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:+

Monday, 23 November 2009

Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man 2; Action drama, USA, 2004; D: Sam Raimi, S: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Dylan Baker

Peter Parker found a new apartment in New York, but is unable to find a job. His big love Mary Jane became an actress and engaged herself to Harry, who still hates Spider-Man because he thinks he killed his father. The new villain is Dr. Octavius, a scientist with 4 mechanical arms, who creates a dangerous source of energy. He dies during an experiment, while Mary and Harry discover that Peter is Spider-Man.

A long time ago, only "Terminator 2" and "Aliens" were sequels considered better than the original. In the meantime, that stopped being an endemic phenomenon. "Spider-Man 2" is in absolutely every aspect, absolutely every detail superior to the 1st film, a story where director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent somehow managed to gain the upper hand compared to the producers and actually dared to film something new, which is why the sequel is, disregarding the banal-wacky bad guy Dr. Octavius, truly interesting. The biggest change is that "Spider-Man 2" is this time a drama, a quiet social critique of the world (Peter barely survives due to his financial difficulties!) with enough emotions to fill even "Terms of Endearment" and a fantasy part that serves as a catalyst of the relationships of the characters.

The brilliant action choreography is still there, but this time it seems as if it is just a sly pretext for the long dramatic scenes in between in which the authors actually wanted to say something. The film is filled with memorable moments that flow so naturally: in one scene, Peter, with Pizzas in his hand, hides behind a corner and shows up again as Spider-Man, while some passer-by shouts: "Look! Spider-Man stole that guy's Pizzas!" After his powers start to fade away, Spider-Man has to get off a building in an elevator, where some curious man also enters it and observes the superhero. Some super-hero cliches are still there, yet there are also some scenes that have never before been seen in any kind of super-hero film so far. Especially fascinating is the montage of a carefree Peter in tune to the classic song "Rain Drops Keep Fallin' On My Head". Who ever placed that song there is a genius.

Grade:++

Spider-Man


Spider-Man; Fantasy, USA, 2002; D: Sam Raimi, S: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

New York. Peter Parker is a clumsy and unpopular teenager living with his uncle and aunt, whereas he is in love with Mary Jane from the neighborhood. He gets bitten by a mutated spider in a museum and, as a consequence, gets the powers of climbing up the walls, strength and throwing spider's web. When a burglar kills his uncle, Peter becomes Spider-Man and decides to fight against evil. Meanwhile, scientist Norman becomes the Green Goblin after getting fired and wants to take revenge on his colleagues, while his son Harry is also in love with Mary Jane. In a duel, Goblin throws his glider at Spider-Man, but dies himself from it. Mary falls for Peter, while Harry swears for revenge.

Back in '77, a low budget live action TV show about Spider-Man was made, an embarrassing experiment where the hero was fighting against the mafia (!), but the expensive movie version made for the big screen 25 years later isn't that much better either, except for the high production costs. Unfortunately, Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" is one long introduction to the series, and as such seems very stiff in forcefully setting up the beginning of the story. Some action sequences are spectacular (in one, Spider-Man uses his web to swing from a skyscraper down the road while the camera is following him), yet on the other hand many situations are unconvincing and naive - for instance, Peter tries his luck as a wrestler and let's some burglar run away. But when that same burglar kills his uncle, he also sees his face behind the Spider-Man mask. Of course, the authors "kept" the hero's identity and his honor clean by having the burglar conveniently trip down a pipe and fall out of the window, dying. Tobey Maguire, on the other hand, is surprisingly good as Peter, and Willem Dafoe is also great as the villain. Raimi's direction was predictably "numbed down" by the big budget since the producers wanted to play it safe, yet he still managed to insert solid details about growing up and some ironic references to "Superman", like when Peter takes his shirt off like Clark Kent, or when his aunt tells him: "You work too much. You're not Superman, you know".

Grade:+

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Night Moves


Night Moves; Thriller-drama, USA, 1975; D: Arthur Penn, S: Gene Hackman, Janet Ward, Susan Clark, Jennifer Warren, Kenneth Mars, Harris Yulin, James Woods, Melanie Griffith

Detective Harry Moseby is rather relaxed and unorthodox. One day, he gets a new assignment: actress Arlene hires him to find her rebellious daughter Delly. Harry quickly finds her in Florida, at her stepfather Tom and his colleague Paula. During diving, Delly accidentally discovers a corpse in a sunken ship while Tom promises he will call the police. Harry escorts Delly to her home, but she dies the next day in a mysterious car accident when she was shooting a film in a car driven by a stuntman, Ziegler. Harry comes back to Florida and discovers that Delly's death was ordered by Tom because the corpse indicated at his smuggling business. Harry beats him up, but gets attacked in a ship by an airplane flown by Ziegler, who dies. Harry survives while the ship is driving around in circles.

Unknown film "Night Moves" from the rich opus of director Arthur Penn, the author of such classics like "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Little Big Man", is a crime film that is a one constant queue of surprises. In the exposition, the story shows the private detective Harry, played brilliantly by Gene Hackman, as an unfocused and relaxed kind of guy who often misses out on small details, and as such is wrong for this kind of job, yet is still hired to find the daughter of actress Arlene (who also at one point says she has "silicon breasts"), following the footsteps of crime classics "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep". But 60 minutes into the film, the hero already finds her. The case is solved already half way into the film, which is why the story is the whole time avoiding the cliches and casually traverses into drama with a different subplot, always having interesting ideas (the bad guy attacks the hero with a shell!). The much talked about ending is good, symbolic, but not as strong as the endings in some other great 70s films, like "Being There".

Grade:+++

The Mothman Prophecies


The Mothman Prophecies; Fantasy thriller, USA, 2002; D: Mark Pellington, S: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing

Reporter John Klein lives peacefully in Washington with his wife Mary. But one day she has a car accident and in a routine control in the hospital, the doctors discover a tumor at her. Before her death, she draws a bunch of sketches about some creature called the "Mothman". 2 years later, John inexplicably got lost in the town Point Pleasant where strange things are happening: the inhabitants saw UFOs, the 12 foot tall Mothman and heard strange noises. Police officer Connie falls in love with John. They discover that the so called Mothman prophecies always happen before a disaster. And truly, a bridge collapses in the city, where many people die.

Richard Gere was often, without a reason, badmouthed by some critics who tried to glue him a negative reputation, yet here and there he would star in a small jewel. The small fantasy thriller "The Mothman Prophecies", based on the book with the same title written by John Kiel, assured itself at least 2 huge virtues: it has a brilliant visual style by director Mark Pellington which creates an elevated mood, and a rumour that it was based on real events that happened to Kiel in '67. Such a subtle build up of fear is endemic, especially in the creepy sequence where alien (?) Indrid phones Kiel and tells him he knows everything, even what he holds in his arm in the dark. The lack of focus is bothersome, the polished tone also but a little less, yet this cult film still creates a really interesting mystery piece.

Grade:++

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Blues Brothers 2000


The Blues Brothers 2000; Musical comedy, USA, 1998; D: John Landis, S: Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, J. Evant Bonifant, Joe Morton

In the first film, the Blues brothers saved an orphanage, but landed in jail. 18 years later, Elwood Blues is finally released yet finds out his brother died. He goes to his old orphanage, but there a nun gives him a little kid, Buster, to take care of him. Elwood quickly dresses him up in black suit and sunglasses, and together with bar owner McTeer decides to re-new his music group. They are also joined by an African American cop - their only fan, because they are again chased by law enforcers. In a swamp, they are hired by an attractive voodoo woman to play, but when the police arrives, it all ends in chaos: the Blues brothers continue their runaway.

Some grouchy viewers who superficially view it maybe won't be satisfied, but the sequel to the excellent comedy "The Blues Brothers" is a surprisingly solid film and has a similar style as the original. Who loved the first film, will at least mildly enjoy this sequel, even though it just palely imitates him. Still, the sequel was 18 years too late, which is why it wasn't especially too popular. The second thing that bothers are the too long music segments, so those who are not fans of Blues will gladly skip those minutes. The director, John Landis, once himself admitted in an interview that a director can't always direct what he wants in Hollywood, and it's obvious he did a much better job in the first film than in this second one, but in this case he did the best out of the situation, amusingly paying a homage to the first film with an unbelievable situation: with over 60 crashed cars on one pile, the movie set a record in movie history! Despite the unnecessary addition, the kid J. Evant Bonifant is solid, but another setback is the fact that James Belushi, the brother of the deceased original Blues brother John, couldn't play a part in this film, and was thus replaced by John Goodman.

Grade:+

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Dreamgirls


Dreamgirls; Musical-drama, USA, 2006; D: Bill Condon, S: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover

An African-American girl group, "The Dreamettes", consisting out of Effie, Deena and Lorrell, takes part at a talent show in Detroit, but they lose. However, they seize the attention of music producer Curtis who teams them up with the R&B star Jimmy. They quickly rise to fame, but with a price: the married Jimmy has an affair with Lorrell, whereas Curtis decides to place the chubby Effie in the background, so that the more attractive Deena would sing as the main star of the trio. That causes Effie to leave the group and she is replaced. Jimmy dies of a drug overdose. In the end, the three girls reunite again, while Deena leaves Curtis.

An acclaimed film, "Dreamgirls" are a too "rigid" kind of musical, without any kind of concession towards the the other part of the audience who are not that inclined towards that genre. Just in the first hour of the film, there are already around 10 music acts with just 2-3 minutes of break in between to give place for the real drama: it suffers from music overdose, since the actors and actresses display great voices and harmony when singing, but this is not suppose to be a long music spot, but a real film. When in one scene, during which she realizes that she was replaced by another woman in "The Dreamettes" group, Effie suddenly even starts singing during her argument with Curtis, and he starts singing back, it all becomes too much. In every musical, great songs have to be there for the story to work, yet here some of the songs are good, but some are also quite bleak, and it is hard to sit through all of them for 130 minutes. Most performances are also, naturally, based on how well the actors and actresses can sing, and based on that, they can sing really great: Jennifer Hudson has a great voice and plays Effie really well, whereas even the small performance by Eddie Murphy is surprising, since it shows him in unusually serious edition as Jimmy who with time becomes decrepit from drug addictions, but his comic roles were better. It's a solid film, but it's no "Yellow Submarine".

Grade:+

Monday, 16 November 2009

Spies Like Us


Spies Like Us; Comedy, USA, 1985; D: John Landis, S: Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Forrest, Donna Dixon, Bruce Davison

Austin Millbarge, an insignificant codebreaker, and Emmet Fitz-Hume, an insignificant spokesman working for the US Department of State, apply for a special agent test. Caught cheating, a couple of CIA officers decide to send them on a wild goose chase mission in Pakistan in order to use them as decoys, to keep the "heat off" from the real agents there. However, once they manage to get to a snowy mountain in the Soviet Union, they team up with the real spy, the beautiful Karen. Following orders, they launch a nuclear missile towards the US, because the generals want to start a war with the Soviet Union. Luckily, Austin is able to stop the missile.

Silly-goofy comedy "Spies Like Us" only has some loose relevance because it was referenced once in a "Family Guy" episode, but other than that it's that lame kind of film that offers just an occasional good joke at best and nothing more to the viewers. The first 10 minutes are actually rather fun, like in the scene where a courier enters a CIA office and announces loudly how he has brought "top secret documents", upon which one of the superiors cynically says: "Why don't you speak a little louder? They haven't heard you over there in Moscow", but once the two heroes Austin and Emmet are sent on an aimless mission in central Asia, the whole story becomes an aimless mess itself that quickly starts going on ones nerves. Blatant execution and cheap attempts at humor don't result in much, since zany and slapstick were never the best examples of comedy, and not even the director John Landis' sure hand can be really sensed, which is why he chose to cast numerous directors and celebrities, like Bob Hope, Joel Coen and Costa Gavras, in cameo roles to at least keep a little bit of attention in the uninteresting plot.

Grade:+

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Rossini


Rossini – oder die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schlief; Satire, Germany, 1997; D: Helmut Dietl, S: Götz George, Mario Adorf, Heiner Lauterbach, Veronica Ferres, Gudrun Landgrebe, Joachim Król, Armin Rohde, Jan Josef Liefers

"Rossini" is an expensive restaurant that is owned by the older Italian Paolo. His guests constantly argue and fight: producer Oskar and poet Bodo fight for the affection of Valerie not because of love, but to humiliate the other one. Oskar is also interested in shooting a film based on the famous novel "Lorelei" with director Uhu Zigeuner. But Uhu is arguing with author Jakob who slept with his wife. Blond Schneewittchen and her friend Zille both want the main role in the film. Schneewittchen spends the night with Uhu who loses the wish to make the film and makes up with Oskar - since Valeria committed suicide, not they want to make a film about her. The tired Paolo concludes another hard evening and calls it a day.

According to the (mostly) true verdict of the German critics, satirical comedy "Rossini" really is one of the better German movies of the 90s, earning 5 national awards, including for best film and director. Its a matter of a passive story of a polished tone and neat sharp observations about the crummy lives of the famous people, where the charming Mario Adorf remained especially noticeable, as well as Veronica Ferres in the role of the mysterious woman who seduces and manipulates men. Still, it's a pity that "Rossini" has so little truly excellent scenes, and thus it remains a lukewarm-neat fun without some awe inspiring highlights. Likewise, the film was a huge success in Germany, but remained almost unknown outside its borders: it's hard to say why, but it probably has to do with the fact that the story wasn't so appealing to the worldwide audience and due to some puns that sound funny in German, but get lost when translated to other languages (like the name of George's character: "Uhu Zigeunuer". Roughly translated to English, his name would be "Eurasian owl gypsy", but those things are lost in other languages and should not be relied on too much in comedies). "Rossini" may not be everyone's cup of tea, yet it has sharpness for those who like these kind of anti-establishment stories.

Grade:++

Teaching Mrs. Tingle


Teaching Mrs. Tingle; Black comedy, USA, 1999; D: Kevin Williamson, S: Katie Holmes, Helen Mirren, Barry Watson, Marisa Coughlan, Jeffrey Tambor

Leigh Ann is just a few days short from high school graduation. She plans to get a college scholarship, but in order to get a perfect score, she needs an A in history. That subject is taught by Mrs. Tingle, the worst teacher in school, and when she finds a copy of a final exam at the innocent Ann, she decides to lower her grade. But the exam was actually stolen by Ann's friends, Luke and Jordan, so the three of them goes to Mrs. Tingle's house to straighten out the misunderstanding. She ignores them, so they attack her and tie her up to the bed. They advise her to raise Ann's grade, but Mrs. Tingle still confidently thinks they will land in jail. When a school coach knocks on the door, they discover their affair. Mrs. Tingle frees herself, takes a crossbow and fires at Ann, but only hits a book of a passerby girl. When the principal sees that, he fires her, whereas Ann gets her scholarship.

Mediocre school satire "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" was directed by first time director Kevin Williamson (the screenwriter of the acclaimed "Scream" trilogy) in a too mild and uninventive way. In the end, it looks like an overstretched, but more darker episode of his soap opera show "Dawson's Creek" which also starred Katie Holmes. Without highlights and unconvincing, but Helen Mirren still gives it her best shot anyway and is very good as the malevolent Mrs. Tingle, who even manages to deceive and manipulate the students when she is tied up to her bed (though it was never explained how she went to the toilet all that time) whereas the ending is proportionally ironic.

Grade:+

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Time and Tide


Shun liu Ni liu; Action drama, China, 2000; D: Tsui Hark, S: Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai, Anthony Wong, Candy Lo, Cathy Tsui

In the dark Hong Kong, there lives a 20-year old lad Tyler, who works as a bodyguard, and who impregnated his friend Ah Jo and thus sends her money. Tyler's boss is Mr. K. During a party, the bodyguards stop an assassin, but he escapes. Tyler makes friends with Jack (35), a former mercenary who lives peacefully with Hui who is also pregnant. But Jack is hunted by his colleagues, South American criminals, who are looking for a case full of cash that was hidden by Hui. After Tyler's apartment gets blown away, he, Jack and Hui battle the criminals until a concert where there is a final showdown. The criminals die, Hui gives birth and leaves with Jack, Tyler returns to his friend.

Legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, after mediocre American projects, returned to his old glory with this ambitious action film of a complicated plot. "Time and Tide" are so developed and well planned that there's a new digression almost every 10 minutes: visually and stylishly good, yet too cold and "clinic" whereas the action starts only some 50 minutes into the film. The "dark" cinematography and Asian "look" also give the film a slight exotic touch. The protagonists are leading the plot tightly, but are overshadowed by the actress Candy Lo who smiles in one scene - there's action here from "Matrix" style to microscopic shots, but they never reach that magic as she does with one simple gesture.

Grade:++

Revenge


Revenge; Thriller, USA, 1990; D: Tony Scott, S: Kevin Costner, Madeleine Stowe, Anthony Quinn, Miguel Ferrer, John Leguizamo

Military pilot Michael celebrates his last day on the job with his friends. He decides to go to Mexico to meet his friend Mendez, a rich man whom he saved his life once. Mendez adores him, but is a shady old man who gained his fortune with criminal activities. After Michael becomes intimate with his wife Miryea, it causes an ugly backlash. Mendez cuts Myrea's face and hands her over to work as a prostitute, whereas the wounded Michael is left on a road. He is saved by a Mexican, while an American brings him along in his car. Michael has a goal: to find Myrea. The American dies on the way. Michael's two friends find Mendez who regrets his actions and begs for forgiveness. Micheal finds Myrea in a convent, but she dies in his arms.

"Revenge" is a solid and polished thriller that tends more towards drama, even though its story also tends more towards the overstretched. Tony Scott directs the film with his "polished" cinematography which captures an occasional moody shot, whereas the excellent aspect of the first third of the story is how Costner's character Michael enjoys the protection and care of Quinn's character of rich Mendez, whom he saved his life once. The balance starts to fall apart, though, after they enter an argument: the film bites into heavy mannerisms that cause a headache, having Michael meet numerous grotesque side characters on his way whom are rather unnecessary, instead of, let's say, asking for the help of his friends from the exposition of the film, whom this way don't have any purpose. More and more, the film can be summed up in the scene where a dog jumps and takes a straw from his mouth - dangerous, difficult to pull off, and yet without a purpose. Still, the slightly contemplative ending where the two main characters, who are equally guilty for the escalation, actually forgive each other.

Grade:+

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Sutjeska


Sutjeska; War drama, BiH/ Montenegro, 1973; D: Stipe Delić, S: Richard Burton, Ljuba Tadić, Velimir 'Bata' Živojinović, Milena Dravić, Boris Dvornik, Ljubiša Samardžić, Irene Papas


Bosnia, World War II. Tito and his Partisan fighters are resistance members against the occupying Nazi Axis powers. Despite the fact that they are outnumbered and outgunned, they start a fight against the Axis powers in Sutjeska. Numerous other people are caught up in the conflict, among them a man who lost all his children in war, a Dalmatian lad who dies, Vera and her husband Commander Nikola. Four British representatives meet Tito to give him British support for his fight against the occupiers, but are unable to provide him with any backup. However, Tito and his Partisans manage to cause heavy casualties against the Axis powers in Sutjeska.


Whatever anyone’s opinion about the former Yugoslavia, everyone has to admit that they made a run for their money when they produced some extravagant films during that time. Among the most most expensive - and strangest – of those “epics made in Yugoslavia” was the World War II film “Sutjeska” that was shot in 1973 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Sutjeska, starring – Richard Burton as Tito! Watching and listening Burton’s English dubbed into Serbo-Croatian is as bizarre as if a Chinese film crew would come to the US to make a film about Roosevelt starring Chow-Yun Fat. “Sutjeska” is a rather black and white story where Germans are demonized while the Partisans are idealized practically into superheroes.

One of the most naive examples is the one where a couple of Nazi commanders are flying in a plane above the Sutjeska area and queue all the Axis power divisions that have surrounded it: the Prince Eugen Division, the Bulgarian Division, the Italian Division…Then the commander and his subordinate exchange these lines: “How many fighters do we have?” – “120,000” –“And how many fighters do Partisans have?” – “20,000” –“So, it’s a 6:1 ratio!” he adds, just to emphasize the superiority of the Partisans who are going to win at the end. Of course, Tito does all the talking, while the Partisans do all the fighting. One of the most elevated Tito’s monologues comes when the British representative informs him that Britain won’t be able to send any planes or other military help during his fight, upon which he says: “Maybe it’s even better this way! Then we won’t have to owe anything to anyone!” The quiet propaganda and obvious “partisan” tones don’t make the film anymore better today than during its premiere, yet the great action sequences, realistic costumes and equipment, from tanks to war planes, majestic landscapes, thousands of extras traversing in a queue across the hills and the enthusiastic touch make this cult film for a layer better than other examples of its genre.


Grade:++

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Lust, Caution


Se, Jie; Thriller-drama, China/ Taiwan/ USA, 2007; D: Ang Lee, S: Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Leehom Wang, Joan Chen

Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Chinese War. A group of patriotic theater performers decides to assassinate Mr. Yee, the high ranking official of the collaboration government that works for the Japanese. The young and inexperienced actress Wong Chia is selected as a spy, infiltrates Yee's social circle and seduces him. But he suddenly leaves for Shanghai whereas the group has to kill one of his agents who discovered them...4 years later, Chia is again approached to seduce Mr. Yee in Shanghai. She succeeds, they start an affair, but just when he is about to fall in the trap, she saves his life by telling him to run for his life. He then captures the resistance members, her included, and executes them.

"Lust, Caution" would go in a perfect double-bill with "The Black Book", "Mata Hari" and other spy films where the female agent slowly seduces a high ranking official. Nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as best foreign language film, "Lust" is overlong, but unravels just the right way until the climax, mostly thanks to the understated, but effective direction by Ang Lee that makes even the empty-artificial melodrama scenes seem gripping, and the splendid performance by actress Tang Wei who steals the show. The story isn't anything new, the way it was crafted isn't anything new, but it works non-the less: the two stand out moments that distinguish the story from the grey territory are somewhere in the first third of the film, when Wong Chia is suppose to seduce Mr. Yee, but her female associate asks her cautiously if she has "any experience with men". Chia doesn't, and thus one of the male resistance members goes to bed with her to "prepare" her for the event. The other moment is brutal, a dark and uncompromisingly agonizing long sequence where the young and clumsy resistance members stab an enemy agent who discovered them over a dozen time with a knife, but he just stands up and still has the power to walk, much to their shock. The three intercourse sequences involving Chia and Yee are also bizarre and completely anti-romantic. Much of the praise has to go to the ending that poses some contemplative messages about life and choice.

Grade:+++

Brokeback Mountain


Brokeback Mountain; Drama, USA, 2005; D: Ang Lee, S: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini

Wyoming in '63. Cowboys Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist apply for a job as sheep guards on the isolated Brokeback mountain. As days pass by the two youngsters are getting more and more bored. One night they become drunk and half-conscious have intercourse. The next day they both soberly say they are not gay. After their job expires, they part their ways. Ennis gets married to Alma, while Jack gets married to Lureen. But after a few years, they meet again and their love awakens again. For 20 years, they have a secret affair, until Jack dies in a bizarre way in Texas. Ennis stays alone, hugging his jacket.

Unusual gay drama crafted like a normal romance, "Brokeback Mountain" was an ambitious excursion of director Ang Lee into not your run-of-the-mill cowboy film. "Brokeback" starts routinely yet becomes more and more intense with time, until it finishes on a high note. However, there's a difference between an emotional story and an emotional story with masterful touch, and the film has some problems with the later since, if one would just drop the "controversial" gay tangle, it would look just like an ordinary affair film. Director Lee captures the beautiful images of the Wyoming countryside, actors Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway all delivered top-notch performances that any actor would be proud of, the cinematography is amazing and the lyrical charge is strong. The understated-minimalistic story doesn't show much, but cleverly gives an analysis of how society is creating invisible boundaries, while some of the situations are wonderfully written: one of the best ones is when Lureen has an obvious crush on Jack, who is sitting passively at the bar. She then approaches him and humorously says: "What are you waiting for, cowboy? A matting call?" It's a quality story, yet the film is still somehow too sterile, standard, grey and mechanical. The finale where Ennis is hugging Jack's jacket is one of the most poetic moments of the decade, and it's a pity the whole film wasn't such a powerful event up until that point.

Grade:++

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Hulk


Hulk; Fantasy drama, USA, 2003; D: Ang Lee, S: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connely, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas

Bruce Banner works as a scientist in a laboratory and is in love with Betty. But her father Ross once banished Bruce's father David who also worked in the laboratory since he caused a gamma explosion and accidentally killed his wife. After an accident, radiation exposes Bruce's genes and he, during frustration, transforms into the powerful green Hulk. The army captures Hulk, but he escapes and confronts his also mutates father. Bruce survives, calms down and stays secretly working in a rain-forest.

When the expensive "Hulk" finally saw the light of the day during the premiere, it barely managed to cover its expenses in the US, whereas the critics characterised it as a huge letdown. True, the story is uneven, the drama of the characters too dry and theatrical whereas the finale where the Hulk has a fight with his father who also became a mutant who can take the shape of everything it touches (stone, water, electricity) is naive and pointless. However, "Hulk" is still a rather underrated and good film. Mostly thanks to the inventive calligraphy by director Ang Lee, the film turns out more agile than the most trashy movie adaptations of the Marvel comics. In one scene, Hulk breaks the door of the base, whereas thanks to the editing he also "breaks" the frame in the film. In his runaway through the desert he jumps from a picture to a picture of the canyon. He stumbles upon a tank, grabs and destroys it while the soldier in the background is looking at the spectacle. Bruce falls unconscious and, symbolically, the darkness slowly covers the screen. The split screen is often used etc. Lee's visual style is genius whereas the parallels between the frustrations and appearance of the mutated Hulk allegorically speaks about the rage that breaks loose during an intolerable crisis. Thus, it is a chaotic, but ambitious film.

Grade:++

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


Wu hu cang long; Fantasy action drama, Taiwan/ China, 2000; D: Ang Lee, S: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chow Yun-Fat, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung

China during Qing Dynasty. Shu Lien brings an antique sword to Beijing. She is a very good fighter, secretly in love with colleague Bai. When the governor's daughter, Jen, shows up and steals the precious sword, commotion breaks out: her evil teacher Fox kills a police officer, Jen doesn't want to get married to a friend of her parents since he fell in love with a burglar she met in the desert. Jen runs away and starts a fight in a bar, but gets found by Bai. He arrives at a cave where he finds and kills Fox, but not before she poisons him. Bai admits Shu Lien before his death that he loves her, whereas Jen comes too late with an antidote. Legends says a wish will be granted to the one who jumps from a bridge: Jen jumps and flies oof in the distance.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is an ode to classic Chinese Wuxia (martial art) films, but it also has a psychological depth which gives it a certain advantage compared to the more simple action examples of that genre. For the huge amount of prizes - among others it won 4 Oscars, 4 BAFTA awards and 2 Golden Globes - the biggest merit goes to the feeling for exaggeration with sense in the 6 epic battle sequences: a virtuoso romantic action, where people slide in the air and jump over houses while the camera is always there to catch it on film. Ang Lee directs the film like an awakened dream, sometimes too unglamourous, yet with a very fine sense for rhythm, whereas Yuen Wo-Ping ("Matrix", "Charlie's Angels") was responsible for the wonderful choreography of the battle sequences. Still, these kind of films were seen regularly in China for decades before "Crouching Tiger", which is the reason why it wasn't at first depicted as something special in its homeland, whereas it's not quite clear who is suppose to be the main character in the plot, since it all starts with Michelle Yeoh, but then the charming Zhang Ziyi shows up and steals the show, remaining longer and longer in the story, until it ends with her. Yet, for all those magical "impossible" stunts, at least a small spark of charm in the film is hard to deny.

Grade:+++

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Shadows

Senki; Mystery drama, Macedonia/ Germany/ Italy/ Bulgaria, 2007; D: Milčo Mančevski, S: Borče Nacev, Vesna Stanojevska, Salaetin Bilal, Sabina Ajrula-Tozija, Ratka Radmanović

Young doctor Lazar has a car accident and falls into coma. A year later, after recovering, his wife Gordana and little son stay behind at Ohrid lake for summer, while he goes to Skopje. Strange things start to happen: he finds an old woman in his apartment, who tells him in Aegian that he "should returns what doesn't belong to him". An old man with a baby falls down the elevator shaft and disappears. He meets Menka, a short haired woman, and falls in love with her, but she disappears too. It turns out that the old man and old lady are ghosts who want their bones to be buried. Lazar finds out his mother took their bones, so he buries them. But it turns out Menka was also a ghost.

Sometimes, a Luis Bunuel is born is Spain and is given a opportunity to fulfil his potentials in arts. But sometimes, a Louis Bunuel is born in Macedonia, and it's more difficult for him to get the opportunity to achieve what he wants in cinema. With "Shadows", director Milčo Mančevski shows his surreal side, though with a more emotional and dramatic engagement, creating an unusual, sometimes rewarding, sometimes ludicrous dramatic version of "The Sixth Sense". The film is definitely overlong and not planned enough, with the director inserting many shrill moments - in one humorous scene, for instance, a woman from a flat throws some foul food through her window on the street, while a passing lady accidentally step onto it with her shoe - and with the mystery-fantasy junction not quite turning into a harmonious whole with the story.

The best ingredients are the superb performances by the charismatic actor Borče Nacev and his female partner, Vesna Stanojevska, as the shrill Menka, since the two of them have fantastic chemistry: in one scene, for instance, Lazar enters her office and says: "Excuse me...", upon which she cynically adds: "You're excused". When he secretly follows her through the town, he loses her sight for a while, aimlessly looking for her - until she shows up right behind his back, giving him a stern look. The small erotic sequence where Lazar has intercourse with his wife Gordana, and suddenly imagines (?) that Menka shows up from the dark, takes her clothes off and kisses him, is the most bizarre moment of the film. Some things do get their payoff at the end, but most of them don't and seem just arbitrarily, which is why its a matter of an ambitious, but only good film.

Grade:++

Bugsy


Bugsy; Crime drama, USA, 1991; D: Barry Levinson, S: Warren Beatty, Anette Bening, Joe Mantegna, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould

America in the 40s. Ben "Bugsy" Siegel is a killer who works for the mafia in New York. When Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky send him to Los Angeles, he makes a singer sell him a house where he can live. With a few criminals, he opens betting offices while his friend George meets him with Vriginial Hill. When his betting office is robbed by criminal Cohen, he hires him to work for him. His dream is to open a casino is Las Vegas, Nevada. He finishes a hotel, but gets murdered because he invested too much mobster money into it. Virginia commits suicide.

Biographical film of anti-hero Ben Siegel, the man who founded casinos in Las Vegas because gambling wasn't forbidden there, won a Golden Globe for best picture - Drama and 2 Oscars for best set-design and costumes. "Bugsy" is a suspenseful and dynamic portrait, but too standard, not offering nothing new or inventive in the story, whereas director Barry Levinson at times shows too much sympathies towards Siegel - he even says something about his legacy when he adds towards the end that his casinos earned 100 billion $ up until 1991, placing him a monument as if those casinos are a work of Mother Teresa. Yet, on the other hand, he also shows Siegel in unglamourous light: in one scene, he offers a mobster 25 % of shares in his investment, and in case that he says no, he immediately gives him a gun to shoot him. He forces his greedy associate who robbed him to walk like a pig, whereas he even planned to assassinate Mussolini. Ben Kingsley shows up in a small role as Lansky, giving the best performance in the ensemble.

Grade:++