Thursday, 22 June 2017

Rambo

Rambo / First Blood; action / drama, USA, 1982; D: Ted Kotcheff, S: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbott, David Caruso

John Rambo, a retired Vietnam war veteran, arrives at a hut to visit his old war colleague, but finds out he died from cancer. Wandering aimlessly, Rambo arrives at a small city, but the local Sheriff, Will, escorts him out before he can even step foot in the place. When Rambo heads back to the city, Will arrests him. The police officers are brutal, and they bully Rambo until he snaps, beats them up and escapes to the mountain. Will assembles a team to kill him, but Rambo kills many of his officers in the forest, instead. Escalating more and more, the situation reaches a critical point when Rambo steals a military truck, gets a weapon and starts shooting across the town, killing Will. However, Rambo's former commander, Colonel Trautman, persuades him to give himself up to the police.

Even though Sylvester Stallone made over 80 films, he will arguably be remembered for playing only two characters: Rocky and Rambo. Even though it suffers from various problems, inconsistencies and an elision of common sense — the cause for the conflict between Sheriff Will and Rambo is as convincing as the one in "Batman vs. Superman", since in both their trivial misunderstandings could have easily been solved by simply talking to each other as grown ups — "Rambo" still tries to deliver a commentary on the post-war mentality of war veterans, giving a sly message: war veterans only know how to fight, but while that is required from them during war, once peace returns and they are back in their society, they (and their urge to fight) seem misplaced and inappropriate. This is evident near the finale, when Colonel Trautman talks to Rambo and tries to persuade him to finally stop fighting, but he just replies with: "Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off!" This speaks volumes about people who are stuck in one state and are unable to move on. "Rambo" also seems to be a critique of "Dirty Harry" and the "shoot first, ask later" mentality: it shows such tendency in the authoritarian Sheriff Will and his officers, who communicate only through violence and bullying, arguing that this extreme right-wing behavior leads in a dead end, in a state of endless escalation from people who fight back. Despite its somewhat rudimentary approach, "Rambo" advanced into a cult film and became the voice of the 80s, capturing its flair and mood, featuring an exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith, spanning a whole mythology of American "one-man-army" heroes during Reagan's era. Despite its more dramatic (and tragic) look at violence and action, the film was followed by three sequels which abandoned the original vision and embraced violence and action as pure, carefree fun, even though critics didn't approve.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Circle

Dayereh; drama, Iran / Italy / Switzerland, 2000; D: Jafar Panahi, S: Nargess Mamizadeh, Maryian Parvin Almani, Mojgan Faramarzi, Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee 

Tehran. A child is born in the hospital. The grandmother finds out it is a girl, even though the ultrasound indicated it was suppose to be a boy, and thus runs away from the hospital, fearing what the father will say... On the street, two women were released from jail, but one of them gets arrested for wanting to sell a necklace and flee the city. The other girl, Nargess, buys a bus ticket to a city abroad, but hesitates to enter it... Another woman, Pari, runs away from her home when her two angry brothers storm in. She is pregnant and wants to make an abortion, but she needs a permit from her husband, who in turn was executed. She finds a mother who abandoned her little daughter on the street. Pari enters a car, but the driver turns out to be a police officer. Pari escapes. The police stop a woman who was driving with a man who is not her husband, suspecting she is a prostitute. The man is released while the woman is brought to the prison. In there, all the previous women find themselves in the same cell.

Jafar Panahi is among only a handful of directors whose film starts off seemingly as boring only to by the end grip the viewers to such an extent that they are electrified and do not want it to end without a resolution. In this film, Panahi ripped through the standard conventions of Iran's picture-book cinema in order to show something different, an untypical, dark, realistic feminist film in the form of one giant commentary on the misogyny of the society that already starts in the opening scene with the birth of a baby girl, whose grandmother fears that her own gender already disappointed her father. Even though it is somewhat burdened by the heavy "social issue" use, "The Circle" manages to rise above such a predictable delivery of a message thanks to four stories of women without a protagonist, meandering and switching from one story to another thanks to wonderful elegance and swift editing. Through the actions of the women, Panahi speaks out about the discrimination of women (when Nargess wants to buy a shirt for a man in a store, but doesn't know his size, the clerk says: "You women, you always forget everything!"; when she wants to buy a bus ticket, the clerk warns her that she cannot without the permit of a man or a proof that she is a student; when a woman is arrested for driving in the car with a man to whom she is not married, the police let him go, but arrest her...), assembling thus a cyclic structure of the problem which corresponds to both its title and the ending that returns to the opening story. Panahi is subtle — at times, even too subtle, since some themes can only be hinted at due to the restrictions of the Iranian government (abortion, prostitution...) — yet his honesty and humanity simply come to full expression.

Grade;+++

Friday, 16 June 2017

When Marnie Was There

Omoide no Mani; animated drama, Japan, 2014; D: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, S: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Hana Sugisaki

After Anna Sasaki (12) collapses from an asthma attack, her foster parents send her to spend a few weeks with her aunt in a small town near the coast. Anna suffers from anxiety and feels reluctant to invest any trust into anybody, still resenting her unknown biological parents for abandoning her without a reason. She has recurring dreams of a blond girl, and is surprised when she actually meets her one night in a mansion. The blond girl identifies herself as Marnie, lamenting how she is abused by the maids in the mansion. The two girls spend some time together, but Marnie acts mysterious and suddenly disappears. Anna and another girl, Sayaki, finally hear the whole story from painter Hisako: a long time ago, Marnie was the only child of a rich couple who neglected her. When she grew up, Marnie married and had a daughter. When her husband died, Marnie had to take care of her granddaughter after her daughter died in a car crash. Anna then finally figures that Marnie was her late grandmother.

Another famed anime film by the Ghibli Studio, "When Marnie Was There" is a proportionally well done therapeutic journey which tracks down the source of the heroine Anna's psychological problems, dismantles them and offers some solutions to them. While this is done with enough care, delicacy and measure, the sole result is still somewhat lax, slow and boring at times, since a lot of the features of the storyline were already done in numerous films before. All the scenes are good, yet "Marnie" still lacks highlights: too many scenes revolve only around routine, schematic situations such as picking up tomatoes or going to a festival, while the only great moment where the film rises to the occasion is the plot twist at the end, yet spoiling that would take away that one genius pay-off. It takes simply too long to get to the "juicy" part, the ending, which makes "Marnie" a notch bellow some of Ghibli's previous classics, not managing to rival its golden age from the 80s and 90s, though it is a gentle, honest and sincere little film that has understanding about the troubled orphaned heroine.

Grade;++

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki (Season 1-2)

Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki; animated science-fiction comedy series, Japan, 1992-1995; D: Hiroki Hayashi, S: Masami Kikuchi, Yumi Takada, Ai Orikasa, Chisa Yokoyama, Yuko Mizutani

Curiosity was just too big for teenager Tenchi. When he hears from his grandfather about a legend that a demon was sealed off in a cave by one of their ancestors centuries ago, Tenchi unlocks the cave and stumbles upon female demon Ryoko who attacks him in school at night. However, when Tenchi defeats her, Ryoko changes and falls in love with him. It turns out she is actually a space renegade who attacked planet Jurai 700 years ago, and Princess Ayeka and her sister Sasami travel with their spaceship from Jurai to Earth to confront Ryoko because they are looking for Ayeka's brother and fiance, Yosho. Even clumsy space police officer, blond Mihoshi, arrives to Earth to capture Ryoko. They all fall in love with Tenchi and decide to live in his house. It turns out that Tenchi's grandfather is Yosho, who fled to Earth. Space villains Kagato and Dr. Clay attack Tenchi's house, but they are defeated in the spaceship.

One of the most popular animes from the 90s, "Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki" is still in reality a notch bellow of all the high hype that surrounds it. More beloved by male than female viewers, "Tenchi Muyo" is funny and amusing, yet basically just a prototype of the future harem animes, a cryptic adolescent male fantasy in which the protagonist is surrounded by three women who are all in love with him, while a fourth one also shows potential interest in him (Mihoshi). In episode 7, Ryoko even accuses Ayeka of trying to steal Tenchi away from her, saying: "I can smell your pheromones!" It doesn't take much intellect to conclude that this was written by a man. Disregarding the disparity stemming from this cliche concept — if Tenchi likes one of them, why not simply be honest and announce which girl he loves? Otherwise, he displays a rather rotten, dishonest nature for playing all the three girls against each other ad nauseam, and also ignores their feelings — "Tenchi Muyo" also has other flaws which are often overlooked, among them an extremely meandering storyline which doesn't know where it is going, leading to several subplots that all unravel in sometimes just two episodes and are then forgotten for the rest of the show.

One moment, Ryoko is a space pirate that must be arrested by Mihoshi, and then this is all forgotten. Another time, villain Kagato shows up, attacks and this all leads to a giant space battle for two episodes, and is never mentioned again afterwards. Another time, Sasami admits to Ayeka that she is not her sister, but all of this doesn't matter, anyway, since it is never mentioned again in later episodes, and is thus without weight. Such arbitrary tone just consolidates the impression that the author was making this stuff up as he went along, and that it doesn't matter that all the girls are aliens, since all that matters is to establish a plot about three girls "hanging" over a guy. Several fan service moments seem to confirm this (for instance, in episode 3, Ryoko backs up, while Tenchi's grandfather sneaks up behind her and grabs her breasts). This anime works the best when it actually abandons the "harem" concept and simply enjoys its pure comedy. For instance, when bounty hunter Mihoshi lands on Earth, she picks up a signal of her "scary" target and aims at it, which turns out to be an adorable, cat-rabbit like creature, Ryo-Ohki, which bites a third of her gun. In episode 10, the girls are watching a TV romance in which two alien, egg like creatures start passionately kissing, upon which Sasami covers the eyes of the little Ryo-Ohki, while her sister, Ayeka, covers Sasami's eyes. More of such humor would have been welcomed, since the gags about wacky spaceships crashing in the lake or the girls making grimaces can only go so far. The animation is excellent, while a highlight is definitely the song in the closing credits, "Talent for Love", one of the most positive and contagious songs from the 90s, a small gem. Overall, a good comedy anime, yet since this plays out in an isolated house, in which many girls are trying to get the affection of a guy, one cannot shake away the impression that one is watching "The Bachelor" reality show at times.

Grade;++

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux; drama, Mexico / France / Netherlands, 2012; D: Carlos Reygadas, S: Adolfo Jiménez Castro, Nathalia Acevedo, Willebaldo Torres

A child wonders along the prarie, observing cows. A red, glowing silhuette of a Pan creature enters a house and walks across the corridors. Juan, a lumberjack, cuts some trees in the forest. He returns home to his wife, Nathalia, and their two little kids, Rut and Eleazar. Juan attends an alcohols-anonymous meeting where he talks to a friend, Seven. Juan and Nathalia celebrate Christmas with the relatives, visit a spa for swingers... However, Juan complains to Nathalia that she ignores him and avoids having sex with him. Their relationship falls apart in the rural life: he becomes sick, she takes the kids and leaves him. Finally, Juan goes to a meadow and rips his own head from his shoulders.

After striking a magnificent chore with some early excellent films, director Carlos Reygadas was rightfully panned by the critics for his disappointing film "Post Tenebras Lux", a movie that seems to have fallen into the trap of those loose art-films that follow a vague 'stream-of-consciousness' narrative and that all appeared near the beginning of the 21st Century. Just like them, "Lux" is an achievement without a plot — actually, the first hint of anything of what this should actually be about happens an hour into the film, when Juan has an argument with his wife Nathalia — roughly exploring the collapse and dissolution of a relationship of a couple with two kids, yet it is overburdened with a self-indulgent, chaotic and random style that exacerbates the already huge effort of the viewers to try to undertsand the film. The cinematography is great, with Alexis Zabe showing talent for handling the camera, but, unfortunately, the sequences and episodes are so arbirtrary and disjointed — the family playing on the beach; Juan and Nathalie driving on the road with the two kids sleeping in the car; dogs running; a party with the family relatives... — that make "Lux" almost seem like a family photo album at times. The lack of a clear story — and some magnificent style to compensate — debilitate the overall impression of this experimental film.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Hard Target

Hard Target; action, USA, 1993; D: John Woo, S: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lance Henriksen, Arnold Vosloo, Yancy Butler, Wilford Brimley

New Orleans. Natasha is searching for her homeless father, Binder, whom she hasn't seen ever since he divorced her mother. When she is attacked by robbers, she is saved by Chance Boudreaux, another homeless man. Natasha offers him money to help her find her dad and Chance accepts. When the police find Binder's corpse, little by little Natasha and Chance discover a web of intrigues led by Fouchon, who colludes with millionaires who are so bored with their lives they pay him to hunt, shoot and kill homeless men in the city at night. One of their victims was Binder. Natasha and Chance hide at his uncle's place in the swamp, lure the millionaires and Fouchon in an old warehouse, and then kill them.

John Woo's 1st feature length film for the American market, and the first big budget US film directed by an Asian director, "Hard Target" is today a curiosity in the director's filmography, serving as his "adjustment phase" in a new country, yet still works as a good action film, with that typical flair of the 90s involving a stranger with little words who takes on the much stronger bad guys, which is reminiscent of S. Leone's films, especially his Dollars Trilogy. A thin, simplistic story with a rather abrupt ending, a couple of clumsy scenes or 'stilted' slow motion shots, somewhat one-dimensional characters and a few silly moments (the snake sequence) narrow the enjoyment value of the film, yet it still serves as a competent, fast, dynamic, thrilling and all-around energetic action ride, with 'tongue-in-cheek' irony that refuses to take itself seriously (Randall is holding a cigar in his mouth, and Chance lights up a match — but just when Randall leans forward to light up his cigar, Chance blows out the match; Wilford Brimley in a humorous guest appearance as Chance's uncle who rides a horse and shoots at the villains...). Naturally, Woo again rises to the occasion in several great action sequences — one is when the robbers assault Natasha (she opens the door of her car, but one of the thugs shuts it by kicking the door; a thug swings with a bottle at Chance, but he catches his arm and just bends it backwards to let the bottle hit him) and the other is when Chance charges with a motorcycle that leaks gasoline at the bad guys, smashes it into their car and shoots at the gasoline, thereby igniting it into an explosion, which is a fine example of action, easily one of Van Damme's finest hours.

Grade;++

Monday, 5 June 2017

Intimate Headshot

Intim fejlövés; drama, Hungary, 2009; D: Péter Szajki, S: Gyözö Szabó, Tibor Gáspár, Lehel Kovács, Zsolt Huszár, Eszter Nagy-Kálózy, Kata Gáspár 

Several stories unravelling during 24 hours: Gabor is about to get married to Eva, but she shocks him when she admits that she was once a man who underwent transgender surgery. Angered, Gabor trashes the house and goes to a striptease club... Tomi is a 27-year old virgin who is horny, and meets Kati who lives in the neighboring apartment. He gets drunk and tries to seduce her, but she thinks he wants to rape her and bites his nose. Kati later apologizes and admits she only came here because she wanted to cut all her ties with her abusive ex-boyfriend. When Tomi wants to ask her out again, he finds Kati having sex with her ex-boyfriend. Disappointed, Tomi goes to a strip club... After he met a girl over a chat website who talks suggestive things, Akos wants to kiss her, but she runs away. Back at home, Akos' wife leaves him because she suspects an affair. Disappointed, Akos goes to a strip club... Balazs finds out his girlfriend, Hajni, has an affair with his best friend. Disappointed, he goes to a strip club.

This anthology film assembled out of four stories by director and writer Peter Szajki is a proportionally well made achievement, enriched with dark humor and linked with a single theme of four men who were (sexually) disappointed by women and thus all meet in the finale in the striptease club, yet the movie seems to be missing that final act that would offer some more meaningful connecting tissue or a bigger point than just that the four protagonists meeting at the striptease club, the end. "Intimate Headshot" works the best during several comical moments, such as when Kati asks Tomi what he is doing outside his apartment with only one slipper on his foot, and he replies with: "I'm looking for the other one", or when the wife, suspecting an affair, asks Akos where he got that scratch on his hand, and he gives a lame excuse that a "big pigeon attacked him", upon which the wife says: "Well, greet your little female pigeon". However, more could have been done since the movie is not that funny nor emotional nor as inspired as it could have been. Overall, a good little film that can be easily watched, with a fine cast that all give very good performances.

Grade;++

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Year One

Year One; comedy, USA, 2009; D: Harold Ramis, S: Jack Black, Michael Cera, June Diane Raphael, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, David Cross, Hank Azaria, Paul Rudd, Oliver Platt

Zed and Oh are two friends who live in a tribe somewhere in the jungle. When Zed eats from the forbidden fruit, nothing happens, but the shaman still banishes them both from the tribe. On their way to explore the world, Zed and Oh encounter two farmers, Cain and Abel, and spend the night at their place. When it is found out that Cain killed Abel, Zed and Oh flee again. They meet Abraham and stop him from killing his child, Isaac, but flee once again when Abraham demands circumcision. In Sodom, they find that Maya and Eema, two girls from their tribe, are held there as slaves. They manage to start a rebellion, overthrow the king and save Maya and Eema, as well as princess Inanna. Zed parts ways when he decides to lead the people of Sodom to Egypt.

Harold Ramis' final film is a sad and unworthy conclusion to his career, his weakest film, a one where he returned to the vulgar humor from his early days when he wrote "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "Caddyshack", except that this edition is worse, with several ill-considered ideas ranging from coprophagia, farting up to lame jokes of a high priest who enjoys when someone pours hot oil on his hairy chest, all of which undermine and sink the film. "Year One" is a bizarre film: it starts off as a satire of the Bible with the premise that the Tree of Knowledge, Abraham, Cain and Abel and Sodom and Gomorrah all happen in the same time period and thus the two protagonists go from story to story, yet it isn't sure what this is all about whereas it spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Sodom segment which features several vile moments. At best, the film manages to spoof and expose some absurdities of religion — for instance, Zed and Oh interrupt Abraham who wanted to stab his kid, Isaac, which leads to a comic exchange ("I didn't want to kill him! I just wanted to sacrifice him!" - "I don't think that matters to him."); in Sodom, people sacrifice virgins to the gods, so Oh conveniently saves a girl, a virgin, by having sex with her and there is a satire on the pointlessness of circumcision ("They cut a part of it, but there is plenty more where that came from!") — yet it seems even Ramis' sixth sense for comedy exhausted itself, leading to several misguided or empty moments. This is one bizarre moment after another, and you wait for it to finally end, and then it does and that's it. Indeed, an unecessary final film entry from a good director and writer.

Grade;+