Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Aria the Animation

Aria the Animation; animated science-fiction drama series, Japan, 2005; D: Junichi Sato, S: Erino Hazuki, Chiwa Saito, Junko Minagawa, Ryou Hirohashi

In the 24th century, Mars has been terraformed and is now filled with oceans. Akari is a young girl who recently moved from Earth to the Mars city of Neo-Venice and wants to become an undine, i.e. a gondolier. She is hired by the Aria company for training. Rowing with her boat through the coast city, Akari meets other undine's - Aika, from the Himeya company; Alice; Akira; cat Aria and others. She spends her time abstaining from technology and doing a lot of things the old fashioned way. Her friends spend the New Year's eve together at the main square of Neo-Venice.

Kozue Amano created a manga with a very unique concept - even though the story is set on terraformed Mars in the 24th century, this is not a Sci-Fi story, but a simple, humble slice-of-life story that seems as if it plays out in the world of today - yet even though hopes were up when director Junicho Sato adapted it into an anime, the first season, "Aria the Animation", did not reach the level of his all-time classic "Sailor Moon". The notion of Akari and other undines living as some sort of "Amish of the 24th century" in order to enjoy the small things in life and not alianete themselves from too much technology is wonderfully sweet and optimistic, yet the minimalist story manages to conjure up only two truly great moments: one is in episode 2, where the feisty Akira starts lamenting against Alice, complaining how she became an undine before her, has whiter skin, etc... Alice shrugs all this off by giggling and constantly repeating "My my my", causing Akira to point her index-finger and threaten her: "Giggling isn't allowed! "My my my's" aren't allowed!" Alice though just keeps repeating "My my my" and giggling, causing Akira to chase her around the building. There is also one great episode where the heroine has to deliver a letter to a "vanished" address, only to find out it disappeared after the flooding of Mars, but manages to find the grave of the recipient and play the message over its grave.

Unfortunately, except for that, little else manages to ignite some spark or keep the viewer's attention. There is simply too little in this anime to show. The plot outlines are enough to sum up entire episodes - Akari goes to the main square to spend the New Year's eve there. And that's truly all that happens. In fact, one just needs to compare to put things into perspective: in episode 9, Akari and her friends meet an older woman in a garden and go to a spa. Nothing happens. But so much happened in a spa in Sato's "Sailor Moon" SuperS episode 136 that one cannot put it into words. Also, compared to other 'slice-of-life' films, like "Kiki's Delivery Service" or "Only Yesterday", it is evident that they do not need a story either, yet their warm emotions are able to create magic you feel, and don't just pretend to feel. "Aria the Animation" seems as if the authors wanted to create a minimalist anime, but fell into the trap of an empty walk. A one so lukewarm that it almost reaches the level of "Teletubbies" at some point. In fact, nothing happens throughout, to such an extent that you wish some guy would show up and make a scene by pinching one of the girl's butt just to finally live it up a bit.

Grade;++

Monday, 29 December 2014

Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman; fantasy/ horror, USA, 2012; D: Rupert Sanders, S: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Lily Cole, Ian McShane, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins

Snow White is the daughter of a widowed king who made his empire prosper. However, he meets a beautiful, but coniving woman, Ravenna, who seduces him and becomes the new queen. After Ravenna kills the king, she takes control of his empire and causes it to fall apart. She also kills young women to maintin her beauty. When Show White escapes from her, she teams up with the Huntsman who was sent to hunt her down. The two of them also meet eight dwarves and make friends with the opposing forces who want to remove Ravenna from her throne. Snow White is tricked into eating a poisoned apple and dies, but is revived by the Huntsman's kiss. Snow White leads the army that invades the castle, and there she kills Ravenna.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" once again demonstrates a problem of cinema in the 21st century: while the level of technical achievements (cinematography, editing, lighting, special effects...) just got higher and higher, the quality of the storyline just became lower and lower. This is once again an example of perfectly filmed 'autistic' events where the only things that cause the reaction from the audience are cheap scares, disgust, violence and depressive-dark mood which are suppose to carry the entire film. While the '97 film "Snow White: A Tale of Terror" was there before to give a twist to the classic fairy tale and present it in a horror edition, it suffered from same problems as this film: it had no inspiration from such an endlessly dark, bleak and colorless approach. The sheer level of depressive darkness is almost bizarre: Snow White encounters a beautifully white horse, only for it to later fall into the mud and drown in it; Snow White encounters a beautiful white deer, only for it to be shot with an arrow; the evil queen Ravenna emerges from a dark slime... It is unknown for whom this is all aimed at, but it just seems pointless, lifeless, humorless and negative without a measure. Unfortunately, not even the eight dwarves have charm of life to them, and are scarcely featured in the story, where they interact very little with the heroine. One of the few characters who actually seem alive - despite his 'abridged' presence - is the dwarf Muir, played by brilliant actor Bob Hoskins, who here unfortunately delivered his last film performance.

Grade;+

Friday, 26 December 2014

Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers; comedy, USA, 1930; D: Victor Heerman, S: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth

Explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding returns from an expedition in Africa back to the US. In order to commemorate his return, Mrs. Rittenhouse organizes a party at her mansion and plans to unveil a famous painting worth 100,000 $. Two other weird guests show up, Ravelli and his mute friend. Horatio and Arabella plan to switch the painting with a copy, but it gets stolen. The police finds the painting, while the rich Chandler hires Horatio impressed by his painting skills.

"Animal Crackers" is the 2nd best feature length comedy in the careers of the Marx brothers, right after their phenomenal "Duck Soup": here they are given a free hand to be in their element, the anarchic-burlesque humor, and manage to create such a frequency of brilliant jokes that they bring down the house. The vague plot is once again just an excuse to have something Groucho and the gang can lean on to, whereas a few musical scenes tend to seem slightly unnecessary (for instance, the overlong scene of Harpo playing a harp), but the highlights overshadow all these complaints with ease since the sheer number of inspired jokes is staggering, and even their fillers are funny. The most is once again achieved from unheard off comical dialogues and wise-cracking comments ("You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which doesn't say much for you."; "How much are you paid to play?" - "10 $ per hour," - "And how much are you paid not to play?" - "12 $ per hour." - "How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?"; Spaulding says: "I'm Jeffrey T. Spaulding. Do you know what the "T." stands for?" Chandler leans closer towards him and says: "Thomas?" - "No. Edgar. But you were close. In fact, you still are"; when Chico and Harpo start fighting, Groucho goes: "They are going to exterminate each other. That's the best thing that could happen to either of them.") as well as a few of weird slapstick stunts (Harpo's habit of constantly putting his leg on someone's hand). Very few absurd comedies manage to get it right, to align into a harmonius whole that simply makes the viewers want to forgive them whatever they do, and this is one of them.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Hamlet

Hamlet; drama, UK, 1948; D: Laurence Olivier, S: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan, Peter Cushing

In the Danish Kingdom, the young prince Hamlet is plagued by sadness because his father, the king, supposedly died when he was bitten by a snake, while Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, hastily crowned himself as the new king and married his brother's wife, queen Gertrude. When his friend Horatio tells him he had a vision of the dead king's ghost, Hamlet goes to the fortress next night and indeed sees his ghost, who tells him that he seeks revenge since Claudius poisoned him in order to obtain the crown. Slowly losing his reason, Hamlet stabs Ophelia's father Polonius and leaves for England. He returns for Ophelia's funeral and accepts a fencing duel set up by Claudius. Laertes stabs Hamlet with a poisoned sword, but Hamlet stabs him with the same sword and kills Claudiius, as well.

Laurence Olivier's second directorial achievement found the actor in his element, the world of Shakespeare, as he proved to really have the most of inspiration in it, achieving an excellent adaptation that set the standards for numerous other future adaptations of the writer's plays. "Hamlet" has been rightfully praized for numerous well directed sequences - especially memorable is the opening sequence where the three soldiers in the fortress see the apparition of the dead king's ghost emerging from the fog at night or the inventive decision to have Hamlet's long monologues presented as his thoughts, as to not have him speak aloud all the time - whereas Olivier is indeed brilliant in the leading role, conveying both Hamlet's fragile, torn state caused by the injustice of his uncle killing his father to get the crown and his mother, as well as his fall into mental madness. The famous "to be or not to be" monologue is impressive, but so are many far more impressive ones as well (Ophelia's: "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be..."; Hamlet's "Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right..."), whereas the whole film feels truly alive and energetic, and not just a stiff theatre imitation. If a few flaws have to be mentioned, then it is that some of Shakespeare's archaic words are not used anymore in modern English and thus feel slightly dated, whereas the third act is slightly anticlimactic and some have complained that Olivier cut certain parts out of the films (for instance, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are omitted). However, these flaws are so insignificant that they cannot corrode the overall high impression of a very cultured and elevated film. This is rare: a movie adaptation that is the equivalent of the book or play it was based on.

Grade;+++

Monday, 22 December 2014

St. Vincent

St. Vincent; drama/ comedy, USA, 2014; D: Theodore Melfi, S: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd

Vincent is a retired Vietnam war veteran, broke, cynical and spends his time drinking all the time. When his new neighbors, the single mother Maggie and her adopted son Oliver, move in, and the moving company accidentally breaks off a branch of Vincent's tree, he demands compensation. In order to appease him, Maggie decides to pay him for picking up Oliver from school and watching over him when she has to stay late in the hospital. However, Vincent slowly softens up for Oliver and teaches him to defend himself and think for himself. After Vincent has a stroke, he has to be taken care of by his semi-girlfriend, the pregnant prostitute Daka, while Maggie has to accept joint custody of Oliver from her ex-husband due to Vincent's poor influence. Oliver, though, makes research of Vincent's life and concludes he was a noble person, thereby proclaims him "St. Vincent".

Films about a little kid meeting a grumpy older man only to soften his heart and make him a better person have already been made on numerous occasions, from "Little Lord Fauntleroy", "Gran Torino", and others, while a similar theme has even been used in one Bill Murray film as well, "Rushmore", yet "St. Vincent" proves that this timeless tale can indeed be timeless if one simply adds a certain new constitution to it: this is a refreshingly honest, emotional, funny, humane and alive film, since Theodore Melfi - in his feature length debut film - simply proves to have something vibrant to offer as an author. For one, he created a great, dignified role for brilliant Murray, which offers not only his elevated Murray humor (the "Porsche" joke; Vincent joking how he is making exercises by lifting his drink up and down before drinking it; Vincent putting his drink near a punching bag as a "challenge" to Oliver who has such a soft punch that he cannot spill it...), but also an emotional dimension - Oliver finds out that inside that cold, defensive shell, Vincent actually has a kind soul and did many good deeds without bragging about them, which culminates in the sequence where the kid proclaims him "St. Vincent" - it is so touching it sends shivers down the spine. Melfi has a wonderfully elegant hand in crafting the 'slice-of-life' storyline and a sovereign sense for wonderful supporting characters, especially the very realistic character of Maggie played by excellent Melissa McCarthy. The only serious, major complaint is one "plot twist" in the second half (Vincent having a stroke and thus having to learn how to talk and walk properly again) that is untypically melodramatic and sappy compared to the rest of the film, since Murray was always above playing handicapped roles for film awards. However, the momentum of the film is so strong that not even such a subplot cannot corrode it: it is simply an inspired film.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Bad Santa

Bad Santa; black comedy, USA, 2003; D: Terry Zwigoff, S: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bret Kelly, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Cloris Leachman

Each Christmas, Willie works as Santa Clause with his partner, the short Marcus, who plays an elf, in order to later rob the safe of the mall. Naturally, they have to change towns each year. This Christmas, though, they land in Phoenix and Willie is getting too sloppy due to his alcoholism, swearing and anal sex, which threatens to bust them. Willie meets a little kid who thinks he is truly Santa and invites him at his place. Willie accepts, but slowly starts to like the naive, but charitable kid. He also meets a woman, Sue, who is turned on by Santas. When the manager of the mall figures who they are and demands 50 percent of the theft, Marcus kills him. The police bust them, and wound Willie, but he is able to give a present to the kid before the shootout.

Director Terry Zwigoff marched two steps back compared to his previous, excellent independent film "Ghost World" when he directed the black comedy "Bad Santa": as some have already noticed, it is a sickeningly disheartening and grotesque film that is not a spoof, but a perversion of the Christmas holidays genres, in which the mean-spirited tone simply went way, way overboard until it killed the story. It was simply in poor taste to have an idea where a Santa Clause is played by a man who swears in front of kids, steals the safe and car of a kid who invited him to his home and is a chronic alcoholic. There are some universal themes - already present in Zwigoff's own "Ghost World" - about losers and unadjusted outsiders, but just done worse, since here the main protagonist is not an intellectual. Disappointingly, he is just a vile, primitive person, and so is the entire film. The only redeeming features are a few good jokes here and there ("Are you kidding? That kid has no friends. Even his imaginary friend probably ditched him!"; the 'bargaining' duel between Marcus, who is slowly forced to raise the percentage of his share from 30 percent upwards, and Gin who just stays with his demands - "half" - the entire time) and a surprisingly touching subplot involving a naive, innocent kid with a heart of gold who never loses faith in the main character, which culminates in a touching ending. Unfortunately, that is too little. "Bad Santa", bad movie.

Grade;+

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Little Lord Fauntleroy; drama, UK, 1980; D: Jack Lord, S: Ricky Schroder, Alec Guinness, Connie Booth, Eric Porter

New York, 19th century. The 10-year old Cedric lives with his American mother Errol, ever since his father, a British citizen, died. Cedric never met his grandfather, Earl of Dorincourt, because he was always ashamed that his noble son fell in love with an ordinary American woman. However, since all his other sons died, and Cedric is the only heir to the family, the rich Earl summons him to England. However, Cedric's mother is not invited and she must live in a house outside the Earl's castle. However, the cheerful and charitable Cedric quickly softens the Earl's cold heart and persuades him to help the poor, for instance by improving the living conditions of the tenants. After a suspicious woman claiming to be the mother of Earl's rightful grandson and heir is discredited, Cedric is acknowledged as the rightful heir and the Earl makes up with his mother, who is invited for Christmas.

Jack Lord's "Little Lord Fauntleroy" is one of the most popular film adaptations of the famous and beloved eponymous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and steadily built up quite a reputation - for instance, it is regularly shown on German TV almost every year for Christmas, thereby turning into a trademark for the holiday season - and is, despite its hype, a sweet and lovable, unassuming little film. The opening 20-30 minutes are rather slow and need time until they get going, whereas a few flaws can be easily detected by more serious film critics (for instance, the schematic presentation of a few messages; a few mechanic moments; a simplistic presentation), but overall, this is one of the most positive, emotional and well meaning films of the 80s, a wonderful story about a kid with a heart of gold who manages to ignite a spiritual transition of his grandfather's character from an extreme misanthropy to an extreme philanthropy. The viewer's hearts are definitely swayed in the scene where Cedric is riding on a pony, but spots a poor child walking on one crotch due to his disabled leg, stops and offers him a ride to him home - and to buy him another crotch. Even though more of his positive charitable actions should have been shown, instead of just three, it is enough to get the "bigger picture" and for the viewers to realize the deeper theme about the abolition of prejudice and stubborn selfishness. Ricky Schroder probably gave the role of a lifetime as the title kid, but Alec Guinness is great as the slowly transforming grandfather, as well, thereby strengthening the storyline.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl; comedy, UK/ USA, 1957; D: Laurence Olivier, S: Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Sybil Thorndike

Regent Charles, the ruler of Carpathia, a Balkan state, arrives in London to attend the coronation of George V. When he attends a stage musical, "The Coconut Girl", and is charmed by a showgirl in it, Marina. He invites her to his embassy for a one night stand, but she falls in love with him and drops unconscious from drinking alcohol. Charles wants to get rid of her the next morning, but Marina meets his mother-in-law, Dowager Queen, and thus stays to attend the coronation with the uneasy Charles. Staying around the embassy, Marina manages to stop a coup d'etat planned by Charles teenage son Nicholas, and actually helps them make out. Charles informs her that he will be an ordinary citizen in 18 months when Nicholas succeeds him, and Marina tells him she will wait for him.

Laurence Olivier's only comedy as a film director, "The Prince and the Showgirl" is a curiosity in his career, and a very uneven and stiff achievement since it seems he had difficulties handling humor instead of Shakespearean drama. For all the hype surrounding the actual filming, mostly focusing on the alleged problems with Marilyn Monroe who was supposedly very difficult to work with, it is even more surprising that in the final result, it is actually Monroe who is wonderfully charming and alive, whereas Olivier is weak. Actually, "The Prince..." is only and exclusively a good film thanks to Monroe, and without her - or some actress her calibre - it would have been a mediocre flick. It may seem like a heresy to claim that Monroe eclipsed Olivier, but in this edition, she simply did. Olivier plays the Prince with an awful accent, a stiff persona and no sense for comic timing, whereas his actions' are often puzzling: for instance, in his embassy, he obviously wants to seduce Marina for dinner, but for some reason spends the time reading newspapers while she is serving the food to herself at the table. When he finally does get into the mood, by having one of the servants play a violin outside the room, and Marina indeed tells him she is falling in love, she falls unconscious from too much alcohol - and he just drops her on the floor? And then leaves the room? It may have been a intentional choice to show the Prince as a nobility who lost touch with normal people, but it made him very difficult to like for the audience. The odd open ending does not help in the impression, either, but it has a certain spark thanks to Monroe. 54 years later, a film about filming "The Prince..." was made, "My Week with Marylin", which was - despite questions of its factual accuracy - a far more interesting take on it.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn; drama, UK, 2011; D: Simon Curtis, S: Eddie Redmayne, Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, Judi Dench, Emma Watson

Even though his parents think he is wasting his time with films and should instead find a real job, the 23-year old Colin Clark leaves his suburban home to go to London and somehow make it into film business. In '56, he gets a job as an assistant for the new film directed by Laurence Olivier, "The Prince and the Showgirl", starring Marilyn Monroe. Olivier and the studio were very excited to have her at first, but that quickly turned into a hassle when Monroe suffered from depression, forgot her lines, always came too late and would refuse to even rehearse without her coach. Olivier became a nervous wreck, but Colin managed to bond with Marilyn and they spent a weekend together as friends. After the film was completed, she left back to the US.

While "The Prince and the Showgirl" was a good film, some rightfully concluded that the turbulent relationship between its director, Laurence Olivier, and his star, Marilyn Monroe, during filming would have made for an even better film. Simon Curtis took over the direction position and brought those times back to life in "My Week with Marilyn", a bitter-sweet essay on the clash of two perspectives of appearance of celebrities - idealism and reality - told from the point-of-view of Colin Clark, who was an assistant during the making of the "The Prince..." and witnessed the events. While Clark's account is romantic and melancholic, especially during the week he spent with Marilyn - because he acted as her friend, not as her fan, and was thus true to himself, which she needed - he does not shy away from showing Marilyn's bizarre and confusing states of mind: one moment, she swims with him naked in a lake; the next one she shows him the cold shoulder, as if she does not know him anymore.

Monroe was more fascinating as a person than as a star, since, as the movie implies, only wanted love, but realized that maybe being a famous movie star was the wrong way to get it. As she says at one point in the film: "People want to be with Marilyn Monroe. And when they realize I am not her, they run away." This comes inside one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, when Colin climbs inside her bedroom after she locked herself inside and caused the people to worry since she did not reply. Even she needed a break from all the hype around her, and just a normal person to talk to. Michelle Williams delivered a great performance as the title heroine, and was, through some sweet irony, nominated for the same award as Monroe in "The Prince..." in '57, for a BAFTA as best actress. In such times of mass fake, action spectacles without a normal, decent story, "My Week..." seems even more refreshing: it is a simple, wonderful little story. And that's all it needs to be. And a giant love song to Marilyn and her sad side.

Grade;+++

Monday, 15 December 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; adventure fantasy, USA, 2007; D: Gore Verbinski, S: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Chow Yun-fat, Keith Richards

Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann and Barbossa team up to go Singapore to get special maps from  pirate Sao Feng, in order to get with their ship to the Underworld and return Jack Sparrow back to the living. With the nine pirate Lords now complete, they hold a meeting in order to declare a fight against the East India Trading Co., which created an alliance with Beckett and humanoid tentacle Davy Jones, who want to root out piracy completely. In a final duel, Sparrow and his ship crew prevail and kill Jones by stabbing his heart, which was locked inside a magical chest. Elizabeth and Turner marry.

With the 3rd part of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series, "At World's End", one can simply apply one logical conclusion: some films simply have a good story. Others, like this one, just convolute one obscure subplot into another, and then convolute it into another, and then into yet another, and another, until they get an artificially complex film consisting out of four weak subplots at once. But that contrived "muddle method" does not make those weak subplots any good, though. There are underworlds, humanoid tentacle monsters, black magic, a sea goddess and other combined with pirates, but one should not bother with trying to understand these storylines. To put is simple: the previous films were a hit, thus a sequel has to continue the franchise, and it would not matter even if UFOs and the Monster of Loch Ness would appear just as long they make the story go on and on. Even though it made history as the first film that broke the 300 million $ mark with its huge budget, "At World's End" is a completely obscure film, a pompous and tiresome CGI overkill with so little energy and care that it does not justify breaking the mark as previous films whose authors took a lot of care in making them great as well, such as the first film that had a budget of 100 million $ (Cameron's "Terminator 2") and 200 million $ (Cameron's "Titanic").

Numerous episodes lead nowhere. For instance, what was the point of the sea goddess Calypso, who had a grand announcement, only to grow into a giant and then desintegrate into thousands of crabs? What was the point of having the Singapore pirate, played by Chow Yun-fat, only to have him killed so soon in the story? On the other hand, the opening is actually quite funny: the mass arrest and execution of people suspect of aiding pirates, and a decree that proclaims the abolishment of habeas corpus, is maybe a sly commentary on Bush's treatment of people suspect of terrorism, whereas the first appearance of a singing Elizabeth and Barbossa, who encounter a Singapore guard, has a deliciously comical exchange (Guard: "A dangerous song to be singing for anyone ignorant of its meaning... Particularly a woman... Particularly a  woman alone." - Barbossa: "What makes you think she's alone?" - Guard: "You protect her?" - Elizabeth (puts a knife to the guard's throat): "What makes you think I need protecting?"). These comical moments are the only ones that ring true and are a welcomed "reserve" once the generic action and battles sequences start, which are sometimes unnecessary gory. The final battle is nowhere as fun or exciting as it could have been, but a few comical scenes even there - among them the wedding of Elizabeth and Will while fighting on the ship - shows that the authors still had some small sparks of inspiration that refused to die so easily in the sequel matrix.

Grade;+

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; fantasy, USA/ New Zealand, 2012; D: Peter Jackson, S: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood

Bilbo Baggins recalls an adventure he had as a young lad: dragon Smaug showed up in a dwarf kingdom and expulsed its inhabitants, thereby taking the mountain of gold in the capital. The grandson of the former king Thror, Thorin, is thus angry at Elves for just standing by and not helping them. Wizard Gandalf shows up at Bilbo's home in the company of Thorin and 12 more dwarves - Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Dori and others - and persuades him to join them on their quest of reclaiming the capital from dragon Smaug. Along their way, Bilbo encounters Gollum and goblins who want to kill the group, but they manage to arrive at the edge of the mountain.

Almost a decade after "The Return of the King", director Peter Jackson returned to Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle-earth, but despite a solid result, the Jackson who did "Hobbit" coped far less here than the Jackson who did the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Numerous post-"The Lord of the Rings" fantasy films tried to rip-off Jackson's original film series, but what is truly surprising, is that Jackson in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jounrey" actually tried to rip-off himself. Indeed, "Journey" is not so much an adaptation of Tolkien's eponymous beloved children's book as much as it is a huge reference and nod to "The Lord of the Rings", and too much of it, too, since it overshadowed the main plot. The first third of the film is actually good and has charm, especially the comical sequence where Bilbo is an unlikely host for the unexpected visit of a dozen dwarves and Gandalf who eat up all of his food supplies for diner, whereas the dragon attack sequence is finely made, especially since we do not see the dragon but only his flight above the village, yet as the story progresses, it is getting more and more obvious that the original "Hobbit" book could have been made in two, maybe even only one film, and that the narrative is getting heavily overstretched in order to fit into a movie trilogy - which is further exacerbated by the fact that even this first film last for 169 minutes! Events unfold, but the narrative is on "Stall" phase all of the time, until the end where the heroes finally reach their destination visible above the horizon. The CGI is an overkill, without a sense for adventure or awe, and instead just relies on endless display of CGI creatures, until the viewers become numb to the special effects. "Journey" is a solid film, but eclipsed by the better impression left by the same crew a decade ago.

Grade;+

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars; science-fiction action, USA, 1980; D: Jimmy T. Murakami, S: Richard Thomas, Darlanne Fluegel, John Saxon, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, Sybil Danning

Space imperialist Sador arrives with his army at the orbit of peaceful planet Akir and demands that the people surrender to him. Refusing the annexation, but unable to fight, the nation sends one lad, Shad, to escape with his spaceship and go on a search to find mercenaries who will fight for them. Shad finds seven willing - a girl, Nanelia; a Space Cowboy; Gelt; a collective of aliens, Nestor; reptile Cayman; another alien and Saint Exmin, a blond Valkyrie warrior. In the self-defence, all of them die, except Nanelia and Shad, who manage to detonate a bomb inside Sador's spaceship, thereby killing him.

This cult patchwork Sci-Fi retelling of "The Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven" is a solid and easily watchable film without reaching the heights of its role models, and enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame in the 80s because it was riding on the wave of Sci-Fi 'boom' after "Star Wars" and "Alien". Despite 'abridged' special effects and a limited budget, some effects of spaceships in space are surprisingly good, whereas the story flows smoothly, however, for a screenplay written by John Sayles, the story lacks charm and its two main protagonists - Shad and Nanelia - are disappointingly bland, stiff and unmemorable. A few moments of inspiration and wit show up here and there (a humorous scene where an alien says how it is refreshing that humans only need two genders to have sex, while three genders are needed for its species; the Nestor collective of aliens tries an assassination attempt by controlling the transplanted arm of one of their specimen that was implanted on dictator Sador), but they are in the minority and the story seems pretty standard most of the time. As such, "Battle Beyond the Stars" is not as fun as it could have been, though it is done with measure and without excess. Some supporting characters almost steal the show from the two heroes, among them Robert Vaughn as mercenary Gelt, whereas Sybil Danning stands out the most as the feisty, blond Valkyrie woman with a silver bikini and diadem that make her irresistibly beautiful - quite frankly, she should have been the lead.

Grade;+

Friday, 12 December 2014

Something Evil

Something Evil; horror, USA, 1972; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy, Johnny Whitaker

While painting a farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, Marjorie persuades her husband, Paul, to buy the house. Since Paul is a busy TV commercials producer working in New York, he is often absent while Marjorie is alone in the farmhouse with their two kids, son Stevie and a daughter. One night, she hears a child's moaning in the barn, but finds nobody there. After filmming a commercial in the house, a crew member and his wife die in a bizarre car crash after driving back home. After hearing the previous owner killed himself, Marjorie concludes the farmhouse is haunted and wants to sell it, but Paul is against it. She hires a paranormal enthusiast, Harry, to investigate, but he too is soon found dead. It turns out Stevie is possessed by the devil, but Marjorie is able to save him through her love. The family then abandons the house.

Sandwiched between his two thriller-horror classics, "Duel" and "Jaws", haunted house film "Something Evil" is a curiosity in the early career of director Steven Spielberg, and forms his unusual semi-trilogy of horror films during the early 70s. While undeniably weaker than those two aforementioned films, "Something Evil" is still a surprisingly good and nicely made film: the location scouts found the film a fantastic location of a secluded, countryside farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, which neatly sets up a mood of isolation in case of danger, and Spielberg knew very well how to slowly build up elevated, sophisticated suspense at times - for instance, the eerie sequence when an editor calls Paul to show him the footage of the commercial filmmed in front of his house, and then pauses when two red eyes can be clearly seen in the window in the background - but that high impression is not supported in the second half of the film, which turns out slightly overstretched, chaotic and repetitive as time goes by. For instance, when the mother wakes up in the middle of night to inspect a sound of child's moaning in the barn, the sequence works and has suspense. But when she goes for a 2nd time, it is not that genuine anymore. Likewise, the authors were not as inventive enough in that second half to conjure up any new "spooky details" that would cause suspense in the house, except for the standard ones like things flying through the house. The visual style is very fine and this is an overall interesting forerunner to Spielberg's own "Poltergeist" made a decade later.

Grade;++

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Who Am I?

Wo shi shei; action comedy, China/ South Africa, 1998; D: Jackie Chan, S: Jackie Chan, Ron Smerczak, Michelle Ferre, Mirai Yamamoto

Somewhere in the South African desert, Jackie awakens after a head injury in a village of a local tribe, and cannot remember who he is. He decides to head for civilization and encounters Yuki at a desert race. In Johannesburg, he is contacted by a man who claims to be from CIA, Morgan, who questions him but gives up when he realizes he suffers from amnesia. Jackie teams up with Christine, a woman who claims to be a reporter, and remembers he was part of a secret unit that was disposed off in a helicopter after they had scientists kidnapped to create a mineral that whose energy can be used as a weapon. Jackie and Christine travel to Rotterdam and apprehend Morgan, who betrayed the CIA in order to get rich by selling the mineral. Christine herself turns out to be from the CIA.

Another strong example of Jackie Chan's comic and martial arts abilities, this humorous forerunner to "The Bourne Identity" excels the most in virtuoso choreographed action sequences which eclipse many other action films of its time. "Who Am I?" is a super fast, dynamic and engaging film done in the 'good old school' way, i.e. with a classic narrative and good and bad guys, whereas the crystal clear cinematography is fantastic, and the only aspect that disappoints is the pale music and a lack of a proper resolution of the storyline (the fast pace may have fooled some viewers to forget about the fact that the second female heroine, Yuki, simply "disappears" in the last third of the film, while Jackie never returns to visit the African kid who helped him when he was in his village). The story is all over the place, but it is just a front to have Chan do some fighting, anyway, and some of his stunts may again cause dizziness - the "slide" down the tipped roof of the building; the humorous scene where Chan climbs up the top of a tree to escape a lion that climbs half way, as well; using a jacket to capture a villain's hands and tie them into a not on his head; the way Chan saves a dog while a piano and a glass cube crash in front and behind him... The locations in South Africa are very aesthetic, as well. A small jewel here is the very charismatic Michelle Ferre as the main heroine Christine, one of the best actresses the producers were dumb enough never to use again.

Grade;++

Friday, 5 December 2014

Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour; musical, UK, 1967; D: Bernard Knowles, S: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Jessie Robins

Richard Starkey and his aunt Jessie board a bus for a magical mystery tour. The bus is filled with passengers, including a tour director, a hostess and a dwarf. Along the bus drive through the countryside, they stop by and encounter several misadventures, including entering a small tent holding a screening room inside, whereas Jessie has dreams about food in a restaurant. At the end of the journey, they reach a stage where the Beatles perform a song.

The 3rd out of only four films featuring the Beatles - excluding their documentary "Let it Be" - "Magical Mystery Tour" is almost unanimously considered their weakest film, and with only 52 minutes of running time, their also shortest and least inspired one. The film is deliberately confusing, trying to just play out as a film without a plot or a script, full of random ideas, yet most of them are underdeveloped and do not have a point, which makes them - and the whole film - seem unfinished. The ending could very well come at any point, since nothing connects with anything. The main framing point, the bus drive through the countryside, is stimulative, but it is constantly interrupted with various fantasy sequences that stick out as a sore thumb (a man dreaming that he is at the beach with Ringo's aunt Jessie; Jessie dreaming of food in a restaurant; the magicians; dwarfs wrestling...), ultimately creating a bizarre contradiction - the Beatles in a weak film. Only small crumbs of fun are present here, such as the "stolen" moment where Lennon has an exchange with a little child ("I have a present for you. Do you know what it is?" - "No." - "Take a guess!" - "No." - "Take a guess!" - No!" - "Well, I will give it to you anyway"). Admittedly, one has to point out that almost every film Beatles film was surreal, but this one was the least fun and has the weakest soundtrack of them all (the weak song "I Am the Walrus" does not give you a kick as much as the songs in "A Hard Day's Night", for instance). However, the Beatles would a year later spectacularly redeem themselves with their best film, the dreamy "Yellow Submarine", which is a holiday for film buffs.

Grade;+

Thursday, 4 December 2014

From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love; thriller, UK, 1963; D: Terence Young, S; Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz

In order to obtain the Soviet cryptographic machine, the Lektor, and take revenge on secret agent James Bond for killing Dr. No at the same time, the secret organization SPECTRE envisages a sly plan: they order the their loyal secret agent, Soviet operative Rosa Klebb, to find a woman from the Soviet embassy in Istanbul, Tatiana, to feign that she wants to defect to the West and give them the Lektor, but only on the condition that Bond accompanies her. MI6 takes the bait, and Bond goes to Istanbul and meets Tatiana. They steal the Lektor and take a train trip through the Balkans to get to Trieste. SPECTRE agent Grant tries to kill Bond but fails. Bond thus arrives to Trieste while Tatiana truly falls for him.

The 2nd James Bond film, "From Russia with Love" is an improvement to the shaky first film, "Dr. No", and an appropriately suspenseful, dynamic and engaging spy action flick, a product of its time, namely the Cold War. Obviously, it is a too simplistic presentation of the matter, an escapist action fun, yet since it never aims for some higher ambitions, it is unpretentious and completely relaxed, thus entirely suitable for a light entertainment. Sean Connery made a huge improvement in playing James Bond compared to the 1st film, and is very charismatic and assertive in this film, whereas the Bond franchise "trademark", the opening credits - here involving the cast credits being screened on the body of a woman in the dark - are among the most inventive, visually exquisite of the entire film series. The story takes a while until it gets going, and more could have been done out of it, but as it is, is has enough highlights, especially in the untypical train sequence where Bond and Tatiana are travelling across Belgrade and Zagreb to get to Trieste, which is refreshingly devoid of action and focuses more on the build up of tension, since it is never known how the secret organization SPECTRE is going to assault the two protagonists. Tatiana is also a surprisingly well made character, who goes through a transformation when she decides to abandon the Soviet Totalitarianism and honestly escape with Bond to the West. Overall, a very fluent, and very confident Bond film.

Grade;++