Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sailor Moon Sailor Stars


Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Stars; animated fantasy/ drama/ comedy series, Japan, 1996; D: Harume Kosaka, Junichi Sato, Takuya Igarashi, Hiroki Shibata, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Shiho Niiyama, Narumi Tsunada, Chika Sakamoto, Michie Tomizawa, Rica Fukami, Aya Hisakawa, Emi Shinohara, Megumi Ogata

Galaxia, the most evil being that wants to conquer the whole Galaxy, awakens Nehelenia and tricks her into attacking Sailor Moon and the other senshi. After the senshi pacify her, they have to take on Galaxia's servants who attack people to steal their sailor seed. At the same time, Three Lights, a pop group consisting out of Seiya, Taiki and Yaten are transferred to Usagi's class. She starts falling for Seiya since Mamoru went to study abroad. In the end, they again save the world and Mamoru returns to Usagi.

"Save the best for last", the old saying goes. And the authors of "Sailor Moon" kept close to that motto when they made the final season "Stars" as a worthy farewell to this hyped cult anime. After the previous season rather disappointed a part of the fans, the authors returned to the old glamour and presented all the virtues again in full light, evidently also returning the bellowed outers Haruka and Michiru to the story. The "opening" 6 episodes make a retroactive jump back to finish the Nehelenia segment in a satisfying manner, yet it's by no means a way to buy time since it's crammed with brilliant visual style (in episode 167 Nehelenia's face is placed horizontally in space while a violet 'curtain' is seen in the background presenting Galaxia's voice; in 168 Hotaru is in her room observing a giant sphere that shows the whole history of the Universe; the moment where a hypnotised Usagi spots a rose earring, remembers all her passion and Mamoru and regains consciousness, while the fake dream world breaks into pieces behind her is virtuoso directed) while it also neatly sums up how Nehelenia suffers from her lost childhood despite all her luxury (power) and thus hates the senshi for having normal, fulfilled lives.

Yet the main segment is the real sensation: the pop group Three Lights - Seiya, Taiki, Yaten - is introduced into the story and proves to be a dream come true. They are such charismatic characters and even though there are only three of them, they irresistibly remind of the legendary Beatles. And their songs are also excellent: when they sing, they really sing ("Search For Your Love"). The authors also decided to improve a whole bunch of standard "Sailor Moon" flaws, since they got rid of the increasingly useless Tuxedo Mask character and inserted self-irony into the dry heroic speeches of the heroine, though it has to be said that there are still a couple of flaws here, like a few routine episodes, unconnected dramaturgy, Moon's weird wings and 'monster-of-the-day' cliche. But, the season is so filled with brilliant moments that it bombards us with them, destroying pillar after pillar of apathy, until it turns into a very satisfying experience. Through Three Lights and Galaxia, the authors tackle the themes of Xenophobia and imperialism, but also idol-fan attitude - the idea that Seiya - as a person, not as a celebrity - becomes Usagi's very own personal idol is miraculous. The relationship between the two of them is wonderfully aesthetic and exciting - she bashfully waits for Mamoru, but is attracted to Seiya who can sense that. Every second they interact is full of sparks, almost displaying "stolen flirting". When you watch it, you get the impression that all the beauty that was ever created and will be created in human history can be found in their relationship.

In episode 181, Minako unsuccessfully tries to persuade Taiki to go to the cinemas with her. Then Usagi shows up and asks her: "What was the title of the movie you wanted to see?" and Minako flat out says: "...Adult Love XX..." Whoever managed to insert that joke into the episode, is a genius. The moment where Seiya kisses Usagi on the cheek, she loses herself and starts to cry and he tells her he would take her "into a Dreamland" is one of the most magical moments of the 90s anime, while the finale with the naked Sailor Moon fighting Galaxia is bravura directed and clearly shows why this season can't be that simply rejected as a children's show. The ending and the resolution of the plot tangle involving Galaxia is remarkably well written. The first and the third season were real highlights, but "Stars" is "Sailor Moon's" magnum opus. Even when nothing is going on, so much is going on in every scene, on so many levels, that the viewers never seem to find an empty moment, even if it is just the mood. How often did I watch a movie or an anime and say that it would have been a spectacular masterpiece hadn't it made these and these mistakes, sadly concluding how it missed such a big opportunity by so little. Yet this is one of those rare examples where it really is a spectacular masterpiece – even though it swims through the esoteric, humorous romantic fantasy drama "Sailor Moon Sailor Stars" is a shining achievement.

Grade:++++

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sailor Moon SuperS


Bishoujo senshi Sailor Moon SuperS; animated fantasy/ drama/ comedy series, Japan, 1995; D: Junichi Sato, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Takuya Igarashi, Harume Kosaka, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Kae Araki, Rica Fukami, Aya Hisakawa, Michie Tomizawa, Emi Shinohara, Akira Ishida, Toru Furuya
Sailor Moon and the other senshi have to fight with the new enemies, the Dead Moon Circus, that steals people’s dreams in order for Queen Nehelenia to rule the world. At the same time, Chibiusa is visited by the vision of the talking Pegasus, who tells her that he is trapped in the dream. They manage to save Pegasus and the world.

Tied with “Sailor Moon” Super S season there lies an interesting trivia: the Super S manga is considered to be the best season among the fans, while the Super S anime is considered to be the worst. That’s pretty unfair because even though the manga was absolutely fantastic and superior, the anime still has quite a substantial amount of virtues that are so conveniently forgotten, especially in the sharp style that is again very polished and improved compared to the first two seasons. One really has to have the nerve to dismiss such a beautiful style just because of a few bad episodes. If one needs to mention all those great moments episode after episode, then so be it: in no. 132, Mamoru’s colleagues Saori and Kobayashi visit him in his apartment. Saori still has a small crush on Mamoru but won’t admit it, until Kobayashi points out how she always puts lipstick when she visits him, which causes her to blush. No. 140, “Love Those Minis! The Fashionable Senshi”, is fabulous because of the scene where Fisheye becomes fashion designer’s Yushiki Usui inspiration and while posing for a model gets accidentally stabbed by a needle of a tailor woman, becomes furious and rips his clothes off, remaining there with his bare chest even though he always dressed as a woman in all episodes. Not to mention the sweet detail where Usui finds his inspiration for new dresses in Sailor Moon’s outfit. Regarding no. 151: the tadpole shaped lemure that attacks composer Toshiyuki seems as if it came from Fellini's "Satyricon", but the scene where a naked Ami is walking inside the painting of her father and talking with her alter ego Sailor Mercury, is something for the gallery of poetry that causes a short circuit in your brain centre for beauty.

Who can seriously claim that episode “Storm of Love! Minako’s Grand Two-Timing Plan”, where Minako leaves Hawkeye alone with some old lady in the cinema in order to go with Tigereye for a “double date”, isn’t hilarious or that “Sparkling Summer Days! Ami, the Girl in the Ocean Breeze”, where Shingo blushes and leaves the beach because Ami woke up “love feelings for an older girl”, isn’t the sweetest thing? Also, shining episode 148, where Fisheye fell in love with Mamoru, and just stayed sitting on the bench in the rain after he didn’t show any interest, and Usagi shows up and offers him home for comfort, is so beautifully simple it melts you away. How often do you get a chance to see a villain fall in love with his enemy? The Amazon Quartet, though, is a poor replacement for the Trio, and their segment is one of the reasons why this season is on such a poor voice: at least 5 episodes were throw-away material while the too bizarre ideas and embarrassing Lemures were quite questionable. Still, Fisheye is the 2nd best villain in the show while the finale is the 2nd best ending in any “Sailor Moon” season, only behind “Stars”. Also, the complaint that Chibiusa took over the leading role in the season doesn’t hold up, since out of the whole 38 episodes she is the centre in – only 15 of them. The rape parable for the violent dream mirror penetration by the villains is really sneaky, some images seem as if they are made by Salvador Dali and Rene Margrite in a romantic version, while the authors deserve to be acclaimed for, despite all flaws, trying to craft something so dreamy and experimental.

Grade:+++

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sailor Moon S


Bishoujo senshi Sailor Moon S; animated fantasy series, Japan, 1994; D: Junichi Sato, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Harume Kosaka, Noriyo Sasaki, Konosuke Uda, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Megumi Ogata, Rica Fukami, Aya Hisakawa, Michie Tomizawa, Emi Shinohara, Toru Furuya, Kae Araki
Usagi and the rest of the senshi discover that new enemies showed up, Death Busters, who are led by Dr. Tomoe, who is possessed by Pharaoh 90, an alien entity, and wants to find the Holly Grail in order to bring darkness to the world for Mistress 9. But mysterious new senshi, Sailor Uranus and Neptune, actually Haruka and Michiru, also search for the Grail in order to save the world. They are also joined again by Chibiusa.

If there was ever a reason for the “Sailor Moon” deniers to give that anime another chance, then it is: Haruka Tenouh. She is one of the most fascinating anime characters ever to show up and improve a show by giving it a “cool” edge, ever since Oscar Francois de Jarjayes – her entrance in episode 92, where she wears a fancy suit and enters the game arcade where Usagi and Minako mistake her for a guy and fall in love with her, is the greatest entrance of any character in the history of the anime in the 90s. It is really hard to think of any other anime character in that period that appeared with more style and class, except maybe Seiya in Stars season. Not to mention that Haruka actually invites Minako for a formula 1 match in a video game in that same episode, but when the game starts and Minako already starts to “drive” her car, Haruka just stays sitting with her hands crossed, not even touching the wheel - after some half a minute, she states that she wants to give Minako “a head start”, infuriating her. And yet, when Haruka starts to play the game, she wins anyway! It is simply fabulous comedy. And insanely fun. Her whole charismatic presence, and interaction with her girlfriend Michiru, is a 'tour-de-force' event that stirs up the story and refreshes it: they dominate every scene they are in. However, despite their obvious romantic interaction, there is not a single kiss between them in the entire anime: this proves that the LGBT themes were not imposed, and that their relationship is so carefully, subtly built-up just through hints. Despite a mild start of the first two episodes, the S season quickly widens its horizons and amazes with shining little details, among the best ones are the ones that pass by most of the viewers without getting noticed: the beautiful shot of Michiru’s painting in episode 93 that shows a whale emerging from a pink cloud in space, for instance.

Episode 110, where Haruka just looks at Michiru while it is raining in their apartment, and in a small collage all other senshi are shown, is an esoteric realm of senses that creates something out of nothing. The mood of their chemistry is simply irresistible. But there are also quite a few humorous moments that have not forgot about the title heroine: for instance, the subplot where Minako disguises herself as Sailor Moon in order to take the burden of Usagi and trick Kaori in 102 is hilarious, as well as a few satirical touches, like when a daimon in episode 112 “disintegrates” into a comic book it was made from, with pictures of its defeat. At its chore, the story examines two strategies of handling a problem – the hard line, utilitarian approach by Haruka and Michiru, who justify every mean for the goal and are willing to sacrifice the innocent, and the pacifist, humanist approach by Usagi who wants to achieve the goal without victims. Haruka’s line to Usagi in episode 102, where she tells her that “all people live because others have sacrificed their lives for them”, sums that up. This clash of utilitarianism and humanism gives the story sharpness and pathos. And the Faustian theme involving Dr. Tomoe just completes it.

It is a dramatic irony that where homosexuality is considered a religious sin that two holders of the pure heart crystals that will create the Holy Grail are lesbians. Would have put and end to Haruka’s doubts about her strategy of sacrifice. Since Hotaru is presented both as the Messiah and the Messiah of silence, who can destroy the world and bring darkness, the authors cleverly slide their theme about how religion can be mistreated for evil causes, but also for something else - just as it was said that "next time, fascism will come as anti-fascism", here, the anti-Christ comes as the Messiah. This season also features some of the best lines ever written in this anime, which arrive so swiftly they almost present their wisdom in a relaxed edition: for instance, in episode 120, where Dr. Ajimov gives his theory about parallel worlds, where “beings from another dimension could be among our world, but are invisible to us, just as we are invisible to them”, neatly gives a “logical definition” of the “Sailor Moon” world, where evil powers are among the humans, but they cannot detect them. Ajimov also gives, ironically without knowing it, the only introduction to Pharaoh 90, when he adds: "Perhaps it is true that the alternate universe in itself may be one giant life form", whereas Dr. Tomoe, who was watching his transmission on TV, just takes it from there and finishes his sentence by looking at the mini-wormhole in his laboratory and says: "The time for our beautiful space to swallow the Milky Way galaxy in its entirety is approaching". It is so subtle. You just connect these two lines and you have the explanation for the invisible enemy in this season, which is remarkably thought-provoking. In episode 100, Minako laments to Haruka, who gives her also another fantastic monologue: "I am not exactly sure what "ordinary" happiness should be. But I don't think my current self is abnormalWhat I am now is what is closest to my true self". With the best writers contributing inspired writting to the story - Katsuyuki Sumizawa, the "master"; Shigeru Yanagawa, "the joker", and Yoji Enokido, "the poet" - they simply could not go wrong with this one. A masterpiece.
Grade:++++

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sailor Moon R


Bishoujo senshi Sailor Moon R; Animated fantasy series, Japan, 1993; D: Junichi Sato, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Noriyo Sasaki, Konosuke Uda, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Rica Fukami, Aya Hisakawa, Michie Tomizawa, Emi Shinohara, Toru Furuya

Sailor Moon and the other senshi gain back their memories and now battle against Ail and Anne, two aliens who gained the shape of a guy and a girl who steal the energy of the people for their Doom tree (Makaiju arc). After they are pacified and leave the Earth, the senshi have to fight against The Black Moon clan led by the suspicious Viseman, while they get support by Chibiusa – Usagi’s and Mamoru's daughter from the distant future (Black Moon Arc).

Makaiju arc

How often in history did politicians invent imaginary enemies and silly disputes with other countries (like let's say the border) in order to antagonize them, to instrumentalize their nation and make them hate another one? And the average people actually often cheer at that injustice. But many other things in history just show how easy it is to corrupt people, which is why the youmas in "Sailor Moon" could be seen as normal people getting 'contaminated' by hate, and the senshi as the healers who cleanse them. It’s not important why nobody can’t recognize the sailor senshi’s identities even though they don’t wear any masks – it’s magic. The whole story is shaped by magic and not by logic, symbolically showing how they are one of the few people aware of the evil around them, while the general public is ignorant towards it. The "Makaiju arc" segment is flawed -mostly because it made the mistake not to make youmas appear inside people like in the first season, but outside them - but some of it's episodes seem as if they came from your favorite movie; truly, the first 2 episodes are throw away material and the finale is nowhere as epic as in the other seasons, but the characters and deliciously written situations throughout are so faithful to Naoko Takeuchi's spirit that the less informed viewers won't even notice this wasn't a part of her original "Sailor Moon" manga, and that's "Makaiju's" biggest compliment. Some slice-of-life moments are fantastic, like when the people are standing in a line and Natsumi suddenly slaps a macho guy telling him that's no way to "treat a lady" (implying to the audience he somehow tried to "touch" her), upon which Mamoru shows up and reacts, bravely looking him directly in the eye which seems to last for an agonizingly long moment of uncertainty - until the macho bully gives up and leaves in defeat, not wanting to try to start trouble. Or the hilarious and unbelievable scene where Natsumi raises up a little baby which suddenly urinates on her face or Makoto's comments about her "biggest talents". Due to fresh and skillful writing, this holds up the test of time easily, and in the end it also gives a sly little commentary about love being better than power.

Black Moon Arc

Unlike the “Makaiju arc” that starts off sluggishly but then gains momentum and actually becomes extraordinary, the “Black Moon arc” starts off in big style but then quickly falls apart and becomes the weakest of all “Sailor Moon” seasons. The main problem here is that it has become shockingly routine – everything, from the stories, the characters up to battles have been stripped of the typical anime ‘magical girl’ magic that made “Sailor Moon” so special in the first place, becoming just a standard and pale superhero story that seems more like ordinary Spiderman or Hulk. Starting from episode 65 onwards, almost nothing happens: events unfold and play out before the screen but they seem insignificant and leave the viewers indifferent. For instance, the four sisters of evil could have been so much more interesting, yet only Koan remains really a fascinating character. Episode 76 went so far with the ridiculous youma ideas that they even capture the sailor senshi by putting them in a giant donut (!) while the long doubts implanted by a youma into Ami in episode 80 are almost intolerable. The sequence where Mamoru breaks up with Usagi and she leaves his apartment, sadly wondering through the city until she enters a phone booth and starts crying, is absolutely beautiful and easily one of the most emotional moments in the history of anime, which is one thing that should be given credit to this arc, but just 5 or 6 great episodes out of 28 in total is really too little to save it. It has several problems that burden it (the reason why Mamoru broke up with Usagi proves to be really weak; the typical time travel plot holes; the lack of a clear motivation to Wiseman's suicidal plans, as opposed to the manga storyline...). Still, despite its half-hearted tone, this season has one of the most bizarre scenes in the whole history of anime, the one where a naked Chibiusa transforms from a little girl into a grown up woman in just 20 seconds, which is one of the most surreal anime moments.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Sailor Moon


Bishoujo senshi Sailor Moon; animated fantasy romance series, Japan, 1992; D: Junichi Sato, Kunihiko Ikuhara, Harume Kosaka, Noriyo Sasaki, Konosuke Uda, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Aya Hisakawa, Michie Tomizawa, Emi Shinohara, Rica Fukami, Toru Furuya
Tokyo. Usagi, a 14-year old girl, is one of the weakest students in her high school. But one day she meets a talking cat, Luna, who gives her the ability to transform into Sailor Moon and fight against the forces of evil; Queen Beryl and her henchmen who drain the people’s powers. Usagi is soon joined by Ami (Sailor Mercury), Rei (Sailor Mars), Makoto (Sailor Jupiter) and Minako (Sailor Venus). She also discovers she was once a princess on the Moon. Together, they destroy Beryl on the North Pole, but die. Yet, they come back to life and continue with their lives, not knowing what happened.

"Innocence has a power evil cannot imagine", says the tagline for "The Pan's Labyrinth". While it seems completely out of place there, it can be applied here, in a character where both the fantasy and reality worlds connect, Usagi Tsukino, whose untouched nature, as well as a wacky sense for humor, bring wrong to the right. She represents the remaining remains of innocence that is opposed to a world slowly consumed more and more by the negative, egoism and greed. The first season of “Sailor Moon” is actually one of the weakest since it was clear that the authors still were not sure how it should look like, but it already paved a new way for the ‘magical girl’ genre. It is a liberating fantasy on our rigid world and the embodiement of the classic quote: "When the power of love overcomes the love for power, the world will know peace". It is frankly a story only for the right, intuitive side of our brain, unlike most movies or animes made for the left side where everything is logical and realistic: its motto is: “Don’t think…feel”. The characters, from Ami Mizuno up to Minako Aino, are absolutely irresistibly cute, their facial expressions, looks of their eyes, movements and behaviors are contagiously alive and perfectly sum up every emotion the authors wanted to say, whereas the situations they encounter are magical: despite all our knowledge, rational explanations and tight scientific analysis of the world we live in that took away every unknown dimension and showed the whole Universe as predictable and calculative, there will always be something in our nature that will draw us to the unexplainable, unknown, magical side of our world. It is the classic 'good vs. evil' story, but with untypical execution: among others, it shows evil inciting negative energy among people, and then feeding off it.

The fascinating thing in this, first season, is that it treats the story as pure children’s comedy 90 % of the time, and then it completely unexpectedly turns into its opposite, into such a dark and serious adult drama that it takes the ground bellow your feet. The final episodes are among those that shock you since they are so dark it is black poetry, from the scene where the explosions on the North Pole melt the snow into water, but then freeze instantly leaving ice spikes with the senshi bodies on them up to the moment where Endymion grabs Sailor Moon by her neck. The moment where Zoisite is lying in Kunzite’s arms and his final wish is: “I want to die in beauty” and he creates flowers for that occasion, is real beauty. Also, some episodes are really clever, like no. 31, where Yuuichirou meets Rei in town and tries to ask her out on a date – if you look closely, behind him is a poster of a man, and behind her a poster of a woman, and their facial expressions change so subtly when the camera pans from one to another, it’s a delight. When he asks Rei out, the text on the man’s poster is “Now is your chance. Go for it!”, while Rei is flattered and the text on the woman’s poster is “My perfume…I am beautiful!” But when Yuuichirou gives up and leaves, the the man’s face on the poster seems sad and the text says: “Is it really all right?” Such a sly, sophisticated style is genius and is abundant in “Sailor Moon”. The clumsy teenage girl Usagi broke absolutely every cliché in the superhero book – unlike other superheroes, she is a girl, yet does not wear make up and has different clothes in every episode, and is an immature and imperfect but cheerful person, someone so down to Earth that her mischievous little brother even steals her towel in a public spa and leaves her naked. That is why her rise to a mature woman as Sailor Moon is a fascinating transformation – it shows how even the smallest people are capable of greatest deeds. The genuine feel and style turned "Sailor Moon" into a "superanime" and announced an era where the Japanese were the "masters of the universe" in animation.

Grade:+++

Breaking Up


Breaking Up; Romantic drama, USA, 1995; D: Robert Greenwald, S: Russell Crowe, Salma Hayek, Abraham Alvarez

Teacher Monica and photographer Steve are already 2 years in a romantic relationship, but both have the opinion it doesn't lead to nowhere so they break up. Months pass by and Steve feels lonely in his apartment so he calls Monica and invites her for dinner. That night they spend a passionate night together but again start an argument and break up. Next time, Monica calls him so they both again spend a night together. But Steve suddenly gets a panic attack and leaves the apartment. Still, when he finds out she has a boyfriend he proposes her out of jealousy. She accepts but at the wedding he is unable to say the destined "yes". They separate permanently and marry someone else.

Satirical drama "Breaking Up" was released in American cinemas not earlier than 1997, 2 years after it was completed, after actor Russell Crowe achieved a big success with movie "L.A. Confidential". Even though it has a few neat ideas, like black and white shots of the two protagonists, Monica and Steve, while they are separated and lonely, it's as a whole just a sufficient achievement. Director Robert Greenwald obviously wasn't that interested in the eclectic story about a couple that constantly breaks up only to make up again and again, whereas even the erotic scenes ended up anemic (Crowe and Salma Hayek are always cowered with a blanket so nothing can be seen anyway). Only a couple of clever dialogues sparkle here and there ("Maybe we desire what we don't want...") as well as the slightly contemplative message about the inability of a permanent relationship and it's suggestive that Monica and Steve are the only characters in the entire movie.

Grade:+

Alice


Alice; Fantasy tragicomedy, USA, 1990; D: Woody Allen, S: Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, William Hurt, Keye Luke, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd, Blythe Danner

New York. Alice is married to Doug and has two children, but finds her life boring. Since she has back problems, she goes to visit the mysterious Dr. Yang, who tells her she actually has personal conflicts. Under hypnosis, she tells him she was attracted to some man called Joe when she met him in the kindergarten. Dr. Yang gives her special herbs that make her invisible so she secretly observes Joe and his ex-wife. She also gets visited by the ghost of her deceased love, Ed. She finally starts an affair with Joe and decides to leave Doug after she finds out he cheated on her. But Joe decides to start again with his ex-wife. Alice leaves for Calcutta to be with Mother Teresa and returns as a self confident woman.

"Alice" is one of Woody Allen's lesser films, but in that respect it's quite a good achievement for itself that should maybe be seen alone for it's curious use of fantasy elements, rare for the author. Trying to craft a melancholic Felinniesque comedy, Allen crafted a different kind of movie that's unfortunately very unfocused, unorganised and without a clear sense what it wants to say or present, as if it's just a exercise for him. Allen flip-flops between different ideas revolving around the indecisive woman from the title, but in the end becomes as indecisive as her. Still, unlike many of his static dramas, "Alice" is surprisingly dynamic, with a good visual style and a more mainstream approach that shouldn't be blamed for it's weaker quality than expected, but for Allen's arbitrarily writing. Still, the scene where Alice and ghost Ed are flying over New York is charming, as well as the moment where she becomes invisible after drinking the magic herbs and uses it to spy on Joe who starts to make out with his ex wife. A small jewel is Keye Luke in his supporting role as the mysterious Dr. Yang, who directly tells Alice this when she comes to his apartment to treat her back problem: "Stop talking about the back! The problem not in back! The problem in here!", pointing to his head.

Grade:++

Miracle on 34th Street


Miracle on 34th Street; Tragicomedy, USA, 1947; D: George Seaton, S: Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Natalie Wood

New York. An older man with a beard is shocked to spot a drunk man playing Santa Claus during the parade, so he accepts the offer of organiser Doris Walker to replace him. He does his job well and stirs some feathers when he plays Santa Claus at Macy's and recommends the parents to buy toys for their children at rival stores. Still, the customers are grateful and Mr. Macy decides to keep the man. But Doris, her boyfriend Fred Gailey and her daughter Susan are surprised when the man tells them he really is Santa Claus. A psychiatrist sends him to a mental asylum and the things ends up in the court. Still, due to all the Christmas letters, the judge rules out he really is Santa Claus. Susan gets her wish: a real house.

"Miracle on the 34th Street" is a sweet and entertaining piece of modern fairy tale about faith and the power of imagination. The story about a man who claims to be Santa Claus could have easily turned into a cheesy, cheap Christmas movie, yet thanks to the realistic writing by Valentine Davies, humorous touches and heartwarming moments, it turned out to be quite a good achievement after all, even though some of the "unshown" flaws are still sensed since it seems rather naive at times. Edmund Gwenn plays Santa Claus really well (in one scene, he tells how it's important to have imagination, telling how there is "British-nation" and "Imagi-nation") and won the Oscar as best supporting actor together with best screenplay, but the real highlight is the 8-year old Natalie Wood as the little Susan who was taught that there is no Santa Claus, which gave the movie a few subversive hidden contexts, even religious ones. The court sequence that revolves whether the protagonist really is Santa Claus or not didn't turn out as powerful as it was expected, yet the movie offers quite a few satirical touches that will cause delight even for the harsher critics.

Grade:++

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Saving Private Ryan


Saving Private Ryan; war drama, USA, 1998; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, Paul Giamatti
World War II. US soldiers start the Normandy invasion to break the Third Reich's military upper hand. After the successful operation, one of the officers, Captain John Miller, is given the assignment to find soldier James Ryan and bring him back home since all of his siblings died in the war. Miller assembles six soldiers in a group, among them Horvath, Reiben, Caparzo and Wade, and starts to search for Ryan across the battlefield. Slowly, the unit asks Miller is it's worth to risk the lives of all of them to save just one person. Eventually, they find him, but in a Third Reich military action, Miller dies.

Shining war movie "Saving Private Ryan" is one rare example of genius film making; Steven Spielberg displayed virtuoso direction, in such a way that the story can be enjoyed both by the wide audience (who just want action) and by the small minority of intellectual cineasts (who also want emotional depth and a clever storyline) since he created a very smooth hybrid of spectacular action and art-film, using unattractive "washed out" colors and "nervous" camera movements that made it seem almost as a big budget experimental movie. The three hour story is never boring, always inspiring, and offers spectacle, suspense, powerful mood, almost too realistic scenes of battles and war violence (the opening 30 minute sequence at the Omaha Beach, which features among others a soldier who picks up his torn arm in the battlefield, is already a classic), excellent details (a minute without sound during the wast depiction of loud shooting, Miller's hands trembling...) and actors, among them the great Tom Hanks - and yet all of them were overshadowed by one quiet, simple little film with a great story - "Truman's Show". Though that shows the rivalry and competition between a original, intimate and an epic, long movie, Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat never overblow the story too excess. Despite its patriotism, the movie has a lot less pathos than expected, while the battle sequences are absolutely perfect. Today, "Ryan" is justifiably one of the classics of the 90s, a great movie in spite of all the fancy marketing and a big budget.

Grade:+++

Catch Me If You Can


Catch Me If You Can; Crime drama, USA, 2002; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye

Frank Abagnale (16) always adored his father who always managed to cope in every situation despite all the troubles in life. But when he hears that his parents are about to get divorced, he gets shocked and flees to New York. There he lives by counterfeiting checks, but he quickly decides to pretend to be a pilot. To achieve that, he introduces himself as a reporter and interviews one pilot, gaining enough information. As a pilot, he cashes in a whole bunch of checks and thus gets prosecuted by FBI agent Carl. Frank also "becomes" a doctor, a lawyer and even a husband, and then runs away to Europe. There he gets caught by Carl and placed in jail for 12 years, but gets bailed out in order to work for the FBI.

"Catch Me If You Can" is truly a pleasant surprise of a film. Based on a real story, that elegant humorous crime-drama portrays the fascinating character of Frank Abagnale, a chameleon con-artist who would disguise himself as anyone, from a lawyer to a pilot, proving the thesis that it's only important to believe in yourself in order to achieve something - or fool the mob. This is displayed excellently in the sequence where the young Frank, nothing older than his fellow students, enters a school classroom and starts pretending to be the new teacher. The students are suspicious, but bend towards his strong self-confidence, and when the real teacher enters, he just sends her out! Better written than directed, the movie is a great little flick about deceiving and an essay about the relativity of society. Excellent Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in a musical or comedy, while Christopher Walken was nominated for an Oscar and even won a BAFTA.

Grade:+++

The Terminal


The Terminal; tragicomedy, USA, 2004; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine-Zeta Jones, Kumar Pallana

At the JFK airport in New York, Viktor Navorski arrives, citizen of the eastern European country Krakozhia. But since a coup d'etat happened in his country, his passport is not valid anymore so the chief inspector for immigration Frank forbids him to leave the terminal until the thing is settled. As a person without a homeland, Viktor cannot achieve the last wish of his father - get the autogram of a famous jazz singer. After a few months of waiting, Viktor learns how to speak English and meets stewardess Amelia. Finally, he gets his new passport.

"The Terminal" departs from the unusual opus of movies directed by Steven Spielberg in the 21st Century. It is a matter of a gentle little comedy film that is a refreshing surprise in the depressive-dark later phase of the director's career. Still, after two excellent achievements from Spielberg and Hanks - "Saving Private Ryan" and "Catch Me if you Can" - "The Terminal" is a mild disappointment. The interesting satirical concept and neat physical gags with a few slapstick ideas where Viktor lives, sleeps and eats in the Terminal get overshadowed by inert direction, stiff and unconvincing situations as well as an endlessly overstretched ending. Thus, as a whole "The Terminal" is only a solid fairytale about the triumph of one 'outsider', yet overall a fun, light and easily accessible achievement with emotions.

Grade:++

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

X - The Movie


X; Animated fantasy thriller, Japan, 1996; D: Rintaro, S: Tomokazu Seki, Ken Narita, Emi Shinohara

The year is 1999. Kamui Shiro has a disturbing dream about the death of his mother, while his sister Kotori has a dream about him and his double. Kamui returns to Tokyo and gets a vision from sorceress Hinoto who warns him that he has to join her in order to save the world because her evil sister Kunoe plans to destroy human kind and rebuild nature. Kamui shows up at Kotori and brother Fume, but they are kidnapped by Kunoe, so he joins Hinoto's group that has 5 members, mostly teenagers, and starts to attack the evil group with his powers. In the rubble of the destroyed city, everyone kills each other, but Kamui manages to kill the evil Fumu.

Anxiously-pessimistic fantasy tragedy "X" was created by drastic reduction and shortening of numerous mangas by Kadokawa Shoten into one feature length anime film, while the direction was taken over by the famous Rintaro, who achieved great success 5 years later with anime "Metropolis". But unlike "Metropolis", "X" is visibly heavily trimmed, though in a remarkably competent way. The story starts with the disturbing dream of the hero Kamui Shiro where his naked mother pulls out a sword out of her womb and falls apart in a bloody way, whereas the violence and tense atmosphere continue even later on in the good vs. evil plot (most of the characters die), yet unlike other anime splatter garbage like "Angel Sanctuary" or "Fist of North Star", there is more poetry in this film. It's wonderful, for instance, the way a bad guy uses his powers to make the rain fall backwards and turn it into a green cloud or when falling rocks get transformed into birds. It's also spectacular when giant star lines cover the whole sky or whole buildings collapse during the battles, but as a whole, this apocalyptic film suffers from lack of charm and is so harsh that it can easily cause numerous viewers to "snap" and dismiss it as junk. There are too many characters and too little time to sum them all up, which is why their characterization remains only an acronym while it's also logical that Kamui asks himself at the end why is all this happening since the story doesn't have that much sense.

Grade:++

City Hunter


City Hunter; Animated action comedy series, Japan, 1987; D: Kanehiro Kodama, Kiyoshi Egami, S: Akira Kamiya, Shingo Kanemoto, Megumi Hayashibara

Ryo Saeba is a private detective and a womanizer in one, alas a real klutz. Still, the assignments he gets from his female-clients are often complex and demand him to fight against criminals, which he does thanks to the help of his partner. There are a lot of assignments: Natsumi lost her sister who was shot in the middle of the street so Ryo captures the perpetrators; scientist Ritsuko discovered a bacteria that can make someone impotent so Ryo protects her from gangsters who want to kidnap her; Megumi hires Ryo who shoots a boxer who killed her husband...When his partner gets killed, he is replaced by his sister Kaori. Even though they argue a lot, Kaori is always jealous of his clients and finds a soft spot for him.

In the Universe of dark-grey anime creations, funny-nostalgic 80s anime "City Hunter" brings a resonance and a revision in it's genre, inspiring even a live action movie adaptation in '93. Some don't appreciate this series, but it has to be given credit and revalorisation for it's sheer amount of crazy ideas: the hero Ryo is namely a real parody of detectives from noir movies and accepts only female clients. He is so wacky that he even has a puzzle of a naked woman whose intimates parts he already in advance prepared to "assemble" while in one episode his client is scientist Ristuko who discovered a bacteria that can make people impotent, so he offers himself to "show her" how he is immune! And the sequence in which a tall assassin in a gigantic truck is chasing after Ryo and his client and by the way demolishes the whole studio is epically hilarious! The serious part of the story (when his partner dies) is weaker since the plot differs from episode to episode, while the romance with his new partner, the spoiled Kaori, is sadly avoided, whereas the trademark joke where she hits him with a 100 ton hammer whenever he is naughty becomes tiresome after a while. It's a flawed and average, but still satisfying piece of cult anime.

Grade:++

The Adventures of Robin Hood


The Adventures of Robin Hood; Adventure, USA, 1938; D: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, S: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains

England, 1191. The King, Richard the Lionhart, was captured during the Crusades. His brother, prince John, takes over the power and starts oppressing the Saxons by unbearably raising the taxes and enslaving them. But when his men want to arrest the poor Much for shooting at a deer, he is saved by Robin Hood, Earl of Locksley. He quickly assembles a small group of rebels, among them Little John and Friar Tuck, who steal from the rich and give to the poor. Robin also gains the heart of Maid Marian, who helps him escape from prison where he was captured by John's people. When the king finally returns, John is banished and Robin leaves with Marian.

An enormously popular classic, light adventure movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood" still holds up fairly well to the modern audience. Everything here is made the good old fashion way: the hero is idealistic, his cause and methods are clean, the characters and the story are all elevated and somehow childishly sweet and naive, while the set design is an opulent feast. Errol Flynn perfectly embodies the hero who rises during the hard times and some of his lines are delivered deliberately self-ironic and optimistic. The movie is great fun for all ages in the first half due to it's humorous touches, from the scene where one of prince John's guards hold up Much and exchange an ironic dialogue with him ("What's your name?" - "Better than yours, for sure!") up to the delicious sequence where Robin Hood enters the castle and angrily complains about the injustice done towards the average people due to the new taxes, shocks all the noble guests at the dinner and then sits and helps himself with a meal on some random plate, which causes prince John to cynically say: "Help yourself, such imprudence must surely cause a mighty appetite!" Olivia de Havilland is also great as Marian, but once the movie stops using humor and becomes too serious in the second half, it somehow loses its fun and becomes just a dry adventure which turns out rather tiresome towards the end.

Grade:++

City Hunter


Sing si lip yan; action comedy, Hong Kong / China, 1993; D: Wong Jing, S: Jackie Chan, Kumiko Goto, Joey Wang, Chingmy Yau

The succesful private detective Ryo Saeba, nicknamed City Hunter, lives in Hong Kong with his assistant Kaori, the sister of his murdered partner. One day he gets the assignment from the rich businessman who is looking for his missing daughter Kiyoko. Ryo and Kaori find her on some ship, but she gets away. But bigger problems show up: criminal MacDonald and his gang take the rich passengers as hostages. Still, Ryo saves the day and returns Kikyo to her father.

Action comedy "City Hunter", the live action adaptation of the popular Japanese animated show with the same title from '87, is a proportionally successful achievement without deeper ambitions in which the silliness is so charming and fun that one can easily forgive the stories prepotency. Unlike some unsuccessful adaptations of animation that had little in common with the original, "City Hunter" stayed faithful to the pattern since Jackie Chan looks very similar to the hero. One of the best jokes is the one where the wacky Kaori tries to wake up the sleepy Ryo by driving a car with him sleeping on the roof, but equally good is the one where she imagines to hit him with a giant 1 ton hammer across the head. The whole story is extremely dynamic, with jokes that seems as if they came from some cartoon (the fight between Ryo and the blond bad guy is crafted to resemble a video game) and only occasionally turn out forced and dumb. Still, like most comic book adaptations, this one also presents the (super)hero bellow the level of his potentials of the vast comic book.

Grade:++

Monday, December 22, 2008

Only Yesterday


Omohide Poro Poro; animated drama, Japan, 1991; D: Isao Takahata, S: Miki Imai, Youka Honna, Toshiro Yanagiba, Mayumi Iizuka

Tokyo. The 27-year old and unmarried girl Taeko takes a 10 day vacation in order to take a break from her stressful job and go to nature, or more precise to visit her elder sister's in-laws farm. During her voyage, she remembers her adventures when she was 10 and went to elementary school. On the train station she is picked up by Toshio, a young lad who works near the farm. With time, Taeko finds pleasure in her life in nature, the same she loved when she was 10, falls in love with Toshio and decides to stay with him.

Bitter-sweet, nostalgic anime drama "Only Yesterday" is quite an unusual little movie. The double story in one - the one that follows the girl Taeko while she is 27, and the other Taeko while she is 10 - is fragmentary and colloid, some parts seem completely out of context (for instance, when Taeko is remembering a dirty boy from elementary school for whom she felt pity) or logic, the 2 hour running time is definitely too long whereas some moments seem forced and contrived. But, despite its flaws, the movie contains some kind of magic and humanity that are rarely found and thus transcends everything else. It's as poetic as walking on air since it's simply filled with opulent 'slice-of-lice' situations with a point, from those that are miraculous (Hirota admits to Taeko (10) that he is in love with her, upon which she runs from joy, "flies" off to the sky and falls to bed, while the 27-year old Taeko smiles blissfully remembering that moment) up to the ones that are inventive (The 27-year old and the 10-year old Taeko in the same shot), all giving a touching picture as a whole. Besides that, the unforgettable ending is something that has to be seen because it brings the whole story to a new level and redeems for all the omissions. Just when the viewers think this is it, the story is over, and the closing credits start to roll - the real conclusion suddenly shows up and sets in. Actually, the ending is so magical because it does precisely that what we would want it to do us and the way it should do to us, even though we didn't even know we needed it.

Grade:+++

Amistad


Amistad; Drama, USA, 1997; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgård, Anna Paquin

1839. African slaves rebel on the ship "La Amistad" and except for two Spanish men kill all the crew around Cuba. Their leader is Cinque, once an influential person in Africa, who sails the ship towards the east, arriving in America, where they are charged of murder. At the trial, they are defended by Joadson, who is also Black, and Roger Baldwin, a young lawyer, but the problem is that they don't speak English. Yet they find a man on the street who can speak their language which speeds up the process. It is discovered that the Spanish men got the slaves illegally and threw some of them into the sea, so the slaves win the trial. But then the rich land owners place a veto so the trial is repeated. Even Martin van Buren shows up so the slaves win the trial again and return to Africa.

Pretentiously-pathetic trial drama turned Spielberg into a plain routiner (even some of his weak popcorn movies are better and more alive than this) because it's just one plain history lesson. Gruelling "Amistad" is a demanding and fancy packed hassle - in his quest to show individuals with civil courage, he made a lot less subtle achievement than some of his similar movies, and it's not clear who needs these kind of 3 hours trial dramas if they are not interesting at all (and on top of that, the trial is repeated twice)? It seems it's just art for art's sake. The biggest mistakes are blatant horror sequences at the ship where the owners torture slaves by throwing them into the sea or whipping them - such explicit means fails because they try to cheaply be educational. Still, Morgan Freeman is even good in such roles where his character just keeps quiet while the camera just flies around him. Still, the movie was nominated for 4 Oscars (including best supporting actor Anthony Hopkins) and 4 Golden Globes (best motion picture - drama, director, actor Djimon Hounso, supporting actor Hopkins).

Grade:+

The Lost World: Jurassic Park


The Lost World: Jurassic Park; fantasy, USA, 1997; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Pete Postlethwaite, Vince Vaughn, Vanessa Lee Chester, Peter Stormare, Richard Attenborough

Years after the catastrophe in "Jurassic Park", the dinosaurs seized control of the Pacific island where they were created. Scientist Ian Malcolm would gladly forget the experience, but goes back to rescue his girlfriend Sarah and adopted daughter Kelly who went there. Hunters film and capture the dinosaurs and bring them to the US. One Tyrannosaur escapes in the city and starts wreaking havoc, so they manage to return him back.

By grossing 229 million $, the sequel to the excellent "Jurassic Park", "The Lost World" is the 8th most commercial movie of the 90s, yet it's so routinely directed and plainly crafted that it seems as if it could have been easily directed by M. Bay, and not by Steven Spielberg. The critics didn't praise it because nobody wrote a skillful screenplay in the 4 years that would bring justice to the original '93 film, since everything is just relying on loud special effects that lost that magic when they crammed so much dinosaurs it ended in excess. Why didn't Alan Grant and Ellie return for this film? Why was only Ian Malcolm brought back and transformed into the main character? Why were the kids, Lex and Tim, reduced to appearing in only one throw-away scene? The dialogues are banal: "comical" moments of when the protagonists in trouble are slightly annoying, as well as the lame "heroes get saved in the nick of time" cliches, while the sheer amount of violence aimed at dinosaurs is rather incorrect. The most impressive is the tragic sequence where a Tyrannosaurus mother is lost in the giant city, so she drinks water from a pool and chases after buses, as well as the expressionistic sequence where Peter Stormare's character gets attacked by a dozen of mini-dinosaurs in the forest, whose intensity and eerie tone almost reach the level of "Evil Dead II". Just like in the original, even here the "stars" of the film show up somewhere 40 minutes into the film, but they were reshaped and degraded into typical monsters, with an inflation of both their awe and abundance on film since there are too many of them, whereas they end up stealing almost every interesting moment from the human characters in this exploitative, albeit solid entertainment.

Grade:+

Young Frankenstein


Young Frankenstein; Horror parody, USA, 1974; D: Mel Brooks, S: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Gene Hackman

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is a lecturer at a medical school who doesn't want to be associated with his crazy grandfather who experimented with reliving dead tissue. When he hears he inherited his grandfather's castle in Transylvania, he travels there and meets assistants Inga, Igor and Blücher. When he discovers his grandfather's book, he decides to continue his work and manages to relive a corpse with an abnormal brain. When the local peasants storm the castle and decide to kill him, the monster stops them and starts to talk normally because Frankenstein used a machine to transform a part of his intellect to him. Frankenstein in the end marries Inga.

Mel Brooks' 4th film, "Young Frankenstein" is an amusing black and white comedy homage to old horror films of the 1930's, one of his most 'complete' achievements in his career, which proves his approach is much better when he is objective and restrained, though a lot of credit should be given to Gene Wilder who co-wrote the story with him and gave it a tight structure. The jokes are very decent and the actors are all good, but one can hardly share all the praise from some circles like the National Film Registry since a big deal of jokes ended up too corny and silly - for instance, in one scene, Igor knocks on the castle's door with a giant door knock, which causes Frankenstein to say: "My...What knockers!", but since he is evidently also at the same time holding his pretty assistant Inga in his arm, whose bust is at his eye level, she mistakenly replies to him: "Why thank you very much". Luckily, Brooks' humor here isn't so overstretched and thus the best jokes come swiftly, like when Frankenstein is distracted by the annoying Police Inspector and shoots a dart through the window or when he tells the obviously hideous monster that he is an "Olympic ideal" who actually buys it. Many moments are good precisely because they are done with a specific purpose, yet it's still a 'great comedy' with 50 % of lousy gags. A small jewel is brilliant Teri Garr as Inga, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman were nominated for a Golden Globe.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Grave of the Fireflies


Hotaru no haka; Animated drama, Japan, 1988; D: Isao Takahata, S: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara

"In September '45, I died". The ghost of Seita tells about his death at the age of 14 due to starvation. His little sister Setsuko died a few days earlier and their ghosts tell the story of their lives: during World War II, Japan is in chaos, their mother died during the bombing of Kobe while their father fights on the Pacific. Seito and Setsuko leave their aunt and find a place to stay in an abandoned bunker. Since they are running out of food, Seita starts stealing clothes and vegetables, but in the end the tragic outcome is inevitable.

Isao Takahata made his education in a department of the big animation company "Toei Doga" and together with his mentor Miyazaki started to make anime shows, like "Heidi", until they formed the now famous studio Ghibli. There he made a few excellent films, like "Only Yesterday", and this very good anti-war anime movie, "Grave of the Fireflies", a very touching and personal dedication to the victims of World War II - the story is even more painful due to the fact that it tells that theme from the perspective of the most fragile ones, two children, Seita and Setsuko, who represent the Japan that hopelessly, but optimistically fights for survival during that period when the hate of their politicians got them into such a mess that they had to start from year zero. The two protagonists are described gently, in a quiet and somber way, Setsuko in the scene where she salutes with a too big helmet on her head, Seita when he experiences a personal collapse and starts to cry. Due to the emotional attachment one can forgive the slightly overlong and exhausted running time towards the end, since it's a big shift from Disney's tradition, and even from the general Japanese action animation.

Grade:+++

My Neighbors the Yamadas


Houhokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun; Animated comedy, Japan, 1999; D: Isao Takahata, S: Toru Masuoka, Yukiji Asaoka, Naomi Uno

Numerous episodes from the life of family Yamada: the father is angry because his mother in law doesn't want to leave him her house...Son Noboru doesn't see a meaning in learning for school...While driving in the car, father, mother, mother in law and son realized they left the underaged daughter Nonoku in the store. But when they return, she is nowhere to be found. Luckily, she was picked up by a neighbor...The father didn't bring his umbrella at work, yet it starts to rain. He calls home and tells him family to bring him an umbrella and they obey...The mother in law persuades the father to stand up against a loud street gang...The son gets his first phone call from a girl and the whole family is spying on him...The father doesn't want his wife to switch the program...On the wedding, the father forgets his speech and thus has to improvise.

"Fake" anime (the characters are not drawn in a detailed way with big eyes, but in a naive-caricature way) "My Neighbors the Yamadas" is a simple, light, pleasant, unpretentious, entertaining and sympathetic little distraction composed from 30 episodes of everyday misadventures of the family from the title. Unlike his dramatic anime "Grave of the Fireflies", director Isao Takahata here decided to take a different approach and present fun vignettes from life everyone can identify with. "Yamada's" are the weakest in the beginning and in the end when they arbitrarily descend into fantasy, while their style is not that strong as expected, yet as a whole it's a successful product that causes the viewers to feel in good company, just like they were with their own family.

Grade:++

Orlando


Orlando; Fantasy drama, UK/ Russia/ France/ Italy/ Netherlands, 1992; D: Sally Potter, S: Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Valandrey, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams, Billy Zane

1600. In England, the young Orlando tells a poem about youth in front of Queen Elizabeth I. She grants him a large estate and orders him never to age. During winter, Orlando falls in love with Sasha, the daughter of a Russian diplomat, but she abandons him...1650. Orlando decides to finance poet Greene, but gets disappointed by his work...1700. Orlando is an ambassador in some country in the Middle East. After a man gets killed, Orlando wakes up one morning as a woman...1750. Orlando rejects an offer for marriage...1850. Orlando meets Shelmerdine, who fell from his horse, and spends a passionate night with him...A pregnant Orlando walks through World War battlefield...90s. Orlando hands over a manuscript for her novel and rides away with her daughter.

Art-drama "Orlando" is one of the strangest essays about transvestism and gay love ever filmed. By presenting a man, Orlando, who becomes a woman half way into the film (he/she awakes, looks herself in the mirror and and talks directly into the camera: "The same person. No difference. Just a different gender"), the story tried to reflect the essence of that state that is reflected across different Centuries, yet despite a solid direction by Sally Potter, "Orlando" is strangely unaffecting, pale and deprived of any way to communicate with the viewers. For all of it's good intentions, it's purely a film for it's own sake, or for some other sake unknown and alien to us. The 7 episodes from Orlando's life all flow smoothly, they are all well crafted, yet they have no meaning as a whole or for themself. Here and there a few intriguing scenes show up that ignite the viewers' interest, like the shot of a ship captured by ice in the middle of the frozen sea, yet the flame quickly gets extinguished since the story fails to incorporate a purpose that is sensed into it. It's a film that's so bizarre that you're surprised you don't feel anything. Though cult actress Tilda Swinton is very good as the androgynous title hero/heroine since the role seems to fit her hermetic talent. The make up won a BAFTA.

Grade:+

Victor/Victoria


Victor/Victoria; Comedy, UK/ USA, 1982; D: Blake Edwards, S: Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, James Garner, Lesley Ann Warren, Alex Karras, John Rhys-Davies

Paris, 1930's. Singer Victoria is unable to find work and has no money, so she barely manages to escape from a restaurant where she ordered a feast but tried not to pay by planting a cockroach in her food, but she makes a friend with gay performer Todd. He takes her into his apartment and persuades her into a strange idea - to play a gay man who plays a woman on stage. The idea is a curiosity, but she really manages to strike a success as Victor/Victoria in a nightclub. But mobster Marchand from Chicago doubts Victor is a real man, even though his girlfriend Norma has no doubts. Marchand kisses Victoria and she confesses she is a woman. But Norma brings mobsters from Chicago who mistakenly think Marchand became gay, so Victoria publicly reveals she is a woman through striptease.

Even though Blake Edwards directed stiff-lascivious movies like "S.O.B." and "Ten", there is no doubt that his excellent comedy "Victor/Victoria" is a thoroughbred crafted classic. It's as if a completely different Edwards directed the movie. Julie Andrews excellently plays the singer Victoria who plays a man - who plays a woman - which is why the story, just like every transgender flick, offers some secret observations about the difference between genders and gay orientation since mobster Marchand falls in love with her so he isn't sure if he loves a woman or a man; this is brilliantly summed up in one simple scene in the nightclub, just after Victoria finishes her act, but removes her wig and presents herself to be a man to the public, which causes the delight to shift from womanizer Marchand, who stops clapping, to his girlfriend Norma, who suddenly starts clapping, seeing an attractive man in front of her.

The movie wouldn't have been half as good if it weren't for Andrews inspiring androgynous performance, but she is equally matched by the genius Lesley Ann Warren as the shrill blond Norma - the scene where she sits in bed, looks at Marchand and tells him "Heeey!" in a mischievous way, is nothing when one writes it down, but everything in comedic sense when one actually sees it on the screen, as well as the amusing finale where Victoria strips in front of Norma to show she is a woman. The overlong musical sequences and a few misguided gags are bothersome, but when a movie is crafted right it's hard to become wrong so easily: the person who came up with the joke where a man is balancing and standing with his stick on a bottle, with his legs directed upwards, but Victoria's high pitch voice causes the bottle to shatter and him to fall, is genius. The music won an Oscar while Andrews won the Golden Globe as best actress in a musical or comedy, but the award for best picture musical or comedy went to the better "Tootsie's" hand.

Grade:+++

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Arabian Nights


Il fiore delle mille e una notte; Erotic drama, Italy/ France, 1974; D: Pier Paolo Pasolini, S: Franco Merli, Ines Pellegrini, Ninetto Davioli, Francesco Paolo Governale, Salvatore Sapienza, Tessa Bouche

An Arab country. The poor Nur Er Din buys the Black slave girl Zumurrud on the market because she herself gave him the money to do so. After a few enchanting nights of love, Zumurrud gets kidnapped by a Christian who ties her up to a pole, but she frees herself. She accidentally stumbles upon a kingdom where she gets crowned like a king. Nur Er Din, after a long search, manages to find her and she embraces him...The second story: an old African man likes to kiss men and philosophise...Womanizer Aziz leaves his fiance for other women, so his penis gets pulled out...A lover of a woman under the surface gets transformed into a monkey by a wizard, and then into a man again...Sailor Yunan arrives at an island where he kills a boy in his sleep, following a legend.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's movies have some intellectually stimulating touch that makes them unravel almost as if you read a good book. He has some kind of a subconscious approach towards his hermetic stories that can't be understood at first, yet something stays deep in your mind after you have seen them. He is one of the few directors of his time who managed to use "low elements" to achieve high art. Due to his abstract ideas, he is a director who is going on your nerves, but you can't wait to see his next movie. It's hard to determine why he is so "repulsively attractive", but many of his small works, among them cult "Arabian Nights" - somewhere also translated as "The Flower of 1001 Nights" - are a small sensation. That erotic anthology movie consisting of 5 nonlinear stories, shot on various locations from Yemen to Nepal, abounds with bizarreness: the opening title states: "The truth is not revealed in one dream, but in many", and then it cuts to the main story where the Arabs want to buy slave girl Zumurrud, but she herself chooses her new owner, the poor Nur Er Din. In the second story the womanizer Aziz (Pasolini's regular actor Ninetto Davioli) shoots an "arrow" shaped like a penis into the genitals of his mistress. Still, some of his stories are also unintentionally comical and clumsy, mostly the one playing out in Eritrea in which a girl has intercourse with a young guy who is naked, but doesn't even notice it since he is asleep (!). Then she falls asleep and he wakes up and has intercourse with her, and she also doesn't notice it since she is also asleep. Since the two of them, and many other characters, are played by first and only time improvised "actors", they constantly giggle and act rather confused. Such flaws, but also the overstretched running time, mostly spoil the dreamy mood of this final part of "Trilogy of Life" that symbolically speaks about first love and the problems of the lovers in the hypocrite world.

Grade:++

The Canterbury Tales


I racconti di Canterbury; Drama/ Satire, Italy/ France, 1972; D: Pier Paolo Pasolini, S: Hugh Griffith, Laura Betti, Ninetto Davioli, Franco Citti, Josephine Chaplin, Alan Webb

14th Century. A group of people tell each other stories to make the time pass: a rich old man, owner of a castle, marries the poor girl Maggio but she cheats on him with a young guy... Two men are caught having gay sex. One is rich and is thus able to buy himself out of the mess, while the other is poor and is burned alive by the church... Debt collector meets a colleague who claims to come from Hell... Clumsy happy man Perkyn does everything wrong and constantly falls into trouble, and thus gets executed...A student tricks a carpenter that the flood is coming to have an affair with his wife...Two young lads lose a horse so they decide to spend the night in a mill. At night they have fun with the miller's daughter, but he catches them and throws them out...Three friends find a treasure in the forest and kill each other from greed.

Anthology film "The Canterbury Tales", a loose adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's narrative poem with the same title, is the second film from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life", that ends with his next film, "Arabian Nights". Even "Tales" have flaws - some stories are better than the others, the characters are less important than the "author's vision", the mood is eclectic, the film as a whole too much roughly poetic - but it's still another good film from Pasolini, a intellectual and an artist whose movies make you think afterwards even when you think that some scenes look silly and stupid. The highlight of his creativity is definitely the third story - in it, Ninetto Davioli hilariously plays happy man Perkyn who reminds a lot of Chaplin's gestures and slapstick repertoire due to his antics; he winks to the bride on her wedding (!), carries a giant bowl when people in the line are waiting to get some soup; he has a dwarf father and a giant, 7-foot tall mother. Richly spiced with erotic but also amusing scenes (a young lad wants to kiss a girl, but she just farts in front of his nose), this is a flawed and hard to comprehend, but quality surreal movie.

Grade:++

The Decameron


Il Decameron; drama / comedy, Italy / France / Germany, 1971; D: Pier Paolo Pasolini, S: Franco Citti, Ninetto Davioli, Jovan Jovanović, Vincenzo Amato, Angela Luce, Silvana Mangano

14th Century. A woman tricks the naive Andreuccio that she is his sister, robs him in her home and throws him out on the street. But he becomes rich by plundering graves...A woman is hiding her lover in a vase from her husband...A young lad pretends to be mute and gets a job as a gardener in a convent. But all the nuns want to lose virginity with him, so he rebels and speaks up...A painter is making a mural in a church...A girl, Caterina, places her bed on the open so that her lover could visit her...The three brothers eliminate the lover of their sister...A priest tricks a fool by promising to transform his wife into a mule at day in order to help him at his farm...A man dies and his ghost shows up to proclaim his brother that it's not a sin to have intercourse.
The adaptation of Boccaccio's novel "The Decameron" offers excellent fun and is one of the most cheerful in the hermetic opus of director Pier Paolo Pasolini, launching his "Trilogy of Life" that celebrates joy, happiness and freedom. Pasolini infiltrated his Marxist view into the story that critiques the class difference, but also openly portrayed the beauty of unbound first love, not hesitating to show naked guys and girls, while the novel was well chosen since it's sharp wit seems rebellious even today, queuing numerous satirical events (the grave plunderers make a sign of cross and knee down before they exit the church; the mute gardener with whom all the nuns want to sleep with - because they think he won't be able to say anything anyway - finally protests and speaks out: "I didn't know what kind of a job this would be! A rooster can satisfy all the chicken, but all the men couldn't satisfy all of you!"; a ghost announces to a man that it's not a sin to have intercourse and the lad immediately "jumps" on a woman). And the story with the painter (Pasolini himself) who dreams about angels and the Madonna on his mural is enchanting. Even though the drastic cuts from one episodic event to another are deliberately vague, the 10 stories are combined with a fine narration that re-questions some moral dogmas and accepts the human with all of his flaws and virtues.

Grade:+++

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Porno Film


Porno Film; Comedy, Slovenia, 2000; D: Damjan Kozole, S: Matjaž Latin, Natalia Danilova, Primož Petkovšek, Zoran More, Roberto Magnifico

Čarli has curly hair and likes to watch porn movies. As he says himself, he maybe saw over a thousand of them since elementary school. Since he and his friends Frenk and John have poor jobs, they decide to film the first cult Slovenian porn film. During the audition, they hire Olga, a Russian girl, and some three girls who already starred in Hungarian porno films. Čarli is a perfectionist; he forbids the girls to wear socks so that their skin would be smooth but is unable to finally shoot the first scene. He falls in ove with Olga and they have long discussions, but then the Montenegrin mafia appears and picks up the girls who belong to them, while Čarli stays all alone.

Don't get confused by the title because comedy "Porno Film" has only two scenes of intercourse and is actually a parody on the "lack of porn movies" in the area of former Yugoslavia. In an absurd way, it talks about a group of Slovenian slackers who want to make a porn, but since it broke all box office records in it's homeland, it's a pity it's not a better made flick. The rhythm is slow, lax and overstretched (even though the story lasts for only 75 minutes) while the end with the Montenegrin mafia is truly dumb. The best visual part of the film is when director Damjan Kozole "cuts" some bits in time so the shadow of the heroes flip-flops between the left and right side of the wall, and a few occasional dialogues are amusing, like: "There has to be verbal communication in the film!" - "Yes, but also non-verbal communication!" It's a moderately well meaning and solid film, but the Slovenian cinema still doesn't have much to offer. Maybe they still suffer from some kind of a "blockade complex".

Grade:+

Norma Rae


Norma Rae; Drama, USA, 1979; D: Martin Ritt, S: Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley

Norma Rae is divorced, has two children and lives in a province. She works as a minimum-wage worker in a textile factory together with her parents and feels exploited. One day Reuben Warshowsky, a union organizer from New York, arrives in town and is treated harshly by everyone. While having another wild affair, Norma is kicked out from the motel by her lover and accidentally stumbles upon Reuben who intrigues her with his plan to get workers a decent salary. Even though they can't find a place to hold a meeting since even the church boycotts them, the workers slowly start to support them. After her father dies from exhausting work, Norma starts a crusade and in the end manages to organize a union.

Another very well made piece of rebellious 70s social criticism, drama "Norma Rae" is a simple and accessible, but in no way flat story based on real events that gives a rarely seen insight into the hard lives of minimum-wage workers in a textile factory. Director Martin Ritt handles the film with a quiet, subtle hand, never blatantly accusing anyone, but always trying to remain neutral, which isn't a small thing when someone has to direct such scenes as the one where Norma discovers her mother lost her hearing for a brief moment since she works the whole day in the terribly loud machinery or the one where Norma's father doesn't want to have anything with the union organizer Reuben because he is so uninformed he thinks it has something to do with Communism. Sally Field maybe overacts in a few scenes towards the end, but she rightfully won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and best actress award at the Cannes festival for her powerful performance as the title heroine, and it's interesting that she clearly isn't idealised since the authors show her as a woman who has courage on one hand, but is also very "loose" since she has two children from two different men and changes her men more often than her socks. The film has troubles with it's running time and it's straight forward approach deflates the concentration of the viewer after a while, yet it's hard to dismiss it for it's sheer enthusiasm.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We're No Angels


Mi nismo anđeli; fantasy comedy, Serbia, 1992; D: Srđan Dragojević, S: Milena Pavlović, Nikola Kojo, Branka Katić, Uroš Đurić, Srđan Todorović, Sonja Savić, Miki Manojlović
An Angel and the Devil observe how the self-centered Casanova Nikola spends a passionate night with the unsightly and introverted Marina (18). He did it only because he was drunk and the following morning he leaves the house. The Angel makes a bet with the Devil that he will succeed in bringing Nikola back to Marina and motivate him to fall in love. When Marina finds out she is pregnant, her friend Bubi finds Nikola drunk in a bar and brings him home. He begs Marina to make an abortion but she refuses. After a lengthy vacation in Lastovo, he returns to Marina on New Year's Eve and she gives birth to a daughter.

Serbian fantasy comedy "We're No Angels" is unknown in the world - except for it's identical title as the '55 Curtiz and '89 Jordan film - but if there was a crumb of justice, it would have enjoyed cult status together with other movies from that country. Deliberately relaxed, simple, with an anamorphic, profane story, the movie is unbelievably fun in it's attempt to combine romantic, fantastic, childish, bitter and sweet elements. In the beginning, a bald Angel and a drugged Devil are witnessing how a man jumps from the building. Since the Angel begged him not to jump, the Devil wins so the duo decides to try out their influence on the shaky relationship between the womanizer Nikola and the introverted Marina. The whole story is led with an elegant hand by first time director Srđan Dragojevic and is filled with shrill situations (some drunk guys push a girl into the pool. Marina doesn't want to have any contact with them, so an overweight woman tells her she doesn't know "how to have fun" and approaches them. There they also push her into the pool), ideas (director Dragojevic "explains" some strange human urges as the Devil and the Angel trying to influence their personality) and characters (a man uses his fist to create an improvised "vacuum" to "suck" his joint, gaining a high-pitch voice) that work excellently, despite a few poor ideas, while it also neatly smuggles a sweet message about true love.

Grade:+++

The Matrix


The Matrix; science-fiction action, USA/ Australia, 1999; D: Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, S: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

"Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm really awake or if I'm only dreaming..." Computer programmer Thomas Anderson is at times wondering if the whole world is not real, and that hunch will turn out true when one woman, Trinity, and a man, Morpheus, tell him the real nature of "reality": it is actually year 2199, not 1999, and the intelligent robots took over the world and placed the whole humanity under a trans, creating a fake world for their mind, the Matrix. Everything he sees is just an illusion. Still, Thomas, now called Neo, awakens in the real world and feels his real body for the first time, joining them in the fight against the Matrix.

The scene where Keanu Reeves' character Neo dodges a flying bullet in slow motion while the camera rotates around him was a blast back in 1999 and still remains one of the icons of cinema, yet the fact that one moment is memorable and popular does not automatically mean the whole movie is perfect. Namely, as a whole, "The Matrix" somehow seems grey and too fixated to really flow the way it should. Yet it is undeniable that its basic plot concept is brilliantly philosophical: the fact that the people in the story actually live in a fake world in their mind while their bodies are in reality in a "coma" somewhere in a giant container, is eerie-scary because it tickles a few deep human fears on a deeper level, showing an invisible prison we are not even aware off. Some of those uncomfortable moods become too exaggerated and bleak at times, yet they offer a few philosophical debates and parallel many paranoia themes, from Plato's Allegory of the cave, Gnosticism, Holographic Universe, Vedanta up to the fear of a secret Totalitarian society. The Wachowski brothers excelled mostly in truly virtuoso directed action sequences: the point-of-view of the hero while he is getting shot; many details of demolished things and epic explosion scenes in slow motion. Yet, alas, those action sequences last only around 20 minutes, while the dramaturgy and some more spiritual levels completely fail since the dead dialogues and lifeless characters simply can not cope up with them, which is why "The Matrix" leaves a rather ambiguous feeling. A few inconsistencies are also there (why would the bad guy, an indifirent, cold computer program, taunt a captured Morpheus? When Trinity is running from the agents on the roof, why doesn't the Matrix simply stop her by creating a wall in front of her?), yet the main goal, the amount of power of awe, revelation and magical intensity found in the similar and harmonius "The Truman Show", is hardly matched.

Grade:++

Monday, December 15, 2008

True Grit


True Grit; Western, USA, 1969; D: Henry Hathaway, S: Kim Darby, John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Jeremy Slate, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper

Framer Frank leaves his estate in order to buy ponies in a nearby town, but due to an misunderstanding he gets killed by the drunk friend Tom. Frank's daughter Mattie arrives in town and manages to persuade wild Marshall Rooster Cogburn to chase after Tom for 100 $. But Sherrif La Boeuf from Texas convinces Rooster to rather go with him hunting because the state offers them 1.500 $, so Mattie decides to secretly follow them. In a cottage in the middle of the nature they kill two criminals and discover that Tom joined the gang of notorious Pepper. Pepper kidnaps Mattie, but Rooster kills him and his gang, but La Boeuf also dies. Mattie gets bitten by a snake, so Rooster brings her to a doctor.

John Wayne won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best actor for western "True Grit" and that's pretty much the only thing this film is remembered for since it's inferior compared to his roles in many of John Ford's films: he won the award because he lost it before. It's a matter of a good film with wonderful landscape shots and a few occasional humorous moments, like when hero Rooster (Wayne with an eyepatch on) spots a rat in his house, aims a gun towards him and warns him that "it's against the law to eat someone else's wheat", but since the rodent doesn't listen to him, he shoots him. Unfortunately, on the other hand, the film has too much banalities, starting from the unconvincing argument around a lost poker game which causes Frank to shoot Tom all of a blue (later on, everyone seems to know that it was him even though he ran away in the dark), through Rooster's charge towards the 4 outlaws who of course can't hit him but he can hit them, up to the finale where Mattie shoots at Tom but the ferocity of the gun catapults her away into a well. The film has certain qualities and a disciplined style, yet Mattie turned out to be the main character, but is very irritating and childish.

Grade:++