Friday, 31 August 2007

Tremors


Tremors; Horror, USA, 1990; D: Ron Underwood, S: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Ariana Richards

Val and Earl are two buddies who are tired of working occasional hard jobs in a small town in Nevada. They encounter a new inhabitant, student Rhonda who is conducting seismology tests around the desert. But just then strange murders start to occur in the town, and it is revealed they are conducted by strange, giant sand worms who live and dig under ground. As the 4 worms surround the town, all of inhabitants run on the roof of their buildings. Since they can all fit into a trailer of a bulldozer that is heading to the safe, hard granite mountains. But they get stuck on a big rock and manage to kills the sand worms with the help of dynamite. Val and Rhonda become a couple.

"Tremors" are basically a B-film monster flick made with just enough spirit, imagination and humor to please the audience. Unlike let say "Them!", where giant ants attacked people, "Tremors" offers a different kind of monsters, underground sand worms - reminiscent of the sand worms in "Dune" - that dig bellow the surface and are therefor practically invisible and omnipresent at the same time since humans are land locked creatures, creating a neat suspense out of the uncertainty when and where they will attack below someones feet. Among the interesting scenes is the one where a worker is drilling a hole beside the road until the moment when mysterious blood starts streaming from the ground, catapulting the tool away, and the one where the sand worms create a hole in the ground that swallows a whole car. It's a little bit surprising that Kevin Bacon agreed to star in this obscure, albeit campy cult movie, yet he seems to have a lot of fun in not playing serious for a change. There are a few clever ideas present, like the one where the heroes escape the danger from the sand worms by escaping on a giant rock, or the moment where a dead worm in found under the car and Walter says to Val and Earl: "I'll give you 5 $ for that!", yet as a whole "Tremors" are sadly not that fun, funny or entertaining as they could have been. A lot of things ended up turning stiff, and the lack of context or mastership degrades the film as a whole. But creating such a solid dose of thrill out of cheap sand worms puppets really is something to praise.

Grade:++

Marvin's Room


Marvin's Room; Drama, USA, 1996; D: Jerry Zacks, S: Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon, Dan Hedaya, Cynthia Nixon

17 years ago, two sisters went their own ways. Hysterical Lee broke up every connection with the family, became a cosmetic an gave birth to two sons: Charlie and the problematic Hank who ended up in a mental asylum because he put a house on fire. Her sister Bessie remained to take care of her old, sick and paralysed father Marvin. Then Bessie is diagnosed with Leukemia so she invites Lee to spend the last few interesting moments together. Hank and Charlie can't give her a piece of bone mark so she accepts her fate.

In the long list of melodramatic soap operas in which overrated actress Meryl Streep appeared in, "Marvin's Room" is just another solid, touching, but tame and standard contribution. Unlike the superior, similar drama "Terms of Endearment", director Jerry Zacks directed this family melodrama conventionally, light, thin and without outstanding highlights, thus it failed to become alive. Some of the confusment resulted in the fact that many fans believed that Marvin was played by Leonardo DiCaprio, but in reality he was played by the old veteran actor Hume Cronyn, which is rather unusual since his character is one of the least important ones in the story. DiCaprio is good, but it doesn't help that he has to speak annoying lines written in the shaky script, like the rubbish about how his friend tied flies around the hair threads, and the tricky story revolving around a woman, Bessie, getting diagnosed with a terminal disease, didn't avoid a pathetic tone in the fullest and deserved a better development and intelligent observations. In one of the better performances, Robert De Niro plays the nonchalant doctor Wally with amusing undertone - in one scene, as he is about to check Bessie in his clinic, he phones his brother to leave him privacy and "not let any calls in". But just as he hangs up, the phone rings and Wally answers it - namely, his brother asks him if it was his voice who just gave him that request. Endurable Diane Keaton, who constantly inappropriately giggles and grins, is used to play a character who is sick and suffers only so that Meryl Streep once again could gain another needless Oscar nomination. Yet, this time around Streep wasn't nominated, but Keaton instead.

Grade:+

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Amores perros


Amores perros; Drama, Mexico, 2000; D: Alejandro González Iñárritu, S: Gael García Bernal, Emilio Echevarría, Goya Toledo, Álvaro Guerrero, Vanessa Bauche

Mexico. Young Octavio lives in the same house with his brother Ramir who is violent towards his wife Susana and her baby. Octavio's dog, a rotveiller, once on the street in self defense kills a famous dog champion of the illegal dog fights, whose owner is Jarochito. Octavio lets his dogs engage into further fights, but gets into an argument with Jarochito and gets badly injured in a car crash...In the crash , Valeria looses her leg and can't work as a model anymore, starting an argument with her husband. Her dog disappears below the floorboard...El Chivo, a former guerilla man, now a poor old man, survives from payed assassins. Once he captures both his client and his victim to face each other. He adopts a dog and remembers his daughter.

Interesting directorial debut from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, episodic drama "Amores perros", gained international acclaim and was noticed by many prizes: it won a BAFTA for best foreign language film, the Young Critics Award at Cannes and was nominated for an Golden Globe and an Oscar for best foreign language film. Inarritu's intriguing documentary style with shaky camera and static mood "sucks" the viewer in with ease and creates a rhythm that seems completely natural. In every of the 3 stories, connected by a car crash that gets shown 3 times from the perspective of the 3 protagonists, appear characters from the other two stories in small "cameos", Gael Garcia Bernal is especially great as the tragic hero Octavio, while the director's dry approach and gloomy mood seem authentic, like a natural Mexican Altman, before he went on to repeat the same old formula in his next movies and suffered from a "burn out syndrome". Some ideas are rather unusual (like the scene where Susana and Octavio start becoming intimate on the floor right next to her little baby), although some of them seem pretty absurd (Valeria's dog jumps into a hole on the floor and gets stuck below the floorboard for days, howling every now and then), while the leitmotiv of dogs that change the character is sympathetic - it seems Inarritu finds the effects of those pets almost therapeutic. But the third segment, where the hit man Chivo captures both his victim and his client who wanted him eliminated, because they are half-brothers, is a nice little twist on the assassin genre. "Amores perros" could have been better, but it's a touching and fluent hero of cinema: it became famous even though it was not made in the US.

Grade:+++

Surf Ninjas


Surf Ninjas; Action comedy, USA, 1993; D: Neil IsraeI, S: Ernie Reyes Jr., Nicolas Cowan, Ernie Reyes Sr., John Karlen, Rob Schneider, Leslie Nielsen

Secluded somewhere around the Californian coast, two Asian-American teenagers, Johnny and Adam, live only to surf on the sea, ignoring school and their other chores. After they get attacked, they meet an Asian man, Zatch, who reveals them that they are the long lost sons of a king of some unknown Pacific island, and that the evil dictator, Colonel Chi, wants to eliminate them because they are princes and therefor can claim the island. Together with their friend Iggy, Johnny and Adam beat Chi's army and save the island.

When a film contains a few dumb and childish gags, one can forgive the director and writer for that little misstep, but if a film consist entirely out of them and is filled with stupidity and ridiculousness for the whole 80 minutes, then that's unbearable. "Surf Ninjas" is another sad contribution to the sub genre of dumb comedies that are not funny, averagely directed and poorly realized. The basic plot concept about two normal teenage brothers from California who discover that they are actually princes and heirs to an island that must be saved is great and has potential, mirroring the adventure tone of many films, yet the whole broad execution of that idea is thin and fails on almost every detail and every aspect - not even the mood of the beach or Leslie Nielsen's solid performance of an awful role of Colonel Chi managed to create something interesting in "Surf Ninjas", a bad film whose 5 minutes already seem exhausting. The movie simply doesn't have nothing. Nothing. The gags are really bellow any level - the greatest impact one gag leaves is the one where Chi has problems controlling his robotic arm (in an obvious "Dr. Strangelove" rip-off) so at one moment he grabs himself at his crotch. Truly, when a kick in the crotch is used in comedy, one doesn't have to be a genius to figure out the thing is probably nonsense. Not to mention other embarrassing moments, like the one where a girl "flirts" with a bad guy to lure him to a place where he can be beaten. Surprisingly, Rob Schneider's performance is tolerable for a change, but that doesn't help much. Despite a few atempts to gain sympathies, "Surf Ninjas" is of those shaky films that are so bad that they cause one to run away and search for help in old masterworks like "Citizen Kane" to bring the faith back in cinema.

Grade:-

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain


Suk san: San Suk saan geen hap; Fantasy comedy, China, 1983; D: Tsui Hark, S: Yuen Biao, Hoi Mang, Adam Cheng, Moon Lee, Brigitte Lin

China, 5th Century. Ti Mingchi runs away from the Eastern army after he couldn't decide which order he should obey from the two commanders. He arrives to thieves, a battle, and finally to a cave where he meets the wizard Ting Yin who becomes his mentor, and then another wizard with the helper Yan Jat. But that wizard gets possessed by evil forces so they capture him in a rock for 49 days and start a journey to find a cure against those forces. In a magic temple some sorceresses start an argument so even Ting Yin becomes possessed by evil. The young disciples merge their minds with the good sorceress, destroy the evil and save the world.

"Are you the good or the bad guys?" - "The good guys, of course! Can't you see that we are wearing white clothes?" Who loves this nonchalant dialogue, that flagrantly describes the whole film, will probably also love the wacky story of the humorous fantasy "Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain", the earlier work of interesting director Tsui Hark. One shouldn't expect high ambitions because this cult Hong Kong film is in deliberate retention of logic, but it's very amusing: in the exposition, the young hero Ti saves himself from a massive battle between two soldier armies by simply dropping on the ground and pretending to be dead, and the scene where he is catching a fish that is constantly jumping up and down from the water until he slams into a rock is exaggerated practically up to the edge of a parody. But the absurdest, funniest moment is the one where the old wizard is using his 10 yards long eyebrows (!) to catch and attack the evil forces; the authors obviously enjoyed to the insensibility in making self ironic jabs at the Hong Kong "anything goes" film making, and the film seems like an earlier, frivolous and not so serious version of "A Chinese Ghost Story". Does one even have to mention a moment where the sorceresses use their special powers to take off the clothes of the male hero? "Zu Warriors" is a relaxed, unusual and dynamic contribution to the Eastern cinema, a hermetic film with a neat display of flair.

Grade:++

Way of the Dragon


Meng long guo jiang; Action, China, 1972; D: Bruce Lee, S: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Robert Wall, Ing Sik Whang, Chuck Norris

Sympathetic Chen Ching-Hua opened a Chinese restaurant with her friends in Rome and immediately became a target of an evil mafia boss who wants to chase her away so he can have the building all for himself. But Chen has an uncle in Hong Kong who sends her his friend Tang Lung to help her out. Arriving in Rome, Tang gets a little bit lost, but Chen finds him and gives him custody in her apartment. Tang quickly displays his kung fu skills when he beats every mafia criminal who was chasing the guests away from the restaurant. As an answer, the mafia hires American fighting champion Colt, but Tang beats and kills him. The mafia boss gets arrested by the police so Tang returns home.

People unfamiliar with works of the famous Bruce Lee will notice that some of his movies, and that includes his "Way of the Dragon" which was directed by him, are rather overrated. As a simple display of martial-arts fights, "Dragon" serves it's purpose, but as an artistic film it's rather thin. A total of 8 fighting sequences in the course of the entire film offer only a simple and raw action without imagination, thus one shouldn't expect miracles like in the Jackie Chan's movies or in lets say the hailed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Even more stiff are the characters and profane dialogues, while it's interesting that this Hong Kong film was actually filmed on Italian territory, despite the fact that the crew was almost entirely Chinese. There are many absurd scenes present, like the one when an unknown woman escorts Lee into her apartment and starts taking her clothes off until he runs away, but some of them are deliberately humorous, like the cute moment where Lee arrived in Rome and accidentally ordered 4 different kinds of soups because he doesn't speak Italian, and fans of martial arts will for sure enjoy the story and the finale where the action star Chuck Norris shows up - albeit 70 minutes into the film - and starts a vicious fight with the hero. Evidently, it's one of the few good films Norris ever appeared in. But the real jewel is actually something completely else, the cute, irresistibly charming actress Nora Miao as the main heroine Chen, a damsel in distress who secretly "flirts" with Lee, displaying great talent before she unfortunately abandoned her career as an actress in the '80s.

Grade:++

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Closer


Closer; Drama, USA/ UK, 2004; D: Mike Nichols, S: Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Nick Hobbs, Colin Stinton

London. Dan Woolf, a young writer, meets American stripper Alice on the street and starts a relationship with her. A year later Dan kisses Anna, a photographer who was taking a picture for his book, and Alice senses something. Another year later, Dan plays a prank on dermatologist Larry by "arranging" a blind date on the Internet chat room with Anna. But Larry and Anna actually like each other and marry. Another year later, Anna breaks up with Larry and admits she has an affair with Dan. Dan also breaks up with Alice. Larry and Alice meet in a strip bar and have an affair. Anna leaves Dan and returns to Larry, while Alice can't renew the relationship with Dan and returns to New York.

"Closer" is another welcomed contribution to the fresh sub genre of "character movies" that show how everyday human relationships and emotions can be more fascinating than some large monsters and explosions. The wonderfully tightly written script presents a quadruple relationship between the 4 main characters, who are evidently at the same time the only catalyst characters in the story, in which two couples exchanged intimacy between each other - except in the gay context. Except for miscast Julia Roberts as Anna, every other actor delivered a great performance, from brilliant Clive Owen as dermatologist Larry (who won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar) up to the very good Natalie Portman as stripper Alice (who won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar and BAFTA). The movie gains it's energy with the help of small little details, like the one in the exposition where Dan is talking to Alice in the bus and she suddenly takes his glasses, puffs into them and cleans them, or the whole brilliantly executed false Internet chat sequence where Dan is fooling Larry into thinking he is talking with a nymphomaniac woman who wants to sleep with him, upon which Larry gives the computer a puzzled stare and goes on to close the door to continue to chat. Also, the dialogues are mostly strong (Dan says to Alice: "Cheating is bad, I don't want to make it look better"), even though some seem artificial, emphasizing the theme of some mysterious urge of lonely people who seek an adventure with someone else, hoping that person will be spiritually closer than her/ his present partner. The movie is very good up until the last third when it falls apart, resulting in an pointless ending, turning into something like an ambitious soap opera with too many rough edges, but still, "Closer" became very close to the viewer's mind.

Grade:++

The Bride with White Hair


Bai fa mo nu zhuan; Fantasy, China, 1993; D: Ronny Yu, S: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Kit Ying Lam, Francis Ng, Elaine Lui

Three servants arrive at a mountain to pick a magic flower in order to heal their sick Emperor, but the swordsman Yi-Hang kills them. He then remembers his life: as a young kid, he practiced in the battles of his mentor, and when one night wolves attacked him while he was carrying a goat, he was saved by a mysterious girl with magic powers. As a grown up, Yi-Hang had to meditate for 3 days in a temple as a punishment for killing a thief, missing the return of the now also grown up mysterious woman who attacked the local people who were stealing. The people plan to attack her, but Yi-Hang falls in love with the woman and gives her the name Jiang-Hu. Although she is a member of a cult, she decides to leave it. The magic twins enter the temple and Yi-Hang kills them, but he didn't believe Jiang-Hu who run away with a white hair.

Based on a Chinese historical fairytale, vivid Hong Kong cult fantasy movie "The Bride with White Hair" is a good, esoteric and dynamic, but slightly partial balade. Already from the exposition the casual viewer can behold the extravagant Hong Kong "anything goes" film making when the sky and the mountains turn out to be just a set made in a studio, not in real nature, creating an opulently artificial set-design, but the story is a little bit vague, the motivations of the characters confusing and the action sequences filmed in slow motion turn out to be fuzzy due to an error in the camera, which spoils the fluid mood. But the impression is also shattered by mild character development, too serious tone and a few trashy elements like the frenzy scene that introduces Siamese twins connected with each other on the back, causing some of the viewers to find it frightening. It all brings in mind the more imaginative "A Chinese Ghost Story", where Leslie Cheung also starred in, especially in the scene where flying women in white are passing through the screen, but some moments are really unique, like the enchanting one where Jiang-Hu (excellent Brigitte Lin) puts her magic hair around the hero's neck as if she is going to strangle him, but then she just kisses with him under a waterfall. "The Bride with White Hair" is an amazing fantasy romance where it seems it's more interesting to observe the sheen set designs and costumes than characters and story.

Grade:++

Monday, 27 August 2007

RoboCop


RoboCop; science-fiction thriller, USA, 1987; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Dan O'Herlihy, Miguel Ferrer
Detroit in the future. Criminal Clarence shoots and kills cop Murphy in an abandoned factory, so his corpse gets transported to a lab run by OCP, a megacorporation that recently bought the police department, and transforms him into half-man half-robot: RoboCop. OCP lets RoboCop out in the city to fight crime and have great success, all in order to fire a bunch of police officers and replace them with the cyborg who is much more profitable. But the greedy OCP Vice President Richard Jones doesn't want RoboCop - having his own robot model in mind, ED-209 - and orders his friend Clarence to eliminate him. Still, RoboCop kills Clarence and his gang and exposes Jones' evil plans in front of his superiors in OCP.

"RoboCop" is one of the most attractive and famous (B) movies from the golden 80s, that attracted great attention and indulged the human fascination with high-tech future. It is the first American cult movie by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven who built the exotic design of the cyborg hero inspired by Lang's "Metropolis", but despite a seemingly cheap action story that makes trash out of art and art out of trash, he also added a slick, subtle critique of Darwinian Capitalism in the future where corporations' urge for profit resulted in them buying every public sector and controlling every part of life, obvious in the cynical sequence near the start where OCP's Vice President Richard announces on the conference how their company "bought many sectors that seemed unprofitable, like hospitals, space exploration, and managed to make them profitable". Many 80s references are brilliant - like the TV news segment, realized with black humor, where the anchors announce how a satellite accidentally fired lasers to Earth, among whose victims were also two former US presidents who were taking a vacation in Santa Barbara: it is clearly a satirical jab at Reagan's infamous "Star Wars" program.

And it is cleverly conceptualized - for instance, in one scene RoboCop cannot shoot the evil OCP Vice President Richard because his programing forbids him to harm any OCP employee, but then the old man fires Richard, thus "eliminating" the order (on the screen) and RoboCop can then proceed to shoot the now ex OCP Vice President - whereas the turtle-ostrich like robot ED 209, placed in scene with stop motion animation, is truly fascinating, even though some moments in the story were executed shaky and the fact that the violence is so vile at times that it actually numbed the dark story, which is surprisingly humane. Namely, the basic premise is this: Murphy was a normal cop until he was killed by Clarence and brought back to life as a different creature, a cyborg called RoboCop. But RoboCop is not a human anymore, he is a product, a tool for the OCP that made him cold, mechanical and obedient to suit their interest to cheaply fight crime and erase any kind of individualism out of him. This mirrors the tendency of new Capitalism in which an employee is reduced from a being to a number. This time Murphy, as RoboCop, can bring Clarence to justice, but even though it is against his programming, he starts feeling real emotions inside once again. The message is that despite oppression, brainwashing and absolute control, nobody can erase a person's personality since there is some human spirit that will always define the way someone is, which is precisely why this film secretly sparkles by giving hope at the end of a dark tunnel.

Grade:+++

Roboforce


Tie jia wu di Ma Li A; Science-Fiction action comedy, China, 1988; D: David Chung, Tsui Hark, S: John Sham, Tsui Hark, Sally Yeh, Toney Leung Chiu-Wai, Dennis Chan, Lam Ching-Ying

Journalist Terry witnesses an attack of a 10 foot tall robot that robs a bank while the police is left powerless. The robot returns to it's crime gang, called Robogang. Police scientist Loony, a nonchalant person with glasses and too long hair, saves the life of a guy called Whisky in a bar. Since Whisky is a former member of Robogang, the police is now chasing them both so they hide in a forest. Loony reprogrammes a female android called Maria, that once worked for Robogang, to now work for them. Still, the police arrests them. Terry manages to release them and they, together with Maria, destroy the Robogang and their giant robot.

Wacky cult Hong Kong Sci-Fi comedy "Roboforce", somewhere also titled as "I Love Maria", too obviously copies the American ideal "RoboCop" from whom it even stole a few sound effects, but all in all it's still a word of a neat, charming and amusing work of trash. Besides the appearance of famous Chinese director and producer Tsui Hark ("Time and Tide"), who never had any problems to dive in into an exotic side of cinema, as the drunk protagonist ironically called Whisky, there is also the funny John Sham in the role of the clumsy scientist Loony and Sally Yeh as the female android Maria. Considering that during the course of the film only two mechanical creatures show up, android Maria and a 10 foot tall robot (realized in a very clumsy manner as a giant puppet), one needs to give compliments to a few suspenseful situations. The gags are mostly childish, in accordance with the whole campy mood of the "anything goes" story, but some of them are good, like in the sequence where the android woman is demolishing whole walls of a building but can't kill the drunk Whisky who by pure chance dodges all of her attacks or when 8 criminals are swinging on the vines in the forest and shooting at the person whom they are chasing after. Sally Yeh truly is permitting herself everything in this film, from a protagonist using her android body as a surfboard up to them abrading her metallic butt, but there is too many nonsense, naivety and illogicality present to lift this obscure film anything above a "guilty pleasure".

Grade:+

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Speaking of Sex


Speaking of Sex; Comedy, USA, 2001; D: John McNaughton, S: James Spader, Melora Walters, Jay Mohr, Lara Flynn Boyle, Bill Murray, Catherine O'Hara, Phil LaMarr, Megan Mullally

Melinda and her husband Dan visit Dr. Emily Paige, a marriage counselor, because they have problems in bed - namely, Dan can't get an erection with Melinda. Emily sends Melinda to Dr. Roger Klin, a clumsy psychiatrist, to help her get rid of depression. But the two of them quickly start a passionate affair and then separate. Infuriated by that, Emily hires lawyer Connie and persuades Melinda to sue Roger for 30 million $. Roger on the other hand hires lawyer Ezri to defend him. A hearing starts out and the tape of Melinda's description of their affair leaks and becomes a hit at public. In the end, it is discovered Emily was once Roger's lover that taught him all the techniques so Ezri and Connie decide to drop charges against Roger and instead sue her. Melinda and Dan escape to a mountain cabin and have passionate intercourse while Roger and Emily reunite again.

This film starts rather decently and witty: the main hero, Dr. Roger, arrives at a the door of a remote mountain cottage, calling: "Melinda! Melinda! It's me!" He hears strange noises inside and storms in nervously, spotting Melinda sleeping with a man in bed. Roger is shocked and says: "Melinda! How could you? Sleeping...with your own husband?!!" Although wacky and zany, that exposition actually announces a nice and satirical comedy that amusingly turns the cliches upside down. Even later on, when the story goes into a flashback and the whole back story is told, does the film still hold it's potentials: the first third, where psychiatrist Roger gets a new patient, Melinda, who has marital problems, and falls in love with her, has it's amusing moments, among them even one madly hilarious scene, so carefully and tightly directed that it simply must be described: Melinda is explaining to Roger how she one evening spotted her husband Dan sleeping and went on to try to kiss his penis and arouse him. A flashback, dream-like scene embodies her retelling, showing Melinda kissing a man's underpants, while the camera slowly shows his face and reveals that it's actually Roger's, making an astound facial expression - and then it blends in into Roger in the reality making that same facial expression and revealing it became his fantasy.
The first third is interesting, but once the whole court tangle starts, where Melinda sues Roger, the whole thing falls apart. From there on nothing works and every gags seems forced or inane. The biggest problem is that the funny trio relationship between Dan, Melinda and Roger is dropped and they are slowly pushed in the background while more and more supporting characters take over the court story: Bill Murray and Catherine O'Hara play they roles as greedy lawyers very well and offer an amusing insight into the law system that sues on every charge just to squeeze some money, but it's really uneven compared to the charming start, turning confusing and lame. Everyone tries their best, even the competent director John McNaughton, but the inspiration simply fails to appear. It's one of those films that have good intentions and potentials, tackling a tricky issue, but develop the wrong parts of the story. Still, James Spader once again gave another contribution to his gallery of unusual films handling intercourse.

Grade:+

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls


Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls; Comedy, USA, 1995; D: Steve Oedekerk, S: Jim Carrey, Ian McNeice, Simon Callow, Maynard Eziashi, Bob Gunton, Sophie Okonedo

Ace Ventura experiences an accident on the Himalayas when an animal he was supposed to save fell down in the abyss. Devastated by guilt, Ace closes himself in an Tibetan convent where he is visited by the adventurer Fulton who offers him the assignment to find a missing bat in Africa. Ace accepts and finds out there are two tribes there who are on the brink of war because of the bat that is a sacred animal to them. He finds out the bat was kidnapped by a rich man who plans to buy large portions of land cheaply after the tribes destroy each other. Ace stops him and returns the bat to the tribe.

Distorted and disturbed comedy full of deformed gags that spin between childish and rough style for adults, "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" is an even worse contribution to the Ace Ventura franchise but it still payed off thanks to the fact that it became a big box office success. Viewers who are accommodating and tolerable will probably have fun with this, but generally the more ambitious audience will conclude that the sequel copied too much gags from the original (Ace putting his hands on his buttocks and then "talking" through them, obviously loosly copying a scene from "Pink Flamingos") and that it's just a commercial exploitation of the same old stuff. Hapless Jim Carrey probably didn't love remembering this movie later on in his career, after he made a few serious and respectable films, if anything then for the scene where he is hot and naked in an mechanical rhino and then escapes through his anus, looking as if the animal gave birth to a human, which should have won an prize for the most disgusting scene of 1995. The authors of this second feature fill the standard heavy handed story with vulgarity, without the style of lets say Farrelly brothers, until everything gets lost in irritating tone. That way "Ace Ventura 2" is even bellow the level of it's own cartoon show. Jim Carrey has many fans, but movies like these really don't offer that much of a reason to be a fan of anything.

Grade:+

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Wedding Peach


Wedding Peach; Animated romantic fantasy series, Japan, 1995; D: Kunihiko Yuyama, S: Kyoko Hikami, Yukana Nogami, Yuko Miyamura, Yuka Imai, Yuji Ueda, Rica Fukami, Kappei Yamaguchi, Kotono Mitsuishi

Momoko is a clumsy, pink haired 13-year old girl that likes to hang out with her friends Yuri and Hinagiku. But all three of them are in love with the same boy: the football leader Kazuya. One day Momoko gets attacked by a man who is a demon, but gets saved by an angel that gives her, and then even Yuri and Hinagiku, special powers to transform into Wedding Peach, Daisy and Lilly, in order to fight against the evil demons who posses humans. The main enemy is Devila of the devil world who wants to destroy love because she never experienced it herself and is angry at humans, as opposite to the angel world. Devila organizes troubles at weddings, football matches and in school. Momoko slowly falls in love in the arrogant Yousuke. When the trio gets joined by Angel Salvia they discover the angel is actually Kazuya and that Yousuke's dad was actually a demon. In the end, love conquers Yousuke, Momoko impresses Devila and she becomes good.

This successful anime series of the "Magical Girl" genre has a fine sense for rhythm, characters, songs, humor, emotions and nice dreamy-foggy background, but in the end it's a little bit too absurd, immature and kitschy for bigger ambitions. Indeed, already when you read the title, "Wedding Peach", it's hard not to chuckle. Not to mention other bizarre choices of the authors: Momoko's hair is pink. Hinagiku's is green. Angel Salvia's real name is Scarlet O'Hara. In order to transform to fight the evil demons, the girls firstly transform into a wedding dress costume - and then again into their "real" fight costume with shorter skirts. And the cute little, naive, fuzzy demon Jama-py that becomes their friend and serves a function of a pet later on in the show looks almost like Kirby. Still, this anime has it's virtues: naturally, in every episode the heroines always beat the evil, but the director Kunihiko Yuyama and his crew wisely chose that those duels shouldn't be the main attraction, since it's much more interesting to see the girls interact with each other like normal teenagers, mirroring a few very well written youth observations. As with most "Magical Girl" animes, "Wedding Peach" also introduces the fantasy aspects of the story as a symbolical commentary on the main protagonists reality, in this case the main heroine Momoko's obsession with weddings.

Momoko is a well developed character since she is at the same time persuasive and lazy, funny and sad, surrounded by friends and yet lonely, where her secret identity serves as a catalyst for her possibilities. Already in the first episode, in the sequence where the three girls share their ice creams in order for everyone to try out each other's flavor, is cute and insightful. Other highlights are Momoko's transformation under water, girls competing in cheering for a guy, the principal tripping on the stage and the students laughing, a demon that falls in love and a humorous moment where a baby says it's first words - Wedding Peach. The animation is good and consistent in almost every episode, even though it's obvious that some solutions were heavy handed and amateurish, while some cliches and illogical situations can't hide that it's actually a show with a lot of honesty, while the basic story about a devil and an angel world is simple yet clear. Of course, since among others Kotono Mitsuishi gave her voice to the character Potamos, it's hard not to compare this with it's forerunner "Sailor Moon". If at least there was one magnificent moment here, like the one in "Sailor Moon's" episode no. 151 in which a naked Ami is walking inside the painting of her father and talking to her alter ego Sailor Mercury or the one in season 5 where Seiya says to Usagi that he will take her into a dreamland, "Wedding Peach" would have deserved a higher grade.

Grade:++

Papillon


Papillon; Drama, USA/ French Guiana, 1973; D: Franklin J. Schaffner, S: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Don Gordon, Anthony Zerbe

French Guiana in the '30s. Henri Charriere, called Papillon because of a tattoo on his chest, is convicted for a murder he didn't commit and sent to the Devil's island. On the ship he meets Louis Dega, a forger who double crossed a mass of people for their savings, and becomes his bodyguard and friend. Unbearable heat surrounds the island so Henri organizes a boat to escape from some butterfly merchant, but shows up a weak earlier so he ends up in the solitary confinement for 2 years. But Henri doesn't give up so he tries to escape once again in a boat, taking this time Louis with him. Still, he ends up on the shore of South America and gets another 5 years of solitary confinement. He finally escapes on a sack on the sea.

Biographical drama "Papillon", nominated for a Golden Globe for best actor (Steve McQueen) and for an Oscar for best music, is an unfocused film with such a bleak story that it kills it, depriving it from any charm or life. It's a bitter prisoner drama based on real events and director Franklin J. Schaffner concentrated on displaying the lives of prisoners in a cold and objective way, avoiding any emotions: the guards are sprinkling them with a hose through the bars, the main hero looses his tooth from vitamin poor food, a fugitive's head gets decapitated with a guillotine and it's blood suffuses all over the the camera lens...The heavy theme of a hell in jail is handled appropriately, realistically, but without inspiration, and the brutality is just there shock. In one hypothetical sequence Henri is dreaming he is walking through a desert while some court sentences him for uselessly wasting his life - if at least there were more such shifts from the conventional display of the depressing story because the overstretched running time of 150 minutes doesn't work as it's supplement, neither the many useless escape efforts from the main hero who fails again and again and again. "Papillon" is a solid an interesting film and inevitably many will find it pleasing since it shows the darker side of life, somewhere beyond the reach that exhausts the viewer.

Grade:+

Friday, 24 August 2007

Straw Dogs


Straw Dogs; Thriller-drama, USA, 1971; D: Sam Peckinpah, S: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney, David Warner

David and his girlfriend Amy move out from America to an isolated English village. David plans to write his book about the physics in peace and in order to place the roof on his garage he unwillingly hires primitive Norman, Chris and Charlie. The three of them are obsessed with Amy and provoke David killing even his cat. While he goes out hunting with them, Charlie enters his home and rapes Amy, but she doesn't say anything to David. When David gives refuge to the mentally handicapped Henry who is falsely accused for a crime, the villagers siege his house. Norman, Chris and Charlie violently break into his home, so he kills them in self defence and leaves the village.

In Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange" scientists are trying to break the habit of violence from the anti-hero Alexander with the help of horrifying, naturalistic violent movies. Among them would definitely be controversial "Straw Dogs", coincidentally released the same year, in 1971. Truly, that bitter drama virtuously connects a lesson about how aggressiveness is disgusting and primitive by simple, uncanny demonstration of violence - much more even than the infamous Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" - with Greek tragedy and art. As always, Peckinpah shows his fascination with the effects of violence on humans and their relationships by presenting hate as something animal, resorting to a vision without a compromise. From the 40 minutes long, quiet exposition that has the impression "Threat" written all over it (drunk Tom demands another beer but the barmen puts his hand on the glass cup on and puts so much pressure until it breaks; worker Chris steals and smells Amy's underwear; Amy sticks her bubble gum on David's blackboard) through the tangle where Charlie rapes Amy but she doesn't say anything to David, up to the frenzy finale where the villagers put David's house under siege and he fights them off (he kills Charlie by putting his neck into the bear trap) that's full of adrenaline rush, "Straw Dogs" present a violent world as a hell world and are a fascinating forerunner to "Rambo" and an excellent film about morality in one. Dustin Hoffman once again proved he can play absolutely every role - he played a comedian, a tragic figure, an introverted man, a mentally handicapped person, an extroverted man, and here he even turned into an action hero without a problem.

Grade:+++

Little Big Man


Little Big Man; Western satire, USA, 1970; D: Arthur Penn, S: Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan, Faye Dunaway

Jack Crabb is 121 years old and retells his life to a chronicer: in the 19th Century, Pawnee Indians killed his parents, he was adopted by the Cheyenne while his sister run away. Jack gets the name Little Big Man and his adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, is teaching him about the wisdom of love. But during a fight Jack gets captured by the White and adopted by a reverend whose wife Louis is trying to seduce him. Later he sells false medicine, met his sister, learned how to shoot with a revolver and married Olga, who was kidnapped by the Indians. Jack returned to the Indians and got 4 wives that were killed by general Custer. Jack tricks Custer into an ambush where he dies.

"Cheyennes, who called themselves human beings, didn't harm me". "People believe everything. The more incredible the better". "You have to wash. Take your clothes off and in the given moment I will turn my view away". Those are just few of the many hilarious dialogues of this amusing Western satire that mostly gains it's energy from an ironic view of the Old West. Dustin Hoffman brilliantly portrayed the main hero Jack, although he seems a little bit passive at moments due to lack of dramatic focus and acronym of characterisation. The director Arthur Penn ("Bonny & Clyde") placed his signature on the film and constructed him in a original way, full of quirky humor that breaks the cliches of the Western genre: in one scene, Indians look into the underpants of Jack's sister who she will be raped, but in reality they are only doing that because they are not sure if she is a man or a woman. One Indian character is so bizarre that he does everything backwards - he walks backwards, says "Hello" when he means "Good bye", baths in dry sand and dries himself in the lake, while some other one is gay. And the small details like the one where the unknown hero Jack influenced the outcome of general Custer's failure, neatly displays the raw gag of the "unknown celebrities" and serves as the forerunner of "Forrest Gump". "Little Big Man" has many flaws, but one enjoys in them. Excellent Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Grade:+++

Midnight Cowboy


Midnight Cowboy; Drama, USA, 1969; D: John Schlesinger, S: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro, John McGiver, Sylvia Miles, Ruth White

Naive Joe Buck, a young guy from Texas, arrives with a bus to New York dressed as a cowboy. His plan is to earn money either as a gigolo or as a male prostitute, but already his first encounter with a lady called Cass places him in a embarrassing situation and he has to pay her to stop her hysteria. Although the street thug Rizzo robs him, Joe becomes his friend. Since Joe only gets rented by gay men, he starts stealing with Rizzo. When their apartment gets thorn down they become homeless, but in a weird pub some eccentric people offer them to join the party. Everything there is full of glimmer and strange people, and Joe gets hired by an older woman. When another gay man asks for his favors, Joe looses his patience and beats him up, driving away with Rizzo in a bus towards Miami. But Rizzo dies on the way to there from a disease.

Drastic presentation of underground world of New York by the British director John Schlesinger is inhabited by gay people, a male prostitute hero, homeless men and misery and much more understandable today due to it's unpleasant realism, but even today "Midnight Cowboy" seems shocking, not to mention how the audience reacted during it's premiere in 1969. Still, this outsider tale won 3 Oscars, 6 BAFTAs (including best picture) and one Golden Globe (most promising newcomer Jon Voight) and became a small anti-classic. The film's style and structure are truly unusual: from time to time the color photography is replaced with black and white, the reflections of the hero Joe on his childhood as well as the excellent fantasy day dreaming sequence of Rizzo who imagines he is in Miami taking care of people in wheelchairs. Although containing a dirty and straightforward approach, the story is never slimy, unbearable or vague because Schlesinger is very disciplined and portrays the world in rarely seen perspective, not caring how much he pushes the envelope, and Dustin Hoffman is great as the street crook Rizzo that can always find a way out of a crisis, often saying how "the only thing you need is Sun and coconut milk". Among the downsides of the film are the lack of subtlety and beauty in this bizarre, bitter document of the bleaker side of the World.

Grade:+++

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Or


Or; Drama, Israel/ France, 2004; D: Keren Yedaya, S: Dana Ivgy, Ronit Elkabetz, Meshar Cohen, Katia Zimbris, Shmuel Edelman

Tel Aviv. Or is an 18-year old girl worried for her mother Ruthie who is still working as a prostitute. Or buys her medicine against venereal disease, cares for her and finds her new jobs, like the one of a cleaning woman. But there is always a lack of money, so Or works as a dish washer, and sometimes as a prostitute herself. When she falls in love with friend Ida, his mother forbids him to see her again due to her "reputation". Despite many promising jobs, Ruthie returns to prostitute. Or becomes employed as an escort girl.

The theme of prostitution was always interesting movie stuff and drama "Or" from female director Keren Yedaya appropriately handled it using long, static shots that distanced themselves from the tricky story and presented it in an objective way, and in doing so it presented an interesting structure: the first half is very introverted, tame, almost monotone is it's characterization of protagonists, while the other half becomes it's complete opposite in which extroverted scenes of intercourse become more and more frequent, mostly revolving around the young heroine Or (on the street a customer takes her from behind; she has to do a fellatio to her boyfriend or sleep with the overweight, older landlord in order to clear her debt of house rent). Nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes, quality drama "Or" is a feminine view on prostitution and it's system refusing to preach or cheaply blame anyone. The realisation as a whole could have been more skillful or poignant, but Israel's cinema remains an interesting cinema - the uncompromising bleak ending is authentic and actress Dana Ivgy delivered a great performance as the tragic title heroine that is somehow destines to follow her mother's footsteps: when at the end a touching moment shows up in which Or starts crying because her mother puts on make up and leaves the apartment to once again resume her work as a prostitute, the viewer simply has to be shattered.

Grade:++

Nothing Lasts Forever


Nothing Lasts Forever; Fantasy/ Comedy, USA, 1984; D: Tom Schiller, S: Zach Galligan, Apollonia Von Ravenstein, Lauren Tom, Sam Jaffe, Imogene Coca, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd

Adam is pretending to play a piano, but in reality that instrument is running automatically. The audience in the hall notice the trick and get angry...Adam wakes up. It was all a dream. Then a stranger he meets in a train advises him to become an artist, so Adam leaves Europe and returns to New York. There he first needs to get a licence for artists but fails and starts a relationship with a portrait model who cheats on him. When Adam gives a homeless man some bread he leads him to an underground layer full of colors that plans to bring love to humanity. Adam enters a bus that flies away and lands on the Moon. There he can walk without space suits and finds the woman of his dreams, but gets prosecuted by Ted, the bus conductor. Back on Earth, Adam starts playing the piano and everyone loves him.

"Nothing Lasts Forever" is an original, unique and different feature length debut from director Tom Schiller, a comedy of a questionable cult. Schiller obviously has a creative mind so he directed this 75-minute story in black and white photography, except for the middle sequences of the underground world and locations on the Moon that are filmed in vibrant colors, symbolizing an apathetic, anemic and stiff society of the modern world until the hero Adam discovers a different world where he finds happiness, handling the themes of mechanical conventions and revolution, but only marginally touching them. The movie is bizarre and abstract, but sadly also confusing and not particularly funny. The enthusiastic hero Adam is desperately trying to become and artist but doesn't have talent, which is implied in his dream where he is "playing" the piano that is run automatically, and his wondering through New York without a goal or consciousness in search for some inspiration - or meaning? - are interesting, but vague and many moments don't have a point. The most interesting parts are small appearances of stars like Dan Aykroyd as the annoying boss or Bill Murray as the bus conductor that chases the hero across the Moon. Today, the movie is hard to find and has become a collector's item, and a few gags are amusing: for instance, Adam gets the assignment to quickly draw a naked woman model in front of him on paper, and he tries but sooner than expected the time is up and the only thing he managed is to draw is black pubic hair on the blank paper. Other instances include a harp as a symbol for promise, a triple cappuccino getting served in a enormous cup and Adam's fall from the Moon to New York.

Grade:+

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Graduate


The Graduate; tragicomedy, USA, 1967; D: Mike Nichols, S: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, Brian Avery, Murray Hamilton, William Daniels, Elizabeth Wilson, Richard Dreyfuss

The 21-year old Benjamin Bradock has finished college with brilliance, so his rich parents organize a party in their home in Los Angeles. Despite all that, he evaluates his life as pointless and somnolent. After the party, he drives the older Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's friend, to her home where she tries to seduce him, but just then Mr. Robinson enters and Benjamin runs away. Still, he agrees to meet her in a hotel and there he looses his virginity with her. Their affair continues for months until Benjamin meets and falls in love with her daughter Elaine and decides to marry her. Elaine refuses when she finds out he slept with her mother, but just as she was about to marry someone else, Benjamin stops the wedding and the two of them leave in a bus.

There is one visually fascinating moment in "The Graduate" that makes such an impact that it has influence on the whole rest of the film. It's the sequence some 15 minutes into the film, when Mrs. Robinson suddenly enters naked the room with Benjamin in it and locks the door; but although she is naked, the camera shows just her face while her intimate parts get almost imperceptible flashed on the screen several times in just a few milliseconds (!) in front of the embarrassed face of the main hero, getting almost too fast to see. Although the fabulously intelligent "Graduate" contains many moments that are funnier than some lowbrow comedy even though it is actually a drama, exactly that hyper dynamic sequence makes it very special and stimulative because it is at the same time inventive, groundbreaking, unusual, quirky and laugh out loud funny.

"The Graduate" seems like some standard, conventional classic - but it is not. It is a very personal, genuine and touching masterpiece that many viewers can identify with since it contains a universal story about a young hero that's uncertain about his life and future, and experiences his first love in a very unusual way, thus touching the nerve of how it feels like to be young. It is completely justified that the film won 5 Golden Globes, 5 BAFTAS (including best motion picture musical or comedy) and one Oscar for best director, and established the genius actor Dustin Hoffman as one of the 15 best American actors of the 20th Century. The whole story is full with quirky and alive moments, from the strip bar scene where a woman is swinging loops attached to her breasts up to the moment where Benjamin gets thrown with a diving suit into the pool by his parents, symbolizing the gap between the family and causing the "Time" magazine to place it together with "Rushmore" as the 10th most hydrophobic movie of all times. Although very simple and despite an overlong finale, humorous romance "The Graduate" is a shining achievement.

Grade:++++

King Kong


King Kong; fantasy adventure, USA, 1933; D: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Shoedsack, S: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy

Adventure director Denham, unemployed actress Anne and his film crew leave New York for some unknown Pacific island in a ship in order to make a film. During the ride, Anne falls in love with Jack Driscoll. Once on the island, they meet a group of natives that kidnap Anne in order to sacrifice her to their giant ape, King Kong. Since Kong took Anne away, the crew lead by Jack decide to save her - on their way they meet giant dinosaur monsters and a lot of them dies. Still, they manage to capture Kong and bring him to New York. There he escapes and dies by falling from the Empire State Building.

One of the most fascinating and influential movies of the fantasy genre of the 30s, from the time when the cinema was still young and fresh, achieved a great success and inspired two movie remakes. Despite the fact that there are elements of the naive present, "King Kong" handles the claustrophobia, critique of the media and interracial obstacles in a romance - implied in the relationship between King Kong and Anne - in a virtuoso conceptualized way. The appearances of such monsters like the Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus rex and a giant snake – placed in scene with stop-motion technique – are highly expressionistic, thus it must be truly praised that the film achieved a rarity: it became excellent even though it stepped deep into territory that could have had campy elements. Yet the visual effects are so extensive and so expressionistic that they nullify any complaint. Cooper and Shoedsack direct some adventure sequences with bravura; for instance, the long take in which a Stegosaurus from the far horizon starts chasing directly towards the ship crew, until it reaches close to camera when they are able to shoot and stop it. The fight of King Kong and T-rex without any music. The famous Empire State Building finale. Extraordinary handling of landscapes where the contrast of giant monsters and small humans comes to the full extent and so on. The title monster, King Kong, appears only after some 35 minutes into the film, creating a tone of uncertainty. Even though “King Kong”, a real non-stop fantasy spectacle of old school, is rarely shown today on television, it still became influential to many other films, from Harryhausen’s films up to “Jurassic Park”, yet only few of them had its authentic charm that stirred up the cinema with such ease and indulged the human fascination with giant monsters at the same time.

Grade:+++

Tropical Malady


Sud pralad; drama / fantasy, Thailand, 2004; D: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, S: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Huai Dessom, Sirivech Jareonchon

Keng is a soldier patrolling around the jungle. One day he meets Tong, a local villager working as the ice cutter. The two of them meet again while their bus and truck stop on the street. They become friends, and slowly gay lovers. They visit the cinema, an underground temple recommended by a woman and drive around with the motorcycle...A man killed the tiger shaman, disguised as a woman, and it's ghost wonders around the jungle. A soldier gets lost in the jungle, becoming hunted by the ghost in the form of a naked man. A monkey advises him to kill the ghost or he will be consumed by it, so he shoots it.

"Tropical Malady", winner of Jury Prize at the Cannes festival, is a surreal two-part film that can probably best be compared with it's mythical-traditional tone to Pasolini's "The Flower of 1001 Nights". It's a daring minimalistic film made out of two stories that's more concerned with mood and intuition than standard straight-forward narration and logic: the first story, revolving around two gay men, is good, but the second, a fantasy one, is truly fantastic and elevates the film into artistic heights. In the first story, neat little details, quiet style and lingering mood demand a lot of patience from the viewer, and although it doesn't satisfy to the fullest one has to be impressed by it. The story introduces the daring gay theme as completely normal, acting like some sort of gentler Thai version of "Brokeback Mountain", and little humorous touches, like in the scene where Keng puts his hand on Tong's knee in the cinema but he jokingly captures it by putting his other leg on it like a jaw or the one where Tong's mother finds Keng's love note in his pants that she was washing, are nice.
But the second story, that turned into fantasy, is truly unique and more fascinating: an hour long episode in which a soldier is lost in the dark jungle and hunted by a tiger shaman's ghost, realised almost without any dialogues, stimulates the dormant senses and is a pure, introverted, experimental delight. Scene after scene, director Apichatpong Weerasathekul crafted a subconscious jewel, telling everything with hypnotic images (a soldier walks in the jungle at night, a monkey "talks" with him with subtitles, the ghost throws the soldier down the hill and the subtitles say: "Strange feelings got the hold of the soldier", a spirit of a dead cow rises from it's dead body, a tree enlightened in the night...) that won't be understood by everyone because it's derived of any interpretation, but a one that gives a lot of attention to the magic of simple nature. If there was ever a film that got as close to capturing the feeling of meditation that transforms the viewer's consciousness into Nirvana, it is shining "Tropical Malady".

Grade:+++

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Phantom of the Opera


The Phantom of the Opera; Silent horror-drama, USA, 1925; D: Rupert Julian, Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick, S: Lon Channey, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe

In Paris, there lies a famous opera house that "enjoys" a bad reputation because it is built above a torture chamber. Recently even rumors about a Phantom in the opera have been spreading through town. Still, the new owners buy the opera because they don't believe in such legends. But the Phantom, alias Erik, really exists and has fallen in love with the unknown actress Christine Daae, thus sending letters to the ballet star Carlotta in which he threatens her if she doesn't leave her role in the play "Faust". Christine is intrigued by the Phantom and even follows his advice to break up with her boyfriend Raoul. She descends on one occasion into the hidden hallways of the opera ad gets terrified by Phantom's deformed face. She reveals everything to Raoul, but the Phantom threatens he will kill him if she doesn't marry him. She accepts and leaves with him in a carriage. Still, she manages to save herself while an angry mob kills the Phantom.

Legendary silent horror drama "The Phantom of the Opera" doesn't hold up very well today because it lost some of it's initial magic and genuinely creepy tone. It's an interesting tragedy with some raw use of expressionistic style, a classic tale about an outsider rejected by society: the Phantom, played brilliantly by Lon Channey, is a truly fascinating character - he is clever and skillful, yet his physical appearance, doomed ugly by people, prevents him from doing something out of his life, so he tries to gain love from Christine by giving her gifts in the form of a "mediator" who helps advancing her career. It's a daring, dark film with a downbeat ending and the scene where his face gets unmasked and scares Christine in the underground chamber is among one of the icons of horror, but the story's structure is rather shaky at times and the finale is executed almost arbitrarily. That's partly due to the chaotic circumstances of the shooting of the film - Rupert Julian, Ernest Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick and Channey himself directed a few scenes, each in their own way, but as a whole the film is remarkably coherent and even. Some moments, like the one in the masked party or the one with the trapped police officer Ledoux in the Phantom's underground basement are astounding, and as always black and white cinematography gives the story that unusual touch, since the directors failed to give it that masterful spark that would have made it a great, not only a good film. "The Phantom of the Opera" is a something like an opera inside an opera, a grand spectacle, just done in a rough way.

Grade:++

Deliverance


Deliverance; Adventure thriller, USA, 1972; D: John Boorman, S: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox, Ed Ramsey

Four friends from a big city; Lewis, Drew, Ed and Bobby, plan a big adventure: during the weekend, they decide to descend from a big river in the wilderness with a help of two canoes. Lewis persuades two farmers to bring their cars down to Aintry. Then the four of them bring their equipment, among others a bow and an arrow, and start their journey. They spend the night peacefully but the next day Ed and Bobby reach the shore and have an encounter with two hunters in the forest. The hunters capture them and one of them rapes Bobby. Just then, Drew and Lewis arrive and kill one of the hunters with an arrow, while the other escapes. They berry the body and continue their journey, but Drew gets shot and killed by someone. Ed finds a hunter on the cliff and kills him. When they call the police, they don't say anything about the assault and say Drew died in an accident.

The underlying idea of the "Deliverance" is to force modern, rational men to confront the primitive and irrational - when somewhere in the exposition the protagonist Lewis says the "machines and the system are going to fail", it's obvious the four friends in the story are bored with civilisation and pleasant urban life and want to escape from everything in the wilderness, but they quickly discover the extreme realisation of their wish when they find themselves in a completely uncivilised and unpleasant trip fighting for their survival. John Boorman directed this anti-adventure film as a thoroughbred war film, without any compromise, confronting the barbaric side of people. Excellent role was delivered by Burt Reynolds as Lewis, who once said this was the best film he ever made (his later drama "Boogie Nights" sadly didn't stay in his best memory due to it's tricky subject): as a result, "Deliverance" was nominated for 3 Oscars (best picture, director, editing), 3 BAFTAs and 5 Golden Globes. The film is even today shocking, disturbing and intense, besides for it's raw style also because of the explicit sequence where a mad hunter disrobes Bobby in the forest, makes him squeal like a pig and then rapes him, before Lewis spots and kills him with an arrow. Lewis then continues to display the theme of the "vacuum" of civilisation by persuading his friends to not report anything to the police and simply dig up the body of the hunter saying: "I don't see the law here in the forest!", and the long, dry sequence where their canoes get smashed in the river and they don't know if they are or are not attacked by the second hunter as revenge is intense and suspenseful. Still, the story, stripped from any context, is a little hollow and vague: some deeper character portrait or emotions are not present, the motivation of the hunters is weak while some misadventures seem arbitrarily.

Grade:++

Sophie's Choice


Sophie's Choice; Drama, USA, 1982; D: Alan J. Pakula, S: Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol, Kevin Kline, Rita Karin, Josh Mostel

Stingo, a 22-year old writer from the South moves to New York in '47 and finds an apartment in Brooklyn. He soon meets two strange tenants living over his apartment; Sophie, a Polish immigrant, and her lover Nathan, a Jewish biologist. Nathan's mood changes frenetically - one moment he loves her, the other one he hates and degrades her. Stingo finds out Sophie is a Holocaust survivor - she tells him she was sent there because her father protected the Jews. But later on he finds out that's not true, and that in reality her father was antisemitic. She then tells him the truth: she disagreed with her father and had a lover who was the leader of the Resistance. In Auschwitz, she had to make a horrible choice: what of her two children should be saved. She decided to save her son and let her daughter get sent to death. In present, Stingo and Sophie spend the night together. But the next morning he finds out she and Nathan committed suicide.

Drama "Sophie's Choice" was received with praises from critics and audience, while Meryl Streep not only won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role as Sophie but also opted some circles to even call it "the best performance in film history". Streep's performance really is excellent - she speaks with Polish accent, she cries, she speaks German and Polish and in one sequence stars with her cut hair - but the best performances of all times always come from the best movies of all time - it doesn't matter how good an actor is if he or she star in only bad films. "Sophie's Choice" is by no means bad, but it's a deeply emotionally manipulative and one dimensional film, which in the end reduces Streep's performance - she is an excellent performance in an inferior film, while there are plenty of excellent performances in even better films, from G. Masina in "The Road" up to M. McDonnell in "Dances with Wolves". The first third of the film is the best - it neatly displays the main protagonist/narrator Stingo (excellent Peter MacNicol) finding an apartment in Brooklyn and getting puzzled by the bizarre love-hate relationship between Sophie and Nathan.

Pakula directs the film calmly and objectively, avoiding redundancies, but his structure is at times shaky - for instance, the small episode where girl Lesley pretends she loves intercourse and seduces Stingo just to in the end turn the tables and admit she she was just pretending, is simply pointless. Also, the film is at moments simply only fixated to cause pity towards Sophie from the audience, instead of transforming into an artistic achievement: for instance, in one scene Sophie is pale and asking the info man in the library if he can tell her where she can find book from Emile Dickens, and he strictly and evilly responds that there is only Charles Dickens and that Emile doesn't exist. That causes her to fall unconscious. In another, the mad Nathan ridicules her and calls her a "Holocaust slut". As if you can hear the director say: "have pity with her, she is the scapegoat of the world!" The understated Holocaust portrayal in the last third is shocking, of course, even though Sophie has traces of misogyny for choosing to save her son and not her daughter from death, while the touch of heavy soap opera melodrama reduces the tone of the film as the whole. "Sophie's Choice" is a good tragedy, yet maybe the extreme performances, like the one set in the Holocaust, are not equally good as the "normal" ones that still manage to touch the audience by simple skill and captivating talent.

Grade:++

Monday, 20 August 2007

Out of Africa


Out of Africa; Romantic drama, USA/ Kenya, 1985; D: Sydney Pollack, S: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Joseph Tiaka, Malick Bowens

Early 20th Century. In order to escape from her boring Danish homeland, Karen Blixen marries Baron Bror in order to live with him in British colony Kenya on some farm, raising a plantation of coffee with Black people. Unfortunately, Bror drinks a lot and is absent from his home for months due to his job. When Karen gets contracted with syphilis, she returns to her homeland for treatment. Returning back to Africa, Karen starts running the plantation herself. She gains the sympathies of the natives and starts a relationship with the charming, but elusive adventurer Denys. When a fire destroys her plantation and Denys dies in a plane crash, she returns to her homeland.

Drama "Out of Africa" was based on true events from Karen Blixen's life whereby it applied honest but sustained emotions that never turn sappy, appropriately blended into the romantic story, giving the audience a quality, but not especially inspired film that's today slightly forgotten and a one that after 2.5 hours of running time doesn't arrive nowhere. The landscapes of Kenya are wonderful, but are a weak equivalent for missing genius, brilliance or deep character development. "Out of Africa" unjustifiably won 7 Oscars (among other for best picture and director) and 3 Golden Globes, beating the excellent thriller "Witness" and even more overlooked, genius teenage tragicomedy "Heaven Help Us" - it's seems the academy loves sensitive or epic movies, but this time it was ready to even award an achievement that became slightly saccharine entertainment at times just to keep on with that rule. In exposition we find the heroine Karen hunting, angry because her lover Hans left her, so Bror ironically adds to her when she is shooting at a pheasant: "Just imagine that's Hans". Some problems in Kenya are banal, like when a lion attacks a cow and Karen can't find a gun so she chases him off with a whip or when the plantation catches fire in the middle of the night (!), and the story is heavily overstretched even though the director Sydney Pollack managed to give it more palpable virtues than some other kitschy director would have. Overrated actress Meryl Streep spasmodically interprets Karen and is completely miscast in her role, thus Robert Redford as the adventurer Denys is much better.

Grade:++

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation


National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; Comedy, USA, 1989; D: Jeremiah S. Chechik, S: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, Diane Ladd, Randy Quaid, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Mae Questel

Clark Griswold and his family, wife Ellen and teenage kids Audrey and Rusty, and preparing for Christmas. They steal a tree from the forest but then their relatives come to visit of which the biggest annoyance is Eddie who lost his job and sends his kids from his trailer to the Griswold home. The turkey ends up becoming a weak feast while a squirrel enters their home and causes a commotion. But the biggest problem is that Clark's boss didn't send him the Christmas bonus - that causes Eddie to loose control and kidnap the boss. The police raids into the home but the boss forgives the Griswolds and promises a bonus. Everyone starts celebrating.

Chevy Chase, the icon of infantile American habits and cheap humor, seems as if he became a little bit indifferent towards his job repeating his Clark Griswold role for the third time, although he managed to deliver a solid performance. "Christmas Vacation" is considered by some to be the best among the National Lampoon Vacation film series, although it's not as hilarious and cynical - or good - as the first film, but it's still better than the barely watchable second and weak forth film. This third film has probably the fairest, most politically correct tone, tamer in this case since the story plays out during Christmas, and a proper structure, but at some moments it all became so gentle and watered down that it's mostly suited for those who love "sustained" kind of humor. Indeed, the film lacks real punchlines and great gags, and doesn't have much going for it except for the fact that it's always nicer to enjoy misadventures of a family during the humane mood of Christmas than on some other occasions. Interestingly, the actors of the Griswold kids were once again replaced, among them even with Juliette Lewis who made the best daughter Audrey ever, and a little jewel is Brian Doyle-Murray as Clark's boss who realizes he made a mistake as a greedy businessman and decided to embrace the Christmas spirit. "Christmas Vacation" is a nice little Christmas film, but can't really compete with those all time great Christmas films from the past.

Grade:+

Sunday, 19 August 2007

National Lampoon's European Vacation


National Lampoon's European Vacation; Comedy, USA, 1985; D: Amy Heckerling, S: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Jason Lively, Dana Hill, John Astin, Eric Idle

Clark Griswold and his family, wife Ellen and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey, attend the "Pig in a Poke" game show and accidentally win the grand prize: a trip to Europe. Leaving their home in Chicago, the Griswolds arrive at Britain first, where they accidentally injure a bicyclist and destroy Stonehenge. They continue their journey to Paris where their kids start feeling homesick. In Germany, Clark doesn't find his cousin Fritz but some other guy and spends the night in his home, but they make the people angry and flee to Italian soil. Finally, they return home.

Sequel "National Lampoon's European Vacation" proves that the director Amy Heckerling has problems coping with a weak screenplay, while the more talented Ramis had enough skill to make the best out of the original "Vacation". The problem isn't so much that the story just repeats itself - instead of a car trip through America, the Griswolds travel through Europe - as much as the fact that Heckerling doesn't have style, turning the film into a tasteless, vulgar, cheap and poorly humorous as a whole, full of crude humor and stupidity (the fantasy sequence where Audrey is imagining she is uncontrollably eating more and more in Europe until she becomes grotesquely fat is truly pointless), with horrible comic timing and rhythm, and gratuitous erotic (a Bavarian girl displays her breasts for Rusty), but it still once again became a hit at the audience, causing another sequel to be made. Still, despite cheap humor, Chevy Chase here and there manages to make few scenes poignant and funny, while some of the cameos of famous stars in different countries are rather neat, like the appearances of British actors Eric Idle, Mel Smith and Robbie Coltrane in Britain or German comedian Willy Millowitsch in Germany. "European Vacation" is a truly weak and thin comedy that was barely saved from becoming unwatchable by pure chance of efforts of some involved.

Grade:+

National Lampoon's Vacation


National Lampoon's Vacation; Comedy, USA, 1983; D: Harold Ramis, S: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Dana Barron, Anthony Michael Hall, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Brian-Doyle Murray, James Keach, Eugene Levy, John Candy

Clark W. Griswold persuades his wife Ellen and two children, Russ and Audrey, to take a vacation from Chicago to California to visit Wally World, a famous family fun park. But, instead of a plane, Clark insist they take the trip with a car, in order for the family come together during the long ride. Obviously, the 3.000 mile road trip won't pass by without complications: they get lost in the desert, when they visit their cousins in Kansas they are forced to take their old aunt Edna with them - who dies midway through, Clark gets a crush on some woman, they loose all their money and where ever they go, everyone is rude and uncivilised. When they finally reach their destination, the find out the park is closed, so Clark forces the security to let them in, but they don't get arrested.

After giant success of road movie "LittIe Miss Sunshine", it's interesting to compare it with it's forerunner, "National Lampoon's Vacation", a comedy with a similar plot and one of the most bizarre and inadequate movie posters ever. Although it was there first, "Vacation" looses the battle because it seems rather dated today with it's heavy handed realisation and cheap humor, but it's non-the-less still a turning point in the career of the director Harold Ramis since it's his first intrinsically good film that will make some viewers truly laugh out loud. The endless car journey of the Griswold family from Chicago to California contains a satirical touch, structure, family friendly emotions and even some sort of a dose of reality that confronts and fights against stupidity and cliches, but all that is still underdeveloped and can't be compared with real mastership. Ramis managed to make a good film out of the thin screenplay by John Hughes, but failed to lift his ambitions to the maximum. Chevy Chase is all right and reasonably sustained, while some gags range from cynical, like the one where the Griswolds forgot they had a dog tied to a leash to their car when they drove off - only after they were stopped by a police officer, to the grotesque, like the one where old aunt Edna dies in the middle of their journey in their car, and John Candy has an amusing little role as the security guard towards the end. "Vacation" is a nice little film, but only unambitious viewers will truly find it great.

Grade:++

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Ivan the Terrible


Ivan Groznyy; historical film, Russia, 1944/ 1946; D: Sergei M. Eisenstein, S: Nikolai Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Zharov

In Moscow in 1547, Ivan IV. Vasilyevich becomes the Tsar even though he is only 17 years old. Already then he announced taxes for the church and wars to expand Russia, but the first rebellion of the villagers was resolved peacefully. When a Kazakh lord recommended him to surrender, Ivan became infuriated and conquered his country in 1556. He became sick when he returned to Moscow, but he surprised his enemies when he recovered. After his first wife got poisoned, he left Moscow for a convent, started a war to conquer the Baltic sea and cruel fully eliminated the Bolyars. His enemies hire a assassin, but he kills the wrong person. The Tsar displays his loyalty to the people.

Impressive epic classic "Ivan the Terrible" was the last film by the legendary Soviet director Sergei M. Eisenstein who initially planned to film the life of the historical Russian despot as a trilogy, but he only managed to shoot the first two parts, that combined together arrange for 175 minutes of running time, before he died. That's why the film doesn't end with Ivan the Terrible's death but with an open ending where he announces that he will exalt Russia. Unlike Eisenstein's earlier silent films, "Ivan" is a sound film with better planning, opulent production and set design, a high concept story and sheen monumental tone, but doesn't offer the master in full form: the visual style isn't all that special, the title hero's personality is slightly blurry and the story simply too long, obvious in the truly frustratingly overstretched finale. Among the best sequences is the exposition with the opening credits while smoke can be seen rising in the background, as well as many expressionistic sequences, like the one with the giant shadow of Ivan's head while little shadows of his servants pass by it or when he is walking on the staircase while behind him is a giant, a mile long queue of people. "Ivan the Terrible" is a sometimes shaky, demanding and heavy but professionally made film of a spoiled ruler corrupted by power who lost from mind what to do with his life, a gloomy emotional vision of history.

Grade:+++

The Battleship Potemkin


Bronenosec Potjomkin; Silent drama, Russia, 1925; D: Sergei M. Eisenstein, S: Alexandr Antonov, Vladimir Barski, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov

Russia after the war with the Japanese, 1905. Battleship Potemkin is sailing around the Black Sea, filled with sailors who are dissatisfied with the state on board: sergeants beat them up at night because they are not pleased with the guards and serve them rotten food. When a few sailors refuse to eat the soup, the sergeants decide to shoot them as a warning to others. Just in that moment sailor Vachiluk starts a rebellion and throws the sergeants into the sea, but gets killed. Potemkin sails to the port Odessa where the inhabitants give the sailors fresh food, but they all get attacked by Tsar's soldiers. The revolution spreads around the country.

"The Battleship Potemkin" is one of the most famous movies of cinema, an achievement of such a legendary reputation that it even raised exaggerated rumors that the director Sergei M. Eisenstein there invented intercutting montage for the first time - obviously, that was done by Griffith some 10 years earlier in "The Birth of a Nation". It's true that many critics benevolently look at old films and hail them for the minimum virtues, while they deprecatingly look at the modern films and degrade them for minimum flaws, but this silent history film, the forerunner of "The Mutiny on the Bounty", is still a masterpiece, an endemic example of passionate devotion to clear narration and wonderful style. One of the best sequences is the one where the sailors protest because of the bad soup so the Sergeant orders to all those sailors to whom the soup was "delicious" to make one step forward: a few of them does that while a title shows up on the screen stating: "Younger officers always want to indulge their superiors". After that, the Sergeant warns he will hang every rebel on the foremast. All the sailors look up at the foremast and get a hallucination that they already "see" a person hanging there. The Odessa stairs sequence with the Tsarist soldiers descending down the stairs and symbolically whipping away every rebel is a classic that was given a homage a hundred times, like in "The Untouchables", the claims that the whole film is a revolutionary propaganda today seem irrelevant when handled with so much intelligence, while many paroles ("It's the easiest to hit the weak!") seem like they were written by an innocent child, but with a lot of wisdom.

Grade:++++

Friday, 17 August 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower


Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia; Drama, China, 2006; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat, Chou Jay, Liu Ye, Ni Dahong, Li Man

China, Tang Dynasty, 10th Century. On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, the Emperor returns to his palace. His wife, the Empress, has contempt towards him and has a secret relationship with her stepson, prince Wan, while the Emperor's second son, prince Jai, is supposed to inherit him. Wan is meanwhile in love with Chan, the daughter of the Imperial Doctor. At the same time, the Empress has to drink a mysterious medicine by orders from the Emperor, but she discovers it's actually poison and that he plans to poison her to death in 10 days. After assassins tried to eliminate the Doctor's family, his wife, Shi, confesses the truth: she was Emperors fiance and Jai and Chan are actually brother and sister. They all get killed, and Wan commits suicide when his rebellion against the Emperor fails.

"Curse of the Golden Flower" represents another example of director's Zhang Yimou's step towards dazzling costumes, fancy set design, rich cinematography and other great technical aspects of a sterile and thin entertainment, but in favor of a real drama and emotions. With a budget of 45 million $, "Golden Flower" was the most expensive Chinese film to date, and it was nominated for an Oscar for costumes, but it seems Yimou knew and had more control of his early, modest films filled with enthusiasm and real characters instead of a super-spectacle. It's a very solid film with very good actors and interesting story, yet it's obvious the producers forced the director to play it safe, especially noticeable in the fascinating incest subplot that was suppressed and thrown away in the background instead of getting explored, as well as the somewhat dumb situation where the Empress has to continue to drink her medicine for days, as ordered from the Emperor, even though she knows it is poison, yet she remains quiet and obedient - wouldn't it be more logical if she exposed his real evil character in front of others or simply ran away from the palace?

It's interesting that the story plays out as a straight drama, and not as an action/fight movie as some say it is - the fight sequences start very late in the film, mostly in the end, from the mass of Ninja assassins descending with the help of wires from a mountain down towards the doctor's home in the meadow, up to the finale where rebels trample upon the field of golden flowers around the palace in order to fight against the Emperor's army and start a revolution. There's even a neat aftermath, when the servants quickly wash up the blood and clean the area from the corpses to quickly replace the place with new golden flowers and clean rugs for the festival. Yet, the film is simply too inarticulate, incoherent, indistinct and not that intriguing to satisfy the audience, while some of the scenes really seem over-the-top (the Emperor slaps his son so hard that his own hair gets slammed free from his crown) or unnecessary. If anything, the film has to be given credit for it's uncompromising, dark, pessimistic ending: it really seems the message of the story is that power overcomes love and that people must me obedient to the government, no matter how bad it is, because it's unstoppable.

Grade:+