Saturday, June 30, 2007

Revolutionary Girl Utena

Shojo kakumei Utena; Animated fantasy series, Japan, 1997; D: Kunihiko Ikuhara, S: Tomoko Kawamaki, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Aya Hisakawa, Yuka Imai, Kotono Mitsuishi

A long time ago, when she was still a little girl, Utena lost her parents, but a mysterious prince comforted her and gave her hope. As a teenager, Utena decided to become a prince herself. She enlisted as a student into the Ohtori academy and met the arrogant Saionji, challenged him to a fencing duel, won - and got his servant, Anthy, as the grand prize. Soon, many other students challenged Utena to a duel in order to win Anthy, but they all lost. Akio, Anthy's brother, is the prince and the chairman of the academy. Anthy suffers the pain of the world for him. So Utena takes her place for her. Anthy then leaves Akio in order to find Utena.

After his bravura directed episodes in the anime "Sailor Moon", director Kunihiko Ikuhara went to Be-Papas group and quickly realised "Revolutionary Girl Utena" that gained cult status, but also signaled a step backwards in his creativity. Mixing the subconscious styles of Lynch and Godard, the talented Ikuhara got an abstract mystery that repulsed many with it's pretentious elements, like the floating castle over the arena accompanied by a song about ammonites and trilobites. "Utena" is truly a tough cookie when it comes to grading it: some episodes, like the ones where Nanami shortly transformed into a cow or imagined she laid an egg, are real garbage. And then again, on the other hand, some episodes are truly extraordinary, like number 18 (a young boy, Tsuwabaki, doesn't want to try a chocolate that was partially bitten off by a girl because he is afraid of an "indirect kiss"), 19 (the girl Wakabi gives in her apartment a shelter to the fugitive Saoinji in whom she is secretly in love with and who previously ignored her) or 30 (Utena falls in love with Akio and is, as a consequence, distracted in school the whole day), subtly mixing gay confusement with identity confusement. "Utena" impresses with her ambitious iconography that carefully shapes the events into a whole and creates a unique world, while the end masterfully hints that Utena and Anthy may be one and the same person, actually split up when traumatized by incest in childhood. Still, with all of it's over-the-top symbols (cars placed vertically, thorns stabbing Anthy...), the story can really go overboard sometimes. "Utena" is something like "Catch 22": what ever it does, it somehow doesn't work they way it should.


Mutant Aliens

Mutant Aliens; animated science-fiction grotesque, USA, 2001; D: Bill Plympton, S: Dan McComas, Francine Lobis, George Casden, Matthew Brown, Amy Allison

Astronaut Earl Jensen was sent to space, but his corrupt boss, Dr. Furbar, deliberately released his fuel supplies and left him stranded in space in order to gain sympathies from people all around the world and finance his Department of Space. 20 years later, Earl's daughter Josie is working in an observatory and still waiting for him. As she was one night having intercourse with her lover Darby, she spotted her dad's capsule return to Earth. He tells the world an invented story where he landed on a Planet populated with giant Nose aliens, only to later on reveal he spent all that time in a space station breeding mutant animals in order to take his revenge on Dr. Furbar. Earl is killed, but the mutant animals attack Dr. Furbar, causing him to hide in his ad-rocket where he dies.

"Mutant Aliens" is one of those films that are so weird that they immediately cause a mass of people to call them insane. It's one of those rare American adult animated features that don't hesitate to show violence and erotic, a cult grotesque without measure that will undoubtedly cause some viewers to run away screaming after seeing only five minutes of it, and the bizarre, frenzy animation alone will cause some to feel nauseous. Still, if one can get on the same frequency with Bill Plympton's wild style, one can find an interesting, satirical story about father's devotion to his daughter, corruption, greed, media manipulation and honesty. There's all kinds of crazy stuff in this film: in the opening shots, a TV reporter is announcing how the president was eaten by a giant nose. Josie, as a little girl, literally bites off the finger of the evil Dr. Furbar. An excited Darby gives a peek into his underpants, revealing a cannon instead of a penis. Undoubtedly, Plympton goes way overboard with his bizarreness, but there are enough redeeming features present. If anything, he shows he is at best when he can squeeze some cuteness out of the burlesquely exaggerated situations: in one of those cases, Josie is working late into the night in the observatory, when her lover Darby surprise visits her. They slowly start hugging and petting, and she is already disrobing her clothes, when she suddenly stops and tells him they "can't do this on her work place". Then she gets that doubt if she should do it or not, and, amusingly, a little nun version of herself appears on her left shoulder, advising her to "watch her reputation", while a prostitute version of herself appears on her right shoulder, advising her to "enjoy her life".


Friday, June 29, 2007

36 Quai des Orfèvres

36 Quai des Orfèvres; Crime drama, France, 2004; D: Olivier Marchal, S: Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Depardieu, André Dussollier, Roschdy Zem, Valeria Golino

Paris. Leo Vrinks and Denis Klein are two average cops trying to catch a band that robbed an armoured truck. Leo is an honest cop, but doesn't hesitate to use drastic measures to solve a case. One day his informer Silien asks him to drive him in a car to some seemingly random place, but he actually ambushes his advisory Zarbib and kills him. Leo is shocked, but decides not to say anything. During a stakeout of the band's hideout, Denis also makes a blunder when he gets drunk and attacks them too early. In the following chaos, a lot of cops are killed. Still, Denis is cleared of charge and promoted as the new Chief of Police, while Leo is sentenced to jail. Silien is later found with Leo's wife and they are both killed by Denis. 7 years later Leo is released from prison and wows revenge. Eventually, he kills Denis with a help of his colleague.

"36 Quai des Orfèvres" is a good film with a better premise that deserved an excellent realisation, but as it is it's still enough for a recommendation. The story daringly displays a world where cops are worse than criminals, and where a police station can turn into a police state - both police officers Leo and Denis made a blunder on their jobs, but Leo was sentenced to jail while Denis was freed of charge and even promoted to the Chief of Police. Once when he got on top of the hierarchy, Denis even committed homicide and everyone who lied on his behalf was promoted, while everyone who dared to say the truth was degraded. Director Marchal objectively displays the injustice and the story's social commentary, giving subtle jabs of protest against the system (a policeman "congratulates" Denis by urinating on his pants during the celebration of his promotion), but he lacks that special spark to truly intrigue the audience. The film has a pale exposition, it's mood and style are grey, the realisation is standard and a lot of the supporting characters are dropped during the course of the story. Still, Depardieu is good even as the bad guy, and Daniel Auteuil is also splendid. "36 Quai des Orfèvres" didn't dare to become extraordinary, but it dared to send a warning to the rift between upholding the law and being faithful to the law.


Ghost Dad

Ghost Dad; Fantasy comedy, USA, 1990; D: Sidney Poitier, S: Bill Cosby, Kimberly Russell, Ian Bannen, Denise Nicholas

Elliot Hopper is a widowed father who is so preoccupied with his work that he rarely has time for his three kids; when he forgets Diane's birthday, he decides to buy her a car. He survives a fall of the elevator, but not a taxi drive of a Satanist that ends up in a river. When Elliot climbs out on the surface, he notices he is just a ghost but that he can talk wit people with a lot of concentration. He flies off to London where he meets scientist Edith Moser who gives him 4 days before he must leave to the other world. Elliot contacts his kids and tries to make an insurance on himself so they could collect the money, but Diane falls from steps and dies. Elliot and Diane return to their bodies and become alive again.

It's truly hard to figure out why the respectable actor Sidney Poitier decided to direct the overstretched and only sporadically funny family comedy "Ghost Dad" that would have been downright awful hadn't it been for the excellent Bill Cosby. The movie wasn't a hit because the audience was scared by the anxiety of the plot: namely, Cosby's character Elliot dies, so his kids become orphans. There's also a lot of unnecessary banality, like Elliot's travel to some bizarre scientist of the paranormal Edith Mosner or the fact that people can see him in the dark, although he is a ghost. One of the better gags is the one where Elliot's daughter is listening to his stories over the phone or when he drinks a drink that goes right "through" him. "Ghost Dad" is a simple comedy poor with humor, with a plot that was already handled a lot better in previous films, but an easily watchable, cute achievement with a humane touch, and at least it managed to resist turning vulgar or primitive.



Hannibal; horror thriller, USA, 2001; D: Ridley Scott, S: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Giannini

Hannibal Lecter is still on the loose but also persecuted by Mason Verger, a rich man who was left mutilated and paralyzed as one of his victims. Meanwile, FBI agent Clarice Starling watches as her career is slipping down the drain after a failed stakeout where she shot Evelda, a drug dealer, while she was holding a baby. Hannibal is sending her letters from which the police figures he is hiding on Italian territory. There a policeman tries to capture him alone, but he is brutally killed. Hanibal then goes back to the USA, while Verger and agent Paul deliver falsified love letters from Hannibal to the head of FBI, apparently found in Clarice's office. She gets suspended. Verger manages to catch Hannibal, but just as he is about to be fed to a herd of wild hogs, Clarice is able to save him. Verger gets killed by the hogs himself, while Hannibal eats Paul's brain. Clarice is let free.

One decade after the critically acclaimed thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" (and 15 years after it's prequel "Manhunter"), a commercial sequel was filmed, "Hannibal", but a one that has almost no inspiration. Instead of having a subtle style, like Mann's excellent "Manhunter", the only thing this film contains is dumbing violence in frenzy orchestration of the once talented Ridley Scott, while Jodie Foster was wise enough to reject having a part in this disaster after reading the screenplay which showed madness of everyone involved. The whole story is an inconsistent mambo jumbo thriller, featuring such gruesome scenes as the mutilated face of Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) who was drugged by Hannibal Lecter and forced to cut his own skin with glass, and who ends up eaten alive by a horde of wild hogs. In another scene, Lecter kills a cop by hanging him and slicing his intestine open, while he separates the upper part of Paul's skull and eats his brain. Such splatter violence would probably appeal to some distorted dictators and psychopaths, but a large number of demanding audience will gladly forget this psycho garbage. Also, it's rather unconvincing that Anthony Hopkins, then a 65-year old, would turn out to be such an invincible and powerful opponent. True, there is something slightly romantic in Lecter's caring relationship with Clarice, and he could symbolically pass as a dark version of an avenging angel or as an allegory of the masses obsession with violence, the cinematography is nice, but all of that is simply not important when everything is gone downhill like here. In the end, it's simply a bad film.


Thursday, June 28, 2007

Murder by Death

Murder by Death; crime comedy, USA, 1976; D: Robert Moore, S: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, James Coco, Eileen Brennan, Alec Guinness, Truman Capote, James Cromwell, Maggie Smith

Millionaire Twain makes an unusual offer to five most famous detectives in the world - Sam Diamond, old Miss Marbles, fat Belgian gourmet Milo Perrier, Dick and Dora Charleston and inspector Wong - to come to his castle and solve a murder that is going to happen. The one who solves the case will get a million $. When they all arrive in the middle of the storm, actually two murders occur: the victims are Twain himself and his butler. Little by little, it is discovered all of the detectives were in some kind of a connection to him and that they had a motive, and when they all survive assassination attempts they all have a different explanation when they find Twain - alive. But none of them was right so they leave without the reward. Later on, Twain takes his mask off - he was actually the cook.

This fresh comedy from the first time director Robert Moore, otherwise an actor, shines with almost a friendly tone of comradeship. All of the 5 detectives from the story - Sam Diamond, Miss Marbles, Inspector Wong, Milo Perrier and Dick and Dora Charleston - are actually parodies of famous fictional detectives from movies or literature - Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot and Nick and Nora Charles from the "Thin Man" series - and that fantastic premise where the crime solvers meet where they are and are not at the same time themselves, acting in their charismatic persona, is very fun and the film gains most of its energy from those interactions. Especially good is Peter Falk as the cynical Sam, who gives one of the most hilarious lines in the entire film when he looks at his woman dead seriously ("Don't you trust me, Sam?" - "Trust you? The last time I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1 9 4 0. She said she was going to get a bottle of vine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France!"), but Peter Sellers is also in great shape as Inspector Wong. The whole film is childishly bung up, excellently intervened, perfectly set up in an isolated castle in the middle of the storm and rarely unfunny, but towards the end also slightly illogical, silly, forced in its spoofing of murder-mystery cliches or unnecessary in plot points and some underdeveloped characters. Among the golden scenes is the one where Wong feels the pulse of the corpse and says: "This man doesn't have a pulse. If his state doesn't change, he is dead!"; when Sam reveals he is actually actor Peter Falk or the idea that the whole room rotates. For some reason, "Murder by Death" was never regarded as significant, but its nostalgic spoof of Agatha Christie's cliches is a little treat.


Fanny and Alexander

Fanny och Alexander; drama, Sweden / France / Germany, 1982; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Ewa Fröling, Bertil Guve, Pernilla Allwin, Allan Edwall, Kristina Adolphson
Sweden, early 20th Century. It's winter and little Fanny and her brother Alexander live in a rather wealthy family, occasionally playing with the servants. Their parents Emilie and Oscar raise them in Catholic education and organize a play with them involving the theme of the birth of Jesus Christ. But one day Oscar falls unconscious while he was playing the ghost in a play about Hamlet, and dies shortly after that. Emilia marries Edward, a bishop, but he turns out to be a violent tyrant - he locks Fanny and Alexander in his home and beats them for every lie. Emilia is pregnant and can't divorce him, but some old man manages to secretly free the children from their home and bring them at his place. From there, Alexander almost supernaturally causes a fire in Edward's home, which kills him. Everything returns back to normal.

Ingmar Bergman's last feature film released theatrically (he later on went to direct a few TV films, respectively) didn't disappoint his fans, but it also didn't particularly overwhelm them. "Fanny and Alexander" last for full 3 hours - they are not boring, but a lot of empty scenes seem unnecessary and overstretched - while the famous director lacks inspiration, passion and highlights in this particular case. The film is as depressive and static as his previous ones, and contains a solid concentration of quality: the best parts are actually humorous, like in the scene where an old gentleman is running in his underpants and farts (!) in order to entertain the children, a rather courageous idea that works in this case and was later on handled inferiorly in numerous vulgar comedies. In another scene, a madam responds to her husbands offense that she stinks with: "You're having sent hallucinations". Still, in the title it clearly states that the children, Fanny and Alexander, are the main characters, but in the first third of the story they are not even present, and even later on they seem rather pale and are being pushed in the background. It seems the move should have been called "Emilia and Oscar" instead. Still, the subtle handling of the theme of stepfather's abuse and surprising fantasy elements (a ghost in front of Alexander) give enough reasons for a recommendation.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

There Grows a Green Pine in the Woods

U gori raste zelen bor; war/ drama, Croatia, 1971; D: Antun Vrdoljak, S: Ivica Vidović, Boris Dvornik, Veljko Milojević, Mato Ergović, Inge Appelt, Rade Šerbedžija
World War II, Yugoslavia, Banija. Partisans Ivan and Dikan fall from a carriage from too fast driving. They often argue with each other, but still lead their Partisan division fairly well. They catch a bunch of soldiers of the Croatian Home Guards, armed forces of the Greater Croatia Axis state, in the forest and let a part of them go home, but take the rest as their new recruits. Among the new ones is also a musician who is playing the song "There Grows a Green Pine in the Woods " on his harmonica. Disguised as Croatian Home Guards soldiers, they enter into the enemy Ustasha fortress, but get discovered when Dikan's Partisan hat falls out of his pants. Still, they manage to win and put the fortress on fire. Ivan is slightly depressed because he left his wife while Dikan kills a Serbian Sargent who collaborated with the Nazis. They conquer another fortress but Dikan gets wounded so they have to retreat.

This antiwar drama "There Grows a Green Pine in the Woods" from director Antun Vrdoljak, filmed on the 30th anniversary of the build-up of Partisan resistance, is a great, refreshingly realistic (and comical) Partisan film and even surpasses his previous effort, "When You Hear the Bells": even the two main actors from that previous film, Ivica Vidović and Boris Dvornik, are once again starring in the story and practically reprising their roles. The story is rich with fresh gags that are creating a subversive irony during the state of the World War II - already in the opening shots the two heroes humorously fall from a carriage from too fast driving, and Ivan laments to Dikan for his rush ("Do we have to die before we even get to out platoon?") capture a bunch of Croatian Home Guards soldiers, take their clothes off and send them home in their underpants (one of them refuses to strip in front of a female Partisan soldier, saying: "Should we take our cloths in front of a lady?", upon which she replies to him: "Just go ahead, you're not even half a man!") while one soldiers carries a photo of his cow in the fortress. Already classic is the genius sequence where Dikan is forcing a soldier to dig his own grave, preceding a similar one in the famous "Saving Private Ryan" filmed almost 30 years later, creating multilayered characters in he midst of chaotic era, and despite the fact that the action sequences are naive and too casual, it is hard to resist the raw charm of this spontaneous movie as a whole, since there is no empty walk. Likewise, Dikan's final words are unforgettable.


When You Hear the Bells

Kad čuješ zvona; war / drama, Croatia / Serbia, 1969; D: Antun Vrdoljak, S: Ivica Vidović, Pavle Vujisić, Boris Dvornik, Boris Buzančić, Fabijan Šovagović, Branka Vrdoljak
During the World War II a political commissioner, Vjeko, arrives from Zagreb to Banija. There the peasant Kubura introduces his land to him: Orthodox comprise a majority in Gornji Kladari, Muslims in Donji Kladari, while the Catholics are a majority in a third village in the middle - and they are all fighting each other, instead of the enemy, the Nazis. The leader of their village is Gara who thinks Vjeko doesn't know much about them and their partisan movement. When Meho, a Muslim, is arrested, the villagers are already preparing to liquidate him, but Vjeko stops them by proclaiming him innocent and even giving him a gun to join them. They soon manage to free the occupied territory from the Ustaša and Nazi regime, while a woman with a child returns to Vjeko from captivity. During a new military action they win again, but Kubura dies, which devastates Vjeko.

For his directorial debut the actor Antun Vrdoljak adapted the novel "War Journal" from Ivan Šibl. The result is extraordinary and extravagant because the very good "When You Hear the Bells" is one of the secret recommendations of the Croatian cinema, an unusual little film that handles the issue of World War II in both realistic and surprisingly humorous way, while both Ivica Vidović and the hilarious Boris Dvornik (as Kubura) play their roles very well. The movie's absurd side is so emphasized that the story seems like a comedy at some points - except for the satirical plot about 3 different villages with 3 different religions fighting each other, the funniest scenes are ones involving Kubura. In one of them, he is talking with Vjeko in the middle of the nature while riding a horse, when all of a sudden they are interrupted by a strange noise in the bushes. Kubura goes into the bushes and shoots a pheasant, then returns back and continues: "So where were I?" In another one, the villagers are shooting at a fleeing thief from a great distance, up until he suddenly falls on the ground. When he does, they all assume they managed to hit him and start joyfully screaming, but all of a sudden he just stands up again because he was just making fun of them and runs away. Also, the whole sequence where normal citizens from a village can't wait to plunder an abandoned village also shows both the hilarious as well as tragic and barbaric human state during the war. The action sequences are very naive, the running time is short and the ending too serious compared to the cheerful exposition, but that does not prevent this spontaneous and energetic movie from turning into a small, unknown jewel.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; drama, USA, 1975; D: Miloš Forman, S: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, Scatman Crothers, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli
R. P. McMurphy, a lazy small time crook, pretends to be insane in order to be transferred to a comfortable mental institution instead of a prison. He does, to a institution run by the cold and ruthless nurse Ratched, and quickly makes friends with the patients. He also starts rebelling against the dictator like conditions of nurse Ratched, even escaping with the patients in a bus to go fishing. One day he starts a fight with a male nurse and gets punished with electroshock. McMurphy and Chief Bromden manage to open the window of the institution and let two of his girls in, letting one of them have intercourse with the timid patient Billy. When nurse Ratched sees the chaos the next morning she vows to Billy that she is going to tell everything to his mother, upon which the young lad commits suicide. McMurphy attacks her, but is captured by the ward and punished by a lobotomy. Chief suffocates him with a pillow and breaks away from the institution.

As a subversive reaction to a lot of turmoil in the 60s and 70s, allegorical drama "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" became very popular and was awarded with several prizes. In one hilarious scene from the film, the main protagonist McMurphy (a very good Jack Nicholson) is in the mental institution, trying to play poker with his colleagues, the patients, but he is getting more and more irritated by the annoying, loud music coming from the control room. Finally, he snaps and goes into the control room demanding the music to be appeased. But nurse Ratched tells him to leave the room first and then tell her his complaint. He does and repeats his demand, but she simply rejects him telling that the music has to be this loud since many old patients wouldn't be able to hear it. This is one of the crucial sequences in the story that caused many to interpret it in this way—the sole title already hints at trying to achieve something that is impossible or futile (a cuckoo does not make nests, so trying to fly over it is a contradiction) while the mental institution is a symbol for any dictatorship or autocratic system. Who benefits the most from these systems? The ones in charge, the ones on top, so they intend to constantly keep everything rigid, everything always the same, in order to not allow any kind of changes or progress. Nurse Ratched represents the cold authority that is making their lives miserable through bureaucracy, lies, oppression and dumb laws. McMurphy is fighting against that oppression, but all of his attempts are tragic because they don't make any difference, no matter how he tries. It's even more subversive than that: as soon as someone is labelled mentally ill, he is immediately stripped of his usual rights.

Even democracy is subtly ridiculed as useless in a police state in the scene where McMurphy wants all the patients to vote to watch a baseball game on TV, but many of them are simply too afraid to raise their hand in front of nurse Ratched. Considering that Miloš Forman was an emigre from the Communist dictatorship, the allegory becomes all the more clear—he directs the film in a very objective way, with raw, wild energy and sense for bizarre humor (during a basketball game the tall Indian Chief raises his arm to close the net and throw the ball of the enemy out of the basket; McMurphy stops the snoring of a patient by blocking his nose with his fingers...), but in a way he also made some solid mistakes. The whole escape and fishing sequence doesn't work, and near the end McMurphy and Chief open the window of the institution in the middle of the night in order to escape—but for some reason they don't and as nurse Ratched finds them the next morning, they suddenly for some illogical reason try to escape again—what where they waiting for the whole night?! Louise Fletcher is amazing as the tyrant, stubborn nurse Ratched, an example of calculated selfishness, though her character is somewhat one-dimensional. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a deep and powerful metaphor—McMurphy left a legacy which then continues his quest for the "unthinkable", an idea which in the long turn changes the system, making the film a universal piece of history (for instance, Martin Luther King and Galileo Galilei also sought a change in thinking, which was considered impossible back then, yet later on, people inspired by them, achieved a change).


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Children of Men

Children of Men; science-Fiction drama, UK / USA, 2006; D: Alfonso Cuarón, S: Clive Owen, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore

London, 2027. Man kind is dying out since a mysterious infertility infected every person on Planet. The last child was born 18 years ago. Theo is a middle aged employee in a firm who is quietly observing how the UK is fighting with a large number of refugees from other countries. One day his old friend, Julian, now leader of the pro-immigration activist group "Fishes", convinces him to get her a travel permit for a young African refugee Kee. They drive with the car but are ambushed and Julian is killed. Theo soon finds out the "Fishes" are protecting Kee because she is - pregnant. As he overhears how they just want to use her for their political goals, he runs away with her in order to bring her to the Human Project, a group of scientists searching for a cure for infertility. Kee brings birth to a baby and Theo manages to bring her to the sea in boat, just before he dies.

"Children of Men" is both an ironic and tragic allegory on the "infertility plague" of its time, when more and more women in the 1st world decided not to have any children at all, thereby displaying what an underrated, therapuetic role children have for older generations, are and how their absence leads to a domino effects of an end of civilization. It's one of those clever kind of Sci-Fi films that turn just one part from our life upside down and build a whole new world on it. The premise of the story is simple and chilling: it shows a world where every woman became infertile and people cannot have anymore kids. Already from the opening shots, where the TV news are announcing how the "youngest person on Earth", an 18-year old and last baby born at all, has been killed for not wanting to sign an autograph, does the story calmly display its array of potentials. In another scene the main hero, Theo, asks an artist why he keeps making paintings when "in 50 years there will be no one to see them". Man kind is aging while no new children are being born. On the other hand, some subplots in the story seem rather illogical and out of place; for instance, why would the UK be fighting against the mass of refugees when it's slowly having a shortage of people? And for that matter, why would the whole world slip into such drastic chaos if every country had the same situation of infertility? All those points are never explained and serve just as a plot device for forced messages about the thin line between civilisation and barbarism and the corruption of revolutionaries. It's a good film, with amazing long takes, but a little bit superficial in some areas, and the last third degenerates into an empty chase thriller and forgets a lot of it's intellectual points from the start. Still, it's message is intriguing: even despite all problems, cynicism and humiliation of life, birth and life are still a miracle, and without births there wouldn't be evil people, but also no good ones either.


Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun; Drama, USA, 1987; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Nigel Havers, Miranda Richardson, Masato Ibu, Joe Pantoliano, Emily Richards, Ben Stiller

Shanghai, 1940s. Jim Graham is a young boy living with his British parents in an elite quarter of the town. But one day the Japanese army invades the town and in huge turmoil Jim is separated from his parents. He goes back to his house hoping they will return to him, but that doesn't happen. He meets Basie, an American scoundrel who takes care of him. They are both captures by the Japanese and brought to the Soochow Creek camp where they spend 3 years with other prisoners. As the Americans start winning the war, the Japanese bring prisoners outside and Jim escapes. He is found by a group of American soldiers and brought back to his parents.

In Spielberg's long list of films where he shows his obsession with the subject of World war II, the book adaptation "Empire of the Sun" stands out as one of his first adult and bitter achievements. Still, he didn't avoid transforming the story a little bit sugary at times (inappropriate angelic music in the midst of dark situations), with forced plot devices (would Jim really let go of the hand of his mother in the middle of the huge crowd, just to pick up his toy airplane, thus making him separate from her for years?) falling even sometimes into mannerism (the bizarre scene where Jim is thinking he can "bring everyone back to life", pumping the chest of his dead Japanese friend, all the while the light from the Sun is enlightening him behind his back). But despite mannerism, pathetic touch and pretentiousness, the movie still shows real power and talent of an inspired author, coping with such subjects as orphanage and identification with the enemy, in this case the Japanese, showing incredible sense for details and mise-en-scene. Christian Bale is absolutely stunning in the lead role and the emotions give the viewer opportunity to really care for the characters. "Empire of the Sun" shows a dark side of humanity, one where people in extreme situations forget all about civilisation and only think how to save their own skin, even not hesitating to steal shoes from dead people, an honest, unusual epic.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

All About Eve

All About Eve; drama / satire, USA, 1950; D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, S: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Garry Merrill, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Hugh Marlowe, Marilyn Monroe

During the "Sarah Siddons Awards" for best theater performances, Eve receives the award for best actress, while the critic Adison DeWitt remembers how she got where she is now: a few months ago, Eve was unemployed and attending every Broadway play the 42-year old actress Margo starred in. Karen, Margo's friend, introduced them. Margo, flattered by her biggest fan, gave Eve a job as a secretary in her home, all the while arguing with her husband and director Bill and the screenwriter Lloyd. But Eve reacted stranger and stranger and mimicked Margo's every move. Eventually, Eve started working as Margo's understudy, and one day even starred in the play instead of Eve, becoming a famous star. Adison discovered her plan was to replace Margo all the time. After winning the award, Eve met a devoted fan herself, Phoebe.

"All About Eve" has a screenplay that is so well written that even if the director had done a horrible job at directing, all the actors had done a catastrophic performance and all the people responsible for music, editing and set design had done everything wrong, the movie would have still turned out to be good. This is one of those old films that truly deserve to be called a masterpiece, an amazing satire about show business (the story revolves around theater actors, but it's undoubtedly a symbolic jab at movie actors) that has a few surprising parallels with Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard", released the same year (an aging actress longing for a younger fan), but is still somehow a step above it, winning rightfully an Oscar for best picture. In fact, "All About Eve" was released back then when Oscars had a good taste for movies, thus turning out better than many future best picture winners put together.

Jospeh L. Mankiewicz created an amazing, surreal exposition: the opening shots reveal an invented "Sarah Siddons Award" ceremony where an older actor is holding a speech, but instead of his words, the narrator (Adison DeWitt) is speaking to the viewer: "This is a distinguished old actor. It is not important what he says, it is only important for you to know where you are and why". Then the narrator goes on to give a long description of all the major characters in the film, from Eve to Margo ("She made her stage debut at the age of four in "Midsummer Night's Dream," playing a fairy. She entered, quite unexpectedly, stark naked. She has been a star ever since."). Just as he finishes his long speech, he finally "switches off" and lets the old actor say his final words of the speech. From there on, the story is told from a flashback, displaying how Eve met her biggest idol, Margo. Anne Baxter is simply brilliant as the fragile, gentle, naive Eve who speaks childish lines ("If nothing else, there's applause... It's like waves of love pouring over the footlights") and the viewer can't help but feel motherly feelings for her, up until the little twist where she turns out completely different. Bette Davis is equally brilliant as Margo, a fascinating character/theater star ("Fans are mentally defect!"), and she rightfully won the best actress award at the Cannes festival. It's a great semi-bitter satire that delivers a strange message - there are no real fans, because everyone only thinks about their own interests, anyway - and virtuoso crafted, filled with hilarious dialogues.


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; fantasy, USA / New Zealand, 2003; D: Peter Jackson, S: Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Bernard Hill, Karl Urban, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm

Evil Sauron ordered his army of Orcs to attack Minas Tirith, capital of kingdom Gondor. In order to save people from the invasion, Legolas, Aragorn, Gandalf and Gimil join the fight against the Orcs, managing to save Minas Tirith. Meanwhile, Gollum manages to separate Frodo from Sam, and lead him to a trap, in a cave of a giant spider. But Frodo survives and manages to enter the volcano of Mordo, dropping the ring and Gollum into the lava. Sauron disappears. Frodo leaves with Gandalf in a ship into the unknown.

"The Return of the King", the last part of the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, is the best of the lot because Peter Jackson finally managed to be fully inspired while transforming the dark fairy tale to the screen, lifting all virtues to the maximum and all flaws to the minimum, resulting in the film getting recognized with numerous awards, including in the category best picture. But, despite being the best contribution to the trilogy, even "The King" has its problems that get apparent after frequent re-watching: the first third has all the flaws from the previous two films: shallow dialogues, aggressively dark mood and a few inadvertently comical situations (Gandalf sleeping with his eyes open, Gollum speaking "My precious"...) while the apparently crucial character, the main hero Frodo, is once again marginalized. Still, during its course, the story rises to the occasion at the latest in the brilliant sequence of the siege laid by the army of the Orcs on Minas Tirith (a wonderfully designed city built in few layers on a hill) which starts dominating the film, whose virtuoso directed action sequences can even cope with the drama "Saving Private Ryan". One gets the overall impression that J. R. R. Tolkien described a World War in a fantasy world.

In it, the large army of Orcs starts attacking Minas Tirith, so people use catapults to start throwing large stone blocks from it onto them - in one astonishing scene, the camera follows one of those blocks from the fortress up to it's fall on the mass of Orc soldiers, while one of the commanders spits on it from contempt. In another, sightly feminist scene, Nazgul on his dragon attacks the human king Theodon, but his "pet" gets killed by a warrior. And challenges him to a duel. Nazgul tells to the warrior: "Fool! No man can kill me!" But the warrior takes her mask of, revealing it to be a woman, replying to him: "I'm not a man!" and then simply kills him with her sword. And the exciting sequence where Legolas courageously climbs upon a giant Elephant that is squashing human soldiers and kills its master, an Orc, is truly amazing. On the other hand, the use of ghosts as soldiers who help people, seems rather as a bizarre choice. It also reveals the major flaw of the entire trilogy: its characters are stiff and lifeless when they are not fighting. Still, in spite of all this, "The King" is a wild 4-hour fantasy "sword and sorcery" epic, featuring a staggering level of ingenuity and passion rarely seen in big budget films of its time, and even the biggest "Lord of the Rings" haters will have to recognize its impressive style and the dramatic finale, while also staying true to Tolkien's underlaying message: "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future".


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; fantasy, USA / New Zealand, 2002; D: Peter Jackson, S: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davies, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett

Frodo and Sam are still on their way to Mordo to destroy the ring, when they meet it's former owner, the bizarre creature Gollum. Gollum agrees to show them the way to Mordo, while they are still persecuted by Sauron's henchmen. Meanwhile, Legolas, Aragorn and Gimil are running away from the army of Orcs that is also prosecuting them from great distance. Hobbits Merry an Pippin manage to escape and hide in the magical forest, while the trio lands in Isengard, where the king, Theoden, is slowly getting under Sauron's influence. But Gandalf, who resurrected from the dead, manages to free the king from the spell and pursue him to defend his country from Sauron's army. Te fortress Helm's Deep gets under heavy siege, but the people manage to prevail.

Even the second part of the legendary "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, nominated for 2 Golden Globes, winner of 2 Oscars and 2 BAFTAs, contains the same impressive director's calligraphy established in the ambitious original, but not it's equal tight atmosphere and energy. The tight atmosphere has been abandoned, but the energy of "The Two Towers" is actually even more powerful. The film has a suspenseful plot, but it's main problem are it's stiff characters, one dimensional sketches that nobody really cares for except for when they are fighting in huge battles. Also, many fantasy creatures contain a large dose of trash. Among them are elephants with 4 tusks, giant hyenas ridden by Orcs and the rather silly, bizarre talking trees. Nazgul on the other hand looks very impressive. If anything, the final sequence of the siege of the fortress by the army of Orcs, in simply stunning and has to be seen. Among the brilliant situations where Jackson displays his hidden sense for military strategy and passionate stylish action, a bomb of a sort is placed under the tunnel of the fortress and a "kamikaze" Orc is running with a torch to ignite it. Aragorn spots him and orders his shooters to forget the army and concentrate their arrows to stop him. They manage to shoot him with two arrows, but the Orc still manages to run into the tunnel, causing a giant explosion that demolishes a large part of the fortress, while stones from the sky keep even falling on the army of Orcs. Once again, an ambitious 3-hour long epic with a religious subtext (a resurrected Gandalf acts almost like an angel), but there is still a feeling that a lot more could have been made out of the book, especially from the boring, trivial dialogues that even seem to bother, thus as a whole the movie doesn't quite manage to reach the essence of Milius' similar "Conan".


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; fantasy, USA / New Zealand, 2001; D: Peter Jackson, S: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian Holm, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davies, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett

A long time ago in the Middle-earth, during a big battle, the evil Sauron was killed by Isildur but his magical ring was not destroyed. After a long time the ring came to possession of Gollum who became egoistical, and later on to hobbit Bilbo. But the wizard Gandalf convinces Bilbo, on his 111th birthday, that the ring is evil and that he should leave it to his nephew Frodo. The evil ghost of Sauron is once again awakened while Frodo and his friends Sam, Merry and Pippin leave the village in order to destroy the ring at Mordor, while they are persecuted by Sauron's henchmen. They are joined by Gandalf, who discovered his friend Saruman joined Sauron. In a cave they are attacked and a fiery demon kills Gandalf. Frodo and Sam continue their journey alone.
It's time to dismiss some mystification and set the record straight.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" film isn't that great as everyone says it is. Indeed, it's a powerful and good achievement, probably the best Peter Jackson could have made out of the book by J. R. R. Tolkien, and visually it looks great, but it seems it looks better than it actually is: the story has dated pretty badly, offering thin character developments, too many subplots, grey mood, mechanical realisation and stiff B dialogues. On the other hand, "TFotR" is suspenseful and ambitious, transforming into a 3-hour epic fantasy film (how many 3-hour films with special effects have there been before it?) where Tolkien's basic idea is pretty intriguing: the evil ring is actually a symbol for egoism, greed that sucks all his owners and makes them feel hate, obviously creating parallels with Sauron's invasion and the creation of Fascism and Imperialism.

The first 50 minutes of the film are excellent - especially good are the scenes of fireworks during the hobbit celebration whose sparks fly in circles are then return back (in one of the rare humorous scenes a rocket flies off inside the tent, taking it with it), the image of a ship created from the smoke of Gandalf's pipe, the bravura camera opening shot of the battle that seemingly "lowers" itself from he hill up to the lowland, as well as the nice architectural design of Hobbit's houses half berried under the ground. And the score by Enya is magic. But the rest of 130 minutes don't have that spark and are heavily overstretched. The biggest disappointment is that Frodo is actually poorly developed - he looks more like a puppet than a real, interesting character - while all the supporting character lead the story for him. It seems even Boromir is better developed than Frodo. Also, the battle scenes are hectically executed - the final battle with the Orcs seems as if it came from "Xena". Emotionally cold, but also truly poetic at times, competent and cleverly directed, "TFotR" is a good film that looks better than it actually is.


Scenes from a Marriage

Scener ur ett äktenskap; drama, Sweden, 1973; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson, Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom

Professor Johan (42) and his wife Marianne (35), a lawyer, make an interview about themselves with a journalist. Later they comment how they didn't like the interview when they read it in a magazine in front of Katarina and her husband Peter. Suddenly Katarina and Peter start an argument and the diner turns into a catastrophe. After that, Johan ad Marianne start worrying about their own marriage. Johan admits he had an affair with a girl student, thus leaving with her for Paris for 6 months. When he returns, he begs Marianne to forgive him, but she files for divorce. They remain friends, taking care of their two daughters, and marrying with someone else. Marianne dreams that the world is in chaos.

Winner of a Golden Globe for best foreign language film, "Scenes from a Marriage", a 6 part TV-series turned into a film, eloquently handles the theme of transience of marriage and love from a pessimistic, objective perspective of nihilism. Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish director, creates a story in which practically only two characters star in - husband Johan and his wife Marianne - while all other characters are left in the background (for instance, Johan's mistress is not even shown), but due to inert direction the 160 minute film becomes lethargic, even boring at times. There are a few sharp dialogues present ("How could I have fallen between the legs of such a monster like you?" says Peter to his wife in a heated argument) but the majority of the story is rather too conventional, without any surprises a special spark, thus formally there isn't much different from a mass of other similar films. The actors are excellent and cope well with a bundle of empty dialogues, but "Scenes from a Marriage" inevitably sometimes resemble a soap opera.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Persona; drama, Sweden, 1966; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Björnstrand, Margaretha Krook

The lights turn on, a film reel starts turning, a camera starts projecting on the screen in a cinema. A blond boy touches a giant face painted on the wall. Actress Elisabeth becomes mute in the middle of the play "Electra". From that day on she never speaks a word but the doctors can't determine any kind of psychological or physiological sickness. Alma, a nurse, brings Elisabeth to an isolated, quiet house near the sea, hoping she will recover. Since she is always silent, Alma speaks more and more instead of her, even mentioning an affair with an unknown guy and aborting the baby. Alma later finds Elisabeth's letter: there Elisabeth writes how she is studying her and thinks she is mad. Alma confronts her and has a fight with her, leaving in a bus.

This brilliant film has such a surreal exposition that the viewers at first don't know what they are looking at: two light bulbs turn on, a movie reel starts turning, a camera is projecting a scene of an animated film backwards, a spider walks over a white surface, a man is removing the womb of a sheep, a boy is touching a giant picture of a woman on the wall. After that authentic, psychedelic opening shots the real story starts in which the main heroine, actress Elisabeth, all of a sudden becomes mute and thus never speaks (incidentally, Liv Ullmann, the actress playing her, didn't have to learn almost any kind of dialogue) while her nurse Alma (amazing Bibi Andersson, nominated for a BAFTA) on the other hand constantly speaks all the more instead and begs her to say something. Their relationship is full of symbols, or how Ingmar Bergman said "undefinable secrets of life" (for instance, religious symbols: a religious person is constantly praying God for an answer, or psychological: Alma and Elisabeth are one and the same person, or medical: the transference of the patient and the doctor), full of hypnotic, unusual, huge closeups of faces and experimental style. Although it's not exactly clear what the silence represents, there is no doubt that "Persona" is a shining drama, full of scenes that infiltrate in the viewers memory (the scene where Alma looks through the window while the movie reel suddenly literally bursts), one of the best, if not the best achievement Bergman ever made.


The Silence

Tystnaden; Drama, Sweden, 1963; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Gunnel Lindblom, Ingrid Thulin, Jörgen Lindström, Birger Malmsten

A wagon in a traveling train. Johan, a young boy, is bored, while his mother Anna is too hot, and her older sister Ester is sick and vomits blood. A train conductor is speaking in an unknown language. The trio settles for a few days in a hotel in an unknown, warm country. Johan is playing in the hallway, encountering dwarfs, Ester lies in bed and drinks alcohol while Anna is walking through town in search for a erotic adventure. He meets a waiter and lands in bed with him. Ester explains to Anna she is too sick to continue their journey, so she leaves her behind and takes Johan with her. Ester dies.

Although it resembles his later, excellent film "Persona" that also speaks about loneliness and quiet inferno of the world, metaphoric drama "The Silence" is a mild disappointment from Ingmar Bergman. Static atmosphere created a strong feeling of sickness, despair and anxiety, but there is too much empty walk without any point that crosses into boredom: Bergman rather arbitrarily displays his phantasmagorical scenes (the boy Johan is scrubbing his mother's back in the bath, dwarfs in the hallway of the hotel, a tank driving through the streets in the middle of the night...). The unknown, alien country where Johan, Ester and Anna are visiting by has a equally incomprehensible language (for instance, the word "Kazim" means "bill"), becoming a giant allegory on hermetic society that doesn't understand or ignores individuals. "The Silence" became a surprising hit thanks to it's fame that was revolving around explicit erotic scenes that were a small sensation back then, but by today's standards they seem rather tame. For instance, in one scene Anna is shocked and leaves a theater when a couple starts having twitching intercourse on the seat near her, while in another a lover is preparing to "take" her from behind. Even a scene where female masturbation is depicted is shown, a ground breaking issue in cinema. Still, it seems Bergman just wanted to sustain the audiences attention because he knew the surreal story simply wasn't that interesting.


Wild Strawberries

Smultronstället; drama, Sweden, 1957; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Victor Sjöström, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Max von Sydow

Isaak Borg is a 78-year old doctor who got an invitation to go to Lund in order to receive a honorary degree from the university during his 50th anniversary of his graduation. He is a rich but lonely man who is considered egoistical, while his only company in his empty house is a maid. On his journey he is driving with Marianne, the wife of his son. He stops at the house where he spent his childhood, encountering Sara, a young girl, and her two friends. Marianne announces to Isaak that she is pregnant, but that her husband doesn't want any children. Isaak arrives at Lund and gets his degree, realizing his life would have been different if he wasn't so pessimistic.

Drama "Wild Strawberries", nominated for awards, is flawed and slightly too indifferent for its intimate subject, but as a whole it is still impressive in its form of a psychologically-surreal labyrinth. Too much unnecessary babble once again annoys in Ingmar Bergman's calligraphy, but that director bravely directed some moments, especially the dream sequence in which Isaak is walking through a town with clocks without hands, only to find a coffin with his own body. The road movie format of the journey from Isaak's home to his old University symbolically represents his thinking about his whole life, where the honorary degree at the end maybe even seems like his final honor before death or his final graduation in life, were he gains scruple. Every character he meets on his trip seems as if he came from his childhood (for instance, he meets a girl called Sara - but when he was young, he also had a girlfriend with the same name). Also, Bergman was one of the first movie authors that dared to talk about the subject of couples without children: Isaak's adult son made it clear to his wife that he doesn't want to have kids. Elegant, simple, symbolic and demanding, "Wild Strawberries" deserves to be called a classic, but there is still something missing from it to be considered an honestly overwhelming film, instead of just an obligation to appreciate it due to it's high reputation from everyone else.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Seventh Seal

Det sjunde insglet; fantasy drama, Sweden, 1957; D: Ingmar Bergman, S: Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Maud Hansson
Scandinavia, 12th Century. Antonius Block, a knight, has returned from the crusades with his squire Jöns. On the beach, he meets Death. In order to save his life, he challenges Death to a chess match and wins, returning to his village. At the same time, Jof, a traveling entertainer, spots what he thinks is the Virgin Mary in the meadow, but his wife Mia doesn't believe him. Together with their little child, they are traveling through villages to perform acts. They meet Antonius and join him, together with blacksmith Plog and his wife Lisa. On their journey they witness a mob preparing to burn a "witch". Antonius plays once more with Death, distracting it so that the couple can get away. At his home, where his wife awaited him, Antonius and his gang meet Death who takes them all with them.

The legendary image of Death, personified by a pale man with a dark cape, has been used in numerous parodies and TV shows, but its origin still lies the strongest in the second film it appeared in, the existential classic "The Seventh Seal", winner of the Grand Prix in Cannes. Besides creating an icon, Ingmar Bergman also offered a surreal essay about the search for the meaning of life, once again questioning God's existence and the mad religious rituals of medieval traditions that have stayed even today, hiding the true nature of life. Despite its incredibly high reputation, "Seal" is still a little bit overrated: it is very good, yet placing it among the greatest masterworks of cinema is rather overblown due to its monotone rhythm, tedious mood, weak structure with a vague storyline all over the place (just as Antonius meets Death, this encounter is interrupted and he wonders across the country, meeting too many characters who are useless for the plot) and cold presentation. Still, through heavy symbolism Bergman manages to create an ambitious and clever metaphor about life, with great little details: in one of the most imaginative, Death is sawing a tree with a character called Skat on it. The tree falls, but a squirrel seemingly instantly jumps on the newly created log. In another one, a long row of religious crowd passes right by the still camera. And Antonius is constantly saying bleak statements: "Faith is a torment. It is like loving someone who is out there in the darkness but never appears, no matter how loudly you call." During the episodic story, Bergman displays the fears of everyone, their denial of atheism and struggle to accept reality, in the end stating how goodness is the only thing worthy in life. Among the demanding films for intellectuals and serious movie goers, this is one of the most famous ones, ironically, avoiding becoming too morbid, yet its is hindered by sometimes overlong, ponderous monologues and a couple of uninspired sequences.


The Bonfrie of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities; satire, USA, 1990; D: Brian De Palma, S: Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall, Saul Rubinek, Morgan Freeman

Journalist Peter Fallow is narrating how he became rich on a bizarre way: Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street investor, lived a respectable life with his wife in New York, up until the day when he picked up his mistress Maria in his car and got lost on a highway, ending up in Bronx. When she spoted a black kid approaching, Maria panicked and ran him over with the car. The couple decided not to report anything to the police. That caused a chain reaction: Peter spread the news that a rich, spoiled white man assaulted a poor black kid, making one reverend announce that "the perpetrator should be caught in the name of God". The police arrested Sherman, who ended up in court. But he managed to make a tape where Maria admitted she actually drove the car. Peter wrote a book about the case and won the Pulitzer prize.

"The Bonfire of the Vanities" didn't faithfully adapt the acclaimed satirical book with the same title from Tom Wolfe, causing it to flop at the box office and many critics to denounce it as a "complete failure". But many of those critics couldn't exactly define or explain their negative remarks. Pretty much, they only said that they hated the film, and that's it. It would truly be a complete lie to declare this film bad just because it wasn't faithful to the original because the passionate director Brain De Palma realized some parts excellently: his style can be especially sensed in the second scene of the film, the three minute long take that is following the narrator/ protagonist Peter Falow (a solid Bruce Willis) from his car up to the conference in the building. The complex, bitter and dark insight into interrelations between politics and society (many circles are prosecuting Sherman, who is white and rich, only to gain popularity and cheap sympathies among the black voters) doesn't satisfy on all levels, the story is too long and at parts too cynical, making compromises with Hollywood, while in the second part it looses it's witty satirical humor, becoming rather forced. Still, looking at it from today's standards, from some who never heard of the book or the negative reputation, the film is good and holds up well. In one of the best scenes, Sherman (played by the very good Tom Hanks) is trying to sneak into his apartment, secretly taking a transparent and "mixing" among the crowd of protesters who are protesting against him although they don't even know how he looks like. It's an interesting story about the everlasting human ignorance, greed, naivety and tendencies to believe everything, flawed but intriguing. But alas, critics just picked it as the Scapegoat of the year.


How I Was Systematically Destroyed by an Idiot

Kako sam sistematski uništen od idiota; Tragicomedy, Serbia, 1983; D: Slobodan Šijan, S: Danilo 'Bata' Stojković, Jelisaveta Sablić, Desa Muck, Dobrica Jovanović, Rade Marković

Belgrade in '68. Babi Papuška is a devoted hardcore Communist who is displaying his songs about Che Guevara during some Communist session. There he meets a Russian woman, Maria, who quickly leaves him after she lands in bed with his landlord. Constantly unemployed and fearsome Hypochonder, Babi goes to complain to some city superior about how he was ruined by a Capitalist boss who gave him, while he was young, too much work, causing him to loose a vertebra. Out of protest, Babi throws himself in front of a car and ends up in hospital, but accidentally wrongfully concludes that he is suffering from cancer. He goes on a spiritual journey, returning to his home town and experiencing a romance. There he accidentally puts the old archives on fire, but returns to Belgrade when he gets informed that a revolution is under way. In order to sacrifice himself, he jumps from a building and dies.

You have to hand it to the director Slobodan Šijan on one thing: in only 3 years he crossed from one extreme to another, from one of the masterworks of comedy "Who's That Singing over There?" to the weak, barely watchable tragicomedy "How I Was Systematically Destroyed by an Idiot", a confusing satire (?) about Communism that would have been flat out bad hadn't it contained the energetic, genius performance by comedian Danilo 'Bata' Stojković, in this occasion equipped with a "Marxist" beard. But even Stojković can't save the uninspired film: frankly, there is almost nothing present in the story. Hard core fans of Yugoslav films are the only ones that could enjoy in this, while the rest of the world would probably ignore it. Only here and there a good gag shows up, like when the hero Babi is exiting a toilet and doesn't miss out an opportunity to add: "When I was a kid, urine was regarded as the cleanest liquid that was used to wash out the wounds", and the story sometimes amusingly ridicules the nostalgic, blind devotion to any ideology, but mostly it's just simply a confusing mess without any kind of tight screenplay, equipped with bizarre situations (the scene where Babi is sleeping with a grotesquely overweight prostitute), an overstretched, desperate, lousy, boring excuse for any kind of satire.


Sunday, June 17, 2007


If...; drama, UK, 1968; D: Lindsay Anderson, S: Malcolm McDowell, Arthur Lowe, Peter Jeffrey, David Wood, Richard Warcwick, Christine Noonan

Mick Travis is a slightly rebellious student in an English public school, friends with his classmates Knightly and Wallace. But they are oppressed by the „Whips“, senior boys given authority as prefects of younger students. Denson is one of the most hated „Whips“. Travis' room is full with posters and rebellious ideas. One day he even goes to the city, steals a motorcycle and kisses a girl working in a restaurant. Travis is disrespectful over their authority, so the „Whips“ decide to teach him, Knightly and Wallace a lesson – they whip them in the gym. From that point on, the three friends decide to make a revolt: they buy real bullets, cause a smoke in the church, only to start randomly shooting from the roof at the mass coming out of the building.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, „If...“ is an unusual adolescence/ school film about repression that coincidentally gained a lot of hype since it was made in 1968, at the same time during the uprising in Paris. Static, heavy and demanding, „If...“ is at first rather confusing, hard to follow and surreal, but later on it gets all it's loose ends tied up just right and manifests slowly it's message about the revolt against the authority, in this case the younger students against the privileged older students, creating a strong drama with many symbols. The story is downright at the same time realistic (a student teases his overweight classmate by saying he is suffering from „Elephantiasis“, the students put Biles' head in the toilet, each boy lowers his pants so that a nurse can inspect their genitals...) and imaginative fantasy (the constant switch to black and white scenes, Travis and a girl wildly imitating tigers, a teacher entering the classroom with his bicycle...), constantly giving the director Lindsay Anderson space to experiment with the mood and mise-en-scene, showing no tolerance for dictatorship, but always objectively displaying the events. Wild, frenzy expressions from the actor Malcolm McDowell only enhance these motives. Slightly tedious, overstretched and too cold, and almost too surreal towards the end, „If...“ is a daring piece of escapism in film, making one only wonder what would have the film looked like if the ending was just the middle of the story.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Strangler against Strangler

Davitelj protiv davitelja; Thriller comedy, Serbia, 1984; D: Slobodan Šijan, S: Taško Načić, Srđan Saper, Nikola Šimić

Pera is a middle aged man who still lives with his mother. But he is a little bit crazy and every time when someone insults his flowers that he sells, he becomes a cold blooded strangler who kills out of revenge. Since all his victims are women, inspector Ognjen thinks the killer must be a psychopath. Spiridon, a musician inspired by the murders, makes a song about the strangler, thus falling in love with Sofia. After the wedding, Spiridon becomes crazy and strangles Sofia, putting the blame on Pera whom he kills.

After his brilliant comedy classic "Who's That Singing over There?" the director Slobodan Šijan filmed mostly only inferior comedies, among them the overrated "How I was Systematically Destroyed by an Idiot" and "Strangler against Strangler", a forced, ville, trashy, bizarre mess that's only marginally funny as a satire about lonely middle aged men becoming mad, stumbling too often into misogyny. Since the US almost monopolized the cinema, films like the "Strangler" seem practically underground, and the concept about Belgrade as a world capital equal to New York in terms of crimes only enhances the anarchic touch. Some jokes are genius, like the decision of the musician Spiridon to make a song about the strangler, imagining his mentality, or the basic plot about the antihero Pera who kills everyone who insults his flowers, but the mix of banal erotic, horror and grotesque without a measure resulted in an achievement tha is more interesting in it's premise then in it's uninspired realisation.


The Marathon Family

Maratonci trče počasni krug; Black comedy / grotesque, Serbia, 1982; D: Slobodan Šijan, S: Bogdan Diklić, Danilo 'Bata' Stojković, Pavle Vujisić, Milivoje Tomić, Mija Aleksić

In 1 9 3 4 the Yugoslav king Alexander I was killed in Marseilles. Meanwhile, in Belgrade, a young lad, Mirko Topalović, is working as a undertaker, like everyone in his family, since "death is the only sure thing". His boss is his dad Laki, then his grandfather Milutin, great-grandfather Aksentije and great-great-grandfather Maximilijan. When their great-great-great-grandfather Pantelija dies, whose "last friend passed away somewhere near the end of the last Century", they decide to burn his body in the crematorium. At the same time, Mirko is in love with Kristina, a pianist in a cinema theatre, but her father is Billy who is still a great enemy of the Topalović family. Mirko catches Kristina with another one and kills her. With his family he takes his guns and kills Billy and his bandits.

After his great success with the brilliant comedy "Who's That Singing over There?", the director Slobodan Šijan once again joined his forces with the screenwriter Dušan Kovačević and hilarious comedians Pavle Vuijisić and Danilo 'Bata' Stojković, but this time in a dark, black comedy "The Marathon Family", a movie for a dimension weaker then his previous one. Among the curiosity of the film are the opening shots, which actually show the old footage of the assassination of the Yugoslav king Alexander I. in Marseilles in the 1930s, which may seem bizarre unless the story is an hidden allegory of the breakup of Yugoslavia (after Pantelija, the oldest member of the Topalović family dies, the family slowly breaks apart in violence towards the end, in which the young hero Mirko suddenly becomes a tough guy, which is reminiscent of "The Godfather's" hero Michael). The story about a family of undertakers is full of anarchic dark humor, on the verge of Monty Pythons and South Park, like when the great-great-great grandfather Pantelija dies and leaves all his inheritance to himself, or fried meat from crematorium that gets eaten by the family or when Laki was driving a car and unknowingly, accidentally hit a man, then stopping and wondering "what's he doing on the ground". "The Marathon Family" is in some circles considered "one of the best Serbian films of all times", but that's rather exaggerated for only a good film filled with sometimes banal humor and thin characters that inevitably crosses into misogyny, with a bizarrely pretentious end. "The Marathon Family" has a lot of genius scenes, but it's simply too morbid for some tastes.


Friday, June 15, 2007


Sliver; Drama/ Thriller, USA, 1993; D: Phillip Noyce, S: Sharon Stone, William Baldwin, Tom Berenger, Polly Walker, Colleen Camp, Amanda Foreman, Martin Landau

New York. Naomi, a blond girl, mysteriously fell from her apartment and died. Carly Norris, a 35-ear blond woman who just divorced, moves in into the same apartment as the new tenant. She meets two neighbors: Jack, a novel writer, and Zeke, the young owner of the building. Carly starts a passionate relationship with Zeke, all the while Jack keeps trying to seduce her. After new murder appear, Carly isn't sure anymore who of the two men might be the killer. She even finds out Zeke observes tenants through secret cameras hidden in every apartment. Accidentally, they kill Jack. Carly, still doubtful, plays a tape with Naomi murder, and spots it was really Jack. She then destroys the monitor room.

"Sliver" was proclaimed as "one of the worst films of the year" by a number of critics, but in reality it's actually a very solid and easily watchable film, a decent drama about loneliness with a few enjoyable scenes. One of it's biggest problems is actually the confusing story that doesn't know where it's going or what's it saying, equipped with sloppy dialogues and lame dramatic situations, and a bizarre end, that was re-shoot apparently after a negative test audience respond. But still, the film has potential, and with a little more care, it could have truly been excellent, or better said, it's a "sufficient film with a great film complex". Every now and then, some shots show the main heroine Carly (a solid Sharon Stone) being monitored on a number of black and white monitors from an unknown room, revealing the voyeuristic subtext, and bringing instant parallels to "The Truman Show". Ironically, "The Truman Show" is a better film, but it lacks a few crucial intimate moments, while "Sliver" is a weaker film, but it contains just those scenes that should have been borrowed to that film, like the scene where it is implied that Carly is masturbating while taking a bath, all the while while she is being observed on a monitor from someone. Also, the story has style and a nice mood, and some scenes are surprisingly esoteric, like the one where Carly is on top of Zeke, having intercourse with him, getting so overwhelmed by the magic moment that she gets tears on her eyes. When she enters the monitor room, she gets fascinated by hundreds of monitors showing every tenant in the building, and even observing a stepfather molesting her stepdaughter, later on encountering them in an elevator, but not having the courage to do anything. It's a very fascinating (sub)plot that was added to the film near the finale, and maybe it would have been better had it been better developed, instead of the standard who-dun-it thriller main plot.


Maria Full of Grace

María llena eres de gracia; Drama, Colombia/ USA, 2004; D: Joshua Marston, S: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Virginia Ariza, Yenny Paola Vega, Rodrigo Sánchez Borhorquez

Colombia. Maria Alvarez is a 17-year old girl working a monotone and poorly payed job of removing thorns from roses at a flower plantation. She lives in a small house with her mom and her sister Blanca, who has a baby child. After breaking up with her boyfriend and fining out she is pregnant, she quits her job and decides to accept a well payed drug smuggler position to USA. She swallows 62 wrapped capsules full of drugs, taking a flight with her sister and friend Lucy. They get pass the custom, but Lucy can't defecate the capsules, so the two criminals kill her and slip her stomach open. Maria and Blanca run away and hide in the apartment of Lucy's sister. They get their money, but Maria decides to stay in the USA.

"Maria full of Grace" is quite simply a gut wrenching film. Like with most naturalistic films, the director Joshua Marston achieves the intriguing spark with realistic, simple, straight forward scenes, some of which do look important, some of which don't, making the whole story seem like a documentary, while actress Catalina Sandino Moreno delivered a powerful performance, for which she was even nominated for an Oscar. The film itself isn't flawless: it's easily watchable and slowly captivating, but basically a one note story about drug smuggling, not very suitable for frequent reruns, the beginning is overstretched and some religious symbols and story elements seem contrived. Still, even for those who think they saw everything in films and know every trick from movie makers about how to suck viewers into their movie world, there are 3 or 4 moments here present that are so authentically, emotionally devastating and upbringing, that will cause even those veterans to get on the edge of their seats and nervously watch every step the heroine Maria does, like little children. In one of them, Maria is practicing swallowing grapes in order to get use to swallowing capsules with drug she has to smuggle to the US, in her stomach. When the moment is finally there, she sits at a table while some men give her some pill that will slow down her digestion. Her boss, an old man, dips one large capsule in coffee and gives it to her. She puts it in her mouth, tries to swallow it, but she can't, so she spits it out. She tries again, and again, until she finally, barely manages to swallow it. With time, she swallow 62 capsules, while her boss displaces the capsules evenly through her stomach. This whole sequence, and the one where she takes a trip to the US, are simply unbelievably shocking, sad, tragic and intriguing. With objective means, the film avoided transforming into a sappy melodrama, but that precisely why it's so emotional - because it always stays neutral in observing the sad situation in which some people have to sacrifice everything in order to just live like decent beings.


The Little Shop of Horrors

The Little Shop of Horrors; Horror comedy, USA, 1960; D: Roger Corman, S: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson

Sgt. Joe is narrating how he will never forget the following gruesome case: clumsy Seymour was working in a small flower shop where his boss Mr Mushnick didn't sympathize him, but on the other hand he was adored by his co-worker Audrey. When Mr Mushnick threatened to fire him, Seymour went to some mysterious Japanese to buy an unusual plant. Thanks to the plant, their business started attracting a load of customers, but Seymour realized it's actually a Venus Flytrap that feeds only on human blood. When he accidentally killed a man, he gave his body to the plant, and Mr Mushnick noticed that. Soon other victims followed, like the evil dentist Farb and a criminal. Seymour introduced Audrey to his mother but the police found him because the plant had leafs with the faces of the victims on them. Seymour himself was eaten and ended up as a flower.

Filmed apparently in only two days, black and white low budget black comedy "Little Shop of Horrors" is by today's standards a rather dated achievement, despite the fact that it was directed by Roger Corman and that Jack Nicholson once in the 2000s declared how it's one of the most spontaneous masterworks he ever saw. Nicholson himself only plays a very small role of a sadistic patient who likes reading magazines about gangrene and enjoys when Seymour, who was pretending to be a dentist, is pulling his teeth out, but his role was still slightly overshadowed by Bill Murray's in the elaborated remake with the same title from the 80s that is today by some considered better despite it's tame musical scenes. As absurd as it seems, the man eating Venus Flytrap, here realized as a stiff puppet without special effects consisting out of a jaw that vertically stares in the sky, is a symbol for Memphisto, but also for greed and criminal behavior. In one of the more amusing scenes, Seymour is forced to give his blood to the plant through his fingers, constantly inventing new excuses for his wounds ("Why do you have a bandage on your finger?" - "A bee stung me." - "So you were stung by 5 bees?" - "No, ten!"), while he accidentally kills a man for the first time when he throws a stone in the distance, but some guy just then stands up from behind the wall and gets the direct hit, but the ending is truly bizarre and weak.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Easy Rider

Easy Rider; road movie / drama, USA, 1969; D: Dennis Hopper, S: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Sabrina Scharf, Toni Basil, Jack Nicholson, Karen Black

Wyatt and Billy buy drugs from some Mexican only to immediately sell it to some rich guy for a huge amount of money. They are two motorcycle riders who are traveling through USA and are often forced to sleep over in nature since managers won't let them enter into their hotel for their looks. In the morning they meet a nice man who makes them breakfast, later on a bunch of farmers who are planting crops in the desert. They are arrested by police because they joined a parade. In the prison they meet a drunk lawyer, George, who joins them an their journey, but gets killed in the night. Wyatt and Billy hire two prostitutes and later get killed on the road by two truck drivers.

Movies from the '60s have a great reputation, but in reality a large number of them seems outdated and over hyped by today's standards. Legendary road movie "Easy Rider", that starts in great manner with the dynamic song "Born to be Wild", also doesn't hold up very well and it's not excellent due to mild execution and too obvious messages, but it still has charm because it offers journey of two heroes through USA that represents some sort of a symbol of their spiritual search for happiness. In the finale they end tragically just because they looked like hippies, which is undoubtedly a sign how the society doesn't have understanding for individuals. The episodic script (nominated for an Oscar) is rather unfocused, clumsy and chopped up since many characters that the two protagonists meet end up rather underused and useless (farmers, a passengers who just says: "I come from a place. Because all places are the same."), except for the wacky lawyer George, played by Jack Nicholson, who is truly excellent in his role, making grimaces after drinking alcohol, claiming how he believes in UFOs from Venus where there is a perfect society since they don't have a government and saying to Hopper's character: "People are not afraid of you, but of that for what you stand for!" Indeed, the film speaks through his restless, wild, unconventional mood about the search for freedom and free spirit, that is always squashed by the cruel world.