Saturday, November 27, 2021

Mi Nismo Anđeli-We Are Not Angels 1 and 2 (1992-2005)

We Are Not Angels

Yugoslavian cinema had many classics throughout its run, with films coming from every corner of the federation. But once the dissolution began in the 90s, Serbian filmmakers must've been hoping they could keep up the quality despite now being on their own. Luckily for us, they sure did!...Well, up until the 2000s, anyway, then most locals began groaning about movies not being like the good old days. Oh well, there are always times like that. But when your local cinema has hit the heights of today's film, it's always a good sign that it could do so again!...

Nikola is a typical bad boy. He smokes, drinks, and is always going home with a new lady. Without realising though, a former one night stands has fallen pregnant, and suddenly Nikola's life begins to change. Will he try and make it work with the mother, and be there for the baby? Or will he stick to old habits and be a playboy till he dies?...

We Are Not Angels is one of the best Serbian films there is, making for an original, slightly unique experience. It's a romantic-comedy with an edge, taking place in the [mean] streets of Belgrade  There's a touch of fantasy to the movie, as an angel and devil watch over and influence the events, each trying to win their little game.

The humour is a little odd at times, urban, lowbrow (but not too much) and has the feel of a bunch of college guys getting together to make something fun...which is exactly what it is. The movie is also noted for is pop culture references, which are done in an effective way, rather than shoved unsubtly down our throats.

The story in We Are Not Angels is an effective one, and progresses nicely with plenty of fun events and setpieces. It does a really good job portraying the reality check to Nikola. We see the enjoyment he gets from his lifestyle, but also the sense that he's miserable, even if he doesn't want to accept it.

Nikola is a great lead. He's a bit of an asshole, but in a fun to watch way. He's got a good sense of humour, is experimental when mixing drinks, and has great taste in music. He' even reads! Most 'cool' Yanks stay far away from books, but Nikola's an intellectual! I also appreciate that when he learns about Marina's pregnancy he instantly believes her. Sure, most people would probably require a little evidence, especially when they were too drunk to even remember the dalliance, but that can be exasperating to watch when we the viewers already know, and just want everyone to get on with it. Thankfully that is exactly what they do here.

It's also endearing that for all his bad boy nature, at no point does  he try and insist Marina have an abortion. Even when he's uncaring and wanting no part with all this he still gives her an optimistic "Sure, you should keep it". It's things like this that keep our hero likeable, despite his rough edges. As if to prove me wrong, there is a scene like that later on, though it comes late enough that it doesn't come off like he's just being a soulless dickhead, but thinking of her (if in a flawed way).

Marina       romance  chemistry    like seeing how they both get cold feet at the end, and neither for selfish reasons either

Nikola's friends, meanwhile, are a mixed influence. The older guy is a dickhead, played mainly for laughs (I was hoping his wife would kick the shit out of him), while his other friend is a former partygoer turned 9-to-5 worker, providing a more stable and positive influence.

Angel and Devil   causes the most trouble when he spoils a tender birthday moment with a hint of doubt

dreams   I liked that the last was the one to galvanise him into action.

The cast here is a good one. Nikola Kojo never looked as good looking as he does here. I'd only ever seen him in movies from decades later, so it's a surprise seeing him so young! He's a great lead, selling the bad boy part of his character, and also giving a sensitivity that doesn't feel cloying. Milena Pavlović is sweet as Marina, while Branka Katić is fun as her romance-loving friend. Zoran Cvijanović   And lastly there's Srđan Todorović and Uroš Đurić. The former is grungy and gnarly to look at, while the latter is freaky in an unnatural sort of way. They work great together, and give the movie plenty of...charm?

Visually this is a great movie. The streets of Belgrade look a little run-down, but in a sense that gives them character rather than just being shot like a dump. And the characters who live in this world wear such kooky fashion, fancy leather jackets, cool hairstyles, and more. Nikola's car is neat! Bright pink and shaped in such a cute way. Even the telephones are great, from Nikola's tomato phone, to Marijna's.
The music in We Are Not Angels is great! It's a 1950s-60s rock-n-roll inspired soundtrack, with some fun tunes courtesy of local band Vampiri. They sound so authentic, and really build up the mood well. There's also a song performed by the Angel which sounds...weird! Good weird, but still strange. If you like The Chameleons, you'll get a kick out of it, I'm sure.

We Are Not Angels is definitely recommended from me. If you're new to Serbian cinema, this is definitely one you should check out. A classic in just about every way there is...

We Are Not Angels 2

15 years after Nikola's daughter was born,    his daughter is a growing woman, and eager to start going out with boys.

The idea of a sequel made 13 years after the first is usually unnecessary, and a recipe for disaster. But at least We Are Not Angels 2 has a valid reason. It centres on his baby all grown up, and his attempts at keeping her safe from      young

Unfortunately We Are Not Angels 2 also has some of the more negative sequel tropes, such as retroactively making everyone's lives worse. The first movie ended on the perfect note. After all the struggles and adversity Nikola and Marina go through, they end the movie happy and together. Then according to this sequel things almost immediately went south, they split up, and Nikola's been slumming it as a deadbeat dad for 15 years, sleeping with airheaded skanks half his age. Talk about a regression! Not only is it depressing, and not only does it invalidate the entire plot of the first movie, but it also means Nikola never saw the success and happiness the last movie promised, nor did he give up the lifestyle that was gradually making him miserable. Here, 15 years later, nothing has changed.

With all this in mind, you're probably thinking what could possibly be positive about a movie such as this. Surely this has got to be one of the worst sequels ever made, so does it have any redeeming qualities? Why yes, it actually does! Although it comes with the proviso that you pretend the first movie never happened. Considering I saw this one first, that was quite easy for me.

On its own, We Are Not Angels 2 is a pretty funny movie. Lowbrow and a bit too vulgar at times, but it gets the job done, and has quite few laughs. Nothing gut-bustingly hilarious, but it's satisfactory. The movie is predominately made up of Nikola's underhanded but well-meaning attempts to keep his daughter safe, and this leads to plenty of amusing scenes (and some bizarre fantasies!).

The last act is satisfying and fun. The naive Sofija being taken to a shady riverside nightclub, and Nikola must save her from the worst. He gets some great moments, and so does the girl when she realises what's happening. Afterwards is a pretty sweet ending with a much needed reconciliation between Nikola and Marina (and a moment from the angel and devil that is a mix of sweet, disturbing, and kinda wholesome in a freaky way?).

The biggest missed opportunity I think for We Are Not Angels 2 is what it could have been had it not undone the last film's ending. It could be about a mature and domestic Nikola, who gets a flash from the past when he now has to keep his daughter away from guys just like him back in the day. That would've felt natural without spitting on the first movie's progress.

We Are Not Angels 2 is pretty lowbrow with the humour. Most of it is decent, and earns a few laughs, and some lines are really good, like "What a wedding today! Good thing I was armed.". Other moments might go a bit far, like the comment about the body in the grave, or the psychiatrist's treatment of his possibly suicidal patient .One might also find the vibrator flashback too gross, although considering who it's directed at, one could let it slide.

Nikola is definitely more of a comedic character this time round. Before he was a serious-minded party boy, who'd belt you if you gave him a funny look. Here he's a schlubby and kinda pathetic middle aged guy, powerless against everything in his life, from his nagging ex, his headstrong daughter and her poor choice of dates, and even his dumb flings are freely making decisions for him.

Sofija is a fun teenager, with more sense than her father, but loves him regardless of his shortcomings. Where I didn't like her character was everything involving boys though, which is where all her good sense and judgment flies straight out the window, and she begins dragging home the absolute worst of the worst. Greasy, messy, bad boys, only interested in sex, etc. She sure does know how to pick 'em! You'd think someone this smart, with Nikola as a father (both as a teacher, and an example of a poor role model), would know better. Luckily it's not all bad, and she does get in some good   and the climax is a satisfying   .

Marina and her friend Bubo really get shafted in terms of character and screentime. Both are shown to be fairly vapid and inattentive, and bugger off for most of the movie, ditching Sofija in Nikola's care. This was disappointing on many levels, although at least she returns for a happy ending. Absent altogether is Nikola's sister, which is ok since there are plenty of characters, but after getting to know her it is a shame seeing her absent.

Nikola's friends from the previous movie are back again, and are basically different characters. The older guy is just as much an asshole as he was last time round, and barely appears. The psychiatrist Djura gets more time, and is a total loon here! Luckily he's an enjoyable loon to watch. I didn't get their presence in the climax though, and if it was meant to be like a fantasy sequence or what.

The acting here is decent all-round. Kojo is once again a fun lead, doing well with his changed character, and providing some laughs. Young newcomer Mirka Vasiljević is a nice, cute, and spunky presence, doing well. Zoran Cvijanović is over the top, like a live-action cartoon character, in a good way. Todorović and Đurić do good jobs again. The former clearly hasn't aged a day, while the latter now has a full head of hair, and looks more unnatural and plasticky this time round.

The visuals in  aren't as good as the first. The film is shot in a much more naturalistic way, rather than stylish. It looks good, and there are a few neat little touches. Though it does make these areas look like a bit of a dump. The paintball arena looks great though, with some funny photoshopped posters.

The music here is pretty decent. Fairly standard stuff. What I really liked was the tune that plays over the end.

We Are Not Angels 2 was quickly followed up by another sequel, this time without any returning characters or actors, save for the angel and demon. It's considered to be abysmal by most, even those who get some enjoyment out of this first sequel. Now, I believe in being fair, which is why I'll perhaps watch (or at least have a squizz through) that film at a later date, but for now  Especially since I couldn't find it with English subtitles, I'll just leave it for another time. Which is probably what most Serbs would recommend!

Overall, We Are Not Angels 2 is typical lowest common denominator humour, and not every joke hits the landing, but as a disposable and cheesy comedy, it's decent enough, and on par with all the dreck from the U.S. at the time. Like I said though, unfamiliarity with the first movie is key to enjoying this. But make sure to not avoid  for too long though, as it's worth 100 of the sequel...

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Jan Werich's Fimfárum (2002)

Jan Werich is still renowned as one of former Czechoslovakia's greatest actors, among other accomplishments such as being a playwright, and author. He passed away in 1980, but has left a wealth of material to enjoy, including the modern classic Fimfárum...

A wise old storyteller relates many stories to us. These range from a Faustian pact to maintain sobriety, a boy who shows no fear, a blacksmith and his devious unfaithful wife, as well as what exactly the mysterious Fimfárum is...

Fimfárum is a fairytale anthology, with a lot to say. It's made up of 5 stories, of varying length. A few are longer and more complex, others are shorter and easier to follow. The movie can be a bit to take in on a first viewing, but it never lost me, and you get the hang of it pretty soon.

When the Oak Leaves Fall is a highly amusing take on Faust. It focuses on the alcoholic farmer Cupera, who makes a deal with the Devil to improve his crops, without realising he's betting the life of his newborn son. Now Cupera must think of a way to thwart the Devil's plan. He does in a bizarre and spectacular manner. But just when you were thinking maybe he's turned over a new leaf, he immediately begins falling back into old habits. And so the Devil comes knocking again!

From here on the story takes an interesting journey, with a crazy setpiece in hell, and a satisfying ending (though Cupera's wife Julia would want to beat him upside the head if she ever knew what he'd been doing!).

While Faust sold his soul for knowledge, and occasionally for love, this subject sells it for sobriety! He does successfully trick the devil and guarantee his safety, but he could've just booked himself into an AA meeting!

Fearless Franta is a shorter and more simple story, about a frail couple whose baby is a big and bold boy. He doesn't talk for years, until tasting a bowl of awful soup. When asked why he didn't speak till now if he always could, he replies "Up till now there was no cause for complaint". We soon learn that nothing scares him, and when his concerned father asks a friend for help, Franta is allowed to stay in the local pub during nightfall, when ghosts come out to play.

I really like the portrayal of Franta. While he seems crazy at first, he's soon shown to be such a likeable guy, due to his forthright honesty. He may not talk much, and may not be scared of anything, but this is never portrayed as a negative, just a quirk, which he shows the positive sides of. Just because he's not afraid doesn't mean he's obnoxious about it. He genuinely wants to learn. He's a good son too, and beats the shit out of ghosts when necessary.

There's a great climax, with neat visuals like seeing the bar change, and the hilarious spectacle of Franta setting all the mean ghosts straight.

Mean Barbara was perhaps my favourite story of the bunch. As the title suggests, it's about a miserly old lady, considered the bane of the village. The twist however is that she's not actually that bad! I mean, she won't win 'Nicest person in the village' anytime soon, but she simply wants to keep to herself and save up her money, but others insist that just because she has more, she should be obligated to help out, namely a family with too many kids for their own good. Sharing is good because you choose to share, not forced into it.

Through a series of events beginning with the theft of her pig, the family end up killing Mean Barbara (or do they?), and hurrying to dispose of of her body. But through various distractions, everyone else in the town gets involved, each thinking they are responsible and trying to cover it up.

An interesting thing is that despite 'hoarding such wealth', Barbara isn't actually a rich dame. She's a normal housemaid, who happened to save up well, and others want to take advantage of her. The other townsfolk, who imagine themselves as being poor innocents, are actually underhanded and cutthroat, stealing from their neighbours. Imagine if someone broke into your property, killed and stole a pig of yours, and you were considered the bad guy!

Mean Barbara leaves us with the nice moral that not all nice people are good, and someone being grumpy doesn't mean they're bad. It ends with a hilarious and dryly witty note about humanity and fiction.

A Dream Fulfilled is a fun story about the follies of gambling, and of following visions and dreams. We see the trouble that can get you in, as well as the unexpected upsides.

This is probably my least favourite story by default. It's still good, with superbly creative animation, but it felt like it could've been cut and made the film smoother. 5 stories can be a lot, and there's always room in sequels. But I can't complain too much.

There are many funny moments here, including the narration telling us how Loudal "...was always quarelling with his wife. Though we might admit that his wife was by nature ready to argue with anyone, at anytime, about anything, we must acknowledge that in the case of Loudal, she was in the right and not him."

The dream sequences are nicely surreal, and the portrayal of Prague's fancy suburbs is fantastic and imaginative.

Fimfarum is the aptly named final story. It tells of a naive blacksmith, who blindly trusts his unfaithful wife, who's constantly scheming to have him killed. A corrupt nobleman gives him impossible tasks (under threat of execution), but each time he succeeds, with supernatural help. His wife constantly insists he kill himself and after the third attempt he gets suspicious!

There are many fun and creative sequences here, culminating in a satisfying final act. Although I didn't quite get the outcome. he blacksmith would rather let the bad guys die than be taken by the Devil? But if they die, wouldn't they be taken by him anyway? I also feel bad for the poor innocent cows who get frozen with the evildoers!

Werich gives us many words of wisdom, and funny and clever aphorisms, like "He who asks too much hears too much". It teaches all about morals too, and the lack thereof some exhibit. Some stories here teach about hypocrisy, greed, and human nature, others warned about alcoholism, gambling, leaving well enough alone, and being too trusting of those who don't deserve it. They work as fairytales, and as parables for life

Fimfárum has a wicked sense of humour, with darkly funny asides, and clever inversions on the fairy tale formula. It's never a mean spirited movie though, and pretty much eevery story ends on a happy note. No-one was stuck in hell, lost their kids, got executed, etc, and the bad characters were punished (usually).

The most interesting thing about Fimfárum is who narrates and voices the film-Werich himself! Jan Werich passed away in 1980, but he personally recorded his Fimfarum book for audio, so even though this movie was made 22 years after his death, it still uses his voice in its entirety. What a lovely tribute to do for someone.
The animation in Fimfárum is great. Stop motion is such an interesting an unique art form, and this film uses it to its fullest. There's a lot of variety here too, with regular stop motion, animation, and paper cutouts too. The characters are designed with such an off-kilter look, and each look funny and distinctive (and potentially terrifying for more sensitive viewers). The settings range from crazy to gorgeous, with the film having a nice rural feel to it.

The score is great. It's made up of really energetic tracks, using discordant instruments to great effect, moving at chaotic speeds and really building a great tone. The film ends on a sweet and boisterous song by Werich.

Jan Werich's Fimfárum is a great time! It's a good introduction to Czech cinema's weirder side, in a more accessible way that something like Jan Svankmajer may be. If you like stop motion cinema and are looking for something new to watch, look no further than here...

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! (1976)

An industrial factory is getting an overhaul, and present supervisor Kroupek must retake his high school exams and graduate in order to keep his job. Having just been critical of his son for not doing well in his studies, Kroupek must now put his money where his mouth is, and either show how well he remembers his old classes, or else the factory will be in the hands of a scheming coworker...

The amusingly titled Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is a gem of Czechoslovakian comedy. It has a great concept, and one ripe for potential stories and gags. I'd say if this has any big problem, it's mainly that there could've been more. I could imagine this as a tv series, like Mind Your Language, where each week is a new amusing situation.

The message here is an effective one, and there is a goodhearted conclusion.

The characters are a nice bunch. It's amusing seeing how these middle aged folk all revert to classroom hijinx, such as playing pranks on one another, messing with the teacher, trying to get out of studying, passing around notes, and developing schoolyard crushes (despite all being married!). The villain of the piece is Hujer, a smarmy and incompetent scrub who is in danger of becoming the new factory's foreman, if Kroupek is unable to graduate.

I especially liked the relationship between father and son. Jiří starts off like an underachiever, before you realise not only is he doing better in his studies than his brow-beating father realises, but he actually ends up being the one capable of tutoring him. Though Kroupa is too stubborn to admit it till it's almost too late.

The comedy here is successful, getting lots of material out of its setting and characters, paired together nicely. These range from trouble and misunderstandings over classroom notes, to a confusion when one student reads about a parent teacher conference and wonders if this means he has to get his elderly parents from a few villages over.

My favourite parts were the discussions of what Hubris means, and the ineffectual sowing machine. The Romanian scene also made me crack up. Some of the dialogue and wordplay might go over the heads of foreigners, but the majority of it you'll get the gist of easily enough.

There was one joke at the very start that I was expecting a payoff for though, and it never came. I wish I'd known, because I was eager to see what damage would be wrought because of the lazy builder's chalk line over feet.

This is never a bad movie, and I don't really have any complaints. The ending however was a real disappointment. There isn't one, really! The way the plot is paced, it feels like there's still got to be a fair amount of time left, yet there's only 5 minutes. So how is the movie going to resolve all of this? The answer is it doesn't. Kroupek does poorly in his latest test, he asks his son for help and they study, then the movie skips ahead to the completed factory. It just leaves us to assume he graduated. It's disappointing, not only because I actually wanted to see that, but also the successess of the other students. I wanted to see Hujer get his full comeuppance, and Mrs. Týfová learn a lesson about propriety (although her last scene is an amusingly fitting one).

The actors all give fun performances, and each have their own unique charms. A couple did blend together a little, but overall they still amused. Jiří Sovák is a fine lead, while his real life son Jiří Schmitzer is nice, and shares good chemistry with those around him. The teachers are lots of fun, even if I sometimes wished there were more of them, or they appeared more consistently.

The music here is nice enough, with a particularly neat piece being a medley of what sounds like classic Tinpan Alley songs over the end. They're a bit random and abrupt sometimes, but it's still a fun treat, and does make you leave the film in a reasonably positive mood even if you have been left disappointed by the ending.

While not my favourite Czech comedy, Marecek, Pass Me the Pen! is still a nice fun time. It's a very casual movie to just pop on and enjoy, especially for European aficionados...

Lajanje na Zvezde-Barking at the Stars (1998)

Yugoslavia in the 90s wasn't exactly the most cuddly of times, as a few slight disagreements led to a spot of bother. Despite these troubles, and the subsequent impact on the movie industry, it still managed to not only remain alive, but delivered a few genuine classics. Not just in spite of the chaos going around them, but serving in many ways as an antithesis. 

A high schooler is ready for [graduation] prom night, and as he prepares [himself], his parents regale him the story of how their romance began. Back in the 60s, cheeky youth Philosopher makes it his quest to woo the beautiful but seemingly uninterested Danica, amidst various other schoolyard shenanigans, sports contests, and day to day events as their last year of school comes to an end...

Barking at the Stars is a much-loved entry in Serbia's film history, as well as the Balkans as a whole. It's admired, because contrary to many other movies, foreign and domestic, it maintains a clean image throughout. Swearing and boobies are all well and good, but when it's all you get it can be a bit tiring, especially in schoolyard settings. Those kind of elements often leave you disliking everyone involved.

Making the film better/more impactful is that the teens still have an unruly edge to them, rather than being cookie cutter boy scouts. It captures that sweet spot where they're typically energetic and undisciplined youths, but not so much that they're unlikeable, crass, or cruising for a bruising. They're also not nymphomaniacs either! Romantic, yes, girl-crazy, of course, but they're not openly banging in the hallways.

The tone is lighthearted, with minimal drama and a focus on the general lives and loves as these kids go through their last year of school. The film is free from any politics too. This is helped by being set in the past, but I think it'd be the same if it was in the 90s (as evidenced by the pretty casual present day segments). Barking at the Stars is a story that could be set in any country, any time.

This isn't to say the film isn't Serbian, however. It's proud of its home, and is full of humour designed to appeal to locals most of all.

Barking at the Stars is a funny move, with clever wordplay, great dialogue, and frequently amusing interactions. Some of the best scenes are in the classroom, from the impromptu workouts, showing off, to the animal pranks, and the teacher who doesn't realise all the chairs are empty. There's a level of intelligence here too that I appreciated. Where else can you get teenagers who know who Sisyphus is, and apply his struggles in real life by carting boulders around?

The cast here is a highlight. Philosopher, as he's nicknamed, is a fun main character. He's a tenacious and clever guy, always quick with wit and charm, and while he might border on being a pushy kind of Casanova to some viewers, he handles everything well. The romance between he and Danica is sweet, and funny.

Danica meanwhile is a good love interest. She's likeable, and she's clearly into Philosopher, despite a rocky beginning. Their romance is benefited from seeing the present day sections, where they're absolutely lovey dovey. It gets you curious to see how this couple turns from frosty to adoring.

The rest of the cast is full of distinctive characters. The students are  The most memorable is Tupa, a somewhat crazy sportsman, who gets experience by boxing on train tracks. Typical Serbian youth. When you have no kangaroos to box, you spar with trains instead! Philosopher's brother probably coulda appeared more, but it's not bad. Overall there aren't really any weak links among the cast, and they look distinct enough to never get mixed up.

The teachers/adults are a great bunch too. There's the strict and militant sports coach, a surprisingly young newcomer, much to the amazement of the boys, a [nervous] principal, and more. They each get their moments, even if some appear less than others. A resident policeman gets a few funny moments too.

The cast do great jobs, inhabiting their characters well. Some standout performances are Dragan Mićanović and Nataša Tapušković as Philosopher and Danica, Nikola Đuričko as the = boxer Tupa, and Dragan Jovanović as the kooky coach. Serbian acting veteran Nikola Simić doesn't appear as much as I would've liked, but still makes the most of his screentime, and is always visually distinctive. The same goes for Mihajlo Paskaljević as the local bartender Belmondo.

The soundtrack to Barking at the Stars is great, regardless of time period. It evokes the romantic drive-in of the 1950s, in the way movies like Grease are often going for. It succeeds brilliantly, and whether these are archive tunes or composed for the film, they all sound good, and complement the story perfectly. They give a genuine air of nostalgia.

Barking at the Stars has remained a classic for good reason. It's the perfect mix of funny, nostalgic, and sweet, and serves as a perfect introduction to Serbian cinema. If you're nervous about all of the weirder movies] that might abound, this is a great spot to dip your toe into.