Saturday, 29 January 2011

Guests from the Galaxy


Gosti iz galaksije; Science-fiction grotesque, Croatia/ Czech Republic, 1981; D: Dušan Vukotić, S: Žarko Potočnjak, Lucie Zulová, Ksenija Prohaska, Rene Bitorajac, Ljubiša Samardžić, Ivana Andrlová

Dubrovnik. Robert is an absent-minded man obsessed with science-fiction, much to the dismay of Biba, his girlfriend. He is currently writing a story about three superhuman aliens from galaxy Arkana; female android Andra and two kids, Targo and Ulu. One night, he is summoned to a nearby island and is shocked to meet aliens - Andra, Targo and Ulu, precisely his creations. He thinks that his mind can create objects and creatures. This causes numerous complications with people who don't believe him, until Biba confirms his story and tourists start flocking to the island in mass curiosity. The aliens settle at Robert's place while his neighbor, photographer Toni, wants to make a photo of them. After the alien pet creature, Mumu, attacks and kills some people, Robert decides to leave Earth with them.

Science-fiction movies made outside the US are a rare experience, while science-fiction movies made in Croatia (then still part of Yugoslavia) and Czech Republic (then still part of Czechoslovakia) - in a joint production - is an even rarer curiosity. Cult film "Guests from the Galaxy" is the darnedest thing: it cannot be recommended, but it has so many extravagant, daring, mad and surreal moments that it has to be seen, because something like that was never tried out before in Croatia. The beginning of the film is good and stimulates the imagination by revolving around the science-fiction buff Robert who meets aliens from his own unpublished story - there is something special in the sight of the android woman Andra and two alien kids standing on top of a cliff, with the sea in the background, while the main protagonists observes them in awe. The special effects are surprisingly good, both in conjuring up the UFO in the shape of a glowing blue sphere and some psychedelic colors, like in the scene where Robert touches Andra five times, and each time the scene "freezes" for a second, while some green colors appear in the background. Likewise, the films scores a few plus points with an occasional good joke, like when a security guard keeps claiming he was abducted by aliens at night, then a kid mumbles: "UFO" and he confirms that's "what it's called" but some listener just says: "Yeah, and then you woke up with an empty bottle besides you."

Unfortunately, for every good joke, there is a bad one. Director Dusan Vukotic was an acclaimed master of animation, but in this case the film at times seems like some dumb cartoon, which wrecks the mood and seems the author himself didn't know what he wanted to say. For instance, Andra waves at Robert but Targo shoots a laser from his eyes and blows out her middle finger (?). She then "repairs" her finger and uses a laser whip to slap Targo's fingers. The sequence where some thirty tourists are searching for the aliens in the cave and then get the "bright idea" of stripping naked (!) so that the extraterrestrials will see they don't carry any weapons is unbelievably stupid whereas the sequence where the giant Mumu, a 7-foot tall pet that seems like a junction between a giant rat and Hellraiser, attacks people at a party and decapitates some, cemented the film's trashy tone. There are echoes of themes of escapism in the world of imagination from the bland reality, the story is brave and the locations in Dubrovnik are always good, yet "Guests" are a patchwork, a film all over the place that ultimately turns more into a "guilty pleasure" and an obscure curiosity, though it has its moments, mostly revolving around the charming performance by Ksenija Prohaska as Andra.

Grade:+

Case Closed: The Private Eye's Requiem


Meitantei Conan: Tantei-tachi no Requiem; Animated crime, Japan, 2006; D: Taiichiro Yamamoto, S: Kappei Yamaguchi, Minami Takayama, Akira Kamiya, Wakana Yamazaki, Chafurin, Atsuko Yuya, Megumi Hayashibara

The shrunk detective Shinichi, now presenting himself as kid Conan, was invited together with his "mentor", detective Mouri, Kogoro, Ran, Ayumi, Genta, Mitsuhiko and Haibara are invited in a luxurious hotel. They are all given wristbands and then the kids are sent into the nearby amusement park. Then the mysterious client shows up on the screen and informs Conan and Mouri that they have until 10pm to solve a case or the wristbands will explode. The client gives them only scarce clues, but Conan teams up with two other young detectives, Hattori and Hakuba, and they discover that there was a bank robbery involving Reiko, Ito and Nishio, the latter being assassinated in order to keep quiet. The client is actually Ito, but the assassin was Reiko. After solving the case, Conan deactivates the wristbands.

The tenth "Detective Conan" anime film, based on the eponymous TV show whose running history topped "Santa Barbara" by far, is a standard, but easily watchable detective flick that will please fans of the saga, and thanks to a few refreshing ideas, even non-fans will not be that alienated from it. The story is interesting, though when it gets deconstructed it is revealed to be a routine variation of the typical "Conan" scheme, which on the other hand is just an anime variation of the already recognizable Agatha Christie "whodunit" plot. For every such a detective film, the story must have a clear A-B-C queue of events, with every clue leading to somewhere. However, the clues here are so vague and far fetched that they seem more like the writer resorted to arbitrarily solutions than to a real puzzle. For instance, the mysterious client gives a clue to the case: "You Cry". And Conan is immediately able to decipher that "Y-O-U" stands for "Yokohama Oceanographic University". Good thing he didn't decipher it as "Yugoslav Obesity Union" and decided to search for some diet society. The subplot involving the wristbands that will explode unless the case is solved is suspenseful, though, with the finale in the restaurant almost reaching Hitchcock's caliber. All in all, an easily watchable 'Sherlock-light' anime film.

Grade:+

Friday, 28 January 2011

Days of Heaven


Days of Heaven; drama, USA, 1978; D: Terrence Malick, S: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz

America during World War I. Bill lives in dirty Chicago and works in a steel factory. After an argument with his boss, he boards a train for Texas with his girlfriend Abby and sister Linda. The three of them settle at a farm where they harvest wheat the whole day. Bill finds out that the young farm owner is sick and in love with Abby. Since he introduced her as his sister, Bill persuades her to marry the owner. Bill expects the owner will soon die and inherit all to them, but as months pass he is getting healthier by the minute. After returning from absence, Bill kisses Abby and kills the owner. Bill is killed by the police in the run, while Abby and Linda move out.

"Days of Heaven", the second feature length film by Terrence Malick, who after it 'resigned' from directing for 20 years, is another meditative drama without a clear-cohesive structure of the sensitive author, showing a love triangle and adding some small touches of critique of class difference. Malick and his amazing cinematographer craft the film in a poetic way, though some parts of it are rather overstretched: there's a shot of the wind scratching the surface of water, a shot of Abby chasing a peacock and then a shot of clouds over the farm. Mostly, such a technique works thanks to a great sense for shot composition, but here and there it seems as if the authors just wanted to add 'pretty images' in it, which makes it slightly eclectic and episodic. The relationships between the protagonists where created almost without words, whereas Malick threw a few period descriptions and an open ending, Richard Gere delivered one of his finest performances whereas the best ingredient is magical music by Ennio Morricone. Malick won best director award at the Cannes film festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe while the music won a BAFTA.

Grade:+++

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Badlands


Badlands; drama, USA, 1973; D: Terrence Malick, S: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Warren Oates

The 15-year old Holly lives with her father in some secluded South Dakota town. One day, Kit, a 25-year old garbage worker who still acts like a rebellious teenager, meets and charms her. Her father is against the relationship, so Kit decides to simply take Holly with him. An argument erupts and Kit shoots the father and then burns the house. The young couple spends several months hiding in the forest, with Kit killing several bounty-hunters. In Montana, Holly doesn't want to run anymore and Kit is caught.

Director Terrence Malick is one of those individuals who really qualify the term 'sensitive artist' - After making only two films in the 70s, he 'disappeared' from the movie scene for 20 years before he returned to directing. He directs very rarely, but when he does, it is usually something special. His first feature length film, "Badlands", is a meditative and slightly dreamy drama about two outsiders, crammed with great images that flow naturally into the story, though a substantial complaint could be directed towards the feeling that as a whole, the film seems somehow vague and remote. "Badlands" have some great details and ideas (in the opening, Holly narrates how her father, after her mother died, "had their wedding cake left in the fridge for 10 years"; the rebellious Kit quits his job and throws his key into a paint can; the fire consumes Holly's house almost parallel to consuming a little toy house in it), love for nature whereas the music is enchanting, yet there is still a feeling as if there is something missing in it, some final spark, though it is undeniably a very good, ambitious and intelligent piece of real art.

Grade:+++

Case Closed: Strategy Above the Depths


Meitantei Conan: Suiheisenjyou no Sutorateeji; Animated crime, Japan, 2005; D: Yasuichiro Yamamoto, S: Kappei Yamaguchi, Minami Takayama, Akira Kamiya, Wakana Yamazaki, Atsuko Yuya, Megumi Hayashibara

Detective Shinichi, who shrunk back into a kid and now calls himself Conan, takes a yacht vacation with Inspector Mouri, Ran, Professor Agasa and the others. As it turns out, they again stumble upon a crime mystery when Mrs. Yashiro and her father, both rich tycoons, are murdered. Conan suspects screenwriter Kusaka and is right: he tape recorded a 15-minute description of his new draft and played it when he phoned Minako, which gave him an alibi and allowed him to kill them because his father, a captain, was killed 15 years ago when his ship sank because the Yashiro group wanted to get insurance money. However, he activates the bomb and the yacht starts sinking. At the same time, Mouri discovers Minako was an accessory in the crime and arrests her too.

Crime mysteries were always an interesting reading or viewing experience, because readers or viewers have to pay twice as more attention than usual in the story, since every little detail can give insight to solve the puzzle and discover the murderer. However, while the concept was fresh when Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented them back in their time, it is getting increasingly schematic and standard in our time when the viewers get the 'hang of it'. Gosho Aoyama's manga "Detecive Conan" spanned an incredibly long anime TV show (with over 600 episodes!), but the author tripped over his own feet when he unnecessarily complicated it in its basic (silly) premise - that Conan was a grown up, but some bad guys caught him spying on them and then gave him some youth potion which turned him into a kid, Shinichi. Does this even need to be de-masked as a ridiculous idea as it is? Wouldn't it be so much more logical to simply have Shinichi be a kid from the start or to simply let him be a teenager? Good thing the bad guys never thought of just shooting him on the spot. But joke aside, the 9th film, "Strategy Above the Depths" works well without the basic premise and gives a solid, though standard detective flick with a good alibi for the bad guy, yet the solution of the hero as well as some moments (Minako disguising herself as Mrs. Yashiro, so that she can get stabbed by the murderer's knife, conveniently in the stomach where she prepared fake blood, so that she can pretend to be dead, and so that she can then kill the real Mrs. Yashiro herself?!) are both far fetched, arbitrary and without any inner logic that need to adorn such a genre.

Grade:+

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Margot at the Wedding


Margot at the Wedding; Tragicomedy, USA, 2007; D: Noah Baumbach, S: Nicole Kidman, Zane Pais, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro

Margot, a neurotic and self-righteous New York writer, brings her 11-year old son Claude to a rural house for a visit of her relaxed sister Pauline, who is suppose to get married to an aspiring artist, Malcolm. Margot doesn't approve of him, which causes friction between Pauline. Margot also meets her old friend, Dick, who now has a daughter, Maisy. The neighbors complain at Pauline, because they want an old tree in her yard to be cut, since its roots are "destroying" their land. As Malcolm is about to cut the tree, he admits to Pauline that he made out with a student girl. The tree falls on the wedding tent. Pauline leaves with Margot and Claude, but phones Malcolm. Claude and Margot return home with a bus.

Movies about a dysfunctional family are a dime a dozen, yet Noah Baumbach's humorous drama "Margot at the Wedding" is one of those few that deserve to be seen because of some interesting insights of human relationships caught on film (how often do you see a girl saying to a teenage kid that he has bad odor and needs to buy a deodorant on the big screen?). Depending of the viewers inclinations with the subject, this film will be either more or less interesting to them. The story about a clash of two sisters is a contemplation about the clash of two views, the elitist and casual, paving the way for some interesting moments. Even though numerous critics perceived it more of a drama, "Margot" has actually quite a fair share of "hidden" comical moments - the funniest one is when Jim gives a present to Margot in front of everyone. She looks at it and takes some time to unravel and open it. She is then surprised to find out it's two slippers and looks at him in a puzzling way. And Jim says: "I thought you might need those. I remembered you were cold when we were in Vermont". The sequence where the two sisters argued about all the secrets in the family in front of everyone, and then Pauline and Margot exchange these lines: "I think Becky got it the worst." - "Did she ever. Raped by the horse trainer", upon they both burst out in laughter, is a great example of (autobiographical) slice of life. However, too much talking is in the end a too heavy burden for the film, or better said the author did not find a right balance of allowing the film to flow even when nobody is talking.

Grade:++

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder; Comedy, USA, 2008; D: Ben Stiller, S: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Tobey Maguire

In five days of principal photography, the expensive Vietnam war film "Tropic Thunder" is already one month behind schedule. The studio executive Les blames it all on young director Damian, who, together with the author of the novel, John "Four Leaf", decides to sober the spoiled Hollywood stars Tugg, Kirk, Jeff and raper Alpa Chino by leaving them alone in the jungle. Unfortunately, Damian dies by stepping on a land mine while Tugg gets captured by a heroin cartel led by a kid. Uniting their strengths, the actors manage to rescue Tugg, shoot the film and win an Oscar for best actor.

Ben Stiller's fourth directorial work, "Tropic Thunder" is a mixed bag and depending on the viewers inclinations, it will either be perceived as a funny comedy with some bad jokes or a bad comedy with a few truly funny jokes. The first 20 minutes of the film are universally accepted and regarded by everyone as comic genius by spoofing some of the most annoying cliches in Hollywood, particularly in the hilarious fake trailers at the beginning: One of them is "Scorcher", a trailer for an action film promoting its actor Tugg (Stiller) who saves the World by holding a machine gun in one arm and a baby in another, while the landscape is all red from heat. Then it shows his newest and "biggest" adventure, "Scorcher VI" - where he is seen holding two machine guns and two babies are attached to him, but this time the landscape is all frozen. He then delivers the cheesy line: "Who didn't close the fridge?" The delicious trailer for "The Fatties" shows that "Norbit" at least had one purpose while the trailer for two gay priests (Downey, Jr. and Maguire) also ends with holding a mirror to pompous marketing by ending with a fade out in tune to the insanely funny line: "I was a naughty boy..." Unfortunately, once the actors are lost in the jungle, it seems the whole film got lost - it almost lowered down to some of the trailers of cheap films presented at the start. With time, it simply had too much garbage humor (the ill-considered "jokes" on the expense of a decapitated head alone reduced the film's quality by 20 %), annoying yelling and useless characters. Cruise is surreal in his almost unrecognizable role while his swearing is so much over-the-top that it's almost funny. However, the only consistently good point is Downey Jr. with an excellent African-American mock-accent - that is something that really deserves to be heard.

Grade:+

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Creature


Creature; Science-fiction horror, USA, 1985; D: William Malone, S: Stan Ivar, Wendy Schaal, Lyman Ward, Robert Jaffe, Diane Salinger, Annette McCarthy, Marie Laurin, Klaus Kinski

In the future, German mining company "Richter Dynamics" excavates a strange tube with a sleeping alien creature on Titan. A few hours later, the only survivor from there crashes with his shuttle into the space station "Concorde". American company "NTI" sponsors an expedition to Titan. But once the spaceship lands, it sinks in the ground and remains stuck. The crew discovers that the alien killed all German miners there, except the eccentric Hans. The alien is able to enter the brains of people and then make them his slaves who help him kill the others. Everyone gets massacred except Davison, Beth and Perkins. When the creature isn't killed through electric shocks, they destroy it thanks to a bomb, repair the ship and leave Titan.

Science-fiction horror film "Creature", also known as "Titan Find", is a rump version of Scott's "Alien", both in quality and (limited) budget, yet its audacity in tackling such a purely B-film plot secured it cult status. The special effects are surprisingly good, the cinematography is solid and manages to secure a few tight moments of suspense thanks to a few tricks with shadows, an occasional idea is original (the scene where a naked woman is standing in front of an astronaut in a spacesuit, on Titan!) whereas director William Malone aims to openly satisfy the viewers' attraction towards obscure, non-standard stories containing scary monsters, the latter not being shown until the end, when it slightly sabotages the mood by revealing it to be a man in a rubber suit. Most of the characters are simply extras, except for a stand-out cameo by Klaus Kinski as Hans, who delivers another eccentric performance ("We found...a child's butterfly collection... but some of its butterflies...were not too friendly"). The sudden scenes of splatter violence (the scariest one is when 'zombie' Jon attacks a woman, and she puts her hand on his decomposing face, which causes his lower lip to fall off), trash and bland dialogues cement the cheap tone, yet even 'guilty pleasure' shows signs of a brave film maker.

Grade:+

Friday, 21 January 2011

Cop Land


Cop Land; Crime drama, USA, 1997; D: James Mangold, S: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, Michael Rapaport, Janeane Garofalo, Annabella Sciorra, Noah Emmerich, Peter Berg, Cathy Moriarty

"Copland" is an eponymous suburb in New Jersey, established to be a "crime free" enclave for police officers. However, mafia found a way to get connections even there. One night, police officer Murray Babitch's car was rammed by two African-Americans who seemed to have a gun. He shot them, but the police investigation is unable to find their gun. His uncle, the corrupt Lt. Ray, plants a gun and stages that Babitch jumped off the bridge into the river, though in reality he was safely hidden in Ray's house in Copland. There, the overweight local sheriff Freddy is contacted by Internal affairs investigator Moe Tilden. Freddy discovers Babitch is alive, but that Ray wants to eliminate him to prevent him from testifying against corruption in the police. In a shootout, Freddy manages to eliminate Ray.

An excellent little crime film, "Cop Land" is a surprising piece of quality film-making that still seems fresh today, acting almost as some sort of modern re-telling of "High Noon" thanks to a great cinematography, an intelligent screenplay, subtle directing and a fantastic mood that slowly "grows on you". The small details plastered throughout the film also give it that special spark, from the scene where Freddy unlocks a parking meter to get some change to play video games, through Ray sitting with his back towards a photo of an honest cop up to a neat "slice-of-life" scene where Freddy, holding a turtle toy in his hand, starts a conversation with investigator Moe on the street, but interrupts it for a second when he hears some kids fighting behind the corner, so he goes there to "bring some order". The biggest surprise, though, is Sylvester Stallone as the overweight and shy sheriff Freddy - it is one of the 2-3 best roles of his career, a brilliant example of playing against the type, yet for the most part it was completely ignored by the critics. It was really nice from all the strong, character actors like De Niro and Keitel to allow "mainstream action star" Stallone to take the leading role besides them, yet he managed it without a problem. This against the type casting is nearly as good as Carrey's in "The Truman Show" or Sellers' in "Being There". Janeane Garofalo's role as Freddy's deputy is sparse, but she is excellent in every scene she is in. The final showdown, with that mumbled sound, turned out almost surreal.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Trial of Joan of Arc


Procès de Jeanne d'Arc; Drama, France, 1962; D: Robert Bresson, S: Florence Delay, Jean-Claude Fourneau, Roger Honorat

France, 1431. After the capture by the Burgundians, the 19-year old Joan of Arc is at a trial whose verdict is already in advance dictated by the English. The Bishops asks her numerous questions and she tries to explain her role in the Hundred Years War when she led the French army in order to get France rid of the English soldiers. She claims she heard "voices from above", one of which was God, who ordered her to do so. After the trial went back and forth, the Bishops convicted her of heresy and burned her.

Winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival, "The Trial of Joan of Arc" is a good, though short (with a running time of one hour) example of director Robert Bresson's talent, who took the esoteric true story and refused to "enrich" it with pompous-bombastic-pretentious style as many other directors would, instead opting for an objective, "ascetic" and neutral portrait of the heroine. To make it even more faithful, he actually based it entirely on the transcripts of the real-life trial, which gave it a good dose of authenticity. Some dialogues between Joan of Arc and her interrogators, the Bishops, still seem interesting even today ("How do you know the voices were from God?" - "They were. I recognized God." - "Could you recognize a demon just disguising himself as God?"), though a part of the film seems slightly dated or simply needed something more special, because a faithful adaptation of a interesting event may not always turn equally interesting without some deeper directorial intervention.

Grade:+++

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Laramie Project


The Laramie Project; drama, USA, 2002; D: Moisés Kaufman, S: Terry Kinney, Nestor Carbonell, Joshua Jackson, Jeremy Davies, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Mark Webber, Dylan Baker, Janeane Garofalo, Christina Ricci, Laura Linney
In '98, the 21-year old gay student Matthew Shepard was beaten in Laramie, Wyoming, by Aaron and Russell, and left tied to a fence. He subsequently succumbed to the severe injuries. The news made such an impact that it even started riots on the other side of the country, in New York. Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project team went to Laramie to interview the people and their thoughts about the case: Sherry thinks the whole case gained attention only because Shepard was gay; Doctor Cantway is shocked because he knew the perpetrators since they were kids; Catherine, a lesbian, talks about her experiences in town; bartender Matt is torn because he thinks he could have prevented the incident. Aaron and Russell received life sentences.

Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project" is an excellent independent film based on the true case of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year old gay student who was killed in Laramie, Wyoming. The unusual thing in the film is that Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project team went to Laramie and taped the interviews with people there who shared their thoughts about the case - and then they used the transcripts and faithfully re-enacted and filmed them word for word with actors, creating a rather inventive "pseudo-documentary". At first, "Laramie" seems rather ordinary and nothing special, assembling these episodes in a solid, but standard manner. Yet, after some 30 minutes, it does precisely what every movie should do - its story grows on the viewers, completely intrigues them more and more until they get "sucked" right in the middle of it and eagerly expect what is going to happen next.

The ensemble cast is top-notch, no matter how small their roles are, from Joshua Jackson as the bartender, through Christina Ricci and Janeane Garofalo as a local lesbian. The movie has at least four perfect sequences conjured up entirely from dialogues, which are even more awe inspiring when one realizes that they came from real life and were not made up. One of the strongest is the one right after the moment Shepard deceased and a spokesman for the hospital read the following statement of Shepard's parents to the media: "Go to your homes...hug your children...and tell them that you love them every day". Another one is when the team interviews a considerate priest who tells them this about the society: "When they call gay people fagots, lesbs, queers...that too is violence. It is the seed of violence." The final statement read by Shepard's father at the court, addressed to the killer of his only child, is so magnificent that is has to be heard ("...He actually died on the outskirts of Laramie, tied to a fence. You, Mr. McKinney, with your friend Mr. Henderson, left him there, by himself. But he was not alone. There were his lifelong friends with him, friends that he had grown up with. You're probably wondering who these friends were. First he had the beautiful night sky and the same stars and moon we used to see through a telescope. Then he had the daylight and the sun to shine on him. And through it all, he was breathing in the scent of the pine trees from the snowy range. He heard the wind, the ever present Wyoming wind for the last time..."). It is one of the rare examples that someone addresses an inferior person in such a superior matter, so much that the latter isn't even aware of how much he surpasses him.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid's Tale; Science-fiction drama, USA/ Germany, 1990; D: Volker Schlöndorff, S: Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern, Victoria Tennant

USA in the future: only 1 % of all women are fertile which religious fanatics interpret as God's punishment. Among those 1 % who can give birth is also Kate who is arrested when she tried to cross the border with her husband and daughter. Kate is deported with other fertile women to a brain-washing centre led by "Handmaids". From there, she is assigned to the house of infertile Serena and her husband Fred in order to give birth to their child. Fred sleeps with her for months, but a pregnancy never seems to happen. Kate becomes friends with Nick, a soldier who brings her safely across the border after she kills Fred.

An early forerunner to "Children of Men", 'soft science-fiction' drama by Volker Schlondorff "A Handmaid's Tale" was criticized by literature lovers as an unfaithful adaptation of the novel with the same title by Margaret Atwood, even though the director did a rather eloquent job. The terrifying messages in the novel about a society that turned backward in the future as well as problems due to a lack of women incapable of bearing children stayed present even on film (the army deports fertile women in trucks; "Handmaids" teach them they must never abort, not even after rape...) which works the best in the first half. In the second half, though, the heavy handed departures from the novel become more apparent - the film leaves a grey impression, doesn't sustain the fascinating premise whereas the ending doesn't tie all the lose ends in an satisfying manner. Truth be told, some scenes are almost brilliantly absurd (Serena's husband Fred is having intercourse with Kate who is held by Serena) yet the film avoided an in-depth analysis and sophisticated solutions.

Grade:++

Overboard


Overboard; Comedy, USA, 1987; D: Garry Marshall, S: Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Hermann

Carpenter Dean is summoned to a luxurious yacht where he meets the rich Grant and her even richer and more spoiled girlfriend Joanna, who wants a bigger closet. However, after the job is done, she isn't pleased, refuses to pay him and throws him off the yacht. When she herself falls overboard during night and develops amnesia, Dean decides to teach her some humbleness: he introduces himself as her husband and brings her to his washed-up home and his four problematic kids. Though startled, Joanna accepts her role and actually turns into a role-model mother. When Grant finds her, she regains her memory and goes back to her yacht. However, she realizes it isn't what she wants and returns to Dean.

Few comedies managed to take the predictable concept of an unlikely couple, a man and a woman who constantly fight but in the end fall in love, and make it look enchanting, like Capra's timeless masterwork "It Happened One Night", while in the most cases it turned into a predictable film. Director Garry Marshall's and screenwriter Leslie Dixon's "Overboard" is an easily watchable, but standard flick of the genre which gains a few plus points from the amusing plot that spoofs amnesia, in which Russell's character Dean presents himself as Hawn's character's Joanna husband, yet only in the first 30 minutes of the film, before it loses steam and spends too much time on forced gags, like the kids pouring anything on Joanna's clothes or Joanna stepping on some bubble gum on the floor. Likewise, that plot was used in a much more engaging manner in Medem's "Red Squirrel". The best moment arrives when Dean finally confronts the ever spoiled, rich Joanna on the yacht: "You know what your problem is? You are so goddamn bored, you have to invent things to bitch about! You don't have a single thing to do on this earth except for your hair! The closet was fine, you just needed something to fill up your useless, nail-polishing, toe-polishing, sun-tanning days". In the end, "Overboard" is an easily watchable, but typically mild piece of entertainment.

Grade:+

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Yojimbo


Yojimbo; Drama, Japan, 1961; D: Akira Kurosawa, S: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yoko Tsukasa, Isuzu Yamada, Daisuke Kato

Japan, 19th Century. A nameless Samurai arrives in a small town torn by constant gang fights between two rival gambling cartels, led by crime lords Ushitora and his nemesis Seibei. Seeing a good opportunity to trick them both, he stays there. First, he kills three punks from Ushitora's gang to gain fame, and then offers his services to Seibei. But just as the final showdown was about to start, he leaves Seibei. He flip-flops between the two sides, making them slowly fall apart. He then joins Ushitora, but only to free a wife of a foolish gambler who lost her in a bet, reuniting them. However, he is caught by Uno, a revolver gangster. After he manages to escape, Ushitora's gang wipes out Sebei's because they thought he was hiding at them. In the showdown, the Samurai kills Ushitora and brings back peace to the town.

Long before "A Fistful of Dollars" and numerous other similar westerns, Akira Kurosawa made the original film about a mysterious stranger who arrives in a small town torn by gangsters and brings justice, the excellent (and much less morbid) "Yojimbo", which showed that Toshiro Mifune is the real "Man with no name", not Eastwood. Kurosawa crafts the simple story with good old school film-making and exploits the most from it, particularly from Toshiro Mifune in his best role, while achieving a lot with his good sense for humor here and there - in one sequence, the old man tells the mysterious Samurai protagonist that the two rivaling gangs wrecked the whole town in between them, complaining: "Only the carpenter is making a profit! He can't make enough coffins!" Besides being humorous and refreshing, that episode is also there to give a good summary of the situation in town for the viewers. Likewise, Kurosawa enjoys how the Samurai mocks the two gangs, which reaches almost absurd tones in the scene where he is observing how each side is ridiculously afraid to attack first on the street in the supposed "showdown", with juvenile gangsters just threatening each other with swords from a distance. Despite a few unrealistic examples of acting, an occasionally lax moment and the naive premise that the protagonist can beat 10 rivals without even a bruise, "Yojimbo" is surprisingly clever and undated, offering even a sly moral in the character who even saves a wife of a man who lost her in gambling.

Grade:+++

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Journalist


Novinar; Drama, Croatia, 1979; D: Fadil Hadžić, S: Rade Šerbedžija, Milena Zupančić, Stevo Žigon, Fabijan Šovagović, Vera Zima

Zagreb. Kovač, a drunk, but idealistic reporter, tosses a bundle of newspapers from a news stand one night and thus gets arrested. A special meeting is held in his newspaper agency where it is revealed that he is in an argument with his editor, Tomac, who refused to publish his article about a strike at a tool factory because he criticized the directors who raised their own salaries, but not those of ordinary workers. His position in the agency is bad though one woman supports him. Likewise, his wife Irena files a divorce and keeps the custody of their son. Kovač also writes an article about corruption in a company, but his two witnesses refuse to testify at court and thus he gets sued for libel. His friend is an aging reporter, Stanko Kos, who despises journalism for lack of backbone. When Kos dies Kovač figures he will have the same fate.

One of director Fadil Hadzic's unjustifiably forgotten films, "Journalist" is an intelligent and unassuming little essay about the complicated world (and politics) of reporters. Two stand-out highlights are the fantastic crystal clear cinematography by Tomislav Pintar and the opening credits, inventively printed on ordinary newspaper snippets in a printing press. The sole story stands out less only seemingly because it is a small, thought-provoking commentary on modern journalism and how it can be bought by rich tycoons in order to "audit" the news in their interest. Rade Serbedzija delivers a strong performance as the main hero Kovac, a reporter forced to chose between conformity and integrity, particularly in the scene where he goes on to give a small rant about the whole fishy business of his editors who reject "unsuitable" articles in order to keep their comfortable positions: "I don't want the newspapers to be an apologetic service for a beautified reality".
Two bigger complaints could be directed at the pace of the movie, which somehow starts to drag in the last third, losing that spark at the beginning, as well as some melodramatic solutions. Likewise, the main theme just repeats itself too much. The finale brings back the high concept from the start when it shows a genius sequence: there is an article about the death of a distinguished reporter, which clearly quotes him saying: "Should journalism be the mirror of our world or should it just be retouched to present some beautified reality dictated by the politicians?" The editor looks at it, takes his pen and just crosses the text. The movie then pans to Kovac walking down the street, while a news report is heard in the background, informing us about the new pope, the Warsaw pact, the Sino-Japanese relationship and other political developments. And it is difficult not to ask oneself: what if everything we hear on the news is censored?

Grade:++

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Samba in Mettmann


Samba in Mettmann; Comedy, Germany, 2004; D: Angelo Colagrossi, S: Hape Kekerling, Beatrice Masala, Pamela Knight, Jana Ina, Alexandra Neldel, Barbara Magdalena Ahren, Uwe Rohde, Sky du Mont

Mettman. Olaf runs a local dry cleaning store and is annoyed because his girlfriend Vera decided to practice abstinence until the wedding. Olaf's father Benno went away for a business travel. One night, Olaf saves three Brazilian girls - Alegra, Gioia and Felicidade - from bullies in a limousine. It turns out one of them, Felicidade, was suppose to marry the local "beer king" Pfeffer, but because of something the deal fell through. Since they don't have nowhere to go, Olaf let's them stay at his place, which causes numerous misunderstandings, including the one with Vera who thinks he wants to find another girlfriend because of her abstinence, making her turn into a vamp. Pfeffer dies from a heart attack, Olaf gets the luggage of the girls and finds out the reason for the crashed wedding - Felicidade is a transvestite.

"Samba in Mettman" is an easily watchable comedy of misunderstanding which isn't sharp enough to be called a satire, yet thanks to the comic talent by the excellent Hape Kekerling and solid writing it can be "digested" without any problems. The light story flows nicely and contains only the minimum amount of irritating ideas, whereas the locations in Mettman are rather nice. In some other director's hands, the main tangle could have served as a great comedy of misunderstanding that reaches the Moliere calibre, yet this edition isn't bad either, though it is just an example of mild fun. Kekerling delivers the best jokes as Olaf, like in the scene where a sleeping Alegra falls with her head on his lap, and a surprised Olaf just claps with his hands to wake her up or the restaurant sequence where he and his girlfriend Vera, who practices abstinence before marriage, have this inspirational exchange of lines: "I want to wait until marriage, when we are Man and Woman!" - "And what are we now? Pig and chicken?" Likewise, the charming Alexandra Neldel steals the show here and there as Vera, who is "forced" to turn into a vamp in order to keep her boyfriend.

Grade:+

Monday, 3 January 2011

King Kong


King Kong; Fantasy adventure, New Zealand/ USA, 2005; D: Peter Jackson, S: Naomi Watts, Adrian Brody, Jack Black, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis

New York during the Great Depression. Actress Ann Darrow lost her job when her theater had to shut down. She meets adventure director Carl Denham who manages to persuade her to star in his new film which is suppose to be filmed on some desolate island in the Pacific Ocean. During the journey on the ship, she meets writer Jack Driscoll. The crew arrives on an unknown island where a giant gorilla, Kong, kidnaps Ann. The crew encounters Dinosaurs and giant insects yet manages to rescue her and bring Kong to New York. There, she gorilla dies by falling from the Empire State Building.

After a huge success with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (out of which only the third one was excellent), director Peter Jackson was given a free hand of making his dream project, fantasy spectacle "King Kong", a remake of the classic film with the same title that achieved a good box office result and was nominated, among others, for a Golden Globe for best director and score. The first third of the 3-hour film is quiet and plays out during the Great Depression in New York and abounds with realistic little details (a man finds a sandwich in a trash can and eats it; people sleeping on the streets...), Naomi Watts is great as the aspiring actress Ann Darrow, yet Jack Black almost steals the show here and there as the comical director Carl. However, that part drags slightly, especially in the boat trip segment, while the story flow seems mechanical and schematic. The second part is the point where the movie really picks up: once the dynamics starts, it offers a non-stop full hour of action and a juicy adventure tone with some virtuoso directed moments (i.e. the scene when Ann is slowly crouching away from Kong after pretending to be dead, shot in one take; Kong hanging from a cliff, holding her, but still managing to pull a Tyrannosaurus rex above him to glide down and fall).

However, some moments really do seem bizarre and eclectic. For instance, the aforementioned battle of Kong with three (!) Tyrannosauruses rex seems too far fetched. Fighting one or two Dinosaurs would be plausible, but three at once is definitely too much. Likewise, the often mentioned Brontosaurus stampede sequence is also problematic - at first, it really is fascinating: a Brontosaurus herd is running away through a small canyon, with the crew in their way. But once one of them falls and a dozen Dinosaurs trips over him and rolls over and over, the whole thing turns into a cartoon. Likewise, the scene where a giant leach eats a man's head doesn't contribute positively to the film, just negatively. The last third of the film turns the concept upside down and shows Kong in a "New York jungle", raising again some points about human greed, though the theme was already raised in the first film a long time ago. The special effects are fantastic. One has to hand it to Jackson: he made two things better than the original. For one, Watts and Brody are more "fleshed out" and charismatic characters than the two main protagonists in the first film. For the other, there's a better emotional attachment between Kong and Ann, especially in the touching finale. However, as time passes, the original "Kong" keeps the upper hand due to its charm.

Grade:++

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Zatoichi


Zatoichi; Action drama, Japan, 2003; D: Takeshi Kitano, S: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yuuko Daike, Gadarukanaru Taka, Michiyu Ookusu

Medieval Japan. Blind masseur Zatoichi arrives in a small town and settles at a house of a nice lady. The town is terrorized by a gangster group that collects money every month. Zatoichi meets the coiled Shinkichi and two Geishas, Okina and Osei (who is actually a man!), who wants to take revenge on the gangster leader Ginzou who killed their father Naruto. Zatoichi turns out to be a surprisingly skilful sword-fighter and starts pursuing justice by fighting the gangsters. In a duel with Ginzou's best bodyguard, Zatoichi wins and kills them both. And it turns out he may actually see after all.

The good old story about a mysterious stranger who arrives at a small town and cleans it from villains was told a thousand times and became a cliche with time, but in the interpretation of director-actor Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano precisely that story turned out surprisingly fresh, vital, intriguing and accessible. Most of the vitality arrives from the humorous touch, like in the exposition where the title hero is sitting on a meadow while a bad guy wants to attack him, yet when he reaches for his sword he accidentally wounds his colleague or when the gags are revolving on the expense of the male Geisha. "Zatoichi" is an unusual film whose static tone isn't disrupted even by ultra-short dynamic scenes of blood shedding whereas despite a whole queue of flaws (overlong running time, a messy structure, a few character development deficiencies...) it is difficult to wrestle off the hermetic charm of the movie as a whole.

Grade:+++

Scary Movie 4


Scary Movie 4; Parody, USA, 2006; D: David Zucker, S: Anna Faris, Craig Bierko, Regina Hall, Anthony Anderson, Bill Pullman, Leslie Nielsen, Molly Shannon, Carmen Electra, Chris Elliott, Michael Madsen, Cloris Leachman, Charlie Sheen, James Earl Jones

Dr. Phil and Shaquille O'Neal wake up trapped in a basement and try to escape from it through a slam dunk. At the same time, Cindy finds a job as a nurse for an older lady in a haunted house and discovers the ghost of a child who seeks her father. On another place, Tom Ryan has to flee with his children Robbie and Rachel when giant triPods attack and destroy the city. The US president doesn't know what to do. Cindy and Brenda go to a village where people still live as if it is the 19th Century. There they get abducted by the triPod. However, they convince the main villain, the Puppet Billy, to stop the attack because his ghost child demands it so.

The 4th installment of the "Scary Movie" series doesn't offer any new improvements, which means it is another example of 'garbage humor' where anything, no matter how bad, can pass. The story? Just a bunch of episodes annexed sloppily together to form a typical crude "Scary Movie" chaos, including stupid attempts at humor like hitting a little girl's leg by closing the door of a car, James Earl Jones getting hit by a bus or Charlie Sheen fighting with his giant erect penis after drinking too much Viagra. It is difficult to comprehend how something so primitive and so backward can even be considered for production, but profit seems to have some other criteria than enlightening the public. There are moments which are so awful they almost reach the "heights" of the disastrous "Date Movie". David Zucker could have done a lot better since his brilliant parody "Airplane!" is better and constructively funnier than all "Scary Movies" put together, yet here it seems as if the awful script, written by deranged people, contaminated the whole film. Still, it at least has five good jokes. For instance, after the triPods attack the USA, Brenda shows Cindy the tape of a destroyed city in ruins on TV and says: "This is Detroit" - and then she shows her another tape with the identical Detroit, just with triPods with it and says: "This is Detroit after the triPods". Leslie Nielsen manages to squeeze a few useful jokes here and there while the best job was done by Craig Bierko. He appears in the final and best sequence of the entire film, hilariously spoofing the Tom Cruise interview with Oprah Winfrey by jumping up and down and tearing the couch with his teeth because he is "so in love with Cindy". It would have saved the film, but even that funny sequence was ruined in the moment where he put the palms of his hands on Oprah's and broke them.

Grade:-