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The Wolfpack

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****

I am pissed off because the rest of my damn review has disappeared. What remains is below. Bereft of pictures, quotations, links…oy. I will update and re-review this unique documentary some other time. But since I fear losing my work again…I am hitting publish now.

It felt cool to see this documentary before Entertainment Weekly put it on their must list and gave it a positive review. That touches on the dual edged sword of reviewing non-mainstream movies. When I review Avengers: Age of Ultron, I can get my review up before the opening weekend ends and can (hopefully) impact the decision making of people like you. Whereas when I review The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I feel like I have accomplished something, even though very few readers have chosen to watch it, or even may have not even clicked on the link to read the review.

 

Liza, the Fox-Fairy

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*****

Liza nursed the widow of the Japanese ambassador for twelve years. Her only friend was Tony Tani, the ghost of a Japanese singer, whom only Liza could see.

This is The Best Hungarian Comedy I have ever seen. I expect that this will be the best Hungarian comedy, or movie, that I will ever see. The plot of this whimsical tale of a mousy personal attendant to the widow of the Japanese ambassador to Hungary. This attendant meets a ghost who falls in love with her. Long story short, the smitten, but jealous, ghost curses Liza–Mónika Balsai–to the tragic life of a “fox fairy”. According to the movie, in Japanese mythology a fox spirit, or “kitsune”, seduces men and kill them; thus to fall in love with a fox fairy is almost a death sentence. Perhaps the ghost chooses this curse because he speaks Japanese and looks like this:

David Sakurai as Tony Tani.

David Sakurai as Tony Tani.

The ghost, appearing in the form of fictional 1950s Japanese crooner Tony Tani, is an amazing character. He has an amazing look. This is like a better version of a Wes Anderson movie, and I loved Grand Budapest. I literally ranked it #1 last year. Tony Tani combines the best visual aspects of Max Fischer, Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yet under the surface there lies more malice than any Anderson character has exhibited that I can recall. Maybe Adrien Brody’s Dmitri in The Grand Budapest Hotel had an equal amount, but that was clear from the get go. The takeaway is to tune in for Tony Tani! And to stay for the quaint, romantic Liza and to see if she can find a nice man to enjoy a “Mekk Burger” with, who will fall in love with her…and not die.

Mónika Balsai's Liza enjoys a non-copyright infringing Mekk Burger with  Zoltán Schmied's Henrik.

Mónika Balsai’s Liza and Zoltán Schmied’s Henrik talking in a non-copyright infringing Mekk Burger, in Liza, the Fox-Fairy.

When Animals Dream

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**½

No, I’ll do it. I want to do it.

WhenAnimals

This Danish werewolf coming of age story is starkly shot in a beautiful seaside village, filled with small minded people. These people will not leave the protagonist Maria (Sonia Suhl) alone. Mostly because they fear that she will become like her mother. What her mother is seems like a fascinating mystery. In one of the few frightening moments we kind of find out what is wrong with her mother. Without her coma level medication her mother can kill the hell out of people. It turns out that those small minded people were right to fear Maria. Or maybe they brought about their own demise. Pleasantly, the film does not take a side on this issue.

Despite the cool beauty of the film, I became nauseous twice. In fact I missed probably 8-10 minutes because either I was calculating where to go since the bathroom was occupied, or covering my eyes, or standing outside the curtain just listening. And listening is less effective when the film is in a language one does not understand. The effect that really bothered me was her bloody fingernails, like they were bloody and bulging at their quicks. I would show a picture of it, but then I would rate the film even lower.

A Few Cubic Meters of Love

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****

We’ll go sir. We’ll leave your country. We’ll go back to our Afghanistan. 

Maruna (Hasibi Ebrahimi) and  Saber (Saed Soheili) enjoying their few cubic meters of love, Chand metre moka'ab eshgh, © 2014  Aseman Parvaz Film.

Maruna (Hasibi Ebrahimi) and Saber (Saed Soheili) enjoying their few cubic meters of love, Chand metre moka’ab eshgh, © 2014 Aseman Parvaz Film.

Imagine Romeo & Juliet.

What place popped into your head? Was it Verona, Italy? Was it your high school gymnasium? The set for Shakespeare in the park? I bet that wherever you imagined, it was nicer than the slums outside of Tehran, Iran. Technically the area is a suburb, in the way that the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are suburbs, or how Soweto is to Johannesburg. Anywhere you imagine has to be nicer than an empty cargo container in a junkyard in those slums, which is where our Romeo and Juliet meet up.

While this film might have a couple Capulets here, the Romeo is an orphan whose relatives do not really object to the proposed union. The facts probably make more sense than any parallel, so here we go: outside of Tehran there are undocumented Afghan refugees living and working at a metal yard, alongside Iranians. Outside forces affect our young loves¹, specifically by the police catching the Afghanis and those Afghanis agreeing to leave by the end of the week.

Look at those vibrant colors!

Abdol-Salah (Nader Fallah) taking a well deserved rest in that junkyard they called home. A Few Cubic Meters of Love, © 2014 Aseman Parvaz Film.

The elder in the Afghani community is Abdol-Salah (portrayed with an ominous, haunting cough by Nader Fallah). He is the one who comes out of hiding to speak with the Iranian authorities. He is his community’s de facto chief. His teenage daughter is named Maruna—Hasibi Ebrahimi in her cinematic debut—and she is the Juliet. Maruna’s Romeo is Iranian twenty-something Saber (Saed Soheili). They are the bright spots in each other’s drab, difficult lives. 16th Century Catholicism seems approximately equally disrespectful to a woman’s autonomy as Afghanis’ 21st century Islam. As a result their budding romance is doomed. That is my American view, a more appropriate analysis probably should center on the way Afghan refugees are treated, even by those who mean no disrespect.

The film is Afghan and the language spoken is Persian. The story is super depressing. But it is also a spoiler proof film, which lends itself more readily to reviews in a way that movies that have surprises, like The Lego Movie, which shackle the reviewer. Although the film does not actually show their deaths, so maybe they did not die… But other than Taylor Swift, everyone knows Romeo and Juliet die in the end. My only frustration with the haunting picture was that the writer/directors Jamshid Mahmoudi and Navid Mahmoudi did not tell me what the point was. As I left the theater I wanted to know what was the point of making me feel such strong emotions. As frustrating as that thought was, I am impressed that the film made me think so much, made me think about the purposes of art.

¹ I say “loves” because it was not clear whether or not they had been physically intimate, or not. I believe they had not been.

A Second Chance

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****½

He’s not dead. I’d know if he were dead.

A Second Chance, © Zentropa 2015.

A Second Chance, © Zentropa 2015.

Susanne Bier directed this dark child swap movie, titled “En chance til” in the original Danish/Swedish. The stage is set for five main adult characters and two babies.The first family is comprised of a police officer named Andreas (“Game of Thrones'” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), his wife Anna (Maria Bonnevie, Olga in The 13th Warrior), and their baby Alexander. We meet the next family when Andreas is on duty and responds to a noise complaint at the new home of a dangerous ex-convict, whom he recognizes from Stockholm, named Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the assassin in Angels and Demons), who lives with his baby mama Sanne (May Andersen in her cinematic debut), and their son Sofus. Along with Andreas is his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen, the bad guy Mikhail from Hitman).

Without exception, every actor above was great. The movie challenged me with difficult questions, in a way that I doubt Hollywood would have. For instance, Sanne passes her drug test and Sofus is not undernourished, despite our glimpses at the detritus that is Tristan. Also, the default position of middle class attentive parents as superior to the poor drug addicts get challenged, but not in a sanctimonious way.

The movie also hit close to home for me because of Andreas’ agony regarding not being able to understand what his baby was trying to tell him by crying. A couple months ago I lost a rabbit and I did not know the signs of the gastrointestinal condition that took her life. Thinking about how I visited her and checked on her without realizing the true gravity of the situation really bothers me. To go from happy and healthy to gone in 24 hours shook me. I cringe even wondering what Coster-Waldau had to imagine to convincingly manifest his sense of loss and guilt.

To part on a less depressing note, I enjoyed the cinematography. Michael Snyman gets the credit, but who knows if he or Bier deserves it more. It is like David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but with more extreme facial closeups. All told this is a beautifully shot, well acted and thought provoking movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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***

He’s fast. She’s weird.

The quotation, from Maria Hill—Cobie Smulders, Robin on “How I Met Your Mother”—demonstrates the level of simplification this movie has. Still, Age of Ultron was almost as fun as it was expensive. As with the first Avengers movie, this one tried to be everything in one. Yet while the first one was the culmination of years of planning, this feels like a stop gap measure. See the below picture for an example. This is a cute scene where the rest of the Avengers fail to lift Thor’s mighty mjolnir, as none are worthy! At least Captain America was able to make it budge a little! It’s amusing to watch, but upon closer scrutiny has glaring flaws. Two lifting should be better than one, but what possible good is wearing a glove and gauntlet? They’re not trying to crush the hammer or shoot the hammer, so just wearing it does nothing but add the weight of what those two mortals had to lift.

Cute, but so dumb.

Tony Stark (Iron Man) and James Rhodes (War Machine), trying to lift Thor’s hammer, mjolnir. Robert Downey, Jr. and Don Cheadle in Avengers: Age of Ultron, © 2015 Marvel.

The villain, Ultron, seems like an immortal since he was an artificial life form, but the voice and digital actor was James Spader—Stargate. He was Lore. We all know Lore, right? Lt. (Cmdr.) Data’s twin brother. Lore has emotions and all the failings that human beings with them have. Brent Spiner played both of them and while his Data was excellent, his Lore tended to be a bit over the top. And Ultron was over the top and inconsistent. Sometimes he was fun, or moving, but most of the time his actions and speeches seemed simply arbitrary. Perhaps if there had been some indication that Iron Man had been working on creating Ultron, this would have felt more important, but him telling Bruce Banner—The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo—that he has been working on this for years feels untrue as he never mentioned it in the prior four movies.

The raison d’être¹ of Avengers 2 is clearly money. But excluding the financial motivation behind the creation of any movie, the motivating factor is a metric shit ton of money. Yet if we can truly look past that, then it serves the purpose of setting up more Marvel movies. For those who were not aware of the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as revealed to comic book nerds in the mid credits scene from The Avengers, it is to have Thanos attempt to create the Infinity Gauntlet with ultra powerful objects, known collectively as the infinity gems.² If successful Thanos could make or even unmake the universe as he saw fit. In the comics this happens and when the Avengers times ten show up they are hopelessly outmatched. So this film helps move closer to that point, as much as the last season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” helped Avengers 2—by about 30-45 seconds of screen time. There is one other reveal, just a reference really, to set up the introduction of the Black Panther, which was nice, but similarly worthless beyond the intrinsic pleasure of its recognition.

Infinity Gauntlet #1, cover art by George Pérez, © Marvel.

Infinity Gauntlet #1, cover art by George Pérez, © Marvel.

The two of the new characters I was most excited for were Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver—Elizabeth Olsen and Kick Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Still, Paul Bettany is my favorite actor of the new four, but his performance as the CGI character the Vision had less potential than Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver. If Quicksilver sounds familiar then you probably watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. He is the fastest man alive in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Marvel Universe, and the X-Men franchise. That particular power creates major cinematic challenges, similar to Superman’s. In X-Men DoFP, Evan Peters’s Quicksilver gets two scenes, both in the 1970’s. One of them stole the show. I used a screen grab of it as the first image in my review thereof. Eschewing ultra slow motion, director Joss Whedon–”Firefly”–opts for “zoom-zooming” shots where a blur represents Quicksilver and then a reveal shot to show the result of his zooming. At the time I was not impressed, but thinking over the whole film Whedon actually varied it up more than I thought. For instance, sometimes the reaction shot would be the same frame, like Captain America getting punched or something. Yet for all the difficulty that speed presents, Scarlet Witch presents even more. Avengers 2 describes her powers as similar to the X-Men’s Jean “Phoenix” Grey’s telekinesis, but truly, her powers fluctuate. In the comics they are called “hex powers” and they basically can increase or decrease the probability of something happening. Or she can shoot red beams from her hands. Also, she once took away 99% of the world’s mutants powers by merely saying “No more mutants.” Got it?

And that sums up the 141 minute movie. It is fine for what it is, but it is also a step back for Marvel. Or at least not the step forward that Cap 2, Thor 2, Guardians and the first Avengers made.

¹ I could not figure out how to say this in English, but we use raison d’être in English too, so, well, here we are.
² I am fact checking none of this. So please leave corrections in the comments so that I may correct this review and give you credit in this space here. Also, from the cover here are some of the characters you might recognize: Thanos in the middle, then upper right is Mephisto, then Silver Surfer, Gamora, Adam Warlock, Firelord, Hawkeye, Sersi, Hulk, Captain America, Nick Fury, Spider-man, and Dr. Strange.

The Beauty of Film: Seven Samurai

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Seven Samurai — Asaichi Nakai (photography) & Akira Kurosawa (director):

7SamuraiRain

Takashi Shimura takes aim as Kambei in 1954’s Seven Samurai.

 

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