Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Super Gals!


Super Gals!; Animated comedy/ drama series, Japan, 2001; D: Tsuneo Kobayashi, S: Megumi Toyoguchi, Oma Ichimura, Haruna Ikezawa, Ai Maeda, Aya Ishizu, Daisuke Sakaguchi

Tokyo, Shibuya. Ran Kotobuki is a hyper dynamic teenage girl with a red streak on her orange hair. She is one of the so called 'kogals' and aspires to become the "world's greatest gal". She lives in a family obsessed with police - all her ancestors were police officers, and now even her mother, father and brother Yamato work in the police department, while her younger sister Sayo also aspires to join them. In school, she always tries to leave a dashing impression but finds a boyfriend, Tatsuki. Ran becomes friends with the blond Miyu and Aya, whom she talks out of going out on dates for money. The three of them go through various adventures, like fighting with Ran's rival Mami, while Aya falls in love with Yamato.

Shining anime series "Super Gals!" is a real treat, an unusual teenage slice-of-life shoujo story that's sweet and bitter at the same time, with only one real flaw of it's naive title. It can be described as a 'Magical girl' show without fantasy elements, but with a lot of magic coming from it's imagination, spirit and wit, even though it only follows ordinary, everyday lives of three teenage girls. Most of it's charm is hard to explain since it only works when the viewers actually witness it firsthand, while it's detached when expressed in words: for instance, how can one explain the sensation of shrillness in the caricature opening titles of the episodes where three main girls play ping pong using the 'evil' girls as balls whose legs spin on the screen while Ran makes a salto with her body? The whole story is filled with small little gags, like when some girls comments how red streak in hair means that a girl has a boyfriend, while Ran comments how one girl should just then simply wear a blue streak; or when Ran jumps and uses her legs to remove the three 'evil' girls who surrounded and gossiped a girl.

When a teacher orders her to run 40 laps, she deliberately demands for 50, while her father, a police officer, contains her in a room and persuades her to finally decide to become a police officer herself, slyly stating again and again: "Say it! Go on, say it! You won't leave until you say it! Say that you'll become a police officer!" while the camera perfectly pans her annoyed face. That's precisely why Ran is so fascinating: she is irresistibly cute and full of energy, yet also has a very moral side to her. There is no real place for aversion because the 52 episodes skillfully combine humor (and even parody, since in one scene a superhero from a movie wears boxer shorts) and serious drama (Ran persuades her friend Aya to stop dating for money), using a sweet tone to hide subversive and bitter elements from adolescence. But on the other hand, some have complained that the anime suffers from too much kitsch, filler episodes and childish touch, even though the author Mihona Fujii neatly covered up the "nonexistent" plot. Even though it may seem that the girls here are just spoiled, shallow brats and Barbie dolls, I've never seen girls who talk about fashion and appearance turn out to be such intelligent and emotional beings.

Grade:+++

Inside Monkey Zetterland


Inside Monkey Zetterland; Tragicomedy, USA, 1992; D: Jefery Levy, S: Steve Antin, Patricia Arquette, Tate Donovan, Sandra Bernhard, Rupert Everett, Sofia Coppola, Katherine Helmond, Bo Hopkins, Ricki Lake, Martha Plimpton

Monty 'Monkey' Zetterland is an unsuccessful actor. In order to earn some money, he goes to an experimental psychologist and tells him about his life in a session while scientists observe him: he was left by his girlfriend Daphne who left into the desert. In a library, he met his neighbor Imogene who tried to seduce him giving him photos of her feet. Since Monty was writing a screenplay, he was annoyed by the visit of his father, mother actress, brother Trent, Sofie, Sasha, grandmother and sister Grace. Grace is a lesbian and her relationship with a woman was in a crisis ever since she became pregnant. Sofie and Sasha were revealed as terrorists and died with Grace in an explosion. After a gale and unsuccessful assassin attempt aimed towards him mother, everything became better: the studio buys Monty's script and he becomes friends with Imogene.

"Inside Monkey Zetterland" is an unusually confusing independent film, but then again, on the other side, beautified with a few very delicate scenes. Written by Steven Antin, a former child star, the anemic story revolves around an unsuccessful actor with a silly name, Monkey Zetterland, while director Jefery Levy has a good sense for setting shots, like in the one where Daphne waves with her hair in front of the camera or when long takes prevail. Equally brilliant is the eccentric scene in which a voice talks with Monty but constantly changes it's tone from a high into a deep voice. But the plotless story is pointless and simply unmemorable, instead trying to fill it's running time with dialogs without a point or various empty episodes (boring argument of Monty over Daphne who left into the desert), while it also has too many unnecessary characters and unused subplots. It's a pity, for instance, that Sandra Bernhard has such an unimportant episode: she is sweet as neighbor Imogene who gently tries to seduce Monty (when he wakes up lying on the table in the library, he spots her having her head leaned towards him) but he always stays cold and distant - if they started a real relationship, the story could have actually had some merits.

Grade:+

Monday, 28 April 2008

El Topo


El Topo; Western grotesque, Mexico, 1970; D: Alejandro Jodorowsky, S: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mara Lorenzio, Brontis Jodorowsky, David Silva, Paula Romo, Robert John, Jacqueline Luis

A man, El Topo, is riding a horse together with his naked 7-year old son. They arrive at a town where all the people have been killed. He finds the bandits who did this and kills them. Then he finds their boss, the Colonel, and kills him too, leaving his child to grow up in a monastery. He meets a woman, Mara, who persuades him to find the 4 master gunmen and kill them to become "the greatest". Using little tricks, he kills them all, except for the last who commits suicide. He then falls in depression while Mara betrays and shoots him. He is found by a group of deformed outcasts and nursed for decades in an underground cave. When he awakens, he shaves his head and decides to build a tunnel that will lead them to the surface. With a help of a small woman, he performs acts in the local town to earn enough to finance such an undertaking, even finding his angry grown up son. When the tunnel is finished, the outcasts go to the town where the people kill them.

Among the interesting curiosities about the legendary underground cult film "El Topo" is also the fact that John Lennon named it his favorite film and even decided to finance director Alejandro Jodorowsky's next film, "The Holly Mountain". Unlike "Mountain", "El Topo" at least has a linear story, that is until the last third when it goes deeply into the surreal territory. Right from the start, it's obvious that this is a very difficult film that directly takes a "take it or leave it" approach, filled with unbelievably mad scenes: one bandit is shooting at dozens of high heel shoes placed on rocks in the desert while the other one makes an image of a naked woman from hundreds of small rocks on the ground and lies on top of it. The duel between El Topo and the bandits starts as soon as an squeaking red balloon runs out of air. El Topo challenges a master gun fighter to a duel who is accompanied by a man without legs riding a man without arms (actual people), who then go wild in the desert after their master looses. Even though it seems like an ego trip at times, "El Topo" is actually the most fascinating when it completely switches it's tables and becomes something of a search for spirituality in the second half where the hero, a master gunman, becomes depressed and feels his life is empty, finding his new meaning in a life with social outcasts where he purifies himself by shaving his head. Those more contemplative directions are very original after a few examples of excessive violence and bring a surprising (Buddhist) spiritual dimension to the seemingly harsh and tough story, maybe joggling with themes about a person who gets tired of his or her life and wants to completely change it. "El Topo" has a wide range and inevitably touches many areas of the mind, yet not all of those areas were rubbed the right way and don't inevitably cause a positive reaction due to it's mad and wild style.

Grade:++

The Apocalypse


The Apocalypse; Science-fiction action, USA, 1997; D: Hubert C. De La Bouillerie, S: Sandra Bernhard, Cameron Dye, Frank Zagarino, Laura San Giacomo

In the future, a woman in a sleeping dress starts her spaceship and programs it to collide with Earth that counts 22 billion inhabitants. Female Captain J.T. Wayne gets the assignment to stop the possible apocalypse, but her ex-boyfriend, macho guy Wendler, decides to kidnap the spaceship and thus kills almost the entire crew with his gang. The only survivor is the waiter Lenon who somehow manages to get back into the J.T.'s vessel. Together they enter the infamous spaceship and kill the gang, but Wendler puts them in prison. Lenon and J.T. escape, kill Wendler and ignite an explosion that destroys the lethal spaceship.

Considering it was made in an extremely cheap C-production and with a trashy tone, Sci-fi action thriller "The Apocalypse" is a reasonably acceptable failure. The intensity and identity of the film are given by cult actress Sandra Bernhard, the eccentric version of Julia Roberts, who managed to get the main role. Some segments of the mediocre story function exclusively thanks to her charisma and a few accidental quirky touches, like in the wacky scene where Lenon gets wounded and says: "Now I finally have something to show!"; when Bernhard's character J.T. is arguing with the bad guy, her ex-boyfriend, while they are separated by a glass map with numbers or when he gets infuriated when he spots her having intercourse with someone else besides him. Director Hubert C. De La Bouillerie didn't get an opportunity to shine in the midst of all the hopelessly tiresome writing - a few unusual camera angles can't save the thing, whereas there is no anxiety, but also no humor either. It's a weak version of "Under Siege" in space with a lot of plot holes and irritating moments, thus the best part is actually the ending.

Grade:+

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country; Science-fiction thriller, USA, 1991; D: Nicholas Meyer, S: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Kim Cattrall, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Kurtwood Smith, Iman

23rd century. Due to an accident, an energy reactor on the moon Praxis explodes. The consequence: due to radiation, the ozon layer on Klingon's home planet Qo'noS will disappear in 50 years. In order to save themselves, the Klingons want to make peace with the Federation. 12 weeks before the retirement, Admiral Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Enterprise crew are sent to arrange a welcoming comity for Chancellor Gorkon. But, all of a sudden, someone fires on the Klingon spaceship while two Enterprise members are teleported there and kill him. Kirk and Dr. McCoy are declared as guilty by the Klingon court and sent to a icy detention camp. But Spock manages to save them and discover that Klingons and some Federation members are working together to prevent the peace agreement. Luckily, they are able to stop a further assassination attempt.

Perestroika in space: after the disappointing part 5, Paramount Pictures once again hired the acclaimed director Nicholas Meyer for "Star Trek VI" who crafted a fascinating little essay about the rarely seen socio-political context of the Federation and the Klingon Empire in the Star Trek universe, comparable with the US-Soviet relationship, that accidentally actually even predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union. As with all "Star Trek" films before it, this one also became a huge box office hit, yet unlike other films, part 6 is a mysterious detective thriller story, thus acting thanks to tight writing, Meyer's direction and sharp humor as one of the best contributions to the uneven series. The diner sequence that has the Enterprise crew and the Klingons eating together, marvelously sums up the explosive nature of their relationship - the Klingon female official even scrawls upon the remark that the Klingons should accept a law about human rights, stating: "The sole term 'human rights' is racist. The Federation is just a Homo sapiens club". The scene where Kirk discovers that he hit an alien in his knees, where his genitals are located, is a surreal riot while the finale where the Enterprise assembles a torpedo in order to track down the invisible Klingon ship that attacks them is still one of the most exciting and brilliant endings in the series. Even though there are some small flaws, this is a worthy, dignified and nostalgic farewell to the original Star Trek crew.

Grade:++

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier


Star Trek V: The Final Frontier; Science-fiction adventure, USA, 1989; D: William Shatner, S: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Laurence Luckinbill, David Warner, George Takei, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols

23rd century. Spiritualist Sybok attracts followers on his planet Nimbus III relieving them from pain. With their assistance, he storms into a desert city and takes famous people as hostages. Admiral Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy and thus called to end their vacation in nature and quickly bring back order on Nimbus III. But once there, Sybok gets them in a trap and goes with them to Enterprise: he is namely convinced that God lives in the center of the Galaxy, and thus orders them to go find him. Spock also discovers Sybok is his half-brother. The spaceship crosses the barrier and arrives at a blue planet. But they don't find God, just some alien with a face cowered in neon light who kills Sybok. The crew leaves the planet.

One of the weakest contributions to the "Star Trek" series has some kind of stimulative touch, but the problem is that it more just allures the viewers to have a quick peak, than to watch the whole story till the end. "The Final Frontier" grossed only 55 million $ at the US box office whereas William Shatner didn't manage to convince in the position of the director like his colleague Leonard Nimoy in the previous film, but as a whole the movie isn't completely bad. The start seems promising since it shows how Kirk, Spock and McCoy and taking a vacation in nature - the sharp eared Spock is once again the best in scenes in which he claims that the song "Row your boat" is illogical while his friends wonder if he can tolerate beans and Whisky. But the main plot revolving around the search for God in the middle of the Galaxy is pretentious and disappointing - in the end, they only find some surreal alien there, which was probably aimed as a critical view at some religious dogmas and fanatics, but seems heavily blatant. If anything, Shatner at least tried to make an interesting story about the relationship between humans and universe.

Grade:+

Friday, 25 April 2008

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home


Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home; science-fiction comedy, USA, 1986; D: Leonard Nimoy, S: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Catherine Hicks, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols

In the year 2286, an invincible alien probe shows up and puts the whole Earth in chaos, evaporating the oceans and ionizing the atmosphere. Admiral Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew discover it can only be stopped if it gets a signal from whales. But since the whales have been extinct since the 21st century, they use the Klingon ship to make a circle around the Sun and travel back in time. They arrive at San Francisco in 1986 and walk around the streets, confused at all the primitive culture of Earth. Kirk manages to become friends with Dr. Gillian, a guide at a Cetacean Institute and persuades her to give him her whales. He takes her with her and they go back to the 23rd century, where the new whales stop the alien probe.

No matter what everyone says, this unusual nostalgic time travel sci-fi comedy with a sly ecological subtext is the best "Star Trek" film. Abjected by some fans due to its unorthodox story, it is probably the most enjoyable and 'universal' "Star Trek" film since everyone can "get it", even non fans, because its futuristic story has been placed into a recognizable context - it is a culture crash of cosmic proportions that works marvelously as a hilarious "fish out of water" story. After three dark films in a row, director Leonard Nimoy turned the tables and presented the audience with a surprisingly funny part 4: the beginning and the ending are typical run-of-the-mill "Star Trek", but the middle part where the whole crew travels back in time to San Francisco of 1986 is absolutely unbelievable, a riot that has our characters getting placed in weirdest situations that are irresistibly cute and are bound to cause a reaction from the audience, unlike some films that just leave you cold (Kirk wants to cross the street but is interrupted by an aggressive driver, thus uses the word "dumb ass" to "blend in" with the culture; Mr. Spock has a confrontation with a punker in the bus whom he immobilizes using his Vulcan technique; Kirk explains him that in this time everyone swears, and that evidence of that "can be found in all the literature of the period, like the neglected works of Jacqueline Susan and novels of Harold Robbins"...) while it is especially amusing when Mr. Chekhov accidentally gets mistaken for a spy on the army nuclear vessel. A naively-sweet light junction between different genres, and it seems the most intelligent in the whole series, that should enjoy cult status for its shrill mood.

Grade:++

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock


Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; Science-fiction, USA, 1984; D: Leonard Nimoy, S: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Christopher Lloyd, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols, Leonard Nimoy

After Mr. Spock died repairing the reactor of the Enterprise, the coffin with his corpse was thrown to planet Genesis. Heavily damaged, the Enterprise returns to Earth's orbit. But Spock's father Sarek contacts Admiral Kirk on the space station because he feels Spock might have resurrected since Genesis was illuminated with life thanks to the "Genesis" project. Together with his crew, Kirk heads to that planet, but there he gets attacked by Klingon's Commander Kruge who kills his son. Kirk blows up the Enterprise together with Klingons in it, but his crew manage to save themselves and find Spock alive.

There's an unwritten rule regarding the original "Star Trek" series: movies with divisible numbers - 2, 4 and 6 - are good, while those with indivisible ones - 1, 3 and 5 - are weak. The critics more or less agree upon one thing - namely, "Star Trek III" is no exception to that rule since it mostly lapses behind it's forerunner. It's a very dark, depressive, but also very tiresome sequel, deprived from any kind of charm or humor, while there wasn't an end to all the pulp mood and uninventive execution, but it had to be filmed since many fans sent a ton of complain letters back in '82 in which they lamented upon the fact that their beloved character of Mr. Spock died in part 2, and thus the authors decided to bring him back. Even though very routine and exciting exclusively to "Star Trek" fans, but not to the general audience, part 3 still managed to become a hit. Leonard Nimoy, this time in the director's chair, didn't succeed in inserting more color in the bleak story which is just one giant gimmick to bring Spock back, yet 2 years later he surprised everyone with part 4 where he got a record amount of praise.

Grade:+

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; science-fiction, USA, 1982; D: Nicholas Meyer, S: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Ricardo Montalban, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Kirstie Alley

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew got the assignment to be inspectors at a test flight of a young and inexperienced crew. But their spaceship gets attacked by Kirk's old enemy Khan who escaped from planet Ceti Alpha VI and now tries to steal the miraculous new device called "Genesis" whose explosions can create new life on dead planets. Even Kirk's wife and son have been working on the "Genesis" project. The two ships attack each other and cause damage to both, so Khan activates "Genesis". Enterprise is barely able to save itself and get away from the explosion when Mr. Spock dies while repairing the reactor in the engine room.

There is an interesting point of trivia tied with "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan": with an incredibly high average grade of 7.9/10 on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes, there dominates the consensus that it is by far best and most ambitious film of that cult SF movie serial. Still, that is a little bit exaggerated: the 2nd part is better than the 1st, 3rd and 5th, but the 6th and the very funny 4th part are equally as good, if not even better. In this tight and dark sequel director Nicholas Meyer showed skill in juggling with dynamics, dramaturgy and interesting angles in space, and made a clever choice of reaching out to to take something from the original "Star Trek" TV show stockpile, the villain Khan from episode "Sleeping Tiger", which gave the whole storyline continuity and fluency. Ricardo Montalban does a very good job of reprising Khan, though a little more spice and interaction between his character and Kirk would have been welcomed.

Especially well conceived is the exposition in which the attack of Klingons on the spaceship by commander Saavik turns out to be just a test in the simulation room, but the best part is Kirk's clever trick: knowing that Khan is secretly tapping his conversation on the isolated station on planetoid Regula that develops the "Genesis" project, he stages a fake conversation with Mr. Spock whom he orders to leave with the Enterprise if he doesn't report back in one hour. And he doesn't, upon which Khan concludes that he must be trapped inside the planetoid. But after 2 hours, Kirk and his crew get teleported back - because he lied. Though slightly dry, filled with pulp (the sand worms are trashy) and some omissions (how could a space station of such importance as the Genesis be left so vulnerable and without any defence? The scene where Kirk's crew from the Enterprise shuts down the shields on Khan's spaceship is not plausible...), the film works well also thanks to the surprisingly tragic ending.

Grade:++

Young Adam


Young Adam; Erotic drama, UK/ France, 2003; D: David Mackenzie, S: Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan, Jack McElhone, Emily Mortimer

Glasgow, Scotland. Joe is an aimless young lad who works on one river barge under his boss Les, his wife Ella and their little son Jim. One day, Joe and Les find a corpse of a woman in the river and inform the authorities. Joe knew the girl - her name was Cathie and she had a wild affair with her, but she accidentally stumbled one night and fell into the river - yet decides not to tell anyone about it. Out of boredom, he starts an affair with Ella. As a consequence, she leaves Les. Yet, Adam doesn't want to bond with her and starts an affair with her relative Gwen. He observes the trial in which Cathie's lover Daniel, a plumber, gets wrongly sentenced for her murder.

"Young Adam" is a prety boring existential drama based on Alexander Trocchi's novel with the same name, that seems to have been influenced by Albert Camus' "Stranger". David Mackenzie directs the film as a bleak vision of a cold world, yet the whole movie is sterile, anemic, pale and simply uninteresting. All actors try their best, from Ewan McGregor up to Tilda Swinton, who bravely accepted the highly unglamorous role of the housewife Ella, yet they cannot hide that there is simply nothing there in the story - the only thing that will keep the viewer from falling asleep are the erotic scenes. There are aesthetic shots of a fly walking on Ella's nipple and Joe spanking the screaming Cathie before he 'takes' her from behind, and one can guess they are there to show the anxiousness of pointless life, but they also succeeded to show the anxiousness of the pointless story. If anything, the authors at least tried to go somewhere more contemplative towards the finale where the anti-hero, who jumps from one affair to another to escape his boring life, observes the trial that got it all wrong and accused an innocent man, subtly drawing a theme about his inability to be a part of anything in this world.

Grade:+

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Pan's Labyrinth


El laberinto del fauno; Fantasy horror drama, Mexico/ Spain/ USA, 2006; D: Guillermo del Toro, S: Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo

Spain during the Franco regime in '44. The young Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother Carmen to join her stepfather Captain Vidal, a falangist whose army fights against the Marxist rebels. Ofelia discovers a stick insect that leads her to Pan's labyrinth and from there to an underground fairy tale world where she meets the faun that gives her 3 tasks that she must fulfill if she wants to go stay in that world. The first one is getting a key from a giant frog bellow a tree, the second one is to take a dagger away from a fetus looking creature. When Carmen dies but gives birth to Vidal's son, Ofelia gets the assignment to take her brother and bring it to faun, who orders her to take it's blood, but she refuses. Vidal gets the baby back and shoots the girl, but the rebels take over his base and kill him. Ofelia fulfilled her assignments and got to live in the fairy tale world.

"Pan's Labyrinth" was one of the most critically acclaimed films in 2006, but many critics simply couldn't exactly explain why they liked it so much. Only a hand full of them gave good reasons, while all others just resorted to arbitrary, vague and ambiguous praise like "great", "fantastic", "imaginative", "brilliant" etc. That's not to say that it's a bad film - far from it, yet despite all, I somehow had a hard time "deciphering" brilliance from all those surreal scenes. It's a good film, an interesting exercise in dark fairy tales for grown ups with a Gothic mood, but that's hardly a reason to call it something more than it is. We are given two parallel stories; one about the war between Franco's army and the rebels, and one about the girl's fantasy world, yet they are always separate, never connected and do not complement each other in any way. In fact, the entire film never connects in any way, it's just like vignette after vignette. Maybe one could say that the giant frog that lives as a parasite under the tree could be a symbol for the dictator parasites in the world, and one could say that the fetus looking humanoid with eyes on his hands that attacks Ofelia in his room could be a symbol for her unborn brother and their rivalry, and one could say that the biggest monsters in the story are actually humans during the war, yet one can't shake the feeling away that it's all slightly vague. Ivana Baquero is marvelous in the leading role and one of the handful of truly poetic moments comes at the end, when the narrator says the magical words: "...and she left small traces of her existence, for all those who knew where to look". Guillermo del Toro seems like a very intelligent person, and frankly it's more fascinating to listen to his clever thoughts and worldviews in the DVD audio commentary than to just look at the film itself.

Grade:++

The Flintstones


The Flintstones; Fantasy comedy, USA, 1994; D: Brian Levant, S: John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O'Donnell, Kyle MacLachlan, Halle Berry, Elizabeth Taylor

The Flintstones are a normal prehistoric family living in Bedrock. Thanks to Fred, Barney and Betty Rubble manage to adopt a baby, Bam-Bam. In order to show his gratitude, Barney switches his workers exam results with Fred's - as a consequence, Fred is promoted to the executive suite in the Slate company, while Barney is fired. At first, Fred enjoys his big salary, yet the sneaky manager Cliff and his secretary Sharon Stone set him up and blame him for firing all the workers. Still, thanks to the recording of the Dictabird, Fred is able to prove his innocence and get his old job back for inventing concrete.

The live action adaptation of the legendary Hanna-Barbera animated series "The Flintstones" is an amusing and sympathetic mainstream film that mostly managed to stay faithful to the innocent tone of the original, with John Goodman and Rick Moranis providing extraordinary performances that nailed down the cartoon characters of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. For a fantasy story set in prehistoric times, the movie has a few neat satirical references: for instance, producer Spielberg's name has been "translated" into 'Spielrock', a park where people play in has been named 'Jurassic Park', while it's hard not to enjoy the words told by Wilma's mother: "You could have married the man who invented the wheel. Instead, you married the man who invented the excuse!" Still, even though Halle Berry plays well the secretary named Sharon Stone (!), her sex appeal seems out of place for such a story. Speaking of the story, it's very convulsive - it tried to make a satire of greedy corporations and Capitalism, yet it was obviously a too big bite to take since it completely lost the innocent, small everyday details from family life of the original show, which is why it's so heavy handed at times and why the second half of the film is worn out. It would have been better if the film stayed more faithful to the spirit of the cartoon, even though it's a very solid achievement.

Grade:++

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Lawrence of Arabia


Lawrence of Arabia; adventure, UK / Jordan, 1962; D: David Lean, S: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains

World War I, Cairo. The British army sends lieutenant T.E. Lawrence deeply into the Arab peninsula in order to find prince Feisal and "estimate the situation". But Lawrence quickly blends in with the area, becomes friends with the mighty Ali and Auda, unites the rivaling Arab tribes and starts an attack against the Turkish army and Ottoman empire that controls their territory. After he leads the Arabs to victory in Aquaba and Damascus, he gets dismissed, while the British army turns Arab countries into colonies.

One of Spielberg's favorite films, adventure epic "Lawrence of Arabia" won 7 Oscars, 5 Golden Globes and 4 BAFTA awards, including best picture, and kindliness of the critics despite a few historical inaccuracies, making even some state that even the best modern films can't even touch it. Sometimes fascinating, sometimes stiff and schematic, "Lawrence" is at its best when it plays out in the suggestive landscapes of deserts, by which it gains a highly stylish tone: the hidden leitmotiv is the everlasting nature of some things as opposed to futile actions of individuals who try to change the world. One of the movie's trademarks is the fact that it's almost a one-man-show that centres entirely around the unusual character of T.E. Lawrence, a British lieutenant who was bored with his life, eager for adventure and different cultures - the thing that attracted Lean is almost unbelievable historical irony that not an Arab, but actually a British achieved the impossible: to unite all those rivalling Arab tribes against the Turks and awaken their national identity.

Among the intriguing sequences is the one in which the hero and his group of Arab friends succeed to cross the dangerous desert and get to Aquaba, but he decides to go back to get a missing colleague and challenge the destiny because "nothing is written". When asked why he likes the desert so much, he replies with: "Because it's so clean". But even the images are great, like the one in which Lawrence is at night walking through the dunes or the classic scene where Ali "emerges" from a Fata Morgana; the 4 hours or running time pass smoothly while Lean once again gives a subtle slap to his homeland's past for it's shameful era of colonialism, but it's a pity that the finale is mild, dry and unexciting. Maurice Jarre's score is pure magic (though it's underused), whereas the fact that there are no women in the story, Lean managed to subtly emphasize Lawrence's possible gay side, but the movie still could have been better if in the end the authors delivered a real point about the search for identity in this world or added more emotions in an otherwise 'distant' story.

Grade:+++

Brief Encounter


Brief Encounter; Romantic drama, UK, 1945; D: David Lean, S: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey

Laura Jesson returns home to her husband with whom she has a son and a daughter, but thinks about the events that occurred recently: on a train station some dust fell into her eye, so a kind doctor named Alec Harvey helped her. Later on, she met him again in a restaurant and went to the cinema with him. He told her he is married, but that he fell in love with her. They started meeting together every Thursday and led a secret relationship. Laura had the biggest difficulties since she always had to make excuses to leave her home, until she decided to end her affair. Alec went to work in Africa.

This unknown film from David Lean's opus, the director of such epics like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Bridge on the River Kwai", is a deeply gentle, simple romantic drama about unrequited love that avoids the glamour and spectacle of the above mentioned films. Even though the calm mood made the story very tranquil, Lean still proves to have a skillful calligraphy: in the exposition, the main heroine Laura (Celia Johnson) is irritated by the blabbing of a friend in front of her, so she leads this monologue in her head: "I wish you were a wise friend...I wish you'd shut up! I wish you were dead. Oh no, that was mean". It's a pretty harsh and direct tragedy with dialogues like "Nothing lasts. Neither luck nor sorrow" and a precise, sophisticated and delicate rhythm that carefully build the emotional structure around it, equipped even with a few seminal moments (Laura imagining that she is with Alec in Paris, in Venice or on the beach). Too bad the ending doesn't bring any kind of revolution in their lives, but maybe that was part of the point the authors wanted to make, namely that sometimes people just have to live their ordinary lives and not change no matter how something extraordinary hits them. The movie won the Golden Palm at the Cannes festival.

Grade:+++

Monday, 21 April 2008

Under the Bombs


Sous les bombes; Drama, France/ Lebanon/ UK, 2007; D: Philippe Aractingi, S: Nada Abou Farhat, Georges Khabbaz, Bshara Atallah, Rawia Elchab

During the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006, Zeina flies from Dubai to Beirut in order to search for her sister and her 16-year old son Karim. She persuades a taxi driver, Tony, to drive her to the south of Lebanon, where the Israel's bombardment is the heaviest. She finds her sister died in one town, so she goes to search for Karim. On their journey, they meet numerous victims of the war. Tony brings her to the house of his relatives, from where they go by foot to a monastery where Karim is supposed to be. But they only find a boy who took Karim's jacket - Karim namely died under the bombs.

You really have to hand it to director Philippe Aractingi for his part fiction-part documentary film "Under the Bombs" - unlike other directors who make films about wars that are long over, he actually took a camera, few actors and completely spontaneously went on to make a film about a war that was still going on at that time, the 2006 Lebanon War. As the epilogue states, this film shows the innocent victims of war, normal citizens who didn't score political points but just lost their beloved ones. Through a simple story about a woman, Zeina (excellent Nada Abou Farhat), who persuades a taxi driver to drive her to the south of Lebanon, numerous real victims show up and mirror the message, while some on the scene improvisations give it a special spark, like when the taxi has to stop and take a different road because a bridge is destroyed. As a whole, the movie is slightly relaying too much on it's one-note concept and seems rather monotone at times, but it can't be denied that it's never pro one or pro other side, just pro peace, while it also captured the authentic atmosphere of the mood there, like when Hezbollah supporters are participating at a funeral and chant "America is the greatest Satan", much to Zeina's dismay who later on confesses to the driver that she didn't want to raise her child in this culture of hate. For showing both sides of the story, the author deserves praise, even though his quick spontaneous writing of the story in making seemed rushed at times.

Grade:++

The Karate Kid


The Karate Kid; Action drama, USA, 1984; D: John G. Avildsen, S: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue, Martin Kove, William Zabka, Randee Heller

Teenager Daniel and his mother move from New Jersey to California. There Daniel meets a girl named Ali and falls in love with her, but gets the target of aggressions from her jealous ex-boyfriend Johnny, a karate trainee. When Johnny and his friends beat him up one evening, he is saved by janitor Miyagi, who agrees to teach him karate. Though his methods are unorthodox, Miyagi learns Daniel a great deal and he wins against Johnny in a karate tournament.

Nostalgic coming-of-age pseudo classic "The Karate Kid" seems slightly dated today due to it's amateurish execution, but it's charm, honest sympathy for the underdog who wins despite all odds and neat incorporation of Eastern wisdom still give it appeal. The strongest ingredient in the story is the realistic feel of problems of teenager hood - even though Johnny and his gang seem like over-the-top cliche bad guys, it's hard not to chill at their methods of mockery, degradation and picking upon the weaker hero Daniel. Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita delivered a sympathetic performance as the karate master Miyagi, for which he was even nominated for a Golden Globe and a Oscar: truth be told, his character doesn't come off as wise as the authors would have liked him to be, and he sometimes even seems like a con artist when he trains Daniel karate by letting him wax the cars or wash the floor - according to him, car wash employees should be the best fighters in the world - yet the message and the honesty of the story are there.

Grade:++

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Broadcast News


Broadcast News; tragicomedy, USA, 1987; D: James L. Brooks, S: William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, Robert Prosky, Lois Chiles, Joan Cusack, Jack Nicholson

Jane is an ambitious TV producer who works in the same studio as reporter Aaron who is in love with her. On a conference, she delivers a boring speech, but attracts the attention of journalist Tom who becomes her friends and finds a job at her TV station as the anchorman. Tom isn't educated in that field and is impressed when Jane and Aaron make a report about a conflict in Latin America, yet he himself shines when he reports about breaking news involving the attack of a Libyan war plane on an American base. Jane and Tom come closer, which hits Aaron who isn't popular among the viewers. Tom goes to London, Aaron quits. 7 years later, Tom is engaged to Lila, Aaron has a child while Jane is single.

Excellent tragicomedy "Broadcast News" was nominated for 7 Oscars (including best picture and the entire cast) and 5 Golden Globes, while it won 5 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, including best film, director and screenplay. The movie owns much of that success to the humane author James L. Brooks who leads the story as a mix between humor and melancholy, just like in all of his films, thus showing how it is sometimes more interesting to observe the problems of providing and making TV news than just to observe TV news alone. A special spark give shrill characters and unusual situations they get into: Albert Brooks is great as the cynical Aaron - when he doesn't get the expected congratulation for his report from the respected Bill Rorich (Jack Nicholson in a small cameo), everyone in the room starts to stare at him in an anxious way, so he bends forwards and whispers his friend Jane to pretend as if he just told something funny, she bursts into laughter and thus saves him by hiding his public disappointment. Though the story is simple and accessible, it has enough interesting romantic entanglements, like when Aaron finds out Jane is in love with Tom, and shocked, at first, gets out of the house in order to return later on and humorously tries to convince her that that man is the devil. Brooks' touching splice between cynical humor and humanism in advantage of the latter one sometimes works, sometimes not, but in that intention he is always very consistent.

Grade:+++

Atonement


Atonement; Drama, UK/ France, 2007; D: Joe Wright, S: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Harriet Walter, Beendict Cumberbatch, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn

England, '35. Briony Tallis, a 13-year old girl from an upper-class family, finishes her play. Her sister Cecillia is one day angered when Robbie, the son of their housekeeper, accidentally breaks a part of her vase and she plunges into the fountain to get it. Robbie decides to send her a letter of apology, but accidentally sends a wrong one with lascivious language, which Briony reads. Still, Cecillia falls for him and they are caught by Briony in the library. With prejudice that Robbie is a pervert, Briony wrongfully accuses him of raping the young Lola. He is arrested and sent to fight in the World War II. The 18-year old Cecilia finds him and Cecillia and apologizes to them, stating that another man raped Lola. As a 77-year old, Briony gives an interview about her latest novel, the autobiographical "Atonement", telling how Robbie actually died in the war.

Winner of a BAFTA and a Golden Globe as best motion picture, this smooth adaptation of Ian McEwans critically acclaimed novel with the same title is an interesting film about unrequited love and prejudice, that is excellent in the first half, but somehow weaker in the second, ending inconveniently with an unsatisfying, impartial finish with a stiff plot twist, which will cause some to regard it paler than it is since the last thing the viewer sees in the film is the one that is often remembered the most. Director Joe Wright crafts the film in a very measured way, incorporating a few neat tricks - for instance, in order to emphasize that Cecillia and Robbie are living in different worlds, he places a scene where she plunges into the lake, immediately followed by the shot of him emerging from the water in his bath tub - and showing a sense for very emotional narration, culminating in one very memorable scene where the 13-year old Briony accidentally catches Cecillia and Robbie at intercourse in the library, and then sitting at the table facing him directly, much to his shame, which has an enormous impact since it shows how sexual content can have a strong effect on the confused young people. The second part, thankfully, didn't drag with World War II cliches since it doesn't show the battlefield, yet it somehow seems lost and uneven, which is unfortunate since the film stands "only" as very good, instead of excellent, since it had a lot of things going for it, but also some against it.

Grade:+++

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Kramer vs. Kramer


Kramer vs. Kramer; drama, USA, 1979; D: Robert Benton, S: Dustin Hoffman, Justin Henry, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Howard Duff, George Coe, JoBeth Williams

New York. Ted Kramer is happy because he has just been promoted in his advertising agency, but a shock awaits him at his apartment: his wife Joanna simply leaves him. Left alone, he has difficulties taking care of their 7-year old son Billy due to his tight job schedule. His neighbor Margaret help him take care of him. After a year, Joanna shows up again and ignites a custody battle over Billy, at a very troublesome time for Ted who lost his job. At the court, Joanna gets custody over Billy, but decides to let him stay with Ted anyway.

Although very conventional and ordinary drama, "Kramer vs. Kramer" roused a big attention from the critics and won 5 Oscars and 4 Golden Globes (including best picture and best actor), beating out Coppola's "Apocalypse". The movie owns such a success mostly to the sophisticated, quiet, subtle, simple and considerate direction as well as restrained, authentic and unbelievably convincing performances by the actors, whose characters seem like real people and their small, "trivial" problems close and easily recognisable, more gripping than some spectacular epics. "Kramer" is an unpretentious drama about divorce and the deterioration of family life by job consumption that never blames either side for the problem, a touching everyday story that makes the viewers laugh and cry with ease without turning out embarrassing or reaching for soap opera cliches. Especially marvelous is Dustin Hoffman as Ted Kramer, who once again showed his range - even though Sellers deserved the best actor award that year for his fantastic role as Chauncey Gardner. Only a few occasional flaws bring it down, like the slightly heavily melodramatic scene where Billy injured himself by falling on the floor in the playground and has to be brought to a hospital, or the very sweet, but underused small role of JoBeth Williams who deserved more than just a quick 2 minute role of Ted's one night stand Phylis who accidentally goes to the hallway naked, wearing only glasses, and accidentally stumbles upon Billy, much to her dismay.

Grade:+++

The Wizard of Oz


The Wizard of Oz; fantasy musical, USA, 1939; D: Victor Fleming, S: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton
The young Dorothy lives on a farm at her uncle and aunt in Kansas. She loves her little dog Toto very much, but the evil Mrs. Gulsh wants to eliminate him because he constantly storms in her yard. Thus Toto and Dorothy ran away, but then they come back a tornado shows up and catapults them in their house to the fairytale country of Oz. But the house falls on the evil witch, so Dorothy inherits her shoes. In order to find her way back to Kansas, she starts a journey to the Wizard of Oz and meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. When Dorothy accidentally splashes the witch with water, she melts away, but the Wizard turns out to be only a normal man. Still, with the help of her shoes, she and Toto come back to Kansas.

1939 was a marvelous year for great films, and Victor Fleming actually directed two of them - one was of course his Civil War "Wind" classic, the other was the family film "The Wizard of Oz". Even though "Wind" is more popular, some even consider "Oz" as the better film, even though the difference between them is just in small nuances. That masterful adaptation of L. Frank Baum's children's novel with the same title is a small jewel that was made in the golden age of Hollywood, back in the time when such a fantasy spectacle could have only been made there, because it abounds with imaginative ideas, shrill characters and fantastic songs like "Over the Rainbow" that won the Oscar. The allegorical coming-of-age story is actually very stylish: the exposition and the ending, the parts set in reality, are shot in black and white, while the imaginary country of Oz is shot in vibrant color photography. Further notabilities, that also indicate how imagination is the key mean to free a person, are parallels between two worlds in characters (for instance, the evil Mrs. Gulsh and the witch are one and the same person), but only in the fictional Oz do those relationships get finished. Also, there are numerous symbols about growing up - for instance, the bitter scene where Dorothy discovers that the Wizard is actually just an ordinary man shows how some idealistic things in life are just invented to keep kids calm. Not to mention that many scenes in this masterpiece are classic: the tornado that pulls the house up in the air with Dorothy in it, observing flying things through the window; the Yellow brick road; the Tin Man who rusts because he cries...On top of that, this is one of the most quoted movies in history, rich with famous lines: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore"; "Follow the Yellow Brick Road!"; ""I had a wonderful dream Auntie Em, and you were there, and you, and you"...

Grade:++++

Friday, 18 April 2008

The Double Life of Véronique


La double vie de Véronique; Drama, France/ Poland/ Norway, 1991; S: Krzysztof Kieślowski, S: Irène Jacob, Halina Gryglaszewska, Kalina Jedrusik, Phillippe Volter, Aleksander Bardini, Wladyslaw Kowalski, Jerzy Gudejko, Janusz Sterninski

Weronika is a young girl who wants to become a singer in Poland. One day she spots a girl in a bus who looks exactly like her, Veronique, who lives in France. During her first concert, Weronika dies from a heart condition. At the same time, Veronique senses there is something wrong and decides to quit her singing career, finding a job as a teacher in school. She meets the puppet player Alexandre and falls in love with him. They meet in a cafe. He tells her his new story, about two identical women who live on the opposite sides of the world and don't know about each other.

Krzysztof Kieslowski directed this meditative, minimalistic and highly suggestive art-drama, "The Double Life of Veronique", nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film and for the Golden Palm in Cannes, where the magnificent Irene Jacob won the best actress award. The movie is beautiful and brilliant until the end where the viewer realizes it has one crushing problem - it has a story. And it remains unused. Truly, when nothing is going on, the movie is fantastic, acting like poetry that lives just from small nuances and vignettes - Veronique lying in bed when all of a sudden she is illuminated by a beam of light, a reflection from the mirror from the neighboring window; the upside down image of the town seen through the glass marvel; the melancholic music. Everything seems to fit, but when the viewer becomes aware that the film actually has a plot, revolving around two identical women - Weronika and Veronique - who don't know about each other, and Kieslowski just let's the endless possibilities just die, it seems like he cheated. Maybe they are symbol for Yin and Yang, maybe for two people living in different societies and thus different worldviews, but when Weronika dies already some 20 minutes into the film, the story becomes pointless. I thought that it would be a story that cuts back and forth between the two Veronica's, two parallel stories that go side by side and then come to some brilliant conclusion. Instead, sadly, it seems there is more imagination in Alexandre's 2 page story told near the end of the film, where he says how two women lived on opposite sides of the world, but actually sensed each other's existence.

Grade:++

Ulysses


Ulysses; drama, UK/ USA, 1967; D: Joseph Strick, S: Milo O'Shea, Barbara Jefford, Maurice Roeves, T.P. McKenna, Martin Dempsey, Sheila O'Sullivan, Graham Lines, Fionnula Flanagan

Dublin Bay, 16 June, 1904. Young poet Stephen is climbing on top of a castle where he is awaited by Mulligan, a medical student, who scorns him because he didn't pray on his mother's deathbed. At the same time, in his close neighborhood there lives the Jewish gentleman Leopold Bloom whose son died as a baby. Leopold often meets racist people in the bar, but more often enjoys going to brothels, fantasizing about a political career. He meets Stephen and they become friends. Leopold's wife dreams about other men.

James Joyce's novel "Ulysses" was in '99 pronounced as the best novel written in English by the Modern Library. Due to Joyce's free narration, anamorphic structure and stream-of-consciousness method of the characters, the novel was considered impossible to adapt. But Joseph Strick's film with the same title is precisely that - impossible. Even though the story was trimmed down, as a film it works wonders due to brave surreal methods used to transform words into images: the main character is the Jewish gentleman Leopold Bloom who has a wild imagination that gives the film surprising strength. For instance, while traveling in a carriage, he thinks how his life would have been if his son hadn't died as a baby, but lived with him. Those are not his only fantasies: in a brothel, he is arrested by the police and brought in front of a judge with horns; in a circus he is ridden by a woman with moustache; he becomes king and founder of Israel's imaginary town Bloomusalem. Strick directs the whole film as a realistic fantasy, radical but also sometimes gentle, thanks to such dialogues like: "Hate is humiliating for humans. One knows that life is the opposite of it". He managed to craft a small masterpiece that was censored due to the early use of F-word in cinema, but thanks to coherent direction it enjoys cult status. One should especially mention the ontological, unbelivable, 20 minute long final sequence that follows the thoughts of Bloom's wife at night, among them the one where she looks at the statues of naked men, contemplates about how they never wash their penises and has intercourse. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, actress Barbara Jefford for a BAFTA, the movie for the Golden Palm in Cannes and for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film.

Grade:+++

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Barefoot


Barfuss; Romantic tragicomedy, Germany, 2005; D: Til Schwieger, S: Til Schweiger, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Tiller, Michael Mendi, Steffen Wink, Alexandra Neldel, Janine Kunze

Nick is a hapless man who finally finds a job as a janitor in a mental asylum. He gets fired as soon as he starts, but before he still manages to save the life of the barefoot patient Leila who tried to hang herself. Grateful, she secretly follows him to his apartment. At first, he is annoyed by her presence, especially since she never wants to leave him, but decides to take her on his trip to the wedding of his rich brother Viktor. They steal a car, then demolish and sell it until they somehow manage to get to the wedding, where Leila gets a panic attack and Nick gets into an argument with his dad. Leila gets sent back to the asylum and Nick falls in love with her, turning himself as a patient to be with her.

This romantic version of "Rain Man" is a solid film without style that builds it's whole charm on the story of a girl from a mental asylum, Leila, who falls in love with the main protagonist, Nick, and follows him where ever he goes, never leaving him. The premise of the film is so appealing and stimulative that you can't help but to enjoy "crunching" it down in your mind, yet the execution is, as is mostly the case, inert, stiff and sterile, never managing to meet it's quality on the same level as some would have wanted. The yellow, anemic cinematography typical for European cinema once again crushes the film, while Til Schweiger is more capable as the actor than as director. Here and there the sweet premise starts to roll - like in the scene where Leila (irresistibly cute Johanna Wokalek) follows Nick to his apartment, until he slams the door in front of her - but then stops in a dead end. Sadly, the humorous situations are scarce (the best is probably where a man mistakes the naive Leila as a prostitute, gets her into his car and then asks her to "give him a blow job" - but she takes that literally and just presses her lips and blows in front of herself, making him wonder if she is joking) while the cliches and ridiculous plot devices are abundant, sometimes even painful to watch. This could have been a great film with a little more care, instead of just an interesting road movie.

Grade:++

Children of Paradise


Les Enfants du Paradis; drama, France, 1945; D: Marcel Carné, S: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir, María Casares

Paris, 1830. Garance is a beautiful courtesan woman whom Frédérick Lemaître tries to seduce on the street. She often hangs out in the store of the pessimistic Lacenaire who sells dishes illegally. In the crowd, she wrongfully gets accused of stealing a watch, but gets saved by the pantomime Baptiste. He become friends with Frederick who finds him an apartment on credit and a job as an actor in the theater. The secluded Baptiste loves Garance and thus gets in trouble in a bar with the jealous Lacenaire. At the same time, Nathalie, the daughter of the theater producer, is in love with Baptiste, even though he doesn't care for her. So she lies to him that Garance doesn't love him. Garance falls in love with Frederick and gets accused of cooperating with Lancenaire, a crook. Finally, Garance leaves the city with the rich Edouard.

Romantic melodrama about unrequited love, gifted with poetic realism, is the most famous and admired film by director Marcel Carne, in '95 voted as the "Best French Film of the Century" in a poll of 600 French critics, even though the exposition is sluggish and the simple story is slightly overlong and melodramatic at moments. Set in the Paris Funambules theatre in the 19th Century, the story starts to hook up the audience when it's interesting details emerge: in once scene, a gentleman accuses courtesan Garance for stealing his watch, but she is disburdened when the pantomimist Baptiste - who is on the reputation that he can even sleep while sitting or standing - hilariously reconstructs the event by at the same time impersonating the gentleman and the thief who got his watch, by "stealing" his own watch with his hand. He acts at times as Chaplin and is pretty charming in numerous situations, like in the scene in the bar where he gets thrown out through the window, but he just simply goes back in to get Garance. But even other characters are very well crafted in this touching and gentle classic, among them a beggar with a bird on his shoulder, who all together make a opulent and harmonious whole, while Arletty delivered a great performance as the leading heroine.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Who's Harry Crumb?


Who's Harry Crumb?; Comedy, USA, 1989; D: Paul Flaherty, S: John Candy, Shawnee Smith, Jeffrey Jones, Annie Potts, Tim Thomerson, Barry Corbin, Valri Bromfield, James Belushi

Jennifer, the daughter of the rich family Downing is kidnapped in a wealth studio. Her father hires the chief of a detective agency, Eliot, to find her. But he doesn't know that Eliot actually organized the kidnapping in order to get a lot of money, and so, hoping he won't get discovered, he hires the equally fat as clumsy Harry Crumb to investigate the case. Harry teams up with Jennifer's sister Nikki and slowly starts finding clues and suspects Nikki's stepmother Helen and her lover, the tennis coach Vince. Disguising himself, Harry actually solves the case and Eliot gets arrested, thus enabling him to become president of the company.

Canadian comedian John Candy made a notable career in the US and who knows what he could have made if he hadn't died so early. Or had better offers in films. "Who's Harry Crumb?" is a typical trivial comedy where he was hired to play a clumsy detective with crazy red hair in order to add it some taste, in which he succeeded, even though the syndrome of tiresome writing and predictable gags was not avoided. It's a matter of a light, short and likeable comedy that isn't anything extraordinary - director Paul Flaherty tries to ignite the humor by queuing a whole bunch of gags, but they are mostly too thin to really make anyone sate while it seems the authors openly imitated the characteristics of Inspector Clouseau since Harry loves to disguise himself into various people, while there is even a scene where he hears voices of two actors from TV and mistakenly thinks their plans are real, just like in one of the Panther films. The worst part turned out to be the humiliating and mean spirited role for actor Jeffrey Jones whereas even the ending has it's problems since it ends well but is as a whole rather incorrect.

Grade:+

About Schmidt


About Schmidt; Tragicomedy, USA, 2002; D: Alexander Payne, S: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates, Howard Hesseman, June Squibb

Warren Schmidt (66) is sent to retirement after he dedicated his entire life to working in an insurance company. When his wife dies during vacuum cleaning, he realizes that his life doesn't have any meaning no more. He decides to sponsor a child in Africa and take a journey in his recreational vehicle without a destination. In Colorado, he decides to stop his daughter Jeannie marrying the lunatic Randall, but fails. He returns to his home disappointed, but then gets a drawing of the African child who shows them happy together, holding hands.

After inventive and dynamic direction in "Election", Alexander Payne decided to take a minimalistic approach in the touching elegy "About Schmidt". The Golden Globe for best screenplay is slightly disputable since the story is thin and too suggestive, but the one that went to Jack Nicholson as best actor is more plausible - Nicholson won 6 Globes in total in his career, of which at least two are disputable, but here he returned back to his old form as an independent actor, after his self righteous hamming became annoying in his more recent mainstream films. Here he plays a pensioner in a refreshingly gentle way who realizes that everything he does in meaningless, that he can't change anything and that nobody will even remember his existence a few years after he dies. The story has a few comical details (the cake shaped as a building; Schmidt writes a letter to his sponsored child in Africa in which he sums up how he was replaced by an idiot in his company and calls his wife a witch because she forces him to piss in a sitting position) but always remains the bitter tone and deeply emotional impact, even though it's road movie format is slightly vague and lost. But one gag is absolutely brilliantly hilarious, namely the scene in which the undertaker explains Schmidt that the coffin for his deceased wife will cost 2.700 $ and the transportation by car 500 $, upon which he maniacally asks him: "...And what if I drive?"

Grade:++

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Mars Attacks!


Mars Attacks!; Science-fiction comedy, USA, 1996; D: Tim Burton, S: Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lukas Haas, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Danny DeVito, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Michael J. Fox, Jim Brown, Natalie Portman, Pam Grier, Jack Black, Sylvia Sidney, Christina Applegate

One day, UFOs start landing on Earth, inhabited by green Martians who have a strange urge for destruction. At first, the American president calms the people, persuaded by Professor Kessler that they must be peaceful because they are highly advanced. Yet, they turn out to be quite the opposite - the Martians start destroying the Earth, while most human weapons are useless. They even kill the president. But teenager Richie discovers they have a weakness: their brains explode if someone plays high-pitched music. That's how the Earth gets saved.

This cult achievement by Tim Burton is one of his better films, at moments a contagiously fun over-the-top sci-fi satire full of cynicism and irony, staying at the same time faithful to the trashy tone of the US alien comics and B-movies it was inspired by. The shrill screenplay by Jonathan Gems allured Burton to take a more colorful approach, crafting a fun parody with an enormous ensemble cast that features half of Hollywood: from Danny DeVito, Pam Grier, the hilarious Martin Short up to the especially prominent Pierce Brosnan in the role of the incredibly caricature scientist with a pipe. Some gags of the Martian destruction are brilliant - they carve their alien faces of Mount Rushmore, can't figure out the meaning of Playboy, use a 50 foot tall robot to chase after a car - while some are rather dumb and cheesy - for instance, the way they put the head of Sarah Jessica Parker's character on a dog - creating an uneven episodic story with too many characters, but fluent and sharply satirical, especially in the ironic "weapon" that shows the weak spot of the Martians, while the set design and the surreal tone are top notch in this funny version of "Independence Day".

Grade:++

Sleepy Hollow


Sleepy Hollow; Horror, USA/ UK, 1999; D: Tim Burton, S: Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Jeffrey Jones, Casper Van Dien, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Christopher Walken, Christopher Lee, Lisa Marie, Martin Landau

1799: Police constable Ichabod Crane gets sent from New York to the small village Sleepy Hollow to investigate the case of a mysterious headless horseman who kills the inhabitants cutting off their heads. Crane meets the young Katrina and falls in love with her. Some boy, whose parents were among the victims of the horseman, helps investigating them and they discover the Tree of the Dead. Crane finally discovers the horseman is killing only one family since someone controls him in order to remain the last member for inheritance. That's Katarina's stepmother who gets pulled down to hell by the horseman when Crane gives him his head back.

That by which "Sleepy Hollow" will be remembered by will only be the detailed set decoration, rewarded with an Oscar, because the gross was over 100 million $ in the US, but such a film doesn't deserve to be a hit. There are some wonderful scenes present here, like the light figures that are screened on the wall from the lamp or the dreams of the protagonist, but they are essential to redeem for such ground trash that was created among others by the explicit images of decapitation of some dozen characters in the story. Such banal horror and cheap tricks make the film seem pretty lame. Tim Burton is a director who loves the creepy side of the world, yet calling him an outstanding author just for that is rather overstretched since most of his worlds seem shallow - frankly, what's the difference between him who likes the Gothic touch and an other director who likes the kitschy touch? They are essentially the different sides of the same coin. The other problem of the film are the sadly one-dimensional characters - Christina Ricci, for example, has no charm and her role is bleak, avoiding the romance with Crane, who is on the other hand rather interesting person, a logic man of science lost in a fantasy world. Not even the fight with the headless horseman is imaginative, while the ending seems like some Agatha Christie imitation.

Grade:+

Monday, 14 April 2008

Planet of the Apes


Planet of the Apes; Science-Fiction, USA, 2001; D: Tim Burton, S: Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, Estella Warren, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson

In 2029, astronaut Leo goes to search for a chimpanzee that lost itself in a space capsule in an electromagnetic storm. Leo himself falls into the storm and arrives at a planet where the intelligent apes are rulers and humans their slaves. He is released from a cage by Ari, a simian who loves people and helps him find his crashed spaceship. Leo figures that these intelligent apes are actually progeny of the mutated apes from the spaceship. Despite the fact that he is prosecuted by Thade, he manages to return to Earth - but ruled by apes.

The critics mostly bashed Tim Burton's remake of the Sci-Fi classic "Planet of the Apes" and unanimously proclaimed it a weak film, but even though the original is better (it was more plausible since there the humans were all mute and dumb, while here they can talk and seem pretty smart, creating ambiguity as to why they are so underprivileged), this is still a matter of a interesting film that allegorically speaks about racism. The concept of the huge, intelligent apes who rule the world and are masters of humans at first seems demonically creepy, but it has it's logic due to inversion of strengths and symbols, whereas the exposition is stiff, yet the story picks up on steam and starts becoming intriguing. The most bizarre elements are dialogues of the apes (at prayers they talk how God created them on his image) while especially interesting is the character of the pacifist simian Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) whose monkey face takes on almost human outlines, i.e. proving that charisma is universal. The story is full of cliches, yet the mysterious twist ending is very interesting and symbolic, even though it seems it was placed just there to try to top the twist ending from the original.

Grade:++

Planet of the Apes


Planet of the Apes; Science-fiction grotesque, USA, 1968; D: Franklin J. Schaffner, S: Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison

Astronauts Taylor, Dodge and Landon are traveling in a spaceship in a speed almost as fast as the speed of light. In the year 3978, their spaceship crashes on an unknown planet and sinks in a lake. The Astronauts save themselves but quickly discover that intelligent apes are ruling the planet, while the humans are mute and dumb. Dodge and Landon fall through while Taylor gets captured and put in a cage - inconveniently becoming mute due to a wound on his neck. When he finally recovers and speaks, that causes a surprise from the apes who consider humans an inferior race: Dr. Zira and Galen are on his side, while the religious primate Zaius considers him a blasphemy. Taylor runs away and stumbles upon the Statue of Liberty, figuring he is actually on Earth.

At the end of 1960's, various polemics interlaced themselves: the Vietnam war, nuclear armament, racial discrimination, the clash of the theories of Creationism and Evolution, religious fundamentalism and human arrogance. And "Planet of the Apes", an adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel, combined them all into one - into a spectacular satire on human ego. Unusual and allegorical story is presented like a grotesque that doesn't know for any limits and thus puts the whole human centered order of the world upside down (scenes in which the intelligent apes pose in front of their pray, murdered humans they hunted down; all of the humans are mute and stupid; the speech of the religious orangutan Zaius who talks about how "God created apes on his image" and "how inferior humans don't have a soul"), while the Oscar winning make up just broadens the radical ideas, even though some elements seem slightly degrading, pretentious and forced. Actually, people in love with the human perfection shouldn't even look at it. Some possibilities remained unused, but the brilliant ending with the Statue of Liberty serves as an indictment on society and sends a clear message: appearance and race are not important. Spirit is.

Grade:++

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade


Jin-Roh; Animated thriller-drama, Japan, 1999; D: Hiroyuki Okiura, S: Yoshikatsu Fujiki, Sumi Mutou, Hiroyuki Kinoshita, Eri Sendai, Kenji Nakagawa, Yukio Hirota

In '55, Japan is disastrously devastated because it is ruled by a foreign government. The jobs are disappearing, the number of poor is rising, thus the government organizes a city elite police, Panzer-cops, who fight the rebels. One of those policemen is Kazuki Fuse who spots a girl who blows herself up with a bomb in the sever. The commission is angry at Kazuki for not shooting her right away, so they send him to an additional training. Kazuki meets the sister of the suicide girl, Kei, and falls in love with her. But she is sent by Henmi who wants to abolish the police by a scandal. But Kazuki shoots Henmy and Kei.

Claustrophobic and bleak political anime "Jin-Roh" didn't completely use it's possibilities. The opening promises a lot because it shows, using a whole montage of frozen images, the situation if an alternative Japan where the government brought it to bankruptcy, then starting with scenes in which citizens are protesting against it, even taking bricks from the street to throw them on the police, establishing a clear cause-consequence thread that shows why people became rebels in such a state. The excellent animation crafted a great look of the misery and bleakness of the world, including the exotic look of the elite cops in the armour, among whose is the main protagonist Kazuki, but the story leans too much on atmosphere and too little on pale one-dimensional characters that are bleak. There is a vague allegory of the Little Red Riding Hood in the story (Kazuki constantly has hallucinations about wolves in the sewer and a snowy forest that represent him since he will take the girl as a pray at the end) while the dry dialogues ("He who predicts the next move of the opponent is in advantage.") and boring demanding tone substantially weaken the film. Too bad the authors didn't have courage to go deeper in the relationship between Kazuki and Kei while the intrigues by the regime are uninteresting.

Grade:++

Ghost in the Shell


Kokaku kidotai; Animated science-fiction, Japan/ UK, 1995; D: Mamoru Oshii, S: Atsuko Enomoto, Akio Otsuka, Mimi Woods, Iemasa Kayumi

The year is 2029. Agent Motoko Kusanagi jumps naked from a building and shoots a criminal who is protecting himself by politics. She is a cyborg, meaning that he whole body is mechanic - only her brain is human. Her new assignment is to find the 'Puppet Master', a mysterious hacker who manages to break the "barrier" and go directly into the human brain, forcing them commit crimes for him. At first, she and her partner Bato manage to capture only a garbage man and his mentor hacker, but whose inserted memories made them just pawns of the master. One night, a female cyborg body gets assembled at Megatech and they capture it when they discover the 'Puppet Master' sent his consciousness into it. It escapes and gets protected by a tank with 6 legs. Kusanagi merges with the master. Later, she wakes up different and leaves into nature.

Ever since Japan's "Astroboy" became a hit in '63 and up to '88 when "Akira" was made, who some fans persistently hold as the best achievement of it's kind, the anime movement gained significance in the world. Impressive and complicated "Ghost in the Shell" seizes most of it's attention through philosophical questions about the difference between man and machine (some of the better lines are: "All the informations of a human life are just a drop in the Ocean"; "I'm a cyborg, but you people first need to prove your existence"; "I know you're a machine but we treat like a everyone else, so don't complain!"). The film is today mostly known for Influencing the "Matrix" since the opening credits, the numbers that flow in the background are actually computer codes for the different names of the staff who worked on the movie, just like in that Wachowski brothers movie. The direction neatly cowered up the explicit violence and pulp mood, but the action conceals while the emotions are scarcely examined. Unlike some better examples of cyborg Sci-Fi stories, this one seems grey since only the ending is really fascination, even though this is a whole a demanding and multi-layered anime.

Grade:++

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Come and See


Idi i smotri; war drama, Russia / Belarus, 1985; D: Elem Klimov, S: Aleksei Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Juris Lumiste, Viktor Lorents

Belarus, World War II. The 15-year old Florya and his friend dig out a rifle in a sand field. Florya volunteers to go fight the Nazis who annexed his country in order to create Greater Germany, and joins the army operating in the forest. Suddenly, an air strike hits their base and he runs away with a girl, Glasha. He goes back to his village only to find everyone killed, which causes him to go insane. He and another Partisan fighter take away a cow from a farmer to feed the hungry people, but it is killed in an ambush. The SS troops invade a village and start a horrible line of crimes, including burning homes. They are captured and killed after a trial from the villagers, while Florya shoots repeatedly at the picture of Hitler, causing all of the events from World War II to go backwards until Hitler is transformed back to a baby.

The final film by director Elem Klimov, "Come and See" is a 'tour-de-force' war film that becomes more and more disturbing until it turns almost unbearably anxious in the final 30 minute sequence of the atrocities done by the occupant troops in the village, to bring the message of the film across - namely that in war everyone is degraded to an animal state. The story is filled with brilliant details somewhere between poetry and nihilism: a bomb hits the base in the forest and causes the sound of the film to become mute in order to simulate how the protagonist Florya became almost deaf after the explosion; Florya cheerfully shakes the trees in the forest and causes rain drops to fall down, causing a rainbow on the ground while Glasha dances with a hat on; the long, virtuoso take of Florya taking a cow and running with it for hundreds of yards on the meadow while the camera "walks" behind them; the Nazi troops burn a house and carry a bed with a helpless old grandmother out on the meadow, leaving her there.

Undeniably pretentious, heavy and tedious at moments, this film is still a very powerful, hypnotic image of madness, while the finale with the 15-year old Florya, who got grey hair and aged for decades after the shocking situations, pretty much says everything there is to be said about the tragic consequences of once innocent generations and families that were destroyed by war and invasion, speaking in symbols about some timeless cycles through history: even though it is set during World War II, the film may have also been a deliberately sly commentary on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a conflict which waged during that time, just as Altman's "M*A*S*H" was actually a sly allegory on two wars, not one. The semi-allegorical ending is interesting, though it could have been more clever since it marked Klimov's farewell to cinema.

Grade:+++

Terms of Endearment


Terms of Endearment; drama, USA, 1983; D: James L. Brooks, S: Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, John Lithgow, Jeff Daniels, Danny DeVito, Lisa Hart Carroll
The story follows 30 years of one suburban family: Aurora is a rebellious woman who gets a daughter, Emma. When Emma grows up, she marries the teacher Flap and leaves Aurora all alone, since her husband died. When Emma gets three children, Aurora isn't very happy with her role as grandmother and starts a relationship with a neighbor Garrett, a former astronaut. Emma then divorces Flap and goes to live with her, but gets cancer and dies. Aurora is left alone.

As he did with numerous movies after this one, director James L. Brooks proved with "Terms of Endearment" that sometimes family moments can be more fierce than some crime films. That excellent, truly tight quality humorous drama is a very emotionally gripping piece of cinema, much more clever than some critics who dismissed it as a soap opera would like to admit it since it's an eccentric and very unusual film. It's not magnificent, nor glamorous or "cool", but on the contrary, very realistic, down to earth, dirty and funny. James L. Brooks is, sadly, little known among the directors of his generation, but he always showed an admiring trend of humanity and sympathy for losers in his films, and one of the reasons why "Terms" are so appealing is the fact that everyone can identify himself or herself with imperfect characters on the screen. For it's time, the film contains some unusual descriptions: intercourse with a pregnant woman; Aurora hears Garrett (excellent Jack Nicholson in a refreshingly fragile performance) humorously shrieking and howling while taking a cold shower in his home; Aurora slaps one of Emma's little sons who incorrectly complained about his (sick) mother. A very refreshing and still touching drama about life and compassion.

Grade:+++

Friday, 11 April 2008

Walk on Water


Walk on Water; Drama, Israel/ Sweden, 2004; D: Eytan Fox, S: Lior Ashkenazi, Knut Berger, Caroline Peters, Gideon Shemer, Carola Regnier

Istanbul. Eyal, a Mossad agent, kills a suspected Arab terrorist in front of his wife and kid. Back home, he is saddened to find out his wife committed suicide. His superior Menachem gives him his next assignment: a gay lad from Berlin, Axel Himmelman, is about to visit his sister Pia in a kibbutz, and he should play their tourist guide and become their friend in order to find their grandfather, an former Nazi who is now over 90. Even though slightly annoyed, Eyal becomes their friend and shows them the sights of Israel. He goes to visit Axel in Berlin and attends the birthday of his father, where also the Nazi grandfather shows up, even though Axel thought he is dead. Eyal decides not to kill the grandfather, but Axel does it for him. Eyal then marries Pia.

This interesting drama from talented director Eytan Fox talks in contemplative ways about the German-Israeli-Palestinian relationship, the past and the future, hate and love, sin and redemption and ultimately about the search for humanity. Simple and accessible, yet also demanding, the story symbolically speaks about some inevitable cycles of life, grasping at some inevitable truths that were accomplished thanks to a measured direction of the difficult subject. Through various scenes, the director subtly displays an ever unstable situation in the Middle East, but also decides to craft a sly essay about understanding the enemy, posing the question if the enemies in this generation could become friends in the next one, also adding his hidden trademark subtext about gay relationships, while all actors are in great shape, especially Lior Ashekanzi and Knut Berger. All in all, another quality made film about secret agents and their private life, even though one might complain about the slightly ephemera mood and occasionally artificial dramaturgy.

Grade:++