Wednesday, June 27, 2012
New York. Melanie Parker is late for work because she promised she will take her son Sammy to a school trip on a ship. She is a single mother who was left by her husband. At the same time, reporter Jack is also rushing to the same ship, in order to accompany his daughter Maggie there. He is also a single parent. Both of them are too late to catch the ship, but after leaving Melanie and Jack notice they accidentally switched their mobile phones. After meeting again, they actually find each other quite charming. During work, Jack discovers that the mayor transfered a large amount of money to his own private account, while Melanie presents her new architectural project. In the evening, they meet and fall in love.
"One Fine Day" is an unjustly forgotten film, a fine example of a modern romantic comedy tailored according to previous 'old school' classics: director Hoffman cleverly stylized the story that follows 24 hours in the life of two single protagonists with kids, Jack and Melanie, who lives are just an inversion of each other. Unlike the majority of mainstream comedies from that era, this one does not have vulgar jokes and is sympathetic, whereas Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent as the single mother Melanie, as well as George Clooney (especially when she says to Jack that her son Sammy "gets into troubles faster than he can make woman smile"). There is a very charming scene in which Jack gives an advice to his daughter Maggie, namely not to "trample" every poor guy just because she can when she grows into a beautiful woman, whereas one can almost wish the finale was not "interrupted" and allowed for the story to show what happened to the next day between the two of them, yet enough funny jokes already managed to assure a good grade nonetheless (in the best joke, Jack wants to kiss Melanie in her apartment, but she asks him to wait until she "freshens up". Cue to the next scene of Melanie brushing teeth, shaving legs, tidying her hair...). The song For the First Time was nominated for an Oscar.
Croatia, World War II. A train full of people is heading towards the Jasenovac concentration camp. One of its passangers, partisan sympathiser Neven Novak, manages to escape through a hole and run away to Zagreb. He meets an old friend there, sculpturer Leo, and finds out that his son Zoran is being brain washed in a fascist training camp for kids. Neven manages to get Zoran out of there, but the child is so indoctrinated that it is suspicious towards his partisan views. Finding a contact in a tavern, Neven and Zoran cross the Sava river where they are directed towards a partisan outpost. The fascist find and kill Neven, but the partisans manage to bring Zoran to safety.
Even though it is not as strong and polished as Stiglic's excellent "The Ninth Circle", Bauer's "Don't Look Back, My Son" is a valuable and quality example of a realistic portrait of the World War II era in Croatia, before the genre would sink into thousands of kitschy partisan (B) movies. Due to Tito's stance not to mention the Jasenovac or other concentration camps in order to preserve "brotherhood and unity" among the mixed people in Yugoslavia, a similar policy was probably pursued in the cinema which is why neither "Circle" nor "Don't Look" explictly show the conditions in the camps, just the persecution of the proagonists hiding in Zagreb, yet their fear conjures up more than enough to "fill in the blanks" in the viewers' imagination. Bert Sotlar is great in the leading role of the persecuted protaginist, director Branko Bauer leads the story with a sure hand, in an almost 'neo-realist' way, refusing to turn too sentimental or too cold, the characters are complex, never black and white (i.e. an attractive woman who has an affair with a German commander in order "not to starve to death") whereas the black and white cinematography gives a solid expressionistic touch. However, one huge flaw really burdens the film, namely the entirely unconvincing sequence where Neven meets his son Zoran again, but he doesn't recognize his face nor his voice (sure, they were seperated for a few years, but it is definetely too little time to forget your own parent's face or voice) as well as the naive way he rescues him from the training facility. As a curiosity, Croatia's ex-president Stjepan Mesić has a small role as an ustasha soldier - he can be seen some 27 minutes into the film, behind Neven, in a streetcar, looking almost like a young Gable with that mustache.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
One night, teenage girls Madoka and Sayaka meet a cat like creature, Kyubey, that wants to recruit them as 'magical girls' in exchange for any wish they want: as a presentation, they follow 'magical girl' Mami who battles witches, evil entities that kiss people and cause them to commit suicide to feed of their despair. However, a mysterious girl, Homura, wants to prevent Madoka from signing a contract with Kyubey at any cost. After Mami gets killed, Sayaka signs a contract in exchange for healing a sick boy, but regrets it since he forgets about her soon afterwards. It turns out that witches are actually 'magical girls' gone hopeless and that Kyubey just collects their energy after they die in order to use it to prevent entropy of the collapsing universe. Homura turns out to be a time-traveling friend from the future, trying to save Madoka from ruining her life when she signs the contract. Still, Madoka accepts becoming a 'magical girl' in exchange to be transformed into a force of nature that will purify negative energy and thus prevent the creation of the witches. The universe changes and only Homura remembers Madoka existed, who is now a divine purifier.
"Madoka Magica" almost seems like some sort of a negative apotheosis of the 'magical girl' genre that decided to turn almost all of its cliches upside down. It starts off as a gentle restructuring of "Sailor Moon" - there's a talking animal that wants to transform the heroine into a 'magical girl' (Kyubey), instead of the mom waking up her sleepy daughter, the daughter wakes up the sleepy mother whereas mom goes to work while dad stays home as a 'housemaid', almost as an ironic jab that "Sailor Moon" was not feminist enough when it applied the standard of mom as a housekeeper. Even the opponents, the so called witches, seem like more realistic depictions of the youmas, phages and droids from "Sailor Moon", i.e. entities creating negative energy in order to feed from it (here, in one example, witches cause a woman to have a sudden urge for suicide and try to jump from a building, but after she is saved, she cannot explain her behavior). However, from episode 3 onwards, "Madoka" turns into a complete opposite, an entirely serious story without any humor where all the bright colors slowly disappear and the drama approaches such a level of dark intensity that not even "Elfen Lied" would be ashamed of (though without the blood and violence). The structure of the story is excellently intervened and the viewers have to watch the whole 12 episodes until the end in order to fully understand the characters' actions, especially the mysterious Homura and the "Faustian" cat-like creature Kyubey that often seems like a shady lawyer who always withholds a part of data from you.
The narrative is so dense, rich and engaging that its addictive, especially since it contains numerous lines of wisdom referring to karma, yin-yang and the futile attempt of trying to make the whole world happy ("Even someone like me can be useful to someone else. I want to live being proud of myself. That's my biggest dream."; "You need to learn to mess up before you grow up."; "Even a whole life doesn't normally buy a miracle."; "Don't confuse gratitude with responsibility."; "Miracles aren't free. When you wish for hope, it creates an equivalent of despair. Happiness evens out and the world stays in balance."). In one of the milestone moments, 'magical girl' Sayaka overhears the talk of an insensitive man in the train who calls his wife a "dog", aproaches him and then asks herself - is this is the world she is fighting for? In another, the heroine does not show up as a 'magical girl' until episode 10! This anime has four plot twists which all contribute to the impression as a whole, untypically ending up as a real "downer", an "innocent" genre de-touring to an existential tragedy Antonioni style, with the virtuoso metaphysical-esoteric finale in which the whole nature of the universe is rewritten (!) almost reaching the mind-expanding philosophical pantheon of "Shin Seiki Evangelion". A few complaints could be directed towards the 'autistic' music, 'Bety Boop' design of the female characters, cold style and a few plot holes (why didn't Homura reveal her true nature from the first episode?), yet with such an intrigue factor they all disappear with time, when the show "grows on you". "Sailor Moon" is still better, though, (S and Stars season) due to its pure charm, humor and joie-de-vivre, and both are dramatic (the legendary finale in SuperS, for instance), with the difference that "Madoka" is depressive and nihilistic, depending on each viewer's preference.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Baltimore around Christmas, '59. A group of high school friends, now in their 20s, still gather to hang around in a local diner. One of them, Shrevie, is already married with Beth, but one evening they have a terrible argument. Beth contemplates to have an affair with Robert, but they both decide it would not be fair. Robert is also in gambling problems and owes a lot of money. Timothy is struggling with alcohol while William finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. They all attend the wedding of Edward.
The feature length directorial debut of Barry Levinson, "Diner" is a nostalgic, sincere but appropriately sober little humorous drama set in author's hometown Baltimore, Maryland, thus enabling him to give an authentic portrait of the mentality and language of those inhabitants. Some critics mistakenly credited Levinson for creating a "movie about nothing" - gentle slice-of-life films that relied on sole interaction of characters instead of a tight story already existed with Felini's "Amarcord" and Yates' "Breaking Away" - yet he showed a sixth sense in understanding the lives of young grown ups trying to find their place in the world. Some jokes are borrowed from other films (the cinema scene where Rourke's character secretly puts his penis in the popcorn box so that his girlfriend will accidentally "reach for it" originates from the charming French teen-comedy "La Boum"), some are clever (the trick question in a quiz referring to how long astronauts have to wait until sunrise on Mercury's dark side), some are "cool" (lighting a cigarette on a stove), yet all are charming, despite a few empty walks and an occasionally lukewarm mood. All actors are in top-notch shape, especially Bacon and Rourke. "Diner" does not grasp the level of "Amarcord" and "Breaking Away", yet few films do, anyway, whereas the biggest pleasure is when the author inserts a few inventive ideas, like the closing credits without music (!), just with the protagonists' voices being heard "chatting" about everyday issues.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
New York. Brandon is a fairly successful employee in his 30s who is a sex addict, requiring sexual activity several times each day. He hires prostitutes and watches porn on Internet. When his sister, Sissy, a washed up singer, settles at his apartment because she does not have a place to stay, Brandon is annoyed. He goes out on a date with Marianne, but her emotional attachment bothers him. He starts pitying himself, but manages to appease the negligence of his sister when he saves her from suicide.
Critic Damir Radić finely observed how the cinema tackled several addictions, from alcohol ("The Lost Weekend"), through drugs ("Requiem for a Dream") up to gambling ("Owning Mahowny"), but surprisingly practically ignored the widely perceived sex addiction - with a few notable exceptions ("In the Realm of the Senses"). Director Steve McQueen teamed up again with actor Michael Fassbinder to deliver the latter in "Shame", a dark existential drama that is a quality achievement, but is unfortunately structured like a "dead end" - it shows the protagonist in a deadlock and just leaves him in a deadlock, without offering a solution or something to "outgrow" it. The protagonists' addiction is portrayed in a convincing way (his laptop is filled with porn sites; he even masturbates on toilet at work or goes to a gay bar just to have someone give him a blow job), yet it is interesting to point out that his problem actually lies more in being "allergic" to feelings and emotional attachment: the date with the clever Marianne (excellent Nicole Beharie) clearly shows this ("Look at all the couples. They don't even talk!" - "Maybe because they don't have to. They are connected.") and is further explored when he cannot get an erection with her because sex *and* emotions somehow cannot exist within him at the same time. The theme is corroborated by the cold relationship with his sister. Unfortunately, the Marianne subplot is quickly disposed, when it could have easily been the main plot since she is a more charismatic and better written character than Sissy. Another flaw is the increasingly sentimental finale, especially the syrupy-melodramatic music playing when Brandon is having a threesome: a subtler author wouldn't have allowed that and would have sent the message in a more objective way. Still, an interesting and gritty independent film that does not "polish" up the difficult (double) theme.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Teenage girl Sarah has to babysit her baby brother Toby while her parents are away. She wishes that "goblins take him away", so they do. Sarah wants to take her wish back, so the goblin king, Jareth, transports her to his land and gives her 13 hours to find his castle by passing through the labyrinth. Teaming up with bizarre creatures - the giant Ludo, the dwarf Hoggle, knight Dydimus - Sarah finds Toby in the castle and returns him back home.
Even though it did not perform well at the US box office, the last film directed by Jim Henson, "Labyrinth", rallied such an opulent display of amazing make up, costumes, set design and special effects (nominated for a BAFTA) that it was hard for it not to advance into a cult achievement for its sheer standing out from the rest of the movies. The creatures and the whole fantasy world they inhabit are a masterwork of effects craft - even more when one has in mind that it was made for only 25 million $ - yet, as it is often the case, fantasy movies exist on two levels - the level of effects, and the level of quality storytelling - whereas here there seems to have been a break-up between those two since the effects are here, but a good story seems to be someplace else. Despite an interesting decision to build a movie almost exclusively between two human characters - Sarah and Jareth - surrounded by puppets, some puppets turned out more alive than the main heroine, yet even the puppets vary in the degree of character development (for instance, knight Dydimus is the only fully fleshed out personality, whereas numerous others seem to be just pale extras. The dry Hoggle is only interesting in the humorous scene when he was introduced urinating). The lack of wit and lukewarm dramaturgy bother, as well as some bizarre ideas, including the disturbing sequence where Sarah wishes for "goblins to take away the baby", yet some scenes are almost iconic (walking on stairs upside down or sideways) whereas David Bowie easily stands out as the nontransparent Jareth.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
In spite of all expectations, the rich Philippe, paralyzed from the waist down, hires the black outcast Driss who is unemployed and practically homeless to care for him. The wild Driss is at first not overwhelmed with "babysitting" Philippe in a wheelchair, but slowly starts to become his friend and "livens" up his routine by driving in a fast car, increasing the speed of his wheelchair up to 8 miles per hour and helping his adopted teenage daughter. After a short "pause" from work, Driss even manages to find Philippe a wife.
A French movie about a man in a wheelchair seemed like a project doomed for a double failure at the box office, but "The Intouchables" not only became one of the highest grossing movies worldwide of that year, but also surprisingly the 2nd highest grossing French film in its native country (with over 19 million viewers) till date. Thematically similar to the French film "Nationale 7", loosely based on the real life relationship between Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Yasmin Sellou, directors Nakache and Toledano crafted one of the rare kind of movies that give something positive out of a negative, depressive story, showing a universal message viewers can identify with: we have two outsiders living at the "bottom" of society (one physically handicapped, the other financially) who somehow find ways to celebrate life, find happiness and swim at the top nonetheless. Despite some oversimplified solutions, inconsistencies (it is never clear why Driss is such an optimist while around Philippe, but otherwise so serious and "down" privately) and omissions (a few banal or heavy handed attempts at cheap humor; the underdeveloped character of Philippe's adopted daughter Elise...), this is a remarkably spiritual serious comedy that extracts humor in untypical ways: in one great example, Philippe brings Driss to see an opera for the first time, the lights go out, and then the lights turn on to reveal a singing man dressed as a tree, upon which Driss bursts in laughter. So simple and yet so amazing. Driss' comments may be unorthodox (upon finding out Philippe is communicating with a woman only via letters, he calls him "letter seducer") but symbolically he represents what the authors intended, namely raw energy that gives power to his friend.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
The 23rd century. While attending the first flight of the new spaceship USS Enterprise, retired Captain James T. Kirk is hit by a mysterious energy ribbon and disappears. Almost 80 years later, the new Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew are trying to prevent scientist Soran from destroying a star - and thereby its planet inhabited by over 200 million people - in order to change the course of the energy ribbon, called Nexus, towards him so that he can return there. People who were in the Nexus talk about a perfect state of bliss in it. Soran succeeds and the Nexus swallows Picard with him. There, Picard meets the still living Kirk and they return back in time to stop Soran. Kirk dies in the attempt.
Critic Jeremy Conrad observed nicely that the 7th Star Trek film is "one of the better odd-numbered Star Trek films", but still a step back compared to the tight and more fitting conclusion in the previous film, "The Undiscovered Country", which gives credibility to Spock actor Nimoy who declined to reprise his iconic role in this film, finding it unsatisfying. "Generations" is a 'passing-the-torch' film that conceded the space for the next generation of the Enterprise crew and it has its fair share of merits - the opening sequence of a bottle of champagne floating in space until it crashes into the new Enterprise is impressive; the cinematography and special effects are exquisite whereas even the bad guy Soran (McDowell) is not your 'run-of-the-mill' villain who reveals to be a far more complex character than one might expect ("There was a time I wouldn't have hurt a fly...", he says in one scene) - but after closer examination it is sadly obvious that the accessory elements are somehow more convincing than the main ones, since the sole story (an energy ribbon, "Nexus", that makes every wish come true) is an awfully unconvincing rip-off of "Solaris", that is both illogical ("One cannot fly into it - it must come to you") and uneven while drifting away from science-fiction into fantasy and magic, even though pseudo-science never truly benefited a Star Trek film ("Part V: The Final Frontier", for instance).
The concept is full of huge plot holes (is it really necessary for Soran to destroy whole stars in order to advert the "Nexus" towards him? Why not simply go with a spaceship and stop in front of the route of the "Nexus"?), yet not as insane as the reboot film from 2009. Unfortunately, the new crew did not have enough room either since all of their characters were written as mere extras (Riker, Worf, Crusher...), not even the main character Picard, except for a brief emotional scene of loss. The only character who shined with full light was, ironically, android Data who experienced a few vivid and comical adventures after trying out an emotions chip: in one particularly memorable scene, Guinan pours him a drink, he tries it, makes a grimace but cannot explain what this new feeling is. Guinan says: "I guess it is disgusting, right?" The curious Data agrees and is so overwhelmed with this emotion that he instantly orders another drink to explore more of this "disgusting" new feeling. The basic story is silly, yet "Generations" still has an iconic landmark of Picard and Kirk meeting for the first and last time, making their screen time in the last 20 minutes of the film worth just a little bit more.
Friday, June 8, 2012
Joseph K. awakes one morning and finds two police inspectors in his apartment who inform him that he is charged - but do not specify for what. Joseph is thereupon abandoned by his neighbor, Ms Burstner, who previously kissed him. Joseph confronts the absurdities of his "trial" in a courtroom and even hires a lawyer, but soon dismisses his services. Not even an artist can help him. Surrounded by peculiar behaviour, he is confronted one night by two men who bring him to an isolated trench and kill him with a dynamite.
Even though he had better films at his disposal - "The Touch of Evil", "The Magnificent Ambersons", "Othello" - Orson Welles once picked "The Trial" as his own favorite film, probably identifying himself with the covertly persecuted protagonist Joseph K. since he was himself under pressure for almost every film he made since "Citizen Kane" as an "invisible" punishment for basing it on the life of William Randolph Hearst. "The Trial" is, just like Franz Kafka's novel, an expressionistic and deeply symbolic allegory (persecution of innocent people based on their nationality, belief or religion; staged trials), yet overstretched and too hermetic with numerous scenes and actions that do not make sense. The unconnected, too surreal dialogues and artificial story flow are two of the biggest burdens of this quality achievement, which make it seem less as a clear narrative that can be followed and more like a felliniesque nightmarish state of peculiar behavior of people, yet Welles' shot composition, especially his beloved deep focus, and a sharp visual style are again brilliant, blending in well with the locations (among them the Zagreb Cathedral and the Pučko otvoreno učilište), whereas Anthony Perkins is well cast as the coiled-confused protagonist. In one of the most virtuoso sequences, after leaving the artist's shack, Joseph is running through a corridor of vertical planks, whose vertical "stripes" of light give the illusion as if he is behind prison bars, indicating how the whole society he lives in is his prison.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
New York. Henry Perkins is a monotone middle-aged employer in a wax factory who even attends a therapy in order to save his uneventful marriage with Carol. However, after accidentally switching his briefcase with the one of a mobster in a subway, Henry discovers it contains 5 million $ and thus wants to leave the country with Carol as soon as possible, but that is aggravated when their apartment is visited by a corrupt cop, Vic and Gina, his boss and another cop who mistakenly thinks that Henry was killed. In all the commotion, Henry and Carol manage to get the money and escape to a tropical beach.
An adaptation of Ray Cooney's acclaimed eponymous satirical play, Leslie Greif's "Funny Money" was not met with particular success, either with the critics nor with the audience, however, the vibrant comic spark from the original still managed to survive to a certain degree in this edition. The unsure hand of the authors can be sensed at times, not only in execution but also in somewhat clumsy editing, yet overall "Funny Money" is a dynamic and still surprisingly fun little comedy with just enough laughs to satisfy an evening viewing. Chevy Chase still has some comic talent left in him in the three funniest scenes of the movie (in the opening in the wax factory (!) when he stops the assembly line because he finds a "dark spot" on a wax banana; the therapy sequence when he mentions how his wife "makes sculptures of phalluses but is afraid to show them to anyone!"; and in the riot moment when he suddenly switches to an Australian accent in front of the police inspector, even though he talked normally before), Robert Loggia has a good supporting role ("How do you called a woman paralyzed from the waist down?" - "Married!") whereas the tight story manages to sustain the level up until the rather rushed-chaotic ending. A light, yet amusing farce on greed, mistaken identity, comedy of errors and escapism.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
One restless night, under influence of pain and alcohol, 78-year old writer Clive Langham has a lucid dream in his mansion in which his family members are the protagonists: Kevin shot an old man half-way transformed into a werewolf and is thus put on trial by Claude who always argues with his wife Sonia because he wants his old father, a writer, to die already. Claude also has an affair with Helen. In the end, Claude shoots Kevin... In the morning, Clive wakes up and welcomes his sons Kevin and Claude who gathered to celebrate his birthday.
With this stream-of-consciousness film director Alain Resnais once again breaks the traditional movie structure and achieves an unusual, humorous and very stimulative experience that covertly "smuggled" a taboo subject about an ageing, 78-year old man, Clive, (brilliant and untypically cynical John Gielgud who is in red pyjamas 90 % of the film) who wants to die fast, but cannot. By confining almost the entire film into one restless night, where Clive is having a lucid dream - interrupted with a few scenes where he wakes up and walks across the mansion - Resnais places him as a divine being, an author with almost total control who creates a surreal Lynch like dream/story/world in order to cynically "settle the score" with his family, life and the universe. Some moments are truly bizarre and too hermetic, yet even in seemingly pointless scenes the director has a point (i.e. while in the lucid dream state, Clive suddenly has an image of people being brought to a detention camp and says: "If someone had a fatuous life, he might as well have fatuous dreams" - except that it can be seen as an allegory of Clive himself being trapped in his "personal camp", the age, sickness and bed; in another scene, Sonia compares Claude with a prison guard because he wants to banish his old father to a retirement home). Clive, a writer, is the symbol for Resnais himself: he has control over these characters in the story, while at the same time, in real life, Clive doesn't have any control over his pain and real life. It is the creative process of storytelling - on acid. Enriched with grotesque dialogues ("Father, if you have to die with such a disgusting indignity, at least do it in a retirement home where you can pay people for tolerance!"), with only a rather uneven ending that serves as a frame of the structure, "Providence" is even better than Fellini's "8 1/2" and an opulent cult experience for viewers with an open mind.