Friday, April 29, 2011

Mother


Madeo; Crime-drama, South Korea, 2009; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Hye-ja Kim, Bin Won, Goo Jin, Je-moon Yoon

The 28-year old Do-joon is slightly mentally retarded and lives with his over-caring mother, who earns their money by working in acupuncture. One day, Do-joon is arrested by the police and quickly sentenced for allegedly killing a girl. His mother, convinced he is innocent, tries to prove otherwise. She hires a lawyer, but he shows a lack of interest. She then searches the apartment of Do-joon's friend Jin-tae, but to no avail. Slowly, she starts investigating herself. She learns that the deceased girl slept with men for as little as rice-cake. Mother's trail leads her to a homeless man, the only witness - but he confirms that her son really did kill her. In anger, she kills the man and burns his home, thus destroying every evidence. The police arrest another man and her son is freed.

Joon-ho Bong's fourth feature length film (if anthology "Tokyo!" is excluded, where he directed a third story), crime-drama "Mother" again displayed his social commentary and sharp observations about not only his country but humans as a whole, yet he repeated and rehashed some stereotypes he already used in the similar "Memories of Murder". Bong delighted with his previous film, genius "The Host", that started off with a blast and continued with the same engaging power until the end, while, unfortunately, "Mother" starts off sluggishly and generally feels overstretched at times, offering only a genuine blast in the last third, the twist ending. Some stylish scenes are again recognizable for Bong - since it is raining, the mother takes an umbrella from a passing cart and offers the homeless man carrying it two money bills, but the honest man just takes one; finding a possible mitigating evidence for her son, blood stain on a golf club, she protects it from rain by putting a glove over it - yet except for the car crash and water spilling scene, they don't quite reach the calibre of his previous movie. Some false trails, like Jin-tae, feel rather contrived. However, "Mother" is a tight, original and suspenseful investigating drama with a great twist ending that immediately gives the story a new context, a one handling the theme of human denial where it is always sweeter to stick to a idealized lie than to confront yourself with the dark truth.

Grade:++

The Firm


The Firm; Thriller, USA, 1993; D: Sydney Pollack, S: Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Ed Harris, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Hal Halbrook, David Strathairn, Wilford Brimley

Fresh law graduate Mitch McDeere and his wife Abby leave their hometown and move to Memphis in order to work in a mysterious, but very profitable firm. He earns extremely well and receives unbelievably good conditions. However, one day an FBI agent contacts him and reveals that his firm is actually connected with the mafia - and that anyone who ever wanted to leave that job was found dead. After finding out his home is bugged, Micth decides to transfer the firm's compromising documents to the FBI. He gains his freedom and returns to his hometown with his wife.


This adaptation of John Grisham's novel with the same title is a conventional law-thriller with a rather unnecessary running time of 154 minutes which will manage more to engage fans of the stars in the story than fans of universally quality movie making. "The Firm" is a tight and solid achievement incorporating a theme of honesty, whereas director Sydney Pollack enriched the storyline the best he knew thanks to discipline and a suspenseful finale, since the mediocre writing and structure narrowed his maneuvering space. Tom Cruise is solid in the leading role, yet the top-notch performances were again delivered by brilliant acting veterans Gene Hackman and Ed Harris. The cinematography is also fantastic. All in all, "The Firm" is an honest, but standard and stiff version of a story that could have been extended to far greater heights and dimensions than here.

Grade:+

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Great Silence


Il grande silenzio; Western-grotesque, France/ Italy, 1968; D: Sergio Corbucci, S: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Vonetta McGee, Frank Wolff

The Wild West, 19th Century. Snowhill is a small village cowered both by snow and outcasts who steal only to feed themselves. However, since they are all on the wanted list, the village became a haven for bounty hunters, among them the cynical Loco who kills the wanted husband of Pauline. She wants revenge and thus hires the mute hero "Silence", who protects outcasts from bounty hunters ever since his parents were killed by those and cut his throat to prevent him from speaking about it. Loco gets arrested by the Sheriff, but escapes. In a showdown, Loco shoots "Silence" and all wanted men to collect the award.

Sergio Corbucci's famous 'winter-western' "The Great Silence" still seems bitter and shocking due to its unglamorous violence - since violence will never seem dated - but also due to some hidden themes about a society were people are only worth something when they are dead. Jean-Louis Trintignant is very good as the hero "Silence" who never utters a single word during the entire story yet the legendary Klaus Kinski almost steals the show as the cynical bounty hunter Loco who shoots wanted people scattered throughout and then returns a couple of days later with a stagecoach to collect them all traveling from house to house. The movie is considered a semi-classic due to two stand-out features, the snowy winter landscapes which are completely opposite to a standard western, and the surprisingly dark ending, one of the most unusual ones in the history of the genre (as a footnote, "Unforgiven" is a better film, yet compared to this achievement, it seems naive to show Eastwood as the 'tough guy' who manages to kill every bad guy at the end, despite everything). Corbucci's rough style is not for everyone's taste, yet it manages to circle out the story despite an occasional empty scene.

Grade:++

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy


Driving Miss Daisy; tragicomedy, USA, 1989; D: Bruce Beresford, S: Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Dan Aykroyd, Patti LuPone

Atlanta, Georgia, '48. The 72-year old Jewish widow Miss Daisy accidentally wrecks her car in her backyard, so her son Boolie hires a car driver for her, the noble and humble African-American Hoke. Despite her stubbornness which causes numerous (comical) misadventures, Miss daisy finally accepts him and breaks the wall of silence, starting conversations about life. In the 25 years of driving, she finally tells Hoke that he is her best friend. Aged, he helps her eat in a retirement home.

Australian director Bruce Beresford accepted the task of leading this risky project, yet it was precisely this small masterpiece that actually became a box office hit in 1989 and collected critical acclaim. "Driving Miss Daisy" is a light story, yet Beresford and writer Alfred Uhry approach it masterfully, with that classic 'good old school' film-making of the golden age of Hollywood, which is why, despite only one tangle, the storyline actually seems skillful and consistent, and not boring. The basis was set up on interesting dialogues and observations, wherein the result was a quiet achievement - easily accessible, applying the serious theme of aging in the most gentle way, and with funny moments in order to avoid turning sentimental - where the loving relations of the stubborn Miss Daisy and her unassuming driver Hoke displays friendship even in arguments. For instance, in one scene Hoke phones her son and informs him he finally persuaded her to accept him as his new driver ("It took me six days, just as many the Lord needed to create the world!") while in another she argues that he arrived too late for her to pack for a long trip ("But you already packed a week ago!"). Here and there the story adds some observations about racism and change in the US society, yet with only three or four scenes it was done so subtle it never seems obtrusive. Awards noticed the movie's quality and gave it 4 Oscars and 3 Golden Globes. Convincing performances were a strong plus point, from brilliant Morgan Freeman, through Jessica Tandy up to a great little dignified role for comedian Dan Aykroyd who was always very proud of this achievement.

Grade:++++

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Freddy VS Ghostbusters


Freddy VS Ghostbusters; Fantasy-horror comedy, USA, 2004; D: Hank Braxtan, S: J. Michael Weiss, Tim Johnson, Jason Cook, Bradley J. Roddy, Elizabeth Hogan

When a green ghost scares customers from a bar, three guys - Neil Anderson, Eugene O'Fitzpatrick and Ed Spengler, the nephew of Egon - take on their "Ghostbusters" suits and equipment, capturing it, thus establishing an extension to the Ghostbuster business. Quickly, they rise to stardom. However, they stumble upon quite a challenge when Freddy Krueger appears thanks to a haunted mattress and spooks around the dreams of Nancy. The Ghostbusters manage to bring him into the real world and capture him into their ghost trap, saving the world.

As many have already noted, in the general lack of "Ghostbusters III" Hank Braxtan's short fan-film "Freddy vs. Ghostbusters" serves as a neat compensation, actually more than just neat since the story is simply contagiously fun. By assembling a fictional crossover of "The Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Ghostbusters", Braxtan and his co-writer Tim Johnson crafted a loving, imaginative and spontaneous horror-comedy that compensates its lack of budget with incredible enthusiasm. Featuring a whole series of childish jokes in a suspenseful environment (a waitress talks on her mobile phone all the time and simply ignores the warnings of her customers and her boss; three Ghostbusters stand besides each other in a toilet to take a leak; in the middle of the story a black screen shows up containing the text "To be continued..." - but it turns out it is just a text on a TV, upon which one character laments with: "To be continued?! I hate it when they do that!"), surprisingly good "no budget" special effects, a tantalizing new context where Ghostbusters take on Freddy Krueger as well as good performances by everybody, this is a work by people who love the characters and the plot they are in, and it shows.

Grade:+++

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence


Innocence; Science-fiction thriller, Japan, 2004; D: Mamoru Oshii, S: Akio Otsuka, Koichi Yamadera, Atsuko Tanaka

The future. Years after the events where Major Kusanagi went missing, her cyborg partner Bato is still working for the police, with a new partner, Togusa. They are currently investigating a crime series where sexoids - android sex toys - killed their owners screaming "Help me". Bato and Togusa discover that the Yakuza kidnapped girls in order to attach their personality in the sexoids, making them more "lively" for the customers. They apprehend the 'guy in charge', hacker Kim, whereas Kusanagi's personality uploads herself into one puppet and helps Bato rescue the girl who screamed for help.

The first ever anime nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Innocence" is an even better sequel to the hyped, though too rigid original cyberpunk classic "Ghost in the Shell", relying not so much on grey-bleak atmosphere anymore, instead offering an engaging story with a clearer oversight. A philosophical essay disguised as an action thriller, "Innocence" presents a collection of quotes, thoughts and rants about human existence - even though the Schwarzenegger-type protagonist Bato seems like an unlikely philosopher, he says a few great quotes in the most unlikely situations: "If the essence of life is information that is carried in DNA, then society and civilization are just colossal memory storage systems and a metropolis like this one is just a sprawling external memory." There are also other good contemplations ("You don't have to be Caesar to understand Caesar"), an occasional vivid detail about the blend between humans and robots (upon getting a new robotic hand with instructions, Bato sums it up with: "The more I use it, the more it will seem like my own") whereas the protagonists even cite Confucius! Even though director Mamoru Oshii is not as pretentious here as he was in "Angel's Egg", "Innocence" is still humorless and excessively dark, whereas the story is rather vague, which is a burden especially in the rather disappointing end. Still, this sequel is definitely not an "empty shell", but has spirit.

Grade:++

Sunday, April 17, 2011

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta; Science-fiction, USA, 2006; D: James McTeigue, S: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry

In the future, the British government doesn't just dictate other nations what to do, but also their own citizens, in a full-fleshed dictatorship led by Chancellor Sutler. However, resistance shows up in a masked man only known as V, who wants people to be free again and thus eliminates numerous high ranking officials of the ruling party. He teams up with Evey, who works on the government run TV. While investigating the matter, Inspector Finch finds out the government itself arranged a bio-terrorist attack on a water treatment plant years ago in order to gain universal appeal from fear. On November 5, V manages to kill Sutler and his henchmen, but dies himself. Evey blows up the parliament for him.

Despite turning out hectic and rushed at times, this adaptation of the comic book with the same title by Alan Moore has only a minimum amount of Hollywood concessions and still contains a refreshing dose of subversive ideas that were not bloated just because the original storyline was condensed. Among the omissions are the too "polished" look of the movie as well as some underdeveloped moments, though it tackles the theme of struggle against modern dictatorship with such audacity that it's a delight, containing numerous references to Abu Ghraib, the EU and Bird flu (one plot point even mentions how the government experimented on people in a lab in order to create a perfect virus which would make nuclear weapons "obsolete" because it would "only kill nations but leave their land and resources intact") all the while enriching the story with thought-provoking philosophical dialogues ("People should not be afraid of their governments. The governments should be afraid of their people"; "Artists use lies to tell the truth. Politicians use them to cover up the truth"). The good thing is that "V for Vendetta" isn't just a dry example of social commentary but a gripping and engaging flick that never for a second seems boring, whereas the performances are top-notch, from Hugo Weaving who acts in a versatile way despite hiding his face behind a mask all the time, through Natalie Portman up to the legendary John Hurt as the evasive "guy in charge" Sutler.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Brother from Another Planet

The Brother from Another Planet; science-fiction satire, USA, 1984; D: John Sayles, S: Joe Morton, Leonard Jackson, Steve James, John Sayles, David Strathairn, Rosetta LeNoire, Fisher Stevens

Running away from intergalactic bounty hunters (?), a mute human alien with black skin crashes with his spaceship on Earth, more precisely Harlem. The nameless man starts observing the society and the lives of people. He makes friends with some people in a bar and finds a job using his powers to fix every possible electric device. In the end, he starts criticizing drugs the most. When the two bounty hunters find him, he is saved by all the friends he made and thus stays on Earth.

In one of his best - if not the best - movies, "The Brother from Another Planet", which collected a lot of critical acclaim and achieved a success in art-cinemas worldwide, director and screenwriter John Sayles showed what he has to show: he crafted this science-fiction film without special effects, adding mild sarcasm and irony, blending it with comedy and melodrama. He achieved an independent movie almost from another dimension, a mysterious and wonderful view on different (alien) civilizations and cultures: even though the main protagonist does not say a single world throughout the entire story, all the characters speak for him and thus mirror the author's social commentary on our world, from capitalism, effects of drugs on youth up to using nudity to sell products (featuring a genius "throw-away" joke where he buys a gramophone record but just throws it in the trash can yet keeps the envelope because it features the face of a beautiful woman, all he ever wanted anyway).

It's a minimalistic film, which means that rarely something happens, but when it does it is usually deliciously rewarding. The sequence where he enters the bar for the first time, for instance, offers great ensemble dialogue from the characters with a neat sense for timing (one customer, Smokey, tests him by blowing a paper bag behind him. Since the mute hero winces, the customer concludes he is "not deaf". He then proceeds to give him a drink. The hero takes a sip of it, but his expression reveals it is too bitter for him, upon which Smokey makes his diagnosis: "Yes, he is definitely crazy!"). Still, the episodic story seems rather lost at times. The two alien bounty hunters, played by Strathairn and director Sayles himself, steal the show with their humorous "synchronised" movements, with the comical fight sequence at the bar being stylistically perfect and virtuoso choreographed (especially when the big one and the small one switch their places to confront the big and the small bar customer). A shining little film.

Grade:+++

Monday, April 11, 2011

To Catch a Thief

To Catch a Thief; Crime comedy, USA/ France, 1955; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis

A mysterious "cat burglar" is stealing jewels in the French Riviera - in the same way former crook John Robie once did. Even though John is innocent and now lives a noble life, the police doesn't trust him so he runs away from his mansion. His former colleagues help him hide, among them Danielle to whom he never showed his love for. In order to catch the real burglar, John present himself as Mr. Burns and observes Mrs. Stevenson's jewels while her daughter Frances falls in love with him. At a party, John finally captures the burglar on the roof, who turns out to be Danielle.

Even though it suffers from a few banal moments and a slow start (that lasts for 30 minutes), "To Catch a Thief" is a skillful, shrill and fun comedy-thriller 'light' by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, who has his trademark cameo appearance some 10 minutes into the film as a passenger sitting next to Cary Grant's character. Hitchcock played here with a few subversive erotic jokes (with taste): Grant pretends to be clumsy in a casino and throws a worthless chip inside a cleavage of a rich madam; she is insulted because it is inappropriate to get it out in public, but he cleverly insists that he chip "was worth 10,000 $", so she him that amount with her own chips. In another sequence, Grace Kelly's character "provokes" Grant while wearing a seductive dress and a jewel bracelet around her neck ("It must be making you mad that you're in the same room with jewels you can not touch!") whereas the story is engaging, though it seems more like a "casual" Hitchcock film.

Grade:++

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

War for Dubrovnik

Rat za Dubrovnik; Documentary, Montenegro, 2010; D: Snežana Rakonac, S: Đelo Jusić, Momir Bulatović, Milo Đukanović, Pero Poljanić, Veljko Kadijević

In October 1991, the insanity called "Greater Serbia" infected Montenegrin officials who ordered the Serb controlled Yugoslav People's Army to start the siege of Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic. The documentary chronicles the events, from propaganda of invisible "30,000 Croatian fascists" attacking Montenegro, the shelling of the city, international reactions up to the plan to create a Dubrovnik Republic puppet state loyal to Slobodan Milošević. After the siege failed, the city slowly returned back to normal while Croat-Montenegrin relations improved. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced general Pavle Strugar to 8 and Miodrag Jokić to 7 years in prison.

The siege of Dubrovnik, the harmless UNESCO World Heritage site, is still one of the strangest sights of the 20th Century. It can only be compared to the "bright idea" of an army shelling the Sistine Chapel, the Pyramids or Stonehenge. Such a ruthless tactic of attacking a demilitarized city - apart from clearly showing the feature and real nature of the whole war - offers a great story for a documentary, and Snezana Rakonac's "War for Dubrovnik" is an excellent example of it, always staying objective and honest. Even though it features a collection of well known clips from the TV archives of that time, and even though it lasts for over 4 hours, every second of "War for Dubrovnik" is suspenseful, exciting and gripping, skillfully juggling with such a difficult theme and evenly presenting a clear chronology. Some of the highlights are rare interviews, among them by Dubrovnik composer Đelo Jusić who recollects how he orchestrated a concert of classical music during which the army shelled cultural monuments around him in a scene "that is so morbid that not even Tarantino would put it in a movie" or a Yugoslav Army officer who, obliviously, speaks right into the camera: "This is a war for peace!", not knowing how close he unintentionally came to Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and its slogan "War is Peace". A remarkable and unapologetic piece of journalism, even going so far to illustrate the impotence of the spineless ICTY to adequately punish such crimes (the "toughest" sentence was 8 years - no joke, courtesy of judge Kevin Parker), yet as a whole this a documentary that advocates reconciliation and honesty.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking; Drama, USA, 1995; D: Tim Robbins, S: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, R. Lee Ermey

Louisiana. Sister Helen Prejean receives a letter from Matthew Poncelot, a convicted murderer who killed a teenage couple, asking for her assistance about his appeal since he is on a death row. She has a difficult time communicating with him, since he claims his colleague Carl killed the couple, while he was only watching it. She hires an experienced lawyer in order to overturn his verdict into life in prison, but to no avail. Just hours before he is executed, Matthew admits he killed the couple and asks everyone for forgiveness.

Based on a true story, Tim Robbins' second feature length directorial film "Dead Man Walking" received critical acclaim and numerous awards, among them an Oscar for best actress in a leading role for Susan Sarandon. It tackles the difficult subject of death penalty in order to start a discussion among the audience, exploring both sides of the argument - is it morally justified to punish a murderer with execution? Does it follow the principle of equality? - and skillfully avoids a preachy propaganda by aggravating the experience of the viewers since Matthew is not a sympathetic character - he is not even a nice man at all. Also, only faced with death, he finally confronts his misdeeds and admits he actually killed the couple, making this even more complicated. It is a quality film, but seems too "fixated" and overtly dramatic, showing that Robbins was obviously much more versatile in his first directorial film, satire "Bob Roberts". It pushed all the right buttons, yet simply did not go to some deeper heights of cinema.

Grade:++