Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Host


Gwoemul; horror/ science-fiction/ drama, South Korea, 2006; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park, Du-na Bae, Ah-sung Ko
Seoul. Some American scientist ordered the pouring of the toxic formaldehyde in the local river Han. In 2006 a mutated monster emerged from the river and kidnapped a large number of people in the town, including Hyun-seo, the daughter of Kang-du, a clumsy employee of a small store. Kang-du, his brother Nam-joo, his sister Nam-il and grandpa end up in a quarantine, but manage to escape from the authority to save the daughter who contacted them through the mobile phone that she is still alive. Namely, the monster samples people and places them in the sever in order to eat them later. The government approves the use of the toxic "Yellow Agent", but the monster gets firstly set on fire and killed by Kang-du. Hyun-seo didn't manage to survive, but Kang-du adopted a young boy that was also about to get eaten by the monster.

From time to time a movie shows up that takes the standard, cliche concept for a story and handles it in a completely anti-standard way. South Korean fantasy film "The Host" is one of those films, and more. In that unusual endemic film the director Joon-ho Bong amusingly plays with the expectations of the audience: always when the viewer thinks that a situation is going to unravel by the scheme A-B-C, she suddenly unravels by the scheme A-Z-D, which gives the story unpredictability, spirit and charm. Besides the fact that the monster shows up right after 15 minutes, not at the very end, a good example is also a sequence after it kidnapped the daughter and some other citizens: her dad, Kang-du, and his sister, grandpa and brother gather to her improvised "funeral" and start mourning. Then they start whining and sapping, overshadowing every other person that mourned their kidnapped relatives. After a while the whining of the four becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a comedy at one point, especially when they all together fall on the ground and the reporters start taking pictures of them. Bong made a difficult transgression from a drama into a comedy in that sequence with such delicacy as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

The whole concept of a monster not eating their victims, but "saving" them to eat them later is slightly unrealistic, as is it's anatomy and the finale suffers from mild tendentiousness, but despite it's flaws the movie is directed with bravura and contains a load of virtues and healthy spirit with a secret message about family values, human ignorance and fight of the individual against the system: just like in Bong's previous film "Memories of murder", a mass murderer, this time a monster, is terrorizing people and the government could have stopped him, but it didn't, or didn't want to, either to use it as a pretext to place the county under martial law or to use "Agent Yellow". It's a shining film that made the most out of the unpromising plot, offering intelligent questions and social commentary, full of style (the way the protesters fall like dominos when smoke from "Agent Yellow" covers them up) and in one of the most subtly hilarious scenes a reporter on the public TV announces that people that came in contact with the monster became sick, while some guy sneezes on the street in the crowd, making everyone frightened.

Grade:+++

Memories of Murder


Salinui Chueok; Thriller-Drama, South Korea, 2003; D: Joon-ho Bong, S: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Jae-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon

Hwaseong, '86. A serial killer, who attacks women exclusively at rainy nights, is keeping the whole South Korea in fear. Detective Park Doo-Man is desperately trying to solve the case, but the killer never laves any trace, so he gets joined by detective Seo from Seoul. Park suspects a mentally handicapped boy is the perpetrator, but it turns out he is not capable of doing such deeds. He then arrests a man who masturbated on the scene of the crime, and then a man who wanted a specific song to be played on the radio every time a murder occurred, but even they turn out to be innocent. In 2003, a young girl says to Park that the murderer looked like an average man.

"Memories of Murder", loosely based on true events, could best be described as the crime version of the play "Waiting for Godot". Namely, in that film two detectives are so desperately longing to solve the case of an unknown murderer, who seemingly never shows up, that they start to loose their sanity. But the inspired director Joon-ho Bong directs the bitter story surprisingly neutral and unpretentious, with excellent sense for humor: for instance, in one scene some guy is walking on the street and asks a frightened woman for directions, and immediately the detective Park shows up, beats him up, ties him up and accuses him of being the killer - in the next scene it turns out that guy is actually his new partner, detective Seo. Earlier on, Park lost a clue, a footprint of the killer on the ground, when a tractor ran over it! Occasionally some parts of the film are realized clumsy and pointless, the tone accidentally slips into misogyny at some moments and the story borrows from such films like "In the Heat of the Night", but the whole offers a sufficient number of clever observations and unconventional solutions. During the curse of the film the constant curfew is shown, and also how the police is beating up student demonstrators, indicating how the government was evil at that time, yet tried to (ironically) fight the evil serial killer. And even the calm Seo lost his patience and almost killed an innocent man, falsely accused of being the killer. The message is that injustice and evil just cause injustice and evil, and that maybe the government alone created a killer from the "average man", who started to hate the system he lived in.

Grade:+++

Taste of Tea


Cha no aji; Comedy/ Drama, Japan, 2004; D: Katsuhito Ishii, S: Takahiro Sato, Maya Banno, Tadanobu Asano, Satomi Tezuka, Tatsuya Gashuin, Tomoko Nakajima, Rinko Kikuchi

The Haruno family is a very unusual family, living in the countryside. The son, Hajime, has fallen in love with a girl in his school and wants to impress her by playing the game Go. The mother is drawing an animated film and uses grandpa as a model. The daughter, Sachiko, is being followed by a 20 foot tall duplicate of herself only she can see. The father, Nobuo, is a hypnotherapist who occasionally hypnotizes his family. The uncle, Ayano, is telling bizarre stories and is otherwise a record producer. The whole family occasionally comes together to drink tea.

Katsuhito Ishii's "Taste of Tea" is a bizarre mess with taste, a slow, simple family film that owes a lot to Ozu and Tarkovsky, but doesn't find new ways to enrich it's value. It's a film without a story, composed of little vignettes from everyday life, the characters all have their charm (for instance, in an early, hilarious scene, grandpa enjoys opening the window to observe his granddaughter in front of the house - but whenever she turns her head towards him, he instantly closes the window, and opens him as soon as she turns her head back - and repeats the procedure for almost a dozen time!) and the static composition of the film connects with the Eastern tranquility, seeming ambitious. Yet, it's still an overlong film with it's 140 minutes that drag, and rather colorless, lifeless and monotone despite it's quirky elements. Sometimes bizarreness can give the film a special spark, but here it only seems out of place - for instance, the uncle explains how he defecated in the forest on a big white egg, digged deep into earth. But later on it is revealed that his feces actually cowered the top of a skull of a dead man, who was assassinated by the mob and put into ground. Even more bizarre is the dream like scene where a giant sunflower grows so big he cowers the whole Solar system. Still, some of the scenes hit the right note, and when they do, they really feel right on, like the one where the crew watched their 2 minute animated film and added sound, while the director (played by the famous Hideaki Anno) gave flowers to the mother, the animator. "Taste of Tea" is a disconnected film, a dead rock that doesn't move, but seems nice to look at.

Grade:++

A Beautiful Mind


A Beautiful Mind; Drama, USA, 2001; D: Ron Howard, S: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch

In 1940s the unusual John Nash gets a scholarship for mathematics at Princeton University, but most of the students simply avoid him. Only his roommate Charles becomes his friend, while some CIA agent, Parcher, asks him for help in deciphering secret codes. After success and a marriage for Alicia, John discovers that Parcher and Charles are not real people, but just his hallucinations since he is suffering from schizophrenia. He decides to take medicament and to cope with his everyday psychosis. In 1990s he gets the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

When the biographical drama "A Beautiful Mind" won 4 Golden Globes, 4 Oscars (including in the category best picture) and 2 BAFTAs, it automatically became hated by the part of the critics and proclaimed a "spoiled star", but it's still undoubtedly a good film, while the fact that those awards seemingly like only sappy stories about mentally handicapped people who succeed in life seems rather irrelevant. But the relevant problem of the "Beautiful Mind" lies in the idealization of the hero John Nash at one part, and in standard Hollywood sugary direction at the other, but the story has her moments (the clumsy Nash says to a blond woman: "I find you very attractive. Your aggressive moves toward me indicate that you feel the same way. But still, ritual requires that we go through a number of platonic activities before we have intercourse. I'm simply proceeding with those activities. But in point of actual fact, all I really want to do is have intercourse with you as soon as possible" after which she slaps him), especially when in the other half of the film some characters turn out to be just Nash's hallucinations caused by schizophrenia. A brave move from the authors, and the movie is honestly touching, but the whole thing could have been more skillful and sharp, since the end turns into a soap opera. Then not only the title would have been beautiful.

Grade:++

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Head-On


Gegen die Wand/ Duvara karsi; Drama, Germany/ Turkey, 2004; D: Fatih Akin, S: Birol Ünel, Sibel Kekilli, Cathrin Striebeck

Hamburg. Cahit is a 40-year old German citizen of Turkish roots who is constantly depressive and drunk. One day he deliberately crashes with his car in a wall an lands in a hospital. There he meets a Turkish woman Sibel who also tried to commit suicide, by cutting her vanes. She wants to falsely marry for someone to get away from her conservative family and enjoy in passionate nights with men. Cahit isn't overwhelmed with that plan, but he agrees to do it. They marry and at first he is indifferent that she sleeps with other men, but later on he falls in love with her and in one moment of rage kills a man who called her a slut. He spends a few years in jail, and when finally released he goes to Istanbul where Sibel moved to and got a daughter. There he and Sibel have intercourse for the first time.

Praised ambitious German-Turkish film "Head-On" unfortunately contains all problematic elements of modern European cinema: sterility, pretentiousness, grey mood and monotone tone. Besides that, it's messages are also forced and delivered in a shallow way, and not even the wonderful plot tangle in which Sibel falsely married the drunk Cahit seems convincing - why would she insist to marry only him, and unstable man, and nobody else, even going so far to break a bottle and cut her vanes in front of him in a bar in order to convince him she is serous? On the other hand, the film can't be denied for it's absolutely brilliant performance from Sibel Kekilli, as well as the unusually liberal approach to the story for the Turkish mentality: in the love sequence between Sibel and Cahit towards the end of the film, both actors appeared naked. Of all the themes this good film handled probably the best ended up being the one about the search for identity, about immigrants who are coping with a different culture of the state they are living in, but from the story about two people in false marriage who slowly fall in love with each other a lot, lot more could have been made of.

Grade:++

Ben-Hur


Ben-Hur; Drama, USA/ Italy, 1959; D: William Wyler, S: Charlton Heston, Haya Harareet, Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Hugh Griffith

Judah Ben-Hur is a rich merchant in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 1st century. He is disappointed that his old friend Messala, who became a commanding officer of the Roman legions, changed and now thinks Judea should stay under Rome's occupation. When parts from an old roof fall from Ben-Hur's house near the new governor, Messala uses that as an excuse and sets Ben-Hur to the galleys and throws his mother and sister to prison. After 3 years as a galley slave, Ben-Hur survives the sinking of his ship and saves his master Quintus Arrius. The thankful Arrius names him his son, and he returns to Judea. There, with the help of the sheik Ilderin, he wins in a chariot race, while Messala dies in an accident. Ben-Hur then discovers his mother and sister have became lepers, but they are healed when Jesus Christ dies on a cross.

"Ben-Hur", winner of 11 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes and one BAFTA, is a flawed epic with slightly outdated features, but with still enough energy and spark to captivate even today's audience. Surprisingly, it's actually a Jesus Christ story where Jesus Christ is actually a supporting character in the background of the main story, the one about the injustice carried to Ben-Hur, but in the end it connects with her and naturally gives a positive religious context without being too preachy. It's a 4 hour long film that demands patience and the first half an hour drags too obviously, but once the story gets going it raises a few interesting points about corruption of power, loyalty and the triumph of love over revenge, and curiously enough, the best, most touching parts are the one involving water: when a thirsty Ben-Hur is walking together with other prisoners in the hot desert, the Roman soldiers stop to drink from a well. The Romans give every prisoner water, except Ben-Hur because Messala exclusively ordered it so. But then a man, whose face is never seen, gives him water too - it's Christ. A Roman soldier spots that and wants to stop him with force, but when Christ looks him directly in the eyes he just stops, enlightened, not having the heart to do anything bad. Wyler directed that scene just right, with care and understated magic, and the result is truly memorable.

Later on, towards the end of the film, Ben-Hur got his revenge on Messala and won, but his life is still empty as before. He meets Balthasar, bends towards a spring and touches the water with his hand, saying: "When the Romans were marching me to the galleys, thirst had nearly killed me. A man gave me water to drink, and I went on living. I should have done better if I'd poured it into the sand!" Balthasar is sad to hear that, and the message is obvious, but the scene still seems powerful. Among the epic Bible films of that time, "Ben-Hur" is too masochistic at some moments in overemphasizing suffering, and the acting is wooden by the '50s standards, but the film offers just enough awe to impress.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Last Detail


The Last Detail; Drama, USA, 1973; D: Hal Ashby, S: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Carol Kane, Michael Moriarty, Nancy Allen

Two Navy men, Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky and "Mule" Mulhall, are ordered to escort an 18-year old sailor, Larry, to the Portsmouth Naval Prison for stealing 40 $ from the polio relief box in a store. Buddusky and Mulhall soon find out Larry is a shy, gentle young man, and they are sad he is going to spend 8 years in prison and loose the best years of his life. So they decide make his journey memorable: the buy him the best food, drinks, bring him to visit his hometown, hang around with him and arrange a prostitute. In the end, just as they start doubting their mission, Larry panics and tries to run away. They catch him, beat him up and bring him to prison. As they are heading back home, they disccus how ungrateful Larry was.

"The Last Detail" is an unusual, flawed, but interesting social commentary about two contradicting things: friendship and duty. The simple roadmovie like story about two Navy men escorting a sailor to prison showed all those confusing, complex human relationships by meandering just between those two extremes. Jack Nicholson is a good actor, frankly more charismatic than talented, and sometimes too egocentric, but this is one example where he really didn't ham at all, creating a downplayed, quiet, static and introverted role of a bizarre Navy man that earned him Oscar and a Golden Globe nominations, and for which he won a BAFTA. As with a lot of movies in Hal Ashby's best period, the '70s, "The Last Detail" also speaks about the depressive theme of ending of a life circle or death, but in the end it transforms into a celebration of life and joy, finding happiness in the dark setting. In one funny sequence, the three protagonists enter a pub - Buddusky orders a beer for the 18 year old Larry, but the bartender refuses to do so because he is afraid the youngster might be underage. In a heated argument, the bartender threatens to call the shore patrol, and Buddusky presents his gun and military equipment on the table and says: "I am the shore patrol! Now give this man a beer"! It became one of the iconic lines of the 70s.

In another scene, Mulhall comments to Larry how "any girl you get in this world you gonna have to pay for, one way or another". The movie is full of clever little observations about life and the world, sometimes acting even like "Seinfeld" since it's basically a story about nothing, and the dialogues are full of swearing and slang, even somewhat reducing the extent of senseless scenes, like the one where the heroes accidentally enter a Nichiren Shoshu discussion meeting. But the films biggest problem is it's ending - the characters seemingly leave into the horizon as if nothing happened, as if they forgot everything they experienced, while the dreadfully inappropriate military music starts playing over the ending credits - some would argue the finale is an anti-climax, but the other would debate that the message is actually very brave and bitter, showing how every of the three characters are in some kind of a jail, real or just a psychological, and that they are not free in this world. The ending in the book was more appropriate, though, and showed that the film is missing that final little detail.

Grade:++

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Snake Eyes


Snake Eyes; Thriller, USA, 1998; D: Brian De Palma, S: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Kevin Dunn, Joel Fabiani, Mike Starr

Atlantic City during a big storm. A shady detective, Rick, got an assignment to guard the Secretary of Defense, Charles Kirkland, during a big boxing match in a arena. During the match, his colleague Kevin leaves his seat while a mysterious woman, Julia, sits next to Kirkland. At that moment, Kirkland is shot and Julia wounded. The police seals off the arena and takes 13.000 viewers to questioning. A Palestinian terrorist is soon identified as the assassin, but Julia explains Rick that his friend Kevin is actually behind everything. Namely, Kevin forged a special Air Guard defense system in order to get it financed by the military, and removed Kirkland as the only obstacle. Rick hides Julia, while Kevin commits suicide because a camera team prevented him from killing them secretly.

"Snake Eyes" is one of those films that deserved a lot more credit then they got, and sadly a large number of the critics didn't even recommend it, but failed to explain exactly why. Indeed, the movie is not flawless, it contains some contrived situations (in one sequence, Julia decides to seduce an average guy who just won in a casino and get into his apartment to hide from Rick by saying "If you don't ... I'll bet ... somebody else will!"), illogical plot holes and a solid, but thin ending, yet they are all not nearly enough of a justification to completely pan the story and ignore her virtues. Quite frankly, even the best films of all times have flaws. One of the things almost all of the critics agreed upon was the movies bravura 13 minutes opening shot filmed in De Palma's classic Steadicam: on a TV screen a female reporter is shown talking about the storm, then the camera moves on to the main protagonist, detective Rick, who jumps like a crazy lunatic expecting the boxing match. Then he travels through the corridors of the arena, catches up some guy who owes him and beats him up, makes a bet and answers a few of his phone calls. He enters the arena just as the boxing match starts and sits next to the Secretary of Defense, just as he is shot from an assassin.

Then the film shifts into the normal tone, equipped with standard shots and editing, but that doesn't mean the authors forgot how to intrigue and make it appealing. By switching the narrative presentation on a different level, "Snake Eyes" also presented the characters in a different perspective - although Rick seemed like a stupid, primitive sleaze ball at first, he ended up being an honest, noble and moral cop, while his elitist colleague Kevin ended up being corrupt, evil and rotten. The whole who-did-it conspiracy plot was already done in previous films, but in this edition it still remained powerful thanks to an interesting visual style, crime atmosphere with a measure, unusual setting inside a boxing arena and the good old fashioned story building. Maybe the critics should have simply confessed the movie was an impressive exercise instead of inventing flaws that are not there.

Grade:+++

Uncle Buck


Uncle Buck; comedy, USA, 1989; D: John Hughes, S: John Candy, Jean Kelly, Amy Madigan, Macaulay Caulkin, Gaby Hoffman

Bob has to take a trip with his wife Cindy, whose father is very sick. They have three kids and want to find a nanny to take care of them while they're away, but none of their friends is temporarily available so they are forced to call uncle Buck: unemployed, drunk black sheep of the family that earns money on horse races. Uncle Buck arrives and stays alone with the kids: Miles, Maizy and the teenage Tia. He gets the sympathy of all the kids except the rebellious Tia who wants to flirt with boys without any oppression. When her boyfriend dumps her, Buck helps her take revenge on him. When mom and dad return back home, Buck says goodbye to the kids and leaves together with his friend whom he made up with.

Amusing and simple family comedy "Uncle Buck" gains 90 % of its charm by picking the sympathetic and underrated John Candy for the role of the title hero: uncle Buck tries unusually, but unpretentiously to babysit his brother's kids alone, which leads to crazy situations, but some of them, as exaggerated as they seem, captured a few truths about life. As with most films by John Hughes, the characters are once again one dimensional, and the burden is enlarged by inappropriate morally-pathetic scenes that the viewer mostly ignores because they seem too preachy and shallow. Another minus is Buck's aggressive behavior towards Tia's (ex) boyfriend - he actually tries to scare him off by presenting him his axe, and he even helps Tia take revenge on him. Still, despite everything, Huges has a moral core and cares for his protagonists, and a lot of unnecessary criticism was aimed at his sentimentalism, as if emotions were something bad. In one scene uncle Buck planned to go to bet on a race, and decided to conveniently take the kids with him - but just as they were in the car, he realized bets and races are not suitable for little kids, and figured how egoistic he almost became. It was a brave choice for Hughes to put this scene in, because many viewers didn't even consider that to be a bad thing, but he simply made a nice comment how people sometimes ignore and twist everything when pursuing their goals. Even putting that aside, the film has enough solid humor and gains strength in sharp dialogues, like when Buck is making 3-foot wide pancakes for kids or when he is totally uninterested in principal's snobby opinion, whom he ironically gives 25 cents to remove her mole.

Grade:++

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Passage to India


A Passage to India; Drama, UK/ USA/ India, 1984; D: David Lean, S: Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, James Fox, Peggy Ashcroft, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness, Saeed Jaffrey

UK after World War I. The young English girl Adela Quested decided to take a trip to India to visit her fiance Ronny. She arrives in India with a ship together with Mrs Moore, Ronny's mother, but she soon discovers every English person avoids any kind of contact with the Indians and that it's colonial status is very shaky and unstable. Still, Mrs Moore makes friends with Aziz, a local doctor and a widower, and proves to be a very nice person. He invites her and Adela to a picnic at the caves of Marabar. There, because of a very hot day, Adele falls unconscious and starts getting hallucinations. In panic, she runs away and falsely accuses Aziz of raping her. He gets arrested, but proclaimed innocent at the court. As a consequence, Aziz starts hating the English and goes to work in Srinagar. There his friend Fielding visits him and informs him he got married for Stella, the daughter of Mrs Moore.

Winner of 3 Golden Globes (best supporting actress Peggy Ashcroft, music, foreign film), 2 Oscars (best supporting actress Peggy Ashcroft, music) and a BAFTA (best supporting actress Peggy Ashcroft), epic adventure "A Passage to India" is David Lean's relaxed farewell from his directorial career, since it was his last film. It's a calm, tranquil and meditative 2,5 hours drama that contains a sufficient number of virtues, but in which it's still noticeable that some parts were chopped down and reduced during editing, especially in the scenes containing Alec Guinness where it is sensed that they had more in them then it was shown in the end, and that it sometimes seems like some British TV soap opera. The exposition is especially beautiful, showing Adele in the UK looking at a model of a ship in a store, then later on pictures of India in the bureau for visas, and here and there a few nice little details can be found (for instance, when an Indian is cooking in the bathroom of the train), and all actors are good, Mrs Ashcroft being equally as good and restrained as the rest of the cast, but the story seems slightly overstretched and monotone. In the second half, in which Aziz gets accused for rape, the story gets more intriguing, as if Lean gave her a special spark, but at the same time it also becomes unbalanced. As it's often the case in his films, Lean once again gave a bitter commentary about British colonialism, snobism, arrogance and emotional longing, in which Aziz is a symbol for repressed India, but the second half doesn't naturally continue the tone set by the first one. "A Passage to India" is an interesting film that cannot quite fill its own shoes.

Grade:++

Hellboy


Hellboy; Horror/ Action/ Fantasy, USA, 2004; D: Guillermo del Toro, S: Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, Rupert Evans, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor

Scotland, '44. Nazis decide to take desperate occult help from mystic Rasputin in order to change the course of the war. He opens a dimensional portal in order to awaken the Seven Gods of Chaos, but right at that time the Allied forces intervene and close it down. Professor Brittenholm, a 28 year old member of the Allies, discovers that a mysterious red creature came from the portal to Earth: he raises it and calls it Hellboy. In 2004, Bruttenholm and a grown up Hellboy are working in a Bureau for paranormal research and defense, and are battling a demon called Sammael that appeared in a museum. They are joined by John Myers, a FBI agent, Abe, a fish-like creature, and Liz. After discovering Rasputin was reborn and created that demon, thus planing to bring the end of the world, they start a huge battle. Brutteholm gets killed, but Hellboy manages to locate Rasputin and eliminate him.

"Hellboy", a movie adaptation of a comic book with the same title, is a bizarre and extremely unusual superhero feature that has it's fair share of charm. The story is actually pretty good in the first half and has a lot of (dark) imagination, from the opening shots set in World War II in '44 when the Nazi were about to open a dimensional portal in order to change the course of the war, through the fascinating bad guy Kroenen of the Thule Society who wears a black mask, up to the modern day references about conflicts in the world, but already from the grotesque look of the good title hero Hellboy it is obvious the film in not for everyone's taste, sometimes being too much influenced by the satanic and the occult. A lot of the things shown in the film seem unnecessary and shaky, and towards the end "Hellboy" falls apart, turning into a cheap monster slasher without limits or sense for sustraint. Still, John Hurt and Selma Blair are excellent in their roles, and some scenes are really well done, like the one where Hellboy is saving kittens in a box from the demon Sammael or the one where he is hiding on a roof and spying on John Myers who is going out on a date with Liz, his big love. And there are hidden messages about loyalty and philosophy about what defines a man's (in this case, the scary looking Hellboy's) identity - his origin or his actions. But as a whole the film is too immature and chaotic, stopping only at being a solid fantasy. A similar mystic plot about a bad guy serving good and battling his own kind was handled a lot more skillfully in the brilliant manga "Hellsing", a Vampire horror classic.

Grade:+

Casino Royale


Casino Royale; Comedy, UK/ USA, 1967; D: Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrsh, Val Guest, S: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles, Joanna Pettet, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, William Holden

James Bond is enjoying his life since he went to retirement. But one day his colleagues persuade him to go back into action and help them solve a urgent case by blowing up his house. Since M died, Bond goes to bring his remains in a castle in Scotland and gets attacked. Soon he discovers his assignment is to stop a secret organisation called SMERSH and the villain Le Chiffre. With the help of his daughter from his lover Mata Hari he decides to bring confusion into the rows of the enemy by changing the names of a dozen of secret agents into James Bond. The dozen Bonds distract the enemy, and one of them is gambler Evelyn who was named James Bond and turned into an agent by a female agent. Evelyn enjoys being Bond and wins in a gamble against Le Chiffre. Agents are able to stop SMERSH, who was controlled by Jimmy Bond who wanted kill every man taller than 4' 6 leaving him the only big guy, but they all die in an explosion in a casino.

Legend says that the 1967 film "Casino Royale" was originally supposed to be revolving only around Evelyn, the character played by Peter Sellers, but he suddenly abruptly left the project because he didn't like parodying James Bond, thus the screenwriters (among them even Billy Wilder) were forced to invent and add another segment with David Niven to the story in order to somehow finish and save the movie as a whole. 5 directors and 10 screenwriters tried to bring some kind of an order into the incoherent structure, but it didn't work out: the whole stayed chaotic, overlong, shaky and eclectic. Some jokes are really good, like when Orson Welles is conducting a magic trick in a casino by making a woman disappear under a blanket and then laughing madly or when Woody Allen is starring as Jimmy Bond, the nephew of James Bond, but because of the bizarre mess of the story and forced humor it's funnier to simply read the synopsis of the crazy plot than to watch the whole film.

Grade:+

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Queen Millennia


Shin taketori monogatari: Sen-nen joo; animated science-fiction series, Japan, 1981; D: Nobutaka Nishizawa, S: Keiko Toda, Keiko Han, Ichiro Nagai, Toru Furuya, Kenichi Ogata, Akio Nojima

Tokyo, 1999. Hajime is a typical boy obsessed with space. His uncle, professor Amamori, has from his observatory recently discovered the 10th planet of the Solar system, called La Metalle. But the computer soon calculates that La Metalle has a very eccentric orbit and that it is heading right towards Earth. It won't collide with her, but because of its giant gravitation it is expected that Earth will be severely damaged and that large part of its population is going to be killed on 9th September at 9 o'clock 9 minutes and 9 seconds. After Hajime's parents are killed in a mysterious explosion, he is transferred to his uncle's observatory where he meets his female assistant, Yukino Yayoi. It is soon discovered she is Queen Millennia, daughter of Queen Lana of an alien race that lives under La Metalle's surface that kidnapped humans on number of occasions to use them as slaves. Yukino becomes good and decides to help humans, unifying her forces with her sister of the "Thieves of Millennia" in order to save Earth. After discovering a black hole is responsible for La Metalle's orbit, she destroys it with her ship. A shocked Lana decides to stop the invasion on Earth.

Anime "Queen Millennia" was briefly shown in Europe and after that disappeared in a "bunker", thus quickly affirming unbelievable cult reputation as a "lost treasure". When its 41 episodes are seen it's not hard to figure out why, because it really is a fascinating, nostalgic sci-fi story of old school, a Japanese take on the Nibiru pseudo-legend. Its only big flaw, besides a few illogical situations, is that the author Leiji Matsumoto decided to once again use his animation trademark - namely, all supporting characters are animated very well and realistic, including the main heroine Yukino Yayoi, except for the family Hajime - the main protagonists, the boy Hajime and his uncle Amamori are drawn again awfully bizarre and ludicrous with too small eyes and too big mouths, resembling somewhat like Homer Simpson. Still, after the viewer gets use to that little caprice, this esoteric, fierce and moody anime will shine in all its glory.

The complicated, but juicy story in which the mysterious 10th planet La Metalle is threatening Earth by crossing her orbit was conceptualized and executed with bravura and manifested magnificent scenes - people launch rockets to La Metalle's ice surface in order to change its orbit; Yukino uses her special powers to stop a giant Tsunami heading towards Tokyo; after passing near Saturn, La Metalle rips its rings apart; and after coming close to Earth, La Metalle is even seen causing a Sun eclipse in the sky. Finally, the scene where the chosen people are standing in a row waiting to be evacuated in rockets while the "average" people are protesting even today seems bitter and strong. This anime is a sight to behold, a spectacular space opera, a drama of cosmic proportions, and Matsumoto filled almost every episode with passionate, delicious details about space, but he also offered some deep truths about our world and humans. It is actually a hidden anti-Totalitarian, anti-imperialist message about Yukino's difficult realization that she is against her evil nation whose plans are selfish by wanting to kidnap humans in order to use them as slaves for their technology, and her transformation caused by love that serves as the only true value. A little more characterization, color and humor would have (theoretically) made this even the best anime ever made, but as it is, it's still excellent, a shining unknown jewel.

Grade:+++

The Green Mile


The Green Mile; Drama, USA, 1999; D: Frank Darabont, S: Tom Hanks, David Morse, Michael Clarke Duncan, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Doug Hutchison, Sam Rockwell, Bonnie Hunt

In 1999, Paul Edgecomb is 108 years old and is in a nursing home. He remembers back how he was a corrections officer in '35, being in charge of a death row in Louisiana, where prisoners were escorted to the electric chair. The newest prisoner is a black man, John Coffey, a tame giant who was found together with two corpses of raped girls and was charged of being the perpetrator. Paul soon finds out he has supernatural healing powers and becomes friends with him. Among the officers is also the evil Percy who executes one prisoner in the most brutal way. One day a new inmate is transferred to prison and John senses he is the real murderer of the girls, using his powers to control Percy to kill him. After that Percy falls into a catatonic state. John gets executed but Paul keeps his pet mouse.

"The Green Mile" is a sad essay about the ever lasting passivity of people, who sometimes have to obey orders and to do things they don't want to. Unfortunately, that passivity also transferred to the authors of the film, who chose to make into a standard, stiff, cliche melodrama instead of something special and stimulating. Overlong, overrated and over-preachy, "Mile" is actually good in the first quarter: in the poetic opening shots, without sound, armed farmers are seen walking in a field, but then the story becomes more and more bizarre, transforming at moments into a travesty. For instance, the main protagonist Paul has urinary problems and always screams when he is urinating. Then he encounters John Coffey, who has supernatural powers - and who places his hand between Paul's legs, mysteriously healing him while in the background a light bulb starts lighting: this sequence is so inadvertently funny that it's pathetic. To top it all, after that John opens his mouth and thousands of moths (?) come from his mouth, and then disappear.

Surely, if the authors wanted to address some esoterical issues, they could have done it in a better way. John Coffey - who is played by Michael Clark Duncan who is making such grimaces that not even Jerry Lewis would be ashamed off - apparently has a few parallels with Jesus Christ: he can heal people, his initials are J. C. and he is executed innocent, but those parallels don't add much to the film's quality. Forced poetry and too obvious cliches are also problematic. The movie is touching at times, ambitious and well acted, but no serious movie can work if he is oversimplifying things and presenting them as only black and white: for instance, the evil officer Percy is shown as a completely one dimensional bad guy without any positive feature since he in one scene squashes the inmates pet mouse with his foot and executes a prisoner on a electric chair deliberately without special equipment, causing his body to melt and him to die in an extremely painful way - that scene is disgusting and shockingly campy, and what's too much is too much. Actually, it's so bad the movie had to do extraordinary virtues in order to redeem himself for it. In the end, "Mile" is a solid and competent film, but 15 minutes of his running time are worth less than one minute of "Saving Private Ryan".

Grade:+

Mean Girls


Mean Girls; Comedy, USA, 2004; D: Mark Waters, S: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Mcadams, Lizzy Caplan, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Daniel Franzese, Tina Fey

Cady Heron is a teenage girl that spent her whole life in Africa, being teached by her mother at home. By moving back to USA, she enlists to a high school for the first time in her life, and her first day ends with her feeling like an outsider. Luckily, she makes friends with two other outsiders; Janis and Damian. Later on she meets a popular girl, Regina, who also becomes her friend. Regina also has two other girls that seem to follow her; Gretchen and Karen. Still, Regina proves to extremely superficial and evil, spreading bad rumors about Cady and stealing her crush Aaron from her. Janis and Damian use Cady to spy on Regina and try to ruin her reputation. After Cady becomes the new most popular girl, Regina frames her by placing a gossip book on every student in school. In the end, Cady realizes she became as superficial as Regina and decides to make up with Damian and Janice at the dance night.

"Mean Girls" isn't a stupid teen film is seems to be, but rather a solid, sometimes even sharp and clever satire that analyzes the world of high school and teenagers, capturing perfectly the double relationships of attractive but superficial girls that are friends but actually hate each other. Already somewhere in a scene near the start of film, one of the characters, Janis, divides during lunch the whole school into groups; the popular, the outsiders, the foreigners, the dumb, the smart, the sexually active and others, telling so casually more truth than it seems. The plot concept is clever, the execution rather weak, standard, and the direction from Mark Waters is sometimes good, but also sometimes incompetent and silly - for instance, in one scene, Regina tells her mother's breast implants are as hard as a rock; when she shows up and hugs Cady, she almost causes her a slight pain with her "sharp" bust. Another awful joke is also centering over breasts; Karen, apparently a dumb blond girl, is questioned from Cady about what she is good at. She replies she can sense when it's going to rain in her breasts...but mostly when it's already raining. These kind of low attempts at humor reduce the film's quality, and it's structure is confusing and eclectic, but the unusual story about the heroine Cady that "infiltrates" the rows of the evil Regina's clique as a mole seems like a girly version of a spy thriller and has it's charm. Lindsay Lohan is pretty good as Cady, who near the end figures she herself became too superficial since she "started to talk about Regina 80 % of her time, while in the other 20 % she only thought how to start talking about her", but the best parts were delivered from Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese as amusing outsiders Janice and Damian, whose roles were unfortunately too small for comfort.

Grade:++

The Black Dahlia


The Black Dahlia; Crime, USA/ Germany, 2006; D: Brian De Palma, S: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw

Los Angeles, 1940s. Police officers Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are two best friends and amatuer boxers, and they fight in one boxing match to attract audience to vote for preposition B that would raise the salary for the police. Kay Lake is Lee's girlfriend, but she also has affections for Bucky. After the body of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, gets discovered brutally murdered, Bucky and Lee get obsessed with solving the case. Bucky meets Madeleine, a woman who looked a lot like Short, and who knew her. After discovering a lesbian film where Short starred in, Bucky starts suspecting Madeleine has something to do with the murder. Lee gets murdered when he wanted to confront a released criminal, and Bucky discovers he also robbed a bank in order to pay for a blackmail attempt. In the end, it is discovered Madeleine's mother Ramona killed Elizabeth Short.

"The Black Dahlia" is a confusing mess, a crime story without a real spark and with a lot of production problems that's watchable thanks to the good actors - Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart are excellent, while Scarlett Johansson is good although it's obvious she didn't get enough space to show her real talent - serving sadly as one of the weakest films from the intriguing director Brian De Palma. The critically acclaimed novel from James Ellroy was executed, it seems, without any real interest of the authors involved, who chopped down and reduced the complicated story that could have lasted for 4 hours down to only 2 hours, and at some moments it's painfully obvious everything was rushed: one scene follows the other so fast the film doesn't have time to elaborate anything, or even to let the effect of the situations "sink in" to the viewer. The first third is really bleak and stiff, the second is pretty good and manages to get a few interesting details across - in one of them the characters are working in their office in a police station when they are hit by an Earthquake, frightened all, except for one who just continues to make his phone call. In another one, De Palma uses his classic subjective shot of the camera to serve as Bucky's perspective, who just entered Madeleine's home and introduced himself to her parents - but the finale is once again disappointing, explaining an resolving the murder of Elizabeth Short for almost 20 minutes. With a little more care and devotion to the original novel, this could have been a great film, but sadly it's a stiff, hectic and exaggerated achievement that doesn't have much to offer.

Grade:+

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash


The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash; comedy/ mockumentary, UK/ USA, 1978; D: Eric Idle, Gary Weis, S: Eric Idle, Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, John Halsey, Michael Palin, George Harrison, John Belushi, Mick Jagger, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd

In the '60s a pop group from Liverpool called "The Rutles" enchanted the world with its music and gained millions of fans. The group's members are: Dirk McQuickly, Ron Nasty, Stig O'Hara and Barry Wom. One journalist is filming a documentary about them: at their start, the Rutles played in Germany when they were discovered by producer Leggy. Soon they started their own tour through America and England, where even the Queen met them. They filmed strange films like "A Hard Day's Rut" and "Ouch", caused a controversy when it was discovered they drink tea and when they announced they were "bigger than God". But then Stig fell under the influence of a sect, Ron married an evil German woman and their firms became bankrupt, making the Rutles dissolve.

Surreal farce "The Rutles" filmmed as a mockumentary, similar as "This is Spinal Tap", spoofs the famous Beatles phenomenon, thus making it the more funnier the more the viewer knows about that British band. Event after event, the Rutles parallel almost everything the Beatles ever did, adding absurd humor as a commentary: for instance, the Beatles made a film called "A Hard Day's Night" while the Rutles made "A Hard Day's Rut"; Stig came under the influence of a sect, obviously mirroring when George Harrison converted to Hinduism; and even the event where John Lennon met and married Yoko Ono was handled in a hilarious way by transforming it into how his "clone" Ron met a Nazi woman in a "Pretentious gallery" after which he held a conference in his shower announcing he is going to marry her. Eric Idle is playing both Rutles member Dirk and a journalist - amusingly, in one funny scene where it is raining he is wearing a hat in form of a umbrella - and even a lot of prominent real stars show up, giving interviews, like Mick Jagger and the real Beatle George Harrison. Some will be bothered by the film's loose structure, compact running time and arbitrarily sequencing of wacky gags, but it is hard not to enjoy its simple charm, style, energy and surprisingly good original music, some of which is a real jewels: songs "Living In Hope" and "With A Girl Like You" are not just great, and the "Yellow Submarine Sandwich" animation segment is not just meticulous, they even recreate the same bliss of a 'Beatles feeling'. Considering the enjoyment value, it is the same as with laughing: how can you describe laughing? Either you feel it or you don't.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Die Hard 2


Die Hard 2; Action, USA, 1990; D: Renny Harlin, S: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Franco Nero, Bonnie Bedelia, Dennis Franz, Reginald VelJohnson

It's Christmas Eve again and the police officer John McClane is in an airport in Washington, waiting for his wife's, Holly, airplane to land. But then the airport is stormed and taken by terrorists who are lead by colonel Stuart who demands that the dictator Esperanza should be freed at once, since he is currently in custody by American soldiers who are escorting him in a plane to prison. They also take over the control center, causing a delay of all airplanes in the sky. Still, John manages to kill the terrorists and reinforce the airport for the airplanes to land.

Some critics who called "Die Hard 2" as equally as good, or even better film than the original "Die Hard" are either deluding themselves or their criteria are still under the impression of the first film. But "Die Hard 2" should be regarded without any context, as a film for itself, and like that he is weaker than the first (from which he literally copied the whole story and played it again, just placing it in an airport) and the third part of the series, an achievement that suffers a lot from Hollywood cliches, acting sometimes even like cheap "action pornography". The direction from Renny Harlin is quite incompetent and too morbid - it seems it's completely normal for him to in one scene kill 300 people by crashing a plane just to make the viewer hate the bad guys! Also, the bad guys are one dimensional bad guys, unrealistic characters that annoy by taunting their victims and show off. And a lot of the story doesn't make any sense: for instance, since the bad guys have took over the airport in Washington, they caused dozens and dozens of airplanes to "helplessly" fly in circles for hours, being at their mercy - but would it be so difficult for them to simply land in a different nearby airport? Still, despite all, it's still a dynamic and exciting achievement intended for light fun that even has a few clever ideas - for instance, the journalist Richard is complaining because the airplane he is sharing with Holly is defying the curt decision in which she is forbidden to come closer to him than 50 yards, and in one dynamic finale John is able to put the airplane of the terrorists on fire - at the same time enlightening the airport track for the other airplanes to land.

Grade:++

Die Hard


Die Hard; Action, USA, 1988; D: John McTiernan, S: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Alexandar Godunov, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason

Los Angeles during Christmas. The New York cop John McClane came to town to visit his wife Holly, but the two of them enter an argument in her work place, the large office building called Nakatomi Plaza, and separate. Just then a gang of terrorists led by the German Hans Gruber invade the building and seal it of, taking everyone in it as hostages. They kill the boss, Mr. Takagi, and go on to disable the vault and steal millions of dollars in bearer bonds. John is able to hide and start a guerrilla like fight against the terrorist, contacting the police, but the only one who trusts him is sergeant Al Powell. Hans figures Holly is John's wife and uses her to blackmail John. Just as the terrorist are set to run away with the money, John is able to kill them and save his wife.

Films of the action genre were never highly respected and their macho protagonists would often finish their careers as soon as they would become older. Although many dispute such films like "The Terminator" and "Die Hard", they are actually surprisingly good and least to deserve such treatment among the action films. "Die Hard", the first and only excellent part of the series, is surprisingly simple and amusing introducing the story about the hero that saves the day from the bad guys, differing a lot from the usual stupid action films that don't offer anything except mindless action. The highlights are humorous situations - John kills a terrorist and gets his gun, writes "Now I have a machine gun! Ho, ho" on his shirt and lowers him down to his evil boss Hans, who is surprised somebody would dare to meddle with his plans. In another scene Hans is warning his henchmen to be quiet but then John's voice contact him via the loud speaker, teasing him that he should write his top secret terrorist plan on the blackboard so that there won't be any confusion. But the most genius scene is the one in which the hero accidentally stumbles upon the main bad guy Hans in the coridor who quickly reacts and introduces himself as one of the hostages, figuring John knows only his voice, not how he looks like. It's an interesting movie full of energy and clever ideas, acting like a chess game between the two sides; the good and the bad, and even adding a little anti-establishment touch since all the police forces prove to be incompetent while the "little man" John does all the things right. Although the ending is a little bit overstretched and stiff, "Die Hard" is such a good film that he will even please those viewers that completely despise action genres, being universally appealing.

Grade:+++

The Terminator


The Terminator; science-fiction / action, USA, 1984; D: James Cameron, S: Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Bess Motta

The year is 2029: After a nuclear war, intelligent machines and humans are fighting each other. In order to succeed, the machines send a cyborg, the Terminator, back in time, in Los Angeles in 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the future rebel John Connor, before she gave birth to him. But the humans also sent their own agent, Kyle Reese, to prevent the Terminator. Meanwhile, Sarah is just an average waitress , and is surprised when the Terminator attempts to kill her. Kyle saves her and the two of them have intercourse. The Terminator kills Kyle but Sarah is able to destroy him in an automated factory. She leaves for Mexican soil, pregnant.

"The Terminator" 1 and 2 are two completely different films. "Terminator 2" is better, but it is still a typical Hollywood film with an optimistic and cheerful message in which the title hero is the good guy, while the original from 1984 is made entirely in anti-Hollywood way, in form of of a dark existential drama that seems as if it was written by a futuristic Franz Kafka. "The Terminator", the second film by director James Cameron, is a gritty (B) film with a minimal budget that has flaws, but whose execution pulled the maximum virtues out of the cliche, trashy plot. The best parts are actually small, subtle: while Sarah is working as an waitress, a naughty little boy puts his ice cream on her dress. Later she returns to her apartment, which she shares with her friend Ginger, and answers a phone call - the one calling is Ginger's lover, talking intimate erotic details, not knowing Sarah has actually answered the phone. And the 20-minute finale, in which the raw robotic exoskeleton is chasing Sarah, is especially intriguing, displaying a 'tour-de-force' energy, since the Terminator is confused from the noise of the machines in the factory where the heroine is hiding. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who speaks only 17 sentences, didn't film many excellent films, but by picking the role in this little unusual classic he had a lot of luck - his cyborg is a bad guy that doesn't taunt its victims or shows off; he just eliminates them and that's it. "The Terminator" is a film that at first glance seems entirely irrespective and stupid, but a one that leaves an positive impression when watched due to the director's pure ingenuity.

Grade:+++

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Infernal Affairs


Mou gaan dou; Crime/ Drama, China, 2002; D: Wai Keung Lau, Siu Fai Mak, S: Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Eric Tsang, Kelly Chen, Sammi Cheng, Edison Chen, Shawn Yue, Elva Hsiao

While attending the police academy together, Yan and Ming had to go different ways: Yan was expelled from the academy in order to become a mole inside the rows of the Triad, while Ming decided to work for the mobsters and become a secret agent for them, revealing the secret information from the police. Both of them fell into depression due to their stressful, double jobs. When the police prevents a drug smuggling plan, the chief of the Triad, Sam, starts searching for a mole, killing Yan's chief, but he also gets killed by Ming himself. Both Yan and Ming discover the other one is the mole. But Ming decides to stay faithful to the police, getting arrested by Yan. When Yan gets shot and killed because the police thought he is a criminal, Ming gets very sad, thinking if he should have taken a different route in his lie.

The story of the atmospheric Hong Kong crime drama "Infernal Affairs" works, as some have already noticed, on the principle of symmetry: one protagonist is a spy inside the mafia, while the other inside the police squad, mirroring their situations, fears, doubts and relationships on the other. This is a pure Hong Kong film- there are no big Hollywood like showdowns, or cliches, or annoying gimmicks - and both Tony Leung and Andy Lau delivered excellent roles, while the story is relaying more on character development than on suspense - even going so far to imply that the "bad mole" inside the police became good because he identified with his colleagues. The movie and his double "Faust" theme are definitely subtle and interesting, containing touching scenes (Yan is sadly staring at the dead body of his chief and close friend, who was thrown from the top of a building on the car) and wonderful loyalty between the characters (even though he knows Yan is a mole, a dying mobster decided to keep that information a secret), possessing lyrical humanity and calm wisdom, but as a whole it could have been more intense, apropos less tame. This achievement from directors Lau and Mak is very good, intelligent and deep, but also a little bit overrated: sometimes when a movie year is thin, the critics go to search for a great film, and when they don't find one, they sometimes over hype one that's only good.

Grade:+++

The Departed


The Departed; crime / drama, USA, 2006; D: Martin Scorsese, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin

Boston. Frank Costello, an influential mobster, recruits his assistant Colin into the police squad in order for him to spy for his business. At the same time, the police also infiltrates a mole into Frank's own team, the temperament cop Billy, but only Dignam and Queenan know about that. Colin starts a romantic relationship with a psychiatrist, Dr. Madolyn, but she also starts an affair with Billy. During a set up, Colin betrays and kills Frank. Billy discovers Colin was a mole and arrests him, but before he gets a chance to explain everything he gets killed by another mole. Colin, who appreciated Billy very much, kills the other mole. While entering his apartment, Colin gets shot by sergeant Dignam.

Just like the symmetry of Yin and Yang is radiating from the story about two moles inside the rows of different sides, it also radiates from the film "The Departed" itself, that is a remake from the Chinese film "Infernal Affairs". While the American version is extroverted, fast and served all of its messages neatly on a silver plate, the Chinese original is introverted, calm and deliberately decided to stay hermetic and open in some aspects. Martin Scorsese directs the film dynamic, fluid, clear, but standard and conventional, lacking the energy of his previous films, yet he is still able to top the original at a few moments, making both films, each in their own way, equally good. Being nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe as a best supporting actor, Jack Nicholson is once again more hamming than acting, but he is still brilliant non the less as the cynical mobster Frank - in one scene Frank arranges to secretly meet with his mole, Colin, inside of a porn cinema. Colin asks him why he chose this location, and he responds with: "I own this place!" Also, his first lines and also the first lines in the film are: "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me". The story is full of swearing and exaggeration, and some of the dialogues are hilarious - for instance, during a meeting of high ranking police officers, one cop asks sergeant Dignam if he has a mole inside the rows of Mobsters, while he replies: "Maybe yes. Maybe no. Maybe go screw yourself". Obviously, Martin Scorsese wasn't the best director in 2006 - it was Joon-ho Bong - while Dignam and some other characters are a travesty, but they still function inside the story as a whole: "The Departed" is overrated, but a truly well made movie, on the limit between Hollywood and anti-Hollywood. But it succeeded, just like his protagonist Colin, to decorate himself with foreign feathers and get away with it: the fact that "The Departed" won Oscars and a Golden Globe while the original, "Infernal Affairs", was not even nominated for anything, shows a strange disparity of those awards.

Grade:+++

Faust


Faust; silent fantasy; Germany, 1926; D: F. W. Murnau, S: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn, Frida Richard, William Dieterle, Yvette Guilbert

The forces of evil want to escape from the underground, but are stopped by an angel. The angel and the devil make a bet: if the old professor Faust becomes evil then the whole world will come under the rule of evil, but if he remains good then the forces of justice and love will rule the Earth. The devil unleashes a deadly disease in the city and Faust is desperate to find a cure and help the sick people. To find enough knowledge, he sells himself to Mephisto, devil's servant, for a day. But the people realize with whom he made a deal and cast him away. Mephisto makes Faust young again, places him on a flying rug and brings him to an Italian town. There Faust enjoys the attractive women and decides to sell his soul to Mephisto in order to stay young. Returning back to his city, Faust falls in love with Gretchen, but Mephisto kills her brother. Gretchen ends up getting burnt alive on a bonfire, but Faust joins her voluntarily. As they both die, the deal is broken with his love, thus making good triumph over evil.

Shining silent fantasy "Faust", an adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's book with the same title, is probably the best film F. W. Murnau ever made, an expressionistic masterpiece. The director leads the iteration of intriguing events in a bravura way, even in the somewhat overlong and overstretched ending, bravely creating extraordinary, unusual situations that contain a genius visual style: the opening shots are already unbelievable, where three skeletons riding monsters, symbols of evil, are leaving the bizarre underground world full of smoke and heading towards the light (Earth), but are then stopped by an angel who makes a bet with the devil that the good old scientist Faust will never become evil. Seeing these kind of special effects in an silent, black and white film in the era when visual and special effects were not even properly developed, really is groundbreaking and memorable.

Other impressive scenes present are ones where a giant shadow of a giant body of Mephisto is covering the whole town on the hill, the one where Faust is reading a contract and the word "power" starts glittering in the text, as well the incredible sequence in which Faust and Mephisto are flying on a rug through mountains, forests, waterfalls an seas - the moving camera really used all the tricks to make breadboard of those landscapes both realistic and fake, obviously influencing a lot on Raimi, Burton and Gilliam. In the heart of the story lies an interesting theme about individuals who are willing to "take shortcuts" to their success, symbolically selling their soul to the devil by thinking they are doing the right thing, thinking that the result justifies the cause. The theme is still relevant today, but it would not have been worth much if it were not wrapped in an amazing package from the skillful, practically avant-garde authors of this film, and despite the delicate messages this is still a story about the triumph of emotions and a radical execution of it.

Grade:++++

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Touch of Evil


Touch of Evil; crime / drama, USA, 1958; D: Orson Welles; S: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Marlene Dietrich

An unknown man plants a bomb inside a car in a Mexican city near the US border. The contractor Linnekar and his girlfriend enter the car and drive away to the USA, but are then killed by the explosion of the bomb. One of the witnesses is Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics official, and his wife Susie. Soon the cynical sheriff Hank Quinlan starts investigating on both sides of the border, arresting an innocent looking Mexican who was having a relationship with Linnekar's daughter. Vargas suspects Hank planted false evidence and accuses him of playing dirty. Hank on the other hand gets his wife in a framed delict, arresting her for dealing with drugs. Vargas, with the help of deputy Pete, records Hank's incriminating dialogues. In the shoot out, Hank and Pete get killed.

"Touch of Evil" is the second best directorial achievement Orson Welles ever did, right after his famous and critically acclaimed "Citizen Kane", the last "official" film noir filled with dark images, strong atmosphere and fabulous cinematography, so sharp and intense that it does not even seem as if it was made in the "tame" 50's. Unlike some other bleak films, the darkness in this masterpiece almost seems magical, like black poetry, and even Charlton Heston's wooden acting ended up looking realistic. The first intriguing element in the film is already his bravura, 4-minute long opening shot filmed in one take: at night, somewhere at US-Mexican border, on the Mexican side, an unknown man places a bomb in a car of a contractor, which then exploded on the American side, killing him and his girlfriend. It's obvious Welles put a lot of effort into that scene, and it shows, since it influenced a lot of other (ambitious) directors. Also, the story is full of juicy dialogues: right after the first scene, the police debate if the authorities from US or from Mexico should handle the incident, and then the cynical sheriff Hank shows up on the scene of the crime. The naive Vargas says: "I'd like to meet him", but some guy replies to him: "That's what you think!". A lot of scenes seem grotesque to the extreme and the unusual camera angles emphasize the phantasmagorical feel of the film even more, and towards the end the story transforms into a study about the abuse of law and corruption among the police, becoming a little bit inert, which is it's biggest flaw. Almost every role is meticulously placed, from Welles' big detective Hank up to the brothel owner Tana, who is played by charismatic Marlene Dietrich who sadly has barely one minute of screen time. "Touch of Evil" is a movie so fixated with its style that it is not for everyone's taste, but a touch of talent can be felt in it during the whole time.

Grade:++++

American Beauty


American Beauty; drama, USA, 1999; D: Sam Mendes, S: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher

Lester Burnham is a 42-year old advertising executive who is entering mid-life crisis and hates his average job. He is also a depressive husband who is neither loved by his wife Carolyn nor by his bitter daughter Jane. One day he meets Jane's friend, the cheerleader Angela, and falls in love with her. He changes, quitting his job and starting consuming marijuana bought from his neighbor Ricky, a teenager who is also starting a relationship with Jane. Carolyn is at the same time starting an affair with a wealthy real estate seller, while Ricky's military father Frank Fitts kisses Lester, revealing himself to be gay. As Lester finds out Angela is still a virgin, he decides to give up n her, but is soon killed by Frank from a gun, ending contemplating about his life.

"American Beauty" is a bitter story about what happens when people suppress their feelings and desires. It's a truly perfect example of a bipolar movie in which humor and sharp dialogues create laughter and pleasure on one side of the brain - in the opening shots the main hero is narrating: "My name is Lester Burnham. I'm 42 years old. In a year I'll be dead. Of course, I still don't know that yet", while he is shown waking up in his bed, obviously paying a homage to Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" - while the exaggerated and not so subtle dramatic elements create tragedy on the other half, but at the same time it seems as if the film starts out as an gentle, clever and thoughtful story only to transform into a tedious melodrama filled with senseless subplots (for example, Frank's sudden gay side) and mind blowing pretentious elements (when Lester is first seen masturbating in the shower, the thing is still done tastefully, but when he is shown jerking off under the blanket in the same bed with his wife the whole thing becomes distasteful and trashy, and the scene where a plastic bag is carried by the breeze is simply stupid) that seem to come from a soap opera.

Compared to better existential films about depressed protagonists, like Kiarostami's beautifully calm and wise drama "Taste of Cherry", "American Beauty" does not seem mature enough for its themes. Alan Ball's screenplay is sharp, and shows a genuine 6th sense for some inspired dialogues (in one instance, Angela is teasing Jane who is staring at Ricky, saying that she wants to have "10 000 of his babies"), but the uneven result is there because the execution of the idea from the first time director Sam Mendes is problematic and flawed, equipped with awful music and video spot style, going everywhere, especially in the confusingly metaphysical end. Likewise, some moments just scream of a "deleted scene" (as it was not obvious already that the militaristic Frank is the bad guy, there is an unnecessary scene where it is revealed he has plates with a swastika on them, in a very transparent intention indeed). It seems the story would have been much better if it was just revolving around Lester and Angela alone. In the end, "American Beauty" is a good film, but it is a clever story just not done in a harmonious way, and these aberrations sadly contaminate it.

Grade:++

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; Drama/ Comedy, USA, 1967; D: Stanley Kramer, S: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton

San Francisco. The middle-aged, upper class and seemingly open minded couple Matt and Christine are very surprised when their 23-year old daughter Joanna announces that she is planning to get married for Dr. John Prentice - an African American. Christine is at first a little bit confused, but she accepts the situation very quickly, while Matt is contemplating if he should give them his blessings or not. During a fancy dinner, John's parents show up who also doubt if a marriage between an white woman and a black man can work. Although not entirely happy with the situation, Matt still decides to give them his blessings and accepts John as a new member of his family.

Humorous drama "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" is less known for outstanding quality as for two inside facts - it was the first Hollywood film featuring a then "controversial" relationship between a white woman and a black man, and the last film in which the famous actor Spencer Tracy appeared - but as a whole it's still executed eloquent and unpretentious. The Oscar for best screenplay is justified (although some complained that the story ended right there where she should have just started) but the one for Katharine Hepburn for best actress was awarded only semi-justified, without a really good reason, since that year Anne Bancroft delivered a better performance in the brilliant classic "The Graduate". It's an interesting fable about false prejudice/moral and real values - interestingly enough, Sydney Poitier's intelligent character is presented as a prefect son in law, making the only excuse for the parents not to like him his skin color - enfolded in a social commentary about why some boundaries are made, a good, but "safe" and standard achievement, with some biting dialogues (John replies to his father, who wants to stop the marriage, that he doesn't owe him anything because "it's a duty for every parent to take care for the children he got"; Matt says to the "colorful" couple what he thinks: "you're wrong, you're as wrong as you can be. I admit that I hadn't considered it, hadn't even thought about it, but I know exactly how he feels about her" but also adds "As for you two and the problems you're going to have, they seem almost unimaginable, but you'll have no problem with me"), and the rhythm and the mood are nicely done.

Grade:++

Friday, April 13, 2007

Rose of Versailles


Versailles no Bara/ Lady Oscar; animated romantic adventure drama series, Japan, 1979; D: Osamu Dezaki, Tadao Nagahama, S: Reiko Tajima, Yu Mizushima, Hisahi Katsuda, Miyuki Ueda

France, 1755. The 6th daughter of the family Jarjayes was born, called Oscar Francois. But since her father as a member of the royal guard eagerly wanted a son to continue his job, he decided to raise Oscar as a boy. He taught her how to fence and sent her to Versailles to protect Marie Antoinette, together with Andre, Oscar's friend since her childhood. There are is a lot of plotting in the court, from Jeanne de Valois de la Motte and Madame du Bary, the mistress of Louis XV, and Oscar also fell in love with Hans-Axel von Fersen but decided to forget about him since Antoinette already loved him. With time, Andre fell in love with Oscar, but decided not to tell anything. They went to the army and in 1789, when the French revolution started, decided to help the poor people instead of the royal family. Before Andre gets killed, Oscar realises she always loved him, and dies herself in a battle.

Like the melancholic animes "Lady Georgie", "Queen Millennia" and "Sailor Moon", "Rose of Versailles" - somewhere translated as "Lady Oscar" - also enjoys a legendary reputation and is pure nostalgia. The story in the backdrop of French revolution is sober, bitter-sweet and deprived of sweetish moments, turning sometimes even dry, but unlike other animated achievements, "Rose of Versailles" contains some kind of a motherly care for their characters, especially for the heroine Oscar who is without precedent by her androgyny in the genre: as a fictional personality, the only one in the story populated by real historical figures, she is beautiful and feminine, but at the same time also always dressed in men's clothes, acting tough and strong, which creates interesting exceptions - when she wears a dress for the first time in her life in a fancy ball, she runs away from the room all confused in her newly found female side. In another episode Andre throws her by force on bed and rips her uniform, but then he remembers she is his superior so he stops, apologises and leaves, while Oscar starts crying.

There are also nice details present (rain falling over a fountain) and the intrigues in 18th Century Versailles were reconstructed to seem like they were happening today - the subplot of the double crossing affair by Jeanne de Valois de la Motte, who dressed a prostitute as Marie Antoinette to trick cardinal Rohan into thinking that the queen likes him and bought an expensive necklace on Antoinette's account, and who was later led to a court where she said that Antoinette was a lesbian, as exaggerated as it seems, actually did happen. The sequence of Oscar and Andre's intercourse in episode 43 where in the forest at night they are surrounded by fireflies is as genius as the one in "His and Her Circumstances", while the music in episode 44 in Oscar's imagination, where she is riding together with Andre by the beach, brought the pseudo gay sensibility to the esoteric heights. Something like the anime "Rose of Versailles" probably happened just once and never again.

Grade:+++

Girl, Interrupted


Girl, Interrupted; Drama, USA, 1999; D: James Mangold, S: Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeffrey Tambor

In '68 Susanna Kaysen is 18 years old and suffers from hallucinations. Her parents send her to a private mental institution, Clyamore. She is sharing a room with a girl called Georgina, but soon her attention is preoccupied by the wild Lisa. When the doctors diagnose her with borderline personality disorder and promiscuity, Susanna decides to run away from the clinic and become friends with Lisa. The two of them manage to escape and hide in the home of a former patient, Daisy. When Daisy commits suicide, Lisa and Susanna once again end up in the clinic. Susanna is diagnosed as healthy and released home.

After the crime film "Copland", director James Mangold accomplished a big success with the biographical drama "Girl, Interrupted", based on the experiences of the real life Susanna Kaysen. Formally seen, it's an ambitious, subtle drama that honestly portrays the life in the mental institution and symbolically talks about repression, but a step behind similar "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" because of the monotone story and only solid directing skills that don't know how to sustain the viewer's interest, and a few truly brilliant moments would have been welcomed. As a whole, it's a fluid achievement, but writing and creating an excellent film isn't always as simple as it (sometimes) seems. The mood is too depressive, but it's best moments are contained in it, for instance, when the young girl Daisy commits suicide because her father raped her. Lisa is also among the interesting characters - in one scene she notices a girl is secretly listening in front of Susanna's door and asks her what she is doing. When she says: "Nothing" Lisa replies: "Then do nothing in your own room" - and she is impressively played by Angelina Jolie, but not as impressive enough to justify the fact that she was rewarded with a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actress. In fact, her overemphasised cockiness and smart ass behavior seem annoying, while Brittany Murphy succeeded in so much more in her role as Daisy which was so much smaller.

Grade:++

Monday, April 9, 2007

Taste of Cherry


Ta'm e guilass; drama, Iran / France, 1997; D: Abbas Kiarostami, S: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi
Teheran. Mr. Badii is driving in a car through the streets. He picks up a teenager serving the army and offers him a profitable, but strange job. He drives him up to an isolated hill and explain his job: he should come the next morning to the hole he dug and either help him get up of bury him if he's dead. The youngster gets scared and runs away. Continuing his search, Badii meets an Afghan worker and offers him the same job, explaining he is planning to commit suicide. The man also refuses to do the job due to religious objections. Finally, Badii finds an old Turkish man, Bagheri, who agrees to do the job, but during the ride he explains to him that there are many wonderful things in life worth living for. Confused, Badii goes back to his home. A taxi drives him up to the hole in the middle of a rainy night, and lies in it, thinking. The film ends with the director Kiarostami shooting the film.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Taste of Cherry" is a beautiful one note film, a minimalistic drama reduced to its chore message and nothing more that will be loved by those who enjoy films from directors like Jarmusch or Kaurismaki, with a story so touching, so realistic and true that it seems like a quiet therapy from the loud, dumb, obnoxious Hollywood dramas/films that really seem off when compared to capturing reality. Like most films from Abbas Kiarostami, "Cherry" is also slow and quiet, and some could find it even inert, but thanks to a tight rhythm and focused point it manages to avoid being monotone, and its humor is rather refreshing. For instance, in the opening shots the main hero Badii is driving a car through the town and picks up a teenage soldier of Kurdish roots. They talk about trivial stuff during their ride for almost 15 minutes, but then Badii offers him a strange, but well payed job and drives him of to an isolated hill. He stops and shows him a hole, saying his job is to come tomorrow morning at this location and call his name twice, on which he will either response and he can help him get up, or if he doesn't respond he should berry him with 20 shovels of earth. Either way he will be payed 200.000 Toman. Although Badii is persuading him to do so, the youngster eventually runs away from the car downhill. Obviously, the theme about a man who wants to commit suicide is sharp and has spark, but as a whole the film is also an essay about the search for a reason to live and the monologue from the old Turkish man near the end about the beauty of life is an amazing lyrical poetry. Rarely did such a calm, introverted, slow plot blossom into such an interesting flower like "Taste of Cherry", a film that gave his soul for every depressed person in the world.

Grade:+++

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Super Mario Bros.: Peach Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen


Super Mario Bros.: Peach Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen; Animated fantastic comedy, Japan, 1986; D: Masami Hata, S: Toru Furuya, Yu Mizushima, Mami Yamase, Akiko Wada, Kikuchi Masami

One evening, as Mario was playing a Video game up until late at night, a shot of Princess Peach was shown on his screen. While running away from flying turtles, she jumped outside of the TV into the real world, and fell on Mario. He falls instantly in love with her, but Koopa, a giant reptile, also exits the TV and kidnaps the Princess. The next morning Luigi didn't believe Mario a word he said and they continued their business in a store as usual. But a strange dog showed up and lured them into a pipe, which led them to a strange world of Mushroom kingdom. An old man explains that the Princess is being held by Koopa, so the two of them decide to rescue her. On their long journey, together with the dog, they get captured by Koopa's henchmen but manage to get away, all the while Luigi is only interested in gold. With a help of a flying ship, they enter Koopa's castle, just as he was about to marry the Princess. Using his special powers; a star, a mushroom and a flower, at once, Mario was able to beat Koopa. The dog turned into prince Haru, Princess Peach' lover, while Mario and Luigi returned home with a lot of gold.

It's not hard to determine that the unknown, 60 minutes long anime film "Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission of Saving Princess Peach" is the best (animated) achievement in which the heroes Mario and Luigi, from the popular Video game, ever appeared. The Japanese authors have a different style of thinking than the American ones, thus in this lost film they didn't offer anything that the Americans wouldn't either, but they made it with a lot more style, spirit and devotion, making their original Mario, Luigi and especially the unbelievably charming and cute Princess more "alive" than they were in the animated series "Super Mario Bros. Super Show", Super Mario World" and "Super Mario Bros. 3" (except in episodes "Kootie Pie Rocks", "7 Continents for 7 Koopas" and "Reign Storm" from the latter). The exposition is especially amusing, showing how Mario can't believe his eyes when a handsome Princess falls from his TV right into his arms, and when Koopa brings her back in, the title on the screen shows up, saying: "Game Over". One of the missteps the movie made was to become bizarre without limits in portraying the surreal world, and the greedy Luigi in this version seems to have came from a totally different film, but the story is full of funny and vital layers (when they hear they are going to get a reward if they save the Princess Mario and Luigi start cheerfully dancing but Mario suddenly stops because of sadness while Luigi continues; during their stay in prison Mario and the dog manage to escape through a tunnel while Luigi gets stuck thanks to his bag full of gold), temporarily without any serious competition among the Super Mario adaptations, and in the sequence in which the hero is sadly dreaming that he is dancing with the Princess, even a small dramatic touch can be found.

Grade:++