Wednesday, 30 December 2009

My Favorite Movies of the 2000s

Opulent Arsen Oremović, a Croatian film critic, is one of my three favorite film critics. His columns are fascinating when it comes to films because he has a way with words. Actually, some of his writings are pure poetry. I don't agree with at least a quarter of his reviews, but he always has such deep arguments when he explains his point that I always tend to respect his decision. Harsh on most films, mild on a minority, he wrote his reviews in a newspaper ever since the 90s, and a great deal of the 2000s, until he wrote a rather satirical comment two years ago that rubbed some people the wrong way. This is when he was, unfortunately, removed from his position and nothing was ever the same since. But he still writes here and there, and one of his columns for December '09 he made a list of his top 10 list of the best films of the decade. Needless to say, I again didn't agree with his choices, but he wrote another smart observation: "When you look at your list of your favorite movies of the 2000s, and compare it to your list of your *all time* favorite films, you will notice how little films from this decade actually made it on the latter list. That's because the increasing turn towards commercialism and marketing in the movie industry took their toll".

Since the decade is nearing its end, I think I should also mention my favorite films from 2000-2009. Notice I didn't write "The best films of the decade", but "favorite of the decade" because quite simply I didn't see every single film made in the 2000s, which is why you may see changes on this page when you visit it later on. There are so many films that are real jewels, I believe, but we may have never even heard about them due to lack of publicity. This decade was rather underwhelming - I would really call it the "Zeroes" because there were so many unnecessary films made, and so little ones that really should have been made. I can honestly say that, till this day, I haven't seen a single film from the 2000s that I can comfortably label a "masterwork". Honestly, I found many hyped films to be overrated.

Luckily, there were amazing films that showed up, some that really enchanted me, which is why there is still hope for the films in the future. And I'm glad there are still some producers who are willing to take a risk and produce a great story - taking a risk may not always prove the right choice, but it's these kind of choices that sometimes make some of the best films of all time. You can't buy a great story - it can be written by anyone, and that's why everyone deserves a chance. Anyway, I made a top 25 list of my favorite films bellow. Surprisingly, no American film is in the top 5, but they still make their share later on. The exotic cinema from Asia made some great films.

TOP 25

1. TROPICAL MALADY;
A wonderfully spiritual film that used the power of images from nature to such an extent that it seems as if it discovered it a new. The director used the camera to focus it on the tropical forest and he got it so absorbed with its beauty that even an ordinary leaf started to seem special. The two part story is unusual, but the second one, a fantasy one, is so hypnotic and so turned towards the subconsciousness that it's a realm of the senses. So simple and yet so full of enlightenment and magic.

2. SPRING, SUMMER, AUTUMN, WINTER....AND SPRING;
Another spiritual film from the far East, "Spring..." is one of those films that are almost a philosophy. It has a few "rough" edges and some may find some of the Buddhist messages in it a tad obtrusive, yet for a majority of its running time it's a deeply, deeply touching essay about people who can find their inner peace and those who can't and thus live wrecked lives, whereas some of the symbolic situations displayed in it contain so much wisdom that so few directors have, regardless of their talent as film experts.

3. PERSEPOLIS;
Despite a seemingly "heavy" subject, "Persepolis" is probably the most fun film made about the Iranian revolution and a teenage girl caught in the middle of it. Instead of dramatic political elements, this coming-of-age story is incredibly fresh, untrammelled, humorous and alive, as well as realistic when you think about it later on. The small "Eye of the tiger" music sequence is simply a blast and a must see. A wonder of a comic-book adaptation, this French animated film never gives up its optimistic tone.

4. AMELIE;
The sweetest thing. And that's precisely why some don't like it. On the other hand, to make such a sweeping blend of comedy, romance, visual style, charming actors and irresistible situations is real art and should be appreciated more. The obvious evidence is the fact that none from the people involved in this film managed to repeat the mood yet with something similar that tops this. The photos of Amelie writing "Do-you-want-to-meet-me" on her belly which are intended to draw the attention of the guy she fell for is a must-see.

5. THE HOST;
This is the film "Godzilla" should have been, but wasn't. More and more, fantasy films are recently used to display a symbolical socio-political message, and this monster-movie does it almost unbelievably well. Believe it or not, this is also practically a family film where the whole family joins their forces to save their daughter from the claws of a monster. The design of the latter isn't that convincing, but the film's humor and sharp visual style are done down to a T. Also, luckily, the monster wasn't presented as something evil, but just as an allegorical product of a mistake. The sequence where one of the protagonists uses a paper clip to escape from a office surrounded by police officers is a virtuoso piece of inspiration.


6. DEATH NOTE
Can a normal detective, L, catch and outsmart an unknown teenager, Light, who can kill people just by writing their names in a Death Note, just thanks to his brains? The greatest Agatha Christie crime story ever made. Rarely will you get a chance to see such a juicy example of strategy and intelligent moves.


7. AMERICAN SPLENDOR;
A clever and inventive little film about the difficulties of a comic book artist, the story lives mostly thanks to shrill-witty situations. Who would have thought that a woman, who is practically a stalker, would charm her idol, the outsider hero so much that he would agree to marry her? More so, who would have thought that this is based on real events? Hilarious.

8. LEBANON;
A shockingly dark film about the '82 Lebanon war, but powerfully made, even better than "Waltz with Bashir". The amazing, and risky move was to play the whole film just from the perspective of the four soldiers who are always inside a tank and only see the negative events of the war through the periscope. What's more, it's a rare example of provocations with a meaning.

9. BATTLE IN THE HEAVEN;
A strange existential drama, with an obvious emphasis on erotic sequences, managed to seem hypnotic and radiate awe. The story about an overweight man, his kidnapping attempt, his obese wife and his affair with a prostitute isn't a story for everyone, but if you have an open mind this is a virtuoso directed film that deserves attention.

10. INUYASHA (Season 1-3);
Heavily disputed as a good piece of anime, "InuYasha" trips here and there over its own feet when it deals with some uneven horror and monster elements, but whenever it deals with romance it's a miracle. Probably the last time when an anime based on Rumiko Takahashi will display such essential and poetic love emotions, even though the protagonists InuYasha and Kagome don't even admit they like each other for most of their adventures, "InuYasha" has only 1/4 of a effect of "Maison Ikkoku", but even that's more pure romance than thousands of other fake romantic movies at our disposal. However, only the first three seasons (82 episodes) are great - afterwards, the storyline gets overstretched to death and should be avoided.


11. PONYO ON THE CLIFF;
One last time, the animation veteran Hayao Miyazaki again returned from retirement to direct his 10th and final film and deliver another anime jewel to the world. "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea", even though not Miyazaki's best achievement, is a return to his old shape and a spiritual successor to his "Kiki's Delivery Service" and almost all of the great animes he made in the 80s, his most creative phase. It's funny, refreshingly filled with positive energy - and fascination with water in numerous scenes.


12. JUNO;
Maybe it does try to be too much like "Daria", with a very light take on teenage pregnancy, but it's full of life and simply deliciously cynical comments from the title heroine. Another independent jewel.

13. MINORITY REPORT;
Spielberg's darkest film from the 2000s is so bleak that it seems as if it wasn't directed by the same director who was often accused of being "sentimental". A really untypical film for him, though not so much if one looks at his "dark" phase from '93 until recently, this science-fiction film is so shocking and uncompromising that one can even forget the rather shaky premise, filled with many brilliantly directed moments and unusual camera techniques.

14. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN;
"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.

15. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA;
One of the most touching kids movies of the decade with an "optional" fantasy sidestory that does not detract from the strong drama of the main story. A much different movie than you might expect and by no means similar to other post-"Lord of the Rings" fantasy novel movie adaptations.

16. WHAT IVA RECORDED ON OCTOBER 21ST 2003;
Arguably the best Croatian film of the decade, this little flick is shown only from the subjective perspective of the hand held camera, following the nonchalant, often humorous misadventures of the uptight family of the teenage heroine who films them.

17. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON;
Slightly overrated and over-hyped (it hardly has the *best* action sequences of any martial arts film), but still very good adventure film with virtuoso romantic action.

18. CHILDREN OF MEN;
A simple story - what if the humanity would suddenly become infertile and the last child in the whole World was born 18 years ago? - proved to be a great premise for this imaginative little science-fiction film filled with extensive long takes.

19. GHOST WORLD;
Has flaws, but if you give it a chance and try to connect on its level, it's a great little coming-of-age film with a realistic portrait of teenagers. The main tangle where the sarcastic-rebellious heroine slowly falls for an outsider twice her age and starts appreciating him even though she ridiculed him at first, really manages to grip you. All the actors in it did a great job.

20. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING;
The producers risked a lot when they gave Jackson a free hand and a blank check to film the popular "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but they were rewarded richly. Truth be told, the storyline in all 3 films can become slightly dry, stiff and mechanical, but it still seems fresh and I always enjoy watching it when it's on TV. The 3rd film is arguably the best - in the first hour, nothing is going on, but when something finally starts going on, it really becomes a tsunami of events and virtuoso directed action sequences. Some jokingly complained that they were annoyed by the 40-minute farewell of the characters at the end, though the film still accomplished its task.

21. RATATOUILLE;
Arguably the best computer animated film, "Ratatouille" is a harmless pure fun revolving around the rat who can cook, by which the story stimulates the viewers' fascination with food and cooking. One must also note the excellent character of feisty Colette, the only female cook in the all male restaurant staff, that was portrayed with small little details, like when she drives a motorcycle or simply moves the table on wheels with her leg to show Linguini how things are done in the kitchen.

22. MILLENNIUM ACTRESS;
A surprisingly sweet, uplifting and fun anime film from director Kon, "Millennium Actress" is a hidden recommendation. A very smooth, accessible and addicting film about the main heroine, an older Japanese actress, which shows in retrospect her life and, it seems, makes a whole bunch of homages to Japanese cinema.

23. WALTZ WITH BASHIR;
Another honest film dealing with the '82 Lebanon war, "Waltz with Bashir" is a strange example of an animated documentary, if something like that can even exist. Some pretentious moments do bother, but the power in the story, as well as the artistic value, can be sensed.

24. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS;
Anderson here obviously shifted his author's vision to a different level, and thus some of the moments are rather too bizarre to have any sense and many ideas seem completely pointless, but his shot composition and choice of music, especially "Judy is a Punk", is once again fantastic. A humorous and shrill take on a New York family that's just a little bit more dysfunctional than the average.

25. BROKEN FLOWERS;
Another quiet and meditative Jarmusch film, though this time with a tighter grip and a much more engaging tone. By visiting his ex-girlfriends, the protagonist in the story is slowly falling in quiet despair since he only sees shadows of the once great women, step by step. There is one "random" nude scene that seems useless, but actually isn't useless: when he sees the naked teenage daughter of one of his ex-girlfriends, he almost leaves the house. Not so much for the comic effect, as for the the fact that he sees what she once was in her daughter and knows those times are gone forever. The title is also very poetic.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Kimagure Orange Road: I Want to Return to That Day


Kimagure Orange Road: Ano Hi ni Kaeritai; Animated drama, Japan, 1988; D: Tomomi Mochizuki, S: Toru Furuya, Eriko Hara, Hiromi Tsuru

It's summer and teenager Kasuga Kyosuke is preparing for college entrance exams together with Ayukawa. Even though he secretly loves her, he is still anguishing his empty relationship with Hikaru. One day, Ayukawa becomes angry with him and sinks in slow jealousy. Unable to hide his feelings for her anymore, he finally breaks up with Hikaru. Even though she managed to get the lead role in a stage musical, he doesn't want to watch it and tells her they must break away. In the end, he and Ayukawa end together.

As many have already noticed, "I Want to Return to That Day" is a deeply dramatic and emotionally devastating movie finale to the anime series "Kimagure Orange Road", completely untypical for that humorous show. Basically, the movie is just like the show - but without all those silly jokes, unconvincing complications, clumsy solutions, stupid ideas and all other flaws that blotted the great romantic premise and reduced its quality - actually, it doesn't even mention or reference the special powers of the hero, Kasuga, at all, which also works in its favor since all those fantasy powers had their moments of inspiration, but ultimately became unnecessary in the show's last third. It is "Kimagure Orange Road" - just maturer. What we have here is a pure drama, a gentle and subtle story of Kasuga's break up with Hikaru in favor of Ayukawa, reduced to its essence and completely deprived of anything else. A lot of credit goes to the unknown but brilliant director Tomomi Mochizuki who delivered another anime pearl, a special that tops the original.

The movie impresses due to its rich nuances that capture some evasive human reactions and emotions that are otherwise rarely shown: Kasuga thinks of something and looks seriously so Hikaru wants to cheer him up by waving with her hand in front of his head and saying: "Dark, gloomy cloud, be gone!"; in a bar, Hikaru tells him that she would like to live in New York because there the people "can do 'it' publicly", showing him what she means when she mischievously hides her face with the palms of her hands and makes a 'kissing expression'; the 3 minute long take where Kasuga is talking with Ayukawa on the phone while sitting on his couch; Ayukawa awaits Kasuga, nervously turning on and off the lights in her apartment non-stop...The story is filled with unusual camera shots and many symbolical scenes that are placed throughout it, whereas the sole break up of Kasuga and Hikaru is heart breaking, one of the saddest in the anime genre. Unlike the series which had that magic in the start but lost it, the movie keeps it the whole time and fascinates with meticulous care, creating an unassuming triumph that says everything. As much as the series frustrated with the open end, so much its forgiven for opening the way for this movie jewel to finish it just the right way.

Grade:+++

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Sailor Moon S the Movie: Hearts in Ice


Gekijouhan Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S; Animated fantasy romance, Japan, 1994; D: Hiroki Shibata, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Keiko Han, Masami Kikuchi, Megumi Hayashibara, Aya Hisakawa

The Earth is again threatened by the mysterious Snow Queen from space, who wants to cower the whole planet with ice. But she needs to find a piece of her comet to do so, which was discovered and picked up by astronomer Kakeru who lives in his observatory. He also picks up cat Luna, who had fever, and helps her turn healthy again. She falls in love with him and tells that to Usagi Tsukino. However, Kakeru is often imagining that "Princess Kaguya" lives on the Moon, which is why he is misunderstood by his girlfriend, astronaut Himeko who leaves him. When the Snow Queen takes away the Comet piece and attacks the world, Sailor Moon and the sailor senshi stop her, and they also transform Luna into a human form for a few minutes to comfort Kakeru and bring him back to Himeko.

The 2nd out of 3 feature length anime films set in the "Sailor Moon" Universe, "Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice" is a gentle romance film, appropriately dreamy and mystical for its fantasy genre, establishing quite an unusual love story: the one between astronomer Kakeru and Luna - a talking cat. Despite top-notch animation and crispy-clear cinematography, "Ice" can't be considered the equivalent to the anime series, or the most representative of all "Sailor Moon" anime films for that matter, due to a rather sappy story that isn't especially subtle when it tries to bring its message across, the one of a scientist who also has faith in some things outside science, symbolically present in astronomer Kakeru who believes in "Princess Kaguya on the Moon". The special manga side story by Naoko Takeuchi, "The Lover of Princess Kaguya", wasn't the best of the "Sailor Moon" side stories (many consider it to be "Casablanca Memories"), and logically the movie wasn't the best: the new villain, a Snow Queen from space, comes across as standard-cliched, looking more as if it seems that she is just there because she has to be for the plot sake than as if she is there for a reason, and the Outer senshi lack screen time this time, though for a 60-minute film the story flows smoothly, has charm and humor whereas the direction by Hiroki Shibata is competent. Despite some sentimental-melodramatic scenes, the film has at least two perfect romantic moments: the one where Luna asks Usagi to explain her feelings for Mamoru and she does that by keeping her palms together, while both her ring and little-finger keep stroking each other bashfully, and the other one is when Luna kisses Kakeru and then runs across the meadow in happiness.

Grade:++

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Donovan's Reef


Donovan's Reef; Comedy, USA, 1964; D: John Ford, S: John Wayne, Elizabeth Allen, Jack Warden, Jacqueline Malouf, Lee Marvin

Gilhooley, a US Navy veteran, jumps from a ship and swims to a island in French Polynesia, where he still has a feud with his colleague veteran Michael "Guns" Donovan, though they both forgot over what. Also, they coincidentally celebrate their birthday on the same day. Arriving in the local saloon, Gilhooley and Donovan start a fight, but are interrupted by the doctor, Dedham. When Dedham's daughter Amelia arrives on the island from Boston since he inherited stocks from a rich company, but might lose it due to a "morality clause", Donovan pretends to be the father of his three extramarital children Leilani, Sarah and Luke. Donovan falls for Amelia, but she gets angered when she finds out the truth. Luckily, in the end they make up on Christmas and decide to get married.

The last collaboration between actor John Wayne and director John Ford as well as the latter's 3rd last film, "Donovan's Reef" is a negligible, but charming and amusing comedy that marked a fascinating departure for the director. Set in the opulent nature of French Polynesia (though it was actually filmed on Hawaii), the film is a simple comic tale about appearance and misunderstandings that flows nicely - Ford's comic timing isn't perfect, though he manages to ignite the humor even in some of his dated macho elements (the fist fighting sequence between Wayne and Lee Marvin in the bar early in the film is almost as fun as some of those Spencer-Hill comedies, with a few neat details, like the police officer who can't stand them fighting again so he slams the open beer bottle onto the bar table, causing the drink to burst out in bubbles), and especially in many pure old-school jokes (during the stage play for Christmas, Marvin is introduced as one of the three wise men - "The King of the USA"). A mild, sustained, mostly plausible fun that works surprisingly well thanks to many charming scenes and actors, while a small jewel is the stand out performance by actress Elizabeth Allen who plays Amelia with irresistible energy, especially when she is "subtly" competing with Donovan in the sequence where she beats him in swimming to the shore.

Grade:++

There Will Be Blood


There Will Be Blood; Drama, USA, 2007; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier

At the start of the 1900s, coal miner Daniel Plainview discovers oil in the desert and starts his own drilling company, adopting H.W., the boy of a worker who died in an accident. Years later, he is a "self-made" oil man who is slowly becoming rich. When a young lad, Paul, tells him about a piece of land rich with oil in Little Boston, California, Daniel rushes there and manages to cheaply buy off a large piece of land from the naive villagers. However, he has to co-operate with Paul's religious brother Eli, an evangelist who insists that the profit of the oil goes to the local church. In an accident, H.W. becomes deaf. A con-man pretending to be Daniel's half-brother shows up, upon which he kills him. The oil business proves to be tough. A grown up H.W. leaves, while a now old Daniel humiliates and kills Eli in range.

After 5 years of pausing, acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson returned in big style with his 5th film, the critically acclaimed drama "There Will Be Blood" in which a great Daniel Day-Lewis won almost every award possible for his role of the greedy "wannabe" oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, though the rest of the film is slightly subpar. Simply put, Anderson didn't do anything wrong in the film, but its story is incoherent, wondering more aimlessly especially towards the pointless end, and its style not as intense as his previous works. "Blood" starts off with a nice 14-minute sequence of Daniel digging for oil realized without any dialogue. The first line is spoken some 14 minutes into the film, showing how he is introducing himself as a "family man" to naive villagers in a desert town in order to buy off their (oil rich) land cheaply.

One of the best things about the storyline is the way it shows how the atheistic Daniel has to co-operate with the evangelist Eli, promising that he will finance his church, in order to get his blessing to buy off the valuable land: they can't stand each other, but are forced to work together, through which the film achieves its clearest point of a clash that can be described as "evil vs. evil", excessive capitalism and excessive religion, a morally bankrupt man vs. a religious bigot, and off course the partnership of cartels and fundamentalists for mutual benefit, according to Anderson. There are some great scenes here, but except for a few dramatic moments (Daniel grabbing Eli and throwing him in the oil puddle) the film is conveniently told and not that engaging. Several subplots, like the one where all of a sudden Daniel's half-brother shows up in the middle of the film and then proves to be a fake, don't lead nowhere. There is little suspense, little emotional engagement and the theme of a rich man who is a spiritual wasteland was done much more precise in "Citizen Kane". Overlong, tedious, excruciating, but good film that was done with talent and measure, whereas the line "I drink your milkshake" turned out to be a classic.

Grade:++

Friday, 25 December 2009

Pinocchio


Pinocchio; Animated fantasy, USA, 1940; D: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, S: Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Evelyn Venable

One cold night, Jiminy Cricket, a cricket, finds refuge in a house of a woodcarver, Geppeto, who lives there with his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo. Geppeto made a wooden puppet, Pinocchio, and imagines how great it would be if it came to life. To Cricket's surprise, a fairy shows up and grants life to Pinocchio. But instead of listening to the Cricket and going to school, Pinocchio is double crossed twice by the shady "Honest John" who sells him to performer Stromboli and then to a "coachman" who brings him to the "Pleasure Island" where mean boy get transformed into donkeys. When he sacrifices his life to save Geppeto from the mouth of a giant whale, Pinocchio is turned into a real human by the fairy.

The 2nd feature length animated film by the Walt Disney studio, right after "Snow White", "Pinocchio" is another great film from the animation master that isn't "light years behind Miyazaki", but works fabulously on its own terms. Even after an enormous flow of time, "Pinocchio" still seems fresh today, its issues are still surprisingly relevant, mostly revolving around the shady people who corrupt innocent children like the hero and the symbolic story about integrity where he must, ironically, learn not to be manipulated like a puppet on a string, whereas it's a wonder how not even the animation seems dated because the crispy clear images posses almost a rotoscopic quality, and much more life because they were meticulously made with a caring hand, not with a computer. The animation of the whale seems rather unusual - almost as if it was animated by a completely different crew of animators - yet the sequence where it chases after the protagonists on the sea still has awe. Even though the bad guys in the story are blatantly stereotypical (they look scary, ugly and laugh in a threatening way) and the last 30 minutes seem rather weird, especially the donkey segment, the storyline is wonderfully simple and can be divided into only 4 acts, and the humor is especially charming (the cricket looks at Geppeto's puppet and smiles by commenting how it looks excellent, but then turns and looks right into a wooden "grumpy" face, which causes him to become offended; cat Figaro "kisses" the goldfish in an aquarium through the glass).

Grade:+++

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Sissi


Sissi; Romance, Austria, 1955; D: Ernst Marischka, Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider, Gustav Knuth

1853. People are fishing, children are playing. Those are scenes from the Austria-Hungary ruled by Emperor Franz Joseph who is pretty miserable. On the other, the 16-year old Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, called Sissi, is very happy and enjoys feeding birds, deer and horses. When Franz meets her while traveling in a carriage, he instantly falls in love with her. But his mother already engaged him to Helena, Sissi's sister. Problems occur, but Franz proposes Sissi and thus they will marry anyway.

The first part of the extremely popular "Sissi" trilogy is probably the best since it is not so cheaply melodramatic and has refreshing humor that gives the story agility, like in the scene where the high-ranking officials excuse the absence of a guest because he is on an "important assignment" (but is in reality out for bowling) or the one where Sissi is running away while Franz is deliberately holding back a police officer who is chasing her, by asking him trivial questions ("How is the weather going to be tomorrow?"). The far history of Austria from the 1850s turned out to be very appealing for the audiences, which is why the film became even more successful in Germany than "Gone With the Wind". Though not as powerful as the latter, "Sissi" is a pleasant and gentle little film of sympathetic kitsch that offers enchanting landscapes and a lot less enchanting style and psychology of the characters. Romy Schneider delivered her most popular role as the innocent title heroine with pure heart, and done her job much better than the passive director, which is why this charming film still holds up fairly well even today.

Grade:++

Sissi - The Young Empress


Sissi, die junge Kaiserin; Romance, Austria, 1956; D: Ernst Marischka, S: Romy Schneider, Karlheinz Böhm, Magda Schneider, Gustav Knuth

Cheerful Elisabeth, called Sissi, got married to her Franz and became the Empress of Austria-Hungary. Everyone is happy, but during a ceremony Franz's mother insults the representatives of Hungary, so Sissi saves the good relations by asking them for a dance. Suddenly, she falls unconscious, and it turns out she is pregnant. She gets a healthy daughter, but Franz's mother again interferes since she wants to be the only one to raise the child, which causes an argument. Sissi returns to her parents, but Franz finds her and begs her for forgiveness. She gains more influence and visits Hungary where people adore her.

Sequel "Sissi - The Young Empress" appeared already a year after the original "Sissi", but is visibly weaker since almost nothing works in it, neither humor, nor story, nor romantic side. Actress Romy Schneider and director Ernst Marischka literally copy the previous film so obviously that they even insert some previous scenes - for instance, the one where the heroine chases away a pheasant and saves it from a hunter is pure reprisal from the original when she saved a deer, whereas the characters' personalities also just repeat themselves. Despite that fact that it was even nominated for the Golden Palm, the story is tiresome since nothing is going on, which is why everything consists just out of overstretched little conflicts until the happy end, though it is still a solid and easily watchable piece of history lesson "light".

Grade:+

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Sound of Music


The Sound of Music; musical/ drama/ comedy, USA, 1965; D: Robert Wise, S: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn, Eleanor Parker, Charmian Carr, Angela Cartwright, Peggy Wood

“The last golden days of Salzburg”, just a few months before Anchluss. Maria is a rebellious young woman who simply cannot fit into a strict convent, which is why many think that she will never be a nun. Mother Abbess thus gives her the assignment of a nanny and sends her to a mansion of widowed Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp to take care of his 7 children: Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta and Gretl. At first, the children are cold towards her, but she gains their sympathy by teaching them how to sing and enjoy life. The strict Georg is at first angered, but later on starts to like Maria so much that he even falls in love with her, abandoning his engagement with baroness Shraeder. When Totalitarianism shows up, in the form of the Nazi rule, the van Trapp family gives one last performance and escapes from the country.

One of the most enduring movies of the 20th century, “The Sound of Music” is not a flawless classic, but its positive energy is so contagious that it surmounts even its own quality and eclipses over some omissions. From the moment where the nuns give a humorous musical introduction act about the rebellious Maria, mentioning how she “likes to whistle in church” and wears “hair rollers under her robe”, the story’s irresistible charm takes a firm grip on the viewers and doesn’t let go until the end, whereas Julie Andrews is simply fabulous as the above mentioned heroine, both in acting and singing, which is why she rightfully won the Golden Globe as best actress in a musical or comedy, delivering one of the three best performances of her career.

There simply is too much singing at some points of the movie, which can become rather lax, whereas some scenes really are too kitschy and sugary, as some critics pointed out, yet the comic adventures of Maria as the nanny for 7 children are brilliant, both in the moments where their strict father Georg has the upper hand (he drilled the children so much that he even uses his whistle to direct their march and introduction to the new nanny) as well as the ones later on where she eventually gets the upper hand and stops the children from being raised so uptight (in the mirror sequence where she introduces the “new” children to Georg while sailing on the boat with them, when it turns over and they all fall in water). So many musicals and classics seem dated today, but surprisingly, “The Sound of Music” still seems so alive with its innocence that even modern audiences can easily enjoy in it, secretly or openly.

Grade:++

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Rich and Strange


Rich and Strange; Drama/ Comedy, UK, 1931; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Henry Kendall, Joan Barry, Percy Marmont

London. Fred has a grey job. In short, he is fed up with his life. But then he gets informed that his relative gave him a fortune. Overwhelmed, the couple decides to take a sea trip to Asia. They go to Paris, and then board a ship, but Fred gets sea sick in the Mediterranean. Passing by the Suez Canal, Emily falls for adventurer Gordon while Fred gets seduced by a “Princess”. Arriving in Singapore, Emily leaves Gordon, while Fred is dumped by the “Princess” who steals his money and runs away. The couple’s ship even sinks, though they manage to return back to London.

One of the early films from Alfred Hitchcock’s career, more precisely his 17th film, “Rich and Strange” is a watchable flick that meanders somewhere between drama and comedy and is, neither stylistically nor story-wise, sure of what it wants or needs to be. The movie starts off nicely, almost as a slapstick comedy: the protagonist Fred leaves his tiresome work but can’t open up his umbrella on the street even though it’s raining; he accidentally plucks a feather from the hat of a lady in a subway and his wife Emily awaits him at home with steak-and-kidney pudding. But once the journey of the couple starts, the story becomes a mess – the story is all over the place, with sloppy sightseeing shots of Port Said, Suez Canal, Colombo and Singapore, all of which seem like random episodes that don’t contribute to anything, while everything was additionally underlined with, it seems, the authors’ indecisiveness over whether it is a sound or a silent film – for instance, the opening is almost entirely without sound. In another scene, in Paris, performers sing and play on the stage, some even look in the camera, but you can’t hear them – you just hear the film’s music. After Fred meets the ‘Princess’, there’s an unnecessary black screen with a title written on it: “Fred meets the Princess”. The only moment where Hitchcock manages to get a grip on the film is the sweet scene where Emily sees the photo of her beloved Gordon sitting alone with an empty chair opposite of him. So she mischievously takes a marker and draws a caricature of herself sitting near him on the photo. And as the “master of suspense” himself stated in Truffaut’s biographical book “Hitchcock”, at least one gag became legendary – the one where the couple eats some unknown food and regards it as delicious, and then in the next scene they realize the Chinese made it out of a cat.

Grade:+

Monday, 14 December 2009

Silent Running


Silent Running; Science-fiction drama, USA, 1972; D: Douglas Trumbull, S: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Riffkin

In the far future, on Earth there is no unemployment, no diseases, no hunger, but also no plant life after global ecocide. Orbiting Saturn, the last few examples of plant and animal life are preserved in greenhouse domes attached to spaceships. Astronauts in the spaceship all detract the forest, but environmentalist Freeman Lowell genuinely cares for the flora and fauna. After they receive the orders to destroy all domes in an explosion, Lowell rebels, kills one colleague and fools the superiors by lying that the ship has a malfunction. He flies with the spaceship away from Saturn into space and spends many lonely days with the 3 small robots. After his superiors find him, he blows himself up with a bomb, while his last robot remains on the last dome watering the plants.

One of the first, if not the first environmentalist film ever made, cult science-fiction drama “Silent Running” again started to emerge from the ‘archive’ after directors of films “Wall-E” and “Moon” quoted it as their inspiration, complimenting the character development and honest promotion of ecological awareness. Just like “Nausicaa” and “Soylent Green”, this film shows the apocalyptic future as a warning to the viewers of what we have today in nature and that it needs to be protected from ecocide, and thanks to Trumbull’s skills the small budget is used nicely to make the execution of the screenplay plausible, whereas the modest special effects are surprisingly good, giving some unusual images, like Lowell walking across his greenhouse, passing by the window in the background where Saturn can be seen in orbit or when he uses a telescope to look at Earth from his spaceship. The first half where Lowell’s astronaut colleagues don’t share his enthusiasm and even disdain the last remaining plant and animal life in the dome is incredibly electrifying stuff, not only because of the ‘green’ message, but also because of the symbolism about how modern generation have no respect of past cultures or traditions, so it seems very fitting that the hero would rebel to save the plants. However, the second half is weaker and deflates, since it just shows Lowell alone in the refugee spaceship, talking only to his three mute robots, which some have characterized as a welcomed shift from the preachy, while others have found overstretched and feeble ‘kammerspiel’. An interesting and valuable little film with a sad, haunting ending.

Grade:+++

Cast Away


Cast Away; Adventure drama, USA, 2000; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy

Chuck Noland works for FedEx and constantly has to travel to transport packages worldwide. He works too much and neglects his wife Kelly, but doesn't see anything bad about it. he promises that he will be with her for New Years, but his plane crashes somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. He is the only survivor and stuck on an isolated island. He gets water and food from coconuts, whereas he find useful stuff in packages that he found in the sea, like a volleyball which he names "Wilson" so that he can talk with someone. 4 years later Chuck has lost 50 pounds but also constructed a raft. He manages to pass the strong waves and is found by a ship in the sea. Back home, he discovers Kelly married another one, but they remain friends. He arrives at a crossroad.

Existential-adventure drama "Cast Away" is a heavy 'Robinson Crusoe' version that is often intriguing, but as a whole seems like an unfinished product equipped with a few pretentious junctions. The sole airplane crash (excellent sequence that only shows Chuck's subjective view of the disaster from inside) and arrival to the stranded island appears some 25 minutes into the film. When the hero wakes up, there's an impressive, 5 minute long sequence of his walk across the beach without music (no music can be heard, only the sound of the sea) which leaves a meditative impression. The story the spends 75 minutes to follow his residence on the island where he is mostly quiet and only works - a complete opposite to mainstream films which would otherwise insert goofy humor, loud music and unnecessary babble. A painful scene is the one where he has to burst out his own tooth. The last 30 minutes follows his return to home and is again low-key, though rather anemic, as if nothing happened: in a way, Tom Hanks is on a higher level than the story. It's an interesting film, though there are better stories to watch than just someone suffering on a lonely island.

Grade:++

Sunday, 13 December 2009

What Lies Beneath


What Lies Beneath; Horror-thriller, USA, 2000; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar

Claire wakes up from a bathtub. She dreamt of a dead woman on the bottom of the sea. But strange things continue to happen: doors open, candles turn out, on a foggy mirror letter "MEF" show up, there's a spectrum of a woman...Claire's husband, Norman, tells her she needs to go treat herself, but he is actually the cause of everything. He namely slept with a student, Mary Elisabeth Frank, and killed her, throwing her body in the sea. When Claire senses that, he tells her it was all an accident. He tranquillizes her with a medicament and puts her in a bathtub filling with water. But the ghost scares Norman who trips and thus Claire is able to run to the car. Norman follows her and the car ends in the sea with them. But the ghost catches Norman, who sinks, while Claire swims up.

How could a director of so many excellent films like Robert Zemeckis fall for such a low product in his career? Truly, without the two stars, the film would seem more like some cheap B-horror. Yet the audiences weren't so picky and flocked to the cinemas, making "What Lies Beneath" eventually the 5th most commercial film in the year 2000. The biggest problem of the film is the banal screenplay and lack of style or some creative highlights, which is why it seems like some copy of "Poltergiest" and "Sleeping with the Enemy" that reaches for cheap scares (sudden music; sudden appearance of someone; loud sounds...) equipped with explicit violence. Harrison Ford makes an interesting debut as a bad guy and is, together with Pfeiffer's performance, the best part of the flick. Some also lamented about the ending, but it's the only part of the film where Zemeckis achieved a firm grip of the story and discovered an excellent Hitchcockian strength, but it's no use by that time since 90 % of the film has already turned average.

Grade:+

Contact


Contact; Science-fiction drama, USA, 1997; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, John Hurt, Angela Bassett

Scientist Ellie Arroway is strongly convinced that aliens exist, because, as she said herself: "If we are alone in the Universe, then it's a huge waste of space". After her father dies, she starts working at the SETI program at a Observatory. One day, they are surprised when they get a signal from the star Vega, which contains the first TV signal that left Earth, the '36 Olympics in Berlin - but also cryptic signals about how to build a space travel machine. The whole World's reaction is mixed regarding the whole issue. Ellie is chosen to be the pilot in the vehicle that travels through a wormhole - but there she only sees the projection of her father, a human form of the alien who tells her that this is only the first step of human contact with extraterrestrial life. When she returns, it turns out that she was only missing for 2 seconds.

Robert Zemeckis' first film after his most famous achievement, "Forrest Gump", wasn't so directed towards emotions and hypnotic awe which is why it earned far less and gained less critical acclaim than the above mentioned film. But "Contact", an adaptation of the novel with the same title by Carl Sagan, is a very thought provoking film that is so interesting because it never for a second shows how the aliens may look like, but instead just depicts how people around the World would react upon discovering that they are not alone in the Universe. The film starts out with a brilliant opening shot of the movie camera in space traveling away from Earth, while the further it goes to the edges of our Solar system, the older the music that can be heard in the background, since it shows how much time it takes for Earth's signals to reach to Pluto and beyond. The screenplay crafted an real odditorium of events on Earth, from the Larry King show up Tom Skerritt's character meeting Bill Clinton (president of the US at that time), yet the whole thing is done with measure. The special effects are quiet and subtle, mostly used only towards the end when Jodie Foster's character takes a journey in the alien designed vehicle, when the film, just like so many science-fiction films, again seems to share-borrow some things from Kubrick's "Odyssey". A long, but brave, philosophical achievement.

Grade:+++

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Back to the Future


Back to the Future; science-fiction comedy, USA, 1985; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, George DiCenzo

1985. Marty McFly is a normal teenager who is ashamed for his father George who is always taunted and terrorized by his neighbor Biff. Marty works for scientist Doc Brown and one night enters his time machine, in the shape of a car, in order to escape from some Lybian terrorists. Speeding to 88 miles per hour, Marty accidentally makes a time travel back to 1955. There he meets the young Doc, but also his teenage mother, Lorraine, who falls in love with him. With a little bit of luck, he manages to match his mom and dad and with Doc's help return back to 1985 - where now George is in charge and Biff is a wimp.

Excellent comedy "Back to the Future" surprisingly became one of the movie icons of the 80s thanks to a simple, fun and elegant story that philosophically plays with the notions of destiny and coincidence, proving how high art and fun don't necessarily have to be two separate things. The film was nominated for 4 Golden Globes and it's unbelievable that Michael J. Fox didn't won as best actor in a musical or comedy for his amazing performance, yet he did manage to win the Saturn Award whereas the the film also won an Oscar for best Sound effects. Although relaxed, the movie as a whole is filled with irresistible situations (for instance, in his getaway from the Lybian terrorists, Marty speeds in the time machine car and accidentally transports himself in 1955; in a cafe he accidentally sits by his future dad, George, so they both turn their heads when Biff shouts: "Hey, McFly!"; Marty's future mother falls in love with him (!) when she nurtures him while he is in his underwear in her bed) and "subtle ambitiousness", while the soundtrack is full of love for the 50s culture and songs ("Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)"). So many time travel films trip over their own feet and mess everything up, but this is one of those rare instances where a time traveling storyline was so meticulously constructed that everything works in wonderful harmony, especially in the perfect end that humorously shows an "change" in the relationship between George and Biff in the present. The only question that remains unanswered is how the film would have looked like if Eric Stoltz starred in it, as originally intended, before he was replaced by Fox.

Grade:+++

Back to the Future Part II


Back to the Future Part II; Science-fiction comedy, USA, 1989; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, Lea Thompson

After the exciting events in the 1st film, Doc Brown uses his now flying time machine-car to bring Marty McFly and his girlfriend Jennifer into the year 2015, where Marty's son made such an incident that it ruined his whole family. Thus, Marty disguises himself as his future son and turns down a shady deal from Biff's grandson, the juvenile Griff and his gang, who crash in the city hall and get arrested. After that, Marty and Doc have to save Jennifer who accidentally found herself in her future home. But the Biff from the future secretly uses the machine to travel back to 1955 and give his younger version a magazine that predicts all sport bets until 2015. Returning back to the present, Marty and Doc find the evil Biff now wealthy. They return back to 1955 and destroy the sports magazine. But Doc's machine gets hit by a lightning bolt and sent to 1885.

Some things are better left alone. "Back to the Future" was a great little film with heart that, as Robert Zemeckis himself admitted, wasn't intended to have a sequel, but the huge commercial success set some other priorities. Luckily though, even though it doesn't grasp the energy of the original, thanks to Zemeckis' talent he still managed to make the best out of it. "Back to the Future Part II" is surprisingly good and appealing in the first 30 minutes when it delivers the promise from its title and really shows a fascinating little glimpse of the future in 2015 with great design, technical innovations and amusing-sweet jokes (most notably when Marty goes to an 80s nostalgia bar where Michael Jackson's song "Beat it" plays in the background or when he spots a holograph promoting the film "Jaws 19"). The basic premise that continues the story from the first film is rubbish and contradicts the character of Doc in every way, since he would as a scientist never agree to "modify" Marty's future no matter what, let alone for such a feeble excuse to save his son from jail, yet thanks to dynamic direction and irresistible take at the future, the first third of the film works. We could almost feel sorry that a hoverboard won't be invented by 2015. The story sadly goes downhill when the characters leave the future and return to a changed, dark present where the evil Biff became rich: nothing in that part works, everything is pretentious and terrible, whereas the writers incredibly messed up the whole time traveling storyline until it became pointless. That segment is one excruciating "plot device" and is simply almost unwatchable. Still, Michael J. Fox is again in top-notch shape and at least the film is a solid shadow of the first one.

Grade:+

Back to the Future Part III


Back to the Future Part III; Science-fiction western comedy, USA, 1990; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson, Elisabeth Shue, James Tolkan, Lea Thompson

After the previous tumultuous events, Marty is again stuck in 1955, meeting Doc Brown again. Since Brown from the future was sent back in 1885, Marty and Brown from 1955 read his letter and discover he managed to hide the time machine in an abandoned cave. But then they discover Brown's tombstone, stating he died in 1885. In order to rescue him, Marty again travels back in time, to 1885. The wild west really is tough and he finds out Brown there works as a blacksmith, but the outlaw Tannen has a grouch against him. Brown also meets teacher Clara and they fall in love. Since the car is out of fuel, Brown arranges for a locomotive to push the car to the 88 miles per hour and transport Marty back in the present, while he stays with Clara.

The third and final part of the "Back to the Future" trilogy is considered better than part II, but still weaker than part I. In an unusual turn, Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale took the storyline in a direction that's as far away from the original one as it could be when they placed it into the Wild West of 1885, though the film is so fluent, tight, dynamic and powerfully paced that it actually seems natural. A large credit for such a positive result goes to some irresistible jokes (one of the rarely mentioned funny lines is right after the two protagonists find the time machine in the cave and Brown asks himself: "Since I'm in 1885, maybe they mention me in the history books now!"), many of which spoof the western cliches, like when Marty introduces himself to the cowboy outlaws as 'Clint Eastwood'. Michael J. Fox is again in superb shape as the main hero, whereas charming Mary Steenburgen is a refreshing addition to the crew. The finale is a blast. As a whole, part III is a dignified conclusion to the trilogy that posed some amusing philosophical questions about chance and destiny, and in doing so it even turned out wise towards the end.

Grade:++

Monday, 7 December 2009

True Heart Susie


True Heart Susie; Silent drama, USA, 1919; D: D. W. Griffith, S: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour, Kate Bruce, Raymond Cannon

Susie is a young girl living in a small village. She is in love with her neighbor William who eagerly wants to apply for college, but doesn’t have any money. Thus, Susie sells her beloved cow Daisy and sends him money anonymously. He attends a city college and returns back to the village as a pastor, neglecting Susie. When he meets a wild city girl, Bettina, he falls in love with her. Susie tries to be like a city girl too, applying make up and wearing a fancy dress, but it’s no use: he marries Bettina. Bettina cheats on him and spends one night at a wild party, but since she forgot her key she staying out in the rain and caught a cold, until she came to Susie’s home. After Bettina dies from the flu, William wows to always stay faithful to her. But one day he finds out the truth and begs Susie to forgive him.

One of lesser films of D. W. Griffith, far away from the grasp of "Intolerance" or "The Birth of a Nation", “True Heart Susie” is easily watched, but not really memorable nor worthy of a status of a classic, except maybe for being a prototype of modern soap opera. Griffith portrays the innocent, gentle village heroine from the title so idealistically that she is practically elevated into a saint, while the city girl Bettina is so demonized that she almost turns into a black and white “bad guy”, yet the story is effectively told and runs so smoothly that it seems as if it was realistic. Except for Griffith’s skills even during standard stories, the stand-out virtue of the film is actress Lillian Gish who wonderfully plays the innocent heroine. "Susie" relays mostly on that charm from the silent movie era when even the most banal stories still seemed somehow fresh because it was the first time they were ever presented on the big screen, hence the best parts are when Griffith actually inserts some stronger directorial intervention, like the "foggy" dream sequence where William imagines his wife Bettina is going to cook for him and their life will be ideal at home, but right then the camera shifts to the "reality" where William is disappointed when she just serves him 'frozen dinner', looks messy and doesn't even seem to be happy to see him.

Grade:++

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Family Plot


Family Plot; Thriller comedy, USA, 1976; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, Karen Black

Blanche earns her money by pretending to be a spiritual medium. One day, a rich old lady, Julia, gives her the assignment to find her nephew Edward. Blanche's lover George starts the search, but only finds Edward's name on a tombstone. He later discovers that Edward is still alive, but is hidden by an auto mechanic. With a reason - Edward killed his father and with his wife Fran kidnapped numerous rich people to get ransom out of them, so he doesn't want to be found. Edward and Fran capture Blanche in the basement, but George releases her and instead captures them.

For his last achievement, Alfred Hitchcock allowed his fans a relaxed and casual comedy, "Family Plot", where he didn't hint that it would be his final show, especially since the story is so much tamer than his previous film, "Frenzy", his most uncompromising thriller. At first confusing, "Family Plot" later skillfully blended two stories into one - George is searching for Edward to bring him the happy news about inheritance, but Edward doesn't want to be found because he became a kidnapper in the meantime - and has a few sympathetic jokes, like when Blanche, a fake medium, is changing her voice in order to fool her clients. Likewise, the screenplay by Ernest Lehman has some good details, like when George discovers that Edward and Harry apparently died simultaneously, but that one tombstone is, surprisingly, younger than the other. Some real sharpness and virtuoso touch wouldn't have been expletive, but the film's running time runs smoothly and the "interrupted" ending is real Hitchcock's trademark. And yet, when one looks at those end credits, it's hard not to think what Hitchcock would have directed if he was alive today.

Grade:++

Frenzy


Frenzy; Thriller, UK, 1972; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Anna Massey

London is ravaged by a serial-killer who strangles women after raping them. A sloppy, seamy man with a moustache, Richard Blaney, gets fired from working in a bar so his friend Bob offers him money, but he refuses. Richard goes to his ex-wife Barbara, but she gets killed by the "tie killer" - Bob. Now the police thinks that Richard is the perpetrator, so he hides at his girlfriend's place. When she also gets killed by Bob, Richard starts investigating himself. Bob frames him and Richard lands in jail. There he escapes and together with a police officer finds Bo in an apartment with a dead wife.

With time, legendary Alfred Hitchcock made more and more shocking films, breaking the taboos he couldn't in the 30s and 40s. When once asked in a TV interview, just a few years before his death: "If you could direct one more last film, what would it be?", he replied with: "Sex". After three shaky films in a row, he returned to shape with his penultimate, strong thriller, "Frenzy", that came as close as possible of him showing whatever he could uncensored, but with a right dose of direction (for instance, in the opening, the London's mayor is holding a speech in front of his public, announcing how he will "clean up the river", but just then a corpse of a naked woman floats at the shore). The story is refined in twisting the cliches upside down: at first, the viewers presume that the serial-killer is the sloppy character Richard, a man with a moustache, because he is unpleasant, crude and aggressive, whereas the polite blond Bob is innocent. And thus it comes as a real surprise some 30 minutes into the film that Bob is actually the killer, since "the first look is deceiving". The whole setting of London in the 70s isn't quite Hitchcock's style, but his humor is always spot-on (a matchmaking agency matched a woman and a man who are both "passionate beekeepers"; the running gag of the inspector's wife bad cooking) and some sequences are genius, like the one where Bob can't get his needle out of a corpse's fist, so he breaks its fingers into a straight posture. An ostentative, intelligent thriller. It was nominated for 4 Golden Globes: best motion picture - drama, director, screenplay and score.

Grade:++

Topaz


Topaz; Thriller, USA, 1969; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Frederick Stafford, Karin Dor, John Vernon, Michel Piccoli, Claude Jade

The high ranking KGB agent Boris Kusenov leaves Cuba together with his wife and daughter in order to escape to Denmark, and then to the US where he tells the Americans Soviet secrets. French agent Andre Devereaux gets the assignment to investigate that. With the help of a reporter, Phillipe, he gets a hold of a secret Soviet plan about arming Cuba. He goes to Cuba and takes photos of secret rockets, but because of that his lover Juanita gets murdered. Returning to the USA, Andre discovers that French ambassadors Henri and Jacques work as spies for the Soviets. Henri dies while Jacques escapes.

Hitchcock's 51st film, "Topaz" caught the old master of wrong foot, but non-the-less he still managed to squeeze more material from it than some other bad director would have. This way some sequences are truly brilliant, like the one without a sound in a hermetic glasshouse where hero Andre talks with the reporter Phillipe or the one where Phillipe and Uribe get discovered by a Cuban leader when stealing secret plans from him in a room, and occasionally Hitchcock's humorous touch shows up (a Cuban soldier spots two seagulls in the sky carrying sandwiches), yet they are only small crumbs of pleasure. By taking the complicated story set in the background of the Cold War era, Hitchcock made an untypical, stiff and overstretched spy thriller of "James Bond" format. A conventional film with strange acting and schematic dramaturgy that didn't manage to ignite that cinema spark.

Grade:+

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Marnie


Marnie; Drama, USA, 1964; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel, Diane Baker

An angry boss in a company is horrified when he concludes that the secretary, Marion, stole from the safe. But Marion's real name is Marnie and she lives with her mother. Due to kleptomania, she again applies for a job of a secretary, but this time at the rich Mark, and again steals from the safe. When Mark catches her, he forces her to marry him in exchange for not notifying the police. She quickly discovers that Marnie has a complex inherited way back from her childhood, so he brings her to her mother. There he discover the truth: her mother was a prostitute who had an argument with a client, so Marnie killed him when she was a child.

Alfred Hitchcock, who with time got more and more untrammelled, shocked the producers with the way he planned to film the intercourse between the title heroine and Mark: "I want him to stick it into her and the camera to film her facial expression during it!" The above mentioned scene, after a compromise, in the end looks like this: Mark disrobes Marnie naked (though her intimate parts are never shown), the camera follows her head in close-up while she is lying on the pillow, there's a close-up of his eye, the camera turns away towards the window. Though, it still looks quite daringly intimate for its time, which is exactly what Hitchcock was aiming at in the story. However, despite that fact that it contains all the typical calligraphy of the master (Hitchcock himself has a cameo 5 minutes into the film as a man exiting the hallway), "Marnie" is still a slightly disappointing film about the complexes and trauma from the childhood and, especially fascinating, about the frigidity of the heroine. It is a clever idea that whenever Marnie sees red color, which reminds her of blood, the whole screen becomes red, yet the whole story is overstretched and unfocused, sometimes even clumsy. Especially unconvincing is the final flashback of her childhood, though some critics consider it one of Hitchcock's more neglected, psychological films.

Grade:++

The Birds


The Birds; Drama/ Horror, USA, 1963; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright

The daughter of a millionaire, Melanie, is constantly bored. In a bird store, she notices lawyer Mitch and decides to follow him to Bodega Bay in her car with two "lovebirds". Their potential relationship is disrupted, however, when birds suddenly start attacking the city's inhabitants. Hundreds of birds attack during a children's party and the highlight is when the students have to run away from school while followed by aggressive crows. Mitch saves Melanie and they hide in a house. When exiting, the birds suddenly return to normal and let them pass.

"The Birds" stayed remembered as a horror though it would be much more accurate to characterize it as an experimental film about nature gone wild, and thus in compliance with that it's slightly unjust that the most famous sequence remained the one where the crows quietly, slowly gather around on the playground behind Melanie's back, instead of the more dramatic one in which Mitch jokingly talks to her abut how he read in the newspapers that she was naked in a fountain in Rome. For the whole first hour, the movie is a quiet, almost romantic drama with many stand-out moments, especially the comical one where love struck Melanie secretly places lovebirds in Mitch's house, while in the second half the attack of the birds shows up, which can be interpreted the appearance of irrational hate (war, racism, prejudice...) that wrecks the idyllic state or as a reaction to the superficial nature of the characters. Directing birds and making them seem menacing was a tough task, but Alfred Hitchcock did it with ease which is why the suspense always seems plausible and haunts the human fear of the revenge of the polluted nature. Especially amusing are the dialogues which speculate how many billions of birds live in the US alone. The story is anamorphic and has flaws, but since Hitchcock is simply a master, then "The Birds" are also a valuable film.

Grade:+++

Friday, 4 December 2009

Walter Defends Sarajevo


Valter brani Sarajevo; War action, BiH, 1972; D: Hajrudin Krvavac, S: Velimir ‘Bata’ Živojinović, Rade Marković, Ljubiša Samardžić, Neda Spasojević, Pavle Vujisić

World War II is looming its end. Faced with heavy defeats in the war, the army of the Third Reich plans to move from Sarajevo to Višegrad in order to pick up enough fuel for a retreat from the occupied Yugoslavia. But for quite some time a resistance fighter, known only as Valter, has been causing them headaches. In order to stop him from endangering their operation, the Third Reich sends a spy, Conrad, who will play the fake Valter, gather enough partisans and their trust and ultimately lead them into a trap. But the courageous Valter isn’t fooled that easily – he and his two pals disguise themselves as a German train conductors, and ruin their plan by stealing and destroying the train.

“Walter Defends Sarajevo” surprisingly became one of the most popular films from the former Yugoslavia thanks to the fact that it was hugely popular in China, where it was re-run dozens of times on national television. The legendary scene where one Nazi officer asks the other one to finally show him who the mysterious Walter is, and he shows him the whole city of Sarajevo from a hill and tells him: “This is Walter!” was turned into such a famous viral video that it was edited and modified numerous times during the elections in some countries of the former Yugoslavia. But other than that legendary scene, there is little else to be shown in the rest of the film. It’s a standard cheap partisan film, which means propaganda that offers some good parts at best. Velimir ‘Bata’ Živojinović is good as the title hero, yet the only clever moment that his role offered was the one where he disguises himself in a Nazi uniform to fool the Nazi spy into telling him secret information, while the rest is just your run-of-the-mill cheap action and fighting that seems as if came from Bollywood. The stale story still has to be congratulated, though, for avoiding the black and white cliches about Germans and actually showing them realistically rational and human. Humourless, campy, overlong and amateurish, with some blunders that are too obvious (in one scene, you can see a woman in a short skirt, even though the story is suppose to be set during World War II) and a dated Yugoslav ideology, “Walter” is non-the-less still a solid partisan film that has charm, even if it was just based on pure nostalgia values, and a sweet harmonic score which is why it enjoys cult status.

Grade:+

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Secret Agent


The Secret Agent; Thriller comedy, UK, 1936; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young

World War I. A British officer is surprised when he reads in the newspaper that he supposedly died from flu, but the head of the British intelligence explains him that it was done to make him a secret agent. Given a new name, Ashenden, he is sent to a Swiss town to discover a German spy who plans to turn the Arabs against the British in the war. Upon arriving to his hotel, he is pleasantly surprised that he was also equipped with a fake wife, Elsa, and a sloppy agent, the General. After the General kills a man suspected to be the spy on a mountain who turns out to have been innocent, Elsa decides to quit her job. She leaves with womanizer Marvin, but he turns out to be the spy. In a train crash, Marvin and the General die, while Ashenden and Elsa fall in love.

Following the success of his classic “The 39 Steps”, Alfred Hitchcock crafted a similar film “follow-up” that again impresses with a meticulous blend of thriller and comedy, elegant style and old-school narration that even tops the previous movie in the first half. John Gielgud may be an odd choice for the hero – some critics complained so much about his casting that he hasn’t appeared in a next film for almost 17 years – yet the exposition is so spot-on, so crammed with energy that it brings down the house: from the amusing opening at the fake funeral where a butler tries to pick up the empty coffin with one hand and Ashenden’s protests as to why he was reported “dead” up to the hilarious moment where he, entering his job as a secret agent, discovers he was given a secret identity – equipped with an attractive wife. When his fellow secret agent “the General” (Peter Lorre) discovers that, he starts a comical protest in anger because he “hasn’t been appointed with a wife” too. The film may be “Hitchcock light”, but it does carry all of his trademarks. Actually, if the suspenseful sequence on the mountain and the dog was just a little bit longer, it could have been one of the best from the “master of suspense”. “The Secret Agent” really does end too abruptly – it needed at least one more suspenseful moment before the end to work fully – but there is simply no way it won’t please the audience on the lookout for a classic with taste.

Grade:++

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Kimagure Orange Road


Kimagure Orange Road; Animated fantasy romantic comedy series, Japan, 1987; D: Osamu Kobayashi, Tomomi Mochizuki, S: Toru Furuya, Hiromi Tsuru, Eriko Hara, Michie Tomizawa, Chieko Honda, Naoko Matsui

Teenager Kyosuke Kasuga moved with his family 7 times already because he and his sisters Kurumi and Manami posses “the power”, i.e. telekinetic abilities. Their father, a photographer, is on the other hand “normal”. In school, Kyosuke falls in love with the rebellious Ayukawa Madoka, but decides to lead a spare relationship with another girl who already fell in love with him, Hikaru, since he doesn’t want to break her heart. Ayukawa finds a part time job as a waitress in ABCB café while Kyosuke goes through numerous adventures with her. In the end, Kyosuke and Ayukawa kiss.

Sometimes the viewers are waiting for years and years for a new story to be filmed that would encompass a theme precisely they want and that would look as if it was made just for them. But they don’t know that often such a story was already made in the past, except that they don’t know about it. Yet, even though it’s from the past, when you look at it for the first time, it seems new. “ Kimagure Orange Road” is an anime Coelacanth, a forgotten jewel that almost nobody knows of, but a one which can be found in the long list of past ‘archeological’ anime. The animation is rather dated and some will find the hero’s flip-flop between two girls contrived, but in any other way the story would quickly end and wouldn’t develop the way it does, turning into a quiet delight. In one amusing episode at the beginning, Kyosuke wants to use his “power” to score during a basketball game so that he could impress Ayukawa, but then decides it wouldn’t “be honest” and thus plays normally, eventually losing in the game. Later, while sitting alone in the stadium, he thinks about his dilemma and nonchalantly uses his “power” to throw the ball across the whole stadium into the net – not knowing Hikaru accidentally saw him and fell in love when she saw that move, leaving it only to the viewer to realize and comprehend the irony of chance.
The story has wit: when Kyosuke forgets about his first date with Hikaru and comes too late to the place they were suppose to meet, he finds that she wrote her anger on the bulletin board, stating: “Kyosuke is a jerk!” Every time an author incorporates fantasy elements into a fairly straight looking story, he/she better have a good point for it, not to make it look as if it was there without any reason. Here, though, that concept – Kyosuke having telekinetic abilities – was exploited nicely when he, occasionally, wants the mill to “run his way” for a change: when Hikaru wants to take him to the ABCB café, he immediately wants to stop it because of fear that Ayukawa, who works there, will regard them as a couple. Alas, he uses the “power” to jam the door so that Hikaru won’t be able to open it and they would stay there, whereas when they eventually do get out he uses his ability again humorously to keep stalling it – to make the train crossing signal turned on as long as possible, even though that causes a giant traffic jam.
In one hilarious scene, he even accidentally teleports himself naked in a car in front of a love couple. One of the sweetest romantic moments, though, comes so swiftly and light that it has universal appeal, both for fantasy and drama fans, in the episode where Ayukawa gave the main hero instructions and then secretly inserted possible test questions in the menu when he came to the ABCB café, which shows unprecedented care. Unfortunately, the show lost its way from episode 30 onwards since the authors started to trip too much over their own feet with far too many unnecessary time travelling/body switching episodes. Instead of being a romance, as it was at the start, the show eventually became just a collection of insane stories, some of which were offensively stupid. And yet if one would have to circle out those rare examples of masterwork writing, then it can still be found here, in episodes 22 and 28, which are perfect. The series ends with a bang, a very unusual end that made as much right as much as it did wrong. Unassuming and clumsy, with sweet 80s flair and fantastic music, “Orange Road” reminds a lot of “Maison Ikkoku”, and even though it doesn’t reach the latter’s heights since it’s too mild and hits too many false notes, it is still a small romance classic. Even “Maison” made mistakes, but when it did, its mistakes still seemed so much better than the mistakes “Orange Road” did.
Grade:++

House on Haunted Hill


House on Haunted Hill; Horror, USA, 1999; D: William Malone, S: Geoffrey Rush, Ali Larter, Taye Diggs, Famke Janssen, Peter Gallagher, Jeffrey Combs

In an asylum, the patients started a mutiny, killed the sadistic doctor who performed experiments on them and set the building on fire. Some 60 years later, the eccentric tycoon Stephen Price constructed a mansion on the ruins of the asylum, for his wife Evelyn. Five people were invited to come to the mansion and spend the night: Sara, Eddie, Melissa, Donald and Pritchett. When they enter, metal bars prevent them to exit until tomorrow. Strange things start happening: Melissa disappears while Evelyn is found dead. But Evelyn just pretended and kills Donald. The ghosts capture everyone in the end, except Sara and Eddie who manage to escape.

Horror remake of an '59 original with the same title, "House on Hunted Hill" is originally directed, but in the end still a cliched sprout of its genre which is dramaturgically on thin ice that breaks more and more towards the ice. The story doesn't lack suspenseful scenes full of adrenaline, like in the exposition where the mad doctor is performing an operation on a patient who is still awake, but then gets stopped and killed by other patients, yet to complain a horror film that it's too suspenseful would be as if one would complain that a comedy is too funny. Still, "House" is just a sufficient achievement and nothing more whose greatest flaw are too many one-dimensional characters and cheap style. The best scenes are the ones in fast-forward loop, like the one of the arrival of a demon or a monitor on the camera where the protagonists are watching the disappearance of her colleague, yet humor and intelligence would have given the story more color.

Grade:+

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea


Gake no Ue no Ponyo; Animated fantasy adventure, Japan, 2008; D: Hayao Miyazaki, S: Hirko Doi, Yuria Nara, Tomoko Yamaguchi, Kazushige Nagashima

A fish-girl, Ponyo, who lives in father's Fujimoto underwater home, curiously swims to the shore of a port town where she is found and saved by a boy, Sosuke, who puts her in a can with water and brings her along to kindergarten. Ponyo gets retrieved back by Fujimoto, but decides she wants to be a human, grows arms and escapes to go back to Sosuke. That causes the flooding of the town. Sosuke and Ponyo go to search for Sosuke's mother Lisa. In the end, Fujimoto and the sea goddess agree to let Ponyo stay in human form.

One last time, the animation veteran Hayao Miyazaki again returned from retirement to direct his 10th and final film and deliver another pure anime jewel to the world. "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea", even though not Miyazaki's best achievement, is a return to his old shape and a spiritual successor to his "Kiki's Delivery Service" and almost all of the great animes he made in the 80s, his most creative phase. Unlike his last two films, "Spirited Away" and "Howl's Mowing Castle", where he went overboard with the phantasmagorical, here he kept a fantasy story with a measure, creating a gentle and wonderful film with a pure heart, and surprisingly addicting water fascination. A simple story (friendship between a boy and an unidentified fish-girl species) that mirrors "The Little Mermaid" became a likable base for a poetic film, filled with neat animation, great shot composition and humor that simply glides throughout. Some scenes are amusingly charming (after a flood hit the port town and placed it under water, fish can be seen swimming through its streets) while other are irresistibly charming (the enchanting moment where Ponyo hugs Sosuke so hard that it leaves a bruise on both of their faces). Innocent, sympathetic and harmless, with a surreal ending that can be forgiven, "Ponyo" is a wonderful relaxed fun that leaves a load of positive energy.

Grade:+++

The Samurai


Le Samouraï; Crime-drama, France/ Italy, 1967; D: Jean-Pierre Melville, S: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Cathy Rosier

Jeff Costello is a payed hitman who lives alone in an apartment with a bird in a birdcage. After an assignment, where he killed some club owner, he gets picked up by the police in a routine gathering of potential suspects. Even though he has an in advance prepared alibi from a hired prostitute, the Commissioner is certain he is the killer. Still, due to lack of evidence, he is released. Due to such a blunder, the mafia boss decides to kill Costello. Still, Costello kills him. He bonds with a singer in a night club and deliberately points with an empty gun towards her so that he gets shot by the police.

Director Jean-Pierre Melville - whose quote that "even the worse director can once make a great film" became famous - and his sad-melancholic-minimalistic crime drama "The Samurai" often get mention from critics at numerous occasions. It's a matter of an intelligent and calm film where the protagonist Costello, played by the famous Alain Delon, is not portrayed as a bad guy but as a lonely outsider, and, as the title suggests, as a "modern Samurai". Of course, as a realist, Melville never tries to "polish up" the bleak story: during the (only shown) assignment, when Costello meets his victim who asks for his name, he replies with: "It's not important" before he shoots him. There's a lack of that distinctive "coolness" factor and a surplus of pretentiousness, yet Melville leads the film economically whereas his cohesive low-key style is good.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Spider-Man 3


Spider-Man 3; Action fantasy drama, USA, 2007; D: Sam Raimi, S: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haiden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rosemary Harris, James Cromwell, Theresa Russell

When she gets fired due to bad acting, Mary Jane starts distancing herself from Peter Parker. An extraterrestrial symbiote merges with Peter who starts behaving darker and breaking the rules: he takes a dark Spider-Man costume, flirts with Grace and causes photographer Eddie to get fired. Marko, a convict who killed Peter’s uncle to get his money to pay for his sick daughter, falls in an accelerator and becomes Sandman, a robber who steals across town. Peter eventually gets himself rid from the symbiote, which lands on Eddie who transforms into Venom and teams up with Sandman. They kidnap Mary Jane, but Harry and Spider-Man team up and save her. Sandman and Venom die, Harry dies.

After Sam Raimi managed to “outsmart” the producers and raise the bar with the 2nd film, which amazed with rarely seen drama for a super-hero film, the expectations were high for “Spider-Man 3”, yet all the fans got was a cold shower since it turned out the creativity again lost the battle with the clichés. The film starts off promisingly, again featuring that refreshing drama when Peter Parker talks with his aunt May about how he plans to propose Mary Jane. But, just as he is driving in his motorcycle on the street, the film makes the first wrong step when he is picked up and dragged into the sky by the New Goblin/ Harry on his flying machine, which ends up in such a over-the-top fight between them across the city that not even Peter Griffin and that chicken from “Family Guy” would be ashamed off. The film simply has way too much “hero-gets-saved-in-the-nick-of-time” clichés, silly stunts and CGI overkill to carry it without a consequence. The only moment in that fight that makes the viewer stop in amazement is the one where Peter sets up a spider’s web across two walls that cause Harry to trip and fall on the ground – and get so seriously hurt that Peter has to call the ambulance. But then we find out he has – amnesia! Why the writers had to make up such absurd clichés can probably be explained by the fact that the producers invested a lot of money, and wanted a lot of crowd-pleasing moments to ensure themselves a success, among them forcing action sequences that don’t have any purpose at all.

The Sandman character is pure Marvel trash, yet at least Raimi puts a little ironic jab at the story when, after battling him, Peter takes off his Spider-Man mask, discovers his hair is full of sand, and just says to himself: “…Where do all this guys keep coming from?” Sandman, Venom, Mary Jane-Peter love relationship, Harry-Peter rivalry and an extraterrestrial symbiote that creates an evil Spider-Man – the story tried to cram 5 plots into one, but it just crashed over itself, whereas the storyline about Spider-Man battling with his evil self resembled at times too much to the one in “Superman 3”. Tobey Maguire is again in very good shape as the nerdy hero Peter, effortlessly doing many comical scenes that are a delight. Some even found his transformation into the “bad Spider-Man” being a political allegory about certain powerful politicians at that time who liked to “break the rules” and use “dirty” methods to achieve their goals. Though, again, the film went overboard with some of those “bad guy” moments: when Peter starts dancing at the night club to make Mary Jane jealous, it all seems plausible, but when he starts swinging on a Chandelier the whole thing turns into Bollywood. Still, even though it was dead-set at becoming wasted, the authors still inserted some ambitious details and complex drama that is food for thought, which makes the film a great topic of discussion. While standing in a queue, some guy once asked his friend: “Have you seen “Spider-Man 3”? The main actor cries for half of the film!” , which evidently shows that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill superhero series.

Grade:+