Sunday, September 17, 2017
Viktor is a struggling actor, but cannot find a job because his dramatic interpretations are often comical. During an audition, he meets actress Susanne who also cannot find a job. Viktor informs her that he sometimes plays a woman, Viktoria, in a Cabaret, but since he has a flu, he persuaded Susanne to jump in to save the show. Susanne thus pretends she is a man playing a woman, and finds great success among the audience. An agent approaches Susanne and she signs a contract to continue performing. In London, she meets Robert, who falls in love with her, insisting that she is a woman, even though Susanne tries to pretend she is a man. Even more problems arrive when a woman, Ellinor, falls in love with Susanne, thinking she is Viktor, a man. Finally, Susanne and Robert kiss, while Viktor takes over the role of Viktoria as a comedy act.
Even though it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm by German film critics during its premiere, and subsequently gained the status of a classic in its country of origin, Reinhold Schunzel's transvestite comedy "Victor and Victoria" feels dated by today's standards due to its stiff narrative and dry-overlong musical sequences, some of which are even used in ordinary dialogues that rhyme. It is axiomatic that Edwards' film "Victor/Victoria", filmed 49 years later, is easily superior, displaying a rare situation where an American remake towers over an original. While the two main actors, Herman Thimig and Renate Muller, are very good, they are not convincing at playing the opposite gender, which is especially aggravating for Muller who is suppose to carry the film as a woman pretending to be a man playing a woman on stage, since her high, feminine voice leaves little ambiguity. Worse still is that all the rich potentials of the tantalizing premise were scarcely exploited, leaving many situations underused. Some of the best jokes still arise from the man-woman confusion — for instance, Viktor releases four geese from a cage so that the two performers have to chase them and leave the male locker room, giving Susanne a chance to change clothes without anyone noticing that she is not a man. In another good scene, Robert jokingly informs Viktor that he is challenged to a pistol duel due to a bar fight, so Viktor shockingly leaves the room, only to accidentally stumble into some sound stage where a performer wearing Cowboy clothes is randomly practicing shooting. While good is exploring the men-women relationships and identities, "Victor and Victoria" still seems like a 'rump' version of these themes, too timid to truly give them justice, most noticeably in the abrupt ending, though it has charm.
Friday, September 15, 2017
The 14-year old Morty is annoyed by his eccentric grandpa Rick, a scientist who often brings him along on his misadventures, ranging from trips to another dimensions through aliens to problems involving Rick's inventions going out of control. Morty's sister Summer and their parents, Jerry and Beth, whose marriage is on thin ice, also unwillingly get involved into Rick's misadventures.
Justin Roiland's and Mark Harmon's surprise hit animated show is the ultimate example of a mixed bag: episodes 1.3, 1.4 and 1.10 are excellent, but the quality of the rest of the first season is highly uneven, since some are solid, some OK and some outright bad. Aggravating all of this is the fact that even in some bad episodes the authors can still conjure up some incredible examples of wisdom about life, using the most surreal and bizarre grotesque as a metaphor for something in our society. It is almost like 'Sophocles meets "Family Guy"': rarely has there been a show that offers a whole spectrum of quality, ranging from genius to garbage. Episode 1.3 is one of the best, turning into the most black humored Christmas episode in TV history: in it, Rick brings a man dressed as Santa Claus home, but the latter falls into a coma, so Rick shrinks Morty to a size of a microorganism and sends him into the man's body. At the end, Rick simply loses his patience since he cannot find a microscopic Morty, so he takes the naked dead body of the Santa Claus, flies off into space and instead enlarges the man's body ten thousand times, thereby inevitably returning Morty back to his normal size. This results in a Zenith of absurdist humor, rarely seen anywhere, with the expressionistic sight of a giant naked Santa Claus floating in orbit over the whole of America, his toes being spotted in L.A. and his head in New York. Episode 1.10 also rises to the occasion, involving a situation in which Rick is confronted with hundreds of Ricks from hundreds of parallel Universes, which gave a wealth of potentials, ending in a remarkable "hidden" compliment Rick makes to his Morty: "I am the Rick-est of them all, which means you are the Morty-est of all Mortys". Throughout these wacky stories, "Rick and Morty" displays a secret philosophy on life and the Universe, yet it is not always presented in an intelligent way. Episode 1.4 is a sly satire on the 'brain in a vat' argument, but episode 1.7, on the other hand, is a rather lackluster take on sexism: the concept of an alien civilization in which women rule while men are kept as an inferior race does not offer anything new that hasn't already been explored in "He-Man" episode "Trouble in Arcadia", for instance.
Too many episodes focus only on degenerate monster aliens (the above mentioned episode 1.7 has these women having extra hands on their ears (!?)) or shock, and attempt to seize the attention of the viewers more through bizarreness than through some genuine inspiration. Aren't the praying-mantis-human mutants in episode 1.6 pure trash, for instance? Isn't the alternate Universe TV commercial in episode 1.8 of two people eating Leprechaun's intestine pure junk? And yet, just when the viewers dismiss such stuff, the authors suddenly redeem themselves thanks to an unexpected example of genius. Episode 1.6, for instance, is terrible, but has a fantastic beginning and an ending, by presenting Rick who explains to Morty his unrequited love:"Listen Morty, I hate to break it to you, but what people call "love" is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage!" Episode 1.8 is also just a random collection of inconceivable, surreal and disturbing TV channels from alternate Universes, but it ends in one of the most inexplicable, genuine, miraculous, virtuoso and beautifully touching endings ever seen, a small gem: throughout the episode, it has been established that Morty's and Summer's dad, Jerry, has never married in an alternate Universe and became a major movie star. At the same time, Beth finds out that without being married to Jerry and not having kids, she could have pursued a great career as a real surgeon in that world. This leads a crisis of their marriage. But at one point, Jerry observes his alternate Jerry driving in underwear on the street on alternate TV. At the same time, Beth is watching her alternate ego through special goggles, living alone in a house with birds. Suddenly, these two realities become one when alternate Jerry stops and knocks on the door of alternate Beth, to announce: "Beth Sanchez, I have been in love with you since high school. I hate acting, I hate fame... I wish you hadn't had that abortion and I never stopped thinking what might have been." Jerry and Beth, back in the real world, then realize that they are living precisely in that 'what if?' Universe, drop everything, reconcile and kiss in the living room. This is a highlight that, although unable to fully compensate for all the questionable content before, is still going to be remembered for a long time.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Jackie Rabinowitz wants become a jazz singer, but when he is caught singing in a pub, his strict, orthodox Jewish father forbids him to continue and beats him up, because he wants Jackie to succeed him and become a cantor in a Synagogue. Jackie flees from home and makes great progress as a singer in New York, falling in love with Mary, a stage dancer. Now renamed, Jack returns to his home to see his mother, but is again chased away by hist father. On the premiere of a career defining performance on stage, Jack decides to not show up and instead sing as a cantor in a Synagogue because this was the last wish of his dying father. However, he gets another chance and performs as a singer in a theater.
"The Jazz Singer" signalled a new era of cinema, an era of sound film, yet even though it was a smash hit and the highest grossing movie for almost a decade, it was kind of a cheat: the movie is 20% a sound film and 80% a silent film. It was still an incomplete, semi-sound film where the audio was used only for the singing of the hero and one sequence when he talks with his mother while playing the piano for her, yet the majority of the story is still a silent film, even using intertitles for dialogues of the characters for most of the time. Despite this technical innovation, "The Jazz Singer" remained only a footnote in film lexicons since it feels very dated by today's standards. It is basically a simplistic story of a man torn between following his dream and the tradition of his family, yet it never rises to the occasion, neither in writing nor in execution. This storyline is a dime a dozen, basically almost a soap opera with banal narrative flow, whereas it simply lacks highlights. There is very little to see, stylistically or story-wise, and the long sequences of singing tend to become tiresome and dry. That is why "The Jazz Singer" is today only valuable formally for the cineasts, yet does not hold a special place in the heart of many movie goers.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
Shiro is a young student who is engaged to Yukiko, the daughter of his University professor, Mr. Yajima. One night, he was together with the classmate Tamura who drives a car and accidentally hits and kills a yakuza member on the street. Shiro is plagued by guilt, but Tamura tries to whitewash any wrongdoing from them. Shiro's life just goes downhill from there: while trying to report everything to the police, the taxi he was in has a crash from which Yukiko dies; Shiro returns to his home where his mother dies from a disease, while his father is cheating on her with a mistress; the yakuza's girlfriend, Yoko, tries to kill Shiro, but dies by falling from a bridge... Finally, all the inmates in the house die from poisoned fish and find themselves in hell. Shiro observes how all the people he knew had dark secrets one way or another, and how they are punished for these in hell. He is stuck trying to save his and Yukiko's unborn baby who is rotating on a giant wheel.
"Jigoku" is a dark and depressive fantasy-horror drama in which director Nobuo Nakagawa displays a grim perspective on life that is doomed to end in all kinds of tragedy and despair: for him, there is no escape from this "doomed if they do, doomed if they don't" cicyle, depicting how his characters are plagued while they were alive, only to be plagued once again in hell. However, it seems Nakagawa lost context from the film, almost as if he himself is unsure what this has to do with the overall theme of the storyline. The "normal", first part of the film, could have worked much better if it was changed just a little bit: the protagonist, Shiro, is plagued by guilt of a man who was killed in a car he was in, and the hell could have been just a symbolic representation of his bad conscience. If Shiro drove the car himself, this would have worked, but since the car driven by his friend, all of this guilt is not quite fitting. Unfortunately, Nakagawa somehow lost this simple perspective and included numerous other characters who also landed in hell, even those who had no fault, which seems uneven and pointless, unless it is a sardonic commentary on life that crudely punishes everyone, from those who are guilty to those who are innocent. The film drew attention thanks to its bizarre hell sequences which comprise the last 38 minutes, which stand out thanks to their outstanding special effects for that time (the "dune" valley with a river underneath it; demons sawing a man in half or taking the skin away from another man, leaving him only with a skeleton and organs underneath; the row of skeletons on a dark valley...). It is also interesting that the movie demolishes all the institutions in this segment by including all the characters in hell, from the police (an inspector who framed an innocent man), journalism (a false news article ruined the life of a man) up to medicine (a doctor erred with false diagnosis, but was too proud to admit his mistake). Still, all this could have been presented in a better way, since the ending is rather abrupt and pointless.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
Berlin. Dr. Mabuse is a seemingly respectful doctor of psychology, but in reality he is secretly a criminal boss who wants to rule the underground. His henchmen steal a secret Swiss-Dutch contract from a train, which Mabuse uses to gain a fortune on the stock market. He also uses hypnosis to persuade a rich man, Hull, to lose a poker game and give him a lot of money. State prosecutor von Wenk suspects that all these crimes can be tracked down to one criminal, but he doesn't even know his name. Mabuse orders dances Carozza to seduce Hull in order to spy on the rich man. When Hull is killed in a casino, Carozza is arrested, but poisoned by Mabuse who fears she might reveal his name. Von Wenk manages to capture a henchman, Pesch, who placed a bomb in his office, but Pesch is killed by a sniper. Mabuse falls in love and kidnaps Countess Told, but she rejects him. Finally, the police starts a raid of Mabuse's mansion. They finally arrest him when he loses his mind from visions of the people he killed.
Widely considered to be Fritz Lang's breakthrough film as a director, silent crime movie "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler" is still a notch bellow all the hype that surrounds it: for a running time of over 4 hours, it is decisively too long, and the 'cat-and-mouse' story doesn't pick up until the third hour. It is without doubt a fine, quality film with an elegant narration and clear storytelling, yet the longer a film gets, the more ingenuity it needs to invest for the viewers not to quit the screening—for such extra long time it demands, a movie needs to grow exponentially in quality to cover for it, and "Dr. Mabuse" somehow lacks highlights for such a megalomaniac task. Lang's visual style is not quite as grand or innovative as it was in his finest classics, including "M" or "Nibelungen: Siegfried", yet the story flows smoothly, with remarkable elegance, despite the pacing issues. Two sequences are truly excellent and show Lang in his true glory as a filmmaker: one is when state prosecutor Wenk and criminal Dr. Mabuse meet for the first time, both in disguise, both unaware of each other's identity, in a secret casino where they engage in a poker game. Mabuse again tries out his regular trick of hypnosis in order to find a victim from whom he can extract large amounts of money. This is conveyed through an effective scene in which the whole background becomes black and only Mabuse's face is left visible, whereas it is slowly magnified on the screen as it tries to command to Wenk.
The other moment is their third encounter, in which Mabuse is disguised as a magician and calls up Wenk on the stage. Wenk finally recognizes his nemesis behind the mask, yet is unable to resist the hypnosis. Mabuse then orders him to drive with a car off the cliff into the Melior quarry. The sequence of Wenk driving the car through the forest is remarkable, displaying the subtitle "Melior" on his windshield, and then the word "Melior" is repeated four times as it slides from right to left side of a whole row of trees along the road, in a fantastic mise-en-scene. With a better editor, who would have cut out many of the unecessary subplots, this would have been a far more compact film. Still, it is an interesting essay on the chaotic time in Germany of that era, focusing on all sorts of underground thugs who have arisen from thee, noticeable in Lang's commentary on contemporary existentialiast and nihilist tendencies in a highly intriguing moment in which Countess Told admits: "I am afraid there is nothing on this world that I can be interested in for a long time... Everything I can see from my car, from my window is partially revolting, partially uninteresting." This causes Mabuse to reply that the only interesting thing is "to play with people and their destinies", revealing that money was not his interest at all, but sheer exploration of how psychology can be misused to exploit people.
Monday, September 4, 2017
Governor McGinty recieves a phone call from a distressed man, informing him about a bizarre story that is unfolding in Morgan Creek: teenager Trudy Kockenlocker participated in a farewell-party for American soldiers leaving for war, but the next morning she woke up and realized that she was so drunk she got married to one of them, but forgot his name or how he looks like. Worse still, she is pregnant. Trudy tells this to her 14-year old sister Emmy, but hides it from her father. Trudy thus asks the guy who was in love with her all these years, Norval, to marry her to conceal the scandal. She dresses Norval as a soldier and tries to marry him under a fake name so that she can get divorced through the marriage certificate, but Norval is arrested for impersonating a soldier. When he tries to escape from jail, things get even worse for him. On Christmas, Trudy gives birth to six boys, while McGinty arranges for Norval to get released so that the two can be a good couple.
Even for Preston Sturges, this is one of the most insane and audacious comedies from the Hays Code era, a satire that dances on thin ice of the allowed themes at that time, yet manages to still pull it off. The joke premise of a girl who was so drunk she forgot whom she married the previous night was so influential that is was copied a thousand times in movies or TV shows (a similar concept was even used again is Sturges own later film "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock") and offered huge potentials for a screwball comedy, with jokes ranging from witty dialogues ("I don't believe it!" - "Well, nobody asked you!") up to pure physical sight gags (one of the most howlingly funny scenes is the wacky stunt in which the 14-year old Emmy scorns her father that he should be "more rafined" and then turns around to walk away, but her dad is so angry at that remark that he swings his foot to kick her butt, but slips and falls down, loosing his shoe). Sturges rises to the occasion in this story, poking fun at everything and everyone, from conservative institutions up to small town mentality, and in a sheer stroke of genius even has his old Governor McGinty back from his film "The Great McGinty" as the framework of the story. The range of burlesque jokes is simply astounding, some of which are just plain crazy and batty, yet one has to give him credit for at least having the courage for trying them out: near the end, in a weird clip, the film makes fun of the scandal of Morgan Creek getting so out of hand that it even switches to a military camp where Hitler gets informed about the birth of the sextuplet babies, only for the newspaper to announce the headline: "Hitler demands a recount!" The best joke in the entire film is probably the sequence in which the clumsy Norval is trying to hint to Trudy's father (brilliant William Demarest) that he wants to propose his daughter, but dad is cleaning his pistol and accidentally fires pass him. Norval then quietly walks through the glass door (!) and towards Trudy, exchanging a dialogue which is comedy gold ("What was that gunshot about?" - "It was just your father. He was practicing"). The ending seems slightly too chaotic and sloppy, ruining somewhat the impression, yet "The Miracle of Morgan Creek" is still a fine screwball comedy that works thanks to its anarchic humor.
Sunday, September 3, 2017
Chicago. Helen, a graduate student, intends to write a thesis on modern myths and is intrigued when she hears about the urban legend of the Candyman. He was once an African-American painter in 19th century, but when he impregnated a white woman, the mob hacked his hand off and killed him by tossing thousands of bees onto his body covered with honey. According to a source, Candyman can be summoned if his name is told five times in front of a mirror, and allegedly someone was murdered by him in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Helen investigates the murder, but suddenly gets hallucinations. She wakes up in the apartment of Anne-Marie, whose dog has been killed and her baby kidnapped. The police send Helen to a mental asylum, but she escapes when she summons Candyman who kills the psychiatrist. Candyman wants Helen to continue his legacy, but she manages to kill him and herself in fire, but saves the baby. Helen's boyfriend, Trevor, summons Helen's name five times in the mirror - and is subsequently killed by her, who succeeded Candyman.
A surprisingly refined psychological horror, this is a quality made independent film that managed to lift itself up above the typical cheap-trash slasher films from that era, thanks among others because it dedicates a lot of time to its main heroine, Helen, played very well by Virginia Madsen, and an elegant visual style. "Candyman" still missed a golden opportunity, however: its title antagonist, an African-American, was a victim of racial violence in the 19th century, and the story could have benefitted a lot if it followed that lead and turned into an allegory of a dark past that haunts the modern US. Unfortunately, almost nothing in the film itself seems to consider this potential: Candyman could have very well been white, or any other race, since it makes no difference in the narrative. The theme of racial relations is utterly ignored for the rest of the film. Likewise, the film lacks highlights: the second half is just one long hallucionation after hallucionation that Helen endures, while she lands in the mental asylum, yet potentials for more suspense could have been exploited. There is one great scary moment: the flashback of a couple who jokingly dare each other and tell Candyman's name five times in front of the mirror. At first, nothing happens, and they dismiss it as a myth. The guy leaves the bathroom, while she stays and then turns off the lights—only for Candyman to suddenly appear in the dark. This scene is a sophisticated example of horror, and the film could have used some more of it. Still, it is an all-around clever and patient little film that manages to deliver a horror film with a difference.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Kru is a farmer who lives in a desolate house in the jungles of Nan. He lives there with his wife Chantiu, their three children and a pet monkey. When a leopard jumps over their fence and kills a goat, Kru builds a trap and manages to capture the predator. He also teams up with other nearby farmers and captures and kills a tiger with a rifle. A new problem is the heard of elephants, though: one of them tramples and destroys his rice crop, so Kru captures a baby elephant. This however brings the elephant mother to free him and chase away Kru and his family, who find refuge in a village. A heard of elephants destroys the village, so the people unite to trap a heard, dispersing it. Peace returns for Kru, but it is only temporally.
Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack stayed remembered for only one film, classic adventure "King Kong", while all their others achievements remained just a footnote in film lexicons, which is a pity since they had a fairly rich opus, regardless of a lack of popularity. Among them is "Chang", their second feature length film, an unusual blend of documentary and fictional adventure that offers a glimpse inside the 'slice-of-life' habitat of Kru and his family living in the jungles of the Nan province, which is basically a forerunner to "Kong", hinting at Cooper's and Shoedsack's fascination with the interaction of man and beasts in the wild. "Chang" has no overarching storyline and instead just follows the daily routine of these people, unflinching at their attempts at survival: one episode has them capturing a giant lizard in the river, killing it and then roasting it for its meat. The authors were really daring and went out of their way and comfort zone to record some incredible, extraordinary rare footage of wild animals (staged or not), resulting in at least two highlights: one is the sequence of a tiger trying to climb up a tree where a man is hiding on top, and the other is the elephant stampede which demolishes a village. Several moments were staged, yet the authenticity was kept thanks to the use of non-professional actors as well as exciting or just plain silly (the pet monkey sequences) moments from the jungle, delivering an all-around successful film that also contemplates about some bigger themes in life, such as the endless struggle of humans against the never ending dangers from the forces of nature.
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
An escaped convict disguises himself as a reverend and randomly buys a train ticket to a small Texas town, to escape as far away as possible. There, he is mistaken for the new parson and has to hold a sermon. He is invited to Mrs. Brown's home, where he is attracted to her daughter. However, Peter, also an ex-convict, recognizes his jail inmate and invites himself to Mrs. Brown's home, where he steals her money. The Pilgrim returns the money, but is arrested by the Sheriff. However, the Sheriff allows him to escape across the Mexican border.
Charlie Chaplin's final movie for the First National Company, "The Pilgrim" is an amusing comedy short, yet a one that is much more amusing in the first half than in the rather overstretched second half. Chaplin's gags here are a hit-or-miss affair: some of them work early in the film, especially through the often used technique of slowly revealing more and more details which get the hero into more trouble (for instance, while in train, the Pilgrim shares the same seat with a man reading newspapers. Suddenly, the Pilgrim is shocked when he spots his wanted poster on the newspaper. But as the man unbuttons his jacket, it is revealed he wears a Sheriff's badge, causing the Pilgrim to finally run away) or the more subversive jokes of poking fun at religion (the Pilgrim holding a sermon about: David and Goliath!). However, the jokes seem to lose their inspiration after a while, and the worst joke is probably the one involving a little kid slapping the Pilgrim or anyone around him. The subplot revolving around the Pilgrim's love interest also seems like a "third wheel". However, despite a rather abridged and abrupt ending, it is still a good contribution to Chaplin's early film opus.
Sunday, August 27, 2017
War veteran John Rambo has retired and now spends his peaceful time in the jungles of Thailand. One day, this changes when he is approached by a couple of American volunteers who persuade him to drive them in his boat to the isolated Burma to bring medical supplies and help the wounded Khang people there. Reluctantly, Rambo agrees. The missionaries are arrested and abducted by Burma's military junta during their attack at an village. Upon hearing that, Rambo decides to go back once again to save them, together with five American mercenaries. They storm a Burmese outpost and save the missionaries and other abducted people. Rambo then machine guns all Burmese soldiers. Afterwords, Rambo returns back home in America.
20 years after "Rambo III", Sylvester Stallone was finally persuaded to return one last time in the shoes of one of his most iconic movie roles, but part IV was predictably just a rehash of the previous film, except that the villainous Soviets were replaced by the military junta in Burma. The 2008 "Rambo" is a surprisingly thin, terse film, with a simplistic story that can be practically summed up in one sentence: the Burmese military junta abducts American missionaries from a village, Rambo arrives to save them, they leave Burma, the end. It is almost tempting to ask "Is that it? Are there really no surprises or twists in the story?", yet it seems the authors were not preoccupied with creating some especially interesting, memorable or versatile characters, but to set up one-dimensional extras just to have an action terrain for Rambo. Stallone is still in great shape, and the democratic message is noble, but one would have hoped to find out more about Rambo as a character if this was suppose to be his final appearance. In the final scenes, he is seen walking back to his deserted home in America. Wouldn't it have been interesting to find out how he feels back home? Are there are relatives of friends whom he missed? Unfortunately, none of that is the concern of the (limited) scope of the abridged storyline. As some film critics have pointed, this just might be the bloodiest "Rambo" film: while in first film, the hero was cautious not to kill anyone, just wound them, here he machine-guns the Burmese military junta, whose bodies literally explode in piles of blood from heavy bullets. For action fans, a solid film, yet for the cineasts, more could have been served.