Friday, 30 January 2009

Henry & June


Henry & June; Erotic drama, USA, 1990; D: Philip Kaufman, S: Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward, Uma Thurman, Richard E. Grant, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Sylvie Huguel, Kevin Spacey

Paris, 1930's. Anaïs Nin is a young woman who is having a "clean", but rather boring relationship with her husband Hugo. One day, she meets the aspiring and wild artist Henry Miller who instantly fascinates her with his free love life, even though he is married to June. As Henry writes his book "Tropic of Cancer", Anais falls for him, and then also for his wife June, discovering her lesbian side. Still, she eventually gets tired of both of them and their excessive lives. As she leaves in Hugo's car, Henry is driving a bycicle behind them.

"A true adventure more erotic than any fantasy", says the tagline of the film. And truly, this loose adaptation of Anais Nin's autobiographic book "Henry and June" is precisely so fascinating and strange because all the events depicted in it are not some pigments of imagination of some porn writer, but actual events that really happened, except that many wouldn't even believe them hadn't they have been written and published based on the writer's diary. Director Philip Kaufman doesn't manage to recapture the heights of his best film "The Right Stuff", which is why the story seems rather overstretched, unsure and shaky at times, yet it would be really wrong to dismiss it just like that for it's wonderful cinematography that crafted a great mood and for the tantalizing Anais-Henry-June love triangle relationship.

Anais' (fantastic Maria de Medeiros, a very underemployed actress) relationship to Henry Miller is full of contrasts: since she is timid and conservative, she is somehow strangely fascinated by his wild love life which causes a shift in her character and liberates her, yet she somehow gets in the end quickly tired of it. There is a scene that perfectly sums up her feeling: Henry begs some stranger on the street to give him some money and she can't watch him sink so low so she intervenes, says: "I'll give you some money!" and does in an almost motherly caring way. He is thankful but immediately just enters a building which turns up to be a brothel and goes upstairs with two naked girls. Anais sees that and is annoyed, yet can't bring herself to hate him. The reoccurring theme of the film, revolving around the courage to live life freely without limitations, is neatly incorporated into the story full of erotic sequences, but done with taste and intelligence: not good enough to be great, but too good to be forgotten, "Henry & June" is a dreamy film that works on a subconscious level and burns slowly, whereas Fred Ward and Medeiros are phenomenal in their roles, naturally portraying two people on a same wave length. Precisely because of the authentic feel, the film seems interesting even at boring moments.

Grade:++

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Fine Dead Girls


Fine mrtve djevojke; Drama, Croatia, 2002; D: Dalibor Matanić, S: Nina Violić, Olga Pakalović, Inge Apelt, Ivica Vidović, Milan Štrljić, Jadranka Djokić

Lesbians Iva and Marija rent an apartment in a building owned by the old Olga and her husband Blaž. Marija's conservative father hires a prostitute to separate her from Iva, but the plan fails so he decides to "at least" sleep with her since he hired her, but due to all the excitement he dies from a heart attack. After Olga accidentally enters the girls apartment and sees them having intercourse, she instantly starts to hate them. Olga's son rapes Iva so Marija kills him, but the tenants kill her. Years later, Olga kidnapped Iva's son because she thinks he might be her grandchild. But Blaž kills Olga and returns the son to Iva.

After very stylish comedy "Cashier", restless director Dalibor Matanic once again showed his talent in drama "Fine Dead Girls", the first Croatian film with gay protagonists that seems as if it didn't come during the "black hole" in Croatia's cinema - it's refreshingly modern, without pathetic, pretentiousness or mannerisms (except until the grotesque finale) while it's full of elegance. Most of the credit goes to Matanic's satirical side, which is why the story has scenes like the one where a stranger hires a prostitute; she automatically starts to disrobe but he gets scared and leaves the room. Later on he explains her that he hired her for a "divine task" of separating lesbian Iva from his daughter Marija. In another scene, a comical gynecologists spots nuns approaching and says: "Oh, nuns! Again? Come in!" Especially touching is the ending where Blaž rises above all the backward mentality of the people that surround him and does a really good deed. Still, it's a pity that the sole heroines in the story, lesbians Iva and Marija, are somehow sadly one dimensional and seem to be pushed in the background by the supporting characters, while some moments are rather heavy handed. But regardless, this is such an explosive drama with a social commentary that not even Fassbinder would be ashamed of it.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside


Blagajnica hoće ići na more; Tragicomedy, Croatia, 2000; D: Dalibor Matanić, S: Dora Polić, Ivan Brkić, Nina Violić, Milan Štrljić, Vera Zima

"I have some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that in honor of our Blaženka's withdrawal to retirement I'm going to feast everyone with a piglet. The bad news is that she died yesterday so we will just scrap the whole thing". Three cashiers; Štefica, Željka i Barica constantly have to hear bizarre-cynical escapades of their strict boss. They all work in a small store and keep it clean. An old lady tries to steal some items but Barica stops her and gets praise from the police. Barica uses that opportunity and persuades her boss to grant her vacation to the sea that would help her sick daughter. But just then Jadranka, a girl from Herzegovina, shows up and manipulates the boss to not let Barica go, but instead take her to the sea. That's why Barica locks them up in the freezer and leaves with her daughter to the sea anyway. When she returns she is saved because everyone thinks it was an act of thieves, while she reprises her vacation with a detective.

This gentle comedy with drama elements is truly a pleasant little surprise and rightfully became the most watched Croatian film in the theaters of it's homeland in 2000: many were afraid of some dark grotesque that gets served every now and then from some pretentious Croatian director, but "Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside" is a sweet little comedy without violence or excessive scenes. The story is filled with small, low-key jokes that seize the viewers sympathies, like in the scene where the strict boss is forcing the three cashiers to do physical exercise so that they can type better on the machine or when he finally spots the burglar alarm - after it's on for over a minute! - and in a deranged way exits from the basement with a barking dog. The debut director Dalibor Matanic has sense for hilarious gags and a neat visual style but it's a small pity that the jokes wear off after 30 minutes which is why the finale seems really overstretched. Here and there a few tricks lift up the film, like the shrill musical theme for the cashier Željka, whereas Nina Violic is truly fun in the role of the femme fatale from Herzegovina.

Grade:++

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Drowning by Numbers


Drowning by Numbers; grotesque, UK / The Netherlands, 1988; D: Peter Greenaway, S: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill
A girl is playing jump rope. Old lady Cissie Colpitts catches husband Jake in the middle of an affair and drowns him in the bathtub. There are also two other women who are also named Cissie Colpitts and who support her, while their friend is the undertaker Madget who makes the murder seem like an accident. Boy Smart marks every corpse of an animal he finds with a number and a firework and thinks death appears most on Tuesday. During the wedding of the younger Cissie, the older Cissie spots that he husband Hardy got a cramp in the sea. The following day she drowns him there and pretends it was an accident in front of a few marathon runners. And the young Cissie drowns her husband - in a pool. Then Madget rebells against them and calls the police. Smart hangs himself while Madget and the Cissies go to a sinking boat.

This genius grotesque doesn't lead a crime story but sends the viewers into a surreal world, full of symbols, but, unlike a mass of other demanding art films that becomes empty and boring, this one is wonderfully even and enchants with an innovative visual style. Already the first scene brings an eccentric tone since it shows a little girl playing jump rope while her shadow is seen on the wall of a house and she is counting from "15 Sirius" to "50 Castor". There is also a daft boy who jumps while the photo camera makes a shot of him; lovers who cuddle naked while butterflies and snails are circling behind them; two wacky guys who suddenly surface from the water in the pool and ask a swimmer: "Good day. Are you Cissie?" The confusing story doesn't have much sense which is why the viewers shouldn't regard it from a logical, but intuitive point of view, since it's somehow crafted in wonderful harmony: especially fun in "Numbers" is looking out for numbers ranging from 1 to 100 that appear throughout the film, printed on cows, bees, trees and objects, almost cowertly marking the running time of the movie. If one can have an open mind for it, it's quite simply a shining avant-garde film.

Grade:+++

The Draughtsman's Contract


The Draughtsman's Contract; Drama, UK, 1982; D: Peter Greenaway, S: Anthony Higgins, Janet Suzman, Anna-Louise Lambert

England, 17th Century. Neville is a famous painter who meets Mrs. Herbert at one party who begs him to draw the giant garden of her husband. Neville at first rejects the offer, but later on changes his mind and accepts after she promises she will sleep with him as part of his "salary". Neville decides decides to draw the 12 landscape paintings in 12 days. After the job is done, he leaves but the servants find Mr. Herbert murdered so they decide to decipher hidden messages on the paintings about the planned murder because of an affair. They accuse Neville and kill him.

Peter Greenaway is one of the rare art filmmakers that radiate with freshness and energy, but for some reason he remained relatively lesser known. "The Draughtsman's Contract" isn't on the same level as his genius satire "Drowning by Numbers" since his freshness didn't manage to stay until the end and the overstretched running time and poorly exploited concept about paintings that contain hidden metaphors (like thrown clothes across the estate) and clues about murder because of an affair also don't go to his benefaction. Still, the movie is charming: the camera angles are unusual, the mood is wonderful, satirical jabs are fun (Neville warns he can't draw the sound of a whistle and constantly chases away animals from the estate so that he can finish is painting) whereas a few touches of fantasy are neat, like the scene where the statues in the garden suddenly come to life.

Grade:+++

Monday, 26 January 2009

Wall Street


Wall Street; Drama, USA, 1987; D: Oliver Stone, S: Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen, Hal Halbrook, Terence Stamp, James Spader

Stockbroker Bud Fox always wanted to taste the success in his job, among others because he is ashamed that he lives in New York on the expense of hi father Carl who has troubles managing with his airline company "Bluestar". When Bud comes in touch with corporate tycoon Gordon Gekko on his birthday and gives him some inside information about "Bluestar", he manages his breakthrough; he will anaylze the stock market while Gekko will buy cheap stocks who value will rise. Bud becomes rich and starts a relationship with Darien. All is well up until the point when Gekko buys "Bluestar" stocks and as the new owner fires all the staff and sells the assets, breaking his promise that he will expand the company. Bud's conscience shows up and tricks Gekko on the court.

Winner of a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best actor Michael Douglas as the corporate villain Gordon Gekko, "Wall Street" is a highly charged and praised capitalist drama that gives such a thorough view into it's subject that one can earn a diploma about the stock market just by watching it. It's dialogues are, namely, very abstract and speak only the language of the stock market, and thus therein lies also it's biggest flaw, because a few lesser informed viewers might find it incomprehensible. Yet even though the story is too long, if one can observe it as a dark commentary on the unlimited corporate powers, it becomes very intriguing after a while: it's world of politics and trade is juicy and shocking at the same time, since it shows how some people can just buy and decide about the faith of companies and it's thousands of employees just like that, almost as if it's a game, and since it all comes from the perspective of the young and idealistic stockbroker it's even more trenchant, but certainly Michael Douglas is even better in his "dignified" performance full of cynical philosophical viewpoints about the real world, which contain some of the finest quotes ever put on film ("If you want a friend, buy a dog!"; "Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit!"; "You and I are the same, Darien. We are smart enough not to buy in to the oldest myth running; love. Diction created by people to keep them from jumping out of windows").

Grade:++

Natural Born Killers


Natural Born Killers; Thriller grotesque, USA, 1994; D: Oliver Stone, S: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore, Edie McClurg, Evan Handler, Rodney Dangerfield

In some small bar, Mickey and Mallory kill all the guests except one man so that the news about them would spread. On the highway, the deranged couple remembers how they met: Mallory was raped by her father who was thus killed by Mickey who just then delivered some meat to her home. After 52 corpses, TV moderator Wayne makes a hit show about them but they get caught by the police when a snake bite dazes them. The prison warden allows Wayne an interview with Mickey but just then a jail rebellion starts. Mickey and Mallory kill Wayne, escape and decide to live in peace.

"Natural Born Killers" is an infamous art trash that has little sense. Despite the fact that Oliver Stone was nominated for a Golden Globe as best director, this whole cult film is comprised of almost absurd hectics: there's a small black and white shot of a snake in a desert, then a train passing by in red cinematography, then the camera tips and follows a bullet that's heading towards a cook, followed by a TV spot of a polar bear that drinks coca-cola (?)...Undoubtedly, all those elements are there for their own sake, yet if there's one thing that Stone should be acknowledged for, then it's his amazing visual style that really dazzles at moments. Also, for some reason, he decided to direct a few sequences in a completely abstract way: one of those curiosities is Mallory's childhood in the house of her drunk and cynical father (comedian Rodney Dangerfield!) crafted like a TV sitcom, since the laughter of the audience can be heard in the background. The delicate theme about a killer couple that kills without a reason was handled awfully heavy handed, almost without any sophistication or depth, which is why the story tries to be a new satirical version of classic "Bonie and Clyde", but without a clear vision or dignity. Roger Ebert may have given it 4 out of 4 stars, and it's undeniable that the film has some great moments, but it's also obvious that a whole new world could have been made out of the narrow story, a one so much more superior and organized than this, since only a few satirical jabs at media ignite, like when a fan holds a sign stating: "Mickey, kill me!", or when Tommy Lee Jones delivers this line in a hilariously insane way: "Jesus Harold Christ!"

Grade:+

Alexander


Alexander; Adventure, USA/ Germany/ The Netherlands/ France/ UK, 2004; D: Oliver Stone, S: Colin Farrell, Jared Leto, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Chrostipher Plummer

In Alexandria, Aristotle tells historians the story about the life of Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC). Alexander grew up in a Macedonian province as the child of King Philip II who was hated by his wife, Queen Olympias. After Philip got murdered, Alexander became the new king and started his conquest of Asia Minor, arriving with his troops up to Egypt's territory where he founded Alexandria. His next conquest was Mesopotamia where he won over Persian King Darius and entered Babylon. He continued to the east where he married an Asian girl even though he had gay interests towards Hephaestion. After his defeat in India, he returned to Babylon where he died.

After the "Gladiator" won a whole bunch of Oscars and became a hit, Oliver Stone got his green light for his dream project "Alexander the Great", a history spectacle that was almost unanimously rejected by critics as "not great", even though, oh what irony, it wasn't that much worse than "Gladiator". Both films roll in pathos and dry cliches, while they don't have that emotional connection towards their heroes. Stone shows Alexander's life in ellipses because the film would have had to last for over 6 hours in order to do justice to all his moments in life and detailed battles, yet it's still a pity he avoided his adventure in Egypt where he founded Alexandria. The film is all over the place, crammed with weird scenes like the one where he kisses his mother in the mouth up to his gay relationship with Hephaestion, but the only inspiring sequence is the one where, after he was wounded in India, Alexander sees his whole environment in red colors.

Grade:+

Sunday, 25 January 2009

My Girl


My Girl; Tragicomedy, USA, 1991; D: Howard Zieff, S: Anna Chlumsky, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Macaulay Culkin, Griffin Dunne

Madison, Pennsylvania in summer of '73: the 11-year old Vada lives alone with her father Harry with whom she would love to talk or secretly go through an adventure, but he doesn't have a time for her since he is a busy undertaker working in the basement, whereas he also subconsciously can't get over the fact that his wife died at childbirth. Vada's friend is the allergic kid Thomas J., and her big love is an intelligent English teacher. But, when one day the make-up artists Shelly is given the job in the funeral parlor and gets engaged to Harry, Vada becomes angry and jealous. When Thomas J. from an allergic reaction caused by a bee sting, Vada is crushed, but Shelly comforts her.

Excellent comedy, with serious bitter-sweet refrains about the difficult time of growing up, sympathetically sparkles with great characters and small, inessential moments that tell a lot about life. Even though it may at first seem that the actors and the setting in "My Girl" are overblown and kitschy, the director Howard Zieff avoided all traps and created a touching little coming-of-age film, a humorous family drama that was wonderfully based upon the melancholic screenplay by Laurice Elehwany where the only complaints could be directed at it's rather "loose" mood at times and vague end, while the critics praised it. Anna Chlumsky is brilliant as the heroine Vada and perfectly embodies all her emotions, from big crush on her English teacher, through her relationship with the 11-year old Thomas J. (especially in a funny little scene where she puts lipstick for the first time in her life and "seductively" exits her house to lay on the steps in front of him, but he just looks at her in confusement and asks: "Are your lips bleeding?") up to her jealousy of Shelly, which culminates in one memorable sequence in the amusement park in tune to the song "Bad Moon Rising". Dan Aykroyd as the untypically serious father Harry achieved one of the best roles of the year, and one of his best in his career.

Grade:+++

W.


W.; Drama, USA, 2008; D: Oliver Stone, S: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Dreyfuss, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, Toby Jones

As US president George W. Bush is preparing his "axis of evil" speech after 9/11, he remembers his life: how he passed through a bizarre Yale initiation, became an alcoholic, didn't want to keep his job in the oil industry and wanted to work something with baseball, met his future wife Laura and failed when he ran for Congress in Texas. But then he became a very religious person and admired his dad for winning in the Gulf War and becoming the US president. Now, as president himself, Bush is influenced by Dick Cheney into invading Iraq again and "finishing the job" his father should have, even though the UN inspectors didn't find a single clue of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. The War in Iraq ultimately becomes Bush's biggest failure.

It's interesting to mention that the German TV station Pro 7 "mourned" George W. Bush's departure from the White House by broadcasting Oliver Stone's 2008 biopic "W" on January 23 2009, a record premiere just a few months after the movie was actually shown in theaters. That fact is unusual, but Bush's whole life and career were unusual, which is why Stone's decision to make a biopic about the most unpopular American president in the last 100 years seems like a natural and brave choice. Even though Stone himself wasn't a big fan of his, he made the right choice to stay neutral and show both sides of his protagonist, good and bad: some scenes where he tries to impress his dad, George Bush senior, and tries to follow his footsteps, make him seem really human. Yet Stone directed the whole film without any passion or style, which is why it seems like any given average TV biopic. Also, it becomes obvious pretty fast that "W.'s" biggest problem is the choice of events from Bush's life: the screenplay is all over the place, rushing and cramming as many details as it can, but it's never focused on bringing any order into it. Frankly, so many things from Bush's life are missing that many viewers will feel cheated, and it seems the movie should have needed at least 4 hours to cower everything the right way. For instance, the Iraqi War is just shown for 5 minutes towards the end, and is cowered as superficially as many other events in the film.

As a biopic, "W" is very measured and luckily free from pretentious touches, yet obviously too lukewarm to lift itself above anything more than a solid achievement. The real highlights are the actors: Richard Dreyfuss is brilliant as Dick Cheney, especially in one crazy sequence - that was obviously invented by the screenwriter - where he observes the map of Iraq and tells the whole Bush administration his strategic plan to "secure enough oil for America" in such a deranged and scary way that Bush tells him to "calm down" because he will "scare the public" with such talk. Upon that Cheney tells him: "You can sell that war. I can't". The black humor is abundant in the film. Josh Brolin is good as Bush: he mimics his movements and accent, but, just like every biography based on a real person, the actor has to look like the person he or she is playing, and here it's obvious Brolin doesn't look quite like Bush. From some certain angles he nails him, but on numerous occasions it's obvious his jaw is too big for Bush. Thandie Newton is also great as Condoleezza Rice. "W" is a solid achievement, yet it's one of those films that are going without not going at all.

Grade:+

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Striptease


Striptease; Erotic satire, USA, 1996; D: Andrew Bergman, S: Demi Moore, Armand Assante, Ving Rhames, Burt Reynolds, Robert Patrick, Rumer Willis

FBI secretary Erin gets fired while the custody for her daughter Angela is given to her disgusting ex husband. In order to pay for the appeal, Erin gets a job in a striptease bar where she is protected by bouncer Shad. When customer Jerry spots the respectable politician David in the bar, he gets killed in order to keep the embarrassing scandal a secret. Then police officer Garcia is brought to the case and begs Erin to help him solve the case. Besides that, she kidnaps her daughter in order to be with her. When she makes a private dance for David on his yacht, Garcia arrests him together with his associates.

"Striptease" is rather colloid in mixing the genres of drama, comedy, crime and erotic, especially since it's not fun at all. The screenplay is so half-heartedly written and rushed that only hard chore fans of the actors will consider the lax punchlines successful. Among the better jokes is a python of the stripper called Monty Python or when politician David (Burt Reynolds in a quite embarrassing role) speaks with his associate ("My brain is just a mash!" - "That's why you are the Congressman!"). The only virtue that some viewers will enjoy is the attractive body of Demi Moore (who got a record 12 million $ salary even though the movie was a flop at the box office) who shows a lot of skin - bare breasts and rear in a few scenes. Her performances in the striptease bar surprisingly contain a lot of aesthetic, which is why she will remind of some strong female fatale characters from various film noirs. But they were interesting even when they were dressed.

Grade:+

Disclosure


Disclosure; Thriller, USA, 1994; D: Barry Levinson, S: Michael Douglas, Demi Moore, Donald Sutherland, Caroline Goodall, Dylan Baker

Tom Sanders, a quiet family man who had many girlfriends, is looking forward to one day because he expects a promotion to vice president in his company Digicom. But when he enters his office, he notices that the promotion was already given to his ex Meredith. One evening, when she seduces and almost forces him to have intercourse with her, Tom leaves his office because he wants to stay faithful to his wife. The next day Meredith accuses him of sexual harassment, but he hires lawyer Alvarez and sues her, winning the case. The angry Meredith erases all his data on his project, but Tom manages to explain everything during the presentation, which is why she gets fired.

Unnoticed (erotic) thriller "Disclosure", based on Michael Crichton's novel with the same title, presents an unusual situation that switches the standard roles - the one where a woman sexually harassed an Innocent man and then even accused him - but it's much more preoccupied with the portrait of an abuse of power. Michael Douglas is good as Tom, the victim of his female boss (also good Demi Moore), while formally no complaints can be directed towards the film (excellent cinematography) except that the story is poorly exploited and full of cliches: rather unconvincing is the finale in the courtroom where Tom suddenly discovers that during the sexual harassment his cell phone was turned on the whole time, so that he can even get the chance to discover the tape of their recorded conversation! Nothing in the film manages to lift it up above a solid achievement, but the best scene is truly dramatic and gripping: Tom is verbally attacked by his colleague who is angry because their whole job is jeopardized after the scandal, but his wife stands automatically in his defense - even though she doesn't know what the charges are.

Grade:+

Friday, 23 January 2009

City of Ember


City of Ember; Science-fiction adventure, USA, 2008; D: Gil Kenan, S: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Mackenzie Crook, Mary Kay Place, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Liz Smith, Toby Jones, Martin Landau

On the day the world ended, the leading scientists built Ember, an underground city where the remaining humans would live. They locked it up for 200 years using a key in a box that eventually got lost. 200 years later, teenage girl Lina Mayfleet and boy Doon get jobs as a messenger and pipe worker and start to wonder, just like other citizens, of the frequent power blackouts. Lina discovers the box in her home but and discovers it shows a plan to get out of Ember to the Earth's surface, yet she and Doon are hunted by the corrupt Mayor and his thugs. Still, they start the mechanism and exit in a boat to the surface, where they witness a Sunrise for the first time, informing also other citizens of Ember.

"City of Ember" is one of the better Hollywood adaptations of books in the 2000's, a surprisingly charged adventure that wonderfully exploits the mystery segment of the story. Director Gil Kenan uses the opulent set design of the underground city from the title as a neat playground for his sharp visual style, while the story is a clever allegory with a hidden philosophical and political subtext revolving around human ignorance and narrow mind that allows them to be perfect slaves for their masters. Already in the exceptional opening where the scientists built the underground Ember after a disaster hit the Earth and placed it's secret in a box that was locked for 200 years, does Kenan show a sense for finesse: in numerous time jumps, it is shown how the box is handed from one Mayor's hands to another, while it's digits are getting reduced more and more - from 200 to 170, 140, 100, 80 years etc. Up until the box gets lost somewhere in a basement, clicks to 0 and opens - but the humans already forgot it's vital meaning and that it even exits. All the tragedy of Ember's citizens is summed up in that short sequence. Kenan also shows a sense for stylization, like in the scene where the Mayor (a serious Bill Murray) runs away from the gathering, but trips and falls on his painting, revealing a stain on his face and a stain on his face on the painting, but the real highlight is the brilliant actress Saoirse Ronan as the heroine Lina, showing all her talent in the scene where she is late and "sneaks" in to her Assignment day. The major flaw is the unnecessary giant mole in two sequences which seems like it came from some trash movie, though the authors still handled it with more taste than some other 'children's movies', while the Plato's allegory of the Cave story has been done already a hundred times before, but the ending is still miraculous.

Grade:++

Armin


Armin; Drama, Croatia/ Germany/ BiH, 2007; D: Ognjen Sviličić, S: Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Armin Omerović, Jens Münchow, Marie Bäumer, Barbara Prpić, Borko Perić

The teenage Armin and his dad Ibro take a long trip from some Bosnian village to Croatia's capital Zagreb, where Armin is suppose to do an audition for a small role in some German war movie. On their way, the bus breaks down, but they manage to arrive to the hotel in Zagreb thanks to hitchhiking. They spend the night in the hotel and tour the town, until the movie assistant tells them Armin is too old for the part. But dad doesn't give up: he storms the office of the director and persuades him to listen to Armin's Harmonica. But because of the pressure and his sickness, Armin collapses. Just as they are about to leave, the director offers to make a documentary about Armin's sickness caused by war trauma, but his dad rejects it. Then they return home.

In numerous movies, the viewers are already accustomed to the fact that in showbuisness the main actors, producers and directors are the most important crew members working on a movie, while the extras are all side characters. But in this humorous drama by Ognjen Sviličić, that concept is reversed since it offers a new perspective, the one where the story follows the difficult task of people just trying to become extras, while all the main actors and directors are just side characters. Even though it won numerous awards at various film festivals, „Armin“ isn't that great of an achievement – true, it's very smooth, polished and measured, completely outside all those tedious Croatian movies from the 90s, yet it's minimalistic story is so thin and so thinly developed that it doesn't manage to completely dazzle the viewers. The general rule in minimalistic movies is, that when there are long spaces between when something happens, that something has got to be really smashing, an event with a great punchline that makes us forget all the „empty“ scenes in between, yet in „Armin“ all those punchlines are rather lukewarm, like let's say the scene where dad has difficulties figuring out a hand dryer in a toilet.

One of the most logical developments in the story is the subplot where in panic dad tries to „make connections“ with anyone from the movie crew in order to somehow get Armin a small role in the film, which results in tragicomic situation where he has a fake „conversation“ with a German technician at a bar, even though he doesn't speak a word of German. And the character study goes a full circle where the author sums up beautifully the trauma of war by simply leaving some things unsaid in the scene where dad rejects the offer from the director to make a documentary about Armin's sickness caused by war trauma in his childhood: dad never talks about it, but by putting it aside and trying to make Armin live a normal life, protecting him from exhibitionism, he says everything that is needed to say about that difficult subject, even more than some explicit approach someone else would have taken. For a change, it's nice to see a movie about people who don't have to win at the end just be winners in life.

Grade:++

Bull Durham


Bull Durham; Comedy, USA, 1988; D: Ron Shelton, S: Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Trey Wilson

'Bull Durham' is a baseball league that has more defeats than wins, but has a vital pitcher called Laloosh who throws balls with thundering speed. But he isn't especially bright so Crash Davis is hired to coach and educate him, which he does. Annie Savoy, a English teacher, is constantly passing through the club in order to get Laloosh and Davis in bed. Only Laloosh agrees while Davis isn't especially interested. Then suddenly the league starts to win game after game and Laloosh refuses to sleep with Annie because he is afraid it brings bad luck. The league looses but he gets an offer to enter an A-league. Davis gets fired but gains Annie's heart.

Ron Shelton is a fan of all sports and he made two movies about baseball, excellent serious drama "Cobb" and good serious comedy "Bull Durham". Baseball is a linear sport and he managed to make it look more interesting than it is, whereas he convincingly connected the relationships of the characters, which is why his amusing screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and actually won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. But the real star is not the sport, but excellent Susan Sarandon - nominated for a Golden Globe - who in a bitter-sweet way plays the unusual Annie. Quite amusing are the scenes like the one where a rival player defeats 'Durham Bulls' in a game and the baseball ironically hits the poster of a bull or the one where Costner's Davis and Robbins' Laloosh are fighting over Annie, yet the story quickly starts to loose energy half way while the ending is rather shaky.

Grade:++

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Nanny Diaries


The Nanny Diaries; Comedy, USA, 2007; D: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Puichi, S: Scarlett Johansson, Laura Linney, Nicholas Art, Paul Giamatti, Chris Evans, Alicia Keys

Annie Bradock is a 21-year old girl from New Jersey who graduated Anthropology and has an identity crisis. One day, as she was sitting in Central Park, she accidentally saved a little kid, Grayer, from colliding with a careless passerby, and is thus offered and employed by the kid's mother, Mr. X, as a nanny. At one hand, Annie is glad to step a foot in New York, meet a dashing young lad Hayden and have a job, but on the other she is exhausted by Grayer's antics, ashamed to tell about her job to her mom and annoyed by the snobby Mrs. X. When womanizer Mr. X makes a pass to Annie, she is innocently fired by Mrs. X which causes great grief for Grayer. But Annie leaves a video message to Mrs. X, telling her to take care more of her child and less of her parties and glamour. Mrs. X becomes a decent mother and Annie finds new confidence.

„The Nanny Diaries“ is a gentle social satire on the cold and snobby Manhattan upper class, a watered down adaptation of Emma McLaughlin's and Nicola Kraus' novel with the same title that gains 90 % of it's charm thanks to the smashing performance by Scarlett Johansson. Even though it's a lot weaker than their excellent first film „American Splendor“, the husband and wife director team Berman-Pucini were unrightfully bashed by most critics since „Nanny“ is a very fine piece of flat entertainment; it's funny, touching, has a tight rhythm and never makes a terrible mistake in some of the more delicate moments. They even managed to make the annoying kid not so annoying, while some of the scenes crafted are very good, from the humorous ones, like the scene where Grayer escapes from Annie by pulling her pants down (!), up to the emotional, especially in the very powerful moment where Annie leaves the estate of the X family in a taxi while the sad Grayer is running after her, which seem incredibly sincere and honest. Still, for all of it's effort, it seems the (movie) story misses out on that what it wants to exactly say and be, which is why it starts to seem defunct after a while. It's indicative, as well as ironic, that one of the best moments in the film comes when the insecure heroine is daydreaming that she is flying holding on to an umbrella - it seems as if „The Nanny Diaries“ are the most powerful when they are not „The Nanny Diaries“, but actually a different film, „Mary Poppins“.

Grade:++

Frailty


Frailty; Horror-thriller drama, USA, 2001; D: Bill Paxton, S: Matt O'Leary, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Jeremy Sumpter, Powers Boothe

One night, a man enters Texas FBI office, introduces himself as Fenton Meiks and tells Agent Doyle that his brother Adam Meiks is the long searched serial killer „God's Hand“. Fenton tells him how Adam committed suicide recently and begins to tell their strange story: when they were kids back in '79, their father, an auto mechanic, told them he saw visions from an angel and that he was ordered to kill demons, who look like ordinary people, by God. Using his axe, dad captured and killed several people in his basement, much to Fenton's shock, who was even left confined there until he became delirious and saw God's plan too. But Fenton still rebelled and used the axe to kill his dad. Back to the present, Fenton kills Doyle because he sees he is a demon too since he killed his mother, and admits he is actually Adam. The police are unable to resolve the case.

Cult thriller „Frailty“ is a strange and unusual movie that audaciously at first seemingly blends religious fanaticism and mental disorder into one, up until the end where it drastically changes it's perspective and offers a few thought provoking questions about the relativity of good and evil. The first twist at the end is predictable, but the second one isn't and really proves to be a strong punch to the viewer, even though it may seem uneven and rather contrived when one thinks about it, but even though it was his directorial debut, Bill Paxton proved to be quite a good director who knows when to draw the line and leave some things open to everyone's interpretation. The first murder is agonizingly long and gruelling, presented in a long sequence where dad brings a captured and tied woman home and tells Fenton and Adam she is „just a demon“, then continuing to kill her with an axe much to the shock of the kids. Maybe some themes were handled heavy handed, yet the movie still works since it never explicitly shows how the little kids do the murders (or their dad for that instance, since the camera always „looks away“ when he strikes) which was the right choice. It's a very well made debut movie, not that particularly suspenseful or absolutely sure, but still sharp enough to deli ever all it wanted to say.

Grade:++

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; Grotesque, UK/ France/ The Netherlands, 1989; D: Peter Greenaway, S: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Alan Howard, Richard Bohringer, Tim Roth, Liz Smith

Rich gangster Albert is a disgusting slob who causes chaos and destruction every time he dines at one high-class restaurant, but is tolerated because of the sheer fact that he is financing the extravagant food experiments by cook Richard. Albert's wife Georgina hates him and thus starts a secret affair with bookshop owner Michael. When Albert discovers that, he starts such a sudden campaign that Georgina and Michael have to escape from the restaurant naked and hide. Still, the gangsters find Michael and kill him. Georgina, angry and disillusioned, orders Richard to cook Michael's body. In front of the restaurant staff, she takes a gun and orders Albert to eat Michael's cooked flesh. Then she shoots him.

Peter Greenaway is a peculiar and unique artistic soul, an artist who decided that he will be better remembered with time if he stands out from the usual art by crafting bizarreness, twisted touch, surreal imagery and - in this case - even bare shock value. For all of it's hyped and controversial reputation, cult grotesque drama "The Cook" isn't that disgusting or unbearable as some claim it is, but actually follows a fine line that connects all the events into one big picture, though it's definitely not suited for the gentle audience, if alone for such scenes where the disgusting gangster Albert kills Michael by force-feeding him pages of his favorite book or the gruesome cannibal finale with Michael's cooked, naked body. In such grotesque and expressionistic movies, the basic must is that they should engage and dazzle the viewers with brilliant style, yet here it's hard to shake off the impression that some moments aren't that impressive as they were suppose to be, since the story does seem rather repetitive, stiff and without a point. Some ideas seem of a rather questionable value, which is why some viewers will probably completely dismiss it as junk while others will go through it like a ship through a storm and actually enjoy the ride. 'Bon Appetit' is definitely a term that won't be used here. At it's chore, it's just a standard revenge story done in an nonstandard way, yet some of Albert's silly antics, with which he insults some of the guests in the restaurant, are hilarious, and Helen Mirren is great as his annoyed wife Georgina.

Grade:++

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona


Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Romantic comedy, USA/ Spain, 2008; D: Woody Allen, S: Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz, Chris Messina, Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn

Barcelona. Two American students, Vicky and Cristina, arrive in the town to stay there for the summer at the distant relative Judy. One evening, as they were sitting in a bar, they are approached by a dashing Spanish guy, Juan Antonio, who openly asks them to spend the weekend with him in Oviedo. The conservative Vicky is reluctant, but agrees when the adventurous Cristina agrees. There Vicky falls for Juan when she sees his art, but decides to stay faithful to her fiance Doug, while Juan starts a relationship with Cristina, but then has to take care for his suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena. Vicky marries Doug in Barcelona and leaves for the US with Cristina, even though she still has feelings for Juan.

Woody Allen continued with his unwoodyallenization in his later phase of career with his surprising romantic tragicomedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" that seems unbelievably alive, fresh and honest movie about male-female relationships and sexuality, a completely untypical Woody Allen flick. It's a simple story that celebrates life and also questions a few narrow minded traditions that prevent people from enjoying their life completely. Rebecca Hall is great as the conservative Vicky who suddenly looses her grip and "softens up", but Javier Bardem as the dashing Spanish guy Juan Antonio is the real highlight: the minute he shows up and approaches Vicky and Cristina in a bar, openly tells them he finds them beautiful and flat out asks them out to spend the weekend with him, surprising and blushing them both, the movie is set up for an amazing experience. That moment is so magical and fascinating it instantly gives the story power and thus the first 30 minutes of the movie with the incredibly cool Juan are perfect.

He counters every prejudice Vicky throws at him: when she tells him: "You just want empty sex" he flat out replies with: "Empty sex? Do you have such low self-esteem of yourself?" When Cristina is in his apartment and warns him he "shouldn't ruin the moment", he replies with: "And how could I ruin it anyway?" Unlike many other macho studs, Juan is an amazing character because he is never forceful, but always charming, smart and even a little bit melancholic. Yet, "Barcelona" once again shows how it's hard to sustain perfection in a long term in a movie: even though she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best supporting actress, once when Penelope Cruz's annoying character Maria Elena shows up, she completely ruins the movie and makes it uneven. Cruz is a good actress, but her role is entirely wrong in the first place because she forcefully made an overstretched quadrilateral relationship out of the original triangle relationship, which was much more fitting. Sadly, the viewers spend the last 30 minutes of the movie figuring they are observing a movie they don't like at all, especially since it all ends in a vague way. Still, for all that youthful energy and Spanish mentality, the movie should be recommended, which is why it even won a Golden Globe as best motion picture - musical or comedy.

Grade:++

Small Time Crooks


Small Time Crooks; Comedy, USA, 2000; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Hugh Grant, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Jon Lovitz

Ray plans to dig a tunnel from a store that he bought towards a safe in a nearby bank, which he plans to rob. While he and his three colleagues dig, his wife Frenchy leads a cookie shop which starts becoming more popular by the day. Ray and his associates get caught by a policemen who doesn't lock them up but opens a cookie factory called "Sunset" that becomes a huge success. Ray and Frenchy become rich but start to argue. She wants to join the upper class and thus hangs around with the snobby David by promising to finance his project. But the accountants trick them and they go bankrupt. Frenchy steals David's present and goes with Ray to Florida.

The viewers shouldn't be tricked by the poster and the title since comedy "Small Time Crooks" doesn't at all have any connections with the crime theme. Author Woody Allen for once lost his steam and context: the story starts as a possible heist comedy since the protagonist dig a tunnel to a bank, but after 25 minutes there's a sudden shift and we suddenly find them as they lead a cookie factory. From there on the rest of the story revolves only around the marital problems of the couple Ray and Frenchy (sympathetic Tracey Ullman who was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress in a motion picture - musical or comedy) which causes a remorse for the sacked original fun plot of the heist at the beginning. It has some charm that it's hard for us to predict where the movie is going, and Allen somehow seems more relaxed, almost in 'cool' shape, whereas some jokes are funny, like when Jon Lovitz's character admits he financed his children by putting insurance on his stores which he then burned down, yet it's obvious this acceptable movie is just a flat, light comedy.

Grade:+