Saturday, 22 November 2014

AVATAR (USA, 2009)

The recent man vs. nature saga has recently broken the all-time (nominal) record in profit, breaking the old one by the same director, James Cameron. Although clearly created for commercial success, it contains an obvious message against human greed and avarice, and an obvious religious underpinning. In the manner of all action flicks filled with violence, the pugnacious and selfish character of the dominant species in the film is counterproductively confronted with war and murder.

The main protagonist, Jake Sully, a paraplegic war veteran, is brought to another planet, Pandora, inhabited by Na'vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. The mission from the Earth, a crew made up of scientists and soldiers with stunning futuristic technology, wants to get a hold of a an important energy resource, and is ready to destroy the heart of the Na’vi settlement in order to obtain it. Jake, who is sent to infiltrate the humanoid race in an artificially generated Na’vi body, is accepted by them as an apprentice. Taken in by the beauties of their cultures and the charms of the chief’s and medicine woman’s daughter, he decides to change camps and fight against the increasingly belligerent humans. The tension between the two races turns into an all-out war until complete extinction.

Ever since the conquest of the Americas, the exploitation of the European collonies, and the cry against the extinction of the Third World’s indegionous cultures, there has been an intellectual resistance against the subjugation of the world’s weaker nations in order to obtain their natural resources. Montaigne, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Huxley and all the grass-roots, anticolonial, anti-orientalist and recently anti-globalisation movements of the last sixty years have been fighting the inhumane nature of pollution, forceful „civilization“ and destruction of our planet and the „savage“ cultures whose societies are based on „natural“ laws.

In that sense, there is nothing new about the moral of the story. The new element, and this can be said about all the major spectacles in the last few decades, is the stunning visual effects coupled with rich imagination and undeniable creativity. The new computer-based graphics, the machines and the creatures of Pandora are comparable to the greatest achievements of Star Wars, Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings. The bluish cinematographic hue is also beautiful, the music entirely adequate.

Could the three-hour long story have been better? With the ever-narrowing constraints of Hollywood screenwriting, the introduction of the hero, the encounter with a new culture, the apprenticeship, the love story, the hero’s rite of passage, the tension, the combat, the loss of the overconfident ally, and the epilogue were not only expected, but easily predictable. What is troubling in this film, however, is the superficilality of the religion, based on a New Age „supreme being“ and meditative turn to Nature, which is supposed to give it a spiritual „depth.“ Unlike the true religion, however, this movie teaches the young cinema-goers that a video-game like violence, regardless of circumstances, is the ultimate road to success.  It would have been a lot more effective if the adrenaline rush in the audience was stimulated by some other means than the defiant battle cry of the underdog and the gritty one-on-one battle with the bad guy that ends in his horrid slaying.

The Banishment (Изгнание) Russia, 2007
His first creation was the unexpected Return (Возвращение, 2003) and the tragic death of the Father, and his second is the Father’s Banishment from the Eden of the holy sacrament of marriage. The latest feature film by Andrei Zviagintsev goes further in cutting the dialogue, tipping the balance between the form and content towards the former, and eliminating all the traits of a set time and place. This family drama is a powerful homage to Tarkovsky full of Christian and Ancient symbolism, and an announcement of a powerful presence of another Russian master of cinematography.

The plot is simple: at a family vacation in the husband’s childhood home in the countryside with their two children, Vera (played by a Swedish-Norwegian actress Maria Bonnevie) tells her husband she is pregnant, but not with him. After a bout of aimless wondering and a meeting with his small-time criminal brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluev), Alex (Palme d’Or laureate Konstantin Lavronenko) tells his wife she wants her to abort the pregnancy and then start the shattered relationship anew. The fatal decision bring only misery and death.

The film is a fundamental examination of the marital relationship between a man and a woman, men’s egotism and women’s loneliness, i.e. the difficulty of a meaningful dialogue between the two. The behaviour of both is as intriguing as it is ambiguous. As Mary Corliss puts it, “men watching the film may find Vera's logic vague and infuriating; women may see her as the sensitive soul, and Alex as the dense husband who only thinks he cares for her.“ The taciturn nature of the two main protagonists adds to the tension and the feeling of permanent inadequacy.

The plot is based on a short story by William Saroyan, perhaps the reason why the time and place markers have been almost totally eliminated.  For except the language, one Soviet-era mural and a Russian peasant song in the closing scene, nothing denotes a specific setting. The names are international (Mark, Alex, Vera, Robert, Victor), the city scenes are devoid of people and show only factories and faceless buildings. What evokes an affiliation to a specific cultural heritage the most is probably the Tarkovskian photography (cinematography by Mikhail Krichkin). The grove and the wind evoking Sacrifice, the reflection of the house in the pond recalling Nostalgia, and the flashbacks reminiscent of The Mirror reveal Zviagintsev’s paradigm, but other equally creative cadres place him side by side with the master. Beside some neglectable holes in the plot, this film is definitely worthy of the toughest art-movie selection.     

The Tour (Турнеја) Serbia, 2008

This is another story about the latest war in the Balkans, this time by a renown Serbian director Goran Marković (Sabirni centar, Tito i ja) who takes a group of Belgrade actors on a tour through the war-ravaged Bosnia in 1993. A balanced structure, self-irony and a meta-theatrical commentary is what makes this film stand out in a series of similar creations coming from the former Yugoslavia.

In order to make some money during the reign of international isolation and astronomical inflation, a group of Belgrade actors, headed by the acting legends Miško (Dragan Nikolić) and Živorad (Josif Tatić), and a Croatian actress Sonja (Mira Furlan) set out in a cramped bus on a tour of Serbian Krajina. The journey ends up as a complete disaster. The troupe has their money taken away, they are captured successively by the Croatian and Bosnian Muslim military, and end up stranded in a Serbian war profiteer’s home. Instead of finding appreciation for their art, they face the stark realities of war, death, backwardness and greed.

The dramatic structure of the film has the first and the last scenes take place at the beginning and the end of their trip, a Belgrade theatre, the environment the protagonists physically and mentally belong to. The rest is the trip leading the urban artists to a burning hell of fratricide. In an anti-war fashion, the author mocks all three sides of the conflict, but his own, Serbian side, takes the heaviest brunt of criticism. Both the nationalist poet Ljubić (Vojislav Brajović) and the paramilitary leader Arkan (Sergej Trifunović) masterfully play the intellectual and criminal base of the “aggression” or the war for liberation, whichever side you look from. The youngest member of the troupe, Lale (Gordan Kičić) walks on the edge of annihilation for repeating he is not a Serb, only an actor. This circumstance probably explains the international success of the film (first prize in Montreal and Academy-Award nomination).

Perhaps the strongest quality of the film belongs to the depiction of actors and theatre as obsolete in circumstances where one’s existence is in question, or life-saving as in the case of the troupe being freed by the Muslim army solely on the strength of one improvised performance (the one in front of the Croatian military generates an even more positive reaction, but it ultimately fails because of one of the actor’s verbal blunder). The movie is also ripe with self-deprecating humour already familiar from Marković’s previous films. As every successful art work, it is saved from pathos by comic irony recalling the best Balkan comedies of the past.

Despite getting on the proven dragon-flying bandwagon, How to Train Your Dragon is a fascinating animation. We have already seen this theme a dozen times from Harry and the Goblet of Fire to Avatar, yet the film has a good story, a well developed boy-pet and boy-father, even a boy-girl relationship. What steals the show, however, is the imaginatively created flying dragons, which do not seem to get old.
On an island inhabited by Vikings (the adults speak with a Scottish and the children with an American accents, for some reason), dragons have been stealing sheep for years, and killing a dragon represents the rite of passage. Hiccup, the chief’s son and the boy everyone makes fun of, befriends a Night Fury, the fiercest type of dragon no one has ever seen. A cross between Disney’s Stitch and a cuddly cat, this dragon proves to be a faithful pet as much as a fierce fighter. He teams up with the Vikings and a few other selected, domesticated dragons to kill the beast.
After a slow start, the story becomes exciting and free of unnecessary details. Animation is similar to Dreamworks latest projects, but unlike Monsters vs. Aliens it does not try too much to be funny, and it never becomes absurd. How to Train Your Dragon stays focused on the main character who tries to fit into his tribe and reconcile his love toward his pet, Toothless, and the incontestable Viking tradition. The motley variety of dragons, some resembling snakes and some giant bumble bees, contribute to the overall success of this animated joy ride. After Kung Fu Panda and the Shrek series, this is definitely the most memorable Dreamworks production so far.

PONYO (Japan, 2008)
The latest feature by the celebrated Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki, seems to have sifted through all the elements of his previous works and come up with the best, condensed result. In another display of perfect character animation and music, Ponyo celebrates courage, perseverance and, above all, love.
Ponyo is  the name of a little gold fish with a human face, the daughter of a magician and the “sea goddess of mercy”, who falls in love with a five-year old boy, Sosuke. In order to turn into a girl and find him again, she has to confront her powerful father and his menacing waves. And in order to help her and restore the distorted balance of nature, the boy has to make an emotional commitment.
In this beautiful animated film, Miyazaki has shortened his trademark elongated introduction, which in Totoro, for example, takes up the first third of the film. He has also decreased the number of characters and taken out scenes in the finale that are not crucial for the plot (the only such scene may be the encounter with the young couple with a baby). Ponyo is just as imaginative as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, but it is shorter and, therefore, more adapted to the children’s attention span. Has Miyazaki started catering to the Disney-trained, ADD-prone western viewer? He has produced a children’s movie with an almost perfect structure, but he has not eliminated any of the elements that make his creations such a refreshment in the American-saturated market full of 90-minute attention-grabbing roller coasters. Ponyo is quiet, balanced, sentimental, humorous and, most importantly, it leaves the viewers, young and old, with a feeling of piece and inspiration.
If it weren’t for the charisma of the two main protagonists, this ambitious film would have been a total flop. Petr Mamonov masterfully captured the controversial character of one of the cruelest emperors in human history, and the recently deceased Oleg Yankovsky skillfully portrayed the fierce daring of the highest Russian Church hierarch. The impatiently awaited film, however, does not live up to its expectations.

The film is divided into four parts. In the first part, entitled Tsar’s Prayer, we see Ivan the Terrible fervently praying in his cell. As we eventually realise, he does not lack belief in God, but his deranged mind justifies his severity as a ruling necessity: “As a man, I might be a sinner, but as a ruler, I am just.” This conviction makes him delight in his own atrocities. He convinces his childhood friend, the abbot of the Solovetsky monastery, Phillip, to become the Moscow metropolitan. In the second part, Tsar’s War, Ivan’s troops defeat the joint army of Poles and Lithuanians, but they subsequently lose the city of Polotsk through treason. The metropolitan hides the Moscovite leaders from the angry emperor, thus causing his fury. In the third part, Tsar’s Anger, Phillip refuses to sign the conviction of the military leaders, and Ivan throws them to his pet bear in front of a cheering crowd. The metropolitan then refuses to give him a blessing, and the infuriated Tsar imprisons him. In the last part, Tsar’s Joy, Ivan the Terrible inspects the wooden torturing devices. His fool offends the queen, and the Tsar burns him at a stake. Philip again refuses to give Ivan a blessing, and he is murdered by the Tsar’s executioner, receiving the gift of healing and clairvoyance from God beforehand. Refusing to give up the metropolitan’s dead body, the monks of the monastery where Phillip was imprisoned locked themselves up in a church, and they are burned to death, thus also receiving the martyrs’ wreath.

After seeing the spiritual and poetic Island (Остров, 2006) by the same director, Pavel Lungin, with convincing Petr Mamonov in the role of a repenting monk, Tsar comes as a disappointment. The numerous naturalistic depictions seem superfluous, the film is full of underdeveloped or obscure characters, as the little girl who appears in almost every important scene, and the focus on the relationship between the two main protagonists takes away from the vision of the film as a historical spectacle some of the scenes obviously delineate. This was Yankovsky’s last role; the celebrated Russian actor succumbed to pancreatic cancer soon after the last shot was made. His character will surely remain as one his most memorable ones, but, unfortunately, his final film will probably soon be forgotten.