Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eternity and a Day

Mia aioniotita kai mia mera; Drama, Greece/ France/ Germany/ Italy, 1998; D: Theo Angelopoulos, S: Bruno Ganz, Achileas Skevis, Isabelle Renauld, Fabrizio Bentivoglio

Winter. The story follows the last day in life of bearded poet Alexander who is dying from a terminal disease. Knowing he will be transfered to the hospital the next day, he decides to finish all the unsolved business in his life, like finding someone who will take care of his dog and talk to his daughter Katarina, but is shocked to find out that she sold his old mansion for demolition. He saves an Albanian boy from human trafficking and spends the day trying to find a way to bring him back home. Finally, he has hallucinations of his deceased wife.

This unknown Golden Palm winner in Cannes is a surprisingly fluent and stylistically pleasant piece of small drama revolving around the simple, but stimulative story about an ill man who decides to spend the last 24 hours of his life on a good deed, on helping an Albanian boy find way back to his home country. There is no need for mystification since this is a fairly straightfroward storyline, yet enriched with neat poetic moments (i.e. in one scene, Katarina reads the two decade old letter of her mother, who was describing her feelings for her sleeping husband: "I still felt his warmth on my body...I dared not dream that he was dreaming about me.") and wonderfully balanced tone. Some attempts at poetry backfire, however, and seem rather naive. Director Theo Angelopoulos is more a "normal" talent than an "extraordinary" talent, yet has a sense for delicious shot composition reminiscent of Takrovsky, crafting 2 minute long takes in avarage with a "floating camera" that slowly glides through the scene, which makes even conventional situations, like a wedding or the hero walking on a cliff near a beach, somehow engaging and aesthetic. Quality slow movie.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Message


Ar Risalah; drama, Lebanon/ Libya/ Kuwait/ Morocco/ UK, 1977; D: Moustapha Akkad, S: Damien Thomas, Michael Forest, Irene Papas, Anthony Quinn, Michael Ansara, Johnny Sekka

In 610 AD, Mecca is a city of backward tradition with people who gain profit by worshiping hundreds of gods, kill a "surplus" of baby girls and have slaves. However, one day, while meditating in cave Hira, an ordinary man, Muhammad, had a vision of Angel Gabriel who gave him the message about the real God. He preaches noble wisdom, i.e. that women should have equal rights as men and that the strong should not oppress the weak, which causes a following, among them by his uncle Abu Hamza and adopted son Zaid. Due to persecution, some of Muhammad's followers found refuge under Ethiopia's Christian king. Finally, all Muslim followers fled to Medina. They won in the battle of Badr, but lost against the Meccans in the battle of Uhud. Still, a truce was signed. Slowly, little by little, Mecca converted to Islam and Muhammad returned to his home. He died in 632.

There are thousands of films about the life of Jesus Christ, yet for the longest time a movie about Muhammad evaded the big screens for one simple, yet aggravating fact - according to Muslim tradition, the visual depiction of the prophet is forbidden, since he wanted to avoid to be treated as an idol. Nonetheless, in 1977, director Moustapha Akkad managed to make a rare movie adaptation with "The Message". This movie seems at times like "The Man Who Wasn't There" - in order to respect the tradition, Muhammad nor his wives, daughters and sons-in-law are never shown on screen, nor are their voices heard. Even though this may seem like an example of a story about a hero without a hero, "The Message" still managed to bring its point across about the true values of humanity and spirituality in Islam, far away from the Taliban, Mutaween, Burqa and other distorted-perverted extremist versions of the pure message. Some of the ideas chosen to avoid showing Muhammad are quite inventive (for instance, when Angel Gabriel gives him the message, the whole screen is in black because they are in a dark cave; when people talk to him they look into the camera's POV or simply repeat what he said for him: "He said, even if you would give me the Sun in one hand, and the Moon in the other, I would still not differ from the message of God"...), giving at the same time a rather good history lesson.

There are numerous interesting scenes present that challenge the cliche perspective of Islam by the West - for instance, due to persecutions, Muhammad's followers find shelter in Ethiopia, where they explain the Christian king about their religion. After he heard them, he approaches one of them, draws a small line on the sand with his scepter and says: "The difference between you and me is no bigger than this line." In another scene, an older couple is frightened after their statue of a god is broken, but Muhammad's follower calms them by saying: "How could this god have protected you when he wasn't even able to protect himself?" With a running time of 3 hours, "The Message" is slightly overlong and overstretched, whereas an occasionally conventional scene did not help either; on the plus side, Anthony Quinn is again in good shape as Hamza, whereas especially touching is the almost ironic twist of faith when Khalid, one of the main army commanders who fought ruthlessly against Muslims, slowly starts hanging around with them, fascinated by their inner peace, observing them from the distance, until the suddenly has a change of heart and becomes Muhammad's follower himself. Despite omissions and few heavy handed moments, "The Message" is noble and honest little movie.

Grade:++

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann


Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; Animated science-fiction/ action/ comedy/ drama series, Japan, 2007; D Hiroyuki Imaishi, S: Tetsuya Kakihara, Marina Inoue, Yukari Fukui, Noboyuki Hiyama, Katsuyuku Konishi

In the future, humans live in underground tunnels while their leaders tell them that the sky doesn't exist and that there is no surface. However, the unpopular 14-year old Simon, his mentor and "bro" Kamina and fierce girl Yoko prove otherwise when they discover a giant robot, "Gurren Lagann", and break away to the surface. They assemble a team to fight the mysterious "Beastmen" and their commander Genome who sealed humans underground - and win thanks to Simon. 7 years later, however, as the humans repopulate Earth, mysterious beings known as "Anti-Spirals" threaten to destroy them, fearing their "Spiral" evolution might cause an entropy and collapse of the Universe. Simon and his Gurren Lagann defeat them in another dimension.

One of the most popular anime achievements of the 2000s, "Gurren Lagann" has a 1/4 effect of "Neon Genesis Evangelion". Thematically, they are actually quite similar (hero Simon in the first half truly resembles Shinji; the leitmotiv that a weak individual can, thanks to a powerful robot, rise in development socially and psychologically...), but are stylistically very different since "Gurren Lagann" is incredibly optimistic and comical, even during darkest episodes you can find a hidden gag (for instance, when the whole Lagann team is captured, they decide to dig they way out, and one of them even uses a man as a spade), which sometimes turns almost too wacky. This anime received high praise, though not completely deservedly - basically it just shows robots fightin' and heroine Yoko "shaking" her breasts (the action is masterful, though: in one episode, Gurren Lagann in superior fashion rips the "crown" of another giant robot, piloted by Viral, and puts it on his own head; in another, while Gurren Lagann was clinched in a duel fighting with Genome's robot, Genome himself exits it, walks down its metallic chest to Simon (!) and personally hits him).

Still, in episode 18 there is a huge shift in the story that tips it more than planet Uranus. Even though some complained about that last third, it is the best ingredient of "Gurren Lagann" by showing a surprise storyline that the viewers never anticipated - a one where Simon actually becomes something like Tito in post-war Yugoslavia. The character of Nia is probably the weakest and poorly developed, with some moments that seem like elementary school writing. The best episodes are number 1, 2, 8, 18, 21 (an incredibly sweet one involving Yoko as a teacher, lecturing about history while the classmates can't believe they recognize her photo in the history books) and the finale - even though by that time the "Lagann" spent too much time on dry action and too little of real characters, it is exquisite by featuring arguably the most epic robot fighting battle to date (with robots so gigantic that they walk on the horizon of a galaxy!). The story is rather vague, yet contains a few clever touches: it starts as an Allegory of the cave, then turns into an action comedy only to finally reach a few deep contemplations about the power of "Spiral" (Qi, evolution) and "Anti-Spiral" energy (conservatism). All in all, "Lagann" is a fun and surprisingly motivating story, though it still lacks something to be considered a true classic.

Grade:++

Monday, March 21, 2011

Norbit

Norbit; Comedy, USA, 2007; D: Brian Robbins, S: Eddie Murphy, Thandie Newton, Terry Crews, Eddie Griffin, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Marlon Wayans

Norbit was abandoned as a baby by his parents and thus grew up in an orphanage run by Mr. Wong, where he met Kate. When she was adopted, they separated. Norbit became an unwilling protege for the overweight Rasputia, who persuaded him to marry her. Years later, he meets Kate again since she wants to restore the orphanage, but is disappointed that she is engaged to Deion. However, it turns out Deion only wants to marry her to build a strip club instead of the orphanage, which is why Kate dumps him and falls in love with Norbit again.

Another cheap comedy that was saved only thanks to Eddie Murphy's comic talents, who unfortunately wasted it too often by saving weak scripts by being the only good ingredient in them. "Norbit" is at times almost intolerably stupid, heavy handed (no pun intended!) and clumsily crafted, once again promoting the wrong (and unforgivable) notion that all comedies must be primitive in order to be funny. That is entirely untrue. If you want intelligent comedies displaying one actor playing more roles, see "Tootsie" or "Dr. Strangelove". For the rest of the public who are satisfied with "fat jokes" revolving only around an obese woman wrecking everything, the simple and accessible "Norbit" will have to do. Still, as already said, Murphy is surprisingly good, regardless of the story, both as the shy and kind title hero (especially when he says to Kate that he is "at peace with the world" when he is with her) and the fat-obnoxious Rasputia, who is such a caricature that is actually funny at times (the water slide sequence and the comical situation where it is obvious that she has troubles getting into her car because she is getting fatter, but Norbit it too scared to tell her so he just says that "the car must be shrinking due to all the rain and moisture").

Grade:+

Police Academy: Mission to Moscow


Police Academy: Mission to Moscow; Comedy, USA, 1994; D: Alan Metter, S: George Gaynes, David Graf, Leslie Easterbrook, Michael Winslow, Ron Perlman, Christopher Lee, Charlie Schlatter, G. W. Bailey, Claire Forlani

Some Police Academy staff - Commander Lassard, Captain Harris, Callahan, Tackleberry, Jones and cadet Kyle Connors - are summoned to Moscow to help jail the evasive criminal Konali, whose aim is to create a new video game that will hack into computer systems worldwide. Despite numerous complications, they manage to apprehend Konali and get awarded.

Following the trend that every new "Police Academy" sequel was worse then the previous, part 7 resulted in an inevitable disaster. In the 5 year pause following the weak box office results in part 6, the writers and producer Paul Maslansky did not manage to improve the humor or the skill of the increasingly decaying cheap concept and return it to the level that gained fans in the first place. Featuring only the remains of the remains of the original cast (and their charm), "Mission to Moscow" turned into such a bland, naive and underdeveloped comedy that no joke is even worth mentioning. Actually, there is almost nothing to see in this film, it is one empty hole. The faithful five actors from the original series bravely stayed on the sinking ship, yet not much was achieved to mitigate the pale story. Since this time it was even a commercial failure, as much as it was a critical, "Moscow" once again showed that the "Police Academy" series should have ended four movies ago.

Grade:-

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Police Academy 6: City Under Siege


Police Academy 6: City Under Siege; Comedy, USA, 1989; D: Peter Bonerz, S: Matt McCoy, G. W. Bailey, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook, Lance Kinsey, George Gaynes, Kenneth Mars, Marion Ramsey

A crime wave hits the city. Police officers Callahan, Hightower, Jones, Tackleberry, Hooks and Nick desperately try to arrest the gang of three thugs, but to no avail. It seems that someone from the police precinct is secretly giving information to the gang, which is led by a mysterious mastermind. Captain Harris and his lackey Proctor just make the situation worse with their clumsy shtick. However, the officers finally arrest the gang and reveal the identity of the mastermind, who turns out to be the mayor.

As the critics established, every new "Police Academy" movie was worse than its forerunner, except maybe part 6 which is, compared to the bad previous sequel, surprisingly tolerable and OK, which is the first and last time that the authors actually decided to improve something in the series instead of just sinking deeper into the abyss. That doesn't mean that "City Under Siege" is anything more than barely a watchable flick, though, with bland jokes, sparse ideas and lackluster crafting throughout, whereas the shtick of Captain Harris and his assistant Proctor already turned lame two movies ago. The best ingredient is actually the mystery behind the identity of the secret mastermind who hides behind a shadowy silhouette, which gives the story some interest a la Sherlock Holmes, whereas the cinematography is very good. Everything else is not even worth mentioning - Nick Lassard is no Mahoney, though Callahan has a neat moment when she single handled beats up a gang of thugs on the street and Hightower has a comical duel with the equally strong "wrestler" gangster.

Grade:+

Friday, March 18, 2011

Mask


Mask; Drama, USA, 1985; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Eric Stoltz, Cher, Sam Elliott, Laura Dern, Estelle Getty, Richard Dysart, Harry Carey, Jr.

California. The 16-year old Rocky Dennis suffers from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia that deformed his face, which is why he is a social outcast in school. His mother Rusty, a rebellious woman who hangs out with a biker gang, gives him strength to keep on living, but secretly takes drugs to suppress her depression. She even pays a young prostitute so that Rocky can lose his virginity, but he refuses. When he attends a summer camp for disabled, he meets the blind Diana and they fall in love. However, their parents are against the relationship. Since the disease progresses, Rusty finds Rocky dead one morning.

Peter Bogdanovich's "Mask", a biopic about Rocky Dennis, is probably one of the most honest depictions of disability of its time - unlike other Hollywood films where disabled protagonists are still shown as beaus and mannequins, just with a "minor flaw", here there was no attempt to make the hero's physically deformed face "appealing" to the wide audience, but to show it as it is, a burden. Displaying how the kind-hearted Rocky wonders throughout the whole movie how his life could have been if he was at least normal looking, and not a "freak", makes this one of the saddest stories of the 80s. The scene where the blind Diana touches his face but still says: "I think you are beautiful" is thus incredibly poignant and touching. Bogdanovich isn't such a master anymore as he was in the 70s, yet he still has a sure director's hand and motherly care for his despised characters, which gives the movie a humane touch: just like in "The Elephant Man", "Mask" contemplates about the themes of human dignity, "cursed fate", bigotry and intolerance. The maximum was achieved out of brilliant Cher as Rocky's mother Rusty, who won the best actress award at Cannes and was nominated for a Golden Globe, evident already in the opening sequence where she is walking with her Rocky in school - the students stare at him, but she just says; "What's wrong, never seen someone from planet Vulcan before?"

Grade:++

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Beggar's Opera


Zebrácká opera; comedy, Czech Republic, 1991; D: Jiří Menzel, S: Josef Abrhám, Marián Labuda, Rudolf Hrusínský, Barbora Leichnerová, Jana Brezková, Jeremy Irons

At the turn of the 20th century, two rival gangs of pickpockets roam in a city: one is led by the womanizing Macheath while the other is led by the overweight Peachum. When Peachum's daughter Polly starts an affair with Macheath, her father advises her to spy on him in order to trick him into a trap, but she refuses. However, Macheath is arrested anyway when a prostitute seduces him and then pretends he was about to rape her. The police inspector Lockit actually organized everything when Peachum bribed him. Lockit's daughter Lucy, who is also Macheath's wife, frees him from the prison, yet he is quickly apprehended. In jail, Peachum proposes Macheath a merger with himself as commander-en-chief. When it is revealed that Lockit actually controls both of them, Macheath agrees to conform and end with both Polly and Lucy.
Jiri Menzel's comical adaptation of John Gay's 18th century opera with the same title, "The Beggar's Opera" is a fun, accessible, dynamic and lively (crime) comedy that gains most of its energy from small jokes placed throughout the story as well as fine performances, with the overweight comedian Marian Labuda again standing out the most in the cast as Peachum (by the way, even Jeremy Irons has a small cameo as a prison inmate!), whereas the storyline kept its level of interest roughly until the end. The attention of the viewers is grabbed already in the funny opening sequence where robber no. 1 breaks a window and steals a necklace: a police officer runs after him but he just gives the necklace to robber no. 2 who runs in a completely different direction, who then gives it to robber no. 3, then to no. 4, no. 5...until the police officer completely loses his track of whom he should be chasing after. The schemes of pickpockets and gangs' tricks are also good for a good laugh (in one scene, a "beggar" is sitting on the street, placing his fake hand in front so that a nice lady can lean forward and give him some change, all the while his real hand, hidden under his fake hand, secretly steals the wallet from her purse). Overall, another good contribution to Menzel's comedy opus.
Grade:++

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Ballad of Narayama


Narayama Bushiko; Drama, Japan, 1983; D: Shohei Imamura, S: Ken Ogata, Sumiko Sakamoto, Tonpei Hidari, Aki Takejo

A small Japanese village, 19th century. The 45-year old Tatsuhei is widowed and has two kids. His brother Risuke is nicknamed "Smelly" due to his odor and is thus still a virgin, sometimes even easing sexual desire with a dog. Dead babies are sometimes used as manure while a whole family can sometimes be buried alive if they steal food. There is also a long tradition that says when a person reaches 70, he or she must go up a mountain to die there. Tatsuhei's mother Orin is 69 and spends the last few months finding him a new wife, Tamayan, and helping Risuke lose his virginity. During winter, Tatsuhei carries his mother on his back up to the montain, where they depart.

"I like to make messy films...I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure," director Shohei Imamoura once said. His inclination at showing the "inconvenient" side of human nature that is often avoided pretty much gives a reference point to his unknown Golden Palm winner, "The Ballad of Narayama", which contains more vulgarity than all of "American Pie" movies put together, yet still manages to make it look realistic and ambitious. It is a dirty, ville, brutal and disgusting depiction of ancient Japan that displays how "good old traditions" don't always have to be something good, pushing his dark theme that humans are also animals (i.e. scenes of snakes or frogs copulating intervened with a couple having sex) equipped with a few amazing images of nature (a hunter shoots a rabbit with a gun, but just then an eagle flies by and "steals it"). However, the movie is much more engaging in the last quarter, where the protagonist is carrying his 70-year old mother to the top of the mountain where, according to the tradition, they will part forever - which is probably so emotional because it acts like an exceptional rough beauty as opposed to the ugly mood presented up to it - than in director's "cockroach" approach for the rest of his disgusting characters, which seems excessive and placed just for shock value.

Grade:++

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The New World


The New World; drama, USA, 2005; D: Terrence Malick, S: Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Klicher, Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, Wes Studi, David Thewlis

In 1607, a British expedition arrives at the shores of America in order to establish a colony, Virginia, and then leaves for supplies. Among the people who stay is John Smith, who gets caught by the Native Americans. The Chief wants to execute him, but his daughter Pocahontas persuades him to spare his life. Smith and Pocahontas fall in love, but when she arrives to live in his settlement, it causes a tragic battle. When offered a lifetime chance to lead an expedition to explore America, Smith accepts but instructs his associates to tell Pocahontas that he died. Years pass and Pocahontas becomes a "naturalized" European citizen by accepting the name Rebecca. She marries John Rolfe. On her trip to London, she meets the King and finds out that Smith is alive. She falls ill and dies.

After three excellent films in a (desultory) row, director Terrence Malick somehow did not manage to repeat the success a fourth time with "The New World", his only movie in the 2000s. Just like Malick's previous achievements, his version of "Pocahontas" is also a meditative, abstract and deliberately vague story - but unlike those previous films, where that vague tone was reimbursed by amazing images, engaging emotions and stimulative philosophical contemplations (especially in "The Thin Red Line"), here the emotions don't manage to engage, the images don't seem so special whereas the philosophical touch is diminished. It would be a sin to say that "World" is a "rump" version of Malick's talent, yet it simply doesn't reach the viewers the way it could and should. One of the bigger flaws are thin characters - for instance, in one sequence John Smith narrates how Pocahontas was the Chief's favorite daughter because she is so special, kind and enchanting - unfortunately, we only get that through that narration, but don't sense it otherwise in her character. The last quarter of the movie is overstretched and distant. Still, here and there one can still find moments of delight (Smith's narration when he observes the Natives: "They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard").

Grade:++

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Devil Wears Prada


The Devil Wears Prada, Comedy, USA, 2006; D: David Frankel, S: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci

New York. In order to accumulate some work experience, young Andrea accepts an ungrateful job as the second assistant of Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine "Runaway". However, her boss turns out to be a nightmare - Miranda tends to be demanding beyond the tolerable, exhausting her employees by sending them pick up lunch, her wardrobe or make an appointment for her. Just as Andrea starts feeling hopeless, she adjusts by wearing wardrobe and doing chores Miranda would like in advance. Slowly, she turns into a conformed, obedient fashion worker, but alienates her friends. In Paris, when Miranda tells her she reminds her of her, Andrea quits and returns to her boyfriend Nate.

If there was ever a movie that captured the feel of a nightmare job, then it is "The Devil Wears Prada". This comedy achieves a golden standard at realistically depicting mobbing and pointless bossing around only to show employees how they are inferior - Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe as best actress in a comedy or musical for her performance as "dictator" Miranda, though charming Anne Hathaway is the real star of the movie. By setting the story in the fashion industry, this could have been a field day at pocking fun for Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, but it somehow leaned too much towards shallowness and conformity, until the end when the main heroine overturns that. The story actually tries to claim that fashion is art, when it is not art, it is just a business. There are some fine examples of satirical and sharp humor, though it is too sparse to outweigh those too serious approaches of the subject in question.

Grade:++

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach


Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach; Comedy, USA, 1988; D: Alan Myerson, S: Matt McCoy, George Gaynes, Michael Winslow, Leslie Easterbrook, G. W. Bailey, Lance Kinsey, Bubba Smith, Marion Ramsey, Rene Auberjonois

Commandant Lassard is about to be retired, but not before he will be honored as the "police officer of the decade" in Miami. He flies there with officers Hightower, Jones, Tackleberry, Callahan, Thomas "House" and Hooks, where he meets his nephew again, Nick Lassard. Captain Harris and his lackey Proctor also travel there to participate. When Lassard gets kidnapped because he accidentally switched his handbag with that of the criminal Tony, who hid his stolen jewels there, the officers intervene and save the day.

The script for part 5 of the low-brow comedy series "Police Academy" was so thin and bellow standard that it definitely caused the crash of the franchise and a massive exodus of the original actors from previous four movies, including the main protagonist Mahoney and the comic duo Sweetchuck and Zed, without whom this didn't have any more sense - their absence is sorely and obviously missed. The remaining few original "Police Academy" actors who were brave enough to stay on a sinking ship did their best, but to no avail. The first 15 minutes of "Assignment Miami Beach", that play out in the Police Academy headquarters, are okay, but once the rump crew arrives at Miami there is almost nothing more to see. Part 5 is an empty, thin and bland comedy, though the sequence where Hooks switches her "nice" voice with a threatening one at a training and scares a dozen volunteers who pretended to be an angry riot so much that they back off until the end of a pool, wherein they fall into the water, and Callahan's singing "Ride of the Valkyries", are unexpected small crumbs of delight.

Grade:-

Friday, March 11, 2011

The End of Old Times


Konec starych casu; Comedy, Czech Republic, 1989; D: Jiří Menzel, S: Josef Abrhám, Jaromír Hanzlík, Marián Labuda, Rudolf Hrusínský, Jan Hartl, Chantal Poullain

Servant and librarian Bernard Spera narrates how his former lord fled from the castle and settled in Tirol after changes in Czechoslovakia after World War I. The new National Assembly appointed the rich Stoklasa as the new administrator of the castle. He isn't a nobleman, but wants to buy the estate. In order to charm the local politicians, he organizes an opulent party and a hunt. However, one local lord refused to show up. Instead, a sleazy man claiming to be Duke Alexej shows up and stays at the castle. Stoklasa listens to every work he says, though numerous servants suspect the man is an impostor. After an argument, Alexej leaves while Charousek makes a deal with Stoklasa, enabling him to make a community in the castle.

Jiri Menzel's "The End of Old Times" is a gentle satire on appearance, upper class and the ever lasting human tendency to climb up on the latter of the social hierarchy, which still flows smoothly despite the fact that it is considerably weaker than his previous films. It's a mild comedy with sparse jokes, the most subtle appearing at the beginning (the opening text stating: "When ever a peasant puts on Aristocrat's clothes, he rips them.") and the ending of the film (the title of the film shows up - "The End of Old Times" - and then the latter part of the sentence disappears and the only text that remains is "The End"), whereas it simply lacks that elan and spark to give the overstretched story enough life. Josef Abrahm is too good for his own good as the sleazy slob "Duke Alexej" while the overweight Marian Labuda is, on the other hand, again sympathetic as the comic caricature Stoklasa. The movie doesn't grasp that "Czech charm" to the fullest, yet it has its moments, one of them in the scene where the lawyer finds the name of Duke Alexej's mother, but that still doesn't prove his Aristocratic blood ("She lived 300 years ago! If she gave birth to you when she was 100, you would still be 200 years old!" - "How do you know how old I am?").

Grade:+

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lost Highway


Lost Highway; Mystery, USA, 1997; D: David Lynch, S: Bill Pullman, Balthazar Getty, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Busey, Richard Pryor

Middle-aged saxophonist Fred leads a bland marriage with his wife Renee. One day, they find a video tape in front of their door and it shows a small clip of inside their home. Fred meets a mysterious man at a party. He gets hallucinations and gets arrested when he wakes up since the police suspect him of killing his wife. He has a headache and suddenly there is a young lad, Pete, in his cell. Pete gets released and goes to his job as an auto-mechanic, but starts an affair with Alice, the mistress of underground boss Eddy. At a cabin, after sex, Pete transforms into Fred who kills Eddy and meets the mysterious man again. Running away in a car from the police, Fred enters a metamorphosis.

Another typical hermetic movie by David Lynch - alien and bizarre, and yet somehow pure poetry at times. In the second phase of his career, Lynch departed from normal storytelling and leaned more towards the subconscious, equipped with abstract images that echo Salvador Dali and Rene Margritte, which is why automatically a big deal of viewers will feel confused and repelled by "Lost Highway". The situation at the beginning, where a young married couple, Fred and Renee, find a video tape in front of their doorstep that contains a small clip of inside their mansion, is chilling and steadily raises the suspense of the unknown enemy, whereas the "plot switch" in the middle of the movie even slightly reminds of "Mullholand Drive". Even comedian Richard Pryor has a one-minute cameo as the auto-mechanic.
Make no mistake about it, the mystery of the whole events will seem incomprehensible to many, though some commentators, including many on IMDb, offered some surprisingly insightful explanations, including the one that the increasingly impotent Fred suffers from schizophrenia and thus imagines a younger self having plenty of sex with a blond version of his wife, which would explain the appropriate "schizophrenic" expression of the whole movie, though the "Faustian" theme of the mysterious man who can "warp" reality in order to cause mischief for the protagonists should also be considered. A strange experience, yet the 'tour-de-force' sequence where Pete and Alice are making out naked on the meadow at night, while the car lights illuminate them so much that they are overexposed, which makes them look like "creatures of light", is one of the most beautiful and inspirational representations of making love in the history of cinema, completely untypical for such a film, as if it was a dream inside a dream.

Grade:++

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yes Man


Yes Man; Comedy, USA, 2008; D: Peyton Reed, S: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, John Michael Higgins, Terence Stamp

Los Angeles. Carl leads an unexciting and monotone life: he still can't get over his ex-wife Stephanie, has a grey job and rejects every invitation for something new. One day, his old friend persuades him to attend a seminar where motivational guru Terrence pitches his "Say Yes to everything" attitude. Carl is sceptical at first, but when he tries it out and transports a homeless man to a park, he meets the charming Allison. Quickly, he says yes to everything and suddenly finds a new positive perspective in life. However, when Allison learns about his experiment, she breaks up with him. He persuades her to come back and learns that even a "No" is sometimes OK.

"Yes Man" is some sort of a "restructuring" of Jim Carrey's own '97 comedy "Liar Liar", but a better one at that since here the protagonist's own choice to try out saying "Yes" to (literally!) everything in order to change his perspective at life seems more honest. After watching it, your first immediate thought is: "This is the most positive movie in the world!" There is simply something stimulative in the contagiously fun gandhiesque concept of non-resistance where the protagonist just takes on every challenge, as if he can absorb everything and all the negative energy can be transformed into positive, which almost reaches philosophical dimensions, albeit humorous ones. The beginning and the ending are uneven and clumsy whereas Carrey again uses his grimaces and fools around, yet he is somehow more sympathetic in this edition, whereas the sequence where he fabulously plays Third Eye Blind's song "Jumper" on a guitar to persuade a man from jumping off a building is even one of 2-3 best things he ever did in his entire career: it's a pure 'tour-de-force' feel-good moment.

Grade:++

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol


Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol; Comedy, USA, 1987; D: Jim Drake, S: Steve Guttenberg, Michael Winslow, Bobcat Goldthwait, Tim Kazurinsky, G.W. Bailey, Lance Kinsey, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Leslie Easterbrook, Tab Thacker, David Spade, Billie Bird, Marion Ramsey, Sharon Stone

Police Academy's Commandant Lassard creates a new programme, "Citizens on Patrol" (COP), where normal civilians would be recruited by the police and trained as a support to fight against a new crime wave. Mahoney, Jones, Callahan, Zed, Sweetchuck and the others thus train the new recruits, while Captain Harris can't wait to somehow undermine the whole project. The idea is indeed canceled, but when some criminals escape from jail, the COP volunteers are the key players who manage to save the day.

Every new "Police Academy" film was worse than the previous (except maybe part 6), and following this trend part 4 turned into such a thin and vague flick that it was barely watchable, appropriately standing in the middle of the series and dividing it between the tolerable and the intolerable half. Writer Gene Quintano did not really invest any effort in the script and thus this sparsely comical movie roughly followed all the worn-out structures of the "Police Academy" series, including the one where a bad guy (this time Captain Harris) gives a hard time to the police officers, who thus take revenge in various "Tom & Jerry" pranks, a concept that was already poor in the first film - these and other omissions would eventually cause a mass exodus of the actors from the series in part 5. However, the skateboard sequence was somehow neat, one Harris-Mahoney dialogue was amusing ("Did someone ever tell you that you are a small piss-ant?" - "No one whose opinion matters.") whereas Tim Kazurinsky's character Sweetchuck and Bobact Goldthwait's Zed appear here for the last time and still offer that 'daft charm' - Sweetchuck in the scene where he wipes pigeon feces on his shoe off another police officer's trousers and Zed in the scene where he is playing guitar at the pond, his wannabe girlfriend talks to him while a duck is heard quacking in the background, and he suddenly says: "Shut up!" like a demented lunatic; she becomes quiet but he says: "No, not you, I meant the duck!"

Grade:+

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Larks on a String


Skřivánci na niti; Satire, Czech Republic, 1969; D: Jiří Menzel, S: Rudolf Hrusínský, Vlastimil Brodský, Václav Neckár, Jitka Zelenohorská, Jaroslav Satoransky

Czechoslovakia. The government gathers numerous "spoiled bourgeois" individuals and sends them working on a junkyard in order to "correct" their attitude: among them a professor, a public prosecutor, a saxophonist, a baker and even a milkman. The men and women work in two separate groups, collecting scrap metal in order to melt it into steel. The professor likes to philosophize and entertain them. When he and the milkman refuse to cooperate with an educational group of young kids, they are banished. When a high ranking official visits the area, the young lad asks where they disappeared. As a punishment, even though he was just recently married to Jitka, the young lad is sent with others to go working in an underground mine.

Bohumil Hrabal wrote numerous satirical short stories which seized the attention and admiration of director Jiri Menzel. When the censorship of the pseudo-communist government loosened up a bit, Menzel managed to film this distant and abstract, but strongly allegorical satire which was immediately banned when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in '68, until the movie was finally brought out of the bunker and premiered 22 years later in Berlin. "Larks on a String" features nameless protagonists working forcefully in a junkyard to emphasize its message of the (de facto Czechoslovakian) regime that is insanely pushing intellectuals to "out of place" hard-labor jobs in order to "correct" their independent thinking. The best ingredients of the film manifest through humorous dialogues that shine with ease, like when two protagonists argue over whether they heard news reporting on Iran or Iraq ("A fool or a jerk is one and the same, but there is a huge difference between Iraq and Iran!") or when one of them exaggerates about his fish ("I wanted to warm up their water, but I accidentally cooked them."), yet the sparse humor and the allegorical mood deliberately turned it more towards the artificial than it could and should have been, even when the clever touch is felt throughout.

Grade:++

Spirit of Wonder: Miss China's Ring


Spirit of Wonder: Chaina-san no Yūutsu; Animated romantic science-fiction comedy, Japan, 1992; D: Mitsuru Hongo, S: Noriko Hidaka, Hiroyuki Shibamoto, Michio Hazama

Miss China, a young Chinese girl, runs a boarding house in Prince of Wales. She often has to argue with the eccentric tenant, Dr. Breckenridge, because he can't pay his rent regularly due to problems with selling his inventions. But she has pity on him because she is hopelessly in love with his young assistant Jim. When he gives her two presents for her birthday - a ring and a giant text saying "Happy Birthday to China" stamped all over the Moon - she starts believing in their invention. In order to make "the best ring" for her, they destroy the Moon and from there on its debris makes a ring over Earth while China and Jim become a couple.

This short anime OVA film is a tender, gentle and honest homage to "soft steam-punk" genre with a surprisingly good sense for romance: it draws the most awe from the the excellent character of Miss China who is yearning for her hidden crush, tenant Jim, as well as crystal clear cinematography, sharp animation and an occasional comic moment (in one scene, Dr. Breckendridge reads the newspaper, and on the back page you can clearly spot a few headlines saying "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"!). The tender mood runs smoothly and keeps the viewers warm (Miss China arguably gets the best birthday present ever) until the nonsensical finale: it is simply too outlandish for comfort, featuring an idea with a potentially catastrophic consequences for Earth, yet the characters treat it so superficially, as if it is all a joke and a game. Such an excessive idea somehow outweighs the well developed romance up until that, though "Spirit of Wonder" is still a quality anime, just not so much as that all-time anime classic of romance "Maison Ikkoku".

Grade:++