Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Woman in Red

The Woman in Red; comedy, USA, 1984; D: Gene Wilder, S: Gene Wilder, Kelly LeBrock, Charles Grodin, Gilda Radner

San Francisco. Advertisement employee Theodor is married to Didi and has two kids. One day he spots a woman in a red dress mischievously enjoying how a grate is pulling her skirt up, and goes crazy over her. He tries to find her and then spots her on a photo of an advertisement. In order to meet her and start a contact, he even enlists in horse ridding because she often does the same. Her name is Charlotte and she agrees on a date, but then has to cancel it due to a job in Los Angeles. When they finally go out, Theodor stops by to visit his grandmother - only to find his wife and kids there. However, that turns Charlotte even more on. While in bed, they are interrupted by the arrival of her husband, upon which Theodor realizes it was all a mistake.

Gene Wilder appeared in only six movies in the 80s, and one of them was in the comedy he directed himself, "The Woman in Red", that is sometimes regarded as the best of all five films he directed. A remake of the popular '76 French comedy "An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive", "The Woman in Red" is a gentler version of Edwards' "10", but both are weaker in sophistication and ingenuity compared to Wilder's "Seven Year Itch" that said a lot about a married man suddenly falling in love with another woman - and despite the popularity of the title heroine enjoying a grate whooshing her skirt up, LeBrock is no Marylin. A simple, light, unassuming comedy, the movie has its moments of good jokes that arrive swiftly and effectively: one of the best is the marathon gag of Wilder's character Theodor trying to cope ridding a horse in order to meet Charlotte, just to lose an earring on the field. This culminates in a quietly hilarious sequence when the next day it is raining, but Charlotte drives all the way to his building just to give him his earring back - Theodor takes it, and then nonchalantly throws it away and pretends it is not his so that she won't suspect he is married, then uses the opportunity that Charlotte is here to flirt with her. The gags wear thin in the second half, though, whereas Charlotte is a disappointingly one-dimensional character who was underwritten and is thus more bland than charming, not to mention that the ending is pointless, even though it enabled an expressionistic little image of Wilder falling from the building in slow motion. A moderately amusing, yet uneven and shaky film.

Grade;++

Saturday, 27 July 2013

New Cutie Honey

New Cutie Honey; animated fantasy horror action comedy series, Japan, 1994; D: Yasuchika Nagaoka, S: Michiko Neya, Rica Matsumoto, Rica Fukami, Kousei Tomita

Somewhere in the future, Cosplay City is intimidated by a new villain, the strange monster Dolmeck and his sidekicks Black Maiden and Spider. The tough mayor Light tries to keep law and order in the city, but the breakthrough arrives only thanks to Cutie Honey, an android who awakens again and uses her superpowers to defeat Dolmeck and his gang. She is aided by Chokkei and his grandpa Danbei. Even after Dolmeck is gone, Honey has a lot of work to do battling remaining criminals who transform into monsters.

For the viewers who can simply tolerate a story that never tries to have a point, a meaning or be serious, and demands that you simply turn off your brain and enjoy, "New Cutie Honey", a bizarre new modern retelling of Go Nagai's eponymous '73 TV show, is a 'guilty pleasure' and an amusing anime OVA that never tries to be anything more than dumb fun. The story has no ambitions, but already in the opening act of the first episode, when Chokkei's mom and dad enter a bank to rob it, only to experience a twist of faith when some twenty seemingly harmless customers and the bank clerk all draw their guns and aim *at them*, one can forgive a lot of upcoming flaws for such humorous ideas. Filled with fan service, incredibly silly excuses for naughty erotic moments - which are sometimes so childish it is hard to regard them as adult - and as much of idealization and appreciation for big breasts as in a R. Meyer film, "New Cutie Honey" is a light and easily accessible patchwork, with numerous wacky jokes: grandpa Danbei tries to persuade Honey to transform into a ninja while trying to sneak into a building, only to secretly have a peak at her nude while she is transforming; a girl mocks Chakkei's fascination with Honey by putting her hands into her shirt to "enhance" her bra from the inside; Honey survives a bullet shot because she had a metal bra and says that her "fans would be disappointed if something happens to her". Since the main bad guy is already eliminated in the fourth episode, the remaining four simply seem like fillers, yet one has to see the first half just for Black Maiden, a strange girl piloting above a giant robot with wings instead of its head, and one of the most expressionistic villiainesses of the 90s. It's not much of an achievement from a depth perspective, but it is fun and engaging.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Che - Part Two

Che - Part Two; biography/ drama, USA/ France/ Spain, 2008; D: Steven Soderbergh, S: Benicio Del Toro, Pablo Duran, Ezequiel Duran, Othello Rensoli, Norman Santiago, Franka Potente, Lou Diamond Phillips, Matt Damon

After the success in Cuba, in '67 'Che' Guevara secretly goes to Bolivia to try to start another revolution, also citing exploitation and huge poverty of the workers by the regime, in this case Rene Barrientos, who is backed by the US. However, after months of training of several volunteers, including one woman, Tania, the rebellion never gains momentum because the inhabitants are suspicious towards them while the Bolivian army is supported by the CIA. Plagued by hunger and lack of people, the rebels collapse, while Che is arrested and executed by the Bolivian army.

In this second (and weaker) part of Steven Soderbergh's duology about revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the story focuses itself on his last days when he tried to repeat the success of his revolution in Cuba with another revolution in Bolivia. In one sentence, Soderbergh and writer Peter Buchman easily explain what were the motives for Che going there - when a rebel asks him if the conditions are right for an uprising, he replies with: "When children work in the coal mines, when most coal miners die by the age of 30, when people have no hospitals, then I think that the conditions are right." Filmmed in Spanish and with an effort to give a good chronology of events, "Che - Part Two" is authentic, but unexciting nonetheless, a rather standard biopic that did everything formally right, but lacks inspiration and true passion. Often mechanical and sometimes even monotone, the story is still interesting for its daring theme of exploitation of Latin America and tries to ignite the viewers to talk and discuss about it. Soderbergh portrays Che almost as Spartacus, which drew some criticism for black and white solutions and idealization, while others consider it fitting. The supporting characters were thinly developed: one noticeable example is Franka Potente's character Tania, the only woman among the rebels, who is unfortunately barely more than an extra. It may be just an example of one of those 'look-a-like' roles, but Benicio Del Toro is excellent in the leading role. Why he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar, while other 'look-a-like' biopic actors won the award, "The Last King of Scotland" or "Lincoln" for instance, remains a curiosity.

Grade;++

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Che - Part One

Che - Part One; biography/ drama, USA/ France/ Spain, 2008; D: Steven Soderbergh, S: Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno

In '56, doctor Ernesto "Che" Guevara meets Fidel Castro on the Mexican soil who tells him about the exploitation and utter poverty of the Cuban people ever since it is ruled by the US-backed Batista, who is also giving large portions of wealth to the US. Che and the others travel to Cuba to start a revolution. Plagued at first by asthma and general shortage of fighters, Che eventually gains the trust of the Cuban people and helps them cure them as a doctor. Eventually, they take over Santa Clara, so that Havana is the only town left, while Batista fled the country.

The first part of Steven Soderbergh's tandem biopic about Cuban revolutionary and anti-imperialist Ernesto "Che" Guevara, "Che - Part 1" is much more interesting during the scenes when the hero is talking than during those moments when he is fighting. From an artistic point of view, the movie lacks in passion and energy when presenting the battle for Cuba as bland, routine, formal and detached: how did Che manage to win battle after battle when he was outnumbered by Batiasta's soldiers? Little to nothing of a sense of strategy and insight was shown with which he managed to break through, except in the aspect that he gains the faith of the people of Cuba (he creates schools to teach them how to spell and write; he sees townspeople without medical care because he is a doctor...), which leaves that dimension of the story deficient. On the other hand, Benicio Del Toro's acting (for which he won the best actor prize at the Cannes film festival) comes to full expression in the dialogue sequences. In the opening scenes, for instance, we find out about Che's shock when he hears about the conditions on Cuba from Castro, how allegedly 1% of people control 46% of the land, how 37% of the people are illiterate, how the Cuba-US trade is suddenly one billion $ in favor of the US, which explains his motives for going there and joining the revolution. The movie is also notable for showing two very rare speeches Che gives at the UN and on TV ("Two hundred million people in Latin America are starving so that the US can have economic growth"), which are explosive and thought provoking, illustrating how nations cannot only be free through democracy, but must also be free through economy. Some have complained that Che is presented in an overtly idealized fashion, that his controversial side is whitewashed, but Del Toro's devotion is strong nonetheless.  

Grade;++

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Man of Steel

Man of Steel; fantasy action, USA, 2013; D: Zack Snyder, S: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, Antje Traue

Jor-El and Lara realize their planet Krypton is going to implode because of the centuries long exploitation of its core. General Zod shares his opinion and topples the government, but gets into conflict with him when Jor-El sends his son Kal-El to Earth together with the Codex of the Kryptonian race. Zod and his gang are banished, but are freed after Krypton implodes. Kal-El is raised in Kansas as Clark Kent and uses his superhuman powers to anonymously help people. Reporter Lois Lane finds his secret, but just then Zod's gang shows up on Earth, also equipped with superhuman powers, and demands the Codex from Clark. They want to terraform Earth into Krypton. In a fight, Clark defeats them and becomes Superman.

The long awaited re-structuring of the "Superman" franchise, "Man of Steel" is a step forward compared to the previous instalment, "Superman Returns", but a step back compared to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" that gave the superhero genre an entirely new twist and a sense of inventiveness. "Man of Steel" has three good things going for it: for the first time, it showed Clark having trouble adjusting to his superpowers, as opposed to always perfectly knowing how to cope with them, obvious in the effective sequence where he runs away from the classroom, since a child would be freaked out by suddenly having X-ray vision and seeing the bones of the people around him. Secondly, it avoided the cliche that nobody could recognize Superman's/Clark's transparent "disguise" by having Clark save people anonymously in civilian clothes, i.e. he has no Superman identity yet, he is just an ordinary stranger and thus nobody even knows his name, which works up until the last minute of the film. Thirdly, his human parents, played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, are fantastic and easily to connect to, and at least one image is iconic, the one where Costner's character goes to save the dog in the car from the hurricane, almost as an example to Clark that when normal people could do heroic deeds, what can he do with his super powers.

Unfortunately, once general Zod shows up, the second half becomes just an explosion/CGI overkill where it almost seemed as if they tried to make a new record with breaking as many things as possible. The comparison may be obvious, but in "Superman 2" action sequence were exactly the opposite, so meticulous and precious precisely because they knew they could not do anything. Likewise, Zod's motivation is lost in the logic: why terraform Earth, an inhabited planet, into Krypton and risk such an enormous opposition? If he wanted to rebuild Krypton, why not terraform a dead planet like Mars? Or numerous other dead planets that were once outposts of the Kryptonians? In the latter case, he would even have Superman's blessing, but one can sense they just wanted a ploy, a stretched excuse to have them "fight no matter what". In his final speech, Zod explains that he was bred to protect Krypton no matter the cause, and here he almost gets a more interesting character. Unfortunately, right after that the cliche "final showdown" fight with Superman follows, instead of something more unique and unusual. Amy Adams is great as always, but her character is blandly written and thus her interaction with Clark is often pale. She needed humor, charm and wit. Overall, though, the movie is better than expected, just not as great as the opening act hinted at.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Hoodwinked!

Hoodwinked!; CGI animated comedy, USA, 2005; D: Cory Edwards, Todd Edwards, Tony Leech, S: Anne Hathaway, David Ogden Stiers, Glenn Close, Patrick Warburton, James Belushi

In a forest, Little Red Riding Hood arrives at her Granny's house just to find a Wolf in disguise instead. The real Granny comes out of the closet, tied, while a Woodsman suddenly breaks through the window with an axe. The police arrive are arrest them all. Upon questioning by the Frog Inspector, it turns out that the Wolf may not be a bad guy after all: he was a reporter was just investigating the lead to the mysterious stranger who has been stealing food in the forest lately. His story is corroborated by Granny, who explains that she was parachuting down the chimney, but the strings got stuck to the ventilator and she was catapulted into the closet. The Woodsman was just auditioning for a commercial. In the end, they discover that the bad guy is a local rabbit who wants to take control of the forest through an addictive food industry, but they foil his plans.

"Hoodwinked!" is one of the most refreshing spoofs of the fairy tale cliches of its time, a surprisingly fun, inventive and easily accessible little CGI animated independent film that used a "Rashomon" twist while presenting the classic Little Red Riding Hood story. The Edwards-Edwards-Leech directing trio keeps the storyline simple and light, even though each new narrator gives a new perspective of the event (it even turns out that the Wolf is actually innocent, an ordinary reporter), whereas the jokes easily sway even the grumpier viewers, whether in the form of clever dialogues (at least two are quietly hilarious: "They call me Little Red Riding Hood." - "Why?" - "Because I wear the red Hood". - "And what when you are not wearing it?"; "He is crazy!" - "Watch what you're saying! My mother was crazy!") or sight gags (the hyperactive squirrel disguised as a sheep is priceless). The voice acting was very good, and, in Anne Hathaway's case, even brilliant, the pace was just right for the story to quickly traverse even a few less inspired jokes, and the mood was refreshingly positive and good natured, which gives this amusing film an additional point. Charming and funny.

Grade;++

Monday, 15 July 2013

Funeral Parade of Roses

Baka no soretsu; drama, Japan, 1969; D: Toshio Matsumoto, S: Peter, Osamu Ogasawara, Yoshio Tsuchiya

The story follows a gay man, Eddie, who dresses as a drag queen and works as a Madame in a night bar. Eddie has an affair with the bar owner and drug consumer, Gonda, and is thus at odds with Leda, who also wants to have Gonda for himself. Eddie enjoys walking dressed as a girl without people noticing it on the streets, but has flashes of his mother who beat him because he tried on lipstick. While catching her with another man, Eddie stabbed them both. The only info about his father is a photo from childhood, where his dad's face has a hole because it was burned out by a cigarette. Eddie also films an underground gay love story. Eventually, Gonda spots the photo with the hole and realizes Eddie is his son. Gonda kills himself with a knife, while Eddie mutilates himself.

"Funeral Parade of Roses" is one of the most unusual and strangest cult art-movies from the 60s, not only because director Toshio Matsumoto dared to speak out about a (then) taboo topic of gay people but also due to the extremely hermetic technique the movie was filmed, almost breaking and abandoning even more rules about cinema (and linear narration) than Godard. Except for the beginning and the ending, practically every scene could be rearranged and presented at any given time in the movie without the viewers noticing it, since they almost work as a stream-of-consciousness where the drag queen Eddie either remembers something of has a hallucination of something. Precisely due to such an inventive presentation, where everything is so hyper-stylized, Matsumoto manages to 'detach' himself from the serious topic and even present it playfully and humorous at numerous occasions: when the gang exchanges a joint and 'relaxes', the scene cuts to the photo of the four Beatles smiling on the wall; when Eddie and Leda start an argument, comic-book speech bubbles appear from their mouths with written words as they insult each other, like "jerk" or "c**t"; the three drag queens walk pass by three real girls on the street, and turn their heads away just as the girls turns around to take a better look at them, upon which the frame freezes in an amusing moment... And at least one technique - the fun, long fast-motion scene where two men take on forever until they pick up all their things and drugs in a suitcase in tune to Rossini's "William Tell Overture" after hearing the police is coming - was used in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange", in the scene where Alex has sex with two girls. "Parade" is not flawless - the anti-narration can become annoying at times, numerous references are simply an overkill whereas the 'gay Oedipus' plot twist does not work - yet overall, it is a double ode, both thematically and stylistically, to living freely without limits, and requires at least a second viewing for the viewers to understand it better.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms; fantasy, USA, 1953; D: Eugene Lourie, S: Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway

During a military experiment in which an atomic bomb is detonated in the Arctic area, a giant dinosaur is awakened from ice. One scientist who spots him dies, while another, Thomas Nesbit, is injured and sent to a psychiatric ward in New York. However, when ships get destroyed and reports about a giant lizard emerge, Thomas' testimony gains on weight. The lizard shows up in New York and starts destroying the city. Using a radioactive isotope, a sharpshooter shoots and kills the creature in the amusement park.

One of the early works of stop-motion special effects legend Ray Harryhausen, Eugene Lourie's cult fantasy B-movie "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is a 'guilty pleasure', a cheesy, trashy but fun monster movie. It gains weight thanks to the relevant ecological messages about how an atomic bomb detonation awakened a giant monster lizard from ice, i.e. a warning about careless and heavy handed nuclear weapons testing back in those times and its consequences that will come back in one way or another, and as such it even inspired the legendary "Godzilla" movie(s) a year later. The sole storyline and artistic execution are pale and stiff, though, from the fact that the first 57 minutes are bland - empty walks, conventional dialogues - and only the last 22 minutes, where the lizard is walking across the streets of New York and wrecking havoc (in one scene, when the police opens fire on it, it breaks the walls of a building and exits to the street on the other side), engage the viewers, with a few notable exceptions (Thomas browsing through illustrated pictures of dinosaurs in order to "identify" the one he saw on the Arctic). The ending is especially shaky, featuring the old cliche that the only solution when a monster shows up in a city, is its murder, which leaves a bitter taste in the viewers' heads.

Grade;+

Monday, 8 July 2013

Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry; drama, USA, 1960; D: Richard Brooks, S: Burt Lancester, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones

Elmer Gantry is a tramp who likes alcohol and women, while travelling across the country. He works as a salesman of toasters and vacuum-cleaners, but decides to change his profession when he finds out that more people can be attracted to religious preachers, like revivalist Sharon Falconer. Even though she ignores him at first, he manages to sway her into joining her revivalist road show and electrify the audience thanks to his charisma and theatrical preaching. However, just as they succeed for the first time in a urban town, a reporter, Jim, writes a cynical column about them, upon which Elmer decides to ham it up even more to save his credibility, inciting the followers to shut down liquor stores and brothels. Still, one prostitute, Lulu, is his ex, and frames him, thereby destroying his reputation. Elmer loves Sharon, but she just wants to serve God. In her own church for the first time, Sharon heals a deaf man, but a fire erupts and she disappears in flames.

Excellent social study about religion, Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry" is a thorough and multi-layered drama for which the leading actor Burt Lancester deservedly won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, since his eponymous anti-hero is even plausible during theatrical, over-the-top speeches which work as part of the main theme about how putting on a show is more important to the mass audience than inner spirituality. Rarely was religion showed so cynically in the 50s or 60s mainstream cinema, but Gantry is a much more complex character: even though it is obvious he switches to the 'religion business' just because he knows he can earn a lot more there than selling toasters, he is at the same time drawn to the best sides of it and even admires Sister Sharon, who truly believes the Christian revivalist road show is her calling. Nobody from the revival movement wants to have anything with him, but Gantry uses tricks and sly methods to overcome every obstacle, disarm any opposition and become part of the team anyway (after Morgan complains that his preachings are too crude, Gantry replies: "Crude? Vulgar? Sure, you know something, you are right, Bill. Let me put it this way: you're a 5 $ textbook, I'm a 2 cent tabloid newspaper. You're too good for the people. I am the people. Sure I'm common, like the people."). The dialogues are where the movie really shines, they are so crisp and well written that they almost work as author's ironic commentary, embodied in the reporter Jim's column: "Why does a revival attract thousands? To be saved from a lifetime of sin in 5 minutes? To be entertained, cuddled in quick, painless salvation?... I watched this unholy trinity, Falconer-Gantry-Morgan, save Nebraska. Has the sin of that state been washed away? Is there less envy, lust or adultery?" Even when the author shows a miracle (Sister Sharon healing a deaf man), it is immediately followed by an event (the fire in the church) that nullifies it. As if the message is that when religion became a job, it stopped being something natural and free for the people. But it also shows that each religion is only as good as the people practicing it. A classic.

Grade;+++

Friday, 5 July 2013

Lucky Luke: Daisy Town

Daisy Town; animated western comedy, France/ Belgium, 1971; D: Rene Goscinny, S: Marcel Bozzuffi, Pierre Trabaud, Jean Berger, Roger Carel  

A wagon caravan stops somewhere in the Wild West and builds a new settlement, Daisy Town. The inhabitants are starting a new life there, but the town also starts attracting shady gangsters. Luckily, a fast drawer shows up, too, Lucky Luke, who accepts the position of a sheriff and brings law and order. However, a new challenge shows up when the four Dalton brothers show up and wreck havoc. Luke manages to banish them, and they are arrested, but instigate a conflict with the Indians. Thanks to Luke and the cavalry, the Indians give upon attacking the citizens. In the end, the news of gold in the mountains leads to everyone abandoning Daisy Town, so Luke leaves.

The first feature film about Lucky Luke, "Daisy Town" is also the best films featuring the beloved comic book hero by Morris, a clever, fun and (especially in the first half) very stylish animated comedy that spoofs the western cliches. The opening 35 minutes are a tour-de-force example of satire, topping even Rene Gosciny's own "Asterix", from the small gags revolving around a guy carrying a ladder with a man in a wheelchair up to Luke beating up outlaws in the saloon, which is so meticulously choreographed that it works almost as smooth as good ballet (Luke beating up a gangster by holding his suspenders, so that he bounces like an attached ping-pong ball; throwing a ladder on several gangsters climbing up the stairs). When the Daltons show up, the story is still running, but once they run for the elections in the town, the story slowly runs down and even gets stuck while lingering too much with their direct clash with Luke. The constant panning from the shortest to the tallest Dalton quickly becomes an old joke, whereas the inventive touch gets lost until the last third becomes just a tiresome finale with no sizzling jokes anymore. Overall, though overstretched, "Daisy Town" is still a refreshingly pure and good-spirited examples of 'good old school' film making at a time when the sole storyline was more important than flashy effects and "make up".

Grade;++

Monday, 1 July 2013

Barfly

Barfly; drama, USA, 1987; D: Barbet Schroeder, S: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige, J. C. Quinn

Los Angeles. Henry Chinaski has a very bipolar personality: on one hand, he is a gifted poet and writer, but on the other, he only hangs out at the bar, is a relentless alcoholic and enjoys fighting with the bartender. One night, he meets the equally nihilistic Wanda in a bar and they seem to be soul mates. He spends the night at her place, but she disappoints him, too, when he leaves to have an affair with a man he despises. Henry also meets Tully, a publisher who is a fan of his work and gives him a fair payment for it. Tully invites him to stay at her place, but his rough nature simply does not suit her idealistic world. In the end, Henry returns to Wanda.

The only film for which Charles Bukowski wrote a screenplay for Hollywood, "Barfly" is frankly not among his best work, but the sheer amount of persuasion, great pains and lengths that were invested into filmming it by director Barbet Schroeder (according to Bukowski's novel "Hollywood", Schroeder even went so far to threaten to cut of his finger with a chainsaw before the studio executives at the Cannon film production finally gave in and green-lit it) simply warrant at least for one viewing of this piece of dirty realism art-film. A semi-biography, Bukowski wrote "Barfly" as an answer to mainstream escapism and glamor in cinema, honestly and directly showing lower class as his main topic, something that is often avoided, whereas the cinematography by Robby Muller is great. However, several moments seem clumsy or just plain bizarre (the knife injury sequence; Henry pushing the car of a couple on the road even though the traffic light shows red), the ending is abrupt and without a point whereas the story warranted at least a little bit more of Henry's poetic side, instead of the (too much shown) slob side. Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway (nominated for a Golden Globe) are in top-notch shape, even though her character of Wanda had a more interesting destiny in Bukowski's novel "Hollywood" which gave her a more palpable tragic dimension, whereas the critics rightfully hailed the often comical dialogues ("The last time you paid for a drink was your first time!"; "I'd hate being you if I were me!"; the blow-job comment: "She is like a vacuum-cleaner!")

Grade;++