Sunday, 30 September 2007

The House of Flying Daggers


Shi mian mai fu; Action fantasy, China, 2004; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, Song Dandan, Jun Guo, Hongfei Zhao
China, 9th Century. The corrupt government is threatened by a rebel organisation called "The House of Flying Daggers". Jin, captain of the government army, is persuaded by his friend Leo to gain the sympathies of a blind dancer Mei who has ties with the rebels and infiltrate them. Jin pretends he wants to join them and helps Mei escape from the army. The two of them travel through various forests and fall in love. Upon reaching the rebel headquarters, Jin gets arrested since it turns out Mei isn't blind at all, but just made a plan with double spy Leo to capture him. Mei is ordered to kill Jin, but she sets him free and admits she really loves him. Leo stabs Mei with a knife and starts a fight with Jin. She dies by saving Jin.

Zhang Yimou's opulent martial arts romance "The House of Flying Daggers" is a very good, critically acclaimed film - it was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film and for 9 BAFTA awards, including best actress, the brilliant Zhang Ziyi - and is definitely a better flick than his previous "Hero" that was simply too exaggerated to be taken seriously, but it's still pretty flawed. Namely, by following China's famous "anything goes" film tradition, "House" also turned out a little bit over-the-top by containing numerous exaggerated scenes: already in the exposition, where the seemingly blind heroine Mei is daringly copying every hit a nut makes on dozens of gongs with her dress weil, does the movie establish an artificial and surreal tone whose only purpose is to indulge the exotic needs of the audience. Still, the story is really good because every third represents the negation of the previous one with unexpected twists, one of which reveals that Mei actually isn't blind at all. Some of the three plot twists during the course of the film seem arbitrarily, but they give a nice little spark and present a neat, tragic love triangle. Action sequences were also over-the-top non stop, from daggers that can fly and hit a target better than a missile guided rocket up to a great army attack from the trees, not to mention the good old "hero gets saved in the nick of time" cliches, but the best elements are the ones revolving around emotions and romance, especially in the scene where Mei is bathing naked in the nature and since she is "blind", she isn't sure if Jin has left her sight or if he is spying on her. "House" is a shaky film, but it has enough poetry to work.

Grade:+++

The Mosquito Coast


The Mosquito Coast; Adventure, USA, 1986; D: Peter Weir, S: Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Jadrien Steele, Conrad Roberts, Martha Plimpton, Jason Alexander

"He quit Harvard to find a more appropriate education". The 15-year old Charlie speaks about his peculiar father Allie Fox who hates American culture and thinks it will disintegrate. His new invention, a refrigerator, wasn't especially liked by a farmer so Allie quits and decides to move with his family to Honduras. Charlie, together with his brother and twin sisters, has a hard time adapting to the jungle environment while Allie forces them to work non stop. They build a giant ice machine, but three Spanish outlaws start molesting them, so Allie closes them in the machine in order to kill them. The machine explodes and pollutes the river, so the family has to move on. They arrive at a church which Allie sets on fire in a rage of insanity, and gets shot by a priest. Allie dies and leaves his family drifting on a boat through the river.

Considering the demanding and complex theme of an disillusioned idealist, adventure drama "The Mosquito Coast" is a too simple and straight forward product that at moments becomes a hassle. When Harrison Ford once said that he regards it as one of his favorite films, that says more about his personal thoughts and ideals than it does about the quality of the film. Maybe Ford has a better impression of the scale of the film than us, yet that scale is lost on the average viewer. Famous actors like Nicholson and De Niro turned down the role of the peculiar anti-hero Allie Fox because the screenplay underplayed the philosophical possibilities of his beliefs. The movie's starts fairly interesting and intriguing when we meet Allie who hates civilisation and argues with everyone, especially when his son Charlie said he "quit Harvard to get a real education": but when he forces his family to live in a jungle the story becomes an overstretched adventure a la Robinson Crusoe that the viewers will have difficulties to digest. Peter Weir's directing is good, but nothing significant happens in the jungle since the family travels here and there without a clear goal while primitivism and a raw allegory don't offer anything stimulating. The story about a family that wants to get away from civilisation and create it's own perfect world has potential, but here it wasn't exploited well enough. Helen Mirren is pretty good as the mother, while Harrison Ford was even nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in a leading role.

Grade:+

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Witness


Witness; drama/ thriller, USA, 1985; D: Peter Weir, S: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Godunov, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen

Pennsylvania. An Amish community is at the funeral of Jacob, who left his wife Rachel and little son Samuel. She and Samuel take a trip to Baltimore, but their train is delayed and they have to wait at the train station in Philadelphia. Samuel goes to a bathroom and accidentally sees a cop getting killed by two people. The police arrives and Captain Book questions the little boy, who quickly identifies one of the killers as Lieutenant McFee. Book is shocked to find out not only McFee, but his superior Schaeffer are involved in selling drug material after a raid. Sensing they are all in danger, Book hides at Rachel's home and tries to blend in with the Amish, even though he falls in love with her. Schaeffer finds him, but gives up when hundreds of Amish people show up in front of the barn.

Besides "The Truman Show", "Witness" is Peter Weir's best film: despite the first impression that it is moving inside conventional Hollywood formula, the story is actually incredibly fresh, original and clever, and the director leads it by crossing evenly from one genre into another - from a thriller into a drama and into a psychological "fish out of water" plot - and in doing so his characters are always spot on. Even though it is a mild thriller, the story is more concerned with portraying the Amish community and their introverted mentality and placing it in contrast with the typical extroverted culture of the West, thus the whole film is rich with many neat little details: in one scene, a breeze is waving the tops of the stalks of grass, making it seem as if a wave is sweeping through the meadow. An Amish horse carriage is too slow for a highway and causes a traffic jam. And in one especially memorable moment, police officer Book invites Rachel and the little boy Samuel in a restaurant by ordering three hot dogs: when the waiter brings them their food, Book simply takes a bite without any thought, but then he's surprised and even a little bit ashamed when he spots that Rachel and Samuel take their time to politely make a prayer and thank God for the hot dog before they eat, which subtly wraps their different mentalities in a nutshell.

The story is constructed so neatly that every detail completes the other and makes the film complete in general: officer Book needs a wife, traditional values and someone to protect while Rachel needs a husband, spontaneous liberty and is in danger, thus making them a perfect couple of opposites that attract. In scenes where Rachel is visibly shackled by too rigid laws about relationships in her community, Weir doesn't remain due to criticize them and emphasize the universal law of love, but he never goes beyond that and shows deep respect towards some norms of Amish people. That's mostly referring to the moral, pacifist tone of their culture and a sense for comradeship. In one rarely mentioned scene, grandfather notices his grandson Samuel is fascinated by Book's gun, so he places the weapon on the table and says to him: "This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there's never only one way. Remember that". Truly, after so many films that place action first and morals second, it's nice to see film where respect and ethics are prime target of thought. Even the ending shows that when there are simply too many witnesses, one man of evil can't do what he wants to anymore. Harrison Ford is truly excellent in the leading role, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, but didn't win anything. Sadly, he never won any of those awards, which is rather surprising since he made more great films than some other multi-award-winning actors.

Grade:+++

The Year of Living Dangerously


The Year of Living Dangerously; Drama, Australia, 1983; D: Peter Weir, S: Mel Gibson, Linda Hunt, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Kerr, Michael Murphy, Noel Ferrier

Jakarta, '65. Australian journalist Guy Hamilton arrives in the city to report about the political turmoil during Sukarno's government and becomes friends with a dwarf colleague Billy. Guy misses a sensation, so Billy organizes an interview with the Communist leader for him, something that causes many to envy him. The two of them become partners. Guy also meets Jill, an assistant at the British embassy and falls in love with her. She tells him that Communists may take over the power once they get an arms shipment - when reporting about this, he gets in a lot of trouble. Billy is disappointed at the government at gets killed when thrown out of the window. Guy gets hit in the eye by a soldier when he wanted to enter the palace, but manages to escape with Jill in an airplane.

Impressive drama "The Year of Living Dangerously" evenly balances the story between a drama and political essay about turmoil during the time of Sukarno government, even though it doesn't contain some unforgettable scenes, while the biggest surprise comes from small actress Linda Hunt who seriously played the role of a man, Billy (!), even though it's not clear why the authors didn't just simply find a male actor, and for which she was nominated for an Golden Globe and won an Oscar as best supporting actress. Director Peter Weir finds real inspiration in the story and proves to be skillful enough to avoid picking any political side, even though he has sympathies and compassion for the poor and homeless people in Indonesia's capital and elsewhere, giving an appeal for humanity. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver are excellent, but other actors are not less important. As with every Peter Weir film, "Living Dangerously" isn't an epic of gigantic, heavy proportions but a realistic, elegant reenactment of an event, and the music is fantastic, while a small critique can be addressed to the slightly conventional and shaky structure.

Grade:+++

Gallipoli


Gallipoli; Drama/ War, Australia, 1981; D: Peter Weir, S: Mark Lee, Mel Gibson, Bill Hunter, Robert Grubb, Bill Kerr, Heath Harris

Australia, World War I. Young Archy is a fast sprinter and wins in a contest by surpassing a man on a horse. In a big match, Archy outruns even Frank, who made a bet that he will loose. Overwhelmed by reports of war heroes in the newspapers, they decide to enlist to army with their friends: Archy for the glory, Frank due to boredom. They exit from a train and cross the desert to Perth, where they ship to Egypt. There they amuse themselves with prostitutes and buy old antiques. On the Gallipoli peninsula, they get the order to divert attention of the enemy with a march. Frank runs to the commander to stop the suicidal mission, but Archy dies in it.

Earlier movie from later very successful Australian artists, director Peter Weir and actor Mel Gibson, "Gallipoli" is a sightly superficial antiwar elegy that loosely get the title from the peninsula where the heroes debark in the finale. The meditative Lean-like story is confusing and at moments boring since the protagonists Archy and Frank are shown for too long in marginal events (in Egypt, they amuse themselves with prostitutes or argue with a salesman who sold them an antique statue for 2 pounds when in fact it's worth only 5 shillings) therefor creating a bad timing which presents the war sequences very late, some 75 minutes into the film (the running time is total is 100 minutes). Weir represents the movie world in a rather mild and cold manner, but it's ambitious, realistic and deliberately unconventional for a war flick, non the less (in one ironic scene, the heroes meet an old man in a desert who doesn't even know there is a World War going on), which justifies the fact that it was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign film, while the music by Brian May is simply fantastic, due to it's magical and meditative tone similar to the music in Weir's next film, "The Year of Living Dangerously", and the last scene, in which Archy gets "frozen" in a suspended frame, is poignant and tragic.

Grade:++

Friday, 28 September 2007

Picnic at Hanging Rock


Picnic at Hanging Rock; Drama, Australia, 1975; D: Peter Weir, S: Rachel Roberts, Helen Morse, Dominic Guard, Vivean Gray, Jane Vallis, Karen Robson

Australia, 1900. Mrs. Appleyard, principal of a girls school, decides to organize a picnic for Valentine's day for 20 students. Their destination is Hanging Rock, a rocky formation. Since the day is boring, 3 girls, among them Marion and Irma, and a teacher, climb up the Hanging Rock and mysteriously disappear. The police organizes a search party, but without success. Only when the young Michael decides to search for himself, does he find Irma unconscious. In the meantime, student Sara, a close friend of Marion's, falls into depression and commits suicide. Since Irma doesn't remember anything, the search is abandoned. Mrs. Appleyard commits suicide.

What to say about "Picnic at Hanging Rock"? That feminine meditative-enigmatic drama deserves praise for courage of director Peter Weir who decided to direct a thin story that consists only out of 3 segments (the disappearance of the girls, the search for them, depression of the students in the school) and enrich it with a suggestive mood (the neat cinematography even won a BAFTA), but it's so mild that it simply doesn't deserve to be called a great film. The first segment emphasises esoteric in a very good way (watches of the professors stopped exactly at 12:00 pm when reaching Hanging Rock; a fast motion scene of ants who walk all over the food...) yet the girls get lost already 30 minutes into the film, thus the rest of the plot is very overstretched and slightly boring. Even though the basic plot, mystery and premise are reminiscent of Antonioni's classic "The Adventure", many characters remain one dimensional figures, even the main protagonist Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts), thus avoiding deeper psychological insight into isolation and alienation, so it's generally speaking better to regard the film as an allegory.

Grade:++

The Cars That Ate Paris


The Cars That Ate Paris; Comedy, Australia, 1974; D: Peter Weir, S: Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles, Rick Scully, Melissa Jaffer

A great economic crisis rules is suffocating Australia. George and his brother Arthur drive in a car towards Paris, a small city in Australia, but on their way they have a car accident. George dies while Arthur wakes up in a hospital in Paris. Soon the mayor Len forbids him to leave the city whose inhabitants deliberately cause car accidents in order to sell the scrap of the vehicles remains. Their car fetish is bizarre, but then a conflict with younger drivers erupts, who demolish the town, so Arthur escapes.

One of the weakest films from ambitious director Peter Weir, who ironically made better films in Hollywood than in his homeland Australia, is a mild, tame, anemic and shaky (horror?) comedy, "The Cars That Ate Paris", which vaguely speaks about possessive society that doesn't let individuals leave it. The story is full of bizarre scenes that elaborate the fetish of the inhabitants of Paris, a small town in Australia, who are mad about cars (for example, in a store they get medicine, food and milk for ordinary tires) and it lacks a clear thread with a clear message (here it's is only poorly hinted that the economic crisis caused the inhabitants to arrange deliberate car accidents of passer-bys to survive), while the humor isn't especially funny. The movie is just solid and nothing more, even slightly chaotic, but Weir's humane, left oriented touch can be occasionally sensed even here.

Grade:+

The Prestige


The Prestige; Fantasy/ Drama, USA, 2006; D: Christopher Nolan, S: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Samantha Mahurin

England, late 19th Century. Magician Angier was drowned in a water tank during his show, and his rival Borden is charged as the perpetrator. Angier's older assistant Cutter remembers their story: a long time ago, all thee were working together, but during a magic act Borden accidentally tied up a too hard knot around Julia, Angier's wife, who drowned while performing a escape from a water tank. From there on, Angier swore rivalry: he shoot Borden's two fingers off, while he ruined his act by killing a pigeon. When Borden presented a revolutionary trick, where he appears and reappears in a second from one door to another, Angier gets obsessed by finding out his secret and hires Nikola Tesla to construct a machine that can teleport him even further than Borden. Back in present, Borden is found guilty and hanged, but it turns out Angier is still alive because he made a clone each time he teleported and drowned him. But Borden has a twin brother who kills Angier and gets back his daughter.

Out of the mass of overstuffed sterile films for MySpace generation, Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" turned out surprisingly quite decent. Actually, the film is so heavy and so complicated that you can literally miss one of the important clues in the story if you just blink for a second. The dark story revolving around a bitter rivalry between two magicians, Angier and Borden, is quite morbid and macabre at moments, especially when they use dirty tricks to sabotage each others magic act - in one scene, a masked Angier shoots off Borden's two fingers during his performance, while the next time Borden presses a cage with a pigeon too hard, breaking Angiers illusion of disappearance by killing the bird - mirroring the mean spirited competition that gets imposed during show business. Michael Caine is great as the assistant Cutter, Scarlett Johansson is cute as Olivia, while the oddest casting choice was having David Bowie play - not more, not less - but the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla (!) who in one scene says: "Society can only take one change at a time", the ice cold directing is precise and stylish, but the movie is non the less not for everyone's taste due to artificial feel and contrived dramaturgy. At moments, their rivalry is truly a bit too much to handle. Still, except for a complicated structure, the main highlight here is the ending: just like the magicians, the story also has a few tricks during the finale that will puzzle some viewers. One twist is slightly predictable, but the second one really comes as a surprise. Actually, when observing closely the last scene, one could even say there are two and a half plot surprises at the ending. Not since "Wild Things" were there so many plot twists in a film, and even though "The Prestige" isn't exactly a prestigious film, it still has it's merits.

Grade:++

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Nosferatu


Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens; silent horror, Germany, 1922; D: F. W. Murnau, S: Gustav von Wangenheim, Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff

Germany, 19th Century. Real estate salesman Hutter is informed of a client who wants to buy a house near his own. But the client is a mysterious count Orlok who lives in Transylvania, so Hutter leaves northern Germany and goes on a trip to negotiate a contract with him. In a nearby village, Hutter notices a werewolf, while the carriage driver throws him out because everyone is afraid to come near Orlok's castle. Suddenly, a demon carriage appears from fog and brings Hutter to the castle. When Hutter cuts himself on a finger, Orlok licks his blood, thus he realizes his client is a vampire. He runs away down the river, while Orlok boards a ship in order to move in into his new home in Germany, and by the way kills every crew member. Still, the vampire dies when he enters the room of Ellen, Hutter's wife, while Sun rays hit and dissolve him.

Influential German director F. W. Murnau could not get the rights to adapt Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula" so he simply "stole" the story and went on to film his silent fantasy "Nosferatu" in 1922 that quickly went on to become a classic. The new, restored version has a terrible new techno music that was added in the '90s (and which is best to simply turn off) and "colored" scenes that ruined a part of the film's eerie charm, but commonly speaking the film itself is a little bit overrated. Murnau is a genius while he is in avant-garde mood (the fast motion (!) scene of the arrival of the demonic carriage emerging out of the fog; the shadow of Nosferatu's hand that "touches" Hutter's body; a glance of a water polyp seen through a microscope...) but less impressive and at times standard while he is handling normal dramaturgy, and his visual style is mostly minimalistic, despite all the above mentioned tricks. Also, the plot is great in the first half, but somewhere around the second one it becomes heavily overstretched and the ending is mild. Still, "Nosferatu" is a dark film that deserves to be seen twice because it possesses a fine, subtle iconography of fear, representative for the silent era, and Max Schreck is an excellent choice for playing the bizarre vampire Orlok who never blinks during the course of the film and adds another layer to the cold story.

Grade:+++

Five Easy Pieces


Five Easy Pieces; Drama, USA, 1970; D: Bob Rafelson, S: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Billy Green Bush, Fannie Flagg, Sally Struthers, Lois Smith

Robert Dupea is a talented piano player, but non the less works a hard manual job as a oil rigger. He has a relationship with the blond Rayette, but can't stand her that well either. While at bowling, they meet up with friends Elton and Stoney. When Elton starts convincing him he should become a father, Robert gets annoyed by him too. Upon hearing from his sister Partita that his father is on his death bed, he starts a ride with Rayette to visit him, even though he still hates him. When he reaches his old home and reunites with his family, he starts an affair with Catherine, but she dumps him. He leaves without saying goodbye and leaves with a stranger in a truck towards an unknown destination.

In one memorable sequence from the film, the main hero Robert and his colleague Elton are stuck in a long traffic jam. Robert is bored from waiting so he gets out of the car and climbs up a truck carrying a piano. He sits and starts playing it, creating harmony with music in an chaotic scene full of loud car horns. It's a great moment, not only because it shows how poetry can be created out of small interventions of unusual touch, but also because of the following event: the truck starts driving and rides away in a different direction than Robert was intending, and yet he doesn't care. That little event alone stands as the defining moment of the film, because it wraps up the theme in a nutshell: Robert is an outsider nobody can understand, not even himself. He is annoyed by everyone and everything in his life: he is with Rayette but can't stand her, he is friends with Elton but is increasingly annoyed by him, he estranged himself from his family years ago and works a hard physical labour even though he is a talented piano prodigy. When the truck drives away with him in different direction, he really doesn't care anyway because he would have loved it if he would just get away from everything and start something new to finally find somewhere where he belongs.

It's a touching, raw and nervous story about an alienated man in search for a place in this world. Catherine, his "one night stand", says something to him that speaks volumes: "If a person has no love for himself, no respect for himself, no love of his friends, family, work, something - how can he ask for love in return? I mean, why should he ask for it?". "Five Easy Pieces" are a flawed film: it's structure is deliberately without a head or a tale, shaky, chopped up and chaotic, pending between a road movie and family drama, and the title pretty much doesn't have that much to do with the film at all: maybe it refers to 5 classical piano pieces played during the course of the film or maybe it just refers to 5 pieces of Robert's sandwich. But maybe just because of such disjointed and wild nature of the film, both in expression and meaning, does it seem interesting even today, mirroring the nature of the cinema of the '70s. Karen Black won a Golden Globe as best supporting actress, while Jack Nicholson's role is really excellent. So, why was Nicholson's performance rewarded with an Oscar nod, while lets say equally excellent Kinski's performance in "Aguirre", Murray's in "Groundhog Day" or 'Bata' Stojković's in "Balkan Spy" were not? Maybe just because the Oscars are selectively acknowledging unusual talent.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Kolya


Kolya; Tragicomedy, Czech republic, 1996; D: Jan Sverák, S: Zdenak Sverák, Andrei Chalimon, Libuse Safránková, Ondrej Vetchý, Stella Zázvorková, Irina Livanova

In Prague there lives a cheerful, but at the same time mildly misanthropic musician named Louka. He never married and since his job as a musician isn't payed well, neither on concerts or weddings, he has to work a lot. Since his debts are big and he plans to renew the house of his mother, he decides to do a radical move. Namely, young Russian women are willing to pay 30.000 Krunas to a Czech man for a false wedding just to get a Czech citizenship. So Louka marries one of those women, but she runs away and leaves him her 5-year old son Kolya. Since the boy doesn't speak Czech, Louka at first regards him as a burden, but with time they become inseparable friends. After some time, the mother returns and brings Kolya away, thanking Louka for taking care of him.

Towards American films one should always be skeptical, but towards Czech films rarely. Director/ screenwriter Jan Sverak astonishingly lightly transforms the simple story into a big undertaking in his film "Kolya" and masterfully portrays the characters using small jokes as a pretext. For example, in one scene the main hero Louka proposes to paint the letters on the grave of Otto, the deceased husband of an old lady, with golden color: every letter will cost 5 Krunas. The greedy crone is shocked and visibly annoyed, upon which he replies to her with: "Too bad your husband doesn't have an even shorter name, you would have gotten it even cheaper". In another scene, an undertaker takes a tick from a dog and burns it in an ashtray. But the main plot, revolving around the relationship between Louka and the little boy Kolya is the main attraction: even though many filmmakers use little children to cheaply gain sympathies from the audiences, this time the film is truly naturally charming, funny, touching and even a little bit magical. The best moment that shows the transformation of the slightly misanthropic Louka into a heartwarming person is the one at the movie theatre: he wants to buy a ticket so that little Kolya can watch animated films on the programme, but the salesperson tells him that the show is canceled because nobody bought any tickets, and the minimum norm to start the show is 5 people. But Louka has a great idea and himself simply buys 5 tickets, thus enabling Kolya to see the show after all. Such an "uncompromisingly" charming and fresh film will disappoint only few people. "Kolya" won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best foreign language film, and was also nominated for a BAFTA in the same category.

Grade:+++

The Trip


Jizda; Drama, Czech republic, 1994; D: Jan Sverák, S: Radek Pastrnak, Anna Geislerová, Jakub Spalek, Filip Renc

Radek and his friend Franta buy an old car for 8.000 Krunas and cut of it's roof to look like a cabriolet. They decide to take a trip through Czech republic and on their way observe houses, people, turkeys and nature. They meet an old lady and drive her for only 20 yards to her friend. Later on they also meet the blond Anna and give her a ride even though she doesn't seem normal, and on top of all she is chased by her jealous former boyfriend in a black car. The trio stops at a lake to take a swim and visit a meadow, while Radek gets attracted to Anna. She suddenly disappears but also reappears and spends the night with them in a hotel. In the end, Anna returns to her boyfriend and dies with him in a car accident.

Before Jan Sverak directed the famous film "Kolya", he made a rather boring and monotone road movie, "The Trip", which is plays out inside overstretched 90 minutes of running time and contains only 3 protagonists. That wouldn't be a problem otherwise, since even the smallest human emotions have their spark, but here it seems the whole film was heavily improvised and didn't have much to offer. "The Trip" has good actors - Radek Pastrnak and Anna Geislerova stand out - and neat cinematography, but suffers from a lethargic story in which nothing happens: Radek, Franta and Anna just drive and drive and drive in their car until they don't know what to do anymore, while they visited the whole Czech republic in the meantime and thus created a nice little postcard. Truly, when somewhere towards the end they finally reach a nuclear power plant, a monastery and then break up into a foreign house, it seems the movie didn't have anymore ideas what to do. Their dialogues don't have any humor or spirit at all, thus the best scene is at the start when a salesman offers the heroes the worst car without an engine.

Grade:+

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Closely Watched Trains


Ostře Sledované Vlaky; comedy/ drama, Czech republic, 1966; D: Jiří Menzel, S: Václav Neckár, Jitka Bendová, Vladimír Valenta, Josef Somr, Vlastimil Brodský, Jitka Zelenohorská

World War II. Czech republic is occupied by Germans. Miloš is a young lad who works in a railway company and controls the trains in a Railroad Terminal, following the footsteps of his father who went to retirement when he was just 45 years old. Soldiers passing by kiss with girls in wagons while the leader of the partisans is convincing everyone in his office that the Germans will be defeated soon. Miloš goes to the apartment of Masa, a girl whose uncle is a photographer, but fails in bed due to his nervousness, so he tries to commit suicide by cutting his veins. Then he falls in love with a young partisan woman and throws a bomb into a wagon full of Germans, but dies.

"Closely Watched Trains" is a praised comedy and one of the most famous films from Czech director Jiri Menzel, a story that describes the phase of growing up during the time of World War II without any vulgarity or stupidity, just with understanding and emotions that were neatly incorporated into the humorous whole. The exposition is brilliantly hilarious: the young hero describes how his family is so lazy that his father went to retirement when he was just 45 years old, while the most beloved hobby of his grandfather is to watch other people work (there is even a little vignette added as a cherry on top, showing how he is a failed hypnotist who unsuccessfully tried to hypnotize Nazis in tanks and thus stop the invasion of his country), and while he is saluting his colleagues "correct" his arm posture. It's a truly very good film, a small classic that neatly leads the narration and it's characters, while almost every actor is great. Sadly, one could complain that the exposition is the best part of the film: after great first 20 minutes, the movie looses it's initial quirky tone and fails slightly into anemic territory, probably due to unfinished screenplay where a lot of dramaturgy seems improvised and arbitrarily, while at moments the supporting characters lead the story more than the main protagonist. Still, it's a quality made film of a time period that has more than a little sympathy for it's hero whose love life gets with time more turbulent than the war, and the surreal touch of ordinary is another virtue. The film won an Oscar as best foreign language film and was nominated for an Golden Globe and a BAFTA in the same category.

Grade:+++

Buttoners


Knoflíkári; Drama/ Comedy, Czech republic, 1997; D: Petr Zelenka, S: Rudolf Hrusínský, Jirí Kodet, Eva Holubová, Borivoj Navrátil, Pavel Zajiček, Jan Haubert, Michaela Pavlatova

6 different stories: Japan, '45. Inhabitants of town Kokura are angry at the rainy weather, not even surmising that it's responsible for American bomber plane dropping an Atom bomb on Hiroshima, not on them...Czech Republic, present. A married woman loves intercourse with her lover in a taxi, while her husband later meets the taxi driver...A psychiatrist accidentally kills a young couple in a car accident and flees...Parents of a young couple plan a wedding for them. One of the parents admits his fetish: with a denture on his foot, he loves to cut buttons...A middle aged couple watches a TV programme broadcasting a launch of a rocket carrying sperm of 4 million people into space...Ghost of the American pilot who dropped the Atom bomb apologizes for his deed on the radio.

Humorous omnibus "Buttoners" won many prizes and isn't uninteresting, but it's still below the level of best films from the Czech opus. 6 brassy stories simply aren't especially funny whereas the sometimes bizarrely crazy scenes (a fetish of one of the protagonists is to dress into an airplane and hit the targets; a TV broadcasts a launch of a rocket carrying sperm of 4 million people into space...) circularize the immature and shaky impression. The best parts of Petr Zelenka's film are motives that appear in different stories, who are thus connected by it, while several brilliant moments announce hidden, great potentials. Among them is the story where a Japanese protagonist complains to his friends that their native language doesn't have words for curses, so he gives examples from Americans who have and who "relieve" themselves with swearwords. All in all, "Buttoners" are another good contribution to the list of anthology films: an amusing, light, simple, unpretentious, objective and sometimes black humoured view on life.

Grade:++

Monday, 24 September 2007

My Sweet Little Village


Vesničko má středisková; Comedy, Czech republic, 1985; D: Jiří Menzel, S: Marián Labuda, János Bán, Rudolf Hrusínský, Petr Cepek, Jan Hartl, Libuse Safránková

A small village somewhere in Czechoslovakia. Truck driver Pavek is annoyed by his assistant Otik who is slightly mentally retarded and thus does everything wrong. After Otik makes another mistake, Pavek informs his boss he demands a new assistant. Hurt, Otik goes to work in Prague, but Pavek pities him and hires him again. Among other villagers are a doctor, secretary Jana who has a secret affair, a pupil who fell in love with the teacher of his sister and a mad painter.

Popular Czech comedy "My Sweet Little Village", nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, is an amusing, fun and easily accessible achievement of the charming "Czech mentality". Episodic story oscillates noticeably: some episodes are funny and neat, while others are rigid and senseless, but they are all easily watchable. From wacky characters (one man had a strange habit of constantly putting extinguished matches in the box with other matches, until the box caught fire in his pants) through wacky situations (two men start a fight in a bar in order to injure the other one, and the frustrated doctor spots them and says: "Guys! Guys! Please, give me rest at least this Sunday!") up to wacky gags (Otik wears headphones in order to straighten his "Dumbo" ears), "Village" proves it's an unpretentious and unambitious film with a too episodic story without a clear cause-consequence thread, and never quite laugh-out-loud funny, but it has charm, exchanges black humor with childish humor (the tall, thin Otik and his colleague, the fat Pavek, look a little bit like a Czech version of Laurel and Hardy) while Jiri Menzel is a good director and gives marginal characters the leading roles.

Grade:++

Nothing but Trouble


Nothing but Trouble; Horror comedy, USA, 1991; D: Dan Aykroyd, S: Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Taylor Negron, Raymond J. Barry, Brian Doyle-Murray

New York. Chris drives the attractive Diane and two friends, Fausto and Renalda, in his car to Atlantic city. But somewhere around New Jersey, Chris makes a wrong detour and lands in Valkenvania, a bizarre trash town. There they are stopped by the police and brought to the old judge Alvin Valkenheiser. The obviously mad judge takes their documents and puts them in prison. Horrified by the place and it's inhabitants, Chris and Diane find out the judge has been killing people and taking their documents for quite some time. They manage to escape and call the police, but they are also in good relations with the judge. The underground coal fires cause a collapse and destroy the town, while Chris and Diane escape.

When looking back at this senseless film and asked why it was a complete commercial and critical failure, we would have a whole bunch of reasons, out of which probably the biggest ones would be the disgusting characters in disgusting make ups and surroundings of the garbage town Valkenvania, and the fact that the story is simply not funny at all. After a great career in the '80s, Dan Aykroyd made a colossal mistake by directing this awful garbage and got a result of a completely failed film. Quite frankly, the only way to enjoy anything in this black horror comedy is to force yourself that bad is actually good: Aykroyd plays a deranged, 106-year old judge, Alvin, who has a phallic looking nose, John Candy is completely embarrassing and wasted in playing both the cop and the judge's granddaughter Eldona (!), Chevy Chase and Demi Moore don't know what to do with the dreadful material and by the time two new characters are introduced, judge's two deformed, fat, grown up grandchildren in diapers, Bobo and Lil' Debbull, the movie really hits the bottom level of catastrophe. One could see it as a dark grotesque on the corrupt jurisdiction, but when "enriched" with such pointless ideas whose only purpose is to gross out the viewers, nothing really matters anymore. Dan Aykroyd should have really tried to create a better story, instead of forcefully realizing a bad one that should have simply been disposed of.

Grade:-

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Reds


Reds; Drama, USA, 1981; D: Warren Beatty, S: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann, Anthony Forrest, Paul Sorvino, Jack Nicholson, Jerzy Kosinski, Maureen Stapleton, M. Emmet Walsh, Gene Hackman, Bessie Love

Portland, World War I. Louise Bryant, a married journalist, goes to a liberal club where she is intrigued when she hears radical leftist journalist John Reed flat out says the war is fought just for profit. She interviews him and the next time they meet they start a relationship. They move to New York and then to Provincetown, where Louise has an affair with playwright Eugene O'Neill, but quickly returns to John. They separate and reconcile again, traveling together in a train to Petrograd. John is so fascinated by the October Revolution, he starts his own Communist party in the US, but it divides into two opposing parties. To get the support, he travels to Moscow, but gets captured on Finish territory when returning back home. He is freed and goes back to Moscow. After counterrevolutionaries attack the Communist train, John is injured and dies in a hospital.

Warren Beatty's personal film "Reds" got a substantial critical acclaim and won 3 Oscars (best director, supporting actress Maureen Stapleton, cinematography), 2 BAFTAs (supporting actor Jack Nicholson, supporting actress M. Stapleton) and one Golden Globe (best director), yet with time it became sadly forgotten and obscure: many moviegoers don't even know it exists. Looking at it today, it still seems like one of the most thematically unusual films coming from the US: it flat out depicts the biography of journalist John Reed who adored Communism and hated Capitalism. If anything, one would think such a liberal film depicting a Communist glorifier would come from Soviet Union, never from USA. Yet, despite the fact that Beatty is himself leftist, he made a difficult progression to make the movie politically neutral: the story is never pro one or other side, but maturely and objectively questions both left-wing and right-wing living worlds, depicting Reed as a man who was always for Socialism and Communism, even though at the end it is shown he refuses to admit he is disappointed at both (Emma Goldman flat out says to him in after Revolution Moscow: "4 million people died last year because the system simply doesn't work"). As some have noticed, this is a movie for grown ups: it demands attention, devotion, patience and time to analyze it.

As a whole, it's a rarely seen, controversial, but semi-great film. It depicts dry themes few people tend to think about, but Beatty crammed to much stuff into it (revolution, romance, oppression, corrupt revolutionaries, personal struggle...) which in the end makes the film slightly chaotic and heavily edited. That it especially noticeable when Louise interviews John for the first time: he frankly gives his own view on World War I, telling that "Britain and France control the world economy, and Germans only joined the war to get a piece of it", but his words during their talk that lasted the whole night were shortened and in the end last less than a minute. Nicholson is surprisingly tame and melancholic as Eugene O'Neill, but his performance is simply too sparse to justify such awards: he has only about 5 minutes of screen time in a 3 hour film, appearing only near the start and near the finish. The film is filled with bizarre moments: when Louise is arguing with John because he wants to take her with him to New York, she asks: "As what? As what should I go? As your lover, your wife, your mistress...", and he replies with: "Well, it's almost Thanksgiving. You could go as a turkey". After John urinates blood in a prison toilet, a man says: "This man even pisses red". And the scene where Communist train is traveling to Baku while Bedouins on camels are cheering them, is one of the most surreal images of the '80s. It's definitely a quality made film, but the shaky finale is trying to copy "Dr. Zhivago" too obviously, and a little more color would have made this ambitious movie a better experience.

Grade:++

Enemy of the State


Enemy of the State; Thriller, USA, 1998; D: Tony Scott, S: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Lisa Bonet, Regina King, Jason Robards, Jack Black, Jake Busey, Jason Lee, Seth Green, Tom Sizemore

Lawyer Robert Dean will become a guiltless enemy of the state when he by pure chance gets a tape showing that the NSA official Reynolds killed congressman Hammerseley in order to push forward his law about public surveillance of Americans by his organization. Reynolds thus wires Dean and places all available satellites from space to observe him day and night. As a victim of technology, out of money, abandoned and fired, Dean finds his only help in Brill, a former NSA agent who is also on the run from the organization. They team together and start a counterattack on Reynolds. He captures them, but Dean tricks him by telling him his tape is at some mafia king, thus they shoot each other. Dean is proclaimed innocent.

Exciting and sympathetic thriller of tamer caliber, "Enemy of the State" works surprisingly well, even though it has a number of many flaws, from the MTV spot montage of shots that don't last longer than two seconds up to the fact that it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Yet it somehow ended up becoming better than expected, but that's less thanks to it's slick gimmicks and much more to the fact that it had a similar plot and opened the same year as another paranoid movie about absolute surveillance of an individual, "The Truman Show", except that here the main protagonist Dean is aware and struggling against the mean technology, while Truman isn't even aware of his life public as the sky. Tony Scott was never a great director, but this time he managed to deliver a very good film: already when the movie shows the immature experts observing Dean's life, who have a list of bugs they planted on him on their computers (shoes, watch, pants...) does the director manage to make the audience cheer and stand in the defence of the innocent hero, while Will Smith and Gene Hackman are great in the leading roles. Coincidentally, the movie even seems like a bigger, more elaborated and paranoid version of Hackman's similar earlier film, "The Conversation". As mentioned, the movie is flawed and didn't avoid some crowd pleasing moments (Dean figures he is bugged, so he starts taking his clothes off in a hotel room in front of a Chinese couple, and the older lady starts applauding thinking he is a stripper), but the story is original, multi layered, clever, fast and intriguing, while the finale in which Dean tricks Reynolds and mafia boss Pintero, by leading them to each other and decipting them both by letting them think they have each others important tape, is truly one of the most unusual and hilarious solutions to a film in a long time.

Grade:+++

Saturday, 22 September 2007

A Perfect World


A Perfect World; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Clint Eastwood, S: Kevin Costner, T. J. Lowther, Clint Eastwood, Laura Dern

Texas, '63. Convicts Butch and Terry manage to escape from prison and steal a car. Terry marches in into a home of a Jehova's Witness family and takes their boy Phillip as a hostage. Texas Ranger Red and his assistant Sally start the search for them in the trailer of the governor. When Terry starts terrorizing Phillip, Butch shoots him. A deep friendship between Butch and Phillip evolves, thus they even steal cars together. Butch even buys the boy new clothes and a Casper costume. When they sleep over on a field, they meet some guy called Nick who offers them food at his home. When Nick hits his son, Butch wants to kill him. Phillip shoots butch in the stomach and throws the gun into a well. The two of them retreat on a meadow where they are found by the police. Red takes the boy, Butch gets shot.

"A Perfect World" is hardly a perfect film, but it's still a quality piece of psychological drama revolving around the Stockholm syndrome, remorse, friendship and redemption. Following his long stream of author's films, Clint Eastwood once again proved to be a director of solid virtues, relying on calm, tranquil mood and straightforward style: the exposition is equipped with many fine details, like when it is discovered the little boy Phillip can't participate in Halloween celebrations because he is a Jehova's Witness. There is also the leitmotif of distorted father-son relationships: Butch and Phillip constantly encounter parents that beat or mistreat their children, and thus are ironically the only real ideal, acting as a father and son even though they are not related. It's an emotional film, but even though many critics call it an underrated gem, it has plenty of flaws: mannerism (the boy spends almost half of the kidnapping time in his underpants), cliches (an agent slightly inappropriately flirts with Sally and immediately Eastwood is there to "rescue" her in an equally inappropriate heroic manner, forgetting not every film he stars in is an unknown hero western), heavy handed situations and an awfully pathetic and sentimental ending filled with plot devices (agent shoots the unarmed Butch who falls backwards brokenly). Dropping the too obvious elements for the sake of a little more subtlety would have improved the film a lot. Like most Kevin Costner films, this one also suffers from rigid situations, but it has poetry and thus it's justified that it was made.

Grade:++

Pretty Woman


Pretty Woman; Romantic drama, USA, 1990; D: Garry Marshall, S: Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Laura San Giacomo, Hector Elizondo, Jason Alexander, Ralph Bellamy, Hank Azaria, Amy Yasbeck

Edward is a rich, unhappy businessman who buys companies with the help of deceits. While driving a car one night at Hollywood Boulevard, he picks up prostitute Vivian and asks her for directions to a hotel. He is charmed by her wit and hires her for the night. But he realizes he likes her even more and hires her for the whole week in his hotel suite. He presents her as his girlfriend and in the end falls in love with her, changing into an honest man. Even though he back's out at first when she asks for commitment, he in the end picks her up at her apartment.

"Pretty Woman" achieved a great commercial success, earning over 178 million $ at the US box office, by which it even became a competition to other 1990 hits like "Ghost" and "Home Alone". Just like those two mentioned films, "Pretty Woman" is also dated today, too obvious in it's sloppy dramaturgy, but the main actress Julia Roberts delivered the performance of her career and won a Golden Globe as best actress in a motion picture musical or comedy and was also nominated for a BAFTA and an Oscar. For a Hollywood film, it's a substantially brave a provocative story: the main heroine Vivian is a - prostitute. But that was also the main reason why critics attacked it since it's unrealistic to the bone, only showing Vivian "serving" one costumer during the course of the whole film, the idealistic Edward who is nice, polite, cultured, handsome and rich prince charming, giving a wrong impression that glorifies prostitution. Truly, maybe the movie would have been better if it weren't so naive and if instead of a happy ending it chose to show the one written in the screenplay, namely that Vivian once again lands on the street. Still, as a modern fairytale, the story is uniquely touching and emotional, pleasant and gentle, containing some sort of neat flair, especially in the exposition after Edward picks up Vivian and places her in his hotel room (for instance, he is surprised when he notices her watching a film on TV and giggling like a little kid, but then she figures her assignment, becomes serious and starts to dandle him) or when he takes her to watch the opera "La traviata" in which a man falls in love with a courtesan, and the song "It Must Have Been Love", written by Roxette, is truly enchanting.

Grade:++

Friday, 21 September 2007

Ranma ½


Ranma ½; Animated comedy series, Japan, 1989; D: Kazuhiro Furuhashi, Tomomi Mochizuki, Takeshi Mori, S: Kappei Yamaguchi, Megumi Hayashibara, Noriko Hidaka, Michie Tomizawa, Rei Sakuma

Ranma and his father Genma were practicing kung fu fights over forbidden lakes. But they fell into those magic lakes and soon found out that, as a consequence, they were "cursed"; in touch with cold water, Ranma would transform into a girl and Genma into a Panda. Only hot water could turn them back again. Back in Tokyo, Mr. Tendo agreed with Genma to arrange a marriage with his daughter Akane and Ranma. But since Akane is the most popular girl among boys in school and Ranma always argues with her, their relationship is very problematic. There is also Ryoga, who transforms into a little black pig when in touch with cold water and who is in love with Akane, and a girl called Shampoo, that transforms into a cat and who is in love with Ranma.

Quirky anime comedy series "Ranma 1/2", based on the manga written by Rumiko Takahashi, a specialist for romance stories, enjoys a high reputation. Many even regard it as a masterwork. Indeed, the clever plot about a guy, Ranma, who transforms into a girl when coming in contact with cold water - only when splashed with hot water can he transform back to a guy again - neatly ridicules the male/female stereotypes and mocks macho behavior with delight. But the fact remains that "Ranma 1/2" is only a good TV show that was milked to death with too many episodes, until it became overstretched and unfunny. Actually, it has more fights than humor. Too much excessive fights, about boys who battle each other to get a girl, Akane. Is this suppose to be a romantic comedy or "Dragonball"? Truth be told, some ideas were very nice. For example, when Ranma is dreaming that he/she has become gay or when his/her father Genmo is reminding him that he is his son, and not his daughter. Or when Ranma says that he is going to marry himself. Or when Ranma isn't ashamed to walk around naked as a girl because it isn't "his gender anyway". But at the same time one can't shake away the feeling that we expected something more, something that gives deeper insight into male-female relationships, like in the film "Victor/ Victoria". Sadly, this anime lacks it.

Since Ranma is a boy he should have used his ability to transform into a girl to influence other boys in a much better way. The biggest problem is an explosion of useless characters. It's hard to figure out what the purpose was to have other people that can transform when coming in contact with water too, especially when they transform into such stupid forms like a panda, a pig, a cat or a duck. And that perverted old man that was always molesting girls and stealing their bras was one of the most annoying anime characters ever and stayed in far too long in the story. Ranma would always beat him up, and yet he would always appear in the next episode. Sadly, with time the show simply lost it's charm, turning too forced, silly and contrived for comfort, when in fact it should have just simply focused on the relationship between Ranma and Akane. Rumiko Takahashi wrote mangas that turned out to be great animes, like the brilliant "InuYasha" and masterwork "Maison Ikkoku". Unfortunately, here 161 episodes really seem to last too long and many possibilities were left unused. "Ranma 1/2" truly deserves its title. It used only 1/2 of its potential.

Grade:++

Creature from the Black Lagoon


Creature from the Black Lagoon; Horror, USA, 1954; D: Jack Arnold, S: Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell

A narrator tells how God created Earth and various creatures. Some expedition crew finds a fossilised arm of an unknown water monster in the Amazon rain forest and starts a sensation. Dr. Reed and his crew set sail in a ship towards a mysterious black lagoon and there truly find a living example, but it falls in love with the female crew member, Mrs. Kay. After the monster kills four crew members by attacking the ship, it gets caught, placed in a cage and brought to a laboratory. But it escapes and again dives in the river. When it kidnaps Kay, David follows and shoots it, after which it dies in the river.

Trashy B-film "The Creature from Black Lagoon" is a sufficient and slightly banal horror from the specialist of that genre, Jack Arnold, and it's far inferior to his later achievement "Tarantula", and especially towards such classics like "King Kong". The actor in the costume of the only monster in the story, a humanoid like Amphibian, isn't convincing, while nobody cared that much for characters that end up turning into underused supernumerary extras stripped from any kind of spark or opulence, while there are also illogical situations present (if the Creature is afraid of the light, why does it attack during the day?). Naive ways of trying to establish the scary mood (somebody suddenly touches David's shoulder, but then it turns out it's just his friend) are dated, just like the whole film, while the flick ends hastily as soon as the Creature gets killed. True, the actors are solid, but quite frankly, the movie simply doesn't have much to show, thus one can't write that much about it, which is sad considering the plot about a monster falling in love with a woman had potentials, as it was shown in such films like "The Beauty and the Beast".

Grade:+

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Batman


Batman; fantasy action, USA, 1989; D: Tim Burton, S: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall

Gotham City. A family gets lost in the alley and robbed by two thugs. But those thugs get beaten up by Batman, who disappears into the night. Journalists Alexander and Vicki are investigating the manner and meet millionaire Bruce Wayne. At the same time, Jack Napier, an influential gangster, gets fraud by his boss Grissom who sets him up in a chemical lab. In a shootout, Batman catches Jack, but he slips from his hand and falls into an acid pool, later on resurfacing as the Joker to terrorize the city. Bruce falls in love with Vicki and admits her his secret: he is Batman. At the city's 200th anniversary celebration, Batman and Joker have a clash. Joker dies by falling from a chapel.

Tim Burton wisely chose to direct "Batman" by dropping the campy tone of the '60s TV show with the same title and replace it with dark elements, but still failed to shake away the cartoonish mood of the story as the whole. As a result, the movie turned out to be a fast, slick, dynamic action film with a Gothic set design of Gotham City, inspired by old German expressionistic films, where bright, cheerful colors and humor represent the bad guy (Joker) and dark colors and seriousness the good guy (Batman), yet the naivete of the standard good vs. bad superhero story is still extremely palpable in one dimensional approach and flat characters. Truly, as dark as the story is, how could a serious moviegoer believe that Jack Napier would fall into an acid pool and survive as the white faced Joker? Not to mention his cheesy lines, like when he kills a crime boss by stabbing him with a pen into the throat, and states: "Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword".

Still, Jack Nicholson has a field day as the Joker and does not hesitate to ham it up big time, creating often funny cynical lines, which earned him a BAFTA nomination as best supporting actor and a Golden Globe nomination as best actor in a motion picture musical or comedy (even though the movie is hardly a comedy). Sadly, Joker even overshadowed Batman/Bruce Wayne, who comes across as a rather pale character, while this is sometimes a stiff film, and only few scenes radiate from inspiration, freshness and life: the highight is a great sequence when Joker and his men are havocking in a museum by messing up famous paintings in the tune to Prince's song "Partyman" or when Joker surprisingly pops up on TV interrupting the speech of a councilor by simply "whipping" him out of the TV by moving his hand from right to left. Emotions are also not the strong point of the film since pretty much the only real dramatic scene is the one where Bruce remembers how his parents were killed by Jack, yet deeper character development and psychological insight into Batman's and Joker's double personalities and their influence on each other are absent and were replaced by action sequences. "Batman" is an enjoyable, eerie and eccentric cult film, and it's more fun if its big fans would simply admit it's a kids film.

Grade:++

Live Flesh


Carne Tremula; Erotic drama, Spain/ France, 1997; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Liberto Rabal, Francesca Neri, Javier Bardem, Ángela Molina, Jose Sancho, Penélope Cruz

Madrid, 70s. Isabel, a young and pregnant prostitute, is rushing to a hospital, but gives birth in a bus and names the baby Victor Plaza. 20 years later, Victor meets Elena in a disco and the two of them become intimate in a bathroom. She doesn't call back, so he circles with a bus around her apartment. When he enters into her apartment just as she was expecting a dealer, a string of unfortunate events occur: Elena drops a gun and draws the attention of police officers David and Sancho. In a fight for the gun, Victor accidentally shoots David who ends up paralyzed to a wheelchair. After 6 years of prison, Victor gets out and finds out Elena married David. Victor sleeps with Clara, Sancho's wife, and later on with Elena. Then Sancho and Clara shoot each other. Elena stays with Victor and gets pregnant.

Very good drama "Live Flesh", loosely based on Ruth Rendell's novel with the same title, again revitalised the career of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar after his unsuccessful last two films that were seen as misfires by some critics. Considering he is a "self made director", since he never attended a film school, Almodovar is surprisingly talented and keeps the story interesting with many quirky interventions, like the humorous moments where the hero Victor gets born in a bus and ends up getting a life long bus pass or when there's a quick shot of a door with a brush instead of a knob. Almodovar also mixes crime, drama and erotic elements with stylish influences of Buñuel, Fellini and Wilder, but at the same time he is never pretentious or snobbish - instead, his movies are always elegant, light and amusing. "Live Flesh" is skillful and elaborated enough, even though it has flaws and isn't always orderly made: the moment where Victor is fighting for a gun with cops even though he is completely innocent, is a rather amateurish plot device to put him in another fate driven tragedy. That's why changes of characters through different time dates seem much better handled, Penelope Cruz has a neat appearance in the exposition as the prostitute that gives birth to the hero and Javier Bardem and Liberto Rabal are great, which caused the film to become a success at the box office and get a BAFTA nomination in the category of best foreign language film.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Flower of My Secret


La flor de mi secreto; Drama, Spain/ France, 1995; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Marisa Paredes, Juan Echanove, Imanol Arias, Carmen Elias, Rossy de Palma, Kiti Manver

Leocadia Macias is a middle aged woman and wife of Paco, a NATO military officer serving with peace troops in Bosnia. She loves him very much, but he is always abroad. Leocadia secretly earns money as the author of kitschy romance novels under the pseudonym "Amanda Gris". Still, it turns out that her husband cheated on her with her best friend Betty, and she doesn't want to go on to write unrealistic stories about love. She gets help from Angel, an overweight journalist that offers her a new job.

Convinced he went too far with his previous film, "scandalous" Spanish director Pedro Almodovar decided to make a universally understandable, gentle and touching drama stripped from any kind of provocations, but that resulted in mediocre melodrama "The Flower of My Secret". There's isn't that much interesting stuff in this film; it lacks style, humor and surprise and has little to show. Almodovar hoped that normal dramatic scenes will be intriguing for themselves, but that isn't the case since there is always a need for something to enrich the dry, standard tone of life on film. Surprisingly, there are plenty of empty scenes, but a few good moments were delivered by the actress Marisa Paredes, even though her world is equally kitschy and fatalistic as her pink romance novels. Almodovar proved his skills with spontaneous and improvisational interventions in many of his film - even though he never studied directing at a film school - but "Flower" caught him on wrong foot: it's a neat, cute and clean melodrama about infidelity and the heroine's search for a new meaning in her life, but too conventional to really impress, and even the small quirky touches, like the NATO husband of the heroine who is stationed in Bosnia, seem too sparse.

Grade:+

Kika


Kika; Grotesque/ Satire, Spain/ France, 1993; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Veronica Forqué, Àlex Casanovas, Victoria Abril, Peter Coyote, Rossy de Palma, Santiago Lajusticia, Bibiana Fernández

Madrid. Photographer Ramon finds his mother murdered in his apartment, but his stepfather Nick claims it was just suicide. 3 years later Ramon died, but suddenly comes back to life when cosmetologist Kika was applying make up on him for the funeral - the two of them become a couple. Nick sometimes has an affair with Kika, while Andrea, host of the TV show "The worst news of the day", is Ramon's ex girlfriend. One day fugitive Paul, brother of the maid Juan, bursts into the apartment and rapes Kika. The police breaks them up but Paul escapes. Kika is surprised Andrea has the tape of the rape and discovers that Ramon has been filming her from an apartment for a while now. Nick discovers that he killed Ramon's mother so he and Andrea kill themselves. Kika and Ramon make up.

Radical, cult black grotesque "Kika" marked the point where Pedro Almodovar went overboard with his provocations and bizarre style: the movie was criticized not only in Spain for misogyny, shocking scenes and immoral tone, which caused the director to later on calm down and make gentler dramas "The Flower of My Secret" and "All About My Mother". The title heroine, played by Veronica Forque, is a cheerful blond who is in the exposition applying make up on the dead Ramon and mischievously says: "If you were alive, you would probably fall in love with me...And I would probably in you too", thus it is very elaborated and quirky when he suddenly truly inexplicably comes back to life: that moment is a typical Almodovar, neatly mixing cute and strange, and humorously paraphrases "Sleeping Beauty". But pretty quickly the movie starts unraveling in a completely different direction, turning cold, unemotional, dark and convoluted. Kiki's antipode is the egoistical Andrea, host of a dark TV show called "The worst news of the day", wearing at one occasion a black costume with holes for her nipples and also has a camera situated on her head, and her news that only present morbid events crystallize some sort of a media critique. The most infamous moment in the story is probably the rape sequence that Almodovar tried to make funny, even though it's questionable if that was advisable: namely, fugitive Paul breaks into Kika's apartment, where she is sleeping, and goes on to put a orange in her genitals and then continues to rape her, trying to ejaculate several times in a row without stopping, and the police even has to forcefully separate him from her. That sequence is rather lascivious. Even though "Kika" isn't crap, as some say it is, it really seems Almodovar lost his touch for poetry and measure.

Grade:++

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

High Heels


Tacones lejanos; Drama, Spain/ France, 1991; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, Miguel Bosé, Féodor Atkine, Anna Lizaran, Mayrata O'Wisiedo

Madrid, '74. Rebeca (27) waits in an airport at her beloved mother Becky. The last time she saw her she was 12 years old because Becky went and stayed on Mexican territory to build a movie career. The long awaited reunion is spoiled by Becky's cold mood. She is also surprised to find out that Rebeca married her ex-lover Manuel and now works as a TV news presenter. Rebeca's friend is transvestite Femme Letal. A month later Rebeca kills Manuel and admits everything, but discovers she is pregnant by Letal - who is also the main police investigator of the case! In order to save her daughter, Becky, on her death bed, announces she killed Manuel.

Many critics praised Almodovar's serious film "All About My Mother" , but almost ignored his earlier work "High Heels", the forerunner of that film that is more focused on relationships. Truly, "High Heels" talk about the relationship between a child and mother as much as "All About My Mother", but with sharpness and a tight point that manifest themselves despite an mild exposition thanks to the sharp twists. On this occasion, Almodovar dropped his campy tone and delivered a rather serious, dramatic and emotional feminine story, but still handles quirky humor the best: in one scene, Rebeca (excellent Victoria Abril) spots a secretary writing something and asks her mother what, upon which she replies with: "She is writing my autobiography". Rebeca's husband was her mother's former lover, Manuel. When he gets killed, Rebeca, who is the TV news presenter, live in front of the audience announces that she is the murderer, so cops arrest her in the show. And on top of that, the case is analyzed by a transvestite inspector. Unlike "Kika", here the bizarreness seem cleverly staged. Nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of best foreign language film, "Heels" are a cheerful, vibrant and upbeat drama of a mother-daughter relationship where the daughter tries everything to impress her, full of catchy colors and nice feel.

Grade:+++

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervious; Comedy, Spain, 1988; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Carmen Maura, Kiti Manver, Julieta Serrano, Fernando Guillén, Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma, Ana Leza

Pepa lives in an apartment in some skyscraper, where she also accommodated some chickens and ducks. Together with her lover Ivan, she earns a living by synchronising foreign movies, and also occasionally stars in TV commercials. She is angry because she is pregnant and because Ivan often leaves her, figuring he must be cheating on her. Her new tenant is Carlos who accidentally states that he is Ivan's son: Pepa didn't even have an idea he had children, while another shock is the realization that her friend Candela is hiding from police since she had an affair with a man who turned out to be a Shiite terrorist who plans to hijack a plane flying to Stockholm. When police enters her apartment, Pepa knocks them out with sleeping pills in drinks. Ivan is also flying for Stockholm and her jealous mistress Lucia wants to shoot him at the airport. Pepa stops her and breaks up with Ivan.

"Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" definitely established Pedro Almodovar as a "woman's director", and also subsequently became his first film that was nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA in the category of best foreign language film. Even though the main heroine is an actress, the story revolves less around her profession and more around the typical Almodovar theme of love problems, jealousy, infidelity and relationships, enriched - of course - with director's spontaneous eccentric style, bizarre humor and strange characters, ranging from Shiite terrorists to ducks in the apartment. Besides an inspired visual style, the quirky gags are the main highlight - in a taxi, there's an sign stating: "Thank you for smoking!" (long before the comedy film with the same title) while the TV news are getting read by a casual 80-year old lady news presenter who speaks so lethargically that it's a riot. Antonio Banderas, in the role of Carlos, has an unimportant episode, but Carmen Maura is great as the quirky heroine, and in between the "eccentric" looking Rossy de Palma gives a neat performance as Carlos' girlfriend Marissa, acting with her physical appearance as a living Picasso painting. The story is a little bit lost in context, it's campy and weird, with reduced emotions, but it has spirit.

Grade:+++

Monday, 17 September 2007

Law of Desire


La ley del deseo; Drama/ Satire, Spain, 1987; D: Pedro Almodóvar, S: Eusebio Poncela, Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, Manuela Velasco, Fernando Guillen, Bibiana Fernandez, Rossy de Palma

Pablo is a gay film director. His brother changed his gender and became a woman, Tina, after an affair with his father who eventually found a new mistress. As a consequence, Tina always had problems with men, but loves her 10-year old niece Ada like a real daughter. When Pablo offers Tina a role in his new film, she is angry because the script is based on her problems. At the same time, Pablo starts an affair with obsessed fan Antonio, but breaks up with him since he is still in love with his former boyfriend Juan. Out of jealousy, Antonio kills Juan by pushing him from a cliff and the police suspects Pablo is the perpetrator. When he hears this he crashes with his car into a tree and looses his memory, while Tina discovers Antonio is actually the murderer. In the end, Antonio commits suicide.

Pedro Almodovar is one of the few directors that can direct a soap opera and make it work. "Law of Desire", one of his earlier films, is precisely that - a soap opera (impossible dramatic twists of fate, a love triangle full of misunderstanding, murder out of jealousy, the main protagonist suffers from amnesia after a car accident...) that was enriched thanks to the director's eccentric style and quirky humor that courageously mix trash and art. The unusual tone of the entire film is already established in the exposition: a man sits on a bed and an off voice tells him: "Take your pants off", which he does. The man looks directly into the camera and the voice tells him: "Don't look at me!" Then the voice directs him to kiss his image in the mirror, strip naked, turn around and masturbate - some of the more perplexed viewers will probably at first think they are watching some porn, not an Almodovar film, but it later turns out that whole sequence is just an scene from the film of the hero Pablo (Eusebio Poncelo), who is obviously Almodovar's alter ego. Not caring so much for tradition or norms, the eccentric Spanish directors creates his own film, a unique tragicomedy with some real drama and emotions that radiate from excellent characters (especially cute is the 10-year old girl Ada who is in love with Pablo) and Antonio Banderas is surprisingly acting in a role against his type, as Pablo's gay, obsessed fan. The humor is also present very often (the police officers investigating a murder and following Antonio's false trail of an imaginary woman called Laura P., discover a manuscript in Pablo's room that mentions Laura P. and immediately suspect him of the murder, even though Tina flat out tells them it's just a movie script!) but it's just there to help the film stand out in the "marginal" Spanish cinema, and even though some moments are shaky, "Law of Desire" remains an interesting piece of surreal movie making.

Grade:+++

Underground


Podzemlje/ Il était une fois un pays; grotesque, Serbia / France / Germany / Hungary, 1995; D: Emir Kusturica, S: Miki Manojlović, Lazar Ristovski, Mirjana Joković, Slavko Štimac, Ernst Stötzner, Srđan Todorović, Mirjana Karanović, Danilo 'Bata' Stojković
Belgrade, '41. Marko and Petar "Black", two of best friends, are surprised by World War II and the invasion of Nazis. In Marko's house there is a bunker where they hide. But since Petar wants to marry actress Natalia, in whom Marko is also in love with, an intrigue happens: Marko puts Petar, brother Ivan and 20 other people into his bunker, telling them the bombardment is still under way...In '61, Marko marries Natalie and keeps lying to the people in the bunker that the World war is still going. But Peter goes out and starts a "fight" with some actors playing Nazis while Marko blows up the bunker...In '92, Peter is disillusioned and still leads a war against everyone, while his soldiers kill Marko and Natalia. When he realizes a new war started in Yugoslavia, Petar commits suicide.

Epic grotesque "Underground", directed by Emir Kusturica and written by the inspired Dušan Kovačević, divided the critics: some praised the brave, bitter story about the cataclysm of war and mentality of war while others complained about the extortionately grotesque tone, pretentiousness and overlong running time of almost 3 hours. Still, "Underground" won the Golden Palm in Cannes, its surreal pictures are full of felliniesque style, some moments are virtuoso directed while the story is a cynical mix between "The Truman Show", "36 Hours" and "Wag the Dog". Bizarre sequences, like the bombardment of the Zoo from which animals escape (a similar scene was initially planned to be filmed in comedy "Who's That Singing Over There") or archive films of the invasion of Nazis in which actors Manojlovic and Ristovski were "slipped in", as well as the bitter plot in which Marko is lying to Petar that in '61 the World War II is still going on as an excuse to keep him in the bunker in order to marry his Natalia, affirm an undoubted message: even after it is over, the war is used by manipulators in order to exploit people who only before death discover that their lives were missed out.

That was bravely shown in the sequence where Petar exits the bunker in '61 and attacks a movie set full of actors who were playing Nazis, thinking they were real Nazis. Some have also interpreted the story as an allegory about the 6 states in Yugoslavia that were forcefully kept together under propaganda and manipulation from the regime who invented imaginary enemies from the West, while a further interesting feature is that it perceftly summed up the modern mentality of some Slavic countries (not only on the Balkans), whose citizens can only think about WWII, are stuck in the past, thus  unable to move on and live their own lives in the present. Kusturica does not always hit the right note: true, the story about the perversion of war and manipulation of war is so nauseous it will make some viewers sick, but the way he presents Serbs (exaggerated Balkan and backward mentality displayed as "cute", aggressiveness, back stabbing...) is not always understandable to everyone. Still, "Underground" is simply too powerful to be dismissed and has to be seen.

Grade:+++

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Coming Home


Coming Home; Drama, USA, 1978; D: Hal Ashby, S: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine, Mary Gregory

Sally is married to the conservative Bob, Captain of the US army, who pretty much tells her everything what to do and she complies. One day he goes to fight in the Vietnam war while Sally stays all alone at home. She becomes friends with Viola, whose husband has also gone to war, and having nothing to do, she volunteers out of loyalty at a local veteran's hospital, where she meets Luke, a former soldier left paralyzed to a wheelchair. Even though she is disturbed to find out he is strongly against the war, she slowly falls in love with him, eventually starting to think for herself. The couple spends a few nice days together, until Bob returns home and discovers their affair, but Sally admits that she doesn't love him anymore. While Luke is holding a speech at some convention, Bob goes to the beach and swims naked in the Ocean.

Winner of 3 Oscars (best actress Jane Fonda, actor Jon Voight, screenplay) out of 8 nominations, 2 Golden Globes (best actress Jane Fonda, actor Jon Voight) and one nomination for the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Coming Home" isn't as fresh today as it was back in 1978, but it's still an impressive and subtle antiwar film that didn't even show one scene that plays out on the battlefield, but just the consequences of war (paralyzed and traumatized veterans) by which the film as a whole seems less intense, but more even and elegant than excellent, but pretentious Oscar favorite "The Deer Hunter" released the same year. Hal Ashby was in the 70s a sly master of opulent, downplayed directing, loved his characters and humanized them even though they were flawed, while the critique of the Vietnam war neatly blended into his worldview - "Coming Home" is a product of liberal artists, not only from Ashby but also from Jane Fonda and screenwriters Robert C. Jones and Waldo Salt who constructed the story as a fluctuation of the heroine Sally from right-wing to left-wing belief, symbolically embodied in her husband Bob and unconventional lover Luke. In one especially powerful scene, Bob declares: "Television shows how the war looks like, but it doesn't show how the war really is". The exposition and the ending are wavering, occasional moments clumsy and some have criticized the film for egregiously promoting liberal views, but elaborated details (scenes where Luke, paralyzed throughout the film to the wheelchair, shops in a supermarket or drives a car with the help of extension), one of the most unusual love scenes of all time, the one with Sally and paraplegic Luke in bed, and excellent songs lift the film into something better as a whole.

Grade:+++

Zandalee


Zandalee; Erotic drama, USA, 1991; D: Sam Pillsbury, S: Erika Anderson, Nicolas Cage, Judge Reinhold, Joe Pantoliano, Viveca Lindfords, Steve Buscemi, Marisa Tomei

New Orleans. Zandalee is a woman married to Thierry, a former poet who is now working as a businessman. Thierry meets his old friend Johnny, a painter, at one bachelor party and persuades him to draw a portrait of him. At the same time, Zandalee is depressed by lack of intimacy and interest from her husband, so she starts an affair with Johnny. Their relationship is rough and wild, but in the end she decides to end it and admit everything to Thierry. The couple starts a second honeymoon at a lake, but Johnny shows up and Thierry falls from a boat and drowns. Zandalee gets shot by a criminal because Johnny didn't pay his debts.

"Zandalee" is a big disappointment: instead of becoming a serious, mature and intelligent erotic drama it turned out just into a sloppy soft porn. Even more bizarre is the fact that the screenplay was not written by a man but by a woman, Mari Kornhauser, who failed to give insight into the female perspective of the title heroine who is increasingly frustrated in bed. It's surprising serious actors like Nicolas Cage would star in this kind of empty nonsense, because out of an average 100 scenes displayed throughout the film there is a point to only like one of them, while in the rest 99 it's just empty babble whose point is only to keep the story going even though it doesn't have anything to show. From uninspired dialogues up to the uninspired development of story potentials, this is a truly weak film, but some of the moments are so bizarre they just have to be mentioned: in one of them, Zandalee and her husband Thierry are naked in bed and she is trying to excite him to have intercourse, but he simply can't do it for some reason. And then he goes to the window, turns his head, spots a lizard, picks it up and frees it outside: now what a neat "interruption" in the middle of a marital crisis. There are other wacky moments: out of the 5 intercourse sequences, the maddest ones were when Johnny mixes oil and cocaine and goes on to rub it on Zandalee's but (but the scene ends right there and doesn't elaborate it further) or the one when he goes on to "take her from behind" in a confession room in a church (!). Erotic doesn't have to necessarily be trash - many directors ambitiously incorporated it into a great story - but here it's just a primitive soap opera. The triangle relationship between Zandalee, Johnny and Thierry was poorly conceptualized, Steve Buscemi's small role of OPP man is completely useless, as well as some 10 other ones, the music is awful and should have been simply removed to strengthen the mood of the film, while the director lacks any kind of artistic skill. "Zandalee" is something like a ship lost in somewhere in the ocean, spinning around in circles because it doesn't know where to go.

Grade:+

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Watch Out, We're Mad


Altrimenti ci arrabbiamo; Comedy, Italy, 1974; D: Marcello Fondato, S: Bud Spencer, Terence Hill, Patty Shepard, John Sharp, Donald Pleasence, Manuel de Blas, Luis Barbero

Race track drivers and big friends Kid and Ben win a marvelous, red Buggy, and all happy decide to treat themselves in one bar that is just getting demolished by some gangsters. Ben and Kid are not bothered by that, but when the gangsters loose control and destroy even their Buggy, they politely send their boss a message to buy them a new one. The mafia boss doesn't even consider that possibility and attacks them with a motorcycle gang, assassins and criminals - without success. When Kid and Ben loose their patience, they go on to personally destroy his mansion, until he bends to their demand and gives them two new Buggies.

The famous Italian comic duo Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, obviously leaning towards the influence of Laurel and Hardy, was never especially acclaimed by critics due to their crowd pleasing slapstick comedies that always culminated with childish fist fights. The once popular hit comedy "Watch Out, We're Mad" is actually one of their best films, even though the plot is practically meagerly made - this time the duo fights against a mafia gang because they destroyed their car. Basically, it's a simple, thin film, but however, director Marcello Fondato hilariously crafted some scenes: the getaway of our heroes from the motorcycle gang in the forest, vibrant songs ("Dune Buggy"), the gym fight sequence, the scene where Kid (Hill) is teasing the professional assassin by hiding in a chore in an opera and always going from extreme right to extreme left to mess up his clear chance at a shot, but the highlight is definitely the finale where Kid and Ben enter a car and crash enter into the mafia mansion, exit and beat up everyone around them while there are thousand of balloons on the ground: truly, a riot. Also, the story actually contains a nice archetype of two average guys who take on the superior bad guy - in this instance, because he destroyed their car - and always keep the upper hand. Donald Pleasance has a nice little role as the evil doctor and the rhythm and gags exchange with dynamic interaction. This comedy isn't anything revolutionary and today many don't even remember it, but it still holds up fairly well and is a lot of mad fun.

Grade:++