Thursday, April 30, 2009

Käpt'n Blaubär - The Movie


Käpt'n Blaubär - Der Film; Animated comedy, Germany, 1999; D: Hayo Freitag, S: Wolfgang Völz, Helge Schneider, Sabine Bohlmann

Captain Bluebear talks about his adventures to his three grandchildren every day, among them also about the battle with the evil Dr. Feinfinger. The grandchildren think those are all fairy tales and that their grandfather has a too vivid imagination. But one night Dr. Feinfinger really shows up and kidnaps the grandchildren, brings them to his hideout and wants to make his heirs out of them. Bluebear and his sailor Hein sets on a ship to find them, but when the wave dwarfs attack, he lands in a volcano. There the eruption catapults him to Dr. Feinfinger who is defeated by demonstrators, so the grandchildren are freed.

"Captain Bluebear" is a neat animated children's film that earned a solid amount of money at the German box office. The satirical moments are top notch in the scenes where a pirate has a hook instead of a fingernail or Dr. Feinfinger whose school dissertation was a 'world conquering machine' or when he stops the uprising of the wave-dwarfs by threatening to have them fired. It is a matter of a rather clever and bright little flick, but director Hayo Freitag has a too pale, conventional direction without deeper ambitions whereas the best jokes went to the bad guy, not to the hero. Another mistake are the uninteresting end and at times too ephemera characters. Yet, in the framework in which it operates, it made the best from the harmless fun, while all the necessary flaws don't bother too much. Among others, the voice actors are great, especially Sabine Bohlmann as the Pink bear.

Grade:++

The Little Bastard


Kleines Arschloch; animated black grotesque, Germany, 1997; D: Michael Schaack, Veit Vollmer, S: Ilona Schulz, Arne Elsholtz, Helge Schneider, Kathrin Ackerman, Claudia Lössl

The little bastard is 12 years old and writes memoirs into his diary. When he catches mom and dad during intercourse he is not surprised at all; he hardly speaks with his sister, together with grandpa in wheelchair he exchanges mischief; he is a member of a teen rock group whom he persuades to perform dressed in Muslim clothes in front of neo-Nazis; he goes to a radio station and a hospital and disturbs people there; he takes the neighbor's dog for a walk and molests him; for biology class, he speaks about genitals. But he is in love with the old lady Inge (76) and tries to seduce her, and when she dies from a heart attacks he continues to live on normally. During a school performance, he puts drugs into people's drinks which causes them to strip naked and demonstrate in front of the church until the police shows up and arrests them all.

"The Little Bastard" tells a story about a provocative boy but it is made without inspiration or care, and at some moments it seems as if it was written by a complete idiot. That animated farce captured, it seems, the low point of German cinema and despite all of its off beat-unusual setting it is only rarely funny (and more just harrasful) and sometimes frighteningly negative, til the point of 'dead humor'. Still, it has some charm: when the boy accidentally spots his sister naked, and she covers herself from shame, he just says her: "You don't have to be ashamed, I'm your brother and don't intend to regard you as an object of sexual desire", while the main stand-out subplot is the one where he is truly, without any sarcasm, in love with a 75-year old lady and dreams about her - who knows how the movie could have turned out to be if it took a different path and made the main plot out of it? Maybe a new "Harold and Maude". Unfortunately, it did not, and thus just satisfied itself with performing only between two levels: from crude humor to vulgar humor. The best job was done by the two brilliant German voice actors, Arne Elsholtz as dad, and Claudia Lossl as the sister. You can listen to their harmonic voices all day long.

Grade:+

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Galaxy Quest


Galaxy Quest; Science-fiction comedy, USA, 1999; D: Dean Parisot, S: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell

Science-fiction TV series "Galaxy Quest" was cancelled 20 years ago but still attracts a huge fan base. The actors of the show Jason, Dane and Gwen haven't made a single significant film since then so they earn their money by appearing on fan conventions. One day, Thermians, real aliens, show up and bring first Jason and then the rest of the crew into their space ship. For them, "Galaxy Quest" isn't a fictional show, but a historical document and thus they beg them for their help because they are terrorized by a despot from another planet. Jason gets stuck on a desert planet but gets saved and tells Thermians the secret about the show: with the help of a time machine, he returns back in time for 13 seconds, shoots the despot on a convention and starts acting in new episodes.

"Galaxy Quest" is an implicit parody of "Star Trek" and thus has some specific charm, but simply isn't inspired in humor. In "Star Trek", the main pillar was a great chemistry between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, while here the chemistry between Jason and Dane is practically nonexistent, maybe because they have little great dialogues, while many parallels with the above mentioned series are arbitrarily. There's this intriguing, powerful moment where Jason in uniform is on the toilet and overhears the conversation of some teenagers who lament how all actors from "Galaxy Quest" are losers, and it was probably real and might have inspired the writers of the film, yet except for a few good gags here and there - among others, the "pilot" of the space ship is flying terribly through a mine field, hitting many of them, and Dane advises him cynically: "Can you try not to hit *every* mine out there?!" - the story as a whole is forced, anemic and lax, with an absurd time travel subplot at the end, yet one moment is gold and justifies the film's existence: it's the one where a happy fan gives instructions to the "Galaxy Quest" crew on the way through their space ship, since they don't know it themselves!

Grade:+

Monday, April 27, 2009

Big Buck Bunny


Big Buck Bunny; CGI animated comedy short, The Netherlands, 2008; D: Sacha Goedegebure

A giant, fat, but lovable bunny wakes up from it's habitat and enjoys a sunny day in nature. But he then spots three evil rodents, two squirrels and a rat, squashing a butterfly. They then go on to attack even him with rocks and fruits. But the bunny hides in the forest and prepares for a duel. Using booby-traps and weapons made from wood, he banishes the evil rodents and finally enjoys watching butterflies in peace.

An amusing CGI animated short film by the Blender Foundation, "Big Buck Bunny" is a completely insanely funny flick, totally random and surreal. It's rather shallow, banal in setting up the three rodents as the bad guys - when one mean squirrel squashes an innocent butterfly, the authors portray it almost as axis of evil - yet for a 10 minute short such 'gimmicks' are arguably forgivable in order to advance the plot and get to the point fast. And truly, it's such a twisted and wacky film, with jokes that almost remind of some episode from "Cow and Chicken". Without any dialogues, with a dynamic rhythm and a simple good vs. bad plot, it's the funniest in the sequence where the lovable fat bunny prepares to defend itself in "Rambo" style, by preparing arrows and booby traps in the forest, or a few wide angles that reveal some different perspectives, like in the scene where the evil squirrel is falling down to the ground crammed with spears, but luckily manages to save itself by grabbing to a branch - only to have the camera reveal in the next scene that the branch is held precisely by the bunny. Uneven, but fun.

Grade:+++

The Fly


A Légy; Animated short, Hungary, 1980; D: Ferenc Rófusz

A fly flies though the forest. It buzzes and goes from a tree to tree. Until it becomes bored and flies off to a house and enters through the window. It wonders from room to room until the landlord gets irritated and starts chasing it, eventually squashing it and putting it in an stuffed insect collection.

Winner of the Oscar for best animated short film, Ferenc Rofusz's "The Fly" is a simple, funny, playful and refreshingly direct achievement. Even though some critics went on to analyze it in an symbolical, allegorical, political and even sociological context, in reality it's simply a 3 minute film that doesn't intend to say anything more than to execute the plot about how the world is seen from the fly's perspective - it's as simple as that. And it's quite fun, filmed with a fish eye lens and shown entirely from the perspective of the flying insect who flies into a house and annoys someone with it's obnoxious buzzing. Extremely detailed in design and animation, with a sly charm and a humorous ambiance, this is a completely relaxed flick where the authors seemed to have a blast while making it.

Grade:+++

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mata Hari


Mata Hari; Drama, USA, 1931; D: George Fitzmaurice, S: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon

Paris, World War I. Mata Hari is a beautiful dancer who is actually a secret German spy using her beauty to manipulate men. Currently she is flirting with Russian General Serge Shubin in order to spy on him. Hari's friend Carlotta falls in love with her victim and is thus executed. But Hari also falls in love with the young Russian Officer Alexei, from whom she steals valuable papers. Yet he his plane crashes and he remains blind, while Hari gets arrested and sentenced to death.

The most famous movie adaptation of the legendary exotic dancer accused of espionage and the most commercially successful movie of actress Greta Garbo, "Mata Hari" is a competent and solid achievement that didn't put too much effort in crafting something special. Alas, the result is predictably a fine, but standard and too conventional story that becomes ostensibly melodramatic towards the end, whereas it's theme of manipulation of people is still timely, especially in the scene where the sly heroine pushes the envelope by making the young Officer Alexei tell her that he "places her before God, Honor and Homeland" and even persuading him to extinguish a sacred lamp of Virgin Mary. Neither the screenplay nor the direction were executed in some dazzling way, which is why the viewers start to lose a part of their concentration after a while, yet it's a perfect vehicle for the brilliant Garbo, who is definitely the highlight here and shows why her charisma, talent and sly charm still have sparks in our time.

Grade:++

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sleeping Beauty


Sleeping Beauty; Animated fantasy, USA, 1959; D: Clyde Geronimi, Les Clark, Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, S: Mary Costa, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Barbara Luddy

A kingdom is celebrating the birth of Princess Aurora, the daughter of King Stefan and Queen Leah. As a baby, she is already engaged to Phillip, son of king Hubert. But because she wasn't invited for the celebration, the evil witch Maleficent casts a spell at Aurora, sentencing her to death at the 16th birthday when she touches a spinning wheel's spindle. In order to save her from such a fate, the three good fairies raise Aurora in an isolated house in a forest. But the witch finds her and makes her touch the spindle, causing her to fall in a coma. Prince Phillip though manages to kill the witch and kiss Aurora, waking her back to life.

The 16th feature length animated film by the Walt Disney studios, "Sleeping Beauty" is a fine fairy tale, appropriately imaginative and magical, with a stand out animation that seizes the attention even today - from ecstatic physiognomy of the witch and her pig henchmen, through unusual and extremely detailed designs of castle up to beautiful shot composition, the effort of the animators is felt in every frame. As for the story, it's good, yet somehow uneven since Aurora might just be, as some have already noticed, the most passive Disney heroine of the 20th Century: out of 75 minutes of running time, she appears on screen fewer than 20 minutes (!) and barely does anything, which is why her charm or personality are practically nonexistent. She is a part of the story in the middle, yet in the beginning and the ending - which just shows Prince Phillip fighting to find her in the castle - she is absent. When you get the impression that the evil witch appears more often in the film than her, then that's a serious setback. Disney hasn't made such pale characters so often, which means that they learned on their mistakes - just look at Jane or Megara. Still, the film has a lot of virtues, the biggest, most enchanting highlight being the sequence where the animals disguise themselves as the Prince using a cape: the two rabbits operate the two boots, the owl wears a hat and the cape while two birds hold the sleeves to make it look like Aurora is dancing with the Prince. She gets so carried away by singing that she doesn't even notice that the real Prince showed up at one point, re-claimed his cape and actually took his position to embrace her, much to her surprise, which is simply a perfect moment of pure inspiration.

Grade:++

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Lion King


The Lion King; animated musical drama, USA, 1994; D: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, S: Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Moira Kelly, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson

Africa. The lion king Mufasa gets a cub called Simba. Simba's evil uncle Scar realizes that he will never become king while they are alive, so he releases a stampede of animals at them in a valley. Mufasa dies, while Simba, plagued by guilt of his father's death, leaves the valley. In an oasis, he finds Timon and Pumba, a meerkat and a warthog, and becomes their friend. As years pass by, Simba grows into a lion and returns back to his home, taking the place as the king and replacing Scar who gets killed by hyenas. Simba and Nala also get a cub.

"The Lion King" was a huge surprise: although an animated film, it won numerous awards and also earned a huge amount of money at the box office, confirming the Disney Renaissance. It is a matter of a gentle allegory about greed for power, a fine film despite some accusations of plagiarism of "Kimba the White Lion", "Epic of Sundiata" and "Hamlet", an ode to ethics and higher values of life, yet it still suffers from some typical Disney flaws and cliches that are hiding behind melancholy (a comic sidekick; black and white characters; musical numbers; the bad guy has to die at the end...). First off, the typical mainstream, banal, forced humor is again present in the story - for instance, warthog Pumba sings how everyone avoided him because of his fart. Hero Simba plans to divert attention of the hyenas by making Timon and Pumba disguise in Hawaiian female clothes. The three dumb hyenas are especially annoying. Unfortunately, the the humor is rarely sophisticated. Secondly, the story is rather thin - maybe it is just too compact, but it seems it can be filled in just two acts. It has a right to do it that way, yet the dramatic storyline is too simplistic and often disrupted. Besides absolutely enchanting animation and Disney charm, the main highlight is Elton John's song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", which is simply perfect and gives the movie pathos and the impression of a bigger dimension.

Grade:++

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

He's Just Not That into You


He's Just Not That into You; Romantic comedy, USA, 2009; D: Ken Kwapis, S: Ginnifer Goodwin, Justin Long, Scarlett Johansson, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Connolly, Kris Kristofferson

Numerous stories about complicated relationships: the young Gigi gets constantly dumped by her dates, until she meets bar manager Alex who gives her some advice about men. She falls for him. He rejects her, but then also falls in love with her...Aspiring singer Anna seduces Ben even though she knows he is married to Janine. When he juggles with both of them, they both leave him...Anna also once slept with Conor, but broke up with him even though she still keeps close contact with him. In the end, they become a couple...Mary tries to find a boyfriend through Internet...Beth and Neil are a perfect couple for over 7 years, but she breaks up with him because he doesn't want to get married. In the end, they make up.

A sweet, sometimes insightful, sometimes too sugary, too gossipy and too kitschy, romantic comedy-drama "He's Just Not That into You" is a proportionately well conceived, accessible and simple film about the ever evasive theme of human relationships. Even though it takes on a harmless tone, some of the situations depicted on the screen are sometimes painfully true and many viewers can be identified with them, among them how people never know what they want and thus are always on the lookout for a better partner as well as tricks and manipulations in order to just use one person. Because of that, the story gains a few plus points here and there, and is generally amusing without going into deeper inspection of it's topic. One of the finest examples of sharp observation can be found in the scene where Mary (Barrymore) calls her three friends to listen to her answering machine. She has 2 new messages. In the first, she hears the voice of Jude, a guitar singer she met on the Internet, singing "Mary, Mary, Mary...". The music is so romantic she gets all charmed, as well as her three friends. But then she listens to her 2nd message, where Jude's voice can again be heard singing, but this time: "Jenny, Jenny, Jenny...". After the obvious, there's a dispersal of her friends and she just angrily erases all her messages. Such and other moments of inspiration really ring true. Scarlett Johansson delivers another daring role as Anna who tells this to the married Ben: "You have an ass that makes me wanna dry hump!", but the best performances were delivered by Ben Affleck and Justin Long, who played the two male characters with most of class. On the other hand, some more unimpressed critics lamented about how the whole film looks like one giant "Beverly Hills 90210" episode, equipped with shallow problems revolving only around beautiful people, which is far from the ugly reality. And at some degree, that can't be dismissed, though the end result is charming.

Grade:++

Secrets & Lies


Secrets & Lies; Drama, UK, 1996; D: Mike Leigh, S: Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook

Black optometrist Hortense is participating at the funeral of her adopted mother. She then gets the urge to finally find her biological mother and discovers, thanks to some documents, that it's Cynthia (43), a sloppy factory worker who is - White! Cynthia lives in an ugly apartment with her second daughter Roxanne (20) who works as a dustwoman, while both of them have a grey relationship to each other. Cynthia's brother Maurice is an owner of a photo shop while his wife Monica can't have children. When Hortense meets Cynthia and introduces herself, she is at first shocked, yet they develop a very deep relationship. On Roxanna's 21st birthday, Cynthia brings Hortense to the party in Maurice's house. There she reveals the truth to everyone.

Extremely quiet, static and subtle family drama about adoption with a twist, "Secrets & Lies" was justifiably noticed and praised around the World, earning numerous awards, including the Golden Palm in Cannes, 2 BAFTA awards (best screenplay, actress Brenda Blethyn) and one Golden Globe (best actress Brenda Blethyn). The direction by Mike Leigh is very realistic, at times it even reaches documentary proportions because it looks so authentic, yet it's not perfect - he let's the actors improvise in long takes that last up to 8 minutes, but at times he let's everything go loose too much, which makes his direction seem passive whereas the first half an hour of the film even reminds of some derivative soap opera - yet as soon as humorous elements are included the story starts to function excellently. For instance, the messy Cynthia (wonderful Blethyn) doesn't at all know how to talk with her daughter Roxanne properly ("You have to have protection during sex. My old diaphragm must be lying around here somewhere...") and she is aware of her flawed competence, which is why she ironically says how the best birthday present for her daughter would be if she would throw herself under a bus. The main tangle, where the Black Hortense finally meets her real mother, White Cynthia, is absolutely smashing because it speaks so much about mother-daughter relationships in such an absurd and subtly hilarious way, since Cynthia knew she gave her daughter for adoption, but wasn't aware she was Black (!), captured perfectly in their dialogue ("Good day, are you Cynthia?" - "Yes." - "I'm Hortense." - "Damn it, what are you taking about?! No, no, honey..."). This could have been a lot more nuanced story, yet as it is it's a very compelling experience that says a lot about the absurdity of life in a sophisticated way.

Grade:+++

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Chinese Ghost Story III


Sien lui yau wan III: Do do do; Fantasy, China, 1992; D: Ching Siu Tung, S: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Jacky Cheung, Joey Wang, Nina Li Chi, La Siu-Ming

100 years after the events of Ling Choi Sin. An old monk and his assistant Fang witness how warrior Yin kills robbers who have robbed him. The monk and Fang spend the night in a mysterious forest temple. There ghost-woman Lotus tries to seduce Fang to put him under control of the Tree Demon, but truly falls in love with him. This causes her problems since her evil sister could betray her. The demon captures the monk since Fang broke a golden statue, so he seeks the help from Yin. Together, they free the monk and even Lotus. They destroy the demon and after the dawn keep Lotus' ashes.

After the confusing 2nd film, Ching Siu-Tung, the director of the complete "A Chinese Ghost Story" Hong Kong movie series, managed to again lift up the ambitions in the 3rd part of this fantasy folklore story from the Qing Dynasty. Especially successful are the moving camera and it's angles, which are at times a real joy: spooky fogy nights shot in blue cinematography; a wonderful panorama shot of the clouds under the Sun as well as it's ray coming through the trees, while some camera movements are very extensive (it approaches the face of the old man from afar and then turns it's view towards the sky). The ending is, just like in the previous two installments, proportionately clumsy, whereas the whole story just dropped the plot from the original and just made a recap of it with new characters, yet a huge plus is the fact it was all again turned towards romance: ghost-woman Lotus seduces Fang, the assistant of the monk, by putting her own clothes on fire - to have an excuse to take them off! And when she even takes her bra off he falls unconscious. It's also impressive how she tries to tie him up with her hair, while Joey Wang is again excellent.

Grade:++

A Chinese Ghost Story II


Sien nui yau wan II yan gaan do; Fantasy, China, 1990; D: Ching Siu Tung, S: Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Michelle Reis, Jacky Cheung, Wu Ma, Ku Feng

After suspensful events involving demons and ghosts, tax collector Ling Choi Sin again stumbles into trouble when he gets arrested because the police thinks he is a criminal. In prison, an old man shows him the way out and gives him a medaillon, and he takes a horse ride to a mysterious temple. There he finds a group of people dressed up as ghosts who mistake him for the wise man Chiu Bom due to the medaillon. The group is led by sisters Yuet Chi and Chi Chau - the latter one reminds him of Xiao and he falls in love with her. They are attacked by a 12 foot tall demon, but manage to defeat it. The sisters free their old father from the demon that transforms into an insect. Even Yen shows up and kills him. Ling's love is already engaged, but she runs away and returns to him.

"A Chinese Ghost Story II" is a weaker sequel to the popular original that actually has little in common with it due to a wacky story filled with stupid and naive solutions. Already the sole opening that shows inserts from the first film is unnecessary, and even though the bigger budget is noticeable it is only wasted on slimy scenes like the dream of the hero who imagines a man decomposing. Director Ching Siu Tung made a much better job in the first film than he did in this 2nd one. This time the emotions and passions of the protagonists don't come to full expression - the potential that the two sisters argue over Ling (Leslie Cheung) could have been wonderfully exploited, in both a fun and romantic way, but when one of them suddenly gives up it all seems definitely abrupt. The excellent rhythm, opulent costumes, moody settings and wonderful actress Joey Wang are again present, but so are sloppy moments and too silly monsters (a 30 feet long insect!) to make this more meaningful.

Grade:+

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Chinese Ghost Story


Sien nui yau wan; fantasy, Hong Kong / China, 1987; D: Ching Siu Tung, S: Leslie Cheung, Lau Siu-Ming, Joey Wang, Ma Wu, Hu Dawei

Weak tax collector Ling Choi Sin looses some documents when it starts to rain, which is why he can't collect the money in some bar. He decides to stay overnight in a forest temple and thus stumbles upon the ghost of woman Xiao: even though she has the assignment to kill every human, she falls in love with him and establishes a contact. In the morning, Ling doesn't even notice the demon skeletons in the basement and gains admiration of the villagers who are amazed how he survived in the temple. When he finds the picture of Xiao, he returns to her that night but the demons almost discover him. Together with priest Yan, he fights against the Tree Demon who holds Xiao as a slave and attacks them with it's tongue. Ling and Yan even go to Hell and liberate Xiao. They bury her ashes and thus free her ghost that disappears.

The originator and the best addition of the cult Hong Kong fantasy trilogy, "A Chinese Ghost Story" is a very good, opulent and esoteric Wuxia epic film that blends action with horror, poetry with humor, and its appropriately exotic in depicting Asian culture of the 15th Century, where the story is set. Director Ching Siu Tung directs the film elegantly and proportionately mysterious, using amazing camera movements to impress with the visual style (the POV shot of the ghost entering into the mouth of its victim; women flying with wonderful dress veils blazing in the wind) that appeases a few shortcoming and omissions. But above all this isn't a monumental spectacle, but a quiet romantic story about little people. Namely, the most beautiful moment is still when female ghost Xiao hides the hero in her bath tub so that the others won't discover him: she begs all present guests not to look at her while she disrobes, which gives him the opportunity to dive out and get some air, but then he spots her naked. And in the end, she even enters the bath tub herself, with him inside, so that the guests would leave her alone. Such a sophisticated moment of intimacy and romance is one of the most beautiful and sweetest things of the 80s Asian cinema, a moment that simply melts you away.

Grade:+++

The Right Stuff


The Right Stuff; Drama, USA, 1983; D: Philip Kaufman, S: Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Kathy Baker, Jeff Goldblum

In '47, pilot Chuck Yeager becomes the first human who manages to break the sound barrier with his plane. In '53, the Russians send the first satellite into orbit, and soon afterwards even the first man, Gagarin. In order to not stay behind, the US government start their own space programme. The status of the astronauts is given to Gordon, Gus, Schirra, Slayton, Carpenter and John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Despite numerous difficulties, including unstable test rockets that constantly explode, they manage to go to outer space and come back alive.

Arguably the best film by Philip Kaufman, an incredibly smooth and even achievement looking from any angle, drama "The Right Stuff" eloquently handles the beginning of the "Space Age" in the US and managed to win 4 Oscars out of 8 nominations, while even earning a nomination for a Golden Globe for best picture - drama. Even though it's a very fine made movie, it starts to becomes slightly overstretched due to its 3 hours of running time, while the segment with the pilot Chuck Yeager is rather pointless, yet as a whole it's a wonderfully set up story where the best parts are humorous, like when the reporters are so desperate to get an interview with the families of the astronauts that they even storm their laundry washer or when Shepard is in the rocket and asks for the permission to urinate in his space suit because he can't "hold it anymore". Director Kaufman avoids any kind of patriotism and cynically shows the US government as a little baby whose only goal is to be first in everything, while he even inserts a sly metaphor about grasping and achieving a dream. An excellent role was achieved by Dennis Quaid as Gordon (when a nurse orders him to bring him a sperm sample, he jokingly asks her to "help him"), but all other actors aren't weak by any means either, while the montage including Chubby Checker's song "La Bamba" is simply perfect.

Grade:+++

Monday, April 13, 2009

Love One Another


Die Gezeichneten; silent drama, Germany, 1922; D: Carl Theodor Dreyer, S: Polina Piekowskaja, Vladimir Gajdarov, Adele Reuter-Eichberg, Sylvia Torf, Johannes Meyer, Thorleif Reiss

A small Russian town at the Dnieper river, 1905. Hanne-Liebe is a young Jewish girl who has affections towards her friend Sascha, who has joined the revolutionary group. One day, they accidentally spot a young couple making out in the meadow - in fear of the gossip, the couple decides to beat them to the chase and spread the lie that Hanne-Liebe and Sascha were actually intimate. As a consequence, Hanne-Liebe gets expelled from school and her mother tries hastily to get her married. But she leaves for Saint Petersburg to be with her brother Jakow, who converted to Christianity to work as a lawyer. Sascha is also in the town and starts a relationship with Hanne-Liebe, but gets betrayed by the spy Rylowitsch who wants to stop the revolution against the Tzar. Dressed as a monk, Rylowitsch spreads antisemitic hate. The angry mob attacks the Jewish neighborhood and kills Jakow, who came to visit his mother before she died. Yet Sascha saves Hanne-Liebe.

"Love One Another" isn't regarded as highly as Carl Theodor Dreyer's most famous films, "Vampyr" and "The Passion of Jean D'Arc", mostly because it is a conventional, straight-forward crafted movie, yet the director's skill and the relevant topic about antisemitism at the start of the 20th Century still give it flair. Filmed in his early phase, when he was still coping with his profession, and outside his Danish homeland, "Love" is a very good Dreyer film that impresses mostly through the authentic vignettes from Russian life in the early 20th Century, all the actors are great, especially Polina Piekowskaja as the Jewish heroine Hanne-Liebe, yet from today's perspective it seems as if the movie could have dome so much more from it's brave theme of racism and intolerance, but on the other hand it also bravely adds a little subplot about identity crisis.

The most stand-out ingredient in the story is it's above mentioned gritty theme of antisemitism that remained timeless and fresh even today - through small scenes and details, Dreyer shows how unpleasant Hanne-Liebe life was: when she first came to elementary school as a little child, she was the only one in the classroom who didn't know how to make the sign of the cross, which caused an angry backlash from her teacher. That motife is repeated again towards the finale, where a Jewish man gets killed by the angry mob because he also does not know how to make the sign of the cross. Another sharp observation was how antisemitism is just used as a diversion for some other political agenda, since the double agent Rylowitsch spreads lies, hate and nonsense about the Jews, telling how "a law will give Jews half of Russia" or how "they drink Christian blood", just to counterattack the upcoming revolution and keep the Tzar's authority. Still, even though it has a lot to say, Dreyer never falls in the trap of making a dry, colorless message story, but always keeps it alive with good direction and some occasional moment of humor (the mediocre suitor tries to impress Hanne-Liebe by telling: "My name is Joseph...But, the girls in my place all call me 'Handsome Joseph'!").

Grade:+++

The Last Seduction


The Last Seduction; Thriller, USA, 1994; D: John Dahl, S: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman, Bill Nunn, J.T. Walsh

She's only a lady if she has a use from it. Bridget is a sneaky femme-fatale who just uses men to get rich. After her husband Clay beats her up, she runs away with his huge sum of money from New York to a small town, Beston. From there, she calls him and suggests him a divorce if she can keep half of the money, but he surprisingly refuses the offer, even though he has a huge debt towards the mafia. Bridget changes her name into Wendy, gets a job as a manager and seduces the naive Mike. Clay hires a private detective who finds her, but she kills him by hastily hitting the breaks and catapulting him out of the car. She then persuades Mike to kill Clay, but he gives up in the last moment. She then kills Clay and turns Mike to the police, among others also accusing him of rape.

His excellent thriller "The Last Seduction", where he showed a negative perspective of the world where a woman exploits her "inability" in order to manipulate men, John Dahl directed exclusively for Cable television, but the reception was so overwhelming and out of the frame of the TV format that it even subsequently went on to play in the theaters. The anti-heroine Bridget, in the coldblooded performance by Linda Fiorentino, actually copes well in every situation: she is a lady only if she has use from it, while otherwise she is very cynical, like when she enters a bar ("With whom does a woman have to sleep here to get a drink?") or meets Mike ("Here, you have to use the word 'please'." - "Beat it, please."). Rarely has a common cliche been so questioned as here the one about how "all women are fragile and weaker than men". Even when she doesn't succeed in every intent she planned, she always keeps her elegance and sense for bizarre dignity, so you can never know what she is going to do next, which together with the cinematography creates a wonderful film noir atmosphere. Her sneaky towards the end and unusual camera angles also create an additional sharpness.

Grade:+++

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ham, Ham


Jamón, jamón; Erotic drama, Spain, 1992; D: Bigas Luna, S: Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Jordi Mollà, Anna Galiena, Stefania Sandrelli, Juan Diego

Silvia is an ordinary worker in a underwear factory and has a relationship with Jose, the son of her boss. Her mother Carmen is owner of a brothel and herself already had intercourse with Jose. When Silvia becomes pregnant, Jose decides to marry her, which angers his mother Conchita who thinks Silvia just wants his money. Thus, Conchita hires a young lad, Raul, who is suppose to seduce Silvia. At first, Raul secretly banishes a pig only to later "help" to catch it. He then seduces Silvia in a disco and on the street but she rejects him. Only when he gets injured after falling from a motorcycle does he succeed: she falls for him. But Conchita also falls for him. The jealous Jose attacks Raul with a ham leg, but he kills him. Everyone is unhappy.

Those who think that European movies are boring, that they are just made for some stiff audience from another dimension, should watch erotic grotesque "Ham, Ham": such open erotic provocations and spontaneous passion would have probably never made it into a mainstream Hollywood film back in that time. In the opening, the camera makes a close up of Raul's underpants that have a "lump" from an erection; Jose licks Silvia's breasts and says how they taste like ham; and when he makes out with her, they sit under a giant wooden poster of a bull whose testicles are swayed by the wind. Even later on does Jose have intercourse with Silvia's mother while a parrot observes them, whereas Raul is also a shrill character since he provokes a bull naked, holding only a red flag. Director Bigas Luna is obviously a very passionate person who doesn't hesitate to openly portray the intimacy of his characters and celebrate the youthful spirit, yet here he didn't go directly into pornography: all characters also have an emotional constitution and their realistic problems, which is why the story gains a dramaturgic charge. Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem are both fantastic in their parts, while it's a pity that the unsure direction resulted in a hysterical end which is a fiasco and reduces it's quality.

Grade:++

Sound of the Sea


Son de Mar; Erotic drama, Spain, 2001; D: Bigas Luna, S: Lenor Watling, Jordi Mollà, Eduard Fernández, Sergio Caballero

Young poet Ulises gets a job as a teacher in a high school situated in Valencia. He notices that Martina, the daughter of a cook, lives near his apartment. The rich businessman Sierra constantly tries to seduce Martina, but she rejects him every time. She brings Ulises to a disco and a cave. There the two of them start a passionate relationship. When she gets pregnant, Ulises marries her despite the objections of his parents. After he gets a son, Ulises buys a fishing ship but disappears without a trace in a storm. Martina marries Sierra. After a few years, Ulises calls her on the phone and explains that he survived the storm. She returns to him and they have intercourse in an empty building. Out of jealousy, Sierra makes a hole in their ship and they drown.

Director Bigas Luna, after a few acclaimed and noticed movies, got out of the shape with "The Sound of the Sea", a too overstretched modern adaptation of Homer's "Odyssey" that suffers from too much empty walk. While in "O Brother!" the Coen brothers adapted Homer's epic poem humorously, Luna adapted it erotically: Ulises and Martina (Lenora Watling, who will a year later star in Almodovar's drama "Talk to Her") often have intercourse, just like in every typical Luna film. Ulises mostly excites her with songs where he compares her breasts with snakes from the sea, whereas when she thinks about him while she has intercourse with Sierra, tears start coming to her eyes. Probably the most poetic, almost esoteric moment, comes in the tragic end, where they lie dead on the table, but suddenly "come to life" and again start to kiss and hug, maybe showing how love even overcomes death. Unfortunately, it all seems like a short version of a soap opera, too poor with real quality or directorial style, while many important things were not shown, which is why the film creates a sloppy ambiguity.

Grade:+

Monday, April 6, 2009

Swordsman III: East Is Red


Dung Fong Bat Baai: Fung wan joi hei; action fantasy, Hong Kong / China, 1992; D: Ching Siu Tung, Raymond Lee, S: Brigitte Lin, Joey Wang, Yu Rong Guang, Jean Wang, Eddy Ko, Shun Lau

China, 16th Century. Fighter Koo leads Portuguese soldiers to an isolated place where the grave of the mysterious androgynous human Asia is suppose to be. But the grave is fake and Asia kills the soldiers, but spares Koo who begs her to return to the world of humans because it's filled with chaos. Asia discovers that the people are worshiping her the wrong way and that a 'fake Asia' is played by some woman called Snow, so she makes a bloodshed in an act of rage, but hides in a brothel. Koo saves Snow while Asia banishes Portuguese and Japanese conquerors.

Action fantasy "East is Red" (somewhere also translated as "Dung Fong Baai 2" and "Swordsman III") faithfully follows the unusual rhetoric of Hong Kong martial arts film that advocates naive-exaggerated events that border on cliches, which is why during the course of the story unbelievable scenes show up: fighter Koo jumps and in a few seconds climbs up a steep and high hill, upon which a Portuguese soldier asks his friend: "How did he do that?" Not having a better answer, he just replies that it's something not everyone can do. Even later on in the movie a bunch of over-the-top events show up, not without a sly self-ironic wink at the audience (a ship that transforms into a submarine; a ninja hiding behind a painting of a moon placed in front the real moon (!); androgynous Asia riding a giant swordfish) that would otherwise bring a lots of problems to other films, but in this edition it's appropriately exotically esoteric and contains a certain degree of charm, while the real highlight is definitely the ravishing performance by legendary cult actress Brigitte Lin - before she retired just 2 years later - as Asia, a being with both male and female features, which is why the film was especially noticed at various LGBT festivals.

Grade:++

Crash


Crash; Erotic drama, Canada/ France/ UK, 1996; D: David Cronenberg, S: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette

Film director James rather has intercourse on the set than the will to work, yet his marriage with Catherine is becoming monotone. One day he gets involved in a car crash and lands in a hospital. There he meets the woman whose car collided with his, Helen, and bizarre scientist Vaughan who is obsessed with cars which he connects with achieving orgasm. James starts an affair with Helen but at the same time stays with Catherine. Vaughan admits he loves car crashes which bring him to ecstasy. When he dies in a crash, James arranges a crash with Catherine, yet she doesn't get excited.

Despite cult reputation of director David Cronenberg, "Crash" can be described only as a dignified failure. Similar as cult classic by Oshima, "In the Realm of the Senses", "Crash" also portrays human erotic urge as a powerful force that can even kill if it isn't kept in boundaries, yet Cronenberg directs the story in an anemic, cold and bizarre way which is why the film collapses on itself in the end. The sole connection of a car crash with achieving orgasm is rather far fetched and unconvincing, which isn't changed not even by sequences where the protagonists observe crashes on video with "crash dummies" or make photos of the place of the accident. Their fetish may be of a symbolic nature, yet some real inspiration wouldn't have been redundant. The final result is a bizarre, but solid drama with one-dimensional characters, among them even the secretly fascinating Helen (Holly Hunter, who was for some reason billed as the main actress, even though she is just a supporting character).

Grade:+

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Sword in the Stone


The Sword in the Stone; Animated adventure, USA, 1963; D: Wolfgang Reitherman, S: Rickie Sorensen, Karl Swenson, Martha Wentworth

England, early Middle Ages. The mystical sword Excalibur is captured in a stone and the legend has it that he who manages to pull it out will becomes the new king. Many knights tried, but couldn't get the sword out of the stone. A young boy, Arthur (12), meets the wizard Merlin in the forest and his grouchy owl - they tell him he has a mission and settle at Arthur's stepfather. Merlin teaches the boy about the discoveries of the 20th Century and even transforms him into a bird, but then gets captured by the evil witch Mim. Merlin goes to a duel with her and wins. During a tournament, Arthur pulls out the sword from the stone and becomes the new king.

Neat adventure "The Sword in the Stone", the 18th feature length animated film by the Walt Disney studios, has a lot of charm and offers wonderfully detailed animation, yet it's still one step away from a real classic. One of the problems is that the main hero, boy Arthur, isn't half as interesting as the fascinating wizard Merlin who constantly steals the show with his amazing magic, thus creating a slightly uneven tone. The second problem is that the story about the mystical sword Excalibur is very short and thus it's obvious the screenplay is 'roughly' overstretched by the writers with annoying transformations of Arthur and Merlin into fishes, squirrels and birds. Still, it's hard to deny the movie's charm and competence. By far, the best part of the movie is the ontological duel between Merlin and the evil witch Mim: that sequence where they rival each other by transforming into a caterpillar and a chicken, then a mouse and a cat, then even into a dragon and a bacteria, is so rich with sharpness, free imagination and intelligence that it shakes off all prejudices of viewers who don't expect a high level in an animated film.

Grade:++

Bambi


Bambi; Animated adventure, USA, 1942; D: David D. Hand, S: John Sutherland, Hardie Albright, Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan

In a forest, a doe gives birth to a baby deer, Bambi, while all the animals rush to see the little creature. Bambi quickly started to talk and makes friends with rabbit Thumper and skunk Flower. With time, autumn arrives, and then winter while some evil hunters shoot Bambi's mother. Bmabi grows up into a big deer and falls in love with Felina. But the hunters return and attack the deer. Still, Bambi and Felina save each other and get twins.

"Bambi", the 5th feature length animated film by Walt Disney studios, alongside all it's tenderness and emotions doesn't even touch the knees of their first film, masterwork "Snow White" from '37. The reason for that lies in the fact that "Bambi" is simply a film for little children, a too simple and too undemanding flick that seems overstretched despite it's running time of only 67 minutes. The music, nominated for an Oscar, and a few deeper philosophical sparks about the ever repeating cycle of time and life, deserve the biggest credit for the sanation of the empty story where nothing is going on except for such events where Bambi learns how to walk or wrongly thinks that a butterfly is a bird. The story snaps out of lethargy mostly when the hunters show up: the first time, they kill Bambi's mother (that sequence isn't elaborated enough to be as shocking as it was suppose to be) and the second time, towards the end, the even wound sole Bambi, which brought a dramaturgic vertical that was until then missing.

Grade:++

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Judgment at Nuremberg


Judgment at Nuremberg; Drama, USA, 1961; D: Stanley Kramer, S: Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancester, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, William Shatner

Nuremberg after the end of World War II. Judge Haywood arrives in town in order to conduct the war crimes tribunal against the four former Nazi members: among them is the ex-judge Ernst Janning, who is represented by German lawyer Hans Rolfe. Colonel Lawson brings in numerous witnesses in order to show the brutality of the Nazi regime, among them Mr. Petersen, who was sterilized because of his low IQ, and Irene Hoffman, whose friend, a Jew, was murdered, while film footage from concentration camps is screened in the courtroom. In the end, Janning speaks up and admits his guilt. All fours men accused of crimes are sentenced to life in jail.

A thoroughbred masterpiece, an extremely charged experience from start to finish, "Judgement at Nuremberg" is one of the most thought provocative movies of the 60s, a message film that has a mouth full to say, but it's relevance even today shows that it's messages weren't preachy but absorbing. The extremely tight screenplay not only sets the courtroom drama as an indictment of the Nazi regime, but also as an indictment of the civilization: because, if the viewers read between the lines, they will find plenty of scary parallels of the four accused people in the tribunal and many things that were happening after World War II and are even happening today. Namely, even though the Nazi regime is long over, the movie debates how many of it's negative features, like nationalism, hate, propaganda and war, still continue to appear in numerous countries of our time. Maybe the small episode with Montgomery Clift, who plays Petersen, an obviously mentally handicapped person who was sterilized during the Third Reich, seems rather rough and could have been handled better, yet all other roles are perfectly set up, while the mentioned episode also courageously brings up a similar case in Virginia, where a Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Owens supported "a ban on reproduction of imbeciles".

Maximilian Schell plays lawyer Hans Rolfe extraordinary and absolutely deservedly won the Oscar, the Golden Globe and the New York Film Critics Circle Award, especially in such scenes where he accuses the "American industrialists earning a fortune when they sold their weapons to Hitler" or when he tries to defend Janning with dignity. Director Stanley Kramer, who won a Golden Globe, sharply observes how the truth can be shaped and bent - for instance, in the jail, the three former Nazi members read the newspaper headline of the increasing antagonism between the US and the Soviet Union and immediately interpret it their way, about how they were right because it "shows how the West will have to battle the East" - while the film is also trying to juggle with humane touch, and succeeds, but also with the 'political football' played behind the trial, where some army officials try to persuade the judge Haywood (wonderful Spencer Tracy) to give a mild sentence in order not to upset the German people. A few heavy handed moments and some unnecessary subplots are bothersome, while some critics lamented how "Judgement" is more a message film than a real film, yet it's power is still palpable today and has some of the most groundbreaking speeches ever put on the big screen. One of them comes when the ex-judge Janning tells judge Haywood in remorse:"Those people, those millions of people...I never knew it would come to that. You *must* believe it, *You must* believe it!", while he replies with this line: "Herr Janning, it "came to that" the first time you sentenced a man to death you *knew* to be innocent."

Grade:++++

My Girl 2


My Girl 2; Comedy, USA, 1994; D: Howard Zieff, S: Anna Chlumsky, Austin O'Brien, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis

After her friend died from an allergic reaction, the 13-year old Vada now calmed down and lives with her father Harry and her stepmother Shelly, who is pregnant. One day, she gets the assignment to write an essay about a person she never met. She chooses her mother, who died at childbirth: in order to find more about her life, she goes to her hometown Los Angeles at her uncle Phil, where she also meets a boy, Nick.

"My Girl 2" is a pale glance of the original, as well as critical acclaim and audience interest at the theaters is considered. Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis sparkle at the start of the film and keep it interesting, but the remaining 2/3 of the story, in which Vada goes to Los Angeles, is wasted completely uselessly. Director Howard Zieff made a much poorer job in this film than he did in the first, where he surprised and enchanted with some really honest emotions, yet here the story is a too optimistic, too clean and too safe teen flick which as a whole inevitably seems neither especially funny nor touching - it's impossible to make a film with such a thin story, that quite honestly even seems like a unnatural follow-up to the first plot, overstretch it into 90 minutes and make it good. The screenplay should have been twice as rich and versatile. A correct, solid film: in the end, comedian Dan Aykroyd is always good.

Grade:+

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tarzan


Tarzan; animated adventure, USA, 1999; D: Chris Buck, Kevin Lima, S: Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Rosie O'Donnell, Glenn Close, Brian Blessed, Lance Henriksen

19th Century. A young couple and their baby get stranded along the coast of Africa. When a leopard kills them, a gorilla mother, Kala, manages to save the baby and raise it as it's own, gving him the name Tarzan. He makes friends with gorilla Terkina and elephant Tantor. But one day an expedition arrives in the jungle to observe the gorillas, and Tarzan barely manages to save the beautiful Jane from a horde of baboons. She teaches him how to speak, but as he wants to leave with her to England, he realizes an evil hunter, Clayton, wants to shoot as many gorrilas as possible. Tarzan manages to save them, while Clayton accidentally hangs himself on the vines. Jane decides to stay with Tarzan.

The 37th and last animated feature length film during the Renaissance of the Walt Disney studios in the 90s, "Tarzan" is a fine adventure fairy tale about the hero who feels alien in his society. It is a far better movie than its reputation - truth be told, the first 20 minutes are pure kitsch, the jokes are standardly silly for Disney animated films, the story has cliches while the finale with the bad guy is terribly predictable since it copies the exact same formula from almost all the other endings from Disney animated films, yet it is still a surprisingly well made movie as a whole, thanks to its romantic-emotional constitution and especially the enchanting songs by Phil Collins, "Strangers Like Me" being the best. It may seem predictable that in the 90s a Disney animated film won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best song almost every year, but whether it is Collins' "You'll Be in My Heart" or Alan Menken's "A Whole New World", all of them were equally amazing, and it would really be a sin to deny that they were miraculous. And the charachter of Jane, who shows up some 30 minutes into the film - she is the most beautiful and dashing girl in any Disney animated film of the 20th Century. Truly, it is hard to not be charmed by her charisma and her design that seems as if it was inspired by animes. Just one smile of her reveals hundreds of hours of effort of the animators and spirit that no computer animated charachter has. Not to mention that the sequence where Tarzan saves Jane from a horde of wild baboons is virtuoso directed, as well as the brave moments where he puts his head on her chest to hear her heartbeat - it is a wonder how they dared and managed to get such an intimate moment in "Tarzan". For a mainstream film, this is still a genuinet and fresh story.

Grade:++

Thesis


Tesis; Thriller, Spain, 1996; D: Alejandro Amenábar, S: Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, Eduardo Noriega, Xabier Elorriaga

The young Ángela studies communication studies and chooses to write about violence in the media for her work. Her professor lends some violent film from the library, but dies from shock after seeing it. Angela and her friend Chema, a horror film fan, decide to watch the film: in it, the real murder of student Vanessa is depicted. Angela goes to search for the film's author and the main suspect is student Bosco. But he wasn't the only perpetrator: his associate was professor Castro who almost kills Angela, but Chema manages to liquidate him. In self-defence, Angela also kills Bosco.

The feature length debut film by director Alejandro Amenabar drew considerable attention for it's analysis of perversion and violence in media and society. But, unlike many similar achievements that end up cheap and trashy, "Thesis" distanced itself from the (excessive) media exploataition of violence thanks to subtlety: for instance, at first Angela darkens the image on her television set when she plays the controversial film of real murder, so that she only hears screaming. And when she finally does see it, the camera shows only small pieces of it to the viewers. These and other tight decisions give the story style while at the same time place metafilm contemplations about violence of film within a film that is "shaped" differently to be presented to the viewers in another context, the one that asks why there is a demand for observing violence in the first place. As a whole, "Thesis" has a too overstretched rhythm while the crime elements have substantial lacks in logic, yet actress Ana Torrente is very good as the curious heroine and on a certain level the story is a poignant psychological thriller.

Grade:++