Friday, February 29, 2008

Maison Ikkoku

Maison Ikkoku; animated romantic comedy series, Japan, 1986; D: Tomomi Mochizuki, Kazuo Yamazaki, S: Issei Futamata, Sumi Shimamaoto, Shigeru Chiba, Kazuyo Aoki, Yuko Mita, Yuriko Fuchizaki

Tokyo. Yusaku Godai didn't manage to sign in into college and his neighbors in his apartment inside the Maison Ikkoku complex - Akemi, Hanae and Yotsuya - are annoying him. Just as he is about to leave the apartment, he meets his new landlord, the 20 year old girl Kyoko, and falls instantly in love with her. Although she has feelings for him too, the grief from recent death of her husband Souichiro is preventing her to admit anything so soon. With time, Godai experiences a lot of adventures in Maison Ikkoku and gets into college, even keeping the girl Kozue as a possible spare "relationship" in case that his dream with Kyoko doesn't work out, while Mitaka, a tennis coach, is also interested in Kyoko. As Godai finds his first job as a teacher in Kyoko's old high school, Yagami, a teenage girl, falls in love with him, complicating the matters even more. In the end, Godai finds a new job and proposes Kyoko. And she agrees to marry him.

Because of all those routine situations from life, sometimes I'm feeling more and more like a robot, and less and less like a real human being. But there are some films and animes that are so fresh that they always remind you how it is to feel something, among them "Maison Ikkoku". This shining anime, an adaptation of the manga with the same title from the famous author Rumiko Takahashi, who is considered an expert for romance, is an everyday story executed with bravura, showing how hard it sometimes is to find true love. There is something, something special in the eyes of the anime characters, and rarely does an anime do such a good job of underlining that feature as this one. Ironically, the first 10 episodes are pretty bad, being clumsy and filled with forced humor, but as the story progresses it becomes better and better; the rest of the first season is already excellent, the second is amazing, and the third and fourth season are both a masterpiece. The humor mostly isn't hilarious, but rather quiet and understated, but at some moments it's really hard not to laugh, like in the scene from episode 15 where Kyoko and Godai were doing a puppet play for kids, but she would occasionally get so carried away at lifting her princess puppet over the stage that she would forget that she came so close to Godai that she was accidentally touching him with her breasts. In another funny episode, Godai would get into a lot of trouble in a spa. But the emotional situations overshadow the humorous ones by coming so close to being the real thing, making even the most banal scenes, like the one where Kyoko would sweep the floor with the broom, seem like magic.

But a subplot that is so fascinating that it almost steals the show from the main plot, is the one in season 3 revolving around the teenage girl Yagami who fell in love with Godai who was a substitute teacher in her high school. Some of the episodes from that season establishing a Kyoko-Godai-Yagami love triangle are pure poetry. In one, Yagami is trying do seduce Godai by staying after class for instructions, casually coming closer and closer to him with her chair. In another one, she puts a heart sign on his jacket by patting him on the back. And when all else fails she locks him up in the gym and shyly tries to conquer him by wearing only a bra and underpants - when he tries to get away he stumbles and falls on her, accidentally touching her bust and she gets a confused expression on her face; that moment is so emotionally awkward and so smashing that it looks as if it was real. Still, this anime isn't perfect. Godai's three neighbors - Akemi, an always half naked lady, Hanae, an overweight middle aged woman, and Yotsuya, a voyeuristic man - are sometimes funny, but also sometimes pretty annoying and unnecessary, just hindering the story. And all those plot devices that would delay Godai and Kyoko to finally admit that they love each other can sometimes feel contrived. But those flaws can't spoil the exceptionally beautiful romantic mood and patient character development that lift this series up to the Parthenon of the best animes of all time. Actually, it's hard to describe this to people who never saw it, because they can't imagine what kind of a feeling this is. "Maison Ikokku" is an anime many of you will never see as long as you live. And you will feel comfortable with that. But if you knew what you were missing, you would never hesitate to see this amazing anime romance.


No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men; thriller, USA, 2007; D: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, S: Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper

Texas, '80s. While hunting in the desert, the young Llwelyn accidentally stumbles upon some cars in the desert and dead gangsters who killed themselves. He finds a suitcase with 2 million $ in it and takes it. He returns to the place that night, but is attacked by a group of Mexican gangsters. Anton Chigurh, a psychopath killer, is hired to bring back the money. Llwelyn sends his wife Jean to her mother's place and hides in motels. Anton finds him with the help of a transponder, but Llwelyn wounds him and goes to the Mexican territory. Meanwhile, Jean tells everything to the old Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who tries to save Llwelyn, but comes too late since Anton already found him. Anton also kills Jean, gets wounded in a car crash and runs away. Retired, Bell tells his wife how he dreamed about his late father.

Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano lamented about the Academy giving "No Country for Old Men" the best picture Oscar, stating it rewards violent films without hope. That is in a way true, but the story about a "duel" between a hitman and a cowboy who took a suitcase full of money is framed by the unusual, but quintessential subplot revolving around older Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who represents the old, moral, classic generation of Texas and can't seem but to wonder how the new, young generation is falling apart and losing all of it's values, culminating in his talk with an old friend who tells him how this "greed for money has gone too far". In that little, but subtle hint there lies a moral about people who should decide whether they want to live in harmony or in crime. By adapting a "foreign" novel of the same name, the Coen brothers were somehow brought "down-to-earth" by it's author Cormac McCarthy: instead of a extremely stylish repertoire filled with bizarreness and surreal touch, they somehow made an untypically normal, serious and straight forward crime thriller-drama reminiscent of bitter achievements from Peckinpah.

Somewhere in the exposition, there is a great sequence where cowboy Llwelyn accidentally stumbles upon some dead drug dealers in the desert and simply picks up their suitcase full of money, but the stand out (negative) highlight in the film is delivered by the characters of hitman Anton Chigurh (in a terrifying performance by Javier Bardem who won a BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar for his role) who is pure evil, menacing and very powerful, even though the Coens tried not to show him as a one-dimensional, omnipotent bad guy, like in the sequence where he is badly wounded in his leg, but can't call an ambulance. So what does he do? He puts some random car on fire and while all the people go out to see what's going on, he simply enters the empty pharmacy and takes all the medication he needs. Some moments are ontological, Woody Harrelson is great in his small role of a private detective for comic relief, while the sequence where Llwelyn suddenly wakes up in his hotel room and discovers he has a beeper in his money suitcase, hears some footsteps in the hallway and thus waits for Anton, is so suspenseful that it reaches Hitchcock's caliber. Sheriff Bell is obviously just a male version of Coen's own Marge Gunderson in "Fargo", and some of plot elements from their previous crime films are also nothing new, but they really manage to twist the dusty thriller cliches with their unusual ideas (towards the finale, they missed a perfect ending when Anton was driving in his car but all of a sudden got hit by another one in a car crash). This may be just a hard-boiled "male flick", but it's very intriguing.



Platoon; war drama, USA / UK, 1986; D: Oliver Stone, S: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Francesco Quinn, John C. McGinley, Richard Edson, Keith David, Johnny Depp
Student Chris Taylor voluntarily signs in as a sodier for the Vietnam War. Due to such decision, all other soldiers, who were forcefully drafted, mock him, ans he quickly figures why: there's real hell going on in the jungle. The worst in all the chaos is Sgt. Barnes who ruthlessly kills civilians and burns villages, for which he is heavily criticized by Sgt. Elias. Because of that, Barnes secretly kills him. After the bombardment of their position, Chris kills Barnes and as a wounded soldier returns home.

Oliver Stone, who in his projects often showed his hate and apathy towards the American politics, filmed with "Platoon" his own semi-autobiography of his events in the Vietnam war, which resulted in 4 Oscars (best picture, director, editing, sound) 2 BAFTA awards (best director, editing) and 3 Golden Globes (best motion picture - drama, director, supporting actor Tom Berenger). Like most war films that take a deeply raw and ferocious approach, "Platoon" was also well received for it's honest, realistic tone that doesn't embellish the events there, and war film fans mostly loved it since the story is filled with crazy details (Chris smokes "weed" through the barrel of a gun) and anxious portrait of some American soldiers killing Vietnamese mothers, raping girls and putting villages on fire. Stone tries to keep a moral balance by giving ethics to the main protagonist, and analytically displays a cold story, but most of the things shown in the film have already been shown before, from "Apocalypse" to "The Deer Hunter", while the director's mannerisms are sometimes annoying. It's a relatively powerful film, but somehow pale, deadpan, bland, usual and without care for the characters.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Wayward Cloud

Tian bian yi duo yun; Erotic musical drama, Taiwan/ France, 2005; D: Ming-liang Tsai, S: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Yi-Ching Lu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sumomo Yozakura, Huan-Wen Hsiao

Taiwan is suffering from unbearable heat and water shortage, and many TV programs offer people advice to drink watermelon juice. A young girl can't stand the heat and goes on with an umbrella on the street. At the same time, a movie crew is shooting a porn film involving a male porn star who feels sad. When the girl finds the porn actress unconscious in the elevator, she informs the crew who proceed to film a scene anyway. But the male star falls in love with the girl, and in the middle of the shooting goes to the window and ejaculates into the girls mouth.

Tired of standard, predictable mainstream films and want to watch something you rarely seen before? Then Ming-liang Tsai's "The Wayward Cloud" is the right candidate, an amusing erotic musical with vibrant singing and bizarre ideas that's mostly suitable for the audience with an open mind, because all others will likely give up on it already some half way into the story. Considering the "story", there is none, it's just a frame for surreal, spontaneous moments, like the one where a girl laughs at her mother pressing the button of the elevator or is afraid to pick up lizards on the kitchen floor, set during a heat wave, realized almost entirely without dialogues except for singing, and a slow (some would say boring) pace that can mostly be get if the viewers simply turn off their logic and enjoy the subconscious-meditative images displayed before them. In the end, "Cloud" is nothing more than a neat little film, except that a few erotic scenes, like the opening where a porn actor is "eating" a watermelon placed between the legs of his fellow porn actress, stand out in a way that can be either positive or negative, depending upon how each viewer looks at it.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited; Tragicomedy, USA, 2007; D: Wes Anderson, S: Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Amara Khan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Camilla Rutherford, Irfan Khan, Natalie Portman, Anjelica Huston, Bill Murray

Hotel Chevalier: Jack Whitman is surprised when he gets a phone call from his ex-girlfriend who tells him she wants to know where his hotel room is. He gives it to her and they land in bed...Arriving in India, Jack meets up with his brothers Peter and Francis in the Darejeeling limited train, in order to go to a spiritual journey after their father died. Their train gets lost and they are thrown out for making trouble. They also spot a couple of kids drowning in river and try to save them, joining their mother in India.

Wes Anderson improved his style with "The Darjeeling Limited" considering smooth structure, but once again fell into the trap of a pale story with a "stranded whale" syndrome, since the start is great, but the ending runs out of steam. The film starts brilliantly, namely with the 13-minute short film "Hotel Chevalier" that was made for who knows what reason, but serves as a great forerunner to the main film: in the first scene, Jack (Schwartzman) is in his hotel room somewhere in Paris, ordering his meal in French, but then can't find a right word and asks in English: "How do you say 'grilled cheese'?", upon which the concierge tells it to him in French, which offers the typical Anderson absurd humor. It also features, for the very first time in any Anderson film, sexual activity, when Jack and his ex-girlfriend land in bed, and the melancholic song "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" is amazingly bitter-sweet, showing a surprisingly new, mature side of the director, who created his most realistic event yet.

The main film also starts off in high style: a businessman (Murray) runs in order to catch a train, but then he is outruned by another man, Peter (Brody) who manages to get in just in time, leaving him behind. Accompanied with some magical songs played during slow-motion scenes that send shivers down the spine, the film is at best when it plays out in the train, yet it's unexciting and too artificial to really go deeper in spirituality. Anderson has one of the best shot compositions in his generation of film directors, and some of his bizarre gags are great, like when Jack once again plays the song "Where Do You Go..." when the Indian waitress he has a crush on enters his compartment or when the three brothers are praying in a shrine, but all of a sudden Francis spots that Peter is wearing his belt and wants it back, making him really take it off in that unusual place, but the film once again annoyed a little bit with director's trademark caricature scenes, forced dialogues, pedantic-goofy humor and impartial finale. Anderson is a great director, but his stories are about nothing, just pale frames where situations occur and then sizzle off. Maybe it's time he made a story really about something, because his short "Hotel Chevalier" is perfect just because there is something exciting going on in it, and thus it's much more interesting than the vague spiritual wondering in India. In the end, it's another sweet, sympathetic little film from Anderson, whose 'tour de force' moment came in "Rushmore" and needs to be repeated again.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Felicia's Journey

Felicia's Journey; drama / crime, USA / Canada / UK, 1999; D: Atom Egoyan, S: Elaine Cassidy, Bob Hoskins, Peter McDonald, Arsinée Khanjian, Sheila Reid, Nizwar Karanj, Ali Yassine

Hilditch is a popular cook whose late mother had her own cooking show. Irish girl Felicia travels with a ship to Britain in order to find her boyfriend Johnny and tell him she is pregnant, but he never gave her his address. Wondering around, she is found by Hilditch with his car who gains her trust with his kindness. Even he figures Johnny didn't want a relationship with her, but still pretends that he is trying to help her find him. But in reality, Hilditch is a disturbed psychopath who already kidnapped and killed 9 girls, and in order to present himself even more harmless, he brings Felicia to a hospital. Finally, he brings her to his house and pays for an abortion. Just when he was digging a grave, two women show up trying to sell him a Bible. Hilditch hangs himself, Felicia, all confused, runs away.

Tragic-melancholic story about a lonely serial killer was directed by Atom Egoyan very demanding way, and in a way so that every viewer can interpret it in his own way, avoiding the typical cliches of that genre, putting more emphasize on emotions than thriller elements. It's a disturbing psycho gram of a deranged man, but surprisingly also done with a lot of subtly provocative messages that show sympathy for his life without love, where he only tried to get affections from girls in a wrong way, thus the whole movie is quiet and without scenes of murder, accompanied by idyllic music: already the sole opening long take scene shows the ambitious approach as well as some unusual camera solutions. The way Bob Hoskins plays the anti-hero, with an unrecognizably gentle voice and stoic grace, is truly inspirational and gave the British actor without doubt one of his 2-3 best performances of his career, while Egoyan gives him excellent dialogues that seem as if they came from some gentleman from the 1950's. Hilditch and Felicia are the only portrayed characters, but are both done in a very satisfying way. The reason why "Felicia's Journey" has some deniers lies in some of it's flaws: empty scenes, a bizarre ending and a little bit too slow pace.


Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch; fantasy drama, UK / Canada / Japan, 1991; D: David Cronenberg, S: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure

New York, 1 9 5 0s. William Lee works as an exterminator, but the powder he uses against the cockroaches is also used by his girlfriend Joan as a drug. Since William is himself an addict, he demands an appliance from Dr. Benaway in order to help him become "clean". Aiming at a cup on her head, William accidentally shoots and kills Joan and runs in the Interzone, a land created by hallucination. There he once again meets Joan and a typing machine that tells him what to write. He runs away with Joan to Annexia and once again kills her by accident.

In one "Simpsons'" episode, the boy Nelson and his friends go to the cinemas to secretly watch the cult film "Naked Lunch". After the screening, they get out, all confused, and say: "I can think of at least two things wrong with that title". Something like that could be used to describe this unusual, surreal film, an adaptation of William S. Burrough's "autobiographical" novel that "faithfully" portrays the hallucinogen state of drug addicts, but does not contain a single scene that could be described as virtuoso since it's more preoccupied with shallow fantasy images than with some deep storytelling. Many dark moments are full of imagination - Joan ate so much anti-bug powder that she even kills cockroaches with her breath; a lizard-man casually drinks in the bar; the Interzone that looks like some Arab city; a giant cockroach that talks; a penis that "grows out" of the typewriter - but Cronenberg still said that he would have needed a budget of 400 million $ in order to realize every detail from the book. The only thing he lacks is a point.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise; Fantasy musical satire, USA, 1974; D: Brian De Palma, S: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, George Memmoli, Gerrit Graham, Archie Hahn

Naive music composer Winslow Leach gives his "Faust" cantata to manager Philibin, who steals it for his boss, the greedy record producer Swan. As months pass by, Winslow rebels, but Swan frames him and puts him in jail. Escaping, Winslow's head gets stuck in press plant and deformed, becoming the Phantom who terrorizes Swan's stage shows in his cocnert hall "Phantom" in order to take revenge. But Swan offers him a job as a music composer, and he signs the contract, hoping the charming girl Phoenix will get the part in his rock opera. But then he discovers that Swan is has made a pact with the Devil and now also has him in his clutches. He rebels and kills him during his wedding with Phoenix.

Cult fantasy musical satire "The Phantom of Paradise" is an interesting film that's a lot more easy to digest than some other abstract "ego trip" films. The first 30 minutes are excellent due to their amusing gags and playful nature, from the wonderfully naive composer Winslow, played by William Finley, the satirical logo of the "Death records" studio (the image of a dead blackbird lying on the ground) up to the brilliantly directed split screen showing two perspectives of the same event, a group of stage performers rehearsing on the stage until an explosion interrupts them, but the rest of the film simply isn't that fun or stimulative enough. It goes bizarre and over-the-top a lot of times, becoming a surreal new age version of the classic "The Phantom of the Opera", and Jessica Harper is simply irresistible as singer Phoenix, but in the end the movie falls into chaos and doesn't manage to lift itself up above anything more than a neat musical experiment from Brian De Palma's mind.


Soylent Green

Soylent Green; Science-Fiction, USA, 1973; D: Richard Fleischer, S: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors, Brock Peters, Joseph Cotten, Paula Kelly

In the year 2022, New York is heavily overpopulated with it's 40 million inhabitants, just like the whole world, while the main food source is the synthetic 'Soylent Green'. Detective Thorn gets the assignment to investigate the murder of rich lawyer Simonson, falling in love with his girlfriend Shirl. He finds some documents and sends them to his old 'library' partner Sol. When his boss orders him to shut down the case, Thorn discovers there is a major conspiracy. Sol goes to die in the death chamber, while Thorn discovers that the ocean is dying and that 'Soylent Green' is made out of people.

Cult science-fiction drama "Soylent Green" is a bitter allegory of what overpopulation might lead to, and today with all the news that the agriculture has problems keeping up the pace with the growth of the population, environmental pollution and GM food, it seems more prophetic and scary than ever. The 1970's were an amazing era, probably the most daring for cinema in the 20th Century, establishing a modern feel to realistic movies that has stayed until today, and even though "Soylent" is at times slightly ephemera, too simple and apocryphal, as a whole it's an intriguing film with a few brilliant moments - the scene where Thorn (Heston) is exiting his building literally filled with homeless people sleeping on the stairs is shocking and subtle at the same time; the opening montage sequence of old photos that show the US from the early 20th century, when it was underpopulated, until the year 2022 when it got overpopulated, is genius; while the seemingly trivial moment where Thorn and Sol (Edward G. Robinson in his last role) have prepared beef stu out of real beef, not some synthetic food, and eat it with such astonishment and devotion as if it's the best delicacy in the world, is so contagious it makes you hungry. The plot twist at the end is already known to everyone, but that final frozen frame with Thorn's arm is still unforgettable, while director Fleischer nicely summed up the point of lovely images of nature in the closing credits on the audio commentary of the DVD, stating how they are there to "show us what we have now and what we will loose if we don't act now".


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Return of the Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi; science-fiction, USA, 1983; D: Richard Marquand, S: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice), Peter Mayhew, Alec Guinness

In order to rescue Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and his friends go to planet Tatooine and kill Jabba the Hutt. Then they join the rebels who have discovered that the Empire is constructing a new 'Death Star' station orbiting the moon Endor. Luke voluntarily surrenders to his father Darth Vader hoping he can change him back to a good person. Meanwhile, Han Solo and the others go to Endor and join the little furry creatures, the Ewoks, to destroy the Empire base that generates a shield around 'Death Star'. Darth Vader rebels against the Emperor and throws him down a generator, but dies. Luke and the others celebrate the destruction of the 'Death Star'.

The final film of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi" is unanimously considered to be the weakest contribution to the saga because it reached for over-the-top elements too often. The beginning with the droids R2D2 and C3PO on the desert planet Tatooine and the finale where the rebel spaceships are attacking the gigantic new 'Death Star' are just repeated variations of the same events from the first film, the corny humor is still present while many alien creature designs, like the furry Ewoks, turned the story more towards the infantile and campy than it was originally planned. Still, the movie holds up much better than some would like to admit: the special effects are probably the best in the whole saga and crafted some spectacular scenes, like the superfast chase through the forest of Endor between Luke, Leia and a storm trooper on hovercrafts, the whole pace is very elegant while the hints that the "dark side" in Darth Vader feeds off aggression and blind hate is interesting, even though the film then contradicts itself since the rebels don't seem to be fighting the evil Empire with some different, more spiritual means - mirroring, it seems, the clash between democracy and dictatorship in space. Some fans were angered that Darth Vader is in the end shown as an old, fragile man, but that element just gave the film more layers, while the imagination of George Lucas is very appealing.


The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back; science-fiction, USA, 1980; D: Irvin Kershner, S: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice), Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness

The evil Galactic Empire has discovered the secret base of the rebels on the ice planet Hoth, where there are also Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia. When the invasion starts, they have to separate: Luke goes to train on a different planet at the old Jedi master Yoda, while Han and the others flee in the Millennium Falcon and hide in an asteroid belt from Darth Vader. But he still captures them in the city on the clouds in order to get Luke into a trap. Lando releases them, but Luke gets into a direct confrontation with Vader, who reveals him he is his father.

The original "Star Wars" trilogy revolutionized special effects and became extremely influential - almost every second scene seems to be iconic in pop culture - but it is still a little bit overrated. There is something in the opening "athwart" scrawl titles in space that describe the story set "a long time ago, in a Galaxy far away", suggesting how its past may be our future, implying how the forces of democracy and dictatorship may fight even in space, yet the stiff execution somehow watered-down the magic: only Han Solo is a truly fleshed out character, the two robots are cute, but Luke, Lea and Chewbacca lack spark, charm and versatillity, ending up one-dimensional too often. Still, one film in that series, "The Empire Strikes Back", deserves praise which also confirms the site Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics gave it a very high average grade of 8.6/10. "The Empire" is a very dark sequel in which the characters are not idealised and offers exciting events. The 40 minute long opening sequence on the ice planet Hoth intrigues with ease - especially fascinating are giant robot-tanks on four legs that slowly approach and attack the generator of the rebels - as well as the one where the spectacular chase of Millennium Falcon flying through the asteroid field, whereas the segment in which Luke is trained by the absurd alien Yoda is very monotone on the other hand. The highlight is obviously the duel between Luke and Darth Vader, which culminates in the famous family "plot twist". That's why it is a pity that there are still typical flaws, like the irritating humor of android R2D2, and too much action oriented scenes, even though they were executed wonderfully.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Star Wars

Star Wars; science-fiction, USA, 1977; D: George Lucas, S: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice), Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew
A long time ago, in a Galaxy far away... Rebels struggle against a Galactic dictatorship. Evil Darth Vader captures princess Leia in her spaceship, but she stored secret information about the Empire's "Death Star" in droid C3PO, who escapes to a nearby desert planet, Tatooine, together with R2D2. There they get bought by Luke Skywalker, who meets Jedi Obi-Wan. When Luke's family gets murdered by the storm troopers, he and Obi-Wan fly off into space in the spaceship of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They get to the giant space station, "Death Star", that threatens to destroy planets of the rebels protesting against the Empire. Obi-Wan gets killed by Wader, but Luke and his friends destroy the "Death Star" and get rewarded by Leia.

"Star Wars", the originator of the famous Sci-Fi saga, became a real phenomenon: it sold over 178,000,000 tickets at the American box office and thus became not only the most commercial movie of the 70s, but also the 2nd highest grossing movie of the 20th century, second only to "Gone With the Wind", whereas it became a favorite film of many fans and was nominated for several prestigeous awards. Obviously, seeing those kind of revolutionary special and visual effects back in cinemas in 1977 was mind-blowing for many viewers, but sympathy does not always necessarily mean competence: if those special effects had been weak, the whole cult would have probably never been created since the story is unusual and stimulative, but mild, the characters stiff and one-dimensional (that's why only Harrison Ford became a star, because his cynical Han Solo who doesn't believe in the "Force" is one of the few really well developed protagonists), especially Chewbacca whose only purpose is to howl and follow the heroes; the dialogues average, while the the golden droid C-3PO and his companion R2D2 seem too much like a Disney comic sidekicks at times. One only has to compare the characters to such alive and vibrant protagonists from various animes or movies from Wilder and Hitchcock to realize how schematic they are.

Setting the story in its entirety in a mysterious foreign world, George Lucas created a few fascinating scenes, for instance the poetic sunset of the two suns on Tatooine, a space station so gigantic it can destroy planets with its laser or the moment where Luke discovers his home is burning, reminiscent of Ford's "The Searchers". Actually, the first 30 minutes are excellent, with neat little details that stimulate the imagination (the droid passes by a skeleton of a giant reptile on the desert planet), but once the "Death Star" segment starts, the mystical vibe dissolves and the whole story turns into a cartoonish action film. The concept of the "Force" and the Galactic Empire is underused and underdeveloped - ironically, it is much more gripping reading about the Empire on various web sites made 30 years after the film than it is explained in the sole film itself: how many plantes does it cover? How many inhabitants? What kind of a repression is there to drive the rebels against it? - while the dry adventure tone does not hold up the concentration of the viewers to the fullest. Lucas is a good director, but here without enough ingenuity - if "Star Wars" were directed by, lets say, the Coen brothers, Jeunet or Anno, it would have been done with much more spice. The pure example of the classic "Good vs. Evil" concept is here, as are many archetypes of fairy tales, while the music is magical, yet as a whole the film still seems standard and without spirit, because the authors should have taken more care of the story and the characters, instead of special effects which are today found in every big budget film.


Samaritan Girl

Samaria; Drama, South Korea, 2004; D: Kim-Ki duk, S: Kwak Ji-min, Lee Eol, Han Yeo-reum, Kwon Hyun-Min, Oh Young, Gyun-Ho Im

Yeo-jin and Jae-yeong are two teenage girls who want to earn money for a trip to Europe. In order to do so, Jae-yeong works as a prostitute, often talking about prostitute Vasumitra who converted every customer to Buddhism, while Yeo-jin sets her up with her clients and watches for the police. One day, the police raid the hotel and the ashamed Jae-yeong jumps through the window, injuring her head. Yeo-jin brings her to the hospital, where she tells her she wants to see one musician one last time before she dies. In order to bring him there, Yeo-jin agrees to sleep with him, but they arrive too late. Feeling remorse, Yeo-jin decides to sleep with all of Jae-yeong's clients and return their money. Her dad, a policeman, discovers this and confronts their clients. When he kills one of them, she takes her to a trip to nature.

"Samaria" is a sad, emotional and deeply melancholic allegory about sin and redemption, mixing obvious references of Christianity and Buddhism. The first part of the story, revolving around two teenage girls, one a prostitute and the other her 'manager', who want to earn money for a trip, is very measured and understated, while the second one seems like the inversion of that idea, where after one of them dies, the other one decides to throw away the materialism (money) and sleep with all the clients for free, in order to take her identity and investigate her life, thus turning into a 'Samaritan prostitute'. It's ambitious and very smoothly crafted, yet, sadly, the second half is really overstretched, sometimes melodramatically sluggish, sometimes painfully sad, thus in the end it seems the director Kim-ki Duk didn't manage to combine all of the symbols he put into a cohesive whole, like his magical, wonderfully spiritual previus film "Spring, Summer...".


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith; science-fiction, USA, 2005; D: George Lucas, S: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Anthony Daniels, Christopher Lee, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Temuera Morrison

The Galaxy is caught in the midst of the Clone Wars. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi manage to save Chancellor Palpatine from the evil Seperatist, but he turns out to be their leader and manages to attract Annakin to the dark side. In a battle, Obi-Wan wounds Anakin and leaves him mutilated, but he gets reassembled as Darth Vader and brings the Galaxy into an evil dictatorship empire led by Palpatine. Amidala gives birth to Luke and Lea, who are hidden from Darth.

A lot of heated debate and hype surrounded "The Revenge of the Sith", the last prequel of "Star Wars": while some critics even called it a brilliant tragedy and the best prequel ever, in the end it doesn't distinguish itself that much from the previous efforts, "Clones" and "Phantom". Although George Lucas finally brought in a greater dose of ambition in the story, he once again fell into the trap to put too much special effects, like a peacock decorating himself with overstuffed feathers, hence the story sometimes seems like a cartoon. The first half is weak and ballasted with too much action, thus the best parts are precisely the "grown up" ones, like when Amidala says to Anakin that she is pregnant. The second half is much better because Anakin's transformation to the evil Darth Vader is shown with a gradation, but the dialogues, characters and events are again bland, stiff, dry and colorless, whereas Obi-Wan in this edition is just a shadow of the original, while Lucas overlooked a few illogical things, like the finale where after the victory, Obi-Wan just leaves the wounded Anakin lying there (!), slowly getting burned by lava! Pretty dishonorable! He should have either helped him or get rid of his misery. Not to mention that there were simply not enough plausible reasons given *why* Anakin would join the dark side: after losing everything, he would simply abandon either side, the Jedi and the Sith. It seems that these "Star Wars" prequels should have not been made because they could have just left everything mysterious and unanswered: their stiffness could have been only saved by a few quirky ideas, humor or a few emotions for grown up audience. Overall, even in this edition, all these three prequel stories warrant only one movie, since they are very overstretched. The expressionistic battle between the future dictator Palpatine and Yoda, in which the Galactic Senate is symbolically destroyed, is the only sequence that justifies the existence of this prequel.


Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones; science-fiction, USA, 2002; D: George Lucas, S: Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Pernilla August, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Rose Byrne

Thousands of Solar systems form the Galactic Republic, but some demand separation under the influence of the evil Count Dooku. In order to keep the stability, the Senate gives Jedis Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker the asignment to protect Senator Padme Amidala. Obi-Wan follows the trail of the conspiracy that leads him to water planet Kamino where an army of clones is getting created for the Senate, even though nobody ordered it. The order was given by Dooku who captures the Jedi and Amidala. Still, the army of the Republic frees them, while Dooku escapes. Anakin and Amidala get married.

When George Lucas announced that the title of the second "Star Wars" prequel will be "The Attack of the Clones", many fans assumed he was either kidding or it was just a case of gossip journalism, but they were all surprised that the trashy title remained, foreshadowing the further fall of the saga into cheap storytelling. Sadly, the Force was not with Lucas on this one either: even though "Clones" are better than "Phantom", they are still just a sufficient film overfilled with banal dialogues and incredibly stupid design of aliens, from creatures with three eyes or four hands up to silly Bushmen like shrieks that are suppose to be a foreign language, while the character of Yoda who is supposed to be the main Jedi while he can't even speak English with proper grammar ("We in great danger be!") is a joke. Actually, the whole film seems at moments like a parody, except that it's too serious. In short, a B story with a big A production. Still, the film has virtues: a long time ago, John Milius resented the original "Star Wars" due to their lack of intensity, noticing how he would have liked to see a Jedi kill a little kid and create a real drama, and something like that really happened here; namely, in a very dramatic and authentic scene Anakin finds his mother captured in a tent, but she dies a short time later. In a moment of rage, he finds the aliens who kept her imprisoned and uses his laser sword to cut their heads off. The politics in the Republican Senate, though underused, are very interesting, mirroring some timeless fears of democracy getting swallowed by dictatorship (though it is very underdeveloped and never elaborated), while the finale in the arena in which Anakin, Amidala and Obi-Wan are tied to poles and fight monsters attacking them, who look like a mix between insects, dragons and rhinos, is especially exciting.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace; science-fiction, USA, 1999; D: George Lucas, S: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Pernilla August

Planet Naboo is attacked by the Federation. Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi save princess Amidala and land on desert planet Tatooine. They are accompanied by Jar-Jar Binks, a humanoid reptile, and droids R2D2 and C3PO. Qui-Gon finds a little boy, Annakin, and feels the power of Jedi in him. In order to win spare parts for their spaceship, Anakin wins in a race and goes with them. Planet Naboo is attacked by the evil emperor, thus the princess replaces the corrupt senators and begs the inhabitants to together defend their homeland. During the fight, Qui-Gon dies, but Obi-Wan kills the bad guy. The planet is saved, while Obi-Wan takes Anakin and decides to train him to become a Jedi.

After the famous "Star Wars" trilogy, director George Lucas didn't have any reason to make a sequel - since the original three films pretty much summed up the whole story - except to make a few quick bucks. If anything, he should have explored the underused theory of the Force and the system of the Galactic Federation, but he decided to rather give a backstory for Darth Vader, which could have worked, but didn't since the whole story in the three prequel films just lingers in every aspect. The first prequel, "The Phantom Menace", served it's purpose only as a commercial magnet, but with it's trashy creatures, aliens and sounds it almost brought into question the purpose of the whole saga. Lucas seems to be out of shape after abstaining from direction over 20 years, since the characters, scenes and events are written and filmed in a very standard, boring and ordinary way: no character has really any passion, any real ingenuity or something unique to add, except for the (weird) physical design of the comic sidekick alien Jar-Jar Binks. First off, the biggest problem lies in overstuffed special effects that bring the story almost to absurd chaos and ridiculous tone, while the characters are stiff, bland blobs of boredom, as well as the soap opera feel of the writing. Also, there are no revolutionary scenes that were not seen before. Still, one has to admit it is a variegated patchwork with a lot of imagination (giant fish; reptiles; a two-headed moderator who says a dumb-goofy line after an accident of a vehicle: "No matter from what part of the Galaxy you're from, that's got to hurt!") and the long race across the desert is good.


Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise

Oritsu Uchugun - Oneamisu no Tsubasa; animated science-fiction drama, Japan, 1987; Hiroyuki Yamaga, S: Leo Morimoto, Masahiro Anzai, Goro Naya, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Koji Totani, Mitsuki Yayoi

In an some alternate world, Shirotsugh Lhadatt joined the space force because his grades were too weak to become a pilot. When his country announces it's preparing to send the first man in space, he volunteers and starts a heavy training, while his friend Matti keeps motivating him. He also starts a "relationship" with a young woman, Riquinni, a religious fanatic who adopted a little girl. When the neighboring enemy state tries to assasinate Shirotsugh, he starts questioning his mission. When his rocket is about to launch in the demilitarized zone, the enemy state starts an invasion of the area in order to capture it, but the rocket starts and flies off to space anyway.

"The Wings of Honneamise" is a very opulent anime version of Kaufman's "The Right Stuff" set in an alternate universe: already from the funeral ceremony set somewhere at the beginning of the story, where the headstones look like poles with round rocks on them and the members wear bizarre blue-red uniforms with a long feather on top of their hats, can the viewers notice that the director and screenwriter Hiroyuki Yamaga ensured that no traces of any kind of traditions from our world can be recognized on the screen. He placed the whole story revolving around the obvious rivalry between US and Soviet Union during the "space race" in a hermetic, unknown planet in order to avoid any kind of blatant accusations - from the unusual clothes, a game that looks like a mix between monopoly and poker, bizarre design of the streets and buildings, an airplane propeller that looks like a hook, and even utility poles, every little detail is animated to look original and different on that world. It's something almost never seen before.

However, the authors didn't spend their energy only on details in set-design and costumes, but also on details of the characters, which seem alive and easily to identify with, giving the story precisely the stuff it needs. Overlong and overstretched, but with enthusiastic power that gives a portrait of a fictional nation preparing to launch the first man in space, "Honneamise" is a cult anime, wonderfully animated, shot in a crystal clear cinematography and designed to give contemplative messages about life - when the main astronaut protagonist hears that his country is spending a fortune to finance the space race while it's poor citizens are starving on the streets, the messages become very clear, and little humorous moments are there to give it more color, like in the scene where Shirotsugh finds out the little boy adopted by a religious woman is actually a little girl. The finale where the enemy state starts an invasion in order to capture the launching site of the rocket in the demilitarized zone is pure genius, and in the end there is simply something special in this slow-burning, yet complete film to give it that final special power to become a pure classic, not "just" a very good achievement.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari; silent Horror, Germany, 1920; D: Robert Wiene, S: Friedrich Feher, Werner Krauss, Conradt Veidt, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger
Francis is sitting on a bench and telling one man how he met the mysterious Dr. Caligari: many years ago, on some fair, Caligari was performing an act with Cesare, a man who walks while asleep, and among the audeince was Francis and Alan. When Alan asked him how long he will live, Cesare answered with: "Until tomorrow morning". And truly, Alan is found murdered the next morning. Francis suspects Dr. Caligari, especially when Cesare kidnaps his girlfriend Jane. After Cesare gets killed, Caligari turns out to be a mad principal of a mental asylum, and thus gets arrested...And then a twist: Francis turns out to be just a patient in Dr. Caligari's mental asylum.

Considered by many to be the first example of German expressionism, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is also one of the first horror films and classics of cinema, an interesting achievement that is more significant for its time than for our. Considering its expressionistic, even avant-garde style, the movie is fantastic: the whole "athwart" set design of the city turned out to be one giant, extreme mise-en-scene of the author's minds, made out of bizarre paper buildings and houses of extatic phisionomy that seem as if they came from some Salvador Dali painting, is brilliant, the authentic "flashback" structure of the story is fresh and inventive for the silent era, especially in the fascinating plot twist at the end, while some scenes are ontological, like when the mad Dr. Caligari suddenly imagines to see a caption "You Must Become Dr. Caligari!" all around him. Still, the mood and the rhythm don't have enough energy to compell to the fullest, yet gave a valuable example of a "more active" film vision that dared to step into the experimental territory of cinema, thereby advancing the movie language of early cinema.


The Cotton Club

The Cotton Club; crime / drama, USA, 1984; D: Francis Ford Coppola, S: Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lonetta McKee, James Remar, Bob Hoskins, Allen Garfield, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Jennifer Grey

Harlem, late 1 9 2 0s. Musician Dixie Dwyer saves the life of the gangster Dutch in a night club, and as a gratitude the mobster hires him to work for him. Dixie isn't very happy with that new turn of his life, but complies and falls in love with Dutch's girlfriend Vera. He starts working in the Cotton Club, where mobster Owney Madden convinces him to star in a film and go work for him. At the same time, Black dancers Sandman and Lila try to make it in the club. As years pass by, Dixie decides to free Vera from Dutch, who gets assasinated together with his gang, while Owney goes to prison.

Maybe it's wrong to compare every film of a director with his finest work, but when Francis Ford Coppola once again stepped into the gangster genre for his drama "The Cotton Club", it's inevitable to compare it to his legendary "Godfather's" trilogy. "Cotton Club" is in the end nothing more than a solid film ruined by too many pointless subplots and characters (for instance, Dixie's brother, Sandman and Lila seem more bothersome than as necessary component to the story), chaotic structure and mazy point. Here and there, Coppola creates a few memorable moments, like the neat little subplot about mafia financing some films in Hollywood, while Bob Hoskins is great as the "good" gangster Owney, yet those are not enough to make this overlong film work better, just to save it from turning into a hassle. Some efforts at gaining positive points with sudden outburst of shocking violence or great cinematography work only half way. If anything, Diane Lane once again delivered a great performance as Vera, a tragic woman who got stuck somewhere in underground and can't find a way out. Director Francis Ford Coppola and the film itself as best motion picture - drama were nominated for a Golden Globe, while the costumes won a BAFTA.


Monday, February 18, 2008


Babe; fantasy comedy, Australia / USA, 1995; D: Chris Noonan, S: Christine Cavanaugh (voice), Miriam Margolyes (voice), Danny Mann (voice), James Cromwell, Magda Szubanski

A farmer and his wife buy a little pig called Babe and bring it to their farm. Babe doesn't have his own family, thus he befriends the duck, Ferdinand, and finds a mother in a sheepdog who "adopts" him. Babe starts controling sheep and gains the attention of the farmer who places him as his sheep-pig. He even enlists Babe in a sheepdog contest, where he wins the first prize.

Winner of a Golden Globe as best motion picture - musical or comedy, "Babe" is an incredibly sweet and charming family tale. First of all, it's hard to make a children's film that's innocent, but also at the same time sharp enough to intrigue the grown up audience, and the authors of "Babe" did this with ease: that's the difference with other kids films that work only at moments, and this one that works all the time due to its wit. Secondly, Chris Noonan had a difficult task since directing animals as protagonists in a film is almost impossible, yet even that obstacle was eliminated. The sole sequence where Babe enters the Farmer's house in order to get the clock, but his leg gets wound up in a thread of yarn, so the nervous duck Ferdinand comes to realease him with his beak, accompanied by Camille Saint-Saëns's sweet "Symphony No. 3", is pure example of meticulous crafting of the filmmakers and their enormeous effort in every little detail. The scene where the sheep dog lady Fly is sad because her dog puppies are sold away from the farm is another example of simple, yet touching method of movie making, the style and the satirical gags that "passed" through the story are great, while there is even a good dose of great shot composition present. The only problem is that the last 20 minutes of the film are rather pointless and vague, revolving around the obscure sheep dog contest that abandoned the clear magical narration of the "unimportant" world of the animals, but other than that this is an excellent achievement: from the animals up to the human protagonists (especially excellent James Cromwell as the kind farmer), everything works down to a T.



Roxanne; romantic comedy, USA, 1987; D: Fred Schepisi, S: Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Rick Rossovich, Shelley Duvall, Fred Willard, Michael J. Pollard, Damon Wayans

C.D. Bales, a very kind person, is a chief of a clumsy firemen station in a small town. But, he has a small problem - his gigantic nose. He hates it so much he beats up everyone who dares to mock it. One night, he helps the blond Roxanne, who locked herself out of her house, and falls in love with her, but is afraid to tell her due to his nose. When she starts dating his fireman employee Chris, he helps him write poetic love letters to her. Still, Chris leaves with the waitress Sandy and Roxanne discovers C.D. wrote all the lettres, upon which she falls in love with him too.

Steve Martin delivered one of his best performances as the "Pinocchio" nosed C.D. Bales in the gentle, tame and sweet romantic comedy "Roxanne", which he wrote himself as a modern adaptation of the famous French play Cyrano de Bergerac. Simple, never too sweet or sentimental, but emotional nontheless, "Roxanne" is crafted in a very smooth way and shot in the background of the wonderful landscapes of Canadian town Nelson, while the sustained humor has its fair share of moments, especially in the legendary sequence where C.D. autoironically delivers 25 various gags about his nose in a bar, from "Your nose was on time, but you were 15 minutes late" up to "Watch out, it's gonna blow"! This light and charming comedy works with ease even today, even though the "bad guys" who make fun of C.D.'s nose are presented as a caricature and the important subplot where the hero expresses his feelings towards Roxanne through the moronic Chris becomes rather annoying and lingering after some time. Steve Martin was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in a motion picture - musical or comedy, while some critics even prefer his Bergerac interpretation more than Depardieu's in the famous film "Cyrano de Bergerac" completed three years later - but the latter had a more mature ending, faithful to the original play, unlike this one that took a safe happy ending.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy; comedy, USA, 1994; D: Joel Coen, S: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman, John Mahoney, Jim True-Frost, Bill Cobbs, Charles Durning, Bruce Campbell, Mike Starr, Peter Gallagher, Steve Buscemi, Anna Nicole Smith

New York, late 1 9 5 0s. The president of Hudsucker Industries, Mr. Waring Hudsucker, commits suicide by jumping through a window on top of his own building. The board of directors, headed by the ruthless Sindey J. Mussburger, place the naive Norville Barnes, who just came from a province, for the new president, hoping he will ruin the company with his bad leadership, so that they can buy their stocks cheaply. But Norville proves to be more capable than they expected when he invents the Hula Hoop and draws the attention of journalist Amy who decides to spy on him, but that is discovered by Sidney who fires him. Still, when Norville jumps through the window, he is saved by the angel of Hudsucker, and thus takes over the company.

With this extremely tame, gentle and correct comedy did Joel and Ethan Coen craft their most expensive film to date with a budget of 25 million $, but when it only grossed 3 million $ at the box office they decided never to invest so much into their nostalgic odes to golden Hollywood films. Coens somehow always strived towards the comical, but when they made "Hudsucker Proxy", a pure comedy, they somehow made it too artificial to be funny: the only truly laugh-out-loud scene is the one at the start where Mr. Hudsucker (Durning) is falling from the top of his very, very tall building, looking down and "waving" the people at the bottom to "move away" from the spot he will fall on, but as a whole, even some of Coen's dramas were funnier than this film. The only way to understand the brilliance is to be patient and admire the Coen's top notch visual style, that turns this into an excellent fantasy and satire on Capitalism, equipped with their 'overhuman' authorship, while their gentle homage to classic films like "Christmas in July", "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and especially "His Girl Friday" since Jennifer Jason Leigh is imitating Russell's madly fast talking, has some neat charm and even gives a little dose of emotions in their otherwise cold worlds. Tim Robbins is great as the naive, but lovable hero Norville, Paul Newman is also amazing, while the meticulous set design and a few virtuoso directed scenes ensures the story can be rewatched several times. The film was nominated for a Golden Palm in Cannes.


Barton Fink

Barton Fink; satire, USA, 1991; D: Joel Coen, S: John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

New York, early 1 9 4 0s. One famous Hollywood studio chief hires the young screenwriter Barton Fink to come to Hollywood and write a script for him about a wrestler. But once there, in his new home, a hotel, Fink suddenly doesn't have any inspiration for such a B concept and just vegetates, while his cheerful neighbor Charlie often drops by. He meets Audrey and sleeps with her, but when he wakes up in the morning, he finds her murdered in his bed. It turns out Charlie is a serial killer. Fink then writes the script, but the chief doesn't like it, so he leaves to a beach.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor (John Goodman) and for a Oscar for best supporting actor (Michael Lerner), "Barton Fink" is a rather stiff and uneven junction between thriller, drama and satire on Hollywood's screenwriters, whereas it even seems that the Coen brothers themselves had writer's block and decided to make a movie about it, in the metafilm manner of Fellini's "8 1/2". From every aspect of "Fink", it's obvious that the Coens are behind it, especially in their tremendous care for little stylish details, like a mosquito on a human skin or wallpaper hanging from a wall—whereas they sometimes deliciously spoof big Hollywood's treatment of small screenwriters ("The contents of your head are property of Capitol Pictures!")—but the thing simply isn't that funny. Here, their emphasis lies in the strong mood and psychological observations that go to such measure that they completely control the reaction of the audience and take many functions—from a sustained display of grotesque problems that bug Fink and every other person, up to a cold portrait of our banal-dysfunctional society. Still, there is one big complaint: just like their title hero, they are slightly lacking true inspiration, and thus one irrelevant subplot stands out like a sore thumb (the serial killer subplot) since it was just shoehorned into the thin main storyline, resulting in a good, stylish film, but a one that has too much empty bizarreness which lead nowhere.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Miller's Crossing

Miller's Crossing; crime, USA, 1990; D: Joel Coen, S: Gabriel Byrne, Jon Polito, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Albert Finney, J.E. Freeman, Mike Starr, Al Mancini, Richard Woods, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand
In one American city in the 20s, two rival mafia gangs are clashing with each other: the Irish and the Italian. Tom, a cold blooded cynic, works for the Irish gang, but starts crossing on the other side when he falls in love with Verna and refuses to murder her brother Bernie in the forest. By that, he indirectly rebels against his boss Leo, but in the end still double-crosses and kills the Italian boss Caspar.

"Miller's Crossing" is one of the best crime films of all time and, as ungrateful as it sounds, the Coen brothers would have desreved an Oscar for it much more than for their thriller "Fargo". With these kind of brilliant films everything seems perfect because it is full of ideas, style and almost esoteric crime mood, whereas it is hard to believe how two men created such a strong film about gangsters that it even rivals "The Godfather's" quality at times. There are murders and fights, but the Coens are at times so childish and playful that the viewers are always able to recognize the fun of the story: unusual perspectives and camera angles (the long sequence where Leo hides under his bed and shoots at two assassins who came to eliminate him in his home), weird, but meticulous, delicious details (in the explosion of a store a corpse of a gangster lands on the street), irony (a random kid takes the wig of a murdered gangster and causes his superiors to wonder about such "scalping") and humor in dialoges always give it a comical tone. One of the great moments are the opening scenes, in which an angry Johnny Casper (Jon Polito in the role of a lifetime) is shouting at Leo in his office, since Leo is refusing to kill Bernie, but just as Johnny is about to leave, Leo gives him a fantastic response with weight and wisdom: "Johnny, you're exactly as big as I let you be, and no bigger. Don't forget it, ever." The dialogues between Verna and Tom are also very creative and fun, as well ("Leo's got the right idea. I like him, he's honest and he's got a heart." - "Then it's true what they say. Opposites attract."). These kind of juicy dialogues display a masterful writing from the Coen brothers, who here reach the pinnacle of cinematic art. Quirky, measured and very tasteful. It is obvious the story is artificial, but it still seems close to life in its own stylized way, whereas it also gives a loving hommage to the classic 30s gangster films. Even though the film underrperformed at the US box office, today it's considered a secret recommendation, because it is a masterpiece.


Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona; comedy, USA, 1987; D: Joel Coen, S: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Trey Wilson, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, Frances McDormand, Randall 'Tex' Cobb

After many years in prison, clumsy robber H.I. McDonnough decides to marry policewoman Edwina. Their marriage would be perfect if there weren't one small problem - Edwina can't have kids. Thus, they kidnap one of the five babies of the wealthy tycoon Nathan Arizona. But the real problem starts when he puts a huge reward money for his baby, and H.I.'s former criminal pals Gale and Evelle take the child from them. Still, in the end, Edwina returns the baby back to Arizona, who shows understanding for the couple.

Bizarre cult comedy "Raising Arizona", the 2nd film of the Coen brothers, didn't manage to overwhelm as much as their first one. Unlike their great minimalistic debut film, which was extremely polished and meticulously crafted, "Arizona" seems chaotic, overstuffed and rather forcefully funny mainstream comedy, with sequences that are individually virtuoso directed, but as a whole don't connect that fluently. Even though the best scenes are the one where Nicolas Cage's character H.I. is running away from the police and the dog, "Arizona" has at least 5 moments with unrestrained humor, skillfully achieved with dialogues, situations and director's procedure. That energetic and stylish satire on adoption will please a lot of the audience, the actors are all great, among them even John Goodman as the bad guy, while the fast pace and clever ideas are to be found everywhere, yet the middle part of the film still seems lousy and too goofy at moments, while the story seems to drag and doesn't have as much spark as other Coen brothers films.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Blood Simple

Blood Simple; crime grotesque, USA, 1984; D: Joel Coen, S: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Samm-Art Williams, Deborah Neumann
Marty, the owner of a bar in Texas, hires a private detective to eliminate his wife Abby as a punishment for sleeping with Ray, his employee. But the plans of the revengeful husband soon become a farce when the detective eliminates him instead, while the couple gets plagued by doubt and fear. But since the detective forgot his lighter at Marty's bar and (mistakenly) thinks that Ray has it, he shoots him in his apartment. But Abby mistakes the detective for Marty and shoots him.

"Blood Simple" is the directorial debut of the Coen brothers that immediately caught them on right foot and proved to be a great contribution in their full, thoroughbred crime element. In this shining cult achievement, one of the best films of the 80s, Joel and Ethan Coen faultlessly enjoy crafting a humorous noir film filled with irony and cynical touch, but such laughter can get stuck the viewer's throat - since it's always dreadfully realistic. The violence is so stylized that it's neither attractive nor repulsing, the style and the esoteric mood - created thanks to the play with shadows and dimmed lights - are perfect, and a fantastic fun, while the smooth surreal details just give another reason for pleasure. A rare jewel. Later on they tried to give even further contributions to the theme, but never somehow repeated the magic feeling of this grotesque. There is a whole bunch of creepy scenes: Ray (Getz) painstakingly buries the half-dead, half-alive owner of the bar, thus the soil above him still moves, in an expressionistic 15 minute sequence almost without any dialogues; in the suspenseful attempt of kidnapping the music becomes unbearably loud; Ray has an affair with the married Abby and her husband, Marty, calls him on the phone and asks him: "Are you having fun?". M. Emmet Walsh achieved the role of a lifetime as the sleazy detective Visser, who is one of the greatest cynical characters in cinema - almost every of his lines is a classic: in one particular, Visser presents to Marty the photo of his wife in bed, having an affair, and jokingly adds: "I know a place where you can get this framed!" It is amazing someone dared to finance this minimalistic independent film by the first time directors and then "nobodies", the Coens, but sometimes things just end up the way they should, since this overstretched, but delicious classic is simply meticulous.


Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing; drama / romance, USA, 1987; D: Emile Ardolino, S: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Cynthia Rhodes, Jerry Orbach, Kelly Bishop, Jane Brucker

In the summer of '63, the 17-year old girl Baby is taking a vacation together with her parents, Jake and Marjorie, and sister Lisa at a turist resort equipped with dancing. The place is typical for family visits, pretty conservative, old fashioned and for young people boring. But Baby meets the young dance instructor Johnny and his dance partner Penny, who wants to make an abortion. In order for Penny to get some time off, Baby jumps in for her and dances with Johnny at the hotel ball. The abortion goes wrong and Baby's dad has to save Penny's life. Baby and Johnny start a relationship, even though he is poor. In the end, he gets fired, but they perform a great dance at the end.

Now it is obvious that the 80s were a class for itself, an esoteric time period where events and situations in movies seemed somehow more stimulative than they are today. If "Dirty Dancing" was made today, it would have probably been done differently, but since it was made in the 80s it is still a surprisingly charming, sympathetic, real, alive film filled with youth's energy that hits just the right nerve. The heavy handed "Romeo & Juliet" melodramatic complications sometimes seem as if they came from a soap opera and the one dimensional bad guys like Robbie don't improve the impression, yet all in all "Dancing" is a very fine film with wonderful aesthetic, even offering an interesting take on class differences. Especially great is the brilliant Jennifer Grey who after this film somehow sadly never achieved a great career, even though she is an incredibly charming actress, while one of the highlights is the enchanting, a truly natural montage where the main protagonist Baby is teaching how to dance with Johnny (in one scene he is rehersing a move of putting his hand down her armpit three time because she is tickled and laughs every time) and the song "Hungry Eyes" played during that sequence is perfect. "Dirty Dancing" became the voice of dance lovers of the 80s.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Viridiana; Drama/ Satire, Spain/ Mexico, 1961; D: Luis Buñuel, S: Silvia Pinal, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey, Jose Calvo, Margarita Lozano, Jose Manuel Martin, Victoria Zinny

Nun Viridiana is sent to visit her only living relative, uncle Don Jaime. She complies and stays at his mansion for a few days, even though she doesn't like his secularism. Jaime is in love with her because she resembles his deaceased wife, and thus puts her to sleep with a sedative. He brings her to bed and kisses her, but then stops and leaves. The next morning, when she wakes up and he lies that they slept together, Viridiana leaves the estate, even though Jaime admits he lied. But just as she is about to leave, she hears Jaime hanged himself. Feeling remorse, she decides to dedicate her life to the poor: she randomly collects a dozen beggars and brings them to Jaime's mansion, also inhabited by Jorge. One evening, the beggars go wild, create a big feast and try to rape Viridiana. The police gets there and stops them. Jorge teaches Viridiana how to play cards.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Viridiana" is one of the more subtle and positive films of sardonic, atheist director Luis Bunuel, even though his satirical jabs at religion were obviously bitter enough to stir up controversies and get the film banned in Spain in 1961. Gorgeous Silvia Pinal is great in the leading role of Viridiana, a noble nun full of grace, but the story around her is built in a cynical contrapoint that makes an inversion of her good deeds that all end up in a disaster, underlying the film's hidden motif that religion can't change anything in the harsh reality. Luckily, Bunuel didn't go overboard with his dark negation, nor did he try to force his world views on the viewers, even though some of those traces can be found - one sequence of Viridiana praying together with the beggars is constantly intercut with such random earthly scenes of dirty water splashing in a wheelbarrow or construction workers hammering the rocks, which gives it a funny undertone, and the legendary cult finale where the dozen beggars are all sitting at the table and at one moment look exactly like the Da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper" before a woman "flashes" them with her skirt. Still, it seems as if the story also has sympathy with the innocent Viridiana since some scenes are actually sweet and gentle, like the scene where a bee in the water gets saved from drowning by a board. The whole film is very straight forward and sometimes deliberately "worn out", yet the provokative tone gives it a dose of undated flair.



Michael; Romantic comedy, USA, 1996; D: Nora Ephron, S: William Hurt, Andie MacDowell, John Travolta, Bob Hoskins, Robert Pastorelli, Jean Stapleton, Teri Garr, Joey Lauren Adams

Frank, editor of the "National Mirror" magazine, gets a letter from an old lady who claims that an angel named Michael is living at her home. Since he is not in best relations with his boss Vartan, he leaves with his friend Huey, his dog and the peculiar Dorothy to visit that old lady. But there they discover that Michael seems just to be a normal man with wings and bad habits: he smokes, drinks, eats too much sugar and is messy. When the old lady dies and they return to Chicago with Michael, strange things start happening: he ends up as a wise person who helps them in trouble, changes them and brings Frank and Dorothy together. Then he dies.

A big box offcie gross ensured the mild fantasy comedy "Michael" enough attention. It would be wrong to say that the viewers were deceived and let down, but the movie is developing quite deifferently from their expectations, especially since the leading protagonist is not John Travolta, but actually William Hurt and Andie MacDowell. Not especially funny or strong, but somehow touching, kind and enigmatic, "Michael" honestly speaks about human emotons and mistakes, while some of the humorous moments involving "angel" Michael in his vice, like drinking or smoking, are pretty amusing. scenically and cute, this light film has a few clever moments and humane messages, Bob Hoskins is amusing as the "bad" boss, while the director Nora Ephron frames the whole story with the sky during the day in the beginning and the sky during dusk at the end of the film.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Psycho; thriller, USA, 1960; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Vera Miles, Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Vaughn Taylor

Pheonix, Arizona. Bank employee Marion steals 40,000 $ intended as a payment for a real estate deal and runs away with her car to a distant motel run by a sensitive lad, Norman Bates, who lives in the nearby house with his mother. But that evening, while she was taking a shower, Marion was stabbed to death. Other guests come to investigate the event: detective Arbogast gets also stabbed to death, but Marion's sister Lili and Sam discover that Norman's mother is actually dead and that Norman has a split personality, killing women because he imagines that his mother is jealous at them. Norman gets arrested.

"The audience was not interested in the message of the film. The audience was not excited by brilliant acting. The audience was not enchanted by the the reputation of the novel. It was excited by pure film. That's why I'm proud of "Psycho" - because it's a film that belongs to us, the cineast", perfectly summed up the master of suspense in the interview with Truffaut in his book "Hitchcock". A magnificent masterpiece, "Psycho" is one of the most influential and hyped movies of Alfred Hitchcock's later career - here he leads even today interesting and undated moments, whose basis lies in the deep profile of the killer and stimulates the viewer to think. Hitchcock and the screenwriter Joseph Stefano frighten a lot, but they never do that in a banal way, but add humor while the ending is brilliantly focused and explains the psychology of the killer, so that everything has it's why and because. The most famous scene, the one with the murder under the shower, is pure black poetry as well as it "erases" the fake main protagonist, Marion, and presents a new one, Norman Bates, which may be the only unbalanced transition of the story, yet is stylistically inventive and original. Some of the dialogues and acting are shaky, but the style, the plot twist at the end and the bravura direction are so intense that they even change them towards their advantage, which make the film fresh even today. Janet Leigh won a Golden Globe as best supporting actress, while she was also nominated for an Oscar together with set decoration, cinematography and Hitchcock as best director, who should have won that award, but it went to "The Apartment".