Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Letyat zhuravli; drama, Russia, 1957; D: Mikhail Kalatozov, S: Tatyana Samoylova, Aleksey Balatov, Vasili Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Nikitin
Moscow at the eve of World War II. Veronika and Boris are a happy couple in love running through the streets. Boris has a hard and long job - he digs canals - so he can mostly see her in the morning. He thinks she is so cute he even gave her the nickname "Squirrel". One day Boris wakes up and discovers that the second World War has started so he voluntarily enlists into the army, leaving Veronika disappointed and alone. During the bombardment of the city, Veronika looses her apartment and her parents, so she decides to marry Mark, Boris' brother. The two of them move to Siberia, where the consequences of war are not that evident. Veronika becomes a nurse and saves a child from being run from a car. Eventually, she leaves Mark and finds out Boris died on the front.
Shining drama "The Cranes are Flying" is truly a jewel of non-American cinema and the director Mikhail Kalatozov proves to be an unknown talent whose name deserves to be worth of gold. A genius visual style dominates throughout the whole film that not even Jeunet or Kubrick would be ashamed of - the camera is presenting stylish close-ups of characters' faces that look larger than the screen, unusual camera angles, concave lens, ecstatic physiognomy of the actors that look like beings from another planet. One of the highlights is an amazing scene in which the camera is following Veronika through her burning apartment or the one where the dark room at night is being illuminated by explosions in the city while Veronika is hugging Mark, as well as the virtuoso sequence of Boris' hallucination composed of a view towards the sky, the trees, and intervened with Veronika's wedding. But, even leaving the visual style aside, the whole film is a surprisingly emotional, touching and energetic drama plastered with a surprisingly unpatriotic look at the World War and Russian mentality. Despite the somewhat tame ending, "The Cranes are Flying" is a masterpiece of a usual plot done in an unusual way that deservedly won the Golden Palm in Cannes.
Broadway Danny Rose; comedy, USA, 1984; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Nick Apollo Forte
A group of people are dining in an restaurant and talking about the life of manager Danny Rose: after a lot of unsuccessful clients, Danny finally got lucky with Lou, a forgotten Italian middle aged singer. Although Lou wasn't popular when Danny started arranging his career, a wave of nostalgia hit the period and he became more and more famous. One day, before a major singing act, Lou tells Danny he wants to see his ex girlfriend Tina again. Danny goes to Tina's apartment to try to talk her into attending the show, but she refuses. He follows her to a party where a few mafia members mistake him for Tina's lover so they decide to eliminate them both. After they kidnap them on the street and place in an empty apartment, the two of them manage to escape and attend Lou's act. Then Lou finds another manager, but Tina falls in love with Danny.
Filmed between excellent "Zelig" and the masterwork "Hannah and Her Sisters", Allen's comedy "Broadway Danny Rose" leaves a pale impression compared to those two. Leaving the strange decision to film the story in black and white aside, Allen made the biggest mistake by writing such a thin screenplay; the first third of the story is boring and almost none of the gags seem to work, in the second the film starts to come alive to finally become amusing and interesting in the last third, queueing the only three excellent jokes near the end, among them being the one in which Danny becomes so sick on a ship that he starts "feeling his lunch from the 1956". Obviously, by incorporating mafia members into the chase subplot, the author wanted to take a fresh departure from his demanding comedies, even though it wasn't his terrain. When he makes a brilliant film, it overshadows Allen's caprice, like his constant casting of his lovers in the main role or his nervous moves, but here those caprices were not masked at all. Allen was nominated for an Oscar almost every year during that period, and here he scored a nod for best screenplay and direction in 1984, but more for credit than for a shaky comedy with little stand out virtues. Judging by that, "Ghostbusters" should have been nominated for best picture.
Monday, February 26, 2007
Radio Days; Drama, USA, 1987; D: Woody Allen, S: Seth Green, Julie Kavner, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Josh Mostel, Michael Tucker
New York, late '30s. The narrator, Joe, is telling how radio influenced his childhood before TV. Joe is an elementary school kid back then and living with his Jewish family in the Queens neighborhood. His father was a simple taxi driver who never spoke about his job. His mother was a caring, but clumsy housewife who often mentioned how she should have married someone else. After listening to his favorite radio show, "The Masked Avenger", Joe decided to buy his hero's ring by pretending to collect money for financing a Jewish state in Palestine. His aunt Bea never managed to find a man for life, although she always dreamed about a wedding. His overweight uncle Abe was obsessed with fish. At the same time, Sally, an aspiring actress, decided to pursue a career in a radio show. In '41, USA entered the World War II. His mother gave birth to his sister, Ellen.
"Radio Days" starts with a brilliant gag; in complete dark, two burglars sneak into a home in the middle of the night. Suddenly, the phone rings, and one of them asks the other to pick it up because "it's making too much noise". The caller is a host from "Guess That Tune", a radio show, and asks him to identify a certain melody, thinking he is talking to Mr. Needleman. The burglars succeed, hang up and rob the home. When the Needlmens return, they find out they have been robbed, but the very next morning they also got the grand prize from the "Guess That Tune" show, not knowing why. If Woody Allen - who doesn't star in the story, but lends his voice to the Narrator - had written similar clever ideas throughout the film, "Radio Days" would have been another one of his classic films. Unfortunately, this homage to Fellini's "Amarcord" starts loosing it's quality pretty soon, not managing to live up to the potential of the opening shots. Allen has been regularly nominated for an Oscar almost every year during that period, but his nomination here for best screenplay was not deserved. His nostalgic take at his childhood just doesn't have enough inspirations for longer than 30 minutes, making "Radio Days" at some parts downright boring, overstretched and stiff. The major problem is that a lot of episodes seem too short and underdeveloped; for instance, the subplot in which Joe saw a woman naked in the window and later found out she is his new elementary school teacher, was dropped right after being introduced. All in all, "Radio Days" is just a nice film that doesn't hit the right tone. All actors are great in their roles, but after his brilliant film "Hannah and Her Sisters", people were simply expecting a lot more from Allen.Grade:++
Chicago; musical, USA, 2002; D: Rob Marshall, S: Renée Zelweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah
Chicago, 1920s. The famous actress Velma Kelly gets arrested and put in jail for killing her husband and her sister for cheating on her. At the same time, Roxie Hart, an unknown actress dreaming of fame, also lands in jail when she shoots her lover who lied about his ability to get her a job as a performer. Roxie is defended in trial by the cynical lawyer Billy who turns her case into a celebrity event. Soon, the whole town is reading about her trial. But then a new killer, Kitty - a wealthy woman who killed her husband and both of his mistresses - shows up and the press forgets about Roxie. But Roxie manages to "steal" back attention by falsely claiming to be pregnant. Using this lie, she enters the courthouse with Billy. Using some quick talking, Billy manages to get Roxie and Velma off the hook. Much to Roxie's dismay however, her publicity is short lived as the publics attention turns quickly to a new murderess. With nothing left, Roxie once more sets off to find a stage career. In the end Velma and Roxie revive a two person act together and it becomes a stage hit.
One of the weakest best picture winners of the all time, "Chicago" is a bizarre musical patchwork that does not have any back up for winning 3 Golden Globes and 6 Oscars, making it seem like an artistic placebo that was sent from the heavens to help the haters of that awards undermine their reputation. Basically, the story about two murderous women on trial trying to gain sympathy from the media to get bailed out is pretty good, satirical and media unfriendly and could have turned great in some other author's hands, but in "Chicago" it ended up being just an average mild satire with unnecessary musical scenes and plot devices. In all the musicals the singing starts without logic, but in "Chicago" it's incorporated into a system of extremely annoying scenes of characters fantasy; in one of the lamest scenes Roxie is, like a puppet, sitting on Billy's knee who is talking everything for her, while journalists with attached strings can be seen dancing in the background. Camera moves are often hasty, rushed and hip, most noticeably in the sequence of Roxie's intercourse with Fred, while the music is awful and the dance choreography rather thin. Surprisingly, Richard Gere is one of the best attributes of the film as the cynical lawyer Billy ("If Jesus Christ lived in Chicago and came to me, let's just say his trial would have turned out completely different") who didn't drown in the sea of slimy caricature. Ironically, even the only musical episode in the animated show "Daria", called "Daria!", which was weak compared to the series as a whole, contains more wit and sharpness than this film.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Roman empire, 180. A. C. Maximus is one of the generals in the Roman army, fighting against German barbarians. When the emperor Marcus Aurelius wants to appoint him a temporary leadership, his angry and jealous son Commodus kills him and let's Maximus' child and wife being executed. Maxius ends up being a slave in North Africa and loosng everything. When he reaches the Colosseum as a gladiator he fights Tigris the Gaul and gets into a duel with Commodus in the arena. In a ferocious fight, they both die.
40 years after the end of the era of monumental films, the genre was revitalized in a surprisingly stiff way with "Gladiator", an old fashioned movie filmed like a hasty MTV music spot that became the 4th most commercial film of the year. It also won 5 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes, including in the category for best picture. But unlike other popular monumental films whose main attributes were awe and fascination, "Gladiator" tiresomely fills its overlong 150 minutes of screen time with anemia and dryness, making the viewer wonder when is it finally going to get good or end after every half an hour. "Gladiator" was praised by a lot of critics; in a way, that is not entirely wrong - the story is clear and simple, the set design and costumes are great, the action scenes are pretty good, the viewer can somewhat identify with the main protagonist Maximus who lost everything, and the whole film is solid. But that is it. Leaving historical accuracy aside, "Gladiator" never managed to distinguish itself from the mass of other soap operas or cheap B films from the same genre. Ironically, "Conan the Barbarian", a film with a similar revenge story that was doomed as trash by some of the critics in '82, still seems easily better and more modern than this film. The director Ridley Scott tried to enrich the story and make it look better than it actually is, but didn't succeed because it was simply a thin revenge story written with awfully boring dialogues that were not stimulating - actually, 5 minutes of his "Blade Runner" are worth more than 50 minutes of "Gladiator". In a way, "Gladiator" is a matter of taste, because it plays out like a wrestling film.
In the Heat of the Night; crime / drama/ thriller, USA, 1967; D: Norman Jewison, S: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Larry Gates
Sparta, Mississippi. When a white rich man is found murdered on the street, the racist police chief of the local police station, Bill Gillepsie, orders his colleagues to find the killer as soon as possible. They soon arrest a black man, Virgil Tibbs, for being "suspicious" at a train station. It turns out Virgil is actually a police offer too, traveling from Philadelphia. Although Bill doesn't like black people, he admits that Virgil is much more skillful than him when he investigates the corpse and offers his assistance to find the murderer. After a clumsy start, they become good partners. In the end, Virgil finds out a local restaurant worker killed the man to steal his money in order to pay for an abortion for his pregnant lover. After finishing the case, Virgil leaves the city.
Winner of 5 Oscars and 3 Golden Globes, "In the Heat of the Night" is still an excellent crime film and an anti-racist statement in one. Despite being obviously bound by the 60s feel and look and "old fashion" film making, the story still seems intriguing and passionately made, equipped with Rod Steiger's and Sidney Poitier's powerful performances. From the funny scene in which the police officers arrest Virgil and accuse him for being the murderer just because he was a "suspicious black man" and then discover he is actually a police officer himself, up until the end, the story meticulously mocks not only racist but also one dimensional and shallow views from those people who were taught to think only that way. It's actually much more a witty sociological story about understanding people who are different and less a detective story about the search for a murderer (who is pretty much obvious from the start) and some scenes confirm that - in one, for instance, Virgil is attacked in an abandoned factory by five white racist men, but just then Bill shows up and simply slaps one and tells them to leave, which they do. Both Virgil and Bill are cops, but at that moment Virgil didn't have any authority, but Bill did. And by using it he actually grew as a person and abandoned the very unjust full cliches he was supporting all his life.
Little Miss Sunshine; comedy / drama, USA, 2006; D: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, S: Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Uncle Frank, a cynical gay professor, is recovering from his suicide attempt. His sister Sheryl picks him up and lets him stay at her home. Sheryl's husband Richard is a winner obsessed writer, their depressed son Dwayne hasn't spoken for 9 months, their daughter Olive is practicing to perform in a child beauty pageant with her eccentric grandpa. When Olive finds out she has qualified to attend the Little Miss Sunshine contest in Redondo Beach, California, the whole family agrees to take a road trip with a yellow mini-bus to enlist her there. During the long trip the family gets into a lot of trouble, and grandpa dies from a heart attack. Still, they manage to enlist Olive in the contest, but she gets disqualified for her "strange" dance.
"Little Miss Sunshine" is, in a way, basically a different version of "National Lampoon's Vacation" made with sophistication. Namely, despite being a simple, uplifting "crowd pleaser", "Sunshine" is actually pretty smart, funny and skilfully written story; not much can be learned from it that wasn't already shown in previous films (alas, Americans are not too familiar with a similar, brilliant Serbian comedy "Ko to tamo peva") and the drama parts weren't exactly subtly incorporated into the plot, but it's an energetic film that starts slowly but becomes better and better with time. If it weren't for some of the swearing, this would truly be a perfect family film for both kids and grown ups, with a nice message about a family that comes together during problems, while it also at the same time denounces humanity's obsession with appearance and success. The story is full of simple jokes, but they tell a lot about the characters. Abigail Breslin is wonderful as the title girl, but Steve Carell simply steals the show in his brilliant portrayal of the cynical uncle, Frank. One of the best jokes is actually surprisingly childish; it's the one where the horn in the mini-bus gets jammed in the middle of the highway, causing annoying (and hilarious) squeaking sounds during the drive. And the finale, in which Olive does her "unusual" dance to the tune of Rick James' song "Super Freak", contains such a funny punchline that it lasts for hours after the film has ended. Actually, if there was an award for the best ending, "Little Miss Sunshine" would have definitely won it.
North by Northwest; thriller / comedy, USA, 1959; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau
New York. Advertising executive Roger Thornhill accidentally lifts his hand to make a call in a hotel just when the concierge was asking for a George Kaplan. This leads to a group of spies to think that Roger is actually Kaplan, a CIA agent. Roger gets kidnapped by that gang of spies led by Philip Vandamm and narrowly manages to save his life when they let him drive a car drunk near a cliff. Roger escapes, but must find Kaplan in order to clear himself of a murder inside the UN building for which the police thinks he committed. Following Kaplan to Chicago without any skills or resources, Roger is helped by beautiful Eve Kendall. But Eve is actually working for Vandamm, who is planning to smuggle a secret microfilm. After meeting a spymaster Professor, Roger finds out that Kaplan was just made up to confuse Vandamm - and that Eve is actually an agent working for the government and spying on Vandamm. After a showdown at Mount Rushmore, Roger saves Eve and defeats Vandamm.
"North by Northwest" is one of the most famous films from Alfred Hitchcock's career, but not one of his best ones - in fact, it looks more like three unconnected stories in search for a film. Cary Grant is once again excellent in his role, Hitchcock's style is light-hearted, but still strong and sharp, and although the plot seems complicated, it actually has logic and works in nice manner of the director's old theme of mistaken identity and spoof of 'Cold War' spy paranoia. Not only that, there are some classic scenes present in here, most noticeably the excellent one with the crop duster plane attacking Roger in the middle of nowhere, as well as some "unknown" ones that are equally good, like the one where Roger was forcefully drunk by the spies and made drive a car near the cliff in order have an "accident", but managed to save himself - and get arrested by cops who thought he was a drunken driver. Still, the flaws undermine some of the efforts. In a lot of the time the jokes seem forced, the feeling of amazement during watching doesn't manifest up completely, and a lot of plot twists seem illogical (why would Roger, after an ambassador got stabbed and fell into his arms, pull the knife out of his back and hold it up high in the air (!) so that everyone around him would think he was the murderer?). "North by Northwest" is a quality piece of film making with a lot of virtues, but just not done the right way.
Friday, February 23, 2007
City Lights; silent tragicomedy, USA, 1931; D: Charlie Chaplin, S: Charlie Chaplin, Virgnia Cherril, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann
A tramp, broke and homeless, meets a poor blind girl selling flowers on the streets and falling in love with her. At the same time, she accidentally mistakes him for a rich man. Since he wants to help her and doesn't want to disappoint her, he keeps up the charade. He also saves the lie of a drunk millionaire who wanted to drown in the river and they become friends - at least only while he is drunk, because he can't remember him when he gets sober. The tramp works small jobs like street sweeping, and enters a boxing contest, all to raise money for an operation to restore her sight. A casual gift of a thousand dollars from his drunken millionaire friend makes the operation possible, but things go wrong and he is mistakenly accused of stealing the money. Before he goes to jail, he gets the money to the girl. After being released, the tramp spots the girl who can see now. But she can't recognize him, until he speaks.
"City Lights" are probably the best film from Chaplin's silent era, who, unlike his colleague Keaton, took equal care for both the comical and the emotional situations. Chaplin's way of film making is rather over hyped since his infantile side today seems outdated and unnecessary (for instance, the sequence in which the tramp accidentally swallows a whistle and makes whistle sounds during his hiccups, the eccentric drunk millionaire). Still, despite the flaws, the simple story about humanity is both easy and deep, the rhythm and style of the gags are meticulously graded based on the pantomime's universality of gestures (hilarious boxing sequence) and the powerful, touching and romantic open ending, in which the blind girl sees the tramp for the very first time, was truly consequently incorporated into the function of the story.
Oldboy; thriller / drama, South Korea, 2003; D: Chan-wook Park, S: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yoo, Hye-jung Gang, Dae-han Ji
Seoul. The drunk Oh Dae-su has been interrogated by the police and that's why he wasn't able to come to his little daughter's birthday. After his friend bails him out, Dae-su gets kidnapped on the street and put into a closed prison room without anyone telling him why. There he learns from TV that his wife has been killed and his daughter put to adoption. After 15 long years, as mysterious as he has been captured, Dae-su gets released from the prison room. Aimlessly wondering on the streets, he can only think about revenge. Under strange circumstances he meets a girl, Mido, and falls in love with her. He gets a call from a mysterious Woo-jin who tells him that he is the man who captured him. Dae-su starts investigating and finds out Woo-jin was attending the same school as he did. Not only that, Dae-su saw him having an incestuous relationship with his sister and told everyone about it in the school, making the sister commit suicide. After Dae-su confronts him, Woo-jin gives him a photo album. There Dae-su finds out that Mido was actually his log lost daughter and that he had intercourse with her. Woo-jin commits suicide, while Dae-su gets hypnotized to forget everything.
In 2003, one film helped put South Korean cinema on the map. Before it, almost nobody from the Western audiences wanted to watch a South Korean film, but millions were attracted like crazy to see this one and didn't want to miss it. Chan-wook Park's "Oldboy", winner of the Grand Prix award in the film festival in Cannes, is an extreme and radical story in the finest manner of Greek tragedy because it placed Sophocles' myth about the Oedipus complex upside down and merged it with the themes about revenge, love and truth, making some of the critics call it a "virtuoso nonsense". The film is truly disturbing and uncomfortable because it is directly showing the the most hidden human fears about loss and is directed in such an powerfull manner that not even the obvious flaws seem to matter (a clumsy sequence in the hall in which Dae-su manages to single handily beat about 30 people), nor the illogical situations (control with hypnosis).
Some would also complain about the very reason Woo-jin decided to take revenge on Dae-su; he saw him having an incestuous relationship with his sister and told everyone in school about it, so in a way he had a big mouth, but if their love was so strong she eventually had to come to surface and would have been able to survive. This film is not for everyone - already the controversial moment where the angry hero eats a live squid is bound to shock - but it shows the theme of human need for self-respect in such a fierce way that it leaves nobody cold, giving directly that what the European cinema lost a long time ago. From the first scene up to the dark finale with a devastating plot twist, "Oldboy" is a radical film, but a one that managed to look universally intriguing, not just limited by Korean culture. In a way, it's a perfect nightmare - the question is only if some will regard it more as perfect, or more as a nightmare.
29...und noch Jungfrau; Romantic comedy, Germany, 2006; D: Holger Haase, S: Anna Kubin, Oliver Bootz, Oliver Wnuk, Martina Hill, Vera Baranyai
Vic is a sweet girl. She is 29, handsome, intelligent, funny...and still a virgin. She never thought it would take it so long, but every time she tried to get intimate with a guy, something went wrong. Björn, her roommate, is her best friend, and even he doesn't know that secret. Ironically, Vic gets a job at a redaction giving teenagers advice about intercourse. There she falls in love with a colleague, Nik, and they go out an a date. But afraid of how he might react if he finds out she is still a virgin, Vic decides to first loose her virginity and then sleep with him. Her four friends try to help her out, but none of the men turns out to be Vic's cup of tea. Suddenly, Vic starts again falling in love with Björn, who was also one of the guys she tried to seduce years ago, but he is already engaged. At the wedding, Björn breaks up with her fiance and admits to Vic that he still loves her. In the end, she finally has her first time with him.
Rarely can one get so plenty for so little; "29...and still a Virgin" is an cheaply produced German TV film that didn't seem promising, but that thanks to it's energy and spirit managed to break lose from the standards and limitations of an ordinary achievement shaped by an television format. The story and the title itself are a typical cheap bait for public, but instead of vulgarity and stupidity the authors actually offered a gentle, touching romantic comedy full of understanding, in which the main protagonist in desperate trouble is actually a girl, Vic, who was played brilliantly by Anna Kubin. Some gags are unbelievable, for instance when Vic is driving a bicycle on the street with a giant male puppet in her arm, or when she has to run away in her underwear on the street at night from an angry, jealous woman with whose husband she wanted to lose her virginity. At one point Vic even makes a reference at the American comedy "The 40 Year Old Virgin". Some clumsy scenes and the predictably sugary happy end only marginally reduce the amusing film as a whole, because despite it's flaws it always nice to find a small film whose charm transcends boundaries of the language, culture and the budget.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
"Something's Gotta Give" basically has only two real virtues; Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Their charisma lifts the otherwise average and thin story into something mildly successful. It's a shame since the humane and touching story could have potentially been better, like Nicholson's similar film "As Good as it Gets", instead of just an overlong, casual tragicomedy that's at some parts even close to being a soap opera. Nancy Meyers direction isn't sharp enough and she misses a lot of opportunities to enrich the plot - for instance, the funny premise of the main protagonist, the 63 year old Harry, who never went on a date with a woman older than 30 could have been exploited more, instead of just being dropped right after the start - and a lot of things seem contrived. Still, even as a flawed film, "Something's Gotta Give" is an interesting take about unconditional love, the one that knows no limits or age, and some scenes are pretty good. In one of them, Erica, after Harry left her, is crying for days but has at the same time inexplicable inspiration at writing her play, causing a very funny punchline how one can use pain and make something usefull out of it by analyzing it into art.
Jason and the Argonauts; adventure / fantasy, USA / Italy, 1963; D: Don Chaffey, S: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Laurence Naismith, Niall MacGinnis, Jack Gwillim
In Greek mythology, Pelias managed to conquer Thessaly, but according to an old legend, some young man will some day throw him from the throne. That young man is Jason. When Pelias finds that out, he sends him on a deadly mission to find the Golden Fleece. Jason follows his order and assembles a sailing crew of the finest men in Greece, including Hercules. They are under the protection of Hera, queen of the gods. Their voyage is replete with battles against harpies, a giant bronze Talos, a hydra, and an skeleton army. in the end, Jason finds the Fleece and falls in love with Medea.
Although the famous pioneer of special effects and stop motion animation Ray Harryhausen once said that "Jason and the Argonauts" is the best film he ever worked on, it's still just another example of a routine and amateur fantasy spectacle. Wooden characters and wooden direction from Don Chaffey are too obvious flaws, but a slight doze of charm has been provided by the exotic realm of the Greek mythology and Harryhausen's special effects that brought the mythical creatures to life (Hydra, the dragon with six heads; harpies; a giant bronze Talos; and a little overrated, but still interesting army of skeletons that later became his trademark), although the story was more based on characters and less on monsters than the other films he worked on. Not even the plot with the evil Pelias was resolved in the (open) ending, making the film only a solid, campy, but nostalgic guilty pleasure.
Monster; Drama, USA, 2003; D: Patty Jenkins; S: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen, Annie Corley
Aileen Wournos always dreamed of becoming a famous actress. But because of her abusive father and grim circumstances, she became a street prostitute at the age of 13. Somewhere around the late '88 she accidentally entered a lesbian bar where she met a lonely girl, Selby. Although Aileen didn't want to have a relationship with a woman, Selby proved to be a very caring and gentle person and they started a relationship. Selby ran away from her conservative home to stay with Aileen in a hotel, but they started running out of money. During her job a street prostitute, Aileen was raped and beaten by a psychotic man in his car; in self defense, she managed to shoot and kill him. Her hate towards men became so big she started killing almost every customer, from a retired cop to a religious grandfather. She was arrested and Selby testified against her in the court. Aileen was sentenced to death.
Some films are just empty vehicles for a great performance by an actor or an actress, and offer little else. Luckily, although "Monster" is also just a vehicle for Charlize Theron's great performance, for which she won an Oscar and a Golden Globe, it's not just one great performance in search for a film. Christina Ricci and Bruce Dern also have their share of excellent moments. Based on a true story, "Monster" is an interesting essay about society that gave up on an outcast, and then that outcast gave up on society, leaving even a few philosophical questions about just who is a monster in the story; Aileen or the cold world around her. In one great scene, Aileen enters a car of an kind and religious old man and decides to shoot him because she thinks that every man is evil. The old man starts praying to God, kneeling, and she for a second doesn't know what to do and if that what she is doing is right. She is a victim of a cruel father, but at that moment she became cruel herself and made a victim out of that old man, thus just continuing the circle of evil. Although "Monster" also has some other virtues than Theron's performance, they are rather thin, clumsy and underdeveloped. Theron is excellent, but it would have been nice if the film contained other qualities that are equally as great and in the function of the story.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
2001: A Space Odyssey; science-fiction, UK / USA, 1968; D: Stanley Kubrick, S: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Daniel Richter, William Sylvester, Leonard Rossiter
Prehistoric Africa: Man-apes live boring, ordinary lives, nothing different than other animals. But one morning they find a mysterious black monolith in front of their cave, left by an alien civilization. Fascinated by its perfection, they get inspired to use bones as tools and weapons, become intelligent and gain dominance over other man-apes tribes. 2001: Astronauts have discovered another monolith on the moon and realized it is sending signals towards Jupiter. A space ship, Discovery One, is sent to that planet to find the last monolith. During the journey, computer HAL 9000, a perfect tool, starts showing signals of malfunction and kills every astronaut, except Dave, who manages to disable it. Having reached the final monolith, Dave has been transported to a room beyond time and space. There the monolith turns him into a "Star child", a superior being, completing the evolution of humanity.
There are some unwritten rules about what a good film should contain. It should have a deep character development. Have a dynamic and logical story. Have elements of humor and emotions to keep the viewers attention. Not be too long. "2001: A Space Odyssey" does not follow any of those rules—among others, the main protagonist, played by Keir Dullea, does not show up until almost an hour into the film—and it still became a brilliant film, a masterpiece of symbolical films — it is stripped of any kind of action, plot, emotions, suspense or gimmicks that remain the viewers' attention, and all it has is style. In a lot of the long scenes the viewer will think; "This should be boring, this should be uninteresting", but it is not, it is entirely fascinating. In many ways, "2001" is actually an experimental film and a silent film in one — the first dialogue appears some 25 minutes into the film, and throughout the film words are reduced to the minimum — in which the themes and messages can only be detected subconsciously, not consciously. For instance, the legendary sequence in which the ape-man uses a bone as a tool and "discovers" intelligence, accompanied by the musical poem "Also sprach Zarathustra", is a perfect poetry about crossing limitations.
Curiously, by fast forwarding into the future, the film debates how tools have become more powerful, important and "alive" than people themselves, obvious in the spaceship where computer HAL, the perfect tool, controls everything, and man almost nothing. But once when HAL and man get into a direct confrontation, the man wins — maybe because of his suppressed, but still unique spirit? The film has no main character because the whole mankind is the main protagonist, from its beginning to its possible ending, while the black monolith serves as a symbol for some perfection, some ideal that causes mankind to change and progress further and further. This Sci-Fi classic is directed with bravura, from the meticulous tracking shot of Gary Lockwood's character jogging across the 360 degree space station up to the 10 minute long sequence near the end, in which the astronaut is traveling through various galaxies and dimensions until the end of the Universe, which is truly indescribable, as well as the almost touching moment in which the monolith transforms the old hero into the next step of human existence, a "Star child" — his soul? Or his intelligence comprised out of pure energy? In that case, the whole theme is the history of the creation of intelligence — and its abandoning of a physical body. It sounds strange for the cold Stanley Kubrick, but that epilogue looks as if it is containing a religious subtext and that it believes in the triumph of the human spirit. "2001" is a great film precisely because of the fact that it is telling that the final role and ending of future life in the Universe may amount to something more than just in that what can be sensed right now.
Ai no Corrida; Erotic drama, Japan/ France, 1976; D: Nagisa Oshima, S: Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji, Aoi Nakajima, Meika Seri
Japan, '36. Abe Sada, a former prostitute, got a new job as a maid in a hotel in order to pay off the debt of her husband. She meets the hotel's owner, Kichizo, a married man, and the two begin to have an affair that consists of little other than sexual experiments. Abe's possessiveness and obsessive behavior with Kichizo grows to the point that she threatens to kill him if he so much as looks at another woman. The two of them marry and spend days in bed. Their mutual obsession escalates when Kichizo finds he is excited by being strangled during intercourse. At one point, she strangles him to hard and kills him. She then cuts his genitals and writes "Sada and Kichi, now one" in blood on his chest.
"In the Realm of the Senses" is one of the most radical films of cinema because it used sex as the one and only way to articulate and shape it's story and style, an experimental work that's almost impossible to grade and a one that breaks all limits of taboo in portraying the human body as an limitless erotic, empirical entity with numerous physical functions. The story is about a couple that had intercourse almost non stop - basically so often that it became a boring routine - and led to the arrest of the director Nashima; he was charged for filming a porn. Basically, it is a porn, but a porn with a difference, because it's so realistic and demanding. Some scenes are very brave; Abe is holding Kichizo's penis even during sleep. An old man is trying to masturbate but can't get an erection in front of Abe. Kichizo puts an egg into Abe's vagina, she "lays" it and orders him to eat it. It seems as if Oshima wanted to film all the things that subconsciously lie hidden in the minds of people who don't want to think about them, in order to confront them and make them analyze them. Oshima isn't skillful enough, but a lot of situations seem surprisingly humane and honest (in one scene Kichizo tells Abe; "I need my penis. I have to urinate", and she replies; "Then do it here, in me, where it's nice and warm"), and the intercourse/love scenes are directed in a way to seem both warm and cold, making them look as if the two protagonist see the only refuge in them from the cold world outside, that was then preparing for a global war and hate. Namely, in one scene, and one scene only, Kichizo passes by a mass of soldiers: it's as if the director secretly hints that while he was obsessed with intercourse, the rest of Japan was as equally strong obsessed with imperialism - and on both sides, each in their own terms, that led to a tragedy.Grade:++
Russia, 1805. Pierre Bezukhov, an intelligent but clumsy man, is surprised when he finds out that his father, a wealthy count, died and left all his inheritance to him, his illegitimate son. Pierre marries Helene, but soon decides to divorce her. At the same time, Andrei Bolkonski is leaving his wife Liza and his "boring life" to enlist as a soldier and fight against Napleon's army in Europe. He gets wounded and returns back home. When his wife dies at childbirth, he starts feeling guilty for neglecting her. He gets engaged with Natasha Rostova, but she falls in love with Casanova Anatol. She later regrets that decision, but Andrei leaves her. Another subplot is the "Great Patriotic War" of 1812 against the invading Napoleon's Armies. The people of Russia from all classes of society stand up united against the enemy. Andrei dies, Pierre gets captured and used as a hostage by the French army, but is saved. In the end, Pierre marries Natasha.
Everything in the Russian film "War and Peace", winner of an Oscar and Golden Globe for best foreign language film, is colossal. Its running time is 10 hours. Its budget is 10 million $, making it the most expensive movie outside the US at that time. It apparently had 100,000 extras. And even in most important terms—quality and substance—this film rises to heights. The biggest problem of Sergei Bondarchuk's movie monster—filmed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel—though, is actually that it's obvious that the earlier American adaptation of Tolstoy's same novel, directed by Vidor back in '56, had a tremendous influence on it. Also, some parts are inevitably too long and drag, since even the novel had some unnecessary-empty spots—as a footnote, Dostoyevski managed to say as much about life in "Brothers Karamazov" as did Tolstoy's "War and Peace", except that he needed half as much of pages.
Still, there is no doubt that this is an excellent film, rich with an amazing visual style and esoteric inner-narration and thoughts of the characters, which, of course, gains its inspiration from Tolstoy's sweeping writing. For instance, in one rather romantic scene, Natasha is talking with Andrei about how much she loves him and is thrilled to feel these kind of emotions. But at one point he suddenly starts losing interest in her, thinking how "he doesn't feel love towards her, only pity because of her fragile state". Andrei's hallucinations about the clouds when he is injured at the battle field are unbelievable, as well as various unusual camera angles, and the great Battle of Borodino between Russian and the French army is of epic proportions, almost meticulously reconstructed. Bondarchuk's "War and Peace" is such a huge film that it almost becomes a burden, but it is an event that cannot be found everywhere—unlike many monumental films that are empty pompous vehicles, this is a monumental achievement both technically and spiritually.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Italy, 1 9 3 0s. Guido, a Jew, moves from the country to a large Tuscan town to become a waiter. There he falls in love with a schoolteacher, Dora. She is already engaged to another man, but Guido stills manages to gain her love using unusual jokes. The two of them marry. The story continues five years later, during World War II: Guido is married to Dora and they have a son called Giosue. Since Guido is of Jewish origin, he is one day sent to a concentration camp with Giosue. When Dora finds out about this, she follows them, although she is not Jewish. In the camp, Guido wants to save his son from the madness of the prison by lying to him that the whole place is only a game and he can win a tank if he gains 1000 points and stays in the camo. During the years, an exhausted Guido dies, but the allies manage to save Giosue and Dora.
The movie "Life is Beautiful" was nominated for several awards and many critics described it as brilliant. It's true that every opinion is important, but not every opinion is shaped on the right and adequate criteria. This is definitely a good and ambitious film that boldly pushed the envelope, but one which is directed in a clumsy and clowny way, not quite as subtle or up to the task of its ambitious concept. The first, funny and cheerfull half of the film, is weaker because its lame jokes are not that inspired, but ironically, it also at the same time seems very honest. The second, serious half of the film, which plays inside a concentration camp, is better, but ironically, it also seems artificial and fake. Roberto Benigni is not making fun out of the Holocaust - he is actually showing that even in the darkest, bleakest moments, some people can still love and enjoy life through their honest spirit. He is actually pretty good as an actor in this, but not good enough as a director - he seems more like "Chaplin light". One of the best scenes is the one in which the main protagonist Guido volunteers to translate instructions from a German soldier to Italian prisoners, although he doesn't speak his language, so he completely translates everything wrong and presents the whole camp as a silly game. "Life is Beautiful" is a good film, but it seems as if Benigni is at times so heavy handed in its questionable "ignorance is bliss" and self-delusion theme that he at some point acts as a Mr. Bean who got lost in the concentration camp.
Earth Girls Are Easy; Science-fiction musical comedy, USA, 1988; D: Julien Temple, S: Geena Davis, Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans, Michael McKean, Julie Brown
A week before her wedding with doctor Ted, manicurist Valerie discovers his mistress and leaves him. One day, a small spaceship lands in her pool while she was swimming in a bikini, and 3 fury aliens exit from it: the blue Mac, the red Wiploc and the yellow Zebo. After her friend Candy shaves the colorful fur of the aliens, Valerie discovers they look exactly like humans. That way she can introduce them as people without problems and lead them to discos and parties. But after Ted frames Wiploc and Zebo for a robbery, the aliens decide to leave Earth, and Valerie decides to go along with them.
Totally shrill comedy that copes well with colors and amusing situations, but much less with rather tiresome dance acts, didn't achieve a greater success (it grossed only 4 million $ in the US) and was a long time unknown after the divorce of Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, yet it's cult status grew steadily. It's coincidentally also one of the earlier films starring the then unknown Jim Carrey, whose later fame also retroactively grew attention to this small flick. "Earth Girls Are Easy" is a relaxed, daft and light comedy whose level increases after the three red, blue and yellow aliens loose their fur and "become" humans Goldblum, Carrey and Wayans, yet all the wacky touches throughout and a clumsy ending, as well as the predictable tangle where Valerie falls in love with one of the "aliens", resulted in mixed reviews. In the end, the best performance was delivered by the always adorable Geena Davis who is simply irresistibly sweet as the baffled heroine who finds love in the strangest ways.
Blade Runner; science-fiction film noir, USA, 1982; D: Ridley Scott, S: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh
Los Angeles, 2019: Rick Deckard of the LPD's Blade Runner got a new assignment: he has to eliminate five replicants, artificially created humans, that manged to escape from a colony and land on Earth, searching for answers about their lives. Replicants were declared illegal a long time ago and are to be terminated upon detection. In his pursue, Deckard falls in love with Racheal, who is also a replicant. After a big showdown, Deckard attempts to escape from the roof and ends up hanging from a beam. Roy Beatty, the leader of the replicants, saves his life and dies since his 4 year old life span has ended. Deckard leaves with Rachael (in the Director's Cut he starts doubting if he is a replicant himself).
Some films are so good that the critics who see them have to raise their criteria towards rating all other films. "Blade Runner" is one of these films, a Sci-Fi film noir so great that almost every other film in the genre after it tried to copy its style. "Blade Runner's" design and look are very extravagant and remind of some futuristic anime, yet its main virtue is that the story actually has a soul—the core of the film is actually a touching drama about understanding between two different races and a debate about why one should be considered superior than the other. Or that there will always be a need for an order where a lower class will have to do difficult tasks for the upper class. In a way it is actually an allegorical anti-racist statement - if the replicants have the exact same emotions as the humans, why should they be considered different? When Deckard falls in love with Rachael, is that love meaningless since she is a replicant and not a real woman? If a computer would be given artificial intelligence—and then a full consciousness—and then a robotic body—and then an organic, human body—when would the border between between a human and an AI disappear?
Actually, the replicants in some scenes prove to be more human than humans themselves. Ridley Scott directed a few great films, but this is his magnum opus. Basically, the film is actually pretty thin —not much happens, it is all style over substance—but that is all it needs. It is reduced to its essence. It has flaws (for instance, Rachael appears in only four sequences and could have used better character development; the too convenient way Pris stumbles into Sebastian...), but when a movie's concept is done right, it can have a hundred flaws and it won't matter. Equipped with some magical scenes that give chills (one of them is Roy's final dialogue, about how he has seen things "people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain", before releasing a dove, his soul, from his hands; the other one being Deckard's dream of an Unicorn present only in the '92 Director's Cut), a strange design that creates beautiful aesthetics from the looks of the ugly town of the future, esoteric mood, in which Harrison Ford's acting is actually the least memorable thing, "Blade Runner" is a shining philosophical film that gets better with age.
Monday, February 19, 2007
Three stories on three Continents are connected by one event; In Morocco two boys, Yusef and Ahmed, get a gun from their father in order to defend their sheep from jackals. In a game, one of the boys accidentally fires at a bus from a mile away - and hits a passenger, Susan, an American tourist. The boys panic and hide the gun, but the police accuses their father for being a terrorist. In a shoot out, police officers kill the innocent boy, while the guilty one surrenders. Meanwhile, Susan's husband Richard is fighting for her life and searching for a doctor in a nearby village. An American ambulance is sent and is able to save Susan...USA. Richard and Susan's kids are being taken care off by their nanny, Amelia. She didn't get the permission from Richard to go to her son's wedding in Mexico, so she simply takes the kids with her. On her way back, she looses the kids in the desert. Luckily, the police finds them...Japan. Chieko is a deaf mute teenage girl suffering from loneliness. She engages in provocative behaviour, but she can never manage to get a boyfriend. She even tries to seduce a police inspector who visits the house to question her father about his gun, but unsuccessfully.
After "Amores perros" and "21 Grams" the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu didn't evolve further to offer something new. He simply stayed with his old formula of three stories connected by one event and repeated it again in "Babel". Iñárritu is a talented, strangely poetic and realistic director, but his black and white pessimism and too heavy existentialism don't know any limits, while his overblown ambition resulted in pretentiousness and a headache for the movie goer. Some scenes don't work (the one in which it is implied that a Moroccan boy, only about 10 years old, is masturbating, is pretty controversial), but there are also a lot of them that do work (the one in Japan where a guy wants to flirt with Chieko, but backs off when he finds out she is mute, is truly realistic and sad) and manage to connect with the broader theme of the human misunderstanding. Brad Pitt is surprisingly good, although his role is too small for full potential, but Rinko Kikuchi is the best among the cast, as is her story set in Japan. "Babel" is a good film but it was overrated at the Golden Globes and Oscars - actually, it can be compared to the Tower of Babylon; it is a magnificent idea, but in the end it falls apart due to its own megalomaniac idea of trying to incorporate too many bits and pieces.
Yeopgijeogin geunyeo; romantic comedy, South Korea, 2001, D: Jae-young Kwak, S: Tae-hyun Cha, Ji-hyun Jun, Jin-hie Han, Sook-he Hyun, In-mun Kim
Based on a series of true events posted by Ho-sik Kim on the Internet describing his relationship with his girlfriend, this film describes the meeting of Kyun-woo and an unnamed girl. She is drunk and he helps her inside a train. Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting the girl because the other passengers mistakenly think she is his girlfriend. She throws up on the wig of a man and falls unconscious. Kyun-woo carries her to a motel and replies to a call from a cell phone, telling where she is. But then the police storm in right into their room just as he was taking a shower. He lands in jail, gets bailed out and clobbered by his mother. But one day the girl contacts him and they go to a bar together, where she explains to him that she got drunk because her relationship with a boyfriend ended some time ago. Soon she is again drunk and he has to carry her to the same motel again. After that the girl starts acting as if they are a couple, but she is always mean and harsh towards him. He reads her sci-fi script and tries to be gentle and patient. But her parents convince her to break up with him. Kyun-woo is sad, but he accepts it. They agree to write their thoughts in letters and put them in a "time capsule", which they bury in a isolated hill, and return back in two years. Kyun-woo returns, but the girls doesn't show up. Eventually, they meet up again when Kyun-woos aunt introduces them.
In the early 21st century, the South Korea cinema has entered a 'Renaissance' and turned into a real treat because an average viewer can enjoy in a original, unpredictable story from another culture. South Korean cinematography has indeed become big in the 21st Century. "My Sassy Girl" is funny, romantic, hip, quirky, original...and stupid. The exposition is really funny (the scene in which the drunk girl throws up on some guy's hair - which turns out to be his wig! - is truly unbelievable) and the end is really touching, but in between the story starts going on ones nerves. The humor is too often based on grimaces, annoyance and bizarreness. The authors probably thought; "we are going to give you a really good ending and you will forgive us for all the nonsense we served you up until that point", but that didn't work, at least for me. Still, it was rather refreshing to have a girl being mean, cynical and abusive, and the guy being a gentle victim for a change, and a lot of scenes were pretty amusing, like the one in which he had to walk in her women's shoes and she in his sneakers, while the song "My Girl" was playing in the background - rather inappropriately. "My Sassy Girl" is a good film (the American remake will definitely be worse), but it didn't completely succeed in portraying a different kind of romance, like lets say Capra's masterwork "It Happened One Night" did, which is a jewel of naughty romantic comedy.
Being There; tragicomedy, USA, 1979, D: Hal Ashby, S: Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, Ruth Attaway, Melendy Britt
Recently I've been watching an episode from the animated TV show "Daria", "Speedtraped": there was one scene in that episode where Jane was in prison, doing a tattoo to a female criminal with a pen. At one point they started debating about art; Jane stated; "I'm simply posing the question, what if an eggbeater is considered great art on Mars; would that make it art to us?" Truly, what makes art meaningful? What makes a day meaningful? What makes a life meaningful? What is actually the definition of meaning? And what if something, not just art but everything in life, is considered meaningful by one person and meaningless by another? That got me once again thinking about one of my favorite films, Hal Ashby's "Being There". The film, which is almost an anti-drama, revolves around one of the strangest heroes of any story - Chance, a middle aged gardener. In a way, Chance is anti-human, actually beyond human; he doesn't have a wife, kids, job, family, money, friends, he never left his estate and thus has virtually no contact with the outer world...and he doesn't care. He is happy non the less. In lot of movies, a hero starts with being unhappy and after a lot of adventures finds his happiness. But in this movie the hero is in perfect satisfaction from the start until the finish. It's as if he is an "accidental" Buddhist. Praise has to be given to the shining, multi-layered screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski based on his own book that handles the theme of perfection and shows that the only way it works is that people all have their own personal projection of a suggestive appearance (Chance).
Chance lives and works inside one garden in Washington. He was born there and he never left the estate. It is implied that he is mentally handicapped. He likes watching Television and is surrounded by only two people; Louise, an old maid, and a nameless old man. Chance wouldn't mind if he spent the rest of his life like that, but one day the old man dies and the estate has to be closed and evacuated. After two lawyers convince him to leave, Chance complies - for the first time in his life he sets a foot in the outside world. He wonders the streets aimlessly until he proves one old paradox; "You just have to be at the right place at the right time" - he is namely slightly hit by a limousine of a wealthy woman, Eve Rand. As an apology, she brings him to her home, a gigantic mansion equipped with doctors who examine his injury. There he also meets Benjamin, Eve's dying husband who is still an influential lobbyist. Benjamin doesn't realize Chance is retarded - he is fooled by his elegant clothes and gentle words, interpreting his every childish sentence as a metaphor. Soon the president spots that Benjamin, his close friend, has a high opinion about Chance. So he joins him. Soon, Chance is a media star and every celebrity or politician interprets his strange behaviour as a "genius". Eve falls in love with him. And after Benjamin dies the major politicians discuss about putting Chance as the president.
"Being There" is a masterpiece because it dares to question the criteria for every value, not only in film and art, but in life in general. Because every value, every emotion is subjective and is created in our own mind. There's no reality, just perception. The characters in the film are smart, wealthy and powerful, but don't know how to be happy, while Chance is not smart, but knows how to be happy without anything because he is free of desire and acts like Nietzsche's "Free spirit", being, in a strange way, superior to them and simply independent. But although the film's messages are serious, the movie itself presents them in a light, albeit funny way, and Peter Sellers, after leaving the low humor of many of his comedies, is unbelievable as the main protagonist and probably gave the role of his career, a one that's so charming that could convert even his biggest hater.
In one of the funniest subtle scenes, Chance is in a talk show responding to the state of the economy by telling how "after the winter, there is spring. Some plants grow better in the light while others in the dark". It's hard to analyze this film without mentioning its end; In the last scene Chance is walking around the Rand's estate, observing the nature. He stops when he reaches the edge of a lake. And then the stagerring ending sets in. In the background you can hear the words; "Life is a state of mind". Obviously, the ending can be interpreted in a lot of ways too. Some would say the whole film is a giant satire about religion, some that it's a sad fact that people only see what they want to see and never realize the truth, some that it's about misunderstanding, some that Chance has gotten so powerful that he can't make a "false step" no matter what he does. All of them could be true, but they all show how Chance is 'detached' from our world. The last words in the film are "Life is a state of mind". So, Chance became an illusion, but what if other idols are also an illusion? What if a dream job is only an illusion? Money, love, family... What if everything people think is important in life is also only an illusion? Can we really know what is truly great to us, not what our instincts impose on us what should be great? It is disturbing, this human need to find and invent idols even when there are none. Everything in life is only as important as people's mind percieved it to be - maybe the movie is saying that we should not be shaped by the world, but that we should change and rearrange the world by our own rules.