Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Magnificent Ambersons


The Magnificent Ambersons; drama, USA, 1942; D: Orson Welles, S: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead

Indianapolis at the end of the 19th Century. The Ambersons are a rich and distinguished family, consisting among others out of Major Amberson and his daughter Isabel. The middle-class Eugene Morgan is in love with Isabel, but she turns him down to marry someone from a rich family, Wilbur Minafer. Since she doesn’t really love him, she directs all her attention to their son George, who becomes a spoiled brat. As a lad in his 20s, George meets and falls in love with Lucy, Eugene’s daughter. When Wilbur suddenly dies, Eugene and Isabel, now both widowed, start becoming intimate again. But George forbids his mother to marry Eugene. Forcing to choose between them, she decides to leave the town with George. Returning back after a long time, Isabel dies while the Ambsersons start going bankrupt with the arrival of industrial age. For the first time in his life, George decides to find himself a job and take responsibility. He gets injured in a car accident and begs Eugene for forgiveness, who ends up with Isabel’s sister, Fanny.

Orson Welles’ second feature length film, “The Magnificent Ambsersons” is an unjustifiably forgotten jewel, a brilliantly directed and conceptualized adaptation of the novel with the same title. Despite a rather slow start, the story quickly becomes surprisingly addictive thanks to Welles’ kinetic, energetic visual style that films normal scenes with engaging power as well as the sole story that features some human problems, relations and observations posed that seem fresh even today: Can a rich girl leave her poor boyfriend to marry a rich man she doesn’t love? Can a mother spoil her child too much? Can a spoiled young lad forbid his widowed mother to marry someone? Can that same lad live his whole life without having to work? Can a poor family increase her fortune and surpass the declining rich family? These are some really hot topics that seem easily recognizable and the viewer can identify with them.

Aside from some small humorous touches (young Eugene knocks on the door of the Ambersons to see Isabel, but the butler says: “Sorry, Mr. Morgan, Isabel isn’t here for you!”) the drama shines with moments of wisdom (Euegene’s monologue that the new machines inevitably cause a “subtle change in the human mind”; his letter regarding the spoiled George that among others speaks of experience with age, stating “40 cannot tell that to 20. 20 must go to 40 to understand it”; Major Ambserson dwelling in “the most profound thinking of his life” contemplating about the meaninglessness of his money and reputation) whereas Welles also shows his inventive touch here and there, like in the finale where the closing credits are spoken by an off-screen voice and not shown printed onscreen (!). At least 2/5 of the movie is a masterwork, despite the obvious struggle with the drastic cuts made by the meddling studio and the forced-abrupt happy ending.

Grade:+++

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Shane


Shane; western, USA, 1953; D: George Stevens, S: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson

Joe, his wife Marian and their son joey live in an isolated cottage somewhere in the American West in the 19th Century. The mysterious Shane rides by their farm and decides to stay for a while when he spots that they are terrorized by the rich Ryker who wants their land for his cattle. Joe finds a place for Shane in his house while he helps them around the farm in return. But Ryker hires killer Wilson who kills one farmer. Joe decides to have a showdown with him, but Shane stops him and decides to take that burden for him. In a duel, Shane kills Ryker and Wilson and leaves the farm wounded.

Fairy like western "Shane", that depicts the ever sweet archetype theme of a hero who shows up from nowhere and helps the weak in trouble, is a flawlessly crafted jewel that transcends its genre and has universal appeal. George Stevens, the director of the 3 hour long drama "Giant", rightfully concluded that the bitter story should be directed in a sweet and elevated-dignified way, the "old school way", which is why "Shane" was nominated for 6 Oscars and won one for cinematography. The exposition skilfully sets-up the tangle: bad guy Ryker shows up with five thugs at Joe's farm in order to tell him that the land belongs to him, while he replies with: "Do you need so many men to tell me that?" Later on, the bad guys tease and provoke Shane in a saloon by spilling a drink on his clothes, but he tactically does not react which is why many farmers criticize him and call him a coward, whereas only the little Joey says: "I don't believe Shane would allow something like that to himself!" while his mother tries to distract his attention ("I haven't read you the story until the end"). The film is filled with such great, innocent and pure little details and lines throughout, whereas Jack Palance is great as the bad guy, but Alan Ladd is still the main star as the idealistic title hero. A shining film that only lacks a few "provocative" theories according to which Shane was in love with Joey's mother and even died in the open ending, as stated in the film "The Negotiator".

Grade:+++

The Killing Fields


The Killing Fields; War drama, UK, 1984; D: Roland Joffé, S: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson

Cambodia in the 70s. The opulent reporter Sydney enters the country in order to report about the takeover of the state by Pol Pot and his pseudo-Communist Khmer Rouge. He meets colleague Al and native journalist Dith Pran who becomes his assistant. Sydney and Pran illegally cross to the town Neak Leung that was bombed by the US by mistake. They get arrested by the Khmer Rouge but manage to escape. Due to the regime change, the situation in Cambodia is increasingly becoming unstable so all the foreigners start to massively leave the country, including Sydney and Al, but the government doesn't want to let go of Pran. Years later, Sydney tries to find him and bring him to the US. He finally succeeds when Pran escapes from prison.

Exceptionally bitter and realistic anti-war drama "The Killing Fields", the feature length directorial debut film by director Roland Joffe, placed the spotlight on the rarely talked about hard line pseudo-Communist regime Khmer Rouge that was, according to some estimates, responsible for the death of at least 740,000 people in Cambodia, since it depicted the story based on true events of a friendship between reporters Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, gaining critical acclaim and winning 3 Oscars (supporting actor Haing S. Ngor, editing and cinematography), one Golden Globe (supporting actor Ngor) as well as 7 BAFTA awards (including best film and screenplay). The first part of the film that depicts the horrors of war is the best. In one amazing scene, Sydney and Al are sitting on the table and casually talking, while all of a sudden an explosion erupts just a couple of yards behind them and knocks them off to the floor: such a sudden and suggestive apparition of "action" is rare, while there are also many other shocking scenes that constitute the mood and theme of the film. Lizards are crawling on the wall of the hotel. A cow urinates from fear due to an explosion in town. The Khmer Rouge detain three American reporters and provoke them by offering them Coca-Cola while killing all other prisoners. The second part of the film doesn't function that masterfully anymore because it only depicts reporter Pran in captivity, causing an imbalance since he suddenly became the main protagonist, while the character of Sydney disappears. Pran's escape lasts for almost an hour and is terribly overstretched instead of being compact, which is why the film lost some of its grip, yet the last sequence featuring the song "Imagine" by John Lennon is simply perfect.

Grade:+++

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Class


Entre les murs; Drama, France, 2008, D: Laurent Cantet, S: François Bégaudeau, Nassim Amrabt, Laura Baquela, Cherif Bounaïdja Rachedi, Franck Keïta, Esmeralda Ouertani, Rachel Régulier

François Marin is a teacher of French in a high school situated in some down and out suburb. He has a difficult task engaging his class comprised mostly out of problematic students and immigrants from Africa or Asia. Students like Cherif, Juliette and Dalla argue too much, Wei has difficulties articulating his French language whereas the girl Khoumba is so grouchy over an argument that she writes him a letter asking him to leave her alone. The biggest troublemaker is Souleymane from Mali – after one argument, where François called two girls names, he vehemently leaves the class. As a consequence, a commission decides to expel Souleyman from school.

A whole film revolving just around ordinary days in class – not quite a high concept, but the director Laurent Canter said, why not? Considering that there is pretty much a film for almost every genre, situation and experience in human life, the almost documentary drama “The Class” seems like a natural addition to one part of life that is rarely cowered, but is quite essential for almost everyone – education. The authors had a difficult task - how to make such ‘hermetic’ story that only shows the teacher teaching and the students asking questions, interesting? – Yet they achieved an elegant, unassuming and clever little film that surprisingly even won the Golden Palm in Cannes. Combining the ‘shaky’ camera with teenage students who improvised their acting, Laurent crafted a realistic insight into one class, equipped with authentic situations (in one scene, Souleyman wants to ask a question, but says he rather wouldn’t because he might be “deported to Guantanamo”. The teacher tells him to openly ask his question without fear, upon which Souleyman asks: “I have heard rumors…Are you gay?” The whole class bursts into laughter, but the teacher just nonchalantly stares them down and replies with: “No, I’m not. Are you disappointed now?”) that all show how the profession of a teacher is really tough, which is why the movie flows nicely, even though only the episode of Khoumba’s letter to the teacher and the finale with the commission manage to grasp the full intensity and capacity of the concept.

Grade:++

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox; Animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2009; D: Wes Anderson, S: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Chase Anderson, Wallace Wolodarsky, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson

Mr. Fox and his wife Felicity decide to stop their risky chicken stealing from farmers after she finds out she is pregnant. Years later, Fox is annoyed by his stiff job as a newspaper columnist so he decides to buy a new house in a tree, which is conveniently located near three human farms. Quickly, he and Kylie, an opossum, start stealing chickens again. At the same time, his son Ash is jealous of his nephew Kristofferson who visits them. As an angry backlash, the three farmers start a siege of Fox's home so his family digs they way out. They save Kristofferson and return to live in a sever.

After his previous two films marked a slightly exhaustive tone, director Wes Anderson returned back in top-notch shape with his first animated film, the stop-motion flick "Fantastic Mr. Fox", an unusual departure to a different genre. Contrary to many expectations, Anderson actually proved to have a lot of inspiration in adapting Roald Dahl's book with the same title, also blending such a difficult and slow animation process effortlessly with his style, most noticeably in insisting on crafting great shot compositions and a polished visual style. Some of the most amazing, irresistibly charming and completely untypical moments for Anderson appear precisely in the characters acting 'cartoonish', like in the inventive opening where Fox and his wife Felicity go around the farm and skilfully hide behind walls and clothes or when they are digging in somehow inexplicably sympathetic way. The idea that the bad guy, the human farmer Bean, wears Fox's tail as a tie is clever whereas the scene where Fox and Kylie are storming a farm, appear on every of the five monitors one after another, it's obvious they are stealing chickens, but the guard doesn't notice them because he has turned around, is genius. Some minor criticism could be pointed at Anderson's typical 'gibberish' jokes, an occasional 'autistic' dialogue, some small omissions and a rather lax final 20 minutes, but as a whole "Fantastic Mr. Fox" turned out refreshingly balanced in combining extravagant stop-motion and innocent story telling. It was nominated for a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and an Oscar as best animated film, while it even won the New York Film Critics Circle Award in that category.

Grade:+++

Knockin' on Heaven's Door


Knockin' on Heaven's Door; Tragicomedy, Germany/ The Netherlands, 1997; D: Thomas Jahn, S: Til Schweiger, Jan Josef Liefers, Moritz Bleibtreu, Thierry Van Werveke, Rutger Hauer

Two unusual sick men meet each other in a hospital: Martin Brest, who has a tumor on his brain, and Rudi Wurlitzer, who has bone cancer. Since they are about to die soon anyway, nothing matters to them anymore. They drink a Tequila and steal a car from two criminals with a million DEM in it, so they are now chased. They only wants one thing: go to the sea and have fun on their journey. They rob employees at a gas station and a bank, getting fancy clothes. They avoid the police through a trick: Rudi pretends that he is a hostage and Martin that he is his kidnapper. They give huge tips on their way whereas Rudi hires two prostitutes in a brothel in the Netherlands. But they get caught by the criminals there and the main mobster shows up. Surprisingly, he heard about them and lets them go. Rudi and Martin arrive at the sea.

This funny road movie isn't an antipathy gangster ballade as the first sight might deceive, but a cheerful adventure with a well hit rhythm. Director Thomas Jahn nicely leads the logical jokes of his two heroes who due to terminal diseases do things they usually wouldn't, but the serious dramatic moments do end up unbalanced. The film was a smash hit in Germany and even managed to persuade the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer to make a small but effective cameo as the gangster in the finale who acts in a way that was probably almost never seen in any kind of movie gangster until 1997. Despite some banal and partial solutions, the story is very sympathetic, Til Schweiger and Jan Josef Liefers delivered nice performances whereas even the criminals, a German and a Turk, ended up rather well conceived, together with the compact running time.
Grade:++

Monday, 5 April 2010

Alexandra


Alexandra; Drama, Russia, 2007; D: Aleksandr Sokurov, S: Galina Vishnevskaya, Vasily Shevtsov, Raisa Gichaeva, Andrei Bogdanov

The middle aged Alexandra arrives with a military train to a Russian outpost in Chechnya to visit her 27-year old grandson Denis. She is a stubborn old lady annoyed by the heat, casually walking from one tent to another. After a while, she goes to a local market and meets an old lady who becomes her friend. With time, she becomes aware how neither the Russian soldiers like to be there nor do the locals. Finally, she leaves the outpost on a train.

There's a funny old saying that can be used quite often to describe a certain type of story: "Martin to Zagreb, Martin out of Zagreb". It can be applied to Aleksandr Sokurov's drama "Alexandra" that is nicely made, but basically isn't much more than the grandmother visiting her grandson in an outpost, grandmother leaving the outpost. Sokurov here bravely tackled the taboo subject of the shameful Russian oppression of the small Chechnya (and whole of Caucasus for that matter), but only indirectly, through an occasional dialogue that can be interpreted two ways, whereas there is not a single scene of fired guns or combat, which is why it seems that we only got just small crumbs from a real 'cake'. Galina Vishnevskaya is great in the leading role whereas the director used a minimalistic style and maximum babble, present in too much talking which only occasionally hits a remarkable note ("The suffering is always eternal"). A hermetic film that will be interpreted as ambitious and subtle by some and boring and lax by the others. Still, it was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes.

Grade:++

Nationale 7


Nationale 7; Tragicomedy, France, 2000; D: Jean-Pierre Sinapi, S: Olivier Gourmet, Nadia Kaci, Lional Abelanski

In an institution for disabled people, near route Nationale 7, lives the grouchy Rene. Due to a degenerative sickness of his muscles, he is bound to a wheelchair and is thus mean spirited towards everyone around him. His new nurse is the young and attractive Julie who seems to be immune to his insults. When Rene admits to her that he is depressive because he hasn't experienced intercourse for a long time and wants a prostitute, Julie starts a search for a permit but no doctor wants to give his guarantee. Finally, Julie illegally brings Rene to the prostitute Florele. Soon afterwards, the other patients follow. It all ends when a Muslim gets baptized with Florele as the witness while Rene finds his gentler side again.

"Nationale 7" is a truly surprisingly fun and original little film that breaks a taboo subject: a paraplegic who wants to rent a prostitute to sleep with someone. Namely, the main protagonist Rene is bound to a wheelchair. He is really misanthropic and doesn't hesitate to sarcastically ask his new nurse Julie, a replacement for his older one, this: "Does that mean that I won't have to see that fat cow anymore?" When they go shopping, he asks her to reach for the highest shelf and get him some VHS porn, the 'hard core' kind. Rene is aware that he is disabled but doesn't want to be handicapped, whereas he even admits, it an emotional moment, that he is depressive because he hasn't experienced intercourse for a long time, through which the film skilfully broadens the motive of loneliness to an universal appeal. Director Jean-Pierre Sinapi shot the film with hand-held digital camera, 'Dogma 95' style, and with a shrill and humane mood, whereas in the final scene he even showed the photos of real (deceased) Rene and his nurse Julie.

Grade:+++

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds; War/ Action, USA/ Germany, 2009; D: Quentin Tarantino, S: Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Til Schweiger, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers, Samuel L. Jackson (voice)

World War II. SS Colonel Hans Landa arrives with his unit at a French dairy farm and kills a Jewish family hiding in the basement, but one girl, Shosanna, manages to survive. 3 years later, Lieutenant Aldo Raine leads a team of 8 US soldiers, "The Basterds", who kill Nazis in a guerrilla warfare. In the meantime, Shosanna is owner of a cinema in Paris and is informed that it was chosen to host a premiere of a new Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper, Zoller. Since it is revealed that Goebbels and Adolf Hitler are going to attend the premiere themselves, the 'Basterds' are brought in to try an assassin. Landa stops them, but then let's them burn the cinema anyway and kill the Nazi elite in order to ensure himself immunity after the war. However, Aldo carves a swastika on Landa's forehead.

Another half-masterwork by Quentin Tarantino: has sparks of high genius and passionate dedication to film that makes it consistently interesting, but again shows that the director is emotionally and spiritually illiterate. "Inglourious Basterds" are still much better than his previous two films, however, and helped him get an Oscar nod as best director, partially due to a good work and partially due to the fact that the Academy Awards are for some reason obsessed with World War II films. Christoph Waltz, who won the Golden Globe, a BAFTA and an Oscar as best supporting actor, is phenomenal in the brilliantly written character of the evil SS Colonel Hans Landa, yet, bizarrely, the two main heroes are surprisingly bland characters - as good as Brad Pitt and Melanie Laurent play them, the only thing we find out about their protagonists Aldo Raine and Shosanna is that they hate Nazis, but generally they just 'tag along' and only stay in Landa's shadow, which causes an uneven mood.

When the bad guy has all the 'cool' moments and the heroes none, then it's a rather shaky concept. And it's not just the heroes - there are really many 'throw away' characters: almost all of the 8 members of the 'Basterds' are just extras, except for maybe Stiglitz (great Til Schweiger), whereas the character of "Bear Jew", who fights with a bat, seems as if he came from some Chuck Norris film. Adolf Hitler with that red cape also seems like some gross caricature from a stupid comic-book. Still, it's an fascinating departure from the director's usual genre: the story isn't as mean-spirited as it could have been, but much more disciplined, whereas there are neat references to classic films and artists, like Henri Georges Cluzot or Emil Jannings. Tarantino demonstrated his masterful touch only in the virtuoso Leone-Hitchcockian 20-minute opening sequence at the dairy farm (Landa chats with the farmer in his home while the suspense steadily grows when it is shown that a Jewish family is hiding under the basement) and, to some extent, in the 20-minute tavern sequence (with a dynamite moment where a British agent goofs with the German accent and attracts the attention of a SS Major who turns off the music and sits at his table) and the 2-minute shoe fitting-perpetrator identification scene (an exquisite detail!), while the rest is rather fluff with too much empty babble and action that will please more the Tarantino fans than the universal audience.

Grade:++

The Passion of the Christ


The Passion of the Christ; Drama, USA/ Italy, 2004; D: Mel Gibson, S: Jim Caviezel, Monica Belucci, Maia Morgenstern, Hristo Shopov

Jerusalem, 1st Century AD. Judas betrays Jesus who is arrested by Roman soldiers. A Rabbi council sentences him because he founded a sect, a different religion than Judaism. The Roman soldiers take him away to the judge Pontius Pilate who sentences him to crucifixion, while the criminal Barabbas is freed from all charges. After being tortured, whipped and mistreated for hours, Jesus dies on the cross.

Mel Gibson, allegedly a very religious person, made "The Passion of the Christ" as a low budget film shot in Aramaic language, which is why the sweeping box office success around the World was a real surprise for such a hybrid work. "Passion" is an unusual film, but everyone should see it just to shape their own opinion about it. Still, there are a lot of flaws where Gibson didn't show his skills from his previous directorial achievement, "Braveheart". Firstly, the much talked about violence isn't often, but its still exaggerated to the point of splatter-grotesque (Jesus' body, after being injured for hours, is completely cowered by wounds, bruises, red lines and blood) and shaped in a black and white perspective (the Roman soldiers who torture Jesus are presented as blatant caricatures of evil since they, as in those comic-books, laugh when they torture). Secondly, the story that follows only the last day of Jesus' life, from his arrest to his crucifixion, is thin and could have been shot in 30 minutes, but since its running time is 120 minutes it is terribly overstretched and monotone, which is why some can get the impression that half of the scenes was filmed in slow motion. Thirdly, all characters are one-dimensional. Only here and there can one sense the inspiring touch (a perspective through the rain drop that falls near the cross). That's why the equally controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" is much better because there the authors turned the Bible dogmas upside down and yet still remained faithful to its spirit.

Grade:+

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Pom Poko


Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko; Animated fantasy, Japan, 1994; D: Isao Takahata, S: Makoto Nonomura, Yuriko Ishida, Norihei Miki

Tanuki - Japanese 'raccoon dogs' - are facing to become refugees since humans have decided to spread Tokyo city by creating a new suburb on their green hill. However, the tanuki have the ability of shape-shifting, which is why they have decided to use their talent to pretend to be ghosts and scare humans away. Their group is divided between those who just want to scare people away and those more radical ones who want to kill them. After creating a giant ghost parade, they are shocked to find out people think it was all just a promotion trick for a amusement park. The suburb is built and the tanuki adapt by transforming into humans, while a smaller group stays in nature.

One of studio Ghibli's lesser films, Isao Takahata's 9th movie feature, "Pom Poko" is a strange anime fantasy comedy that was hailed by one part of the audience and objurgated by the other, yet it still achieved cult status. In this film Takahata picked the humorous Japanese legend that the tanuki - Japanese 'raccoon dogs' - have the ability of shape-shifting, and mixed it with noble ecological messages in the story where they start a marathon war with humans to save their green hill from concrete. Basically, by re-telling the plot from the animated TV show "The Raccoons" in a more opulent way, Takahata showed the whole event from the 'raccoon dogs' perspective, which is why the animation is very good, but it depicts the animal characters in caricature way. The first part is the best, overwhelming with funny and inventive shape-shifting jokes: in order to trick a truck driver, a tanuki transforms into a bridge and dodges off just in time to reveal a huge abyss on the road in which the truck falls into; after they heard the truck driver died, the tanuki decide to be 'noble' and pay their enemy a minute of silence, but already after 10 seconds they start to giggle before erupting into laughter; two tanuki transform into a man and a woman to 'practice' infiltrating the human city, but the man exhausts himself and turns back into a tanuki on the street, causing the woman to react quickly and place it over her neck to disguise it as her fur scarf... Unfortunately, the second part exhausted itself (especially in the grotesque ghost parade) and the story started to get burdened by overstuffed events in overlong 120 minutes of running time, which is why the ending seems sincere, but also welcomed to finally put a full stop.

Grade:++

Crying Freeman


Crying Freeman; Action drama, Canada/ Japan/ France/ USA, 1995; D: Christophe Gans, S: Mark Dacascos, Julie Condra, Rae Dawn Chang, Tchéky Karyo, Byron Mann, Yoko Shimada

Emu O'Hara is making a painting of nature in San Francisco. Suddenly the strong assassin Yo shows up and Emu witnesses how he kills the son of the Yakuza boss. Yo spares her life, thus she leaves to Vancouver. There Emu meets him again, this time when he is eliminating the sole Yakuza boss. When he shows up one nights in her house, the two of them fall in love and spend some time together. Yo's superiors order him to eliminate her, he kills them instead and disappears. Emu gets his invitation and leaves to Japan. There he tells her that he was an ordinary pottery artist until someone was murdered there. Subsequently, the sect brainwashed him into becoming an assassin. Yo kills the enemies and persuades one member to spread the news that he is dead, while he runs away with Emu.

A good film full of polished mood and elegance is a rare example of a big screen adaptation of a manga by double authors (Kazuo Koike, Ryoichi Ikegami) that won the audience award at the Sweden Fantastic Film Festival. The action sequenes do tend to slide towards the unconvincing, yet they are breath taking since the authors decided to stay faithful to the comic-book style, even though they don't quite grasp the aesthetics of the original, whereas actor Marc Dacascos portrayed the hero appropriately mysterious and 'cool'. Slightly pompous, with an unusual love story between a killer and his victim, cult "Crying Freeman" immediately awakens a feeling of incompleteness after it ends, but as a whole it's undoubtedly an interesting and pleasant achievement.

Grade:++