduced us, a year earlier, to another stage play classic adapted for the big screen, Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple") is a feel-good movie--based on Abe Burrows' Broadway stage adaptation of its witty French original, Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pieerre Grédy's play "Fleur de cactus"--scripted by a legendary comedic writer I.A.L. Diamond (who is, among his other memorable works, credited with the screenplay for an all-time favourite comedy "Some Like It Hot" (1959)), with impish dentist Walter Matthau, accompanied by his reputable nurse-receptionist Ingrid Bergman, coming across as likable and funny leads, further supported by young and sweet Goldie Hawn, in her Oscar awarded depiction of a-cute-dumb-blond stereotype.
Bergman's Stephanie Dickinson, for all her decency and selflessness, is a character who is easy to identify with and root for in her initially seemingly unconscious pursuit of her apparently long suppressed, quietly emerging affection for Matthau's Dr. Julian Winston, a rogue we cannot hate because he behaves like a boy from Mark Twain's novel, or Dennis the menace who has grown up and old, but never out of his mischievous ways. In his no-strings-attached wished for relationship with Hawn's sparkling Toni Simmons, he pretends to be married. However, this new "fact" tickles well meant youngster's curiosity, so, surely free spirited, but not unscrupulous as eventual household breaker, Toni, tormented by many unanswered questions becomes--as seen in the introductory scene--suicidal, and... what was meant to be a small "preventive" lie asks for more lies, ultimately spiraling out of control.
Interaction between the three, further helped with an additional "accomplice", Winston-like lovable cad Harvey Greenfield, played by Jack Weston, produces some truly hilarious and--specially when the most believable miss Dickinson is involved--touchy moments for a wide-range audience to enjoy. "Cactus Flower" easily stands the test of time and even improves with each repeated viewing.
Current year (2011) production "Just Go with It", a loose remake of the 1969 original, provides a solid, yet, somewhat inferior entertainment when compared to its predecessor.
U raljama zivota (1984)
A noteworthy predecessor to the 'Bridget Jones' franchise
Zagrebian lass tefica has been struggling with overweight and in relationships with men long before arrival of Bridget Jones.
tefica Cvek is a typist, plump and slightly depressive, and inexperienced when it comes to men. And that is the most important 'territory', at least according to her friend Marijana, who considers herself an expert for the subject, providing an abundance of advices and tips. Marijana upholds that having blokes is the most important thing in life, and that tefica simply lacks sex appeal. On the other side, tefica is constantly getting advices from her old aunt, whom she lives with. Aunt descends from a provincial town in neighbouring Bosnia, having rather different life philosophy, henceforth delivering her advices through wise and often peculiar anecdotes from her homeland.
Meanwhile, tefica fights her sadness and suppresses her grief resorting to excessive eating and hopes that all her problems will be over as soon as she meets the right man. All her girlfriends are already in love; Ela is getting married for the fourth time, even Anuka has found a soul mate.
Will tefica remain single, or there is a happy end for her, so common in 'chick flicks'? Story about tefica came into existence long before nowadays popular 'chick lit' novels and their principal heroines. Dubravka Ugreić's 1981 novel was titled tefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life, a.k.a. Patchwork Novel. And a patchwork it is indeed. Namely, authoress trips between the stereotypes of popular romance novels and standards of the genre, and plays with its characters. However, this novel is by no means a typical romance novel. Ugreić skillfully points out all the problems with such novels, comparing her writing with the work of a seamstress; cuts out, rummages, writes additions, inserts citations, short folk proverbs, considers her own writing process...
Based on this very popular novel, a screenplay for the movie U raljama ivota (1984) (In the Jaws of Life) was co-written by its director Rajko Grlić and Dubravka Ugreić. And, while in the novel authoress is struggling with tefica's character, in the movie her role was taken by directress Dunja, who is shooting a TV series about tefica. Vitomira Lončar in the leading role of tefica meets three men, all played by among the most popular Yugoslavian actors of the era: Bata ivojinović, Miki Manojlović and Rade erbedija.
However, tefica has not found happiness with any of the three, and you will have to find yourself why not? (Review translated from Kristina G.'s Croatian language posting in her theatre web log teatar.hr/author/kristina/)
Cirkus Columbia (2010)
Bonny the lucky cat: looking for a lost pet or hunting for happiness
Danis Tanović, a well deserving Academy Award winner in the category of Foreign Language Film with his very first feature movie, after two respectable international attempts--L'enfer (2005) and Triage (2009)--both dealing with certain universal subjects, geographically located outside the country of his origin (Bosnia and Herzegovina), in his fourth movie comes back home and scores again.
Anyone slightly interested in global politics already knows the sad story of a certain Balkan super state, which was in a "good ol' days" thriving to considerable extent on worldwide--basically, American (and its post WWII interested allies)-Russian (and its willy-nilly 'satellites')--polarization and then, at the end of the Cold War, "allowed" by the same global powers to violently fall apart and dissolve.
Particular time and place provide the setting for Tanović's latest movie, Cirkus Columbia (2010), based on the novel written by Ivica Đikić, telling the story of Divko Buntić (who, in his own self-ironic words, rather than just gone mad, has always been mad), descending from the family on the losing side of WWII, whose uneasy life among privileged descendants of WWII winners forced him to emigrate. He managed to make a good living abroad, but, after 20 years in exile, couldn't wait more to come back.
His chance to return comes at the beginning of 1990's, after decline of previous, rather totalitarian system and opening for democratic changes. Coming back to Herzegovina, to his birthplace where he's spent his childhood and teenage years, he flaunts his wealth, showing off with his expensive car and young wife, willing to get even with whoever might have done him wrong in the past. He immediately dislodges his estranged wife Lucija and his son Martin from the reclaimed property and, initially, it looks like he's winning and that money can fix everything. But, can it really make the world go round? Answer comes later.
Without giving too much away, it is enough to repeat an advice that he gives at the very highpoint of the movie. Offering a big bunch of money to his son, who is following in his father's footsteps, getting ready to emigrate as well, Divko bitterly admits his life lessons learned in a reminder "with this you can buy everything, but you cannot have everything"... Ultimately, in deserted premises of the used-to-be circus from the title line, finally daring to be honest to their true feelings, reunited couple literally makes the world merry-go-round. Against all chaos-approaching odds, at least for a fleeting moment, their world becomes a better place... A moment amplified during the end credits by a beautiful period song "We could've done it all" ("Sve smo mogli mi"), Valerijan ujo's versified lament over the life's oh-so-ephemeral opportunities lost, in Slobodan Kovačević Bodo's atmospheric arrangement, interpreted in a calm, soothing voice of Jadranka Stojaković.
Tanović continues to make interesting movies. For a number of reasons my favourite one is still his first, No Man's Land (2001), certainly not the least being the fact that I'm Danis's former fellow countryman--well, former, because, apparently, we both (temporarily or not?) moved out of the country, after it has been struck by our common, well known tragedy--so I have been either personally, or as a participant in the closest collective experience, through those times and situations described.
On a more impartial level, it is pleasure to notice that, in both his domestically inspired movies equally, Tanović depicts a fluent story about common people, though, eventually, in not so common circumstances, distinguished by standouts in leading roles (here, well established actors Miki Manojlović and Mira Furlan and promising Boris Ler), good work with supporting actors and his skillful direction, that all adds up to (a) very attractive movie(s). Though, it might work well just for viewers who do not look necessarily for bigger-than-life themes, who do not seek only for stories with intriguing details or unexpected twists, ergo unusual narratives that, once "consumed", often lose their attraction, while appeal found in commonness allows for even repeated viewing, almost without any significant loss of interest. ( Davor Blaević, currently in the South of Lebanon.)
Mei to Koneko basu (2002)
Master storyteller, animator and director (always) at his best
Mei to Koneko basu (Mei and the Kitten Bus, 2002) is an enjoyable animated short with lovable characters, couple of them already known from Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988) feature-length movie, and a number of newly introduced ones. A kind of spin-off of the original movie, this 13-minute short can be seen only in the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, western suburb of Tokyo. (And what a delightful visit there it was, 20 months ago, almost to the day, in May 2009.) Story revolves around 4-year old Mei Kusakabe (this time without her older sister Setsuki, making here only a brief appearance) who befriends and babysits Koneko basu (Kitten Bus), the offspring of the Neko basu (Cat Bus), often compared to the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland. Spacious hardly enough to accommodate solely little Mei, Koneko basu takes her on a night ride, and flies her in and out of the forest to get her acquainted with the whole fleet of cat-shaped and spirited vehicles, serving their Totoro passengers, to meet sort of a big cat-liner, Neko Bâ-chan (Granny Cat Bus), and revisit the great O-Totoro itself, largest among the spirits "keepers of the forest".
Film offers many favourable ingredients contained in Miyazaki's other, mainly hand-drawn animated adventures: humorous, colourful characters, including child(ren), often girl(s) protagonist(s), character driven animation, subtlety in timing and movements, enchanting visuals with watercolour-like backgrounds, actions involving flying... Lack of subtitles, to otherwise favourable original Japanese soundtrack, for a non-Japanese speaker (Nihon-go wakarimasen!) was not detrimental at all, because it's not about the story told in words, anyway, but about telling it in "thousand times" more descriptive pictures, worming up the feelings, playfulness and imagination omnipresent in children, and, though seemingly forgotten, eventually only suppressed in grown-ups, ergo dormant potential that can be easily activated through the well-administered incentive from the skillful wake-up caller. And who could do it better than a master storyteller, rarely multitalented to simultaneously write, animate (draw), direct and produce at the highest level, whose desire is not exhausted in the process of storytelling, since he prefers to participate and play himself, "suspected" and excused for finding in it as much fun as children do. And, in doing so, he entertains the same desire in us, spectators on the receiving end of his generous and exuberant offer, until, smitten all along, we find the pure joy of it all... ourselves.
Author of, apparently, one of Miyazaki's favourite books for children, Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking), Sweedish writer Astrid Lindgren used to say: "I don't 'mean' anything by my writing. I just write for the child in myself." It is unlikely that Miyazaki doesn't 'mean' anything by his great and comprehensive anime movie output (Specially in his feature-length movies, his references to contemporary global issues are quite obvious: burning requirement for scaling down the speed of exploitation of natural resources, harmonizing it with the capacity of existing reserves, and allowing for their renewal, improving ecological awareness and reducing pollution, peaceful reconciliation of hostilities ), though it is easily understood that he does the movies for the playful and curious child in himself, as well perhaps--and why not--above all.
Judging by loud ovation from the highest represented, otherwise traditionally self-controlled, if not self-restrained, Japanese children and their parents present at the screening in Ghibli Museum theatre: kids love it and adults enjoy it!
Der Räuber (2010)
Prospects for a good life inexplicably gone bad
Austrian-German co-production, Der Räuber (The Robber, 2010), based on the real events, tells the story about the long-distance runner, who could've lived a decent life, having a loving and caring girlfriend, a solid place to stay, and an extraordinary talent for long-distance running that he could've easily made a good living on, but instead, he additionally specializes and excels in bank robbing, becoming an addict of such an unusual activity for no other obvious reason but for possible "beauty of a criminal campaign" and adrenaline rush received along. (He's hinted times and again that he couldn't have cared less about the stolen money itself, by jamming it into black rubbish plastic bags, as if he was going to trash it.) One of those life stories that you cannot help but get unpleasantly amazed with how all the reasonable prerequisites for a good life, though inexplicably, yet seemingly so unnecessarily, get flushed down the drain, apparently faithfully presented in the movie with understandable, ergo acceptable lack of intention to ease the answers to the hard whys.
Flammen & Citronen (2008)
Neo-noirish WW2 drama about few Danish resistance fighters
Another good movie, occasionally but steadily coming from Denmark, Flammen & Citronen (Flame and Citron, 2008), not necessarily belonging to the genre, but still shot in a good old film-noir style ("black-and-white" detective or other crime stories, a film genre with its hey-days back in 1940's and 1950's, nevertheless kept alive over the years, having its newer "offsprings" often related to as neo-noir, with the latest solid follower of the style, Shanghai (2010), American product directed by another filmmaker from Danish Scandinavian neighbourhood, Mikael Håfström from Sweden), based on the historically true story (with all the necessary fictional cinematic alternations) about the title hit-man and his driver, two among, apparently, very few but still existent resistance fighters in Nazi occupied Denmark, targeting at first only Danish collaborators, subsequently ordered to liquidate Germans, and, eventually, hit-man's girlfriend, getting themselves (and spectators along) ultimately confused in who their friends and foes are...