Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

La Chute de la maison Usher; silent mystery drama/ horror, France, 1928; D: Jean Epstein, S: Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Charley Lamy

One night, a man enters a tavern and asks for a carriage to drive him to the desolate house of Usher. Nobody wants to go there because of a rumor that the place is cursed. One driver accepts, but refuses to enter the mansion. In it, the man meets his old friend again, Roderick Usher, who constantly paints his beloved wife Madeleine, even though both are of ill health. Exhausted, Madeleine collapses and the doctor proclaims her dead. She is buried in the forest, but Roderick keeps hearing her voice and is convinced she is still alive. One night, she returns - because she was buried alive. A lightning stroke puts the mansion on fire.

The first adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's eponymous short story, Jean Epstein's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of the first examples of the 'gothic' genre of the silent cinema, and a slightly overstretched, but very smooth achievement that builds its running time more on mood than on (sparse) narrative. The storyline about a man who still thinks his deceased love might be alive is thematically similar to Hitchcock's "Vertigo", but unlike the latter film, which reaches for an emotional grip, Epstein's film reaches for a purely macabre grip, creating a bizarre mood of the surreal that matches the psychological state of the increasingly more and more insane Roderick Usher who is not sure if his wife is alive or if he is just losing his mind in the isolated mansion. Such a surreal mood is slowly built thanks to small visual touches (flames on candles burning in reverse; a double exposure of Madeleine who is falling unconscious in slow motion; the wind blowing leaves on the ground through the floor of the mansion...) and culminates in one of the most 'far-out' funerals in the history of cinema, that plays out in the forest (the camera "shakes" up and down to simulate the 'rough' walk of the people carrying the coffin; Roderick watches the trees and the sky; two frogs are copulating...). The last 20 minutes have too many empty moments which dilutes the film, and the 'plot twist' may not be so strong today as it was back then, yet overall, "House of Usher" still contains a distinguishable style and an aura of mystery that carries the film, which influenced a good deal of later surreal films.

Grade;+++

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac; romance/ drama/ comedy, France, 1990; D: Jean-Paul Rappeneau, S: Gérard Depardieu, Vincent Perez, Anne Brochet, Jacques Webber

France, 19th century. Cyrano de Bergerac, an employee of the Royal regiment and a poet, is in love with his distant cousin Roxane, but dares not say it because he considers his large nose disgusting. When he hears that she fancies a new recruit, Christian, he decides to help him by writing love letters for him. Indeed, Roxane falls in love more with the letters than with Christian. The jealous Comte Antoine thus sends Christians regiment to fight the Spanish. Christian is killed, but Cyrano never says Roxane it was he who wrote the letters. 14 years later, Cyrano is wounded in an assassination attempt, but still visits Roxane in a convent. Before he dies, Roxane realizes it was he who wrote the letters.

This 8th adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 19th century play with the same title, Jean-Paul Rappeneau's "Cyrano de Bergerac" is quite poetic: the tendency of sentences spoken in rhymes may seem a little bit staged and forced at times, but once you get use to it, it is a small treat. Naturally, the rhyme is lost in translation to other languages, but if you know at least a little bit French, try to listen to it in original - "Cyrano de Bergerac" is a film deeply entrenched in the French linguistics, a film that is 80% manifested in English, but 100% in French. As good as S. Martin was in "Roxanne" made three years earlier, this is the better film: Gerard Depardieu's Cyrano is a very complex character, a one that is comical and witty (during fencing, Cyrano ironically "stabs" his opponent in the face with his nose; he jokes: "My nose always precedes me by 15 minutes"; yet during other occasions, he is very tempered about it, and one soldier explains to Christian: "Even a handkerchief could bring you into a grave") but also tragic at the same time due to the love triangle. Cyrano is the not just the ultimate 'ghost writer', but also the ultimate 'ghost lover', a subtle Quasimodo, a poetic soul misunderstood because of its physical appearance, but noble enough to allow his love to love another, while he lives in romantic exile. Due to the natural chemistry, even problematic sequences seem plausible here. As great as Depardieu is in the ambitious title role, the charismatic Anne Brochet matches him as Roxane, and the way she speaks her lines so naturally is pure harmony, especially the famous scene where she reads the love letter aloud containing a poem about a kiss delivered in writing, and she reading it with her lips.

Grade;+++

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Airport 1975

Airport 1975, distaster film, 1975; D: Jack Smight, S: Charlton Heston, Karen Black, George Kennedy, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Susan Clark, Gloria Swanson, Sid Caesar

A passenger airplane takes off from Washington to Los Angeles. However, just as it was about to pass a small private jet, the pilot has a heart attack and flies and jet upwards and into the airplane cockpit. It causes a hole that kills two pilots, while one is injured and unable to fly. While on autopilot, one stewardess, Nancy, calls for help and instructions what to do. A military plane lowers Captain Murdock through the hole into the cockpit, and he is able to land the plane and save the passengers.

The sequel to the popular "Airport", "Airport 1975" rides only on the hype of the 70s disaster film genre that is defunct by today, and not on anything else, which makes it a weak example of the cinema of the 70s. The basic premise is implausible (a man in a private jet conveniently has a stroke that causes him to "accidentally" hit the Boeing 747; a hole in the cockpit presented here would have caused decompression on an airplane flying in high altitude...) and thus numerous events that are built around it end up equally as unconvincing, or just plain unintentionally comical. Why Charlton Heston accepted such an underdeveloped and weak role remains a mystery. However, it is fun to watch how some scenes inspired the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof "Airplane!" five years later, such as the nun playing a guitar, a little girl waiting for an organ transplant in the plane or the passenger who annoys other passengers with his endless babble. Other than that, there is little of interest in the story. "Airport 1975" is an example of the "dead epic/disaster film" - it wants to be huge, spectacular and massive, but just ends up stiff, pompous and lax.

Grade;+

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book; animated adventure, USA, 1967; D: Wolfgang Reitherman, S: Bruce Reitherman, Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot

Bagheera, a black panther, discovers an abandoned baby in the jungle, Mowgli, and gives it to a wolf family to take care of him. 10 years later, Bagheera decides to bring Mowgli back to the human world and undertakes a journey to the nearest village, because a human hating, dangerous tiger, Shere Khan, returned to the jungle. On his way, Mowgli meets a bear, Baloo, and encounters dangers from a monkey king who wants to discover fire from humans and a giant python. On a meadow, Shere Khan attacks Mowgli, but thanks to fire caused by thunder, the tiger is scared off. Mowgli returns to a village.

One of the most popular animated films by the Walt Disney studios, "The Jungle Book" is the 3rd highest grossing film of the 60s and still holds up fairly well - whereas it is also one of only a handful of Disney's animated films where the villain is not killed off at the end. The majority of the criticism was aimed at the storyline that dropped most of the darker elements from Rudyard Kipling's original book and instead just focused on a care-free, simplified quest of Mowgli returning back to the human world equipped with a lot of singing and dancing, and some of that thinking has a point since a chance for the weight of pathos was slightly watered down due to it - we do not find out much about Mowgli and the ending does not have such an emotional punch as, let's say, the thematically almost identical ending in "Dot and the Kangaroo" - yet as a film on its own, "Book" has a lot of merits. The musical numbers were not so heavily imposed as some other Disney films (except for the tiresome song of the monkey king) but seem natural, and the songs are catchy, especially the fantastic elephant parade that goes into heights; the animation is meticulous (most memorably in depicting the movements of the black panther and the hypnotic snake) and the jokes are just plain innocent and fun (Baloo scratching his back on a rock wall; the four vultures that look almost as the Beatles), all adding to a very good, unassuming little film about the search for the hero's roots.

Grade;+++

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Yogi Bear

Yogi Bear; comedy, USA, 2011; D: Eric Brevig, S: Tom Cavanagh, Anna Faris, Dan Aykroyd (voice), Justin Timberlake (voice)

During a festival in the Jellystone national park, Yogi bear goes overboard by trying to impress the visitors with a waterskiing stunt which backfires and causes the fireworks to go flying towards the audience. Because of the chaos, ranger Smith is demoted and replaced with the inexperienced Jones, who is an easy prey for the power hungry politician Brown who wants to become the next governor by filling the city's budget via cutting and selling all the trees in the park. With the help of a documentary filmmaker, Rachel, and his bear friend Boo Boo, Yogi manages to stop this by revealing to the audience that a rare turtle species lives in the park. Smith returns as the ranger and falls in love with Rachel.

"Brilliant" and "hilarious" are not quite the first things that come to mind when one watches the first live action adaptation of the popular "Yogi Bear" cartoon show, and something more would have been pushing it since one of the best jokes is only the one where a corrupt politician is meddling with an automatic window that keeps opening and shutting down in his car, yet at least the film stayed (mostly) true to the source material it originated from and did not go in the typical direction of sending the popular characters on an adventure in an entirely different place. It is a decent, politically correct and harmless, but predictably bland and standard film that did not try to go into more extravagant territory or conjure up more elaborated jokes - except for one moment of inspiration when Yogi says: "You can't fail if you never stop trying", a paraphrazing of Albert Einstein's quote. The two CGI characters may seem a bit "odd" at first, yet a more photo-realistic depiction of bears would not have been true to the vein of the show. Dan Aykroyd's voice is good as Yogi, but the real surprise here is Justin Timberlake who did a remarkably similar voice impression of the original Boo Boo character from the show.

Grade;+

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal; fantasy, USA/ UK, 1982; D: Jim Hanson, Frank Oz, S: Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Billie Whitelaw

In some alien world, Jen thinks he might be the last specimen of his race, the Gelfling, since they were exterminated because of a prophecy that one of them will end the rule of the reptilian race Skeksis, who gained power a 1000 years ago, after the dark crystal broke into splinters. Jen was taken care off by the good race with long necks, the Mystics, who send him on a quest to find the missing piece of the crystal before the three suns align, or the Skeksis will continue to rule. On his way, Jen finds Kira, a female specimen of Gelfings. They find the missing piece, Jen returns it back to the crystal, thereby merging the Skeksis and Mystics into one species, and restoring balance and prosperity into the world.

One of the most unusual films from the 80s, "The Dark Crystal" stayed remembered as an opulent extravaganza that created its own foreign world, some sort of an American version of Bunraku, since all the characters are puppets and there is no single human (or animal) actor in it. One could complain at a several omissions, because the level of the narrative does not catch up with the level that was achieved on the field of fantastic costumes and set-designs (i.e. the story could have been richer; the characters could have used more character development, charm and wit...), yet numerous creatures are highly imaginative (especially the unusual, giant Gathim species, that looks like a blend of crabs and black cockroaches) whereas its philosophy stands out the most: unlike numerous others stories about good vs. evil, where the bad guy can in the finale only be defeated by killing him, here the story takes a completely different approach, outside the box, since it looks at it almost like yin and yang (when the leader of the good species, the Mystics, dies, the leader of the evil species, the Skeksis, dies instantly as well, and "crumbles" inside), almost with holistic understanding, where the balance can only be restored by symbolically encompassing both extremes. Even though the main hero, Jen, has almost no emotional weight, Jim Henson managed to engage the viewers and secure the film's cult status, and coped well with directing (a few neat shot compositions of the castle and the landscapes), whereas it is amusing to listen to Kira using a couple of words in Serbo-Croatian when commanding the Landstrider creatures.

Grade;++

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Arahan

Arahan; fantasy/ action/ comedy, South Korea, 2004; Ryoo Seung-wan, S: Ryoo Seung-boom, Yoon So-yi, Ahn Sung-ki, Jung Doo-hong

In the modern world, six masters of Tao still hide their special powers. When of them, the young girl Eui-jin, tries to stop a burglar, her power force accidentally hits the clumsy policeman Sang-hwan. The six masters are amazed he survived the blow, and presume he has the same power as them, the Qi. Sang-hwan thus begins his training to become master of the power. At the same time, Heuk-woon, who wanted to use his special powers to become Arahan, a supreme being that knows everything, is accidentally released from his imprisonment during excavation and wants to take the key from the six masters. With a lot of effort, Sang-hwan and Eui-jin defeat him.

"Arahan" seems to be South Korea's answer to "X-Men", just combining them with Eastern philosophy by using the mystical Qi energy as the explanation for their powers, coined into a modern martial arts films that works and is refreshing also thanks to its humor. The humorous opening sequence of the six masters of Tao drinking coffee during lunch break and lamenting about imposters among their circles ("They pretend they can teach kids the art of fighting, but in reality they just want money!") is delicious, the first scene where the hero, policeman Sang-hwan, shows up, immediately establishes him as a stand-out character for the audience (he stops a car and wants to give it a ticket for speeding. The driver points to the man sitting behind him and says: "Do you know that I am driving an important politician?", but Sang-hwan just flat out says: "He wasn't driving. You were"), the storyline is filled with numerous gags and jokes spoofing the martial arts genre and the superhero cliches whereas the actors are great, especially the cynical Eui-jin as the girl who cannot quite control her Qi energy. Overall, the movie is overlong, the jokes start to wear thin after a while whereas the finale is your run-of-the-mill, conventional showdown with the bad guy, yet since "Arahan" always clearly admits that it only aims to be a relaxed fun without pretensions towards something serious, it works, and some of its fight sequences - Sang-hwan taking revenge on the mafia members in the restaurant by beating them up - almost reach J. Chan's level.

Grade;++

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel; comedy, USA, 2014; D: Wes Anderson, S: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

A girl reads a book entitled: "The Grand Budapest Hotel". In it, the author writes how he was once it that hotel and meet an ageing man, Zero Moustafa, who told him how he started working in the hotel as a lobby boy as a kid in the 1930s, when the hotel was part of the Republic of Zubrowka: his boss, concierge Gustave, found out his 84-year old mistress, Madame D., was killed, and inherited a valuable painting to him. However, her son, Dmitri, wanted to take all the inheritance and managed to frame Gustave as her killer. Zero manages to escape with Gustave from prison and prove that Madame H. left all her estate to him.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" once again embodies Wes Anderson's directing: overwhelming stylization, underwhelming storyline and characters. The whole film is meticulously designed, framed and set up, with a clever and inventive idea of switching the aspect ratios between 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 - depending on each timeline - whereas the narrative has equal audacity, since it is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, starting from a girl reading the title novel (a borrowed idea from Anderson's previous film "The Royal Tenenbaums") about a writer who meets concierge Zero who finally tells the tale of the hotel. Ralph Fiennes is excellent as the cynical Gustave, and even though Anderson's humor is getting thinner and thinner with each film, he manages to ignite a few chuckles (when he spots the dead Madame D. in the coffin, Gustave says: "My dear, you look wonderful. They did a great job, you almost look better than when you were alive"). The fictional Republic of Zubrowka is symbolic for Yugoslavia, a state that doesn't exist anymore, and its story is a synecdoche, an anti-history of Europe before and after World War II: Gustave's imprisonment in the German jail is an allegory of the Third Reich's occupation of Yugoslavia, while the arrogant Dmitri, who wants to eliminate him through treachery, is an allegory of the Soviet failed attempts to subjugate Tito. However, just like Tarantino and Godard, Anderson is unwilling or unable to insert any pathos into his (later) stories, and as such all the characters seem fake, underwritten and underused - almost as if the director just assembled all his previous actors, from Wilson to Murray, because he felt it was his duty to have them there, and not because they have any function in the overcrowded story - which ultimately extended the dead artificiality of the fictional hotel to every atom of the film.

Grade;++

Friday, April 11, 2014

Help!

Au secours!; silent horror comedy short, France, 1924; D: Abel Gance, S: Max Linder, Jean Toulout, Gina Palerme
Arriving with his wife, Max goes to a club where the lights went off mysteriously. Comte de Mornay informs the guests that his castle is haunted and that he will pay a 1,000 Francs to anyone who is able to endure a whole hour of stay there. The curious Max accepts and decides to remain in the castle from 11PM until midnight. Once there, he notices what seems to be a walking skeleton, a 10 foot tall sheet, ghosts and animals in several rooms. He endures, up until the last minute when his wife calls him that a scary man is in her house, upon which Max presses the alarm button - and loses the bet. It turns out the scary man was de Mornay in disguise, who collects the 1,000 Francs from Max and pays the actors playing ghosts.

Max Linder's penultimate film, silent short cult horror comedy "Help!" was remembered for numerous macabre jokes and black humor which seemed "off" since the famous comedian committed suicide a year later - for instance, in one scene Max decides to drink a refreshing drink, only to discover the bottle has the word "poison" written on it - yet by watching it only in its own context, as a film on its own, it is a remarkably well done achievement that paved the way for hundreds of imitators about a man staying in a haunted castle. Even though the storyline abounds with bizarre-surreal scenes, it is at the same time almost childishly playful, whereas the expressionistic Linder stands out as the very unorthodox kind of guy who keeps remarkably stoic in all the commotion around him, which is refreshing and avoids the cliche of a "scared crazy" victim (Max lights a cigarette, but an arm pops out of the wall, holding a gun, and shoots the cigarette off. Deliciously, though, Max simply just lights another cigarette). Another highlight is the 10 foot tall "giant" under the sheet and Linder hanging from a hanging lamp whereas the whole image on the screen "tips" as if it might fall together with him, breaking the fourth wall. The twist ending is amusing, the mood is wonderfully aesthetic whereas Linder proves he is a very charismatic actor, on the same level as B. Keaton.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gorath

Gorath; science-fiction/ disaster movie, Japan, 1962; D: Ishiro Honda, S: Ryo Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura

In the futuristic 1980s, a spaceship discovers a strange star, Gorath, 6,000 times more massive than Earth, entering the Solar system. According to calculations, it is heading towards Earth. In order to save mankind, a Japanese scientist proposes a daring project at the UN: to "move" the Earth away from Gorath's path. In order to achieve that, scientists build hundreds of thrusters with a combined energy of 6,6 billion megatons on the South Pole, which will lift the planet upwards. While observing the Gorath, pilot Kanai loses his consciousness in the spaceship. The thrusters work and dodge Earth from Gorath, which continues its path in the outer space.

Silly and dumb, SF-extravaganza "Gorath" is closer to trash than to a serious disaster film, but a certain spark is delivered by the interesting story about Gorath, a Nibiru-like star on a collision course with Earth. The effects on the people, their reactions and efforts to change the fate of the planet, are surprisingly underwhelming, partly because the faceless characters are all bland and without any charm or wit - which ultimately makes them all just a 'face in the crowd' - and partly due to the film's cheap budget and low level of special effects: you cannot expect scale and epic proportions when miniature toy spaceships and toy bulldozers are suppose to pretend to be the real thing. Ironically, just as the plastic space stations, which are so light that they seem as if that they could be blown away by the slightest breeze any minute, the movie itself is without weight. The 5-minute subplot featuring a giant walrus (!) awakened on the South Pole is probably the most ludicrous ingredient of the film. Still, despite his budget limitations, director Ishiro Honda has a certain enthusiasm and refuses to give up, which should be welcomed. If anything, "Gorath" has at least two ontological scenes near the end: the one is when people watch the Moon getting sucked into Gorath in the sky, and the other is when Gorath rips Saturn's rings apart while passing it. The latter scene reveals that the movie inspired Matusmoto's superior and very similar "Queen Millennia" released 19 years later, and which also features an almost identical moment when planet La Metalle rips Saturn's rings. Almost as a whim of fate, "Gorath" was there first, but its imitator, "Millennia", was better on all other levels.

Grade;+

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Virgin Spring

Jungfrukällen; drama, Sweden, 1960; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Max von Sydow, Brigitta Valberg, Brigitta Pettersson, Gunnel Lindblom, Axel Duberg

Sweden, 14th century. Karin is a naive but frivolous girl, the only daughter of a very religious family, consisting out of mother Märeta, father Tore and peasants working on their farm. Since it is Easter, Karin, a virgin, is send to light a candle in the nearby church, located dozens of miles away. Together with servant Ingeri, who secretly worships Odin, Karin rides on the horse through the forest. Near a river, she meets three herdsmen: one is mute, one is a child, the other thin. She shares her lunch with them, but the mute and the thin hersman rape and kill her. Later that day, the three herdsmen accidentally land in the house of Karin's parents and offer to sell Karin's clothes. When Tore finds this out, he kills them. Tore, Märeta and the others find Karin's corpse, and from it, a spring begins to flow.

One of the classics of the 60s, this excellent adaptation of the Swedish ballad "Tore's Daughters in Vange", "The Virgin Spring" is one of Ingmar Bergman's best - and most untypical - films. Even though his often themes about religion, existentialism and death are still here, they are placed in the background to make room for a simple, common, accessible story about rape, which takes a turn towards "Crime and Punishment" in the second half. Moreover, these themes are told not through dialogues, but through a plot whose actions and behaviors gives it narrative. From the opening sequence where a maid takes a small chick and tells it to live its "puny life like all God's creations", the viewers are well aware that this is not a conventional history drama, but a clever character study and a philosophical tale. Karin's long ride on the horse though the forest, to get to the desolated church, is very expressionistic and full of beauty, both in mise-en-scene as well as in the opulence of nature. The sole rape sequence is haunting, as well as the legendary plot twist that later on grants a subtle revenge finale that is better and more sophisticated than any Tarantino film, yet, as director A. Lee nicely puts it, it is very rare to see a movie so serene and violent at the same time. The mood, the direction that allows the story to flow naturally, great actors, from von Sydow to Pettersson who is wonderful as the naive girl, and a very demanding tone that manages to be wonderfully 'light', give this film a timeless quality. The only flaw are the last five minutes, whose religious pondering are unnecessary and seem forced, almost imposed: maybe Bergman wanted to give the religious side power for once, since in most other of his films, the stories end in negating it.

Grade;+++