Friday, May 25, 2007

Berserk


Berserk; animated fantasy horror series, Japan, 1997; D: Naohito Takahashi, S: Nobutoshi Hayashi, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Yuko Miyamura, Akiko Yajima, Akira Ishida

The kingdom of Midland is fighting an endless war with another kingdom. Guts, an invincible swordsman, is being assaulted by a member of the mercenary band the Hawks and injured when he in self-defence attacks Caska. The leader of the Hawks, Griffith, wins in a duel with him and convinces him to join his group. As years pass by, Griffith and Guts fight numerous battles for Midland and win every one of them. At the same time, Griffith reveals his dream is to rule the world, and with time he gets the sympathy from the king. The Hawks become the strongest mercenaries and advance to aristocrats, winning in the war. After a peace agreement, Guts decides to leave the Hawks. Griffith is devastated and arrested when he sneaked in to spend the night with princess Charlotte. After a year, Guts hears the Hawks are now outlawed by the king so he returns to help them save Griffith from jail and falls in love with Caska. As they save the mutilated Griffith, his magic Behelit summons the forces of evil that suck in the Hawks. Griffith is chosen to become demon lord and rule the world, offering everyone as sacrifice, even Guts and Caska.

Serious critics were never impressed by splatter/ action/ fight  animes, and rightfully so, since most of them seem like pure trash. Legendary anime „Berserk“ truly starts like one of those trash contributions – with its primitive style it seems more like some Medieval Steven Segal film than something remotely good, and one would not blame people who would simply give up on it after seeing only 2 episodes. But, by some unexplainable reason, „Berserk“ actually starts improving, even putting some emotions into its story, and from episode 7, the first one without any violence at all, it transforms into something good, a real drama about dreams and fate with epic feel that is reminiscent of „Conan the Barbarian“ and „Excalibur“. Even from there on, blood splashes through the screen in almost every episode, but it also has secret dramatic touches – in one episode, Caska is not able to fight right in the middle of a major battle because she has her period, and falls from a cliff. But Guts is able to save her, spots her menstruating and warms her with her body in a cave. Of course, when she wakes up the next day, she is furious, but later on she figures he saved her life. She even reveals her trauma from childhood, in one of the most radical and dramatic things ever to be directly shown in anime: when she was still a 10-year old child, a pedophile count bought her from her parents and tried to rape her in the field. In one scene her ripped clothes are shown, that gave direct view into her underdeveloped breasts, which is highly disturbing, but also uncompromising. Luckily, she was saved by Griffith, another multi-layered character. It is revealed he is ready to sacrifice everything for his dream – in one scene he voluntarily sleeps with a rich, gay, old lord as a semi-prostitute for money, in order to finance his army. But another twist happens in the story that gives this subplot another spark – years later, Griffith is fighting a siege of a castle held by the same old lord, getting in direct confrontation with his old „lover“.

Just because a story is adult and shows violence and blood, it does not mean it is also mature. Actually, some „children’s“ achievements are sometimes more mature than adult animes or mangas. „Berserk“ is sometimes art, but also sometimes trash. Or to be precise, it starts as an ugly duckling, turns into an beautiful swan, only to again turn into an ugly duckling at the end. In one scene Griffith is contemplating after a battle and says: „I want to know who I am“. In another, he spots a dead boy who dreamed about becoming a knight and says: „The thing that killed him might have been my dream“. Not quite a dialogue one can find in ordinary action story, is it? There is a lot of strategy insight but the story has flaws – dry style, unmemorable and sloppy dialogues, the cliche formula about the invincible hero (Guts meets numerous „unbeatable“ warriors who - yes, you guessed it - childishly say he does not stand a chance, but he wins every time). Also, it contains dumbing violence, glorifies hate and presents violence as the only way to solve a problem, which reduces its wisdom. After 25 episodes, „Berserk“ ends on a cliffhanger, with an open ending, which is also disappointing and inconclusive. Still, whether one will love or hate the ending, the finale simply has to be seen – it is indescribable. Just when you thought the story will end this way, it ends in a completely different way. It is one of the most bizarre, unusual things of all time, and one has got to see at least the last 3 episodes simply for the madness of it, which is beyond human mind. On the surface, „Berserk“ is about fighting, but is actually secretly about fate and dreams. The second season will probably never be made, but since the authors needed 8 hours only to get the story started, maybe it is even better that way.

Grade:++

Limelight


Limelight; Drama, USA, 1952; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Sydney Chaplin, Buster Keaton

London, 1910s. Calvero is an old entertainer whose glory days have gone. He drinks in pubs unable to reconcile with the fact that he was once a famous clown, but one day he manages to save a girl, Terry, from committing suicide with gas and places her in his apartment. When she regains her consciousness she admits she didn't want to live anymore when she found out she has rheum, since her job is a dancer. He nurses her and she eventually becomes a successful dancer. She wants to marry him, but he thinks she only has pity with him. On his grand comeback show, Calvero falls in a drum and eventually dies from his injury, but the audience laughs because it thinks it's a part of the act.

Charlie Chaplin made an unusual move towards melodrama in his second, weaker part of his career, during the sound era - his movie "Limelight" is rather forced since it contains too many one dimensional events and elements (his protagonist Calvero is idealised heavily, being presented as a hero who rejects the love of an attractive girl, Terry, because he thinks she deserves someone better and younger) and shamelessly exploits his personal fears: Calvero disguises himself in a famous clown that looks remarkably like the legendary Tramp, mirroring Chaplin's own fears that his humor and his whole work might have become outdated and forgotten in modern times. Of course, the Tramp will never become outdated, thus Chaplin uses the story as a way to gain his self-esteem once again. Also, for the first time, Chaplin showed himself on film without moustache and with gray hair, presenting his real, undisguised self. The first half of the film is actually truly good - when Calvero saves Terry from committing suicide and brings her in his apartment, the landlord asks him what he is doing, on which he replies: "Exactly the opposite of what you think!" When Terry complains that life doesn't have a meaning, he gives her a wonderful, magical, underrated advice: "Why should life have a meaning? Life should just be lived!". The second half is pretentious, but still emotional and heavily autobiographical. In the finale, for a few minutes, Chaplin and Buster Keaton, two legends of old movies, appear together on stage doing a sketch, which is an ontology of classic comedy, despite not being funny enough and underdeveloped.

Grade:++

Monsieur Verdoux


Monsieur Verdoux; Black comedy, USA, 1947; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Mady Correll

One family is wondering where their aunt Thelma disappeared off. But she is already dead - she was killed by Henri Verdoux, a gentleman turned into a serial killer who married older women in order to eliminate them and get their money. After Thelma his next victim is Lydia. But he is only doing that to finance his real wife in a wheelchair and his child since he lost his job. Among his "false" wives is also Annabelle who is constantly talking and refusing to leave her fortune to him. One day Verdoux gives some money to a poor girl and realizes there are also beutiful things in life. But he gets arrested and sentenced to death.

After his last great film, the brilliant "The Great Dictator", Chaplin somehow lost his strength in the sound movie era and started making unnoticed achievements. "Monsieur Verdoux" is for him a untypically cynical and black comedy that ridicules (but secretly also praises) humanism, causing the film to be a commercial failure but also to get nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay. Truly, "Verdoux" starts with elegance and clever humor: in the opening shots Verdoux's grave is shown, but then his voice in form of a narrator starts telling his story. In the next shot the protagonists are members of a average family who are wondering where their aunt Thelma disappeared after she got married for a suspicious husband ("Maybe they are still on the honeymoon!" - "Who could hold out that for 3 months with Thelma?"). Then Verdoux is shown in his garden how he is burning Thelma's corpse in an oven. Chaplin still has style, but the movie is forced and too bizarre at parts, trying to soften his evil role he is playing, an the pathetic can be noticed.

Grade:++

The Great Dictator


The Great Dictator; satire / tragicomedy, USA, 1940; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner, Jack Oakie, Billy Gilbert
During the First World War, the Jewish Tramp was fighting for his homeland Tomania, but it lost. After a decade spent in a hospital in coma, the Tramp suddenly wakes up and returns to his job as a barber, but he is shocked to find out that the country is now ruled by the dictator Hynkel who hates Jews. The Tramp makes friends with a girl called Hannah, but is arrested and sent in an concentration camp. Hynkel invades Osterlich, where Hannah has fled to. But the Tramp looks remarkably like Hynkel - one day, the soldiers arrest Hynkel and mistakenly place the Tramp as their leader. In front of a mass of soldiers, the Tramp makes a speech about humanity.

Unusual satire "The Great Dictator", once declared as the best film of all time by the New York Times, was a brave polygon for Chaplin's first speaking role in a sound picture, and was nominated for 5 Oscars (best picture, screenplay, music, actor in a leading role Charlie Chaplin, supporting actor Jack Oakie). The film is charming, sharp, funny and touching at the same time, and full of allegories. The story is an obvious, unprecedented parody of Adolf Hitler and contains a lot of subversive ideas: the Third Reich's minister of propaganda Goebbels is here called Garbitsch. Hynkel is an incompetent clots who always trips unto something. A police officer salutes with "Heil Hynkel!" while the oblivious Tramp responds with: "Gesundheit".

But Chaplin also added a balance with his Tramp who also has a few "universal" gags, not only political ones: the whole story is extremely stylish, Chaplin's gags are meticulously graded and executed and almost every gesture or movement is orchestrated like a good ballet. Just take the scene where the tramp is on the battle front and gets an order to throw a hand grenade. He wants to throw the grenade, but it falls down his sleeve. The way he gets in panic and quickly removes his clothes is something so hypnotically funny it has to be seen to be believed. The biggest problem of the film are its last half an hour that lost it subtlety and became banal and clumsy (the food fight between Hynkel and Mussolini clone Napaloni), but as a whole this is still an underrated masterpiece, a movie and a message with a soul - nothing compares to the brilliant idea that the evil antisemitic Hynkel and the good Jewish Tramp look exactly the same. The implications are obvious - the dictator is persecuting himself, and everything can be divided into yin and yang. The Tramp's final speech about humanity ("Only those who are not loved hate") is a metaphysical wonder since it places him as Hynkel's good half.

Grade:++++

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Modern Times


Modern Times; Silent tragicomedy, USA, 1936; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Chester Conklin

The Tramp works on a assembly line in a huge factory, having to curve screws all day long. He becomes mad and ends up in a mental institution, but after he becomes well again he doesn't have a job anymore and accidentally ends up in prison. Since he there foiled criminals from escape, the warden releases him fro jail. On the street he meets a girl who lost a father and doesn't have a home. The couple settles down in a old shack and starts working as entertainers but get fired, thus end up once again on the street.

Some critics call "Modern Times" the best film Charlie Chaplin ever made. It's a cute, simple film with a lot of emotions and care for it's character. But it seems they allowed and tolerated all kind of nonsense in it because of it's reputation as a classic because the overhyped "Modern Times" are a step bellow Chaplin's better films. The main problem is that Chaplin didn't wrote any kind of screenplay but just spontaneously went on to film the scenes, thus creating an episodic half-plot that meandereds from one misstep of the hero to another, loosing itself slightly in the dark context of the clever critique of the modern industrialisation of the world. The exposition is without doubt excellent: from the opening shots, where a hurdle of sheep is switched to a scene of a hurdle of tired workers, up to the legendary sequence where the Tramp is quickly working on an assembly line but when he sneezes he looses his line thus becoming mad, the story shows the inhumane industry system that lost the insight for the little man from the urge for production. Some gags are bizarre (like the one where the Tramp becomes so mad he even wants to curve the screw on the buttons of a dress on the chest of a lady) but some are even beyond bizarre (the one where the Tramp ends up in jail and mixes up cocaine (!) with salt) that don't seem balanced even despite the excellent Paulette Goddard since Chaplin went on too deep into pretentiousness and naive mood: in his wish for everyone to like the Tramp he presented him as an ideal, a saint, the most innocent man in the world, almost like a messiah, instead of a realistic character. Despite not being funny enough and too serious, "Modern Times" is a quality achievement that amusingly paraphrases "Metropolis" and offers enough genius scenes.

Grade:++

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush; silent comedy, USA, 1925; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale, Tom Murray


Alaska, 19th Century. Numerous adventurers are searching for gold in the mountains, among them even the Tramp who is surprised by a blizzard. He hides in a nearby barn where he meets the bandit Black Larson. There are soon joined by the clumsy Jim, who also searched for a place to rest. As days go by and the blizzard doesn't defer, the men become hungry and are forced to even eat shoes. Larson gets chosen to go get help, but he vanishes. Finally, the blizzard calms down and they manage to escape. The Tramp comes to a city where he falls in love with a girl called Georgia, although she leaves him alone on New Year's eve. Still, she later begs him to forgive her. Jim and the Tramp return to the barn and find gold, thus becoming rich.

Excellent silent comedy "The Gold Rush" is one of the most respected in Chaplin's opus, who once again proves that he can, besides gags, also create a very clever movie maker style even for feature length films, unlike his colleagues Laurel and Hardy whose films over 20 minutes become used out and run out of steam. The jokes served somewhere around the middle of the film, which play out in the city, are unfunny and slightly forced, but the ones in the barn are hilarious: the timeless genius of the "old" films can be best sensed in the classic scene where the Tramp eats his shoe or does the "dance" with two bread rolls. Another great, but more "unknown" gag involves the scene where Larson tries to throw the Tramp out of the barn, but the blizzard wind is so powerful that he can't even come close to the opened doors, and in another the barn gets dragged all the way to the edge of the cliff, thus tipping for 90 degrees while the men are still in it, whose perspective gets distorted, so the Tramp and Jim are forced to slowly crawl on the floor towards the exit before it crashes. The emotions are rather underplayed in the story this time around, but even the "colder" romantic subplot ends up being very good, making "The Gold Rush" a simple classic gold.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Woman of Paris


A Woman of Paris; Silent drama, USA, 1923; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Adolphe Menjou

A French village. Jean, a young painter, and Marie are in love with each other, but their parents are strictly against their relationship. The young couple decides to flee to Paris and marry there, but Jean postpones the trip when his father suddenly dies. Marie interprets his delay as a resignation so she goes to Paris alone and becomes a mistress of the rich Pierre. After a long time, Marie again meet Jean and their love blossoms again. But Jean's mother is still against the relationship so Marie goes back to Pierre. Jean, deeply disappointed, commits suicide. Marie and the mother reconcile and open a home for orphans.

Silent Melodrama "A Woman of Paris" is the first serious film from the comedian Charlie Chaplin, but a one he didn't star in (except for a small cameo) thus the commercial and critical success stayed out. Still, although a "fiasco" at it's time, the movie is today rehabilitated, holds on pretty well and has a solid number of admirers. Admitted, "A Woman of Paris" is a step behind Chaplin's classic comedies and it's simple story about a love between the rich Marie and the poor Jean is slightly unmemorable and dangerously close to an soap opera, but for it's time unusually bitter and mature. For instance, in one scene a woman covered with sheets like a mummy disrobes on a party completely nude (although nothing much is shown) while in another Pierre announces to Marie that she will stay his mistress even after he marries another woman. Rarely cheerful, stripped of any kind of humor (except for a few exceptions, like the scene where a woman is throwing her cigarette-stub in a trumpet), this film has flaws, but it bravely displays a brave story of it's author.

Grade:+++

Total Recall


Total Recall; science-fiction / action, USA, 1990; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone

The year is 2084. Douglas Quaid is a normal construction worker married to Lori and obsessed with travelling to Mars. Since he doesn't have enough money to afford a trip, he decides to go to a company called Rekall where he would get an implanted, false memory of a travel to Mars. He decides to get a memory of a secret agent, but the thing go wrong, he escapes and starts wondering if he really is a secret agent from Mars whose memory has been erased and replaced with a false one. As he gets persecuted by Richter he travels to Mars and meets prostitute Melina with whom he apparently had a relationship. He also meets a psychic-mutant, Kuato, leader of the resistance, who advises him to start a secret Martian reactor built by Aliens long time ago. Cohaagen, Mars' administrator, reveals that Quaid is actually Hauser, his employee, who voluntarily had his memory replaced in order to infiltrate and find Kuato. Still, Quaid manages to escape and start the reactor, which creates oxygen and turns the whole Mars into an inhabitable planet.

"Total Recall" starts brilliantly: it shows an extravagant, utopian world of the future full of interesting details and high-tech ideas (the "TV-windows" that can show pictures of nature by a click of a button, a woman changes her fingernail color from green to blue just by touching them...). The main tangle, based on a short story by the brilliant Philip K. Dick, unravels rather quickly: the main hero Quaid cannot afford a journey to Mars, so he decides to implant a false memory of his journey to that planet as a secret agent, but the thing goes wrong and he soon doesn't know if he really is a secret agent or not. There are a few thought provoking issues raised in that plot, especially the one about how one's whole memory can be replaced with another one, leaving someone wondering what is real and what not. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" had a similar concept, except that there someones memory was erased, while here it was changed. Unfortunately, when the main hero comes to Mars, the film looses its philosophical and intelligent charge and quickly degenerates into an average, vile action flick. It still has a few interesting ideas here and there, but the story too often falls into trash (the mutants, like the woman with three breasts, are simply at time too bizarre and disgusting), dumbing violence and Verhoeven's uninspired, excessive exploitation of gore and campy style, where not even the trick if the whole story is just Quaid's imagination or not cannot save the thing. "Total Recall" is a good film, but it still stinks.

Grade:++

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Man Who Knew Too Much


The Man Who Knew Too Much; Thriller, USA, 1956; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: James Stewart, Doris Day, Christopher Olsen, Daniel Gelin, Brenda De Banzie

Doctor Ben is together with his wife and son Hank traveling in a bus through Morocco as a tourist. Hank gets scorned by an Arab for taking the veil of a woman, but the situation gets de-escalated by the French Bernard. In a hotel they become friends but the next morning Bernard, masked as an Arab, dies in front of Ben due to an assassination and manages to mention a planned assassination in London and Ambros Chapel. Ben wants to say that information to the police, but an anonymous callers warns him to keep quiet because his son has been kidnapped. In London Ben finds a certain man called Ambros Chapel but he soon realizes Bernard meant a real chapel. He there discovers criminals disguised as priests who kidnapped his son and who plan to kill a minister inside an opera. During the opera, the minister gets only wounded, while Ben manages to free his son and push the priest down the stairs.

With "The Man Who Knew Too Much" Alfred Hitchcock made a remake of his very own film with the same title from 1934 and proved to be his own match. The exposition is manifesting itself like almost every Hitchcock film: with calm mood. There the master by the way portrays a few interesting details from Morocco, like the meat that is traditionally eaten with the right hand and with only three fingers, causing the main hero Ben a lot of problems. Of course, with the murder of the French charter Bernard the mood suddenly transforms into a thriller and slowly raises the tension - in one scene the police chief is interrogating Ben if he knows the victim and immediately adds: "Of course you knew him!", which causes Ben to reply with: "You're not only asking the questions, you're also responding to them at the same time!" Hitchcock also added a few satirical stabs (Ben's son is kidnapped by a criminal disguised as a priest) and the 9 minute long sequence in the finale, that plays out in the opera where the killer is waiting to shoot the minister at the end of the act, created suspense by simply showing and following the music notes. A rather skillful thriller-drama about abduction, full of rhythm, the famous song "Que Sera, Sera" won an Oscar while the movie itself was even nominated for a Golden Palm in Cannes.

Grade:+++

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; drama/ satire, USA, 1939; D: Frank Capra, S: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Reins, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell
A Senator of an unnamed state dies so his boss, Jim Taylor, a tycoon of suspicious moral, decides to find a quick replacement to fulfill his illegal plan to build a dam nobody needs in order to get even richer by funding it with the tax money. His people choose the new replacement - the naive, moral Jefferson Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers. But when arriving to Washington, Smith is shocked to find out Taylor controls numerous corrupted Senators, among them even his idol Paine, so he announces that publicly in the Senate floor. Taylor organizes a dirty campaign against Smith, even ironically accusing him of trying to become rich by building the dam. Smith launches a filibuster but Paine in the end admits the truth an Smith is declared free of charges.

Bitter and subversive political satire "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", which won only one Oscar for best screenplay out of 11 nominations, is not on the same level as Frank Capra's masterpiece "It Happened One Night" but it still clearly demonstrates the underrated talent of that director. The clever story about an evil tycoon, Taylor, who "buys" Senators in order to model and change the laws by his own will and secure himself financial profit is truly unbelievably visionary for its time and even relevant today, causing some critics to say that "Mr. Smith should visit Washington again". Some have attacked the film for being "unpatriotic" in showing the corrupt politicians, completely missing the point since it's simply a warning of what can happen if corruption or even plutocracy prevail in politics. As always, Capra has humanity and sympathy for his characters and offers a moral message: from the sequence in which the naive Smith is walking through Washington and admiring its monuments and what they stand for up until the bitter, electrifying finale where Taylor is controlling the newspapers and uses that control to spread lies and put the reputation of the good hero through the mud (even preventing the other newspapers that claim the opposite!) while at the same time elevating the evil Senators, the movie raises an interesting point and proves to be excellent all the way through, and James Stewart plays his role with bravura.

Grade:+++

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Shop Around the Corner


The Shop Around the Corner; Romantic comedy, USA, 1940; D: Ernst Lubitsch, S: James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, Frank Morgan, Sara Haden

Budapest. The old Matuschek heads a small shopping store that's getting through a hard time. He employs 6 people, among them the young Alfred Kralik who was reading a newspaper and stumbled upon an ad of an anonymous woman who is searching for a man of her life and started writing to her through the letters. But he doesn't know that the woman he is writing to is actually the new employee in his store, Klara Novak, who is going on his nerves. After Matuschek almost commits suicide when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with the employee Vadas, Kralik temporarily takes charge of the store and discovers that his pen-pal girl is actually Novak. When he reveals that to her they make up and become a couple.

After the hit film "You've Got Mail" from Nora Ephron many moviegoers became curious and wanted to find out more about the original film "The Shop Around the Corner" but some of them were left slightly puzzled. Namely, after the excellent comedy "Ninotschka" Ernst Lubitsch didn't manage too well in the story about a man and a woman who hate each other but don't know that they are actually anonymously writing love letters to each other. The iteration of humor doesn't work flawlessly and many actors are irritatingly hamming their roles. Only at moments does the story truly live up to her expectations and become inventive, like when Kralik discovered that Novak is actually his anonymous pen-pal girl: instead of revealing Novak the secret, he "accidentally" enters the restaurant where they were suppose to meet on a blind date and starts mischievously talking with her, much to her dismay since she is still expecting her "man of dreams". The next day he even writes her a letter saying: "I didn't want to meet with you because I saw you with a very handsome guy". There is an interesting point made in the story, the one about how people could learn to love each other only if they dropped their facade and get to know each other better, but it's a pity that the film is taking too little time to handle the "invisible" couple, concentrating more on the supporting characters, like when Matuschek discovered his wife is cheating on him with Vadas. That special spark is missing, but still, there are enough of quirky dialogues: in one scene, Kralik starts dictating a letter to Flora in front of Vadas: "To whom it may concern. Mr. Vadas has been in the employ of Matuschek & Company for the last two years, during which he has been very efficient as a stool pigeon, a troublemaker, and a rat". Vadas of course demonstrates: "Now look here!", but Kralik continues to dictate: "And if he doesn't clear out of here he's going to get a punch in the nose! Yours very truly, Alfred Kralik, Manager, Matuschek & Company."

Grade:++

Kukuli


Kukuli; Drama, Peru, 1961; D: Luis Figueroa, Eulogio Nishiyama, César Villanueva, S: Victor Chambi, Judith Figueroa, Emilio Galli, Martina Mamani

In the rousing landscapes of South America live the people of Inca. Kukuli, a young woman, is a member of these people, playing with her lama while traveling across the mountains. During one of her voyages she meets Alaka and falls in love with him. The young couple arranges for a witch to predict their future, but she gets scared and chases them away sensing they are going to die soon. In a nearby town a carnival is underway and Alaka is tolling the bells in a church. Suddenly a bizarre creature shows up dressed in a black costume and pushes Alaka from the tower and kidnaps Kukuli. The villagers and a priest kill the creature, but when they take their mask off they discover it has a head of a bear. But too late, since Kukuli is already dead.

As the first movie filmed in the traditional language of Inca, "Kukuli" is considered a milestone in contributing to the authentic old cultures of South America and Peru's cinematography, although it's only a good film. Except for the fact that it's at parts boring, monotone and has a slow rhythm, and that the three directors Figueroa- Nishiyama- Villanueva don't extract something extraordinary out of it, the most bizarre and unusual element of the film is that it's presented in form of a documentary (for instance, the narrator explains how Incas are making necklaces or conducting rituals), although in the exposition it is stated quite the opposite. The main heroine Kukuli is described rather raw, sparse, like the whole mythical tone of the minimalistic story, and her romance with Alaka is unforgivably clumsy (they are never shown touching or even talking to each other) but exactly that hermetic and unusual departure from the western culture give it slight charm. "Kukuli" is a rare kind of black and white film, a naive fairytale with ethnic Inca iconography that can't fit into any kind of model - the supporting characters have much more space than the main characters - but the fact that the film turns into a fantasy in the last 10 minutes, where a bizarre human-like creature dressed in a black costume kidnapped Kukuli and when the people killed it and took it's mask discovered it had a bears head, gave the film an interesting touch of esoteric folk tale.

Grade:++

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Where Is the Friend's Home?


Khane-ye doust kodjast?; Drama, Iran, 1987; D: Abbas Kiarostami, S: Babek Ahmed Poor, Ahmed Ahmed Poor, Keda Barech Defai, Ait Ansari, Iran Outari

The teacher is late for 5 minutes in his class inside a elementary school. He checks the homework of every child pupil and eventually notices that one of them, Nematzadeh, again wrote his assignment on a piece of paper instead in his notebook. Since he didn't obey him before, the teacher gives him one final warning: either he writes his next homework in his notebook or he will be expelled from school. Outside the school, Nematzadeh fell and his colleague Ahmed helped him up, accidentally taking his notebook. Back at home, Ahmed realized Nematzedah's notebook is at him, so he decided to find his home and return it to him, knowing it will be his blame if he gets expelled from school. He doesn't manage to find his home, but he writes the homework for him and brings his notebook back in school the next day.

"Where Is the Friend's Home?" is another minimalistic film from Abbas Kiarostami that once again shows that every event in life can be interesting and appropriate for a film, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. In this case, a 8-year old boy goes to find the home of his colleague to return his notebook, which isn't something western moviegoers would consider a high concept. Quiet poetry, humanity, long shots, simple events and a plot, fascinating rural landscapes and realism are all the ingredients that can be found even in this film from Kiarostami, but also all of his flaws, like the overstretched feeling and at parts boring moments. Also, some of the moments seem slightly forced, like the constant tendency of actors to repeat their lines four or five times: for instance, a man asks the boy Ahmed to give him a piece of paper from his notebook, but the boy refuses since it's not his. The man asks him again for a piece of paper, and the boy refuses again. So the man asks him again for a piece of paper from his notebook, and the boy refuses again. Sometime later, the boy asks him if he is the father of Nematzadeh, but the man doesn't notice him and keeps talking with his customers whom he wants to sell a door. The boy asks him again and again, and so a couple of times. Still, in it's chore this is a story about loyalty and moral values and even the simplest scenes, like the one where the teacher is examining the homework of the pupils in the class seem intriguing and authentic, while the charming end underlies the message that there are more than one way to solve a problem. Like most of introverted films, this one also relaxes the soul and demands enormous patience, but it doesn't pay out to the fullest.

Grade:++

Violence Jack: Evil Town


Violence Jack bangaihen: Harlem bomber hen; Animated horror/ action, Japan, 1986; D: Ichiro Itano, S: Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Hiromi Tsuru, Maya Okamoto, Kappei Yamaguchi

Since a powerful earthquake hit Tokyo and placed it under the ground it's citizens that managed to survive are fighting to stay alive. Food and water supplies are diminishing so the underground people divided into groups A, B and C. By accident, while digging a tunnel in order to find a way back to surface, group B releases a 20 foot tall man called Jack who was captured in the rock. Jack helps them fight against the group A that is ruled by the evil giant Inuma, but he soon leaves them when he discovers they raped women from group C. Jack eventually decides to protect the women in the group C who manage to find an exit to the surface. When the evil groups attack them, Jack kills them. Inuma transforms into a monster so Jack also kills him. On the surface, the nature is still preserved.

When the viewers read the title of this first part of the OVA anime trilogy called "Violence Jack" they will probably laugh at it's inadvertently comical banality and campy mood that stays until the end. Somewhat funny is also the presentation of the in hero, Violence Jack, a 20 foot tall (!) man that gets released from a underground cave by "normal" people - the contrast of their size at first has it's trashy charm, but pretty much even the most undemanding fans of anime will likely be disappointed: "Violence Jack" is simply unwatchable. Dumbing violence, pretentiousness, low qualities of splatter genre and gore exploited without any redeeming feature and bad animation ruined this part and it's sequels. The scenes are truly awful, from kids who find a living cockroach and eat it up to the evil giant Inuma who finds the head of his girlfriend chopped up, takes it into his arms and kisses it, and by the time the final fight starts where Inuma transforms into a monster (?) every logic is dropped and nothing is important anymore anyway, but the black and white characterization is also problematic - except for Jack, every man is portrayed as a rapist or a murderer, which is simply an insult to the male gender. Obviously, the authors wanted to make a simple action flick full of battles where the viewer can simply relax and leaves her/his brain somewhere else, but it makes one wonder what they were thinking because this is simply a chaotic mess and a stupid nonsense that doesn't even touch far superior, even intelligent achievements from the same genre, like let's say "Conan the Barbarian". It's hard to imagine that the writer of this manga and anime is Go Nagai, the same guy who wrote "Cutey Honey". Human mind can sometimes express the unimaginable highs and lows of art - this is one of the unimaginable lows of art.

Grade:-

Woman of the Year


Woman of the Year; Comedy, USA, 1942; D: George Stevens, S: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owen

Sam Craig is a sports reporter writing for a local newspaper and is annoyed by feminist comments of the popular Tess Harding. To his surprise, she gets a new job as a columnist in his newspaper. At first, he is a little bit resentful having to work with her in the same building, but they eventually fall in love and get married. But their marriage soon starts getting shaky: Tess is always preoccupied with her work, holding speeches at different ceremonies and even being pronounced "Woman of the Year", much to Sam's discomfort. When Tess adopts a small boy, a Greek refugee, but doesn't have the time to take care for him, Sam looses his patience. He returns the boy to the orphanage and decides to separate from his wife. Eventually, they make up and she decides to become a better wife.

"Woman of the Year", the first Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film, is a nice, gentle, at times burlesque essay about the problems of marriage that won the Oscar for best screenplay. The movie starts as a very dynamic comedy showing the old paradox about a couple that at first can't stand each other only to fall in love later on - in one of the most amusing sequences, Sam takes Tess to a basketball game but since she never went there he eventually has to explain every single rule of the game to her, much to the dismay of the people sitting in front of him - but in the second part it looses it's orientation and transforms into a rather mild, tame, overstretched story that will probably have a few problematic moments with the feminist part of the audience sine it places all the blame for the failed marriage on the wife, Tess (who was by the way too busy being a feminist activist to do her "wife's duties"). Still, in one of the best situations in the whole film, played somewhere near the end, Tess decides to become a real wife in order to save her marriage and sneaks in at her husband's home early in the morning to surprise him with a good breakfast - but since she never cooked in her life, she does everything wrong: when she was about to make him pancakes she accidentally slammed the door of the refrigerator that flipped the page of the cooking book, but she didn't noticed that and went on to put yeast in the bowl, eventually getting a giant mass of pastry. The small subplot about an adopted boy, a Greek refugee, seems slightly out of place but at the same time it also gives amusing parallels to modern celebrities, especially when Tess doesn't have time to take care for him like a real mother, while George Stevens' direction has a nice visual style. "Woman of the Year" is a charming comedy, only missing a real punchline.

Grade:++

Adam's Rib


Adam's Rib; Comedy, USA, 1949; D: George Cukor, S: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Jean Hagen

Doris found her husband in arms with another woman so, in a moment of jealousy, she shot him with a pistol. But her husband survived and sued her for attempted murder - while the lawyer Adam unwillingly got the case and isn't pleased about it since he read about it in the newspaper. When she heard that, Adam's emancipated wife Amanda, also a lawyer, immediately decided to defend Doris on the trial. As the trial becomes more and more vicious, it starts moving from the court to Adam and Amanda's private life, who even start thinking about a divorce. The jury pronounces Doris innocent while Adam and Amanda make up.

"Adam's Rib" is an amusing and intelligent comedy that speaks about the issue of the battle between men and women and the everlasting tendency of women for a equal role in the society, while the actress Judy Holiday was nominated for an Golden Globe and the screenplay for an Oscar. The ambitious (and highly allegoric) story about the fight between two married lawyers who defend their male/female opposite clients in order to mirror their perspectives was used for a quality portray of male-female relationships, but the whole isn't as funny or stimulative as it could have been, coming across as slightly forced, and it also made the mistake to too aggressively escalate the antagonism between the genders. At the same time the movie can commend with a few first-rate dialogues ("Lawyers shouldn't fall in love among themselves. That's incest. Then they get idiotic children and even more lawyers") and situations of absurd (during the trial a strong woman from the circus lifts Adam in the air by holding his legs, what even shows up as a caricature in a newspaper), thus creating solid messages and points that are in the function of the story, and the actors are excellent.

Grade:++

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tootsie


Tootsie; romantic comedy, USA, 1982; D: Sydney Pollack, S: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Sydney Pollack, Geena Davis

New York. Michael Dorsey is an unemployed actor who had "creative differences" with almost everyone in the entertainment industry. He escorts his friend Sandy to an audition for a TV soap opera about a hospital, but when she doesn't get the role he takes desperate measures and cross-dresses as a woman, Dorothy Michaels - and gets the role himself! In order to gain enough money for a play for his friend Jeff, Michael plays the role of a woman very well, observing the chauvinistic director Ron and eventually falling in love with the actress Julie. When things get to complicated, Michael de-masks himself in front of everyone on a live broadcast.

One of the best comedies of all time, "Tootsie" is a small masterpiece where every questionable or problematic ingredient turned out to be just right in the end - the story has some flaws, but basically everything here is done just the way it should be: the movie is as hilarious as one light "guilty pleasure" comedy, but as intelligent as an art film - at the same time it is never stiff as an art film, but always elegant and touching as a drama - and at the same time it is never preachy or sappy when becoming deeply, beautifully emotional (the sequence where Dorothy spends the night in Julie's bed, and Julie reflects how she grew up with the wallpaper in this room, always waiting for the flowers on the paper to finally bloom, is a moment of romantic perfection). Nominated for numerous awards, of which it won many, this charmingly brilliant classic operates on a high comic level and belongs in the anthology of the comedy genre: despite numerous gags the story is still dominated by humanity of its characters, whereas Dustin Hoffman as a woman turned out to be a perfect being.

In one scene when Michael, dressed up as Dorothy, auditions for the role in the TV series and makes a fuss when "she" gets refused by the director, a woman producer asks her if she was just acting when she said that or if she was natural, upon which Dorothy responds with: "Which answer will get me the job?". The sequence of the final live broadcasting of the TV soap opera, where Dorothy starts completely improvising random lines ("God save us, you do understand, don't you, Dr. Brewster?" - "...I never laid a hand on her" - "Yes, you did. And she was shunned by all you nurses, too!") is absolutely unbelievable and has to be seen to be believed: the screenplay is something so good it almost seems as it was written by B. Wilder. Hoffman simply brings down the house with this role, whereas numerous other comic talents all give great little supporting roles, from Bill Murray up to the energetic Teri Garr ("I will feel like this until I don't feel like this!"). The jokes and observations abut the differences between women and men were never so gentle, poignant and psychologically deep. Even if you hate everyone from the crew on this film, you just have to give them credit for "Tootsie": almost every dialogue is a classic. A shining achievement.

Grade:++++

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

White Chicks


White Chicks; Comedy, USA, 2004; D: Keenen Ivory Wayans, S: Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Jamie King, Rochelle Aytes, Busy Philipps, Jessica Cauffiel, John Heard

Two FBI African American agents, Kevin and Marcus, masters of disguise, get a new assignment: they have to pick up Brittany and Tiffany Wilson, the blond daughters of a rich tycoon, at the airport in order to protect them from being kidnapped. When the two sisters get a small scar after a car accident and refuse to leave the hotel, Kevin and Marcus disguise themselves as the Wilson sisters. No even Tori, Karen and Lisa, their best friends, or their worst enemies, the Vandergeld sisters, notice any difference. Kevin and Marcus manage to stop the kidnapping and discover the father of the Vandergeld sisters was planing to eliminate them.

It wasn't hard to guess that "White Chicks", another Wayans brothers comedy, would be a stupid, thin, shallow and forced crowd pleaser aimed only to quickly satisfy the norms of light entertainment, but the film was still non the less funny at parts and managed to stay in borders of vulgarity and bad taste. For instance, in the exposition Shawn and Marlon Wayans are masked as two Mexican clerks who are expecting a drug delivery in order to arrest smugglers in their store: the way those masks of baldy Mexicans with heavy moustaches look like and they way they are delivering their lines looks almost as a Cheech and Chong parody and is hilarious. Sadly, the rest of the film is rather forced and predictable: it's never convincing that they look like white blond girls, from the weak make up Shawn and Marlon wear up to the fact that they always wear long sleeves to hide their strong arms. Maybe it was a part of the joke to let them look unrealistic, but it didn't come across very well. The story manages to nail a few true female cliches, like the maniacal obsession with their own looks, and explore a few male-female relationships, but they were all already handled years ago in much better comedies like "Tootsie" and "Victor/Victoria". If anything, the average plot is sufficient for a very good dance choreography sequence somewhere near the end and a few cynical jokes like the one where a Vandergeld sister is shown in a TV commercial for vaginal herpes while a jealous Karen comments: "How did she get that role? She doesn't even have herpes!", but 4 out of 5 jokes fail to work and only emphasize how good those jewels of transgender comedies like "Tootsie" really were.

Grade:+

The Party


La Boum, Comedy, France, 1980; D: Claude Pinoteau, S: Sophie Marceau, Claude Brasseur, Brigitte Fossey, Denise Grey, Alexandre Sterling

The 13-year old girl Vic moves with her dad Francois, a dentist, and mother Francoise, a comic drawer, to Paris. Although an outsider at school, she manages to become friends with Penelope. When two boys invite them to a party, they accept. There she meets a nice boy Mathieu and falls in love with him. At the same time, her dad admits to her mom that he had an affair, so they decide to separate for a month. Out of revenge, her mom starts an affair with Mr Lehman, but eventually reconciles with her husband. When Vic finds out Mathieu is also meeting with another girl, she makes him jealous by kissing her father as if he is her lover. Eventually, she also reconciles with him and arranges a party for her 14th birthday.

Teenage comedy "La Boum" looks like some sort of a looser, faster and clumsier female French version of Allen's typical outsider comedies, a simple coming of age film whose charm is still fresh and quirky today. The film is poor with directing skills, somewhat clumsy and almost cheap at moments in realization, but in the end it doesn't matter since it's rich with wonderful characters, emotions, humor and energy, while Sophie Marceau, then only 13 years old, is absolutely brilliant in her movie debut, perfectly embodying the cute Vic. At least two of the film's humorous situations became classic and have been copied a thousand times in other films and TV shows: in one, outsiders Penelope and Vic are walking on the street, contemplating how to make friends, when two boys show up on their bikes and invite them to their party since they have too few girls. Penelope and Vic look at them in a cool, uninterested way and reply that they will "maybe" make it. When the boys leave the two girls turn into the total opposite: they drop their disguise and start cheering from joy, being lucky to have been invited to a party. In another, Vic spots Mathieu approaching so she becomes nervous and quickly asks Penelope to pretend as if they are talking about something cheerful. Penelope says: "What should I say?" upon which Vic responds: "So that's what he said! Ha, ha...", but Mathieu passes by her without greeting her. The story avoids turning into kitsch, sharply observing the problems of teenagers and even issuing how the 13-year old Vic thinks that she would be ready to sleep with her boyfriend. The song "Dreams are My Reality" is pure nostalgia, even for those who were not even born during that time, and despite a rather bizarre, confusing and inconclusive end the film has so much life that it's hard not to stand up and cheer at it's characters.

Grade:+++

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Southern Comfort


Southern Comfort; Action/ Drama, USA, 1981; D: Walter Hill, S: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Alan Auntry, Les Lannom, T. K. Carter, Fred Ward, Peter Coyote

Louisiana. A National Guard patrol of 9 people go to a routine military excersise during the weekend on the south. In order to cross a swamp, they take canoes of local Cajun's. When Cajun's show up on the shore, soldier Stunkey mischivosly shoots at them with blanks, on which they return fire and kill Seargent Poole. The patrol is in chaos and Seargent Casper takes over the leadership. They find a local Cajun hunter and arrest them although they are not sure if he shot at them, while Bowden blows up his house. That makes the Cajun anrgy and they start hunting and killing patrol soldiers one after another. In the end, only Hardin and Spencer manage to escape from the forest and come to a local village. There the hunters find them and attack them, but they manage to kill them while the US military finds them.

"Southern Comfort" is a very interesting film from the unknown, straight-forward director Walter Hill that comes as some sort of an allegory to the Vietnam War. In the opening shots of the military gathering, the movie is chaotic, disjointed and the dialogues monotone, but once the tangle starts, where the Cajun are provoked and start hunting the 9 soldiers in the swampy forest, it transforms into an intriguing and suspenseful thriller about misunderstanding, arrogance and the ever lasting human resort to violence. The story borrows from Boorman's "Deliverance" but also offers a lot of original details: when one of the soldiers finds a dead deer, shot by the Cajun hunters, he says: "Somebody shot Rudolph!" When the enemies start hunting the soldiers, their faces are never shown (until the very end), giving the film ambiguity and paranoia, especially when sometimes those soldiers become their own biggest enemy. They let their dogs attack the soldiers, or even cut off trees and let them fall on them! It's a quality action drama, but a one-note story that was a little bit overstretched and chaotic, and it's not obvious that Hardin and Spencer are the main protagonists until the very end when they end up being the only characters alive. Still, it's a realistic, grim achievement with elegant direction and fluid rhythm.

Grade:++

Volver


Volver; Drama/ Comedy, Spain, 2006; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Penélope Cruz, Lola Dueñas, Yohana Cobo, Carmen Maura, Blanca Portillo, Chus Lampreave

Raimunda and her sister Sole go to visit their old aunt Paula, who lives alone in a huge house. When Raimunda's husband tries to rape her daughter Paula, she kills him in self defense and Raimunda decides to dispose of his body, at the same time putting efforts to take over the charge of a restaurant. Soon, she also gets informed that aunt Paula has died. After the funeral, Sole's dead mother Irene appears to her, claiming she hasn't died at all, but that she actually found her husband sleeping with another woman and put them on fire, making everyone wrongly assuming for years that she has died with him. Sole hides her in her apartment. When Raimunda discovers she is alive, she is angry at first, bu eventually decides to forgive her. Irene admits she is guilty since she never noticed Raimunda was raped by her father and had a daughter with him.

"Volver" is an sympathetic film from Pedro Almodovar that seems more like an experiment then a film that can be pinned down under any genre, elegantly playing with such dark themes as incest and death, but strangely sustained and tame for his taste. From the opening shots in which a bunch of women are cleaning graves on the cemetery, the movie establishes a very feminist touch - almost every protagonist is a woman, while men show up only here and there is small supporting roles or get killed - which gives the relaxed story a refreshing tone, and Penelope Cruz (nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar) is absolutely unbelievable in her role: she is fresh, unusual and has a tight, sharp role reminiscent of Loren's "La Ciociara", and apparently she wore some sort of a prosthesis for her butt. Almodovar directs the film very calmly, even adding fantastic elements in the second part that turn out to not be fantastic at all (the "dead" mother returns to her daughter and explains that she never died in the first place). Some scenes are very bizarrely cute, like the one where Raimunda was sitting on the toilet until she sensed a "familiar" smell, a fart from her mother, then going to Sole's room where her mother was hiding and where they all started to laugh, and the story is very fluid but thin and it seems the director's classic sense for extravagant was reduced to it's minimum and rather watered down. "Volver", a cheerful movie some have characterized as Almodovar returning to his roots, is a soap opera for intellectuals.

Grade:++

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; adventure, USA/ Jordan, 1989; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody, Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, River Phoenix

Late 1930s. Indiana Jones is informed that his father, Henry Jones, vanished while searching for clues to locate the Holy Grail. He and Marcus go to Venice and meet Dr. Elsa Schneider to retrace his father's footsteps. After surviving an assassination attempt by the Grail sect, Indiana finds his father in a castle near the Austrian-German border, captured by the Nazis, and is betrayed by Elsa. Still, Indiana and his father manage to escape and come to Hatay, a political entity in the Middle East, and find the cave with the Holy Grail. The Nazis also want the Grail and send Indiana to get it. A earthquake splits the ground and swallows the Grail, killing the Nazis, while Indiana and his father escape.

Shining "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" is the third and the best part of the overrated "Indiana Jones" series, full of humor, style, freshness and clever ideas. This time the story was focused on the most holy object for Christians, the Holy Grail, while the "guest" appearance of Sean Connery as Indiana Jones' father Henry (who was nominated for an Golden Globe as a best supporting actor) is extremely charming and adds a dose of demystification to the macho protagonist archaeologist. The whole film is a wild fun handling the Nazi's obsession with Biblical mythology and the action sequences are brilliantly executed. In one funny scene, Indiana Jones disguises himself as a Nazi and manages to get his father's diary back in Berlin. Just as he is about to leave he is sucked in by the crowd and eventually ends up right in front of Adolf Hitler. Jones is scared stiff, assuming he is doomed, but as Hitler takes his diary, he signs it with his autograph, gives it back and leaves, not knowing what he just missed. In one ontological action sequence, Indiana and Henry are being persecuted by Nazis in fighter planes - Henry shoots at them with a machine gun, but he accidentally hits his own back of the plane so they crash. At the beach, Henry uses his umbrella to frighten off seagulls who massively fly at the Nazi fighter plane that looses control and crashes. Other action sequences are equally as inventive and comical (for instance, one "economic" bullet going through several Nazis standing in a row on a tank). The only bad thing is the overstretched, weak ending - the actual discovery of the Holy Grail is handled clumsily and was not resolved in a satisfying manner - but because of Spielberg's strong directing skills, scene after scene the trashy adventure was turned into a clever, tight and fluid film that not even the biggest Indiana Jones haters could resist.

Grade:+++

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Color Purple


The Color Purple; Drama, USA, 1985; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, Willard E. Pugh, Rae Dawn Chong

USA from 1909 to 1949: young African America girl Celie was raped by her father and gave birth to two children, who were taken away from her. She loves her sister Nettie very much, but then she gets forced to marry a brutal farmer called "Mister" and take care of his children. A jazz singer girl, Shug, becomes friends with Celie, while her other friend Sofia marries Mister's son Harpo and ends up for 8 years in jail because of a rude remark to the mayor's wife. After she found out he has been hiding her letters from Nettie, Celie leaves Mister and opens a haberdashery, uniting together with her children.

Gentle epic melodrama "The Color Purple" has a lot of wonderful emphasized emotions and thoughtful demanding moments, but it's still a step away from being totally right. Although many complained that Spielberg, a Jewish millionaire, didn't have the appropriate background for a portray of (self)repressed African Americans in the South, he did a very good job and consistently proved to find orientation even in themes out of his league. Although the story is too long, the biggest complaint can be attributed to it's mild, conventional realization of the intriguing script that cherishes it's figures and addresses such issues as incest and forced marriage. Academy nominated the film for 11 Oscars, including best picture and best actresses (very good, understated debuts from Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey), but it didn't win none, while Goldberg managed to win a Golden Globe. It's a film that gains it's sympathies from the suffering of the characters, but doesn't exploit them, while Spielberg cleverly placed purple subtitles in the opening credits, and didn't portray Celia's abusive husband called "Mister" as a one dimensional character, but even gave him some positive features.

Grade:++

Twilight Zone: The Movie


Twilight Zone: The Movie; horror/ fantasy, USA, 1983; D: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller, S: Vic Morrow, Scatman Crothers, Kathleen Quinlan, Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Cartwright, John Lithgow, Albert Brooks, Dan Aykroyd 

Two men are driving in a car at night. Suddenly, one of them decides to show the other something scary by transforming into a Zombie and killing him, while the narrator says that we are entering the "Twilight Zone": William, a man who lost a promotion because of a Jew and whose neighbors are Black, starts making racist comments. Just as he is about to leave the pub, he is suddenly caught by Nazis who claim he is a Jew and send him into a concentration camp...In a retirement home a mysterious Mr Bloom transforms old people into children. But they all become old again because they want it that way...Helen meets a boy and gives him a ride home. He shows her his house, where people are imprisoned since he has special telekinetic powers and can do whatever he wants to. She takes him with his car...John spots a gremlin on the plane's wing, but nobody believes him. When the plane lands, he is sent to a mental institution.

Since the four popular directors - Landis, Spielberg, Dante, Miller - put their signature on the "Twilight Zone: The Movie", an adaptation of the also popular horror TV show that aired in the '50s and the '60s, the expectations were big, but except for a solid commercial success the movie is rather disappointing. It's a lethargic omnibus consisting of 4 stories, from which the first two are not even suspenseful, or even good. In the bizarre, almost inadvertently comical prologue, Albert Brooks is driving Dan Aykroyd who suddenly asks him: "Do you want to see something really scary?", before he turns his head away only to transform into a Zombie, after which the narrator announces that we are entering the "Twilight Zone". The first part of the film, in which an antisemitic man is by some strange twist of fate found persecuted by the Nazis is in theory an inventive take of "tasting your own medicine", but the realization is inert and weak, and a lot of things have been left underdeveloped. Spielberg's second story is actually a sappy drama in which old people become young again: instead of at least putting some skill and wit into the plot, he decided to simply direct it in a tame way and the result is a thin soap opera with only one interesting detail - the scene where old people are being instructed how they can have a healthy sexual life even after they have passed their 70s.

After the first two disappointing segments, Dante managed to bring some sharpness into the film with his 3rd story about a boy who can do anything with his mental super powers, offering a creative horror scenario (in one scene, he creates a giant monster rabbit that comes out of the hat) and a poetic end (the boy and Helen are leaving in the car while the desert is transforming into a meadow behind them), but the thing is a tiny bit too crazy, chopped up and tame in this version, stopping just at being only good. The forth and final segment, directed by Miller, is by far the best: John Lithgow spots a gremlin on the wing of the plane, but nobody believes him. The story is a real nightmare and directed with taste and delicacy, slowly bringing the paranoia of the character to the extreme: it's an excellent segment, but he can't bring that quality to the rest of the three that didn't adapt to the tone of the show.
 
Grade:+

Thursday, May 10, 2007

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; Science-Fiction drama, USA, 1982; D: Steven Spielberg; S: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, C. Thomas Howell, Peter Coyote

California. A UFO leaves the forest after a group of people arrive, leaving one alien stranded on Earth. The alien hides at home of a boy, Elliott, who becomes his friend. Elliott's sister Gertie and older brother Michael are frightened at first, but decide to keep it a secret from their mother. Elliott and E. T. gain a psychic connection, but government agents suddenly invade their home. E. T. becomes sick and dies, but resurrects while Elliott and Michael manage to bring him back to the forest, where he is picked up by his people in a spaceship.

Winner of 2 Golden Globes (best picture, score), a BAFTA (best score) and 4 Oscars, the 4th highest grossing film of the 20th Century by earning 933 million $ adjusted for inflation, "E. T." is a slightly overrated, stiff and inert, but still good achievement that managed to be a family film that's equally as interesting for grown ups, full of purity. "E. T." seems like a sequel of Spielberg's own "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and a paraphrase of the embodiment of an imaginary children's friend, a touching story about friendship without limits - curiously enough, if Elliott's first and last letter would have been added, it would create the initials ET - and children's desire to find some strong shoulder during the time when their parents divorced.

The dialogues and scenes are actually pretty clever and elevate the quality of the tame story - the "Ur-anus" line is there, and in one scene Elliott unwittingly jokingly says: "How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?" When E. T. gets to know Elliott more, the boy shows him his "Star Wars" figures. They also gain a psychic connection: when E. T. gets drunk by drinking beer at home, Elliott also suddenly starts acting like drunk in school, and when E. T. watches a movie where a man and a woman kiss, Elliott in the same manner kisses a girl. Somewhere near the beginning, the mother is leaning forward while a kid mischievously points with his finger as if he is going to touch her butt. The film is full of realistic details and everyday observations, but the most interesting thing in it is the hidden religious subtext: from the film's poster, which paraphrases Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", up to the fact that E. T. can heal people and even dies and resurrects at the end of the film, but the Jesus Christ parallels still seem a little overstretched. Some critics often critised Spielberg for being "too sentimental", but emotions with measure were never a bad thing in movies: "E. T." is a nice, gentle, simple fairy tale about friendship and innocence that's still relevant today.

Grade:++

1941


1941; comedy, USA, 1979; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Robert Stack, John Belushi, Toshiro Mifune, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Waren Oates, Christopher Lee, Nancy Allen

Los Angeles, 1941. A Japanese submarine surfaces off the coast of California in order to attack Hollywood and demoralize Americans, but first they kidnap a local timber merchant. At the same time, Wally intends to take Betty to a dance contest, while captain Will Bill uses his plane to attack the submarine, joined by Sgt Tree and Private Foley. Chaos inflames and not even General Stilwell manages to keep things under control. The Japanese destroy a Ferris Wheel and return home.

Earlier achievement from Steven Spielberg, burlesque comedy "1941" is probably his most primitive and senseless film, but that doesn't mean that's it is entirely bad. In "1941" Spielberg curiously degenerated into (a weaker) Mel Brooks, thus the movie doesn't even seem like a Spielberg film; it's emotionless, wacky, grotesque, unorganized and a bizarre mess, coping simply with more characters than it can handle - the episodic story could have easily disposed of half of the characters in order to gain some cohesive structure. Curiously, in the exposition, Spielberg is parodying his own film "Jaws" when a naked girl is swimming in the sea at night when she is suddenly elevated in the air by a Japanese submarine that surfaces in front of Californian coast, but the thing is rather more silly than it is funny. The film was a commercial failure, but it contains an interesting visual style, the budget of 40 million $ guaranteed an excellent technical look and some jokes are good, like when John Belushi lands with his plane at a gas station in order to fill it up or the finale where Ward goes to hang a Christmas wreath on his door as a symbol of peace and unity, only to accidentally spectacularly push his damaged home into the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, the rest seems forced, never elegant. While Spielberg was serious in his other World War II films, here he tried a different, comic approach, but he doesn't have a sense or rhythm for comedy: brilliant comedians like Dan Aykroyd and John Candy are left underused, the aggressive wild humor seems annoying, the bizarreness doesn't fit (the sequence where General Stilwell watches "Dumbo" in cinemas while a fight rages around him) and the running time is overstretched. "1941" is a sufficient film, but it contains too much caricature and chaos and too little control and sense for measure for such a comedy.

Grade:+

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Close Encounters of the Third Kind; science-fiction drama, USA, 1977; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban, J. Patrick McNamara, Lance Henriksen

Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary is driving in his car at night in order to fix a blackout in the town. But on his way he encounters a UFO and becomes obsessed with it, acting weird at home. He starts getting visions of a mountain in Wyoming, and when his wife and kids leave him he goes on to find it. He meets Jillian, whose son was abducted by UFOs, and who also has visions of that mountain. He also meets scientist Lacombe and his team of UFO researchers who inform him that UFOs will land near that mountain. When they do, the Aliens return the abducted people and take Roy and other volunteers with them in the spaceship.

In 1977 "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars" were the main favorites to win the Oscar and BAFTA for best picture, but in the end it was still an independent triumph of the brilliant introverted comedy "Annie Hall". Although that is justified, "Close Encounters" are also an excellent, but unusual and intelligent science-fiction, the ultimate UFO-sightings film that deserved to win more than just the Oscar for best cinematography. Many never accepted Steven Spielberg as a great director due to the fact that he was hired by Hollywood and earned a lot of money, but some of his films, like this one, are simply genius, whether they were directed by him or lets say Fellini or Welles. Curiously, the true nature of the visit of the Aliens is never explained, as well as the moral contradiction between their forced abductions and their innocence, leaving a lot of things open for interpretation, while the story does not have a clear linear plot - actually, the vague story is more experimental than straight forward, in a way being closer to an art-film than a big budget film.

Besides spectacular scenes conjured up thanks to a fantastic visual style (a "stranded" ship in the middle of the Mongolian desert; the Alien abduction of the kid in the house at night; the aesthetically pleasant, monumental 30-minute 'tour-de-force' sequence of the final arrival of dozens of giant UFO ships that show up as stars in the sky at night and hover around the mountain), wonderful role of the UFO researcher by the French director François Truffaut with a charmingly bad English accent — who serves as a meta-symbol for the problem of two different cultures trying to communicate —expressionistic toying with lights and shadows as well as a visionary messages about the cover up of the government that directs a fake chemical accident at a mountain in Wyoming in order to evacuate the inhabitants as to keep the landing of the UFOs in that area a secret, the movie also fascinates with its static style and messages about the human spirit which is in turmoil until it finds the truth.

Grade:+++

Jaws


Jaws; disaster film / horror, USA, 1975; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary
Amity Island is a popular tourist resort during summer. One night a girl swims in the sea and mysteriously disappears. When her body is found on the beach the police chief Marty Brody concludes that it was a shark attack and decides to close the beach. But he is stopped by the mayor who insists that the tourists stay. When a little boy also gets killed by a giant shark, Matt, an expert for oceanography, shows up in town and criticizes the mayor. After another victim, Marty, Matt and the shark hunter Quint sail off with their ship to hunt for the giant shark. In the middle of the sea the shark sinks their ship and eats Quint, but Marty manages to kill it with an air tank he shot.

Steven Spielberg did not enjoy filming "Jaws", but it was precisely that film that brought him fame since the audience massively rushed to cinemas optative to sense hysteria in the story about a giant, 25 ft long shark: in the end, "Jaws" earned 260 million $ at the US box office and became the second highest grossing movie of the 70s, just behind "Star Wars". The legendary musical score by John Williams and director Spielberg created a subtle iconography of fear, anxiety and hydrophobia: scenes of the corpse of the girl on the beach full of crabs, a book about the attacks of sharks, "false alarms" about the sightings of the fish near the beach and video games about the shark are slowly, but surely and masterfully grading the mood of elevated suspense, but unlike other horror directors, he cares for his characters and even inserts emotions in their situations. Still, the first half of the story is slightly inert and long, especially when the mayor is urging dozens and dozens of tourists to go swim in the sea, which seems like an exaggerated critique of profit under every cost. The second half of this shining film, which lasts for an hour, is much more interesting and brilliantly elevates the suspense all until the climax: in it the trio is on a ship in the middle of the sea hunting for the giant shark, which offered a great mood of isolation and comradeship. There are even some metafilm touches, such as the one where the hunter is called Quint (Latin for five) since he is actually the fifth victim of the shark, whereas in the finale the shark even jumps on the ship and tips it vertically, offering a wonderful suspense rush. "Jaws" is a rare example of a horror that does not only have suspense, but also sophistication: despite a limited budget, Spielberg showed a lot of ingenuity in order to find ways for it to work, and its scenes are directed with such passion that they grip with ease even today.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Duel


Duel; thriller, USA, 1971; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Dennis Weaver, Jacqueline Scott, Carey Loftin
David Mann is a businessman driving in a car on a highway heading to a business appointment somewhere in the Californian desert. On his way he passes a seemingly harmless large tuck and stops at a local gas station. When he returns to the road, the truck catches up to him and without a reason starts to chase him. David lands from the road and stops at a local restaurant in order to eat and let the mad truck driver pass. But once back on the road, David notices that he truck driver waited for him and again started to chase and terrorize him. In the end, David slams his car at the truck which falls from a cliff.

"Duel", Steven Spielberg's feature length film, is a meticulously made psychological mystery that pulled the absolute maximum out of the banal story and placed it to shine in full glory. This minimalistic thriller revolves around driver David who is without a reason being chased and terrorized by a truck that is controlled by a driver whose face is never shown, but in this version the movie as a whole seems fascinating, intriguing, raw and allegorical - the truck is the symbol for the unresolved problems from which it can't be escaped, but which have to be resolved - and some flaws like the too short running time, compact story, a mild finale and David's inner monologues, are minimal. Spielberg is actually presented in a different light, as a tight thriller director who creates a "camera spiel" out of only two characters and whose dark style not even Hitchcock would have been ashamed of, and even the simplest sequences, like where David is trying to escape from the truck by speeding up the road on the hill or where the truck driver is waiting for him when he stayed behind in a restaurant, seem fluid and relevant. To make something out of nothing is real art, and exactly that is "Duel".

Grade:+++

Leningrad Cowboys Go America


Leningrad Cowboys Go America; comedy, Finland / Sweden / USA, 1989; D: Aki Kaurismäki, S: Matti Pellonpää, Sakke Järvenpää, Heikki Keskinen, Pimme Korhonen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Puka Oinonen

Russia, somewhere in nowhere's land. The Leningrad Cowboys, a group of bad musicians with bizarre hairdos, is led by manager Vladimir who can never find someone to hire them. So they decide to go to America to try their luck there. After arriving in New York, a contractor offers them to play at his cousin's wedding in a Mexican town, so they take a road trip in a car through USA, carrying a frozen band member in a coffin. They are pursued by the village idiot Igor and exploited by their manager, so they rebel and tie him up. Along their way they sing in local bars and eventually become famous on Mexican territory.

Aki Kaurismäki's most popular film, an attempt to connect a minimalistic story with mainstream popularity, "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" seems like some sort of a Finnish version of Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night", a simple low-key parody where everything is exaggerated, and even Jim Jarmusch - the director's American "twin" - is playing a small role as a car salesman. The band Leningrad Cowboys - which eventually really came to life after the film - is simply very sympathetic and unusual, from their giant Elvis like hairdos that are a foot long up to their pointy, giant shoes, and their interaction with the foreign environment is the main chore of the film's charm. The gags are mostly simple and accessible: in one scene, Vladimir, the manager, is talking with the father of Leningrad cowboys who says that his great great grandfather went to USA a long time ago and he never heard of him again, and then they both look up to his picture, revealing actually a picture of Abraham Lincoln just with the same giant hairdo. In another scene, even the dog of the Leningrad Cowboys has that specific hairdo. In another, a Leningrad Cowboy member has to pin up his pointy shoes in order to drive the car normally. Extremely stylish and extremely loose and spontaneous, "Leningrad Cowboys" are in the end too overstretched for comfort, and it is a pity that the plot is too thin, dry and without a clear sense where it is going, but the charming actors and the amusing interpretations of such songs like "Born to be Wild" are enough for a recommendation.

Grade:++

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Ten Commandments


The Ten Commandments; adventure, USA, 1956; D: Cecil B. DeMille, S: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Nina Foch, John Derek, Vincent Price, John Carradine

Egypt, 1300 BC. Jews live like slaves under the rule of the Pharaoh. Bihtiah, the daughter of the Pharaoh, finds a baby boy in a basket floating in the Nile, names him Moses and raises him as her own child. Some 30 years later, the Pharaoh is doubting if he should leave the throne to Ramses or Moses. Moses is in love with Nefretiri and despises the Jews, until he discovers that he is actually adopted and of Hebrew heritage. Ramses becomes the new Pharaoh and expels Moses to the desert, where he settles in Midian and marries Sephora. But one day God gives him the order to bring Jews to freedom, out of Egypt. Moses sends curses on Egypt, until Ramses finally lets the Jews go. They pass the Red Sea and get the 10 Commandments.

"Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" are the two most influential and famous Bible epics from the 50s, as well as the two highest grossing films from that decade, but the critics cannot agree upon which one is better. Both are slightly outdated, but although "Ben-Hur" won 11 Oscars and the "Commandments" only one (for best special effects) out of 7 nominations, the latter is also dynamic and interesting. The 6th highest grossing movie of the 20th Century, adjusted for inflation, a one which sold a whooping 131 million tickets at the US box office, "The Ten Commandments" is a film that demands from the viewer to adjust to its 'mammoth style': Cecil B. DeMille is a too pompous director but he has a sense for spectacle, thus his "Commandments" would have probably cost 400 million $ if they were filmed today, while the best parts are subtle satirical commentaries towards the Biblical and religious dogmas: for instance, in one scene Ramses expels Moses to the desert and says that he should be "the savior of lizards and snakes and let his Jews alone". In another instance, he complains to his priests that they "only invented gods to control Egypt". After being expelled from Egypt, the Pharaoh orders his servants to remove every trace of Moses in the Hieroglyphs. The acting is wooden, but standard for that era, while the first half of the film is lax, yet the 2nd half compensates with a lot of grandeur (the sequence where God's fire tornado uses an arrow to chisel the ten commandments while Moses watches in awe is one of the most expressionistic moments of the 50s); some situations that give insight into the lives of slaves in Egypt during Pharaoh's rule are interesting - and curiously, the Exodus occurs only in the last quarter of the film. "The Ten Commandments" is an artificial, but full blooded four hour epic about the power of the will of the people who want to be free.

Grade:+++

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad


The 7th Voyage of Sinbad; fantasy/ adventure, USA, 1958; D: Nathan Juran, S: Kerwin Mathews, Torin Thatcher, Kathryn Grant

Sinbad, his girlfriend Parisa and his sea crew come with their ship to an isolated island, Collossa. There they are being attacked by a cyclops and stumble upon the sorcerer Sokurah, whom they take with them. They return to Baghdad, but Sokurah lost his magic lamp back on the island so he shrinks Parisa to the size of a mouse and convinces Sinbad it was the work of evil forces whose curse can only be broken with the help of an antidote that can be made out of the egg of a two-headed eagle that can only be found on Collossa. the crew sails back to the island, but are once again attacked by the cyclops. It turns out Sokurah is an evil sorcerer who wants the magic lamp to rule the world. Still, Sinbad manages to bring Parisa back to normal and escape with his crew from the island, while Sokurah gets squashed by his dragon.

Adventure film "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" is another one in the row that owes everything to special effects by Ray Harryhausen, without which it would have been pure trash without any interesting spark. Harryhausen's effects actually are dated, but they have a fascinating dosis of the surreal and charm to them. Unlike most films where he worked on, this one at least has a more solid character, Sinbad, which is a welcomed balance to the much more intriguing monsters in the story. The biggest flaw is the cheap B script: do the protagonists really have to kill every single fantasy creature that they meet? Because of that malignity and stupidity the viewer sometimes has more sympathy with the monsters. The other flaw is the film's sometimes too bizarre nature - for instance, the sequence where Sokurah decides to "entertain" the palace by transforming a servant into a snake-woman with multiple arms simply seems too creepy and campy. The exciting sequences, like the one where the cyclops looses his patience and starts killing drunk sailors with a tree he pulled out, elevate somewhat the mediocre story. The cyclops are among the highlights of the film, because they are so bizarre that they truly seem out of this world.

Grade:++