Sunday, August 30, 2009

Queen Margot

La Reine Margot; Drama, France/ Germany/ Italy, 1994; D: Patrice Chéreau, S: Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Vincent Perez, Virna Lisi

Paris, 1572. France is experiencing the Wars of religions and is split between the Catholics and Protestants. In order to unite the country, queen Catherine de Medici arranges for a forced marriage of her daughter Margot with the leader of the Protestants, Henri de Bourbon. But after the marriage, king's soldiers kills a mass of Protestants and capture Henri. Margot saves Protestant La Mole from the massacre and falls in love with him. When Henri saves the life of Charles, Margot's brother, he gains him his freedom. Charles gets poisoned, Le Mole killed while Charles IX gets crowned.

"Queen Margot" is an unusual history drama that placed much effort on breaking the cliches of its genre and approaching the Renaissance problems towards the modern day problems, earning praise whereas it was even nominated for a Golden Globe (best foreign language film) and an Oscar (best costumes design), winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes. Director Patrice Chereau, just like in his previous films, infiltrated much passion into his characters, which is why Queen Margot, on her wedding night, has intercourse with a complete stranger on the street, and she was also the object of desire of her two brothers. Especially funny is the exposition in which a tired Catholic finds a Protestant in his hotel room and is forced to share a bed with him, yet as a whole the story is slightly overlong and too demanding at times. Still, it juggles exquisitely with symbols revolving around the maddens of religious fanaticism and fight for power, while Isabelle Adjani rightfully gained universal acclaim.


Top Secret!

Top Secret!; comedy, USA, 1984; D: Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, S: Val Kilmer, Lucy Gutteridge, Jeremy Kemp, Christopher Villiers, Eddie Tagoe, Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing

In order to divert the attention of the world from their planned move against the NATO exercise, the East Germans organize and host a concert of the famous rock idol from the USA, Nick Rivers. But when he helps a girl in trouble, Hilary, a member of the resistance, he gets thrown in prison but escapes and joins her. But she also meets her old love, Nigel, the leader of the resistance. As their group liberates Hilary's father, a famous scientist, from prison, it turns out Nigel is a traitor. Still, they manage and Hilary flies off to safety.

"Top Secret!" phenomenally distinguishes itself from other parodies of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio. Even their other (earlier) films carry their typical humor, but it was never so excellently blended with masterful comic direction, rhythm of the story and passionate details like here. All scenes are a fantastic fun - the viewers are so glued to the screen that they can only feel pity that they are not a part of the movie - while some jokes literally cause stomach pain. They deliberately mixed up the 40s and 50s, the Nazi era and the era of East Germany, but since this a parody of World War II films set in its own universe, it works either way. The scene of the fight under water and the visit to the library with Peter Cushing where every movement is filmed in reverse even today cause amazement of the technique with which they were filmed. Some crude bits of humor and innuendo are bothersome, but whenever they are childishly naive the film is a blast and enjoys cult status (and the German dub is even funnier). "Top Secret" is arguably even the best parody in the career of the trio: the jokes with the cow in the boots or Chocolate Mousse throwing a grappling hook that accidentally also grabs his colleague and throws him up to the wall are hilarious as ever.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Close to Home

Karov La Bayit; Drama, Israel, 2005; D: Varid Bilu, Dalia Hager, S: Smadar Sayar, Naama Schendar, Katia Zinbris, Ami Weinberg, Irit Suki

Jerusalem. The rebellious Smadar works as an IDF soldier at a checkpoint, but hates to browse around private stuff of Arab women trying to pass. She is thus punished by her superior Dubik by having to go to patrol with the new girl, Mirit. Patrolling through the streets, they are quite different - Smadar is extroverted, Mirit is introverted - but after a suicide attack they meet a nice guy. Mirit has a crush on him, but is afraid to approach him. When she dances with one of the guests at a hotel, she is punished by a week in prison. The two of them argue. A man refuses to show them his ID. The crowd attacks him. The two girls ride off on a motorcycle.

One of the rare films that shows the IDF service from the female perspective, "Close to Home" is a neat, realistic, calm and occasionally even humorous and sweet little movie; a one that acts like "Azumanga Daioh" set in the army at times, since it juggles with the theme of girls doing their service at a professional level, but also having their private life, shopping and being interested in guys. The latter tickles the imagination, but doesn't come that well across since the formal army life pushes it mostly in the background. Directors Bilu-Hager craft the film refreshingly feminine and authentic, with the two irresistibly cute heroine Smadar and Mirit (great performances by the two actresses who play them) going through numerous misadventures: in one scene, the clumsy Smadar tries to write down the IDs of two Arabs on the street, but her pen won't write, so they have to borrow their's to her. When Mirit complains that her new boots are "too tight", her superior Dubik tells her to do her job and that the boots will "widen". As Dubik leaves, the two girls cynically comment: "Only your butt will widen!" And especially amusing was the scene where the two of them are secretly following a guy Mirit has a crush on. More of such situations would have been welcomed, since the story is only half-way charming, but it has just enough life and spirit to avoid the grey territory and turn into a satisfying achievement.


King Leopold's Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost; Documentary, USA, 2006; D: Pippa Scott, Oreet Rees, S: Don Cheadle, Phillippe Bergeron, Adam Hochschild

The film chronicles the story about the so called 'Free Congo State': hiding his real intention under "philanthropic" motivations, King Leopold II of Belgium tricks explorer Henry Morton Stanley and the Berlin Conference into helping him put the large area of Congo under his de facto private possession in 1885. In order to exploit as much rubber, copper and ivory as possible, his soldiers placed millions of Africans as slaves who had to work under terribly inhumane conditions. Finally, after Leopold's death, Congo was handed over to Belgium as a "official" colony. Anti-colonialist Patrice Lumumba was executed in the 60s. His successors Mobutu and Kabila just stayed faithful to the Western interests exploiting the state.

Documentary "King Leopold's Ghost" may really be a little bit preachy, but the lessons it preaches are the ones that are rarely heard in the modern media - some of them are so rare that many viewers never even heard of them all. The shameful colonialist era, when the Free Congo State was ruthlessly exploited to the point that probably around 5 million Africans lost their lives to it, is analyzed systematically and objectively, avoiding to be pretentious for the most part. Since many records of that time were burnt by King Leopold II himself, it was hard for the authors to create a complete picture of things, and alas it seems some pieces are missing or were lost forever in history. However, with stock footage and shots of Congo, they still managed to get some sufficient insight into the film. The last third, that at first seems like a flaw, actually becomes a virtue in the conclusion - namely, it switches from Leopold's rule to the modern day history of Congo, including the bloody Second Congo War, sadly showing how explicit colonialism was replaced with a subtle colonialism, but the exploitation of Congo's riches still remained the same.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Man Without a Past

Mies vailla menneisyyttä; tragicomedy, Finland, 2002; D: Aki Kaurismäki, S: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Juhani Niemelä, Kaija Pakarinen

Three hooligans beat up a man who, due to injuries, loses his memory. He is pronounced dead in a hospital, but he comes back to life and finds a place to stay at a kind, but poor family. After his wounds heal, he finds a job, an apartment and falls in love with Irma, who works in social welfare. When he intends to open an account, the bank gets robbed. The police discovers his identity, and among others that he is married. But after the divorce, he returns to Irma.

Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, winner of the Grand Prix and best actress award (Kati Outinen) at Cannes, "The Man Without a Past" is an inspired minimalistic film with a calm stoicism. Aki Kaurismaki's direction is here more ironic than before and that's why he is even deliberately dilettante (the actors don't act but just say their lines in a relaxed manner and perform weird gestures) which is why the story turns out very funny: the hero stands up from bed in bandages and "corrects" his broken nose, and since he lost his memory he says this to a friend who asks him if he is an anti-alcoholic: " far as I". Later on he gets an apartment from a guard and even here a twisted dialogue takes place: "When can I move in?" - "As soon as I turn my back". - "And where is the key?" - "And where do you see a lock here?". Such deliberately fake performances have charm precisely because they subtly ridicule all those fixated "high art" method actors since the messages and ideas of the screenplay are transported even this way. The love story between the hero without a name and Irma has chemistry while the dry humor comes swiftly (like when it is discovered that a broke bank was sold to North Korea), but the slow rhythm and unfocused story bother slightly, though the result is very accessible.



Juha; Silent drama, Finland, 1999; D: Aki Kaurismäki, S: Kati Outinen, Sakari Kousmanen, Andre Wilms, Markku Peltola

Finland. In a peaceful, idyllic village, there lives a farmer who limps, Juha. He raised the beauty Marja and later married her. In the middle of the road, the car of the suspicious city man Shemeikka breaks down so Juha allows him to stay at his house. The situation becomes complicated because Shemeikka seduces Marja and runs away with her. They have intercourse in the forest. Juha notifies the police but it is powerless since she left voluntarily. Shemeikka puts Marja in his brothel so that she would work as a prostitute. She becomes pregnant and gets a baby. The angry Juha kills Shemeikka with an axe, but himself dies from being hit by his gun.

Aki Kaurismaki continued his twisted opus with an experimental film, the silent black and white drama "Juha" that even has classically written dialogues in form of subtitles, while the only spoken line comes from some woman singing in a brothel. As a real Kaurismaki film, "Juha" is a minimalistic product - i.e. everything is reduced to the minimum, which is why some viewers regard minimalistic films as empty and others as ambitious - with a running time of only 70 minutes, where almost nothing happens. The characters and the mood are idyllic, simple and a little bit passive, up until the tragic end, while an occasional outburst of humor gives it a mild spark, like when Rock 'N Roll music is heard in the background when Marja becomes "rebellious" and puts on make up, though as a whole the movie is too anecdotal.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

I Hired a Contract Killer

I Hired a Contract Killer; Tragicomedy, Finland/ Sweden, 1990; D: Aki Kaurismäki, S: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Margi Clarke, Kenneth Colley

French man Henri Boulanger lives in London. His job in the office is boring, the weather is constantly cloudy and top of all he is single. When he gets fired because he is a foreigner, he decides to kill himself. He takes his money and hires a contract killer called Harry in some bar to kill him. However, Henri gets a new will for life when he starts to smoke, drink and love the rose saleslady Margaret. He tries to persuade the criminals to leave him alone, but the bar was demolished in the meantime. But Harry is sick and kills himself, so Henri leaves with Margaret.

"I Hired a Contract Killer" isn't quite an honest refreshment from the secluded Finnish cinema even though the basic premise is original: a neat shrill mood is established when the hero Henri goes to a bar and hires a contract killer, giving him a photo of the victim (himself!) upon which the criminals try to talk him out of it, but the humor is too thin and quickly loses its steam. Director Aki Kaurismaki has a good rhythm (and economical, since the movie's running time is only 75 minutes) and manages to make even empty scenes seem meaningful, but either he doesn't know how to lead his main protagonist or he didn't feel "at home" in London, away from his home terrain. Somebody else would have taken this cartoon concept and make a real culmination of absurd out of it, but this isn't the case here. If there were more humorous ideas, something that would make the movie more engaging, this wouldn't have ended like a TV production.



Ariel; drama, Finland, 1988; D: Aki Kaurismäki, S: Turo Pajala, Susanna Haavisto, Matti Pellonpää, Eetu Hilkamo

During winter, a mountain mine gets shut down and everyone is left without a job. Among them is Taitso who witnesses how his friend commits suicide from despair. He heads towards Helsinki in a cabriolet. There he gets robbed and doesn't find a job, but meets and falls in love with a woman whose son works at a police station and and a butchery. When Taitso attacks the robber who robbed him, he gets arrested and put in jail for a year. He runs escapes with Mikkonen and they plan to leave the country. The people who counterfeited their documents kill Mikkonen, so Taitso kills them and departs with the woman and her son on a ship called Ariel.

Simple and slightly monotone drama "Ariel" has typical elements of director Aki Kaurismaki, the "Finnish Jarmusch": meditative and minimalistic story, laconic direction, relaxed tone and unusual characters. Kaurismaki, who achieved his greatest commercial success with the hit comedy "Leningrad Cowboys go America", doesn't have that much humor here. The exception is only the scene where hero Taitso gets a parking ticket but persuades the police woman to go on a date with him if she takes the ticket back, upon which she agrees and throws her hat on the road which gets run over by a car. Kaurismaki doesn't criticize the social problems in a pedagogical-preachy way, yet his story is messy, unfocused and too thin, thus far away from an excellent grade. In the 70 minute of running time, Taitso experiences various misadventures and lands in jail, yet since it all has little energy, "Ariel" seems slightly anemic.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

This Property Is Condemned

This Property Is Condemned; Drama, USA, 1966; D: Sydney Pollack, S: Natalie Wood, Mary Badham, Robert Redford, Kate Reid, Charles Bronson

The mysterious Owen arrives in a small Mississippi town and decides to stay at a local Boarding house which is run by Hazel. He also meets her two daughters, the little girl Willie and 20-year old Alva who seems to be the most desired girl in town since all the men in the house are trying to get her attention. But she falls for Owen, even though he is rather cold towards everyone. It turns he works as an inspector for the railroad and has come to lay off workers. He leaves, while Hazel plans to persuade Alva to "spend some time" with the rich, but lonely Mr. Johnson who in return will give them an estate. But she spontaneously marries Hazel's friend J.J. and leaves for New Orleans. There she meets Owen again and they fall in love, but that is shattered when Hazel tells him she married J.J. Alva runs away and dies from Pneumonia.

One of Natalie Wood's last roles before she started making longer and longer pauses between her movies, "This Property is Condemned" is an interesting and proportionally ferocious drama that was made by the screenplay that prolonged the short one act play by Tennessee Williams, but remained faithful to all his typical trademarks: American South, suppressed sexuality and tragic, 'condemned' characters. The most enduring thing that remained in the story is the daring subject and relationships it tackles: definitely, due to censorship, not everything was spelled out, but it is implied that the 43-year old Hazel was once a prostitute and that she is trying to pass some of that behavior to her beautiful daughter Alva (Wood), especially in the scene where she is trying to persuade her to "sacrifice just a few weeks of her life" to be with the bald, unattractive but rich Mr. Johnson who in return would give them an estate. The dramatic structure could have been more articulated and not so "off", but many scenes reveal Sydney Pollack's sure hand, like the one where Alva invites everyone to skinny dipping or when she jokingly asks Owen about the "above-ground graves in New Orleans". But the movie truly starts only in the last 20 minutes where Alva and Owen start a relationship, since Wood and Redford have such great chemistry. Wood was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Little Buddha

Little Buddha; Drama, Italy/ France/ UK/ Liechtenstein, 1993; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: Alex Wiesendanger, Bridget Fonda, Ruocheng Ying, Chris Isaak, Keanu Reeves

Tibetan monks led by Lama Norbu arrive to Seattle because they think that the great Buddhist teacher Lama Dorje might have been reincarnated as boy Jesse. Norbu makes friends with Jesse's mother Lisa, but her husband Dean is slightly irritated by the monks. Though he changes his mind and follows them to Bhutan. It turns out Dorje reincarnated himself into Jesse, Raju and girl Gita...The story of Siddhartha: he grew up as a Hindu prince, surrounded only by young and beautiful people, until he discovered the sick and the old and was so shocked he decided to free humanity from the course of suffering. He went to the forest and meditated as an ascetic, until he realized one must live through "the middle", without the extremes of luxury and deprivation. He achieved enlightenment.

How many movies are there about Jesus Christ? Instinctively, numerous viewers would immediately estimate around a thousand of them. But how many movies are there about another prophet, Buddha? They are a rarity. Director Bernardo Bertolucci attempted to depict such in the minimalistic-quiet adventure biopic "Little Buddha" which didn't find its way to the mainstream. Untypically, Bertolucci crafted a story completely deprived of his trademark Communist views and delivered a completely politically neutral film with an excellent Keanu Reeves in the role of the prophet and opulent realms of costumes and colors. The main damage to "Little Buddha" is caused by the clumsy double story that seems uneven: the Buddha story is fascinating, though ascetic, but the modern story set in Seattle is overstretched and heavy handed in such a way that it forces itself in the foreground and encapsulates around 65 % of running time - which just seem as distracting from the main "subplot" story. Some of the depictions of the Buddha myth, like when a cobra appears behind the prophet and places its head above him to protect him from the rain as an umbrella, are unintentionally comical, yet the majority is presented with sophistication, like the scene which depicts him meditating bellow a tree while demon Mara sends fire and tidal waves in the background, though it's still more a standard film and less a unique view into human spirituality and enlightenment.


Monday, August 17, 2009

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

My Super Ex-Girlfriend; Fantasy comedy, USA, 2006; D: Ivan Reitman, S: Luke Wilson, Uma Thurman, Anna Faris, Rainn Wilson

New York. Project manager Matt meets the nerdy Jenny Johnson in a subway and asks her out. Even though she is difficult, they start a relationship. He is however surprised when he finds out she is actually super heroine G-Girl. After she turns out to be arrogant and he falls in love with his colleague Hannah, he dumps Jenny. As a consequence, she uses her super-powers to turn his life into a nightmare. When Professor Bedlam, Jenny's ex-boyfriend, tries to take her powers away, Hannah gets super-powers herself and battles with G-Girl. Though, Jenny returns to Bedlam and Hannah to Matt.

"My Super Ex-Girlfriend" has 2 funniest sex scenes in 2006. In the first, the nerdy Jenny, actually super heroine G-Girl, exchanges her clothes in hilarious fast-motion in the bathroom to hide her costume beneath her shirt. She then proceeds to approach Matt and rips his sleeves and pants. And when she is on top of him, the whole bed rocks left and right from her "power". In the second one, they have intercourse while she is flying, which causes her to lose herself and almost fall down on the street from ecstasy. This unusual mix between "Superwoman" and "Fatal Attraction" is too thin to really be a great film, but it's very entertaining and here and there shows that comedy veteran Ivan Reitman still has some good sixth sense for humor. The reason why Matt would suddenly end his relationship with G-Girl is unconvincing and serves only as a plot device, yet Uma Thurman is simply brilliant and contagiously energetic in her role, while the screenplay is refreshingly turning superhero cliches upside down - really, how often do you get a chance to see a super heroine who saves the world, but is privately actually a real bitch? Not really a great film, but because of those virtues, it's pretty amusing.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jerry Maguire

Jerry Maguire; tragicomedy, USA, 1996; D: Cameron Crowe, S: Tom Cruise, Renée Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kelly Preston, Jonathan Lipnicki, Jerry O'Connell, Jay Mohr
Jerry Maguire is a sports agent who leads a great life, equipped with wealth, luxury and a girlfriend. But one day he gets disappointed by himself when he discovers he doesn't have any humanity and emotions left in him. In order to do a humane job that will actually please him spiritually, he quits in the agency with secretary Dorothy, a single mother, and decides to concentrate only on one client who will also be his friend, football player Rod. He falls in love with her and they get married. After a lot of tough luck, his client succeeds and gets a great contract, while Jerry finds new love in Dorothy.

With "Jerry Maguire", director Cameron Crowe obviously made some compromises with Hollywood and big budget A-productions, but, alas, just like his title hero, he didn't mess it up but actually stayed faithful to himself and his own style, in which he once again presented his bitter-sweet view on humanity. This is one of the most intelligent and subtly emotional movies of the 90s: in a time when people are willing to do any job possible to pay they bills, and willing to tolerate anything just to keep it, Crowe wrote a story about a person who actually doesn't want to continue living like that and quits just to do a humane job that will not leave him with a bad conscious afterwards. He leads fantastic dialogues that were not written to be 'cool', but to say something - in one scene, Jerry and Dorothy quit their jobs at the agency and exit in an elevator. There they spot a deaf couple talking with their hands. Dorothy translates to Jerry what they said: "You complete me".

These kind of lines are just so perfect because they foreshadow what will happen to the young couple in the second part of the film. And how often do you hear a sentence that sums up everything so poetically in just 3 words? Granted, the "Show me the money!" sequence is rubbish, but almost all other are spot on, including even Dorothy's romantic "You had me at 'hello'" or the even better, overlooked sweet dialogue in which she complains about constantly spending her time at home: "Look at me, Laurel. I'm the oldest 26-year old in the world". You can be jealous at Crowe, but these are the kind of lines you don't hear that often in movies. The rather magniloquent performance by Cooba Gooding Jr. - who is among the weakest best supporting Oscar winning actors of the 90s - is a matter of taste, the sugary moments with the little kid are truly too sugary, but one should not criticize too much, because the characters here have a soul. Renee Zellweger as Dorothy is smashing, and she arguably even gave the performance of a lifetime, whereas Tom Cruise is also great in a very untypical role for him: while many of his other roles in commercial films faded away and lost their appeal, here he delivered one with a permanent value. In the end, this is a very honest story that is a joy to watch, about something rarely talked about, that was explained by Dicky Fox in one quick scene: "If this (points to his heart) is empty, this (points to his head) doesn't matter".


Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Night at Maud's

Ma nuit chez Maud; drama, France, 1969; D: Eric Rohmer, S: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Francoise Fabian, Antoine Vitez, Marie-Christine Barrault

The introverted engineer Jean-Louis wants to be a noble Catholic. He meets the blond Francoise in a church, but is too shy to meet her. He makes friends with Vidal and goes to visit his extroverted, open minded friend, Maud. Their conversations continue well into the winter night since Maud is very interested in Jean-Louis' opinions. When it starts to snow, Vidal leaves the apartment, while Jean-Louis and Maud stay alone. Her open minded views fascinate him so he sleeps over at her place. The next morning, he changes and meets Francoise with whom he gets married. 5 years later, he again meets Maud one day.

The most beautiful film by Eric Rohmer is a relaxed drama that subtly executed a discussion about the views on sexuality and human relationships, getting nominated for several awards. At first the story deceivingly seems like a usual melodrama full of empty walk, but things quickly start to stir up when protagonists Jean-Louis and Vidal enter Maud's apartment: the minute she changes into her pyjamas with a mini skirt (making Vidal jokingly add: "Aha, you want to show us your legs") and invites them to stay at her place, does the movie transform into a magical event with such an ease as if you turn a feather upside down. When Vidal leaves and the shy Jean-Louis stays alone with Maud the whole night it's as if the whole story climbs up a notch in brilliance even more. Their conversations are so honest, so direct and so fascinating that Rohmer managed to do the impossible, to invite the viewer to join the intimate experience of the two in the apartment. Jean-Louis is fascinated by her open minded views and they talk about several things, like about Christians whose reputation is more important to them than their faith, while he even sleeps over at her place, in her bed, while she is naked. That is almost a mythical achievement that creates everything through mood. If the whole film had revolved just around that main plot, and disposed the subplots - the lax opening and weak ending - it would have been a masterwork, but even in this version it is a shining little film that speaks volumes about human relationships.


The Green Ray

Le Rayon vert; drama, France, 1986; D: Eric Rohmer, S: Marie Riviere, Beatrice Romand, Sylvie Richez, Eric Hamm

Summer. Secretary Delphine has divorced while one friend of her informs her that she won't join her for a Greek vacation, so the trip is canceled. Delphine is very shy and secluded, so everyone is persuading her to go to sea for a vacation anyway in order to enrich her romantic life. After a lot of staling, she goes to visit her relatives in Cherbourg, but since everyone is puzzled by the fact that she is a vegetarian, she leaves to Paris. She decides to give it another try and goes to the mountains, but returns home the same day. On the sea at Biarritz, she meets a Scandinavian woman who wants to match her with some men, but she runs away. Still, she finds the right one at the end; Jacques. At sunset, they observe the green ray.

Marie Riviere excellently played her character of Delphine and the story is subtle, but still this portrait of a shy woman in her 20s is somehow mediocre and empty. Director Eric Rohmer called this film "The Green Ray", by the novel of Jules Verne, aiming at the notion that a green ray can be seen for a moment during the sunset that will achieve the enlightenment: that idea isn't especially well connected with the sole story, yet it was solidly incorporated in the film. Filled both with dialogues and moments of silence, this is a good film about human relationships, but not so original to justify the won Golden Lion for best film. The author juggles with a few neat symbols, like in the scene where Delphine finds a Queen playing card on the street, but it's a pity that her romance with Jacques starts just a few minutes before the end of the film - that should have happened definitely sooner.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Red Dawn

Red Dawn; Action, USA, 1984; D: John Milius, S: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Brad Savage, Powers Boothe, Harry Dean Stanton

Numerous countries around the World turn towards Socialism and Communism, even the whole Latin America. NATO gets dissolved and the USA stays alone in the World, without allies. One day, the Soviet and Cuban soldiers land with parachutes in a small town in Colorado, starting the Soviet occupation of the US. A couple of high school students, among them Jed, Matt, Robert, Erica, Danny and Toni, hide in the mountains and start a paramilitary group, 'Wolverines', in order to battle the occupiers with guerrilla warfare. Many of them die, but Danny and Erica survive while the American soldiers manage to chase away the Soviet occupiers.

"Red Dawn" has a fascinating 'alternate history' concept in which the Soviet Union starts an occupation of the US, riding on the wave of Cold War, though the story is so underdeveloped and scarce that in the end it seems like we only got to see a small part of the bigger experience that got lost. Back in 1984, some critics lamented that John Milius crafted the film like a "gun-obsessed hillbilly", but that's irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is that Milius didn't manage to transmit his fascination with military strategy and tactics to the screen. So many of his films had deep philosophical lines, but here they are absent and it becomes apparent that this turned into a standard action flick. The beginning starts to build up fine, with Soviets landing with their parachutes near a high school and shooting a history teacher who came out, while there is even a scene where Americans are rounded in a camp and presented with Soviet video trying to "convert them", with the announcer saying how "they are now liberated from the Capitalist bloodsuckers" and "will embrace Socialism". But that's where the good parts end and "Red Dawn" steadily degenerates into a silly 'kids fight Soviets like Cowboys and Indians'. But what about the people who are now on the territory under the occupation? What programs do they watch on TV? Do they go to their everyday job? What does the government do during the invasion? How does the World react? Is there a map of the occupied territory? Placing a part of Capitalist USA under Communist Soviet Union (though the Soviet Union was never really a Communist state) would be a much more complicated situation than Milius so simply presents it here. And he doesn't show much, that's the problem, just the perspective of the partisan teenagers hiding in the forest, which is why the whole film turns into a partisan flick. Great idea, but lax execution.



Scoop; Crime comedy, USA, 2006; D: Woody Allen, S: Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen, Hugh Jackman, Ian McShane, Charles Dance

London. Famous reporter Joe Strombel died, but his ghost appears in front of the journalist student Sondra Pransky during an on stage magic act by magician Sidney, and tells her a sensational scoop - the respected nobleman Peter Lyman is a killer. In order to investigate, Sondra and Sidney present themselves as rich daughter and father, enter the club and meet Peter. Sondra believes he is innocent, but it turns out he actually killed a prostitute because she blackmailed him into giving her more and more money. He wants to drown Sondra, but is caught by the police. Sidney though dies in a car crash.

When Woody Allen has inspiration, his brilliant writing and jokes easily overshadow his mannerisms in movies where we are ready to gladly look pass them just to enjoy the experience, but when his writing skills are appeased, his cliches become more apparent and stand out like a sore thumb. "Scoop" is one of Allen's lesser films, a crime comedy flick that seems more like an exercise than like a fully fleshed out story, though its still easily watchable. In it, his mannerisms are again apparent: for some reason, he made Scarlett Johansson's character Sondra act like a female version of Woody Allen, making her wear glasses, whine and make nervous hand gesticulation. And he acted like himself, too. The thin and overstretched story doesn't manage to make the crime plot intense, creating a flick that seems like Agatha Christie in slow-motion, though a few neat dialogues still have that old Allen charm, like in the exposition where the ghost of the deceased reporter Joe Strombel is sailing on the ship on the barge of death and introduces himself to some lady: "Hello. Joe Strombel, Coronary Thrombosis" or the ending that was quite surprising and untypical, though it could have been much more extravagant.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Truth About Cats & Dogs

The Truth About Cats & Dogs; romantic comedy, USA, 1996; D: Michael Lehmann, S: Janeane Garofalo, Uma Thurman, Ben Chaplin, Jamie Foxx

Abby Barnes knows everything about pets, but almost nothing about love. She works as a veterinarian in a radio show, where she also gives an advice to caller Brian, a photographer who wants to calm a dog. Grateful, he wants to ask her out, but since Abby thinks she is ugly, she persuades the blond beauty Noelle, her neighbor, to take her place. Brian, thinking Noelle is actually Abby, falls in love with her, while the real Abby just tags along with them, feeling depressed and jealous. The charade lasts until Abby gets a grip of herself and tells him the truth. He is angry, but after a while he returns and they fall in love.

Gentle-mild romantic comedy of misunderstanding was directed by Michael Lehmann, but with surprisingly "normal" energy and sympathetic mood. Admittedly, "Cats" is somehow without highlights and relies too much on its actors, but they are indeed excellent and sparkle with chemistry: Ben Chaplin should have had more such grateful roles whereas Uma Thurman is incredibly charming. The biggest virtue is, however, the performance by Janeane Garofalo - rarely did she ever receive such a rich role where she could show so much of her talent and comic charisma. In so many films, she is just pushed in the background as an "strange" supporting character, but here the tables are turned and she plays the main heroine, whereas the story takes its time to explore many of her neglected facets, nuances and shrill movements that go hand in hand. The story is banal and Garofalo's character is somewhat too gibber, but the way she plays her gave the film at least three great scenes - when she walks with Brian on the beach, when he takes photos of her and when in the end she lands in his arms. A very honest film.

Double Dragon

Double Dragon; fantasy action, USA, 1994; D: James Yukich, S: Mark Dacascos, Scott Wolf, Robert Patrick, Alyssa Milano

In the distant past, a Chinese medallion was created that has special powers, Double Dragon. In New Angeles, in 2007, martial arts brothers Jimmy and Billy are coached by Satori, who has the one half of the medallion. But the evil Koga Shuko also has one half and wants the other to rule the city, since he already discovered some of its powers. His men kill Satori, so Billy and Jimmy team up with Marian, a member of the gang PowerCorps, who helps them arrest Koga Shuko and save the world.

To develop and adapt a novel can be difficult enough, and unfortunately, ungrateful, but its even more difficult to do the same with a video game, where there is basically no base for it. James Yukich's movie adaptation of "Double Dragon" ended up looking just like Jankel-Morton's "Super Mario Bros.", where its scenes contain as much style and fun as the other, namely little, except that here the trademark suits of the brothers are even less featured in the story - only in last 5 minutes of the film. Disregarding the fact that the authors cleansed the story from almost all elements of the video game, it is a dynamic, yet too light fun due to its amateurish setting: many scenes are naive and illogical, while some even don't have any point at all, like the dumb idea to turn Bo Abobo into a mutant, but since he was used for only 3 sequences, he just tags along. A few sagacious gags live it up, like when George Hamilton as the TV anchorman tells the viewers to set their clocks for the summer time, so they wouldn't "be surprised in the morning during the curfew", or when Shuko's 'black ghost' takes possession of a dead basketball player who attacks the brothers, so they push a button which makes the wall squash the corpse, but his 'black ghost' just stays standing up straight in his place, yet the movie as a whole is just "heroes running from here to there" and "kicking with someone", though the charming Alyssa Milano is a small highlight.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Last Note

Gogo no yuigonjo; Drama, Japan, 1995; D: Kaneto Shindo, S: Haruko Sugimura, Nobuko Otawa, Hideo Kenzo

Yoko, an actress in her 50s, leaves Tokyo over the summer for a vacation in the hills. There she is unexpectedly visited by her colleague Tomie, who due to a brain sickness is constantly silent and needs the help of her husband, and who saves her from an assault of a criminal. But then the servant admits that she had a daughter with her deceased husband. Yoko then leaves and goes back to her home.

"A Last Note" is a quiet and stiff achievement by the then 83-year old director Kaneto Shindo, which won the Best Picture award at the Japanese Jury. To every minimalistic film, the basic rule is to find a balance between the rhythm when something is going on and when nothing is going on, yet here it seems the latter is more apparent, which brings it down. Maybe everything really is bland and underused, but it is crafted subtly and ambitiously, with excellent actors. The whole story flows as easily as a feather, especially actress Haruko Sigimura as actress Yoko, who throughout the story discovers how relative her love was towards her deceased husband when she discovers something about his past, by which the film gives a message how we may never know how the life may turn our perspectives upside down.



Moonwalker; Musical, USA, 1988; D: Stanley Kramer, Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield, Colin Chilvers, S: Michael Jackson, Sean Lennon, Kellie Parker, Joe Pesci

Michael Jackson is performing at a concert in front of fans. A short clip gives a resume of his life. Some kids sing "Bad" in an underground parking lot. Michael is followed by annoying fans in front of a studio, hides in a costume department, disguises himself as a rabbit and escapes on a motorcycle. While playing with three kids, Michael finds an underground storage bellow the meadow, where he finds out a criminal, Frank Lideo, wants make drug addicts out of every child in the world. Frank's army chases after Michael, but after he spots a falling star, he transforms into a robot, shoots a laser at Frank and saves the children.

Praise didn't find its way to this syrupy, tasteless film which was described as a generally unfunny ode to singer Michael Jackson who himself gave the idea for the film, which is why even the attribute of narcissism can be added to it. Jackson shows himself as a superhero, a children's' darling and overman who in the end even transforms himself into a robot and breaks the logic of this world. A little imagination, why not? However, it wasn't incorporated into any kind of order and is full of unconnected episodic chaos, especially in the disgusting claymation characters in the "Speed Demon" segment who are chasing after Michael in front of a studio, which is why the distribution in the theatres was without success. The opening concert clips are the best part, and it would have been the most honest if the authors just made a documentary about his tour than to craft such an equivalent of an artistic gibberish, since the main story starts finally after some 30 minutes into the film, yet its terribly blatant - Joe Pesci plays such an exaggerated villain that he even, in one scene, slaps a little girl and wants to "make a drug addict out of every child in the world". Michael Jackson was a great singer with great songs, but he should have avoided such a cheap film, where the only good things are his video spots anyway.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Lilya 4-ever

Lilya 4-ever; Drama, Sweden/ Denmark, 2002; D: Lukas Moodysson, S: Oksina Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Pavel Ponomaryov, Lillya Shinkaryova

Lilya (16) lives with her mother in an apartment in a poor city somewhere in Russia. But one day her mother leaves with her boyfriend and leaves Lilya alone behind. In order not to be alone all the time, Lilya permits boy Volodja (12) to live with her. Together they "sniff" glue and wonder aimlessly through the town. In order to earn money she desperately needs, she takes the job of a prostitute. In a disco, she meets the cheerful Andrey who promises her a good job in Sweden, but once there he sells her to a criminal who locks her up in an apartment and forces her to prostitute for him. Lilya escapes and jumps from a bridge.

"Lilya 4-Ever" is a step forward in the career of director Lukas Moodysson who very directly handled the problem of human trafficking, but also indirectly of people who live in poverty struck areas for whom nobody cares, neither their parents or friends or politicians. The only cheerful anecdote in the film is the one that the Swedish director communicated with actress Oksina Akinshina through an interpreter since she only spoke Russian, yet the rest is a merciless portray of what life can also be, away from the optimistic mainstream films, even though it should be noted that the film is not as depressive as much as it is emotionally devastating. The first 2/3 handle Lilya's "fight" to survive in Russia: she leaves school and lives alone in an apartment. Moodysson says a lot of truths when he shows how she becomes a prostitute because she needs the money: after her first customer, she is left dazed and confused, but the next day she triumphs since she uses the money to finally buy expensive food in a store. The last third shows Lilya "sold" in Sweden (incorporating a very good directorial intervention that shows the montage of dozens of faces of her customers during intercourse) and angrily gives a critique of the capitalistic order. It's not a truly great film, but it is still very good, indicatively showing how she was also a prostitute in her homeland, but at least there she was free and on her own.


Show Me Love

Fucking Åmål; Drama, Sweden, 1998; D: Lukas Moodysson, S: Alexandra Dahlström, Rebecka Liljeberg, Erica Carlson, Mathias Rust

Åmål is a small town in Sweden where all teenagers seem normal. But the secluded Agnes still can't cope with her environment even though she moved in the town 2 years ago. On her 16th birthday, their parents organize a party for her, but only her coeval in wheelchair shows up. Agnes is angry but then Jessica and blond Enid show up. Agnes is in love with Enid, but gets disappointed when she kisses her just for a bet. Enid goes to another party, but returns and again kisses her. Afraid of shame, Enid avoids her in school, even getting a boyfriend, Johan. Still, in the end she admits her love for her in school and they leave.

"Show Me Love" has a brassy original title, but the viewers shouldn't judge it by it before they see it, since its a matter of a quiet drama that handles the relationship of the lesbian protagonists appropriately serious and honest. It is a good film without any particular highlights that leads a dry atmosphere by avoiding any music or colorful upbeat tones or for that matter fake optimistic cliches found in many mainstream films. Director Lukas Moodysson, who here crafted his feature length debut film, describes the problems of his heroines realistically, avoiding mocking them even when the characters in the story mock them - for instance, when the boys in school find out Agnes is a lesbian, they tease her by placing a picture of a naked woman in her locker, but she manages to turn the whole situation to her advantage with humor, deciding to nonchalantly comment the looks of the woman with them. Still, the film could have been much more imaginative and versatile.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Tillsammans; Drama, Sweden/ Denmark/ Italy, 2000; D: Lukas Moodyssoon, S: Lisa Lindgren, Gustav Hammarsten, Emma Samuellson, Michael Nyquist

Stockholm, '75. Elisabeth and her children, son Stefan and daughter Eva, leaves her husband Rolf who was beating her, and moves in to the house of her brother Göran. 20 more people lives in his house, all with socialist views, who constitute a community where meat, Television, Coca-Cola and other things are forbidden. New tenants bring changes in the community which cause that other tenants leave it. In the end, Elisabeth again makes up with Rolf.

Drama "Together" is a bizarre and hermetic ode to liberalism, somewhere on the brink between "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Breaking the Waves", which symbolically speaks about community-family and their real and fake members (the strange socialist commune will reduce its number of members from 20 to 10 after new tenants bring changes into it). Swedish director Lukas Moodyssoon crafts a picture of a realistic life filling story with all kinds of anecdotes - for instance, Lasse is arguing with Anna because she is walking around the kitchen without her underpants or pants so that her "vagina could be on fresh air"; the 14-year old Fredrik admits to his coeval Eva that he never met someone with the same glass dioptre like her - due to the rather chaotic nature, the film has flaws, but when during the closing credits the song "S.O.S." by ABBA starts to play, every aspect and part somehow fit in right into their place.


The Nutty Professor

The Nutty Professor; comedy, USA, 1996, D: Tom Shadyac, S: Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larry Miller, Dave Chappelle, James Coburn

Sherman Klump is a chemistry professor who studies genes at the Wellman College. Unfortunately, even though he is a kind person, he is lonely and has almost no friends because he is overweight. All of his family members are also fat, so, in order to impress chemistry grad student Carla, he takes part in his own experiment, taking a serum that makes him - thin. Under a new name, Buddy Love, he becomes arrogant and tries to seduce Carla. But the serum loses its effect every once and a while, turning him fat and thin back and fort. Inevitably, the secret is revealed, but Carla actually likes Sherman the way he is.

"Coming to America" from '88 was for a long time the last hit by comedian Eddie Murphy. Ever since, he went through only commercially unsuccessful films, until 8 years later his remake of the Jerry Lewis comedy "The Nutty Professor" became a hit in '96 and considerably improved his status. Alas, it would be logical to presume that "Professor" is some Murphy's exceptionally good film... but it isn't. Already from the exposition, it gets clear that it is just a standard "accept who you are" mainstream film - though with too much contradictory 'fat jokes' - that relies too much on vulgarity, like farting or a hamster moving in some guy's pants. It is such a crude humor that the viewers actually wish for some more sophisticated form of jokes, something more colorful, yet the authors didn't want to go there, and just decided to resort to typical "low jokes" for the stupid. Unusually, as a whole, the story has a well meaning message and even some emotions revolving around the kind, but lonely overweight hero, while the film is both tasteless and funny. Murphy is again in top notch shape, though, and has a good time playing also small supporting roles as Sherman's family members, but also as his alter ego Buddy Love who particularly enjoys taking revenge on Reggie, the stand up comedian who previously humiliated him with fat jokes.


Monday, August 3, 2009

The Candidate

The Candidate; Satire, USA, 1972; D: Michael Ritchie, S: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Don Porter, Allen Garfield, Karen Carlson, Melvyn Douglas, Michael Lerner, Natalie Wood

After losing another Senate election to the Republicans, Democrat election specialist Marvin, realizing they will lose anyway, persuades idealistic lawyer Bill McKay to candidate for the Senate elections in California. After studying his rival, Republican candidate Jarmon, Bill figures he is strongly against his political views and supports more social welfare and liberalism. But the political experts slowly change him and condition him to talk to the masses in a calculated manner. After months of election campaigns, Bill wins, but is confused and doesn't know what to do next.

A biting satirical-analytical view into political election campaigns and off stage games behind it, "The Candidate" is a film that managed to hit the nail on the head since situations displayed in it still seem relevant today, as if nothing changed, which is why some critics recommend its frequent viewings during every election. Robert Redford does a great job as the idealistic candidate Bill McKay who is slowly conditioned to act like a robot in order to win the election, yet most of the credit should be given to the daring screenplay by Jeremy Larner; in one scene, where they are preparing Bill in a rehearsal interview, a reporter asks him if he would "draw the line in Vietnam". Bill says he wouldn't, upon which he asks the trick question: "And when do you think we should stand up to the Communists? On the beaches of Santa Monica?" Bill is confused, not knowing what to say in case of such a weird question, but one of his employees has a funny answer: "No, because the parking problem in Santa Monica is bad enough".

In another brilliant sequence, Bill's employees pick the best tapes of his interaction with the people. Bill is wondering why they didn't put his speech in the health clinic, and they play him the tape, which shows how he talks to the nervous women on the bench who are more preoccupied with waiting for the doctor. The analyst then says him the tape in unusable: "You're not cool, nobody is listening to you, nobody digs you." It neatly sums up the leitmotiv how in politics appearance and charisma have become more important than ideas and skills. Finally, in another scene, when they spot a forest fire, they immediately transport Bill there to film him "on the scene during a critical situation", to use it for scoring political points. Natalie Wood has a small cameo as herself trying to talk with Bill, but due to all the distracting commotion they just accept each other and much less lead a normal conversation, showing the chaotic nature of such events - and also mirroring Bill's earlier funny comment on an TV add: "Politicians don't talk. They make noise". Unfortunately, Bill comes across as a too passive character - he does occasionally do something to have his word said, but too rarely - while the ending seems to be too abrupt, as if the writer forgot the point he wanted to say, even though its still a very good film.


What's Up, Doc?

What's Up, Doc?; comedy, USA, 1972; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Ryan O'Neal, Barbra Streisand, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars

San Francisco. The coiled musicologist Howard and his fiance Eunice settle in a hotel and get ready to attend a musicologist conference where they hope to win a grant for his theory that cave men used rocks as music. However, Howard is stalked by a beautiful girl, Judy, who presents herself as Eunice at the conference, thus creating an argument between him and the real Eunice. After the hotel room gets set on fire, Howard is asked to leave, but stars falling for Judy. Further complications occur when agents mistake his bag for an other where secret government documents are held. After a wild chase, they all land on court and it is reveled that Judy is the daughter of the judge. Eunice leaves Howard, but he falls in love with Judy.

The 4th film by director Peter Bogdanovich (and the second one after his breakthrough "Last Picture Show"), "What's Up, Doc?" is a weary cult comedy that makes homages to "Bringing Up Baby" on every step. Slapstick and screwball comedy were never the high point of humor, yet thanks to Bogdanovich's competent direction the film as a whole is surprisingly charming, which speaks a lot about his talent since the story could have easily turned unbearably irritating in some lesser director's hand. The story indeed isn't even important since the film is an unbound ode to wild life and happiness, embodied in Judy (wonderful Barbra Streisand) who turns Howard's stiff life into an exciting adventure, extracting much of humor from their misadventures, regardless of the fact that it isn't that especially funny. One of the best jokes comes swiftly, when the secret agent who is "secretly" following the suspicious man with the bag, is "disguised" as a caddy, but after a long way he figures he doesn't need that much heavy golf clubs carrying with him, so he throws a few in a garbage can, while Bogdanovich's sixth sense for directing comes to full light in the especially well crafted chase sequence - in one scene, Howard and Judy descend from a hill on a delivery bike, followed by three cars, all passing by two workers holding glass on the street, but as they get tired of climbing uphill, they return down, followed by the cars who crash on a latter, catapulting another worker directly into the glass, breaking it. In the end, the film isn't that big of a wisdom, yet it still has good spirit and is amusing.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four; Science-fiction drama, UK, 1984; D: Michael Radford, S: John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton, Richard Burton, Cyril Cusack

London, Airstrip One, 1984. The society is ruled by a totalitarian superstate, Oceania, through a supreme leader Big brother, who may not even exist, in which he constantly stimulates the public for a war with Euroasia and Africa, even though nobody knows why, and spreading messages that life and the economy are getting better and better, even though they are worse and worse. Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth as a clerk who changes historical events according to the wishes of the Party. One day, he meets the open minded Julia with whom he starts a relationship and philosophising about the unbearable life they are living. But they get discovered by the police. O'Brien, a high ranking member of the Party, brain washes Winston, makes him betray Julia and endorse Big Brother.

Out of the brilliant anti-Utopian novel "1984" by George Orwell one could have made a cinematic masterwork, which, unfortunately, wasn't achieved in the movie adaptation of the same title directed by Michael Radford and released, ironically, in 1984. The authors crafted the film too dry and sterile, losing the original satirical touch, magnificent philosophical questions (doublethink, manipulation of the masses, "invisible" dictatorship) and poetry (the wonderful scene in the book in which Winston thinks how Julia, by taking off her clothes, is almost "wiping out a whole culture" is in the film only reduced to Julia taking her clothes off), but John Hurt is once again in top notch shape, whereas in traces there still remained some contemplative messages and themes about human ignorance and an imprisoned human spirit which became a slave of imposed rules, norms and false illusions.


Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko; Horror drama, USA, 2001; D: Richard Kelly, S: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal

2 October 1988. Donnie Darko is a troublesome but normal teenager, until one day he has a vision of a man in a grotesque bunny costume who advises him to leave his house for that night and that in 28 days the world will end. Donnie sleeps that night over at a golf field and when he returns home, he discovers a giant jet engine fell on his room and he survived only thanks to the warning. He then starts a relationship with Gretchen and puts motivational guru Jim's house on fire, where people find hidden child pornography. Gretchen gets ran over by lad Frank, wearing a bunny costume for Halloween, and Donnie thus kills him in an act of rage. Donnie then returns back to the past, to 2 October 1988, to die in his room when the engine falls.

Bizarre horro drama "Donnie Darko" is one of the most popular cult movies of the 2000s, an unusual blend of "Back to the Future" and "Mulholand Drive", yet its reputation is still rather overrated. Director Richard Kelly gains positive points on "daft" mood and dark style, yet loses when tackling with forced-pretentious characters, too "hard" Sci-Fi story and lack of a sixth sense for teenage relationships. The whole story can be interpreted as a turbulent time of the title protagonist going through the confusing time of adolescence, while some details are thus rather clever (i.e. after Donnie rammed an axe into the school statue and wrote "They made me do it" on the floor, the police wants to find the perpetrator by the signature and thus orders every student to write that sentence on the blackboard) whereas the mysterious ending stimulates the viewer to think: did the hero, thanks to the "bunny", found himself in a parallel Universe, separated from the real one, which could be destroyed due to instability, or was he just simply going steadily insane? Some of the bizarre scenes do "click", yet some are also just there without a reason, and claiming its brilliant just because you don't understand it isn't quite consistent. "Darko" is a good film, with a honorary role for 80s star Patrick Swayze, but there are thousands of good films, whereas the real masterworks about growing up, like "The Graduate", are scarce.