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The Green Ray (1986)
Affected Unaffectedness, or a Bad Movie with a Great Finish
24 May 2020
I'm an Éric Rohmer fan, and so I was especially disappointed by _The Green Ray_, which is hailed, by some, as his finest movie. I just can't see how that can possibly be so.

The failure of _The Green Ray_ to me is all the more mysterious because only a year later, in 1987, Rohmer concluded his series of _Comedies and Proverbs_ with a true masterpiece, _Boyfriends and Girlfriends (L'Ami de mon amie)_.

Rohmer is proud to be an off-beat film-maker, which is partly why I so appreciate him.

He is controversial: some viewers claim that in real life, people just don't talk the way (and about the things) that people talk in Rohmer's movies. Other viewers claim the exact opposite: that Rohmer is among the very few film-makers who got it right - that this is exactly how people talk and behave in real life. Decide for yourself.

Now, in _The Green Ray_, Rohmer took his radicalism in this regard even further: he refused to create a proper screenplay for this movie. Instead, he announced to his cast of characters (many of them ordinary folks, no actors) just the broad outlines of what they should be doing and talking about, and he let them do the work - work out the dialogs by themselves. Rohmer was impressed by TV documentaries (featuring TV interviews with "real people") and their sense of "realism", and was trying to recreate it in _The Green Ray_.

That's admirable courage by the director: both refusing to hire professional actors for the movie (apart from a couple of leads), and refusing to create a proper screenplay for them. Courage is one thing, but the result of such endeavor is another thing. And I'm afraid that in this bold experiment, Rohmer failed.

I believe this is precisely where the main difference between _The Green Ray_ and _Boyfriends and Girlfriends_ lies: the latter movie features a proper screenplay written by Rohmer, whereas _The Green Ray_ was only given a rough outline by Rohmer and the lead actress Marie Rivière, letting the actors improvise for most of the time.

Sorry, but I'm just not impressed by the final result. _The Green Ray_ was, to me, for most of its runtime, simply too boring and annoying to watch.

It's a delightful paradox: in _Boyfriends and Girlfriends_, you can see actors behave and talk in an unaffected manner, which is fantastically refreshing to any viewer expecting to see the artificiality of Hollywood in every movie. Yet in _Boyfriends and Girlfriends_, Rohmer manages to pull this off: the characters there, in being so unaffected, are believable. You forget that these are actors you're watching on the screen.

That is not so for me in _The Green Ray_. The entire time I was watching this movie, I felt that something was wrong - something was fishy. And then, after I finished watching the movie and read more about its background, discovering that it lacked a proper screenplay, I thought: "Yep! That's exactly it! These characters (they aren't even proper *actors*, after all) are simply lost in this movie."

Sorry, but contrary to Rohmer's original intentions, I did not, for a second, buy that these were real people I was observing in _The Green Ray_. They took great pains to appear to be behaving and talking in *unaffected* ways, but that's perhaps what was so wrong with them. They *struggled so hard* to appear unaffected, that *affectation* was the result.

(As an aside, I might mention I *hate* dubbed movies, especially movies dubbed in my native language, Slovak, because such dubbed movies are often sloppily and hastily done, but I happened to watch the Slovak-dubbed version of _Boyfriends and Girlfriends_ many years ago, and was mesmerized. It was the perfect exception from the rule. Whoever was responsible for the Slovak-dubbed version of _Boyfriends and Girlfriends_, did a great job in recreating dialogs that flowed easily rather than artificially - which is typically the case *especially* in dubbed versions of movies. The Slovak dialogs seemed as *unaffected and natural* as in the French version. Hats off!)

There are other annoying aspects of _The Green Ray_, too. The characters are just not likable at all. Who wants to watch a bunch of ladies in their 20s or perhaps even 30s, but behaving as if they were still in their early teenage years? Sorry, but given all the *real* issues faced by humans all around the world at all times (I'm typing this as the coronavirus is raging across the globe), I just can't sympathize with the main heroine of _The Green Ray_ whose main concern in life appears to be how to escape boredom in Paris during her summer vacation from her boring secretary's job. Can you say "spoiled middle-class brat"? And all of her numerous friends seemed to be of the same sort.

Oh yeah, someone like Leo Tolstoy would praise the topic of vegetarianism briefly featured in _The Green Ray_, but overall, I'm sure Tolstoy would passionately *hate* a movie like this. It showcases exactly the type of characters who Tolstoy believed were leading artificial lives and then complained about how unhappy this made them. Well, it was of their own making and preference, right?

On the other hand, what I didn't mind about _The Green Ray_ at all is the alleged lack of film-making finesse on the part of Rohmer. There are supposedly too many long shots here, the movie's low budget and minimalist, skeleton crew is self-evident, etc. So what? I'm sure Andy Warhol's movies were created with even lower budgets, yet they managed to be impressive. I say, kudos to Rohmer for going about it differently.

Finally, _The Green Ray_ would just be an outright bad movie, if it weren't for its ending. Now, the ending of _The Green Ray_ truly is masterful and moving - and I claim that this is precisely because it was *not* improvised, but predetermined by Rohmer from the very start. Can there be a better way to end a movie than to offer its brightest, finest moment at the very end, just before the closing credits start rolling? No, there cannot. Given the great ending, I'm willing to call _The Green Ray_ an "OK movie" overall (although very uneven), but definitely not the masterpiece that it is in many places purported to be.
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Boring Hodgepodge, or: You Get What You Put In
14 February 2019
"You get what you pay for", right? Perhaps not every single time; there may be exceptions, but that's the overwhelming tendency.

As I was suffering through the ordeal of watching _Chungking Express_ (checking the timeline every few minutes, counting down the minutes remaining, because I just couldn't wait for the movie to be over at very long last), I was reminded of the saying above.

Transferred to the world of art: you're unlikely to create a masterpiece of art if you, as the creator, put little "standard" effort in its creation. Masterpieces of art typically require *monumental* effort on the part of their creators - standard effort may not be enough, let alone *sub-par* effort. Professional movie critics - and fans of this movie, too (who include luminaries such as Quentin Tarantino) - would have us believe that _Chungking Express_ is a masterpiece, despite its having originated pretty much as an afterthought, or perhaps because the director was contractually obligated to deliver *some* movie to his production company; never mind its content or quality.

So, after I finished watching the movie, frustrated like hell (how could a movie celebrated like this turn out to be so unbearable?!), I proceeded to read about its background...

... and I experienced several "Aha!" moments. The biggest of them was: the director Wong Kar-wai apparently launched into filming this movie without even having completed its screenplay! He continued writing the screenplay on every day the movie was being made. He said, proudly, I think (paraphrasing him), "In the morning of another shooting day, I had no idea how the story would develop over the course of that day; we would just continue 'making up the story' as we went along."

Oh, my god... but it shows, let me tell you! There is zero coherence in this movie. Movie critics and fans would have us believe that this fatal flaw was, in fact, its intended virtue. First, given the chaotic origin of the movie (sincerely admitted by the director), I doubt that it was so.

But whether intended or not, the movie lacks coherence to a degree that made it unpalatable for me. And it wasn't about lack of coherence, only: I thought the characters in the movie lacked any sort of attraction (apart from their physical traits); watching these two couples, two men and two women, "fall in love" (if you can call the sort of obsessed sex craze depicted in the movie "love") was excruciatingly boring. The dialogs were trite in the extreme; "profound" like a muddy pool of rain water. How many times do we need to witness the first main male character vainly trying to reach some high-school sweetheart of his on the phone? (Never mind he did so in various East Asian languages; hats off to every polyglott!)

And, oh, if you thought that "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and The Papas was a nice classic tune, watch out for this movie! Chances are you're gonna hate this song after you're done with _Chungking Express_. Salt, pepper or sugar may be nice additions to your meals - unless you overdo it. A classic song is always nice to hear - unless it's incessantly blaring at the audience at every opportunity the movie's chaotic action provides.

As opposed to that, I liked Faye Wong's Cantonese cover of "Dreams" by The Cranberries (one of my favorite bands... and favorite fruits, too; I happened to drink a glass of cranberry juice prior to writing this review). The recurring reggae tune, however, is nearly as exasperating as The Mamas and The Papas hit; no, not the song itself - but its overuse in the movie.

If there's something to be praised unreservedly about this movie, it's its visual style. The handheld camera work is mesmerizing, and you get a good sense of what it felt like to visit Hong Kong's Chungking Mansion, a sort of modern-day Tower of Babylon, in the early 1990s; it's safe to assume that not much has changed there since then. You also get several glimpses of "the longest escalator on planet Earth" - from Hong Kong Central to mid-levels. It was quite new when _Chungking Express_ was made.

Faye Wong is ravishing, but that's beside the point. But, oh, how unrealistic is it when such a paragon of female beauty is introduced to the audience with the offhand remark by the fast-food store owner, "Faye isn't too bad, either." Who are you kidding, guys? Would this movie have been as successful if Faye had been *truly* frumpy and unremarkable? (The Slovak film director Dusan Hanak specialized in depicting "love among ugly people"; and I mean *ugly*.) It's highly doubtful, but that is a dilemma for the entire branch of art called "moviemaking"; and in this respect, at least, _Chungking Express_, despite priding itself on how original it supposedly is, is in fact thoroughly conventional.
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A Nice (Partly Frightening) Movie, But I Don't Get All the Rave Reviews
13 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
_Children of Heaven_ is pretty shocking in its depiction of poverty in modern-day Tehran. Well, "modern-day": for the first few dozens of minutes in the movie, you might as well be watching a story from centuries ago. The only aspect of contemporary life visible in the frame is a small, old-fashioned TV set; and a radio transistor, like those commonly used 50 years ago, perhaps. Only later in the movie, when the father and son, riding a bicycle, visit "downtown, modern" Tehran, does one clearly realize that the movie is, in fact, fully taking place in the present day, although it certainly doesn't look like it to a Western viewer.

I may be naive, but somehow one would expect a "religious state" to be better capable of taking care of its citizens, so that such extremes of poverty can be avoided. I mean, to shoot a movie in 1997 showing a pair of sneakers as the most precious imaginable possession is just sad. The illusion must be similar to what one used to expect from Communist countries - that they would eliminate sharp class divides within society. That's what Communists used to preach, in theory - but in practice, they failed miserably. Does Iran as a religious society wish to remove such sharp divides? I have no idea, but it was disappointing to see so clearly in the movie that they apparently still exist in Iran today.

After I finished watching the movie, I wasn't entirely satisfied. Basically, everything turned out right, as it typically does in fairy-tales. OK, but it also lends a "phony" aspect to the movie: the movie pretty much tells the viewers, "Ah, it's not really as bad as it all initially seems. Just lay back and enjoy the movie - everything will sort itself out eventually, so there's no reason to get upset. You viewers can go ahead and live your comfortable lives just like before, and you can forget about everything you saw in this movie because, see, these folks are eventually capable of resolving all their problems by themselves."

But is that true in real life? And is it a hallmark of a cinematic masterpiece to make viewers comfortable? To be honest, I'd rather expect the opposite effect from an outstanding work of art. _Children of Heaven_ appears to be soothing the viewers' bad conscience: "We don't really care about all the terrible struggles these poor folks experience on a daily basis, but that's OK, because they can sort it all out by themselves at the end of the day."

There's a fairytale-like atmosphere around _Children of Heaven_; the adults in this world appear threatening, but eventually, as it turns out, most are just kind-hearted folks. In the midst of the harshest conditions, people are, in their depth, mostly good. That's a nice, heart-warming theory, but is reality quite as simple? The movie makes it seem *too* simple and allows the viewers to conclude that no measures need to be undertaken to help those around the world who are currently suffering. That's a less elating, and one might almost say - a kitschy aspect of the movie: "The good will prevail, it always does, so why should I worry or do anything about bad things that exist in this world?"

There's another kitschy aspect in _Children of Heaven_, as there often is with children's movies: the two children in the lead roles are just too cute. What if the two kids were ugly? Would there still be a movie?

Finally, the movie was a bit frightening to watch from a European perspective. I find even "liberal" European schools too suffocating for a free-thinking spirit, but that's nothing compared to how Iranian schools are depicted in _Children of Heaven_. One is reminded of army barracks rather than an educational institution. The "uniforms" worn by everyone except males in the movie (headwear by all women, the exact same clothing by all school kids...) strengthen the "military" impression generated by the movie. Uniform clothing - uniform thinking...

Does _Children of Heaven_ deserve its Oscar nomination? It's a very good movie, beautifully shot and apparently realistic, showing you both sides of Tehran as if you visited it in person, but the movie's praise is perhaps exaggerated. It's very much a movie in the spirit of De Sica's classic _Bicycle Thieves_, and it goes to the credit of _Children of Heaven_ that one can pronounce this comparison without blushing. Still, to me, it lacks the intensity and artistry of the classic - unlike here, I never for a second mistook _Bicycle Thieves_ for a fairy-tale while watching it.
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The Hunt (2012)
I Hope This Is Overblown Fiction
4 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
This is an outstanding and important movie, but it seems far-fetched in how it creates the dramatic situation for the leading character. Well, at least I hope it does! Conspiracy theorists like to rant and rave about "juvenile justice", especially in Scandinavia (typically Norway), but even so, I really hope things couldn't go so badly in real life as they do here in _The Hunt_ for the leading character. Yes, I know that the screenwriters based this movie on a real-life case (possibly a series of such cases), but even so, I hope they took "the artists' shortcut" in order to depict the exact circumstances of the drama we can experience here.

Don't get me wrong: I have no illusions about human nature, and I fully believe it's possible for an entire town or community to turn on an individual and ostracize him or her for no reason at all, without any evidence (perhaps even lynch him or her, in less enlightened societies than the current Danish one – but as could be seen, even the supposed enlightenment in today's West has its severe limitations or perversions). And it's not a new phenomenon by any means, of course; while watching _The Hunt_, I was frequently reminded of Nathanael Hawthorne's masterpiece, _The Scarlet Letter_.

It is precisely the depiction of herd thinking that is the biggest asset of _The Hunt_. There is no stupider and falser proverb than "There's no smoke without fire" (even Agatha Christie knew that), but most people seem to hold it to be true anyway. This instinctive herd thinking applies to *any* area of human life; yes, the human race likes to view itself as the "homo sapiens", but if truth be told, most humans just hate exercising their thinking capabilities. The *potential* for thinking, especially for thinking *independently*, is there in each of us – but it appears that most people willingly forgo that capability, and instead prefer to let themselves be driven by *herd instincts and impulses* which, then, makes them more akin to our animal co-inhabitants of this planet. That is why alcohol (nicely depicted in _The Hunt_, too) and drug addiction are so popular among humans: they cloud their thinking capabilities, and many people *prefer* their thinking to be clouded; to blunt the promptings of their conscience, perhaps, or to blunt the recognition, perhaps, that life as they live it day-to-day does not really make much sense or create any *genuine* (not artificially induced) joy.

And so, _The Hunt_ could have chosen any area of human life and endeavour to depict the dangers of blind herd thinking; it did not have to deal with sex at all; but, naturally, the more "salacious" the subject matter, the more interest a movie like this is likely to generate, and so, the subject matter was, ultimately, well-chosen by the film-makers. I just really hope than an experienced person like Grethe wouldn't jump to conclusions so fast, in real life, as she does in _The Hunt_. I also wonder how much the hysteria is due to the tabooization of nudity in our society. If it's OK for a kindergarten manager to talk about "willies" with the kids entrusted to her, why should the idea of an *erect* willie make someone like Grethe lose her mind instantly? That was the least credible aspect of _The Hunt_, I thought. Willies are part of life (and Grethe knows that), but erect willies are part of life, too. Even if it happened, through an unfortunate accident (such as that with the irresponsible teenagers cavorting with the iPad), for a child to catch a glimpse of that male-only biological occurrence – well, there should be a way to explain that biological occurrence to a small child without hysteria or calling an all-parents' meeting and the police right away. At least I hope so!

_The Hunt_ nicely shows the limitations of our current "social sciences", such as the inane child psychologist with his leading questions. And no, *those* were not overblown, as the McMartin "invented abuse" case from the US of the 1980s proved. Our society puts too much trust in doctors, and psychologists among them, I'm afraid; just because someone has a diploma and is considered an expert in their field, does not mean they cannot behave foolishly, wilfully and irresponsibly, just like Ole the child psychiatrist does in _The Hunt_.

We were meant to sympathize with the leading character throughout the movie, and of course we did, but in one aspect, I couldn't help thinking, while watching _The Hunt_: "You had it coming!" I mean Lucas's predilection for venison as his favourite meal, and for killing deer senselessly just for the pleasure of hunting. Yes, it's a "pleasure ritual" going back centuries, but isn't it time to let it go in the 21st century? Aren't deer just as defenseless when they are being hunted by humans who hold that killing spree to be "fun", as Lucas is later defenseless against the senseless attacks of his community? This reminded me of Hitchcock's _Birds_: you imprison birds at the start of the movie, but then suddenly, the situation turns around and *you* become the attacked ("hunted" here) party. The movie title here has, therefore, double significance.

The movie's direction is flawless, just spot-on throughout, the script and dialogues lean and tense as they should be, and the actors' performances are nothing short of amazing. Of course Mads Mikkelsen is superb in the leading role, but so are many others (Susse Wold is thoroughly convincing as Grethe), especially including the little girl, Annika Wedderkopp. I'm stunned as to how the film-makers managed to get such a performance out of a little girl like that. The thing is, it didn't even seem to be a "performance", but she really was as if cut out from real life, creating the sense of watching a documentary movie. Hats off, ladies and gentlemen!
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The Art of Comedy: How to Be Supremely Funny & Deadly Serious at the Same Time
12 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Making fun of Hitler has had a long tradition, dating back to when Hitler was alive, and one of the greatest comedies of all time, Charlie Chaplin's _The Great Dictator_. Indeed, Chaplin can be briefly glimpsed in _Look Who's Back_, along with other actors who portrayed or lampooned Hitler over the decades.

Just like _The Great Dictator_ manages to be a thoroughly serious movie towards the very end and Chaplin's famous speech extolling democracy, _Look Who's Back_ also has a serious undertone beneath all the slapstick. It, therefore, meets the prime criterion for supreme comedy: that it should be very funny to watch (and you're likely to laugh out loud quite a few times) but simultaneously deadly serious in its message.

_Look Who's Back_, ingeniously, features not just a twist ending, but *two* twist endings, followed, quite a bit later, by the genuine ending. It is precisely during the two twist endings that the movie is the most serious. It probes the viewer's faith in democracy – is it a viable model for society at all? And, are human beings, at their core, good or bad? The answer is, of course, "neither", or "both". And that is exactly what the twist endings demonstrate: first, Hitler speaks so convincingly as to make even his most virulent opponents among the viewers admit that he has a point. It appears that evil has triumphed after all; or, is it human negligence and mental laziness and self-centeredness that allows voters to shrug their shoulders and, perhaps despite some inner misgivings, elect someone like Hitler to be their leader? In any case, Hitler affirms that he'd be back – not forcefully, but joyously welcomed by the people as their beloved leader.

But wait! Florian the common man wants to have none of it. His repulsion against evil is too great, and after struggling mightily with himself, he shoots Hitler. It appears that the good has triumphed after all.

But wait! There's another twist coming, and then yet another – the movie's true ending that, so to say, "hangs in the balance" and is neutral. It says that the time for Hitler's return in today's Europe, confused by the refugee crisis, is auspicious. It now depends on us, the viewers, whether we allow that to happen.

The very last few moments in _Look Who's Back_ show some real-life newsreel footage of unrests during the refugee crisis (the movie was made in 2014 as opposed to the book that was released 3 years earlier when the refugee crisis wasn't a topic of discussion). I thought that the addition of this real-life footage was unnecessary, too "propaganda-laden", if you will (although well-meant), and I wish this would have been left out. One can too palpably feel that this was just "slapped on" to the finished movie as an afterthought, as a reaction to the refugee crisis in post-2014 Europe.

The slapstick is great throughout, and some scenes are unforgettably hilarious, such as Hitler's secretary setting up an email account for him, but discovering that all of Hitler's preferred user names (including his own name) are already taken. Not only in moments like these, Oliver Masucci gives an excellent performance in the title role – understated in the proper moments, funny but nuanced.

Generally, the actors' performances in _Look Who's Back_ are superb, and credit for guiding them so expertly must be given to the director David Wnendt. I was particularly impressed by Christoph Maria Herbst and Katja Riemann in the roles of dueling, high-powered media executives. The chilliness and ruthlessness exuded by their characters is almost palpable. Herbst is supposed to be a comedic actor primarily, but his character in _Look Who's Back_ is above all a dramatic figure, and Herbst's portrayal is spot-on. (In one of Herbst's funnier moments, _Look Who's Here_ features a meticulous recreation of the famous Bruno Ganz "Hitler outburst" scene from _Der Untergang_. There we have a cinematic sendup to complement all the countless YouTube subtitled mutations.) Among supporting actors in smaller but memorable roles, I was impressed by Thomas Thieme as the TV boss, and Gudrun Ritter as Grandma.

_Look Who's Back_ offers a great mixture of scripted dialogue and scenes and "hidden camera", Sacha Baron Cohen-like unscripted scenes. These are mixed so well that sometimes, you're not quite sure whether you're watching the former or the latter. See Hitler's visit of NPD headquarters, produced in the style of real-life documentaries, hand-held cameras and all.

The satire in _Look Who's Back_ is biting: Hitler gets beat up by Neo-Nazis, because they assume he must be making fun of Hitler. And the German TV population, so apparently ready to embrace a second coming of Hitler, is only taken aback (temporarily?) when they see Hitler mistreating a little dog. Kindness towards fellow humans is perhaps not a given in Germany, but it's the German love of dogs that is truly unconditional.

I haven't read the book yet, but it appears that the movie was suitably and in certain respects, significantly altered compared to the book, but with the best possible outcome. Depending on the credits source, up to 6 various writers may have worked on the screenplay, including the director Wnendt and the book writer Timur Vermes, and this carefulness has paid its dividends.
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Histrionic, Bloated Almost Three Hours of Sheer Boredom
10 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Let's mention the few positives about the movie first. Duke Ellington's score is wonderful. The black-and-white cinematography by Sam Leavitt is mesmerizing. The director Preminger's steadfast refusal to use the trite narrative device of "flashbacks" is admirable. And the movie may have been bold in its treatment of certain topics, and even in its language, in its own era. Which by itself, however, does not make the movie any more enjoyable when viewed in 2016. To illustrate, that was a time when the word "panties" was considered dirty. Oh, my.

Other than those considerations, the movie is a bloated dud, and excruciating to watch. I only managed to do it in three sittings, because it failed to hold my attention for even a few scenes. The movie is not just boring, but positively annoying to watch, and that's mainly due to uniformly bad performances by all actors. Whenever such is the case in a movie, it is, of course, the director that is to be blamed. And so, I'm afraid that Otto Preminger is the main culprit here.

Sorry, but I expect characters in a movie to behave and talk like people in real life behave and talk. I just detest theatrical movies in which all the actors are telegraphing, with every word they utter, ànd with every gesture or facial expression they make, the following: "Hey, this is a movie! You're watching a movie! Now, look here, I'm gonna show you what an angry person looks like!" (Now think back of George C. Scott as the prosecutor.) "And now I'm gonna show you what a guy looks like who thinks a woman is attractive but can't really say so openly." (Think back of James Stewart and all his mannerisms when facing Lee Remick one-on-one.) "And now I'm gonna show you what a guy looks like when he makes a joke!" (Think back of the old judge.)

Sorry, I'm not buying this type of movie-making. I don't wish to observe obvious theatrical puppets for almost 3 hours. No "this looks like X, Y, or Z" for me, please! I'd like to behold X, Y, and Z *directly* – not merely their theatrical representations. Give me the real thing, please. When I watch a movie, I'd like to believe that these are real persons and real-life situations I'm watching. But while watching _Anatomy of a Murder_, all I could see was an all-star ensemble putting on a show. Admittedly, realistic movies aren't the only type of movies that exists; but what's really objectionable is for a movie to *pretend* it's realistic when in reality, it's only theatrical.

Don't get me wrong – I'm a big-time James Stewart fan and to me, no movie is finer than _Vertigo_ or _It's a Wonderful Life_, but I just couldn't stand Stewart here. He was *playacting* here throughout, and I didn't believe for a second that whom I was observing was some failed small-time lawyer enamoured of fishing.

The movie also contains quite a few despicable elements, such as the old lawyer pal extolling the jury system as almost a godsent, supremely dignified institution (are you kidding me?!), or the defendant getting away with what looks like an obvious murder; the trial's verdict seems unjust or random. Now, taking into account how "jingoistic", "pro- army" public opinion in the US can often be, the assumption cannot be far that if the defendant were anyone other than a "war hero", the outcome of the trial might have been very different. Given that the movie is based on a book written by a defence attorney who liberated just such a defendant in a real-life trial, this leaves a really bad taste in the viewer's mouth. It seems as if the author was boasting of the outcome of the trial, when in reality, it's embarrassing. This movie struck me as a celebration of the woefully erratic judicial system, particularly when it's based on a 12-person jury of "common Joes and Janes" and on odd precedents dating back to previous centuries.
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Poirot: After the Funeral (2006)
Season 10, Episode 3
Better than the Book: Gloom Dispersed, Allowing Culprit to Shine
25 August 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I enjoyed the TV version of _After the Funeral_ more than the book, but that's not saying much, because I didn't appreciate the novel very much. It features one of the best plot devices, in terms of the whodunnit, from among all of Agatha Christie books. Yet that is, at the same time, a pitfall: the whodunnit is so memorable that if you've only watched or read it once, you're likely to remember it for the rest of your life. Nope, it's not *quite* as memorable as in _Murder on the Orient Express_ or _And Then There Were None_, but it does belong to that highly memorable category.

This means that in order to retain the reader's or viewer's interest for a *repeated* reading or viewing, the book or film in question must offer more than the whodunnit itself. In this respect, I thought that the novel, whose writing I found rather dreary, failed; but the TV rendition succeeded.

There is a severe limitation imposed on the episodes of the acclaimed _Poirot_ TV series starring David Suchet: none of the episodes is permitted to exceed 90 minutes or so of runtime. Yet this is definitely not enough runtime for some of Agatha Christie's finest whodunnits, such as _Evil Under the Sun_ or _Death on the Nile_. The David Suchet versions of these mysteries positively suffer due to the necessity of being squeezed into 90 minutes or so of runtime, whereas the same mysteries starring Peter Ustinov, being allowing to extend luxuriously to the full Hollywood greatness of 120+ minutes of runtime, do justice to Agatha Christie's original books.

Fortunately, what is a weakness and limitation for bringing Christie's finest mysteries to the screen, is an advantage in relation to her lesser works, such as _After the Funeral_. There is so much non-essential stuff in this novel that the TV makers could very well afford to pick and choose only the most important facets of the story. Even so, you can feel the unwholesome pressure of the 90 minutes of runtime in the too hurried introduction of the various family members a.k.a. crime suspects at the very beginning of the episode. Yet thereafter, the story on the screen "hangs together" much better, to my mind, than the rather unnecessarily sprawling original novel.

This is to a great extent thanks to excellent acting performances by the ensemble here. The acting in the TV version is outstanding -- yet Christie's writing in the underlying book is mediocre at best. So even at the pure level of craftsmanship, the film surpasses the book. The main star of this TV episode definitely is not David Suchet but Monica Dolan, delivering the clue(s) to unravel the mystery.

At the same time, while watching _After the Funeral_, you can't help feeling you're watching a "parlour game": a smart one, to be sure, but rather removed from real life. The actors' performances are admirable, yet simultaneously somewhat too stagy, theatrical, and stuffy. You're watching an exquisitely crafted *artificial* product here.

You might also frequently feel like you're watching a *historical* movie, due to the flawless recreation of the 1930s, mainly in terms of resplendent costuming, period vehicles, etc. Even Monica Dolan's drab costumes are resplendent in how suitably drab they are.

In fact, that is another reason as to why the TV version of _After the Funeral_ is more enjoyable to watch than it is to read the original book: the book is engulfed in a depressive post-World War II mood, with Christie constantly lamenting as to the state of the world. You get to hear *some* of it in the TV version, too, but in tolerable doses (mainly from the mouth of a cranky hypochondriac); after all, this is still the inter-war period, and the Great Depression doesn't affect parlour games in English countryside estates all that much.

David Suchet's ("French British") enunciation, sudden radiant smiles, and mannerisms are as flawless as ever in this episode. At the same time, I do not see Suchet as the ideal Poirot *physically*: he seems too fat and rotund for my vision of Poirot. Yes, the Poirot I have always envisioned is a rather small, fussy man, but by no means have I ever imagined him to be fat and rotund. Just like Peter Ustinov is too tall to fit Poirot physically, yet he captures him very well *mentally*, in the same way, I find Suchet to be too fat and rotund to fit Poirot physically, yet again, he captures Poirot brilliantly in terms of his mentality. To my eyes, two great actors -- Ustinov and Suchet -- have blessed us with two different portrayals of Poirot, each distinctly their own: and both actors have somehow managed to hit home with their portrayal, despite what one might describe as their "physical incongruities".
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Normalization (2013)
Murder in Retrospect: This Time for Real
21 April 2014
Agatha Christie seemed enamored of "murders in retrospect"... guess what: a murder case like that occurred in the tiny East-Central European country of Slovakia in 1976, and it's been traumatizing the Slovak society ever since.

A pretty female medical student was found murdered in 1976, with hands tied behind her back, lying in a creek not far from Slovakia's capital Bratislava. (For more, see the Plot Summary I submitted on this movie.)

The murder case is the subject matter of Robert Kirchhoff's outstanding documentary _Kauza Cervanová_. The production values are top-notch; the camera work by a master of the craft, Ján Meliš, is mesmerizing; the score by Peter Zagar suitably spooky. See Meliš's deft touch in the moving scene where an aging, ailing male witness in a wheelchair regrets that his testimony had never been properly considered by the police, saying, "I probably do not have much more time to live" -- while the camera is at the same time trained on his wife's pained, caring face.

The shocking thing about the original murder investigation is that, apparently, many statements by witnesses or the accused were obtained by questionable or even illicit means employed by the police, such as psychological pressure or threats of physical violence. There is a heart-breaking story of a young female medical student in early stages of pregnancy, forced by the police to testify against the 7 men charged with the murder, in spite of her conscience. She later renounces her earlier testimony, unable to reconcile it with her conscience ultimately, and is herself sentenced to a long prison term for false testimony; her small daughter is forced to grow up without her mother. Yet not enough attention seems to have been paid in the renewed 2000s murder trial to those facts of police bias or impropriety.

To those viewers accusing the director and screenwriter Robert Kirchhoff of bias in favor of the 7 (perhaps wrongly) accused men: yes, his sympathies for the 7 are palpable; yet both sides were allowed to speak and present strong arguments over the course of _Kauza Cervanová_. There is the memorable and impressive statement by a criminal investigator who says that perpetrators of heinous crimes are pretty frequently capable of thoroughly and sincerely (!) convincing themselves (!) of their innocence. There would then, consequently, be little value in results of lie detector tests.

For the "other side of the issue", viewers might turn to the 2004 Czech fictional movie _Bolero_ based on the Cervanová murder. It was directed by noted Czech cinematographer F. A. Brabec, and the well-known Czech screenwriter Markéta Zinnerová took the exactly opposite approach compared to Robert Kirchhoff: that the 7 men were in fact guilty as charged, and justifiably convicted. _Bolero_ met with mixed reviews.

To me, the "whodunnit" of the mystery is immaterial; _Kauza Cervanová_ is deeper than a whodunnit. It appears to me that either no one is guilty, or everyone is. (I lean towards the latter option, although the two seemingly contradictory statements might be construed as synonymous.) Where are the boundaries between personalities, the boundaries between "innocent" and "guilty" people? Aren't *separate personalities* of humans as such, illusionary? On this level -- the level of Jesus's "Let those without guilt cast the first stone" -- the distinction between the "guilty" and the "innocent" starts to blur. The question "Who is guilty?" starts to sound uncomfortable because, as Neale Walsch would say, "There is only one of us in the room."

_Kauza Cervanová_ is about how to deal with human life -- with terrible, unexpected blows that one may receive from human life when one least expects it. What do you do then? Can you absorb the blow, deflect it? Or will the blow *break* you, so that you are turned into a bodily and/or psychological ruin of a person, of your own earlier self? (Compare the 7 men when young and today.)

There are numerous memorable moments interspersed throughout _Kauza Cervanová_. Kirchhoff is phenomenal in picking the choicest quotes and soundbites from the treasure trove of his 8 years of search for material. See a priest saying that the entire human life (and all aspects and components of it) is *either* an absurdity, *or* a mystery -- there is no third option; or the simile used by a Middle-Eastern witness about the fox and speaking (or, rather, choosing not to speak) the truth.

The narration of _Kauza Cervanová_ is delightfully sketchy, yet (to me) never confusing. As an example, see Kirchhoff's decision to communicate a key statement by the former Czech(oslovak) Attorney General Motejl to the viewers only *indirectly*, despite having had Motejl available for an on-screen interview; the statement packs a heavier punch that way. An important witness is interviewed on the phone by Kirchhoff, and is so hazy and uncertain about the entire affair that no further comment by anyone is necessary. Finally, there are the brief glimpses of grotesque figures that are the present-day Slovak politicians: Attorney General Trnka, strutting away with a theatrical gesture; a smirk of relief on the face of a Slovak smalltown mayor accompanying the President of Slovakia for a photo op. You couldn't ask for better performances lampooning politicians if these were hired extras.

_Kauza Cervanová_, as all remarkable works of art, may ostensibly, on the first plane, be dealing with a specific murder case. Behind that, however, as all remarkable works of art, it says something generally applicable to human life -- about all viewers of the movie. To me, therefore, this documentary is not primarily about the 7 convicted men, nor even primarily about Slovakia or its (post-)Communist regime(s). It is a movie about human nature; it ultimately deals with the most general human issues, not a specific incident, era or country.
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Sketchy, Episodic, Boring, (Too) Feminine -- Waste of Time
24 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
The movie opens with a prolonged shot of an oblong, young female arse, looming gigantically on the screen -- and that may well have been the best part of _Lost in Translation_; it only gets worse from then on. It is incomprehensible and mind-blowing, as to why so much praise has been heaped on this indescribably dull and, above all, *empty* movie. There is no content here, no substance -- just some feminine musing. To be precise, obviously a *wealthy*, bored-to-death female's musing; she is trapped in a luxurious hotel in a Japanese metropolis; she has nothing to do, and so she spends her time observing her fellow hotel guests, and flirting with them. The principal of them is played by Bill Murray, as engaging as ever -- but neither his charm, nor Scarlett Johansson's loveliness can rescue this dud of a movie. I'm sorry, but the crushing majority of humans are *not* faced with this sort of would-be dilemma: being well-provided-for and well-fed in a luxurious hotel, having nothing to do. Most people would jump up and down for joy if *those* were their only worries. Now when you consider that the movie was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the daughter of the first-rate celebrity director Francis Ford Coppola -- well, it's perfectly possible that *that* was the sheltered, privileged environment in which she was growing up; yes, it must have been excruciatingly boring. Yawn! Unfortunately, that is the *only* thing superbly communicated to the viewers of _Lost in Translation_: excruciating boredom. There is nothing but an endless regurgitation of the same half-motifs, with nothing really happening throughout the course of the movie; there are no developments, and you end the movie exactly where you began watching it: that is, to be precise, nowhere at all. I had to exert all of my will-power to be able to finish watching _Lost in Translation_. In particular, Bill Murray's character and his interactions on the phone with his distant, materialistic wife -- that is just trite, a monumental cliché if there ever was one.
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Blind Chance (1987)
Turgid, Dreary and Insipid Like Communism Itself
29 December 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The triple alternative plot-line sounded so enticing -- but its execution is a disappointment.

First of all, as the Chinese fellow reviewer said, the idea of a triple plot-line is far from novel, so trying to accuse, say, Tom Tykwer of "pilfering" it from Kieslowski, is absurd. I do not believe that _It's a Wonderful Life_ belongs in this group; it only has a *double* plot-line, and it is only *imagined*, in retrospect, as well.

But O. Henry's exquisite, classic short story, "Roads of Destiny"? Why, of course! There you have it, almost a century before Kieslowski's _Blind Chance_. O. Henry's story was turned into a play and then, in 1921, into a Hollowyood silent movie (lost today) -- and funnily enough, the male hero was transformed into a female hero, giving Pauline Frederick the opportunity to shine in a female leading role. Also, O. Henry's original locale and plot elements were completely changed.

So, as we can see, this is pretty standard in art: you take something created by a former artist, and you shape it into something new, allowing you to express yourself. That is *not* theft -- it's being *inspired* by those that went before you.

I confess I enjoyed both O. Henry's short story, and Tom Tykwer's superb _Run Lola Run_, far more than Kieslowski's ponderous treatment of the triple plot-line in _Blind Chance_. _Run Lola Run_ could be seen as the *antithesis* of _Blind Chance_: where _Blind Chance_ is slow-moving and dreary, _Run Lola Run_, corresponding to its very title, is fast-moving and furious, moving at a break-neck speed throughout; _Run Lola Run_ is the embodiment of energy, vivacity, and colourfulness -- while Kieslowski's _Blind Chance_ is the epitome of the drab era of the floundering Communist regime it depicts. Yes, _Blind Chance_ was shot in colour, but it creates such a drab impression it may as well have been shot in black-and-white. Which, perhaps, might have lent some originality to it: "Communist film noir, anyone?" The drabness is intensified by an almost total absence of humour of any kind in _Blind Chance_.

I find fault with Kieslowski's treatment of the topic, especially the main hero. I do not find his psychology convincing. Kieslowski suggests that the same man, depending on whether he catches a train or not, might well have developed into polar opposites of one's own personality. A career Communist, an oppositional activist, and an alibistic middle-class person indifferent to politics -- all these 3 personalities are very well possible within the development of a single person, Kieslowski suggests, simply as a result of an accidental occurrence in that person's life.

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. The 3 Witeks in _Blind Chance_ are like 3 different persons. In contrast, in _Run Lola Run_, Lola remains Lola the entire time. She is constantly herself, only reacting to whatever circumstances "blind destiny" may confront her with. I find *that* believable. Ditto for O. Henry's "Roads of Destiny": the main hero remains true to himself in each of the 3 plot-lines; although he is led to the same invariable outcome in each of the three stories, he does so by remaining true to himself -- not by being the opposite of oneself, as concocted by Kieslowski.

I also disliked the direction in _Blind Chance_; to me, the actors' performances in this movie represent "fake naturalism". It's as if you were constantly observing people ostentatiously trying to behave in a "non-ostantatious" manner, if you know what I mean. I love Ingmar Bergman's movies, because the actors in them typically behave in such an unaffected manner, as opposed to the typical Hollywood movie. Kieslowski seems to be somewhere in between: the actors here strive to create the impression of being "unaffected", yet that very effort makes them seem *affected*. For an illustrating moment, see the scene where Witek is looking out a window, then steps away quickly from the curtain, so as not to be seen from outside. Oh, my... he may as well have attached a surprised mien, of the Hollywood variety, to that theatrical posture.

As to the film's subject matter, it offered no redeeming quality to me. I lived through those years under the Communist regime (although in a neighbouring country); I do not need to remind myself of them. Yes, _Blind Chance_ captures the despairing atmosphere of all-pervasive dullness precisely (awful fashion, too), almost in a documentary film-maker's manner. But I expect something *more* out of art, instead of simply *replicating* a bygone era, long past now, thankfully.

Some of the aspects of _Blind Chance_ struck me as pointedly "fake". Okay, so the second Witek personality develops into a believer, and a Catholic activist... and an adulterer at the same time? Erm, it's certainly possible, but... Another false note was the copious arbitrary female nudity in _Blind Chance_. Witek has 3 lovers in the 3 plot-lines, and the ladies practically totally expose themselves (from the front, and from the rear) in the stories. Fine, I take it that this was shot in 1981, when full female nudity may still have been perceived as somewhat of a novelty on film (perhaps particularly so behind the Iron Curtain) -- yet the effect this creates today is decidedly sexist. The last thing I desire is to see Bogusław Linda naked, but camera-work that only exposes females and never the male in sex scenes, while perhaps a courageous and commendable effort back in 1981, is so old-fashioned and awkward when seen today. Either give us all-out, honest nudity (although it doesn't need to go to the extremes of Paul Morrissey's _Trash_), or just forget about nudity; decades of great film-making could afford to forgo nudity. As it is, it appears as if the cameraman of _Blind Chance_ wished to be titillating while remaining reasonably "chaste" at the same time; again, creating a faux effect.
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The Gazebo (1959)
Off-Key Direction and Over-the-Top Acting Make This Movie Artificial and Puerile Instead of Fully Enjoyable
9 August 2013
I dislike comedies in which the actors' performances fairly scream at you: "Hey, this is a *comedy*, you know? We're supposed to be *funny* here! So, go ahead and *laugh*, will you?"

Unfortunately, _The Gazebo_ falls into this category. I for one don't think human life as such needs embellishments in order to create a comical impression on its contemplators; if you just faithfully show life for what it is, it will, by necessity, be *funny* to look at -- besides also being *tragic*, along with a host of other attributes. An artist may wish to focus on this or that side of life, preferring one or the other point of view; while highly accomplished artists may even wish to portray two seemingly *incompatible* aspects of human life at the same time, so that a work of art is then *funny* and *tragic* at the same time, just like human life often is. *That* is supreme art. In any case, there is no need to *embellish* anything, to step away from *realism* the way the actors do it in _The Gazebo_ from the opening minute to the last.

Whenever this happens on a consistent basis in a movie -- this intentional withdrawal from reality -- it is the director who bears responsibility. And so, I disagree with George Marshall's take on _The Gazebo_. Yes, all the actors here, most noticeably the two leads, Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds, are supremely accomplished actors, professionals of the highest merit, and they definitely are "cute" to watch. But the result is not a good, fully enjoyable comedy. In fact, I mostly find fault with the performance of the two leads: because neither Ford, nor Reynolds lend credibility to their 2 characters, as they are simply and obviously *actors playing parts*, trying to elicit laughs from the audience. Yes, they manage to do so quite frequently even for me (such as Ford viewing the havoc in his living room "upside down" from between his own legs, pushing his hanging tie aside for a better view; Ford drawing a flashlight circle on his living-room wall around another flashlight reflection dancing there). But an amassment, or sum total, of such funny moments isn't enough for a truly satisfactory comedy for me. If you feel a disconnect from the main characters -- and I do, from the very beginning, because they are so artificial -- well, all the shenanigans won't save the movie.

I'm afraid _The Gazebo_ got off on the wrong foot from the very start: Glenn Ford, and George Marshall as the director, set the wrong tone for everything in that in the opening scenes, Ford as a supposedly stressed and neurotic TV director, is *not* credible; his neuroticism does not ring true; you're painfully aware you're observing an *actor playing his part*, one that is supposed to be "funny", because this is a "comedy". Is there a greater omission for an actor, than to fail to be *convincing* in the portrayal of the person he or she is supposed to portray? If you're not *convincing*, it doesn't matter how cute or funny or beautiful you may be otherwise -- you didn't get the actor's *main* job done.

There is an even more awful character than the two lead ones: I mean the housekeeper played by Doro Merande, who keeps hollering at everyone. On the first one or two occasions we meet her, the resulting "joke" is so-so; afterwards, each of her appearances (including the one by proxy, on the phone) only gets more awkward. Can you say "far-fetched", and "milking the same old joke"?

The movie's brightest side? Why, of course it's John McGiver in the role of a contractor putting the gazebo in its place; if anyone can be fully believed in _The Gazebo_ and portrays a genuine human being here, it's McGiver. A terrific, nuanced performance; McGiver does not need to do anything "extra" to be funny; he is who he is -- the character he plays in the movie; and that by itself is funny enough; I wish *everyone* in _The Gazebo_ was like that. I also enjoyed Carl Reiner's smart, and pretty understated, performance as the D. A. Understatedness is what Debbie Reynolds, but particularly Glenn Ford and George Marshall were missing in _The Gazebo_. Perhaps they were afraid that in being understated, they would not be "funny enough"; as it is, however, they just *try too hard* to be funny, which is at least as bad as not being "funny enough".

For another plus, the movie is visually impressive. Made in exquisite Cinemascope black & white at a time (late 1950s) when movies of this sort were expected to be produced in full colour, it was an excellent choice that suits the action of a "black comedy" perfectly. The Oscar-nominated costume design by Helen Rose deserves every praise.
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Miloš Kopecký Vehicle, with Lots of Excerpts from Molière
31 July 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Well, there is a certain brand of movies written explicitly for a single actor -- or pair of actors -- to showcase their talents. The movie star's name here is Miloš Kopecký -- one of the most beloved of Czech comedic actors of any time. Possibly a choleric person in his own right -- and perhaps also due to that, suffering from heavy depressions in his real life. Would there have been anyone more qualified to play a choleric person on the Czech big screen? Definitely not -- Kopecký is *the* person to do that, and so his friend, director and screenwriter Petr Schulhoff, wrote this movie for Kopecký directly; can you say "tailor-made"?

Just as Kopecký was brilliant as an actor, he was controversial as a (public) person: first, in the early 1970s, he lent his talents to the Communist propaganda regime in a series of despicable "documentaries" -- only to make a sharp U-turn in the late 1980s, and deliver one of the most famous and memorable anti-regime speeches, illicitly disseminated across Czechoslovakia, as official media would not dare to broadcast it. This was *well* before the 1989 "Velvet Revolution", so Kopecký was putting his career at stake by speaking up.

_I'll Be Good From Now On, Grandpa_ is the English translation of the strange movie title -- but not strange for the director Petr Schulhoff, as he apparently revelled in exactly this type of convoluted titles used for his 1970s comedies. There is something of a separate genre in the Czech 1970s movie-making: "normalisation comedies" -- a derogatory title denoting the era of what the hard-line Communist regime back then termed "normalisation" -- in their Newspeak, this signified a retreat from Czechoslovakia's democratic tendencies of the late 1960s.

What, then, was there for the film-makers to do? If you were especially brave, like the actor Vlasta Chramostová, you could openly declare your disapproval of the regime -- and be severely punished for it; Chramostová disappeared both from the big screen and the theatrical stage for 20 years, until the regime was toppled in late 1989. Another option was to flee Czechoslovakia for the West. Most movie-making artists in Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, however, opted for "reluctant cooperation" with the regime: neither did they openly oppose it, nor did they (if they could avoid it) promote it in their works.

This is where "normalisation comedies" come in; the 1970s may -- perverse though it may seem -- be called the "Golden Era" of Czech comedy. Many unforgettable comedy gems, such as the Vorlíček and Macourek classics, were produced in this era. They frequently dealt with the magical, fantasy, or were ostensibly aimed at a "kids'" audience. "Anything but relevant political or social topics, please!" Critics of "normalisation comedies" therefore slam them as "escapes from reality". Were they? Perhaps they were -- but that does not make the finest from among "normalisation comedies" any less brilliant than they are.

An unrealistic aspect of this particular "normalisation comedy" is that it strives hard to portray a star actor as "one of us". The underlying message -- ringing false -- seems to be: star actors are just like any other people. And so, we see Kopecký shopping in an ordinary supermarket; eating in an ordinary canteen; riding on an ordinary train (at least it was first class!); or sharing his telephone line with his regular-joe neighbours.

Does _I'll Be Good From Now On, Grandpa_ attain the heights of the greatest Vorlíček and Macourek, or Jindřich Polák comedies? Definitely not. Perhaps this is because Petr Schulhoff was not originally a director (let alone writer) of comedies; he was best-known in the 1960s for his dark murder mysteries. With a new political era came an abrupt change in Schulhoff's artistic focus -- and the results were not always convincing.

Kopecký, naturally, is brilliant here. No one could thrive in this role as much as he does. He can transform himself from a kindly middle-aged man into a raving lunatic within seconds -- while, mysteriously, remaining perfectly "consistent", "integral" while doing so. The way Kopecký could control the nuances of his voice at all times, to lend credibility to all of his outbursts or (conflicting) emotions, is amazing.

Kopecký is not the only top-rated star in _I'll Be Good From Now On, Grandpa_. In a role not dissimilar to Clarence the angel in _It's a Wonderful Life_, Ladislav Pešek (the "Grandpa" from the movie title) entertains in his final film role in a career spanning many decades dating back to before WW2. Another veteran virtuoso has a small but memorable double role here: František Filipovský as a psychiatric doctor *and* road sweeper; Filipovský as the genius actor flawlessly portrays both. Whenever Filipovský gapes with his mouth open, *you* and everyone in the audience will gape along with him: that's how convincing he was, regardless of the situation. The enraged confrontation between Kopecký and Filipovský, in a street full of amused passers-by, is perhaps *the* highlight of the movie.

_I'll Be Good From Now On, Grandpa_ is interesting in drawing parallels between Kopecký's leading character and that in Molière's _The Misanthrope_: Kopecký plays an actor *who plays* the Misanthrope on a theatrical stage. So, we get to enjoy a number of extended scenes showing rehearsals of Molière's dialogues.

While Kopecký dazzles in this movie, and is superbly assisted by Filipovský and Pešek among others (notably a host of prominent Czech female actors), the screenplay and plot are far from exceptional. Kopecký literally carries everything on his shoulders here -- imagine a less accomplished actor in the role, and the movie would likely have been a flop. Some scenes are so artificial as to be painful to watch: I especially disliked the *too* zany Václav Lohniský, portraying a film director struggling on the movie set. Also, the ending, with everyone joyfully shouting the movie title from a balcony, seemed rather forced and unnatural.
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Great Performances in a Screwball Comedy with Serious Subtext
21 July 2013
This was the first movie ever to win 4 Oscar nominations for all 4 acting categories (even though not actually winning any of the Oscars), and the actors' performances are, indeed, the strongest part in _My Man Godfrey_. I for one admired Eugene Palette most -- if anyone can be obese and virile at the same time, he certainly could. Especially, Eugene Palette's character perfectly illustrates the typology of the movie that _My Man Godfrey_ is: on the surface, it's a ridiculous romp; but underneath that, there is seriousness, and a struggle with real-life problems. Despite nearly everyone in _My Man Godfrey_ behaving like lunatics, the movie is surprisingly realistic in depicting the mood and milieu of the 1930s Great Depression in the US. Mischa Auer was very good as a Russian immigrant, but to me, not quite as impressive as Palette (who ends up not only figuratively but literally "bouncing Auer off the stage"). Also, in a thoroughly ridiculous (and therefore very difficult to play) role as Palette's wife, Alice Brady gives a fantastic performance. Her voice acrobatics, the brilliance of her silly laughs, cannot be praised enough; and she indeed looks great for a lady in her 40s; yet in the midst of all that hysteria, she was always able to insert a pause so she could voice her dismay, doubts, fears, pleasure, etc. And *that* makes her character a real human being -- despite all the ridiculousness. In this, she reminded me of the Czech actress Iva Janžurová, who has likewise made a career out of her hysterical, silly laughs, combined with smartness. The two leads, William Powell and Carole Lombard, also give superb performances, especially Powell. It's a genuine accomplishment to come across as always suave and elegant in the midst of all the tomfoolery of a screwball comedy; yet this seems effortless for Powell. His delivery of the lines of dialogues seems spot-on every time; he was a true master of his voice as a crucial actor's instrument. The screenplay and dialogues in _My Man Godfrey_ are super-smart and witty, and coming fast at you (especially in Lombard's famous rapid-fire delivery); you'll be able to rewind and replay certain scenes a number of times, without getting bored. Also, the psychology of the characters, no matter how far-fetched at first superficial glance, manages to be convincing in the end; an unforgettable scene has Lombard deduce Powell's "love" for her by arguing that if he hadn't loved her, he wouldn't have bothered to put her under a cold shower! All in all, an excellent, smart, non-shallow comedy, though hardly a pinnacle in the art of cinematography.
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Amalgam of Good and Bad Moments
21 July 2013
Following right on the heels of the masterful TV adaptation of _Prisoner's Base_, which even managed to be better than Rex Stout's original novel, this episode, no. 6 in Season 1, is a let-down. You cannot say it is "bad", but compared to such foregoing jewels as _Prisoner's Base_ or _The Golden Spiders_, it is likely to disappoint. Then again, it's not the first glitch in A&E's Nero Wolfe TV series: I thought that _The Doorbell Rang_, which opened Season 1, was a real misfire, whereas _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_ is simply mediocre. It has quite a few good moments, but also quite a few bad ones.

_Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_ was the very first Nero Wolfe novelette to be shown as part of A&E's series, and indeed, the short length of it (at least as eventually broadcast by A&E, its runtime is only 46 minutes) is the best thing about the episode. There are no delays here, and we get to the point instantly. We get to see a swift exposition of the murder mystery, and its equally prompt resolution by Wolfe & Archie; no time to get bored -- everything moves at break-neck speed, yet not too fast.

What seems lacking compared to the successes that were _Prisoner's Base_ and _The Golden Spiders_, is direction. Under Bill Duke's and Neill Fearnley's assured hands, I thought the actors were performing in the roles in the best possible ways. Yet I disliked Tim Hutton's direction (or lack of it) in _The Doorbell Rang_, and the same apparent flaw -- a less assured direction -- seems evident in _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_. Just too many scenes and the *manner* of the delivery of dialogues, seem off. Many lines may have been taken directly from Stout, but they are not always delivered in the optimal manner. One feels as if this director, John L'Ecuyer, was decidedly less familiar with the characters and their true distinguishing traits.

The worst thing about _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_, and where the direction most painfully went overboard, is Fritz's character. Fritz is a mere buffoon in the TV version of _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_, solely there to provide comic relief, which he fails to do -- at least to the eyes of this seasoned Wolfe fan. To the best of my recollection, Fritz is *never* a buffoon in any of the 47 original Nero Wolfe volumes; he may frequently be flustered in the books, but always manages to preserve a quiet dignity; and he most certainly is not in the books to provide "comic relief". Rex Stout does not *need* any extra comic relief in his writing because, being an accomplished master of comedy, Archie Goodwin's narration is supremely witty at most any time, no matter *what* events or characters Archie may be depicting. In resorting to the crutch of turning Fritz into a buffoon on TV, the TV makers betray a lack of confidence: they probably did not feel *their* narration of _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_ would be entertaining enough without such artificial additions. Also to the best of my recollection, Fritz *never* got drunk at any time in the course of the decades of the Nero Wolfe saga unfolding; yet in this TV episode, we see him totter about drunkenly a number of times. His dialogues with Wolfe are way off, and border on the ridiculous. Fritz and Wolfe may *argue* in Rex Stout's books, too, which may be *comical*, but it never feels *ridiculous*. I'm afraid many Nero Wolfe fans might wince repeatedly while observing the interactions between Wolfe and Archie in this TV episode. Unlike in Rex Stout's books, this is just forced, unnatural, meaning: failed comedy we get to watch in this particular episode.

On a number of occasions in this episode, I also disliked Maury Chaykin's portrayal of Wolfe. Chaykin as Wolfe is simply too mobile here. He is not only physically "not quite fat enough", but in _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_, he moves his body (including, prominently, his head) too fast, he speaks too fast, bays too much, and even eats too fast -- lacking the dignity one might associate with a gourmet like Nero Wolfe. Watching Chaykin eat reminds you of watching a common person stuffing their face in a fast-food restaurant. It is as if the break-neck speed of the TV episode -- only 46 minutes of runtime -- "infected" also Maury Chaykin, so that he feels the need to eat faster than would become a gourmet of Nero Wolfe's calibre. I have always imagined Wolfe to be eating slowly, deliberately, so that he could appreciate the full taste of all the delicacies on his plates. For the emblematic failed Nero Wolfe scene in _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_, watch Chaykin when Nero Wolfe is watching his carpets being taken away by the police. There is no dialogue in this scene, but while the proceedings strike one as realistic and believable in the book, the rendition of the same scene on TV, Wolfe's "fury" with a clenched fist, seems just too in-your-face, theatrical, stagey, histrionic.

Yet _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_ is not all a failure, but rather an amalgam of excellently played scenes with bungled ones. Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton and the rest of the cast are too excellent actors not to extract many delightful moments from their mutual interactions here. *Some* scenes and lines of dialogue are marvellously spot-on; in *details*, _Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo_ manages to be perfect here and there. Watch, for example, Chaykin's great delivery of lines such as "the most severe humiliation I have suffered in recent years"; watch Hutton's seemingly off-the-cuff remark to Wolfe about "taking your necktie off..."; or watch Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer (the most consistently superb performer throughout the A&E series) saying to Wolfe, "you're a goddamn screwball is all I know", towards the end.
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Argo (2012)
Furthest-Fetched Close-Escape Movie Ever? Made Implausible & Lacking Depth, But Exciting to Watch
6 July 2013
Warning: Spoilers
OK, I get it: this was supposed to be a "close escape" movie. Still, there is only so far you can stretch this to remain plausible; and because the creators of _Argo_ overstepped that boundary, they have taken pains to point out repeatedly, both at the beginning and at the end of the movie (see the comparative photographs), that the movie was based on "real events". Yes, it is; but the sheer amount of "last-second" coincidences and a hair's breadth escape routes, heaped one upon another as the action of _Argo_ unfolds, is finally too much to take. Does anyone *really* believe that President Carter telegraphed his OK for the rescue operation at the very moment (minutes, if not seconds) when the 6 escapees awaited the confirmation of their flight reservations at the Swissair counter? An overabundance of such scenes makes watching _Argo_ feel like watching a fairy-tale, rather than a reconstruction of what actually happened.

Still, this is a Hollywood movie, and so, on a technical level, the recreation of the period detail of Iran (and the US government premises) of the late 1970s and 1980 -- the awful fashion, hair-styles, ridiculously large eye-glasses, car makes, and whatnot -- is pitch-perfect, wonderfully faithful. You really feel as if attending the frightening scenes of the post-anti-Shah-revolution Iran in person; you feel as if present in the chaotic streets of Teheran, or in the "8 thousand years old" Teheran bazaar (dubbed by the Istanbul bazaar during the shooting of _Argo_).

The movie is also laudably ambivalent about the role of American policies in Iran and the Middle East. Yes, American diplomats and CIA agents are the heroes of _Argo_ -- but US policies as such are not. If anything, they are shown as immoral, in supporting a ruthless leader in a foreign country without regard for the consequences on ordinary citizens. That that ruthless leader may have been replaced by a possibly even worse regime, does not really excuse the US conduct. Such policies may have been "the best bad solution" (to quote a piece of _Argo_ dialogue), but that is hardly exonerating.

Watching _Argo_ feels like watching an enacted documentary, with lots of implausibility thrown in for dramatic effects. Also, _Argo_ is one-dimensional: if you're looking for a "pure suspense" movie, _Argo_ gets pretty close to that ideal. The personal-life, or family-related scenes in _Argo_ are minimalistic and cliché-ridden; virtually no inner life of the characters is displayed or believably examined; how many times have we seen a hero return to his/her estranged partner at the end of a movie, only to be lovingly embraced in a happy ending?

The actors' performances are adequate and workman-like, enhancing the movie's realistic side and helping us overlook all the implausible plot twists. The one actor outshining everyone in _Argo_ is Alan Arkin: a constant delight to watch as a goofy Hollywood producer setting up a fake movie.

Finally, is this truly the best movie made on planet Earth in 2012? By no stretch of imagination. Even if we were to restrict this deliberation to (predominantly) English-speaking movies (which the Academy -- infuriatingly -- seems to be doing by default, anyway), it would be difficult to claim that _Argo_ was the best thing the year 2012 came up with. Rather, in awarding the "Best Movie" Oscar to _Argo_, Hollywood has shown its bias again. In crowning _Argo_, Hollywood is basically congratulating *itself*; Hollywood is *not* free from bias in judging _Argo_, because Hollywood itself is (partly) _Argo_'s subject matter. Whereas Hollywoood congratulating Hollywood may have been justified in earlier similar instances (_Singin' in the Rain_ readily comes to mind), heaping accolades on _Argo_ seems as far-fetched as many of _Argo_'s plot elements. It's as if Hollywood wished to proclaim, loud and clear: "See? Hollywood is not just about empty, brainless, fake entertainment {see the wonderful fake fighting rehearsal scene disrupted by the Alan Arkin character}. Our movie-making skills can be truly useful in the real world, too!" Yes, that's true -- but that alone does not make a movie the best of the year, and proclaiming _Argo_ to be that can be seen as Hollywood trying to "ease its conscience".

Bottom line: _Argo_ is an excellent suspense movie made on the highest professional level, but woefully overrated -- no landmark in the art of movie-making; although every movie receiving a "Best Movie" Oscar should be just that.
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Marnie (1964)
Great Closing Scene, But Otherwise Overlong, Slow-Moving & Histrionic -- Hitchcock Losing His Grip
25 June 2013
This is no masterpiece. Both the direction and screenplay are too cumbersome and awkward, patently flawed; something for which Hitchcock must bear direct responsibility. You see the actors overreacting in this movie most of the time.

To Hitchcock's defence, it is sometimes stated that in his youth, he used to work in silent movies; that he liked employing some of the stylistic devices from that era even in his (much) later movies. Well, I don't think that excuse can be applied to the patently fake (meaning, exaggerated) way in which actors behave throughout _Marnie_. Characters in this movie keep overdoing their gestures, (re)actions, facial expressions and mimicry. For a good illustration, see the scene with Sean Connery on the phone in his mansion, talking to a private detective. Do people talk on the phone like that? No, they don't... it's just an actor, playing someone supposedly talking on the phone. If this was a silent movie, you could probably "read" what was said in that phone call, just by looking at Sean Connery's exaggerated facial mimicry. Throughout _Marnie_, you get uncomfortably reminded that you're watching a movie, an artificial product -- that this is not real life. Mark's sister-in-law is supposed to be coy; but she's not just "coy" in _Marnie_ -- she's *in-your-face coy*, with a vengeance. Everyone behaves in an obvious, in-your-face obvious, all too obvious way, just like you would expect this or that type of character to behave. Such emphasis on the typology of characters quickly gets tiresome to watch. Is that great movie-making? Hardly. Especially when the movie is so terribly long and slow-moving as _Marnie_ is. There is little trace left of the wit or lightness of touch so typical of Hitchcock in his finest classics. Even the great Bernhard Herrmann's music seems out-of-place for once -- too melodramatic.

Not everything is bad about _Marnie_, but overall it just fails to rise above the mediocre. The only outstanding part really is the ending; you get to admire three great actors -- Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery and Louise Latham -- pulling it off: a wildly improbable tale, a very far-fetched resolution of the movie's psychological mystery plot; and for a change, the final scenes are masterfully shot by Hitchcock. It's a very late and brief redemption after spending almost 2 hours watching mostly turgid stuff -- but at least it's there. Also, despite the weakness of material at hand, and unsatisfactory direction, both Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery showcase their acting skills throughout, so even if the movie as such is a bore, you at least get the "technical" pleasure of watching this highly accomplished pair of actors trying to make something out of it.
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Czech Madcap Miniskirt Comedy Classic with All-Star Ensemble of Czech Comedy Legends
5 June 2013
If you want to see Czech comedy in all its finest glory, go no further than this gem, _How to Drown Dr. Mráček_. If there ever was a "Dream Team" collected in a single movie, this is it: several of the actors featured here are considered immortal icons of Czech comedy, such as the trio of legends Vladimír Menšík, Miloš Kopecký and František Filipovský. All three are outstanding and hilarious here, although Kopecký as the boss of the water spirits outshines them all. Filipovský is more subdued, but quietly brilliant, while Menšík is in his métier as the warm-hearted, rambunctious rebel among the water spirits. Some say this movie reflects the bad era in which it originated, in that it *avoids* any explicit mention of it, instead supposedly escaping into fairy-tales; I find that this is a ridiculous claim. Yes, 1974 was politically a bad era in Czechoslovakia, with hard-line Communists having recently returned to power -- but I see no adverse effects of that state of affairs in this movie; in fact, if anything, this comedy cleverly celebrates the spirit of rebellion. Just as the ensemble starring here features many legends, the same applies to the famous duo responsible for the geyser and endless fountain of novel ideas and jokes throughout the movie: the director Václav Vorlíček and his long-time collaborator, the screenwriter Miloš Macourek. Yes, the jokes are extremely silly and the plot is absurd -- yet behind the buffoonery, there's often a serious undertone; the message throughout being, "the most important thing is to be human," and, "no one is really special, and everybody should earn their living just like everyone else" (compare the final few shots of the movie). This comedy is also distinctly Czech in that it does not shy away from integrating a few sexual jokes and innuendos into the action, and is quite ribald in certain moments, yet in such a harmless way that the movie *still* manages to remain suitable for children; that's a feat that a US director would not even attempt. There are a few brutal scenes in the movie, such as a leg cut off with a scythe, or a bus full of people falling into a river and drowning everyone... but they are conveyed with such humour that you need to laugh about the supposedly brutal sights, no matter if you're 10 or 55. The movie features a catchy theme song by yet another pair of Czech legends (of pop music: Václav Neckář and Helena Vondráčková). The camera-work is astounding; the streets of old Prague shine with beauty, while also faithfully chronicling the then contemporary period detail of the 1970s; for example, you get to visit a typical butcher's shop from those days in Czechoslovakia. Not only the city and the river are beautiful, but so are many women and girls featured in the movie, even if they are just extras walking by; I'm dead-sure none of them were there just by accident, but the director seemed intent on selecting only the most attractive extras that he could find. This was the era of miniskirts, and _How to Drown Dr. Mráček_ utilizes that fashion to the maximum degree, to the (gentleman) viewers' intense pleasure. In this respect, naturally, the most noticeable aspect of this movie is the ravishingly beautiful Libuše Šafránková, 21 at the time (and playing an 18-year-old), whom you might call the Czech Audrey Hepburn; she was only at the start of her long career in this film, and later developed into a Czech comedy legend in her own right, starring in many Czech comedy classics later on, including the Academy Award-winning _Kolya_ and a few other Oscar-nominated movies. Now, no matter how fine this comedy is -- I'm afraid it can *fully* be appreciated only by those viewers who can understand the movie's original Czech language, such as Czech and Slovak viewers. This is because one needs to be familiar with the way normal Czech language sounds, in order to appreciate the masterful, hilarious delivery of the dialogues by all these grandmasters of comedy. They don't merely *deliver* their lines; they *excel* in delivering them, often inserting hesitation syllables and strangely breaking their voices in order to increase the comical effect; yet without doing so forcefully -- it all comes quite naturally from these masters. Yes, this is *acting* in its finest: it can never, ever be conveyed on paper; the screenplay can capture only the *words* that the characters are saying; never the delivery, the gestures, facial mimicry and intonation. (Not to mention all the puns that really only work in the original Czech language and the closely related Slovak language, but are probably impossible to transfer into a western language such as English, German, or French.) A clear 10 out of 10 -- no other rating can seriously be considered here.
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Pure Genius of Macourek & Vorlíček and a Host of Czech Virtuoso Comedy Legends
5 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This one is possibly my favourite masterpiece from among many created by the Czech comedy titans Vorlíček & Macourek. If you're looking for the Czech counterparts of the American Zucker brothers and the zany type of _Airplane!_ comedy, this is it. What I find most astonishing of all about these comedies: even though they are termed "crazy" comedies by some viewers (especially those critical of the comedies), I, in fact, find them to be *realistic*, believe it or not. In what way realistic? Definitely not in the "fantasy" *action* of the movies; but in the psychology of the characters? By all means! Do silly people, with silly motivations and silly talk, exist in the world, just like they are depicted in Macourek & Vorlíček comedies? You bet they do. If you ignore the "fantasy" elements in Macourek & Vorlíček comedies (or "suspend your disbelief", if you will), and agree to *immerse yourself in the action*, you will find the *manner* of behaviour of the characters "everywhere around you", thoroughly believable.

So, this particular gem, _What About Having Some Spinach?_, was made in the darkest possible modern age of Czechoslovakia: in 1977, soon after the Communist government crackdown on the country's liberal efforts of the 1960s. (Only Stalinism and Hitlerism were worse than that.) So, you'd expect this to be a sterile comedy, saying nothing critical about the society of that time, right? Well, you're wrong! Perversely, what was ubiquitous in the supposedly Communist societies of the Eastern Block, was (surprise, surprise!) the all-pervasive *theft* mentality. Whoever could *steal* something from one's fellow human beings, never hesitated to steal it; if the country itself, or the government, were the victims of the theft -- so much the better!

And so, _What About Having Some Spinach?_ gives us a wonderful portrayal of this "theft mentality", in a society where *officially* everyone was supposed to have had enough, because everyone was sharing everything with everyone else. The reality, naturally, was the exact opposite of the ideal: everyone just kept grabbing, ruthlessly, as much as they could, for oneself or one's own family.

The "theft" theme is admirably intertwined with the plot, its very resolution; the comedy's final line is triumphant in its hypocrisy. Yes, that's what those pseudo-socialist "Soviet" societies were about: a monumental exercise in *hypocrisy*; *pretending* the actual existence and functionality of ideals; but this alleged "comedy", _What About Having Some Spinach?_, shows you the *reality* of those days; the mentality and thinking of real-life people back then.

The plot is immaculate, as if returning to its beginning at the very end; yet this is not vain, but central to the movie's action, tying it all up neatly. For another superb recurring plot device, see the broken sliding hotel door. With lesser screenwriters, a cheap slapstick gag, perhaps -- not with Vorlíček & Macourek, where it's a *crucial* plot element, with the movie's action hinging on it.

I've watched this gem several times already, with a bated breath always; jokes come fast and furious, and it's worth rewinding and rewatching the same passages several times, focusing on a different actor's reactions each time. The actors, one and all, are brilliant. Macourek & Vorlíček were fortunate in their careers to be able to collaborate regularly with the greatest stars of Czech cinema; the most accomplished actors you could wish for, because no "studio system" ever existed in Czechoslovakia. A Hollywood movie like this would be unthinkable: just *too many* top-line stars in one movie (without the roles being cameos).

In _What About Having Some Spinach?_, you get to admire, and boisterously laugh at, among others, Vladimír Menšík, Jiří Sovák, Iva Janžurová, František Filipovský, Stella Zázvorková, Helena Růžičková, Petr Nárožný and Josef Větrovec -- each of them a towering figure in his or her own right. It's incredible, but the leading female star Iva Janžurová has managed to outdo herself once again in a "split personality" role in a Vorlíček & Macourek comedy. 7 years earlier, she was brilliant in a multiple-personality role in _You Are a Widow, Sir!_ (another immortal Vorlíček & Macourek classic); and she's no less magnificent and hilarious here, playing both the mother of a family and her own daughter at the same time: frequently in (ostensibly) the same camera shot. Seeing Janžurová trampling on restaurant tables on two separate occasions as two separate characters: that's a definite highlight of the history of Czech cinema. The manner of Janžurová's enunciation is sensational; she can make any ordinary, one-syllable Czech word sound funny -- in addition to her zany inarticulate ejaculations and, as if, hysterical half-laughs.

The dialogues and wisecracks and one-liners are so consistently witty, and the situations so absurd, throughout _What About Having Some Spinach?_, that if you watch closely, you'll clearly see the actors, sometimes, struggling to keep their composure, and a straight face, in accordance with the script. No such problems for the viewers: I had an ultra-wide grin on my face from one ear to another, for the entire duration of the comedy, which must have been 3 hours or so, due to my constantly rewinding to re-watch the best passages. Except that this is a movie that seems to consist of *nothing but* best passages. There is simply no weakness in _What About Having Some Spinach?_; the action does not flag for an instant. Great theme song by František Ringo Čech, too, forcefully performed by Jiří Schellinger.

And as so often with Vorlíček & Macourek, there is the laudable "courage" in displaying ribald, or adult-tinged, topics in their comedy. Kids typically love watching Vorlíček & Macourek comedies, yet these gentlemen do not shy away from bits of dialogues, or scenes, that would make a politically correct American film-maker's hair stand on end. Let's only think back to the scene with a school-boy in bed with a mature woman; or the four "kids"' bedtime conversation.
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The Master (2012)
A Quack & a Psychopath -- Please, What Was This Movie About?
26 May 2013
This is the second film by Paul Thomas Anderson I have ever seen, and it's just as atrocious as the first one: _Magnolia_ (1999). I haven't seen Anderson's most acclaimed movie so far, _There Will Be Blood_; naturally, following the repeated disaster with this particular director's creations, I'm very hesitant to even approach it; but I'll give it a try. However, there is nothing redeeming about _The Master_: it's excruciatingly boring, empty and slow-moving. If you watch this at 150% speed, you will miss nothing, and save valuable time of your life. I literally couldn't wait for this ordeal to finish. You are treated to monumental 140 minutes of nothingness. Sorry, was there *any* content at all here? I'm not averse to watching movies about quacks or psychopaths; one of my most esteemed movies of all time is Billy Bob Thornton's _Sling Blade_ -- superficially, regarding the topic, similar to this one, but whereas _Sling Blade_ is a masterpiece of epic proportions, this one is a *dud* of epic proportions. Hoffman's leading character and self-indulgent artificiality unpleasantly remind one of that other hopelessly overrated "arthouse kitsch", _Citizen Kane_; if _The Master_'s intention was to be as empty, bombastic and boring as _Citizen Kane_, it has certainly succeeded in spades. The only interesting facets here were the teachings of the "guru" himself; they contained some good insights, despite the guru himself likewise displaying psychopathic qualities. There is literally nothing to say about this film, because nothing seems to be happening in it. For 2+ hours, you get to watch a quack who behaves like a quack; and a psychopath who behaves like a psychopath; what was the point?
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The Best Paris Advertisement Ever Filmed
17 April 2013
This movie opens intentionally kitschy; it couldn't be more boring: travelogue shots of Paris in sunny weather, in rainy weather, and so forth. The movie then proceeds to move along a different dimension: temporal, in exploring the city's glorious past, especially regarding the many celebrities of arts and letters who used to live and create there in various epochs. There again, Woody Allen comes dangerously close to kitsch -- but safely avoids slipping into that quagmire every time yet another superstar is introduced in the most typical fashion that one might expect to encounter him or her. How do you show Hemingway as "virile", and calling Paris "a movable feast", when all of this is so well-known and has been thrashed to death in countless articles and books and movies? Well, Allen relies on his unusual, "fantasy" story, bringing a new twist to everything that is overly familiar, and on fabulous performances by the entire cast, including Corey Stoll as Hemingway. Stoll's portrayal of Hemingway is so true-to-life and convincing you forget it should be kitschy due to your having known all of this about Hemingway before; Stoll's portrayal of Hemingway is the real thing, and no caricature typical of a comedy movie -- except in the sense that life itself can often be seen as a caricature or comedy. An equally superb performance is given by Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein; or by the trio (or quintet) of impossibly bourgeois US visitors, led by fantastic Rachel McAdams as the main character's fiancée. Owen Wilson is outstanding and authentic as an imitation Woody Allen; he has Woody's intonation and nervous, confused enunciation down pat, so that in many moments, you could have sworn you're watching Woody Allen, the actor, himself. It doesn't hurt that Owen is more handsome than Allen ever was, which makes the story's romantic angle more believable. The movie offers very nice philosophic overtones, in Gil affirming, leaning on Faulkner's words, that "the past is not even past"; and realizing that everything except for the present day is illusionary. And so, the movie is not only a celebration of the physical location of Paris in various time periods -- but also a powerful affirmation of the illusionary nature of *time* itself. While at the same time being philosophic and fantasy (resembling Allen's _The Purple Rose of Cairo_ of 1985), the movie also manages to be vintage Woody Allen comedy, with many amusing situations and even a few that made me laugh out loud. Congratulations to Woody Allen on such youthful effervescence at his advanced age!
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Electrifyingly Quiet Masterpiece: Prequel to _Fanny and Alexander_, Often Every Bit As Riveting
7 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This is yet another Ingmar Bergman masterpiece, even if directed by Bille August. Don't get me wrong: it requires a master director of August's calibre to bring a Bergman screenplay to life as perfectly as it's done here. And so, the "Bille August touch" is pleasantly palpable throughout. Bergman isn't known for displaying themes of social inequality/unrest -- yet they are prominent here in _The Best Intentions_, reminding us of the earlier August masterpiece, _Pelle the Conqueror_.

There are two versions of _The Best Intentions_: a 3-hour movie, and a 5.5-hour TV series. I've only watched the latter twice so far, and I must say I enjoyed the re-watching even more than the original viewing many years ago. I can't imagine many scenes that could legitimately be cut from the 5.5-hour version: everything seems so perfect here. Yes, I found parts 1 and 4 of the TV series the best; the tempo flags a bit in parts 2 and 3; yet even they contain a huge amount of unforgettable moments. I heard, for example, that one of the sequences cut was the grandmother's death -- yet I found it among the best in the entire series.

_The Best Intentions_ can be considered a prequel to _Fanny and Alexander_, and we encounter many of the same characters here -- the "farting uncle" Carl is even played by the same actor, Börje Ahlstedt. Ironically, Ahlstedt plays an *older* Carl in the 1982 _Fanny and Alexander_, while he (visibly physically *older* as an actor) is supposed to be a *younger* Carl in the 1991 _The Best Intentions_. Such details, however, don't matter.

Even though this is a prequel, its tone and topic are very different from _Fanny and Alexander_. _The Best Intentions_ contain no "magical" sequences from the other movie; rather, they excel through stark realism. One could jokingly say: the magic isn't there yet, because Ingmar Bergman isn't yet born -- he can only be indirectly "seen" in his mother's tummy towards the end of _The Best Intentions_. The *perspective* of the two masterful movies is entirely different: whereas _Fanny and Alexander_ looks at the world with the eyes of a growing child (Bergman himself), _The Best Intentions_ are all about Bergman's father and mother: how totally different personalities they are, and yet -- absurdly -- tied together in a marriage.

One can't help thinking that had these two lovers met some 50 or 70 years later, a divorce would have been inevitable early on in the relationship -- especially due to the increased emancipation of women. Yet these are the early 1900s -- and women were expected to put up with their husbands' quirks, stay faithful to them, and suffer. Anna does just that. But _The Best Intentions_ make you ponder the meaning of marriage (and monogamy) itself -- its potential absurdity or impossibility given such two hugely different personalities as Anna and Henrik, married mostly due to an early, unreasonable erotic infatuation with each other.

A sample of Bergman's supreme skills as screenwriter: a conversation between the pastor and factory owner. The scene is 8.5 minutes long and ends with about 15 minutes left to go in part 3. A kitschy screenwriter would have pushed the dialogue towards an open, vitriolic confrontation. Not Bergman! _The Best Intentions_ are, for the most part, about "quiet tones", understated, non-explicit suggestions in the looks or facial expressions of actors, instead of about explicit words and actions. Lennart Hjulström is so convincing as the pastor's opponent, you can't help thinking: here are two guys arguing and hating each other's guts -- but both of them are right in their own way. And that, of course, is always the hallmark of the finest works of art: to show, in a mercilessly *unbiased* manner, that seeming opposites are, in fact, no opposites at all; yet people are too blind to see this, in their day-to-day lives. (Whereas kitschy artists openly *take side* with one of the opponents in a conflict.)

There aren't sufficient words of praise to heap on Samuel Fröler and especially Pernilla August for their performances in the two lead roles. Pernilla's unconventional beauty is stunning; what's more important is the way she can say *volumes* without opening her mouth. A whimper or a toss of her shoulder is all she needs. The way she intones a hesitant or impassioned Swedish "Yes" or "No", is a source of constant delight throughout. The Oscar award for best acting performance is a mockery in that it consistently ignores groundbreaking actors' performances from non-English-spoken movies; it shows the provincialism of the Hollywood Academy Awards, the jurors' prejudice and mental laziness (to read subtitles) -- because both Pernilla August and Samuel Fröler would at *least* have to get Oscar nominations for the joint concerto they give in _The Best Intentions_. (Yes, "technicalities" excluded them from the Oscars.) The supporting cast of actors, many of them veterans of Ingmar Bergman movies, is uniformly superb.

Sweden and other European countries threw tons of money into making the series, and the production values perfection is palpable throughout. The costuming is wonderfully meticulous, recreating the Swedish fashion styles at the (previous) turn of the centuries. There are very nice period-detail glimpses of street scenarios (old Uppsala, Stockholm, etc.).

Finally, one of the series' most striking aspects -- the fabulous score by Stefan Nilsson. Rarely does a score correspond to, and mirror a movie's "spiritual content" as perfectly as Nilsson does here. The music is wonderfully minimalistic, just like the actors' performances here are frequently understated and minimalistic. There are all these "sparing", sometimes barely audible, soft touches on the piano keys -- and that's what _The Best Intentions_ are all about: light play of expressions on the actors' faces, often seemingly unexciting dialogues -- but throughout, with tremendous tension underneath, waiting to explode at any time.
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The Visitors (1983– )
The Best TV Series of All Time Anywhere? Led by Josef Bláha as King of Ridiculous Enunciation
17 March 2013
This TV series (15 installments of 30 minutes each) is an astounding triumph of film-making, made in the midst of the dark Communist era in Czechoslovakia. Perhaps it's because political reality back then was so bleak, that Czech film-makers made so many outstanding fantasy and sci-fi movies in those years.

_The Visitors_ bring a new twist: their charm lies in *combining* the present-day reality with imagined life on Earth 500 years later -- in 2484. It's a time-travel story about 4 people from 2484 visiting the typical Czechoslovak small-town of Kamenice in 1984.

For those of us who remember those years and who watch (and endlessly rewatch, because it's *that* enjoyable) the series today, _The Visitors_ possess a double-charm -- something the original audience couldn't have appreciated. You get to see the life of a typical 1980s Czech/Slovak small-town; you see how people used to live, think, and talk. As in all pseudo-Communist, ex-Soviet block societies, *theft* mentality was rampant everywhere, and is even captured in a purely entertainment series like _The Visitors_. There's a wonderful aura of *nostalgia* pervading the series: you see the grocery stores of those days, with old-fashioned cash registers (no electronics yet); you see people waiting in lines to cash in on empty beer bottles; you see people eating and drinking products popular back then.

There is something about many Czech TV series ostensibly "made for kids" that very much distinguishes them from, say, American made-for-kids series -- it's how purposefully smart they are: in a way that, in fact, makes them as enjoyable for *adults* as for kids. There's no shying away here from displaying scenes and themes that would likely have been dismissed as unthinkable by American movie/TV producers, ostensibly creating their works in a "free" society. So here's the monumental irony: it's as if the creators of _The Visitors_ were given more freedom to show whatever (unrelated to politics) they wished to show, than the "freedom" they would likely have been given by an American studio.

There's a pervasive, underlying theme of eroticism throughout _The Visitors_ -- and in relation to various age groups, too. A couple of very young kids in leading roles are "in love"; some of what they say to each other would be unthinkable in an American series, I'm afraid. And there's the main "vamp" of _The Visitors_: Dagmar Patrasová; she's downright *meant* to be the erotic attraction of _The Visitors_, and she definitely is (though not, personally, quite my style). She engages in multiple, passionate French kisses with her suitor. Czech/Slovak parents in 1984 would simply shrug that off as "a bit of adult stuff in a kids series -- why not?"

_The Visitors_ are exquisite on every level; it's as if everyone who was anything in Czech movie-making in the early 1980s, contributed in some way to _The Visitors_. Let's start with the array of legendary Czech actors, all at their best here. Possibly the chief attraction is the supremely ridiculous Josef Bláha as the boss of the expedition from the future; Bláha is so consistently funny throughout the 7.5 hours of _The Visitors_' runtime, that he made me want to roll on the floor laughing at him at least a few dozen times. It's not so much *what* Bláha says or does that's funny (although it's comical enough) -- but it's especially his masterful delivery of the pompous/silly lines that makes you want to scream with laughter. His funny manner of enunciation can probably only be fully appreciated by a Czech or Slovak viewer, because this is *not* the standard way of speaking Czech.

A similar master of funny enunciation is Evžen Jegorov, playing Adam's father. A fabulous, multi-layered (simultaneously comical/serious/poignant) performance is given by Vlastimil Brodský as "The Great Teacher". For all the awe about what the future will bring, Brodský's character unforgettably shows that it all comes down to hands-on skills and common sense eventually. Vladimír Menšík is admirable as the local police chief, and Dagmar Veškrnová (later wife of Václav Havel) as Adam's mother. An actor whose delivery is as funny as Bláha's is the legendary stand-up comedian Jiří Císler in a supporting role as the hotel manager -- whenever he says something in _The Visitors_, it's all you can do to avoid exploding with laughter. And there's a classic 5-minute cameo by the famously corpulent Helena Růžičková.

The direction by the grandmaster of Czech fantasy Jindřich Polák is flawless, and the screenplay by his long-time partner Ota Hofman is astonishing in how smart and super-funny it is; jokes abound in every installment, and you have hardly time enough to finish laughing, before another joke comes at you. _The Visitors_, although ostensibly a work of fantasy, are, in fact, perhaps an even better comedy -- one of the finest Czech comedies ever made. The soundtrack was composed by the giant of Czech electronic music, Karel Svoboda; the theme melodies (both opening and closing credits) are extremely memorable. The king of Czech animation, Jan Švankmajer, contributed many examples of his craft for _The Vistors_ -- such as the preparation of "amarouny", the only food people in 2484 ever eat. The inventive costuming is the work of Theodor Pištěk, Oscar winner with Miloš Forman's _Amadeus_.

_The Visitors_ are exciting, wise, funny, tender and poetic -- all at the same time. The final, nostalgic scene with the duo of ultra-young "Romeo and Juliet" disappearing in a woodland scenery, encapsulates it all. _The Visitors_ are for the kids, and they're for adults -- or are you saying you wouldn't enjoy "humidating" ("humidovat")? "Humidation" is a favorite activity of people in 2484; but the film-makers purposely decline to specify what that activity actually is. Yes: a fantasy/comic TV series from Communist Czechoslovakia of 1983 dared to be *that* smart.
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Lost Horizon (1937)
Hilton, Capra and Riskin: The Perfect Match and Great Acting Performances in Idealistic Masterpiece
10 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This is Frank Capra at his best (and he's "at his best" in so many of his classics!), and he gets even better when his source material for a movie is as exquisite as James Hilton's famous original novel. You can feel there's a *lot more* behind this movie than what got into the final cut usually shown today -- the restored version of around 127 minutes. There's an overabundance, richness and depth of material to choose from -- after all, the initial cuts of the movie were 3.5 hours, or even 6 hours long. Too bad none of that footage is available today -- it would be a delight to watch.

Capra, his screenwriter of many movies Robert Riskin, and Hilton are all "tuned to the same wave length", so what comes out is undiluted joy and harmony. Even if you don't know that Capra sometimes took *days* to shoot a single scene of a few minutes' length (overshooting his budget outrageously, and almost bankrupting Columbia studios), the tremendous care on his part is palpable throughout: he pays as much attention to action-packed scenes, as to properly leading the actors in every piece of dialogue.

The actors' performances are as spectacular in _Lost Horizon_ as is the snow-deluged, but then again sunny and paradise-like, scenery. Ronald Colman is riveting as Robert Conway, and you can see why Capra only counted on him to play the role; there is, in particular, one pivotal scene of about 40 seconds' length, with the character of Conway considering whether to stay in Shangri-La; there's absolute silence throughout the scene -- but the play of expressions on Colman's face is fascinating; his face is like a mirror of his mind, or like the sky with clouds passing over it; I'm not sure if all of that was just Colman's improvisation or Capra's direction, but the scene may be the movie's top highlight.

The other two actors present in that pivotal scene, John Howard (as the leading character's angst-ridden brother) and Margo (as the Russian "girl" Maria), are thoroughly convincing, too; the *intensity* with which they enact the two characters, is overpowering. So much so, that watching _Lost Horizon_ becomes incredibly suspenseful, surprising the viewer at every turn -- there seems to be a "new twist" every 5 minutes or so (particularly towards the end), as if _Lost Horizon_ was a mystery movie. You have a central leading character here (Robert Conway), in between two opposed sets of characters, each group trying to pull him in a different direction, claiming that *that's* where *true civilization* lies. Which way is Bob going to go? You're never really sure! The credit for that must go to both Colman and the fantastic actors portraying both sides of the divide -- you're as apt to "fall for" each of the two groups, as Bob's character did, at one stage or another.

There are magnificent performances from others, too. It's as if Capra was able to squeeze the best out of every actor -- regardless of whether they only appear on the screen for a few minutes. Hugh Buckler only gets a few minutes of screen-time towards the end as Lord Gainsford, but how compelling is he!

Thomas Mitchell has so many top-shelf movies to his credit, including possibly the greatest movies of all time (such as _Gone with the Wind_ and Capra's own _It's a Wonderful Life_), but nowhere have I seen him -- primarily a character actor -- shine so much as here in _Lost Horizon_ as the swindler Barnard. Isabel Jewell is similarly affecting as a terminally (?) ill patient getting rejuvenated by Barnard's (virtuously redirected) energy.

H. B. Warner is wonderful as Chang, and makes the miracle of Shangri-La seem believable. His statement on the Westerners' celebration of birthdays is delivered unforgettably, as are others. The most difficult role in _Lost Horizon_ was that of the High Lama, played by Sam Jaffe. It's not surprising Capra went to extreme lengths (even swapping actors at one point) to get the High Lama's scenes right, and he eventually did. Although during _Lost Horizon_ previews the audience laughed at scenes meant to be serious, which drew Capra into depression, I believe that in the restored version of _Lost Horizon_ commonly shown today, the High Lama scenes strike just the right point to be perceived as serious and moving, while avoiding (just barely, but they do!) slipping into the ridiculous.

The movie, besides being visually spectacular despite only being shot in black-and-white, also seems surprisingly fresh and bold for the standards of 1937 when it was made. Capra certainly didn't hesitate to show whatever he wanted to show: a naked Jane Wyatt (another great performance!) cavorting in a stream; a horde of naked children; and the High Lama extolling "Christian" virtues -- neither of which features would probably be considered politically correct today.

The character of Sondra, enchantingly played by Jane Wyatt, is particularly admirable in that it was the film-makers' invention -- Sondra does not appear in Hilton's original book. On the superficial level, it's *just* the type of character that you might expect a clichéd Hollywood production to insert into the screen version of a novel, to make it more conventionally appealing; but in Riskin's and Capra's capable hands, clichés turn into magic, pure gold. See not only the nude bathing scene, but also the "Why?!" scene with Conway playfully "wringing the neck" of his beloved.

Watching _Lost Horizon_, even 70+ years after it was made, is like getting a breath of that fresh mountain air that is alleged to keep you forever young in body and spirit in Shangri-La. Watching _Lost Horizon_ makes you feel as if you paid a visit to Shangri-La yourself -- can there be a higher achievement for an artist in any type of art?
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Cheerful, Snappy Movie Marred by Glitzy Milieu
2 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
This has to be one of the least-demanding movies on the viewer -- aside from sexual allusions, a 6-year-old would likely be able to understand what the movie is all about. The two lead actors (especially Omar Sy) give nice performances, but nothing really surprising is happening in the course of the movie, and it is only moderately funny. The finest thing about the movie is its ending: despite being entirely predictable, it manages to be genuinely moving. The second-best thing about the movie is its visual splendor: not just Paris in all its (aristocratic) glory, but the countryside, the mountains and woodlands (and spectacularly paragliding over them), the sea and the beach. There is something worrisome and kitschy about the plot, however: it stars an immensely wealthy quadriplegic. I admit I'm not really interested in watching movies about quadriplegics, including those who are not well-to-do, but for the entire duration of the movie, I couldn't get that question out of my mind: "Why make a movie about a quadriplegic, but make him immensely rich as well? Why not make a *poor* quadriplegic, or a quadriplegic of ordinary means, the star of the movie? Would there be anyone to take care of *him*?" In this sense, one might detect a measure of cruelty about the movie -- in that in portraying the life of a quadriplegic, it picked one who definitely will not represent the typical quadriplegics from around the world. The movie's "love angle" can, for the same reason, be perceived as cynical, too: would a perfectly attractive and young-looking woman be taking an interest in a middle-aged quadriplegic, meeting him for a romantic rendezvous at the seaside, had he not been as rich as he is? One of the movie's ironies is that the character played by Omar Sy actually says this out loud (and *really* loud) when the two friends are sitting in the opera house: that women aren't looking for charming, handsome men as much as for those men who are wealthy and able to provide security for them. Well, that certainly lends a sour aftertaste to the love story -- but perhaps this was intended by the story's authors, and they are poking fun at themselves in this way. All in all, an OK movie, but insanely overpraised.
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Extremely Boring and Trite No-Drama, No-Comedy Starring "Married Creeps"
1 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
There is one adjective that describes this movie sufficiently: immature. After I finished watching this failure of a movie (inexplicably nominated for, and winning, lots of awards, including an Oscar), I started exploring where the immaturity comes from. Yeah, Jennifer Lawrence was very young when filming this, only 21, but she's just an actress -- you can't blame her for the screenplay she had to adhere to. The director and screenwriter is a 50-ish guy, too. So, what's the answer? Ah yes, there it is: the original novel was a debut novel by Matthew Quick, released when the writer was just 32 years old. Oh Lord, but it shows. (An interesting tidbit is how old-fashioned the 2012-released movie seems in extolling the "iPod": right, only a few years later after the original story takes place in 2008, iPods seem rather behind-the-times compared to iPhones and iPads.)

The movie is not just immature, but chock-full with every Hollywood cliché you can think of. Some of the scenes and dialogues are so predictable they're likely to force tears out of your eyes -- but not those of laughter or of being moved by the story. And then you learn that the Hollywood studio had bought the rights to film the novel even before the novel was *released* -- does more need to be said? This is "made-to-order" Hollywood fare -- and as a result, it's just as trashy as one might expect it to be. You can almost see the story's creator "listining" to an imagined audience: "What is it that the audience wants, what does it expect from me? Let's give it to the audience, then!" This is the exact reversal of the approach chosen by truly great works of art, where the paramount intention is not to give the audience what *they* want, but to express, as faithfully as possible, the artist's vision: what the artist feels needs to be said or shown about life, in his or her particular story.

I failed to get interested in any of the main characters in the movie. One is a mentally unhinged, alleged substitute high-school history teacher -- yet as such, he does not hesitate to recite an urban legend on the origin of the acronym "OK". Any *real* history teacher -- tenured or not -- would be unlikely to do that. It rather seemed as if this was the story's author trying to establish the character's professional credentials, but committing a guffaw instead, because an urban legend, in fact, devalues the alleged credentials, instead of confirming them.

There are many sex addicts in the world, recovering or not. Sorry, but although Jennifer Lawrence is undoubtedly an attractive actress, I did not find the character played by her one bit interesting. She's messed up, but so are millions of other people around the world -- why should we be interested in *this particular* messed-up sex addict? The same goes for her male counterpart. OK, so his wife cheated on him, and he beat her lover up to a bloody pulp, which probably isn't what a totally sane person would do. But, so what? It's happened before around the world, countless times. Why should the audience be interested in *this particular* cuckolded husband? Only because Bradley Cooper happens to be a handsome actor? The movie provides no answer, and because the two main characters are so uninteresting, the movie revolving around them is just as boring as they are.

I was also disturbed by the needless profanity pervading the movie. I don't mind profanity if it's justified by a movie's action or story, but here it seemed as if it was today's "expected standard" by the (youngish) audience, and *that's why* all the profanity was put in, just to appear "hip enough" -- not because the story or the dialogues truly demanded it.

I love movies transcending the boundaries of genres: there's nothing more sublime than a movie that is *both* a great comedy *and* a great drama at the same time, in one package. *That's* true art of movie-making. Yet this does not apply to _Silver Linings Playbook_: in fact, it suffers from the exact opposite flaw, in that it's neither a comedy, nor a drama, but rather a failure in both of those departments. It seems to vacillate on the border between comedy and drama, undecided where to go -- but it's too shallow to be a good drama, and too trite and predictable to be really funny. There's really very little to laugh or even smile about in _Silver Linings Playbook_. Instead, we're treated to some painfully extended scenes *meant* to be funny, which however are not: see all the betting hysteria going on in Pat's household, led by an over-the-top Robert De Niro.

What's worse, the movie presumes to close with the same sort of grand finale featured in many classic romantic comedies: with the heroine running away, and (ideally) the hero catching up with her. Think of _Bridget Jones's Diary_, or _The Apartment_, or _Gone with the Wind_. Now I feel guilty to mention all those phenomenally successful romantic movies in the same paragraph with _Silver Linings Playbook_ -- because the classic, romantic ending just doesn't work in _Silver Linings Playbook_, and rings hollow.

If you're looking for the top tell-tale sign of the movie's immature, juvenile nature, just watch the scene with the main character, Pat, ranting about one of the finest novels ever written, Hemingway's _A Farewell to Arms_. Erm, sorry, I still don't understand the meaning or intention of that scene. Was it meant to be funny, in showing how nonsensical Pat's objections to Hemingway's plot (and ending) were? Well, it *wasn't* funny. Or -- which is even worse -- was the scene meant to be serious, reflecting that that's what the author of _Silver Linings Playbook_ really thought about _A Farewell to Arms_? If so, you can't get any more immature than that.
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