Sunday, June 28, 2009

American Splendor


American Splendor; Tragicomedy, USA, 2003; D: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pucini, S: Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner

Harvey Pekar is an ordinary file clerk in a war veteran's hospital in Cleveland. He is a cynical pessimist who has a measly salary but loves to read comic books and meets Robert Crumb whose drawings he appreciates. Harvey eventually starts to make his own comic book, "American Splendor", in which he writes about his misadventures. Joyce, a reader of the comic book, sends him a fan letter and visits him in his apartment. The two of them fall in love and get married. Even though his comic books are praised, Harvey never became rich and remained a clerk until his retirement.

Lately, now that mediocre movies started to win Oscars on regular occasion, the true meaning of a truly creative project seems even more valuable. The modest biopic of the cult author of comic books Harvey Pekar, "American Splendor" is a little jewel and the most pleasant surprise of 2003, an accessible, calm, fun, funny and at the same time bitter and realistic achievement. It is truly strange that the screenplay of "The Lord of the Rings", full of dry dialogues, actually won the Oscar that year, while the shrill screenplay of "Splendor", full of such alive and daft moments was only nominated for that award. Already the sole exposition of the film establishes the odd touch: the opening credits are written in the form of comic book box whereas there's a drawn Harvey with a "bubble" dialogue that states: "Now they even made a film about me!" In one scene, while Harvey (Paul Giamatti) is walking through the street, the narrator is narrating: "This is the hero of the story...", just to have the camera switch to a recording room where the narrator is revealed to be the real Harvey Pekar (!), who is recording his words on a microphone. To make the thing even more unusual, the black and white, drawn Harvey in one scene talks with the (movie) Harvey.

The whole film is like that, a modest independent film full of surprises where the director duo Berman-Pulcini inventively play with the movie and comic book medium, and they seem to be aware that the smallest idea can sometimes enrich a whole film and make it seem even fresher. Here almost the whole film is filled with such little small ideas and touches that seem like additional spice to the film as a whole. Just take the very amusing character of Joyce (wonderful Hope Davis, who won the New York Film Critics Circle Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress) who is a big fan of Harvey's comic books. So she sends him a letter and visits him (!) in his apartment, where, after a while, her "idol" says: "I had a vasectomy". In his room, she starts talking nonsense, throws up in the toilette - and then asks him to marry her! That is such a smashing sequence all the way through, and the film would have lost so much if it wasn't there, which shows how creativity can come from the smallest interactions of characters. A shining film full of spontaneous moments, where not beaus but neglected outsiders are the main protagonists for a change.

Grade:+++

Frida


Frida; Drama, USA/ Canada/ Mexico, 2002; D: Julie Taymor, S: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Valeria Golino, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, Edward Norton, Geoffrey Rush

Frida Kahlo is a young student in Mexico in the 20s of the 20th Century. She spots the notorious painter and ladies' man Diego Riviera in an auditorium where he was painting a picture of a naked woman with whom he cheated his girlfriend with. In a traffic accident involving a crashed bus Frida remained heavily injured and couldn't walk. Only after a few operations did she manage to walk again and started painting. She married Diego despite his affairs and went with him to the US. The couple returned to Mexico and received Trotsky, Stallin's dissident, who was murdered a short time later. With time, Frida's health deteriorated so she experienced her first gallery in her homeland in bed.

Salma Hayek was rightfully nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for the title role and her dream role of famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, yet the film isn't particularly inspiring, among others because, as it's mostly the case, the artistic achievements seem much more interesting than the life of the artist. Hayek was always a good actress, but it seems only with this role did she manage to compel the wider audience to see that, since she plays the heroine very naturally, not even shying of some erotic scenes, yet the story is revolving too much around her lover Diego Riviera, who "monopolizes" too much time for himself, while some of her parts of life were marginalized. The film has good intentions and flows nicely, even though it's a too standard biopic with little new to offer in the genre, even though the best moments are surreal: for instance, in the scene where Frida is watching the film "Kong" and imagines Diego in the role of the giant ape; her hallucination of doctor-skeletons (stop-motion animation) or when her painting is crying through the paper.

Grade:++

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dreamquest


Dreamquest; Erotic, USA, 2000; D: Brad Armstrong, S: Jenna Jameson, Herschel Savage, Alexa Rae, Devin Wolf, Asia Carrera

One evening, while lying bored in her bed with her cat, Sarah asks herself if true love disappeared in the modern world. Just then, two fairies show up and she follows them, entering through the mirror into a different fantasy world. There, the shy Sarah is made more "extroverted" when she makes a menage a trois with a man and a woman, Arachna, who gives her the assignment to save fantasy which was stolen by the tyrant Vladimir. She goes through a castle into a forest, finding numerous sex adventures along her journey. Finally, she arrives at Vladimir who captures her and makes her his queen. Still, she gets fantasy away from him and releases her back into the world, returning home to her lover Steve, now ready for real erotic adventures.

Ever since an appearance in a "Family Guy" episode and numerous references about her throughout numerous TV shows, former porn actress Jenna Jameson assured that even people who keep a safe distance from the porn industry will hear about her and get curious. As a person not familiar with porn films (since I rather use my free time to watch art films or classics), I decided just out of pure curiosity to take a peak into one of her last films, "Dreamquest", to see what's all the hype about. So I sat down and watched it. To see what Mrs. Jameson does best that makes such fan circles. Ah yes, how to review a porn? Right of the bat, despite a few more ambitious approaches of director Brad Armstrong, "Dreamquest" isn't much of a film. Some reviewers called it "one of the best films Jameson starred in", even one of the "best adult films" of the decade, but somehow it's hard to figure out what they meant. Maybe there are some different criteria for rating a film in this genre, but I didn't get them, except maybe for the criteria of getting a viewer aroused. And yet, since there is at least a plot and some vague point, even such small dose of imagination and real plot should maybe deserve modest praise.

"Dreamquest" starts off nicely, with Jameson playing Sarah, a shy, bored woman with glasses who laments about how "true love got lost in the modern world". Just then, two butt naked fairies show up from the mirror and stimulate her to enter into their fantasy world, creating a symbolic story about frigidity and the need to get some excitement and liberate oneself in order to enjoy love in bed without boundaries. Some of the more engaging scenes have charm, like the one where a man dressed up like a gladiator poses Sarah a trick question: how to extinguish candles that are held by two naked women without touching the fire or puffing them. So Sarah uses a feather to tickle the two women and make them sneeze and extinguish the candles. Pretty clever, but right after the that the film degenerates into moronic porn: she runs away and the man stops the two women who held the candles by having sex with them. Unfortunately, very lousy one, with pathetic music. The story about a quest to find fantasy held by the evil tyrant and release it is actually more interesting than the syrupy erotic sequences, but the two exclude each other. The whole film is like this. Plot. Stop for porn. Plot. Stop for porn. Plot. Stop for porn...And the erotic sequences are all fake, degenerative and unerotic, with always the same motive of naked women and dressed men who have intercourse with their clothes on. Frankly, most of the sex scenes don't have any sense, either. Would it really be too much to ask for a normal intercourse scene like the one in "A Man and a Woman"? Some of the scenes, like when the two fairies "pay" the bridge toll by sleeping with a knight, are almost unintentionally comical, yet at least the director managed to pull off an OK film, even if the magic is pulled through the mud here.

Grade:+

The Replacement Killers


The Replacement Killers; Action, USA, 1998; D: Antoine Fuqua, S: Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, Jürgen Prochnow, Til Schweiger

John Lee is a hired assassin who kills his newest victim in a disco bar. He works for the mobster Wei whose son was killed in a drug raid by police officer Zedkov, so he now wants Lee to assassinate him. But due to bad conscience, Lee doesn't kill Zedkov and thus has to now run away from the angry Wei and beg the blond Meg to make him a fake passport. The police storms in and destroys the office, while Lee runs away with her. The two of them become friends and stop two of Wei's assassins in a cinema theatre who wanted to gun down Zedkov and his son. Lee kills the killers, bodyguards and Wei himself, while Zedkov secretly lets him return back to his country.

The feature length debut film by Antoine Fuqua, who before directed only music spots, made a proportionally solid derivative action film that somehow gets lost under the influence of violent ideals of the Tarantino films of the 90s. Fuqua ocassionally displays excellent formal style, but due to mediocre story, pretentious manirisms and wooden characters without any special touch, "The Replacement Killers" fail at repeated vieweings because they lack deeper layers. Thus, despite suspensful action sequences (for instance, Til Schweiger plays an assassin whose suitcase fires bullets) the film as a whole turns out lethargic. The sequence where the assassins are trying to shoot police officer Zedkov and his son in the theatre while they are care free watching cartoon "Mr. Magoo" is full of anxiety, Mira Sorvino does her best in her narrow role, yet the pretentious touch of overkill can still be felt throughout the film. Chow Yun-Fat got a lot more subtle role 2 years later in the excellent drama "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

Grade:+

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mighty Joe Young


Mighty Joe Young; Fantasy adventure, USA, 1949; D: Ernest B. Shoedsack, S: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson, Robert Armstrong, Frank McHugh

The little girl Jill lives with her father somewhere in Africa. One day, she exchanges some of her things to local natives for a box with a baby ape inside, naming it Joe Young. Over a decade later, some cowboys come from New York to Africa and spot Joe, who in the meantime grew over 12 feet tall. They try to catch him at first, but the ape is too strong. Max O'Hara though persuades Jill to sign a contract which will enable him to make the ape perform in his night club in Hollywood. At first, Jill is thrilled, but Joe is degraded to a humiliating circus attraction. After some people give him whisky, Joe wrecks havoc in the club and the judge orders the police to shoot him. Luckily, Max, Gregg and Jill manage to bring Joe back to Africa.

Ernest B. Shoedsack's penultimate film once again brought him back to his roots, trying to re-capture his most famous film "Kong". Unlike the above mentioned film, "Mighty Joe Young" only has one special effect - the one of the 12 feet tall ape - but it is used so extensively, so painstakingly detailed and so richly that it amazes completely and deservedly won the Oscar for best visual effects to Willis O'Brien. Story wise, though, it again follows the same formula from "Kong", who brought up some messages about the abused creatures that are different, human egoism and backwardness - "Joe" tries to tell this story line again, but only manages to rehash old stereotypes. Still, the scenes where the giant ape has to give performances in a Hollywood night club, where he is degraded to a humiliating freak show while the audience thinks its all right that way, subversively shows the dark, exploitative nature of show business. The human characters are again just bland puppets when placed in front of a monster - frankly, even though Gregg is suppose to be the leading male character, his role is so palely written that nobody even notices him - while the sequence where Joe saves children from a burning orphanage (in an sequence entirely tilted red!) is too blatant to work. The film is hardly a classic in cinema, but is definitely a classic in special effects history, especially in the thrilling scene where Joe swings on a wine through the nightclub and hits numerous guests.

Grade:++

The Son of Kong


The Son of Kong; Fantasy adventure, USA, 1933; D: Ernest B. Shoedsack, S: Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher

New York. After the disaster with Kong, filmmaker Carl Denham is practically sued by everyone. In order to get away from all the hate, he and the skipper leave in their ship for Dakang. There, the suspicious captain Helstrom persuades them to go back to Skull Island in order to find a treasure. Hilda, a performer, also secretly entered into their ship. When the crew starts a mutiny, the four of them and a Chinese merchant are left alone on the island. There Carl meets Kong's albino son, only 12 feet tall, and becomes his friend. When the ape helps him find a treasure, a giant earthquake sinks the whole island. Luckily, Carl, skipper, Hilda and the Chinese manage to find a ship on the Ocean.

"The Son of Kong" is to "King Kong" what Paris Hilton is to Paris. After the sensational success with "King Kong" in 1933, the producers quickly went on to cash in on the public and hastily crafted the sequel released the same year (!) - but it's obvious it's just a lousy, campy, kitschy flick that wants to cash in on the brand of the unique original. For a running time of only 69 minutes, the story uses its ingredients quite unproportionally - too much time is wasted on the establishing opening with soap opera relationship between Carl Denham and performer Hilda as well as the ship mutiny, actually almost 45 minutes. Which leaves only the last 25 minutes of the film for the title "protagonist" and all the other monsters we have been waiting for from the start. Some of the fantasy moments seem as if they were assembled from deleted scenes from the original film, but director Shoedsack still has some moments in crafting eerie mood and free imagination, like when a Syraccosaurs attacks the human heroes or the comical moment where the albino Kong fights with the giant bear, kicks his own head from a fall and makes some funny eye movement as if he is in a cartoon. The film seems arbitrarily, yet the great stop-motion animation special effects and the refreshingly straight forward approach still seem like virtues, making it a modest follow-up to the legendary original.

Grade:++

Monday, June 22, 2009

Zaman


Zaman, l'homme des roseaux; Drama, Iraq/ France, 2003; D: Amer Alwan, S: Sami Kaftan, Shada Salim, Saadiya Al-Zaydi

Zaman is an older man living along the shores of the Tigris river in the south of Iraq. Since his wife Najma couldn't have any children, they adopted the orphan Yasin. But now Najma is sick and the doctor advises her rest. Zaman takes his boat and starts his journey across the country to find the prescribed medicine, but no pharmacy has it. Finally, he finds it in one Christian hospital, but he doesn't have any documents to prove his medical insurance. In spite of the director's wishes, a woman employee gives Zaman the medicine. Unfortunately, when he returns, Najma dies, while Yasin comforts him.

Movies from Iraq are quite rare: up until 2003, the country produced only some 60 films in total. Another modest contribution to the modest cinema was "Zaman", a minimalistic drama so calm, quiet and spiritually inclined towards the Eastern philosophy that it seems refreshing compared to many loud, stupid and extroverted action films from the West. Shot with a home camera, with simple actors and accessible locations, Amer Alwan directs his debut film in the simplest possible way, never trying to make it seem something more than it is: a light 'slice-of-life'. Some of that lightness comes across as really too light, since the story consists just out of the hero going from town to town to find the medicine for his wife, yet the emotional touch gives it weight, as well as the sincerity that seems to arrive from some other dimension. Here and there Alwan can't resist but to "accidentally" film some street photos of Saddam Hussein and capture the radio news about the coming US intervention in his country, yet the political subtext practically doesn't exist since he only cares for the personal fate of his characters, as well as the nature that surrounds them, absent from any worries, embodied in some frames of the water birds or the hero washing his face with water from the river.

Grade:++

Tokyo Eyes


Tokyo Eyes; Drama, France/ Japan, 1998; D: Jean-Pierre Limosin, S: Hinano Yoshikawa, Shinji Takeda, Kaori Mizushima, Takeshi Kitano

Tokyo. Panic spread through the city due to the mysterious villain with glasses, "Four Eyes", who threatens and shoots at passer bys, but always misses them. The newspapers are full of sensational articles and wonder if he is deliberately missing them or if he is just cross-eyed. Hinano (17) works as a hairdresser and lives with her brother the police officer, who is is searching for "Four Eyes". Hinano stumbles upon the rebel, nicknames him K and goes to his apartment. At first, she wants to hand him over to the police, but then she changes her mind because she fell in love. In a disco, K again scares one person, so Hinano begs him to stop. But K kills one passer by and when he sells him gun to a Yakuza he begs him to throw it away, which he does. K and Hinano separate.

"Tokyo Eyes" is some sort of crime art drama, but everything in it is lukewarm and mild - up until the point where the viewers might ask themselves if they are watching some TV soap opera. Already after some 60 minutes the feeling is crystallized that the product only watchable because nothing much happens in the passive story whereas the director Jean-Pierre Limosin has a steady hand, but doesn't have anything special to show here. The best parts are humorous: in one scene, a crumb falls into Hinano's eye, so K picks it out with his tongue, or when the two of them are running through the road with arms stretched out, imagining to fly. And here and there the film surprises pleasantly with occasional references to other films, like when Hinano wears an umbrella and dresses like Angela from the Godard's film "A Woman is a Woman". The story about an honest criminal offered a lot more intriguing relationships and discussions, not just a light drama, though the actress Hinano Yoshikawa is wonderful.

Grade:+

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Grand Canyon


Grand Canyon; Drama, USA, 1991; D: Lawrence Kasdan, S: Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Mary McDonnell, Steve Martin, Alfre Woodard, Mary-Louise Parker

Los Angeles. Mack, who works in the immigration office, after returning one evening from a basketball game gets lost during his drive home whereas his car breaks down. Just when some muggers wanted to attack him, he was saved by Simon, the African American driver of tow-truck. Mack's wife Claire finds a baby on the street and decides to adopt it. Their friend Davis, a producer of violent Hollywood films, gets wounded in the leg by a robber. After recovery, Davis decides to shoot only gentle films, but then changes his mind and continues like usual. In the end, Claire, Mack, their children and Simon go to see the Grand Canyon.

The mosaic of several stories in the anthology film "Grand Canyon" is vaguely connected by the fact that the protagonists at the end go to see the canyon, though it's a moderately successful film despite the big problem that nothing changes in their lives which is why the story as a whole ends in entropy. It's a matter of a interesting and demanding, but conventionally crafted drama - the only originality is the dream sequence where in which Mack is flying over L.A. at night and in the end arrives at the picture of a naked woman that falls apart - which is why it's ambitions are sustained, without real stand-out virtues. The screenplay, nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar, is good, with a complaint that it queues numerous scenes in a superficial, short way, like Mack's flirt with a secretary when she takes his arm or the rather arbitrarily moment where Claire finds an abandoned baby on the road and adopts it. The best performances were delivered by Danny Glover and Mary McDonnell, but even Steve Martin got an untypical role of a bearded producer of violent films who decides to make pacifist films after he gets wounded by a robber, but in the end just continues as usual.

Grade:++

8 Million Ways to Die


8 Million Ways to Die; Crime, USA, 1986; D: Hal Ashby, S: Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, Randy Brooks, Andy Garcia, Alexandra Paul

Los Angeles. After he killed a drug salesman who refused the arrest in his home, police officer Matthew becomes a depressive alcoholic and quits his job. 6 months later, after rehabilitation, he is contracted by prostitute Sunny who begs him to protect her because she wants to escape from her boss Chance. But she gets killed. Matthew then contacts her colleague Sarah and discovers Sunny was actually killed by mobster Angel. When Chance and Matthew steal his drug in a store in order to exchange it for Sarah, it all ends in a bloodshed. Matthew kills Angel and ends up with Sarah.

The penultimate film by Hal Ashby and his last feature film before he directed the TV flick "Jake's Journey" and then passed away, "8 Million Ways to Die" shows only small crumbs of virtues of one of the most talented directors of the 70s who somehow got lost in the 80s. For a crime film, the story has at least two big plot holes and some discrepancies, but is otherwise cliche free and neatly structured, without really big flaws, except that it simply doesn't engage on a higher level. It's a restless, nervous and spontaneous film with some bizarre touches that give it some sparks here and there (for instance, in one scene in a rehab clinic, the councilor praises Matthew for staying sober for 6 months now and asks him: "How do you feel?", upon which he replies with: "Like I could use a drink!"), but not a real continuation of a spark as a whole. For one, the film seems chaotic, while the character of prostitute Sarah (very good Rosanna Arquette) is poorly, scarcely developed, especially since the relationship between her and the protagonist - who is an ex police officer - could have been much more interesting than the way it was shown here, without any interest at all. Ashby probably was aware that the story had much bigger potentials than just a simple action flick, but due to his deteriorating health he probably couldn't or didn't want to go into discussion with the screenwriter. However, it's a solid film and one should be grateful for that, while it has some moments, like the car chase with a flat tire.

Grade:+

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Last of the Mohicans


The Last of the Mohicans; Adventure, USA, 1992; D: Michael Mann, S: Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi, Patrice Chéreau

In 1757, the British and the French are fighting over territory in North America. White man Hawkeye lost his parents as a child so he was adopted by Mohican Chinachgook who made him equal to his real son Uncas. The three of them save British Colonel Munro from an attack by Huron Indians and their leader Magua. Munro is grateful, leading them with his two daughters Cora and Alice to a fort to defend it. Hawkeye and Cora fall in love, but when he helps some soldiers to leave the fort he gets arrested by Munro. Realizing that the French are stronger, the British give them the fort and leave. On their way they are again attacked by Magua because it turns out that Munro killed his family. Hawkeye begs Magua to spare them. The Huron kill Munro, Uncas and Alice, but spare Hawkeye and Cora.

Another excellent film by Michael Mann, "The Last of the Mohicans" demands a lot of concentration and flexibility from the viewers, but rewards in the end due to a story that was inserted with a lot of style. The film really has sense already in the exposition where the camera "travels" through the nature as well as in the night sequences, especially the one where the explosion illuminates the fort in an almost poetic manner. Once again, Mann's decision of cinematography benefits the film on numerous occasions, but that's not to say equal attention was not given to the characters. When Major Duncan aims with his pistol at the hero in a boat who, not even looking at him, says: "Don't you have anything better to do?", causing him to lower the weapon, it tells a lot about him and their relationship. Even though Munro and Duncan are episodic characters, they are powerfully portrayed, though the female protagonists remained slightly one-dimensional. The theme of colonisation of the Native Americans was handled in a unobtrusive way, while Daniel Day-Lewis is once again great, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA for best actor.

Grade:+++

Manhunter


Manhunter; thriller, USA, 1986; D: Michael Mann, S: William Petersen, Dennis Farina, Kim Greist, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen, Tom Noonan

Former FBI agent Will Graham decides to join the investigation of mysterious homicides after his colleague shows the photos of a murdered family. The killer is obviously a psychopath who attacks only during full moon, and due to the unusual jaw he got the nickname "Tooth fairy". Will asks assistance from murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, whom he put behind bars. But Hannibal contacts the killer and even gives him suggestions to kill Will's family in Florida. The killer is Francis who tries to killer a blind woman after a relationship, but Will finds and stops him in time.

Excellent crime thriller "Manhunter", an adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel "Red Dragon", is by it's story, assembly and direction even superior to the hyped sequel "The Silence of the Lambs". Michael Mann proved to be a clever director with loads of highlights, whereas here the thing that matters to him is the style, not violence: the nights are filmed in beautifully blue cinematography, embodying some evasive spirit of the 80s, while details are fantastic, like when agent Will reconstructs the murder in a bloody house by reading the report from the paper. In prison he meets Hannibal Lecter who immediately greets him with a critique ("You still use that awful aftershave?") while he replies him that he captured him because he had a "flaw called madness". It's a pity that Lecter only has a small, 5 minute appearance, but he is wonderfully played by Brian Cox, who refused to repeat his role in "Lambs". It's also excellent how the police is trying to analyze his message on a toilet paper using various technologies. Some have lamented about the odd synthesizer music, but it's one of the finest scores of the 80s, unbelievably blending in with the film as a whole in creating a magical, almost esoteric mood.

Grade:+++

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Fugitive


The Fugitive; Thriller, USA, 1993; D: Andrew Davis, S: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Jeroen Krabbé, Sela Ward, Joe Pantoliano, Julianne Moore

Dr. Richard Kimble, a succesful doctor, gets sentenced to death because the police thinks he killed his wife, though he claims he is innocent and that the real killer has a prosthetic arm. After the prison bus gets hit by a train, Richard manages to escape, shaves his beard and hides in Chicago and goes to find the real killer. At the same time, US Marshal Gerard is mercilessly prosecuting him. In the end, Richard finds out his colleague, Dr. Nichols, ordered the murder because he wanted to hide the side effects of a new drug. Gerard in the end becomes Richard's friend.

The movie adaptation of the Television series "The Fugitive" turned out to be an excellent thriller that still seems undated and fresh as upon it's premiere thanks to a fantastic rhythm from start to finish, displaying how Hollywood can really craft some amazing films if just a little effort is put in the material. The film impresses thanks to the brilliant chase sequences, a very realistic story and top notch direction, taking on a straight-forward approach and good 'old school' dramaturgy. Tommy Lee Jones really is great as the cynical US Marshal Gerard (for which he won an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best supporting actor and was nominated for a BAFTA), but the real star is the charismatic Harrison Ford, delivering a performance that's equally as smashing as it's unobtrusive (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor in a motion picture - drama). The story is filled with great little details, like when Gerard shoots a criminal who was holding one of his agents hostage - as a consequence, the agent survived, but the loud sound of the near gun caused his right ear to turn deaf for a while - but the most virtuoso directed sequence is the one where Gerard is chasing after Richard in a hospital, who manages to escape humorously by passing by a couple of police officers and telling them: "Officer, officer! There's a man in a blue jacket behind me, waving with a gun and threatening some lady!", who then mistakenly grab the angry Gerard while he gets away. Some subplots where the hero manages to hide and search for the murderer seem far fetched, but don't disrupt the film as a whole. Despite a big complexity, this film is almost perfect to the smallest detail.

Grade:+++

Sunday, June 14, 2009

π


π; Science-fiction drama, USA, 1997; D: Darren Aronofsky, S: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Samia Shoaib, Pamela Hart

"Math is the language of nature". Max Cohen is obsessed with numbers. Ever since he looked into the Sun for too long as a kid, he was plagued by headache. Still, with 20 he already finished college and plans to discover the ultimate secret in his apartment: a number that could explain and predict every pattern in the Universe. His computer gives him a 216-digit number, but he throws it away thinking it's false. It turns out however it was actually right since it predicted the course of the stock market. He gets chased by rich entrepreneurs and Jew Lenny who thinks that God could be found in the number. Max cuts his hair to bald and drills his own skull with a power drill. The headache and the number disappear and everything remains a mystery.

The feature length debut film by Darren Aronofsky, "Pi" was shot for only 60.000 $ and in black and white in order to enhance the mood of mystery of the theme of synchronicity and destiny possibly explained with science. The aggressive visual style is noticeable already in the exposition in which the numbers fill out the screen or when the camera is fixated on Max while the background is moving. A special rhythm was achieved with Max getting a headache attack every 11 minutes. He is the only believable character in the story and his romance with math instead of the girl who is interested in him is slightly disappointing. Through "Pi", a smashing idea is presented: that one sole number could explain and predict the entire Universe - the stock market, love, God, catastrophes, the weather...But the only thing Max predicted was the stock market, and then the number was forgotten and the rest of the film was wasted on rather uninteresting "thriller"/chase subplots. A shame. So much could have been made with that, Max could have changed the World and the Universe, but this way, where the number was conveniently forgotten, the idea wasn't even half way successfully exploited.

Grade:++

Frantic


Frantic; Thriller, France/ USA, 1987; D: Roman Polanski, S: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, Betty Buckley, John Mahoney

American surgeon Dr. Richard Walker is visiting Paris with his wife Sondra. In the hotel, the notice that because of a misunderstanding they got an unknown suitcase. While he is in the shower, his wife makes a phone call. When he gets out of the shower, she is gone. He reports her absence to the hotel security and the police, but they can't help him. Some man tells him he saw the kidnapping of a woman. Some traces lead Richard to a guy named Didi who is found dead in an apartment. There he meets his assistant, criminal Michelle. She explains him that the suitcase he mistakenly got was hers and thus terrorists kidnapped his wife. They discover a microchip capable of detonating nuclear devices. The first exchange of the chip for Sondra fails. But the second one succeeds, even though the criminals and Michelle die. Richard throws the chip in the river.

Director Roman Polanski shot only 2 films in the 80s, the first one being "Pirates" and the second being "Frantic", a not especially original nor especially suspenseful thriller. Somewhat inclined towards Hitchcock, both towards the title and the motif of a hero lost in a crime milieu which he doesn't understand while others don't take him seriously, this is, from technical aspect, a wonderfully shot, modern looking film, but from the creative aspect it seems bland, bleak and needlessly grotesque, especially in showing France in a rather negative light where people get kidnapped and the police is incompetent to solve anything. The mood is one-dimensional and too serious, ultimately leading towards the grey territory and even starts to drag at times, the characters aren't anything special, the story is inadequate for frequent viewings while the conclusion is shaky. Still, thanks to Polanski's direction, it's a solid film and his fans could find some deeper layers if they completely adjust towards his rhythm, while Harrison Ford is one again in top notch shape, even in the bizarre scene where he gets out of the room naked, holding only a teddy bear in front of his intimate part.

Grade:+

Friday, June 12, 2009

Suburban Commando


Suburban Commando; Science-fiction comedy, USA, 1991; D: Burt Kennedy, S: Hulk Hogan, Christopher Lloyd, Shelley Duvall, Larry Miller, William Ball, Jo Ann Dearing

Evil General Suitor wants to rule the Universe, but interstellar hero Shep Ramsey destroys his spaceship. On his way to new heroic deeds, Shep's spaceship gets a malfunction and so he has to make a forceful vacation and land on his least favorite planet - Earth. However, by renting an apartment in a suburbia, he makes friends with his tenants, the neglected designer Charlie, his wife Jenny and their two kids, changing their lives. When it turns out that General Suitor is alive and wants to re-new his plans, Shep gets rid of him in an explosion and leaves Earth.

Some movies are forgotten. And some movies are forgotten, but still re-surface time after time thanks to their cult status. After he stared in a few disastrous films, the critics were pleasantly surprised with Hulk Hogan's science-fiction family comedy "Suburban Commando" which was refreshingly watchable, eventually remaining Hogan's best film - "Gremlins 2" excluded. It's a matter of a sympathetic, though not especially inspired and mild family comedy that was not outstandingly well received around the World, but has some charm in exploiting the good old formula of a stranger arriving to a coiled community and changing their lives. It is a harmless fun with a few silly-childish gags, whereas the authors manage to ignite some sparks of competence here and there, like in the long establishing situation where the good-natured Charlie is annoyed by his egoistic neighbors who block his parking place with their open wheel car. Then he finds Shep's laser gun, turns it on and fires it out of pure curiosity to see what will happen. To his surprise, the gun truly fires a laser and makes a hole through his wall. He looks through the hole - and spots his neighbor's open wheel car on fire. Other jokes are also quite fun, like the cheesy one where Shep thinks a pantomime is trapped in an invisible force field so he "rescues" him and "breaks the force" by hitting him in the face or the cleverly choreographed duel with the two bounty hunters. The observations by director Burt Kennedy weren't so poignant, which is why this is only a 'guilty pleasure', and the best job was done by Christopher Lloyd.

Grade:++

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Golem: How He Came into the World


Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam; Silent fantasy, Germany, 1920; D: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese, S: Albert Steinrück, Paul Wegener, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch

Prague, 16th Century. Rabbi Löw observes the stars and discovers signs which predict troubles for the Jewish community. And truly, a decree is issued in which, because of accusations of sorcery, the Jews are to be expelled from Prague. Löw thus uses his magic to create a Golem, a humanoid creature created out of clay, to save his people. He presents Golem during a festival and the impressed Emperor withdraws the decree. Löw's assistant spots that Löw's daughter Mirjam has a relationship with Florian, and thus uses the Golem against him. The Golem throws Florian from the tower and puts the house on fire, going out of control. Until a little girl takes it's star from the chest and causes it to drop dead.

Paul Wegener's "The Golem" is the most famous movie adaptation of the folklore legend revolving around the title clay creature and Rabbi Löw, which has some fascination based on the unknown hidden in the human subconsciousness and thus indeed justifies why the authors picked it for their film. The opening is fantastic, using the expressionistic style to the maximum: it shows stars in the night sky and Rabbi Löw observing them with a telescope, reading signs from them. However, these aesthetic images are quickly replaced with ordinary ones, trying to just tell the story in a rather conventional way, and that's why "Golem" seems rather dated at moments. Back in the 1920s, cinema was still young and fresh, but also 'rough', since the directors didn't yet know how to use all their possibilities and simply using the 'aim and film' method, and some part of that comes across as flaw in this story. It keeps stalling and has too many empty scenes that don't lead nowhere.

The most brilliant scenes are those which use imaginative mise-en-scene in trying to stand out from the other films of that time, like the one where Rabbi Löw draws a circle around himself which starts to glow and attracts lightning bolts in order to awake the Golem or the mesmerizing moment where he uses his magic to start a "triangle screen" on the castle's wall, showing the images of Jews traveling through the desert in epic queues, because there the movie shows that it really has something to show. It also juggles with motives of antisemitism and fear of the unknown, but it would have been better if it shaped the Golem in a more mythical way, and not just waste him in ordinary scenes showing him as a servant chopping wood or going shopping. Much more could have been made out of the story, but what can you do, the authors didn't want to go there. The film still has enough talent displayed though, which shows that not only the title creature was created out of nothing.

Grade:++

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Antz


Antz; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 1998; D: Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson, S: Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, Jennifer Lopez, Christopher Walken, Gene Hackman, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Glover, Anne Bancroft

The humans are rulers on the surface, but the ants are rulers under the ground. Z is a neurotic ant worker who is fed up with work and tunnel digging, and when he meets princess Bala on a dance in a bar he falls in love with her. In order to see her again, Z takes the position of soldier Weaver, but then gets sent to war to fight against the termites. As the only survivor, he becomes a hero and poses the question why the ant society couldn't be more free. He escapes with Bala in order to find the mystical Insectopia. They get rid of the evil general Mandible, get married and change to ant colony to a better place.

The 2nd entirely CGI animated film in cinema, "Antz" is a neat and sympathetic film that also manages to function on many different layers, juggling even with such subtext as class difference and revolution in (ant) society. It also ironically became the most commercial film in which Woody Allen "stared" in, since he lent his voice to a character intrinsic to his persona: Z is a neurotic, multi-phobic ant who stands out, doesn't want to conform to society, questions numerous dogmas, has an open mind - and even the story is set in New York! If it weren't for the action finale, it would seem as if Allen directed the film himself. The story is both funny and touching, managing to entertain on a more demanding level that tends to include more brain activity from the viewers, with a tight rhythm and great animation that makes the actors who play the characters seem very recognizable, like the muscle-bound Weaver who really looks like an ant version of Sylvester Stallone. Some jokes do come across as infantile, yet some of the more mature lines Z speaks, like "What a bunch of losers. Mindless zombies capitulating to an oppressive system", symbolically show the clash of two regimes, the Totalitarian society and individualism sparked by humanism, revolution and mind, going so far to make some critics even compare Z's final classless ant society as Communism, but even better are the excellent "action" sequences, like the virtuoso point-of-view of an ant stuck under a sneaker that walks, stops and then walks again.

Grade:+++

A Bug's Life


A Bug's Life; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 1998; D: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, S: Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Kevis Spacey, Denis Leary, Hayden Panettiere, Madeline Kahn, David Hyde Pierce

One ant colony has to pay taxes in the form of food to grasshoppers who terrorize them. One day, the clumsy ant Flik accidentally knocks the food into the river so the angry grasshoppers, led by tyrant Hopper, now demand a double portion. Flik decides to liberate ants from those parasites and goes to search for warriors who will help him. He finds 7 bugs, among them a caterpillar, a butterfly, a spider and a praying mantis, who mistake him for the circus owner who is looking for talents, so they go with him. When they realize they have to fight, they craft a giant fake bird, but it burns out. Still, a real bird shows up and eats Hopper while Flik becomes the hero.

"A Bug's Life", the 2nd entirely CGI animated film from the Pixar studios, is a simple crowd pleaser that served it's purpose of becoming a box office success: while the clever ideal "Antz" had a smart story and satirical sharpness, "A Bug's Life" is just a childish and naive mainstream film. As a whole, it's an easily watchable and easily forgettable achievement that entertains and serves as a light fun for kids, but director John Lasseter coped here much lesser than he did in his first CGI feature length film, the excellent "Toy Story": the story doesn't have any spectacularly genius scenes and it's filled with naive, lame, far fetched ideas (already the sole scene where ant Flik accidentally knocks the entire food stock into the river and ruins everything is hugely unrealistic - so it just happens that absolutely every supply of food is conveniently place precisely on the edge of the cliff?) while the parallels/homages to "the 7 Samurai" are convulsive, yet when the authors manage to get a joke right, then it's really excellent: for instance, an insect without wings is "handicapped" while a ladybug is hermaphrodite, whereas the fake "bloopers" during the end credits are great. It's a sweet, but too simple crafted film to be anything more than chidlish entertainment.

Grade:+

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Waltz with Bashir


Vals Im Bashir; animated war drama, Israel/ Germany/ France/ USA, 2008; D: Ari Folman, S: Ari Folman, Miki Leon, Ori Sivan, Yehezkel Lazarov

Tel Aviv. Boaz, a former soldier in the '82 Lebanon war, has nightmares about 26 wild dogs surrounding his home, which he sees as an allegory of the 26 dogs he killed when Israeli troops wanted to enter a Lebanon village unnoticed. His friend, Ari Folman, a director who also served in the war when he was only 19, listens to his observations and decides to interview his other colleagues. He meets with Carmi, Ori and others, as they discuss those days. Ari eventually remembers himself an incident that he has suppressed, the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

Ever since the mockumentary, numerous critics agreed on the fact that no new genres in the cinema have been invented. But "Waltz with Bashir" actually proves them wrong. If there was ever such a thing as an animated documentary with surreal fantasy elements (and on top of that shot over 20 years after the events it documents!), then it's this film, an extremely unusual, but wonderfully sincere, honest and open-hearted testimony of the writer and director Ari Folman who depicted his role and the roles of others in the '82 Lebanon War. You can analyze it from many different angles, but the human side in us somehow perceives it primarily as a personal confession of an artist's soul. The technical thing that stands out the most is how detailed the animation is: from the waves of the sea splashing to the shore, the apartment buildings, the faces of the protagonists, the shadows in the night, it almost reaches rotoscopic quality.

The story is very straight-forward and it thus seems somehow dry and too conventional at moments, which, together with a few pretentious and pompous scenes, comes off as the "Waltz's" biggest flaws. Luckily, Folman included a few refreshingly 'daft' touches that always avoid a grey atmosphere, the best being humorous ones: in one sequence, the IDF soldiers are shown when they think the whole war will be a picnic as they enter Lebanon, happily singing "Good Morning, Lebanon!" while their tank rolls over car after car on a road, while it even "scratches" a wall trying to take a curve in a too narrow street. In one virtuoso sequence, the soldiers shoot with tank shells and rockets to hit a red car with an assassin, but they miss it again and again, "accidentally" destroying all the buildings in the area, while one soldier even imagines his machine gun is a guitar and starts to play a song while war planes drop bombs in tune to his melody! All these are small humorous touches to somehow ease the heavy subject, yet it's always clear the dark-realistic mood prevails and just enhances the political message. Not many films address such topics, but this one does, and it does it with intelligence, which is why it won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pulgasari


Pulgasari; Fantasy, North Korea, 1985; D: Chong Gon Jo, Sang-ok Shin, S: Chang Son Hui, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri

Korea in Medieval times. Inde, a young lad, joins the rebels to fight against the king and his harsh rules. Inde and his uncle, a blacksmith, get arrested by the guards and brought to prison. Before the uncle dies, he makes a small dragon like statue out of rice, calls it Pulgasari, and wishes it will save the farmers. His daughter, Ami, one day discovers the 2 inch statue came to life and started eating iron. With time, Pulgasari becomes 6 foot tall and helps release Inde. When the monster grows over 30 foot tall and aides the rebels, the king orders a general to stop it. But despite a cage, the monster destroys king's castle. But it wants more and more iron and the farmers don't have any left. So Ami sacrifices herself - she gets eaten by Pulgasari which dies.

In the entire history of the first 50 years of it's existence, North Korea produced only some 40 films. And you really have to wonder what kind of movies they make, when the authors have to watch their every step not to accidentally offend any of the political elite. Some critics thus call their dramas "fake dramas". Out of pure curiosity, there are numerous of movie buffs who would love to just take a small "peak" into one of their achievements, just to see how it looks like in North Korea. It's such an isolated country that nobody knows almost anything about it, which is why even one ordinary North Korean tree looks exotic and "unseen". "Pulgasari", a monster fantasy film set in the Medieval Korea (probably to avoid any political connotations in the present), is definitely a cult flick and one can't even begin to name what's more bizarre in it: the fact that Kim Jong Il had his agents kidnap (!) South Korean director Shin Sang Ok in order for him to direct movies for North Korea, or the silly monster in the rubber suit that's suppose to make a competition to "Godzilla".

Despite cheesy "special effects", theatrical acting and bizarre scenes (Ami throws rice to her uncle through the prison window; the small 2 inch tall Pulgasari eats a needle; thousands of rebels run through the meadow while a 50 foot tall Pulgasari walks in the horizon behind them as a logistical "support"...) the film is made with a purpose because it has a political subtext: it's main message is that people should be loyal to the government, no matter how bad it treats them, because it knows what's best for them. Here the farmers rebel against the king (Communism) and use monster Pulgasari as a weapon and a cause that could give them an alternative (Capitalism), but it quickly turns as an even worse option, since it consumes more and more and the farmers can't feed it anymore. Many actors, like the main actress Chang Son Hui, give their best despite their thin roles, while the costumes are all solid, but throughout the entire story it's clear that everything is heavy handed and blatant. As a whole, the film is definitely trash (and what else to expect when propaganda and fantasy blend together?) but it's a cult film because it's so bizarre.

Grade:+

Marie Antoinette


Marie Antoinette; Drama, USA, 2006; D: Sofia Coppola, S: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the daughter of Austrian empress Maria Theresa, is brought at the age of 14 to an arranged marriage with Louis XVI, son of French king Louis XV. Marie moves to Versailles - at first she feels like a stranger there, but soon gets use to it. She despises Madame du Barry, king's courtesan, and has marital problems since her husband is cold in bed and won't even touch her. Still, they eventually get two children. Louis XVI becomes the new king. When the French Revolution starts, she stays in Versailles until the angry people get her and her family.

The 3rd film by director Sofia Coppola, "Marie Antoinette" is an smooth, polished, but rather flat achievement. Coppola's decision of portraying the title heroine as "Paris Hilton of Rococo" may seem odd at first, yet it has it's moments: she is arrogant and spoiled, but at the same time a very innocent, naive character that has some spark, and her marital problems with her cold husband Louis XVI or some scenes where she even has a pet puppy, are small highlights, while the decision to incorporate some modern rock'n'roll music in the story set in the 18th Century is at times exquisite, like the sweet montage where The Strangeloves' song "I Want Candy" plays in the background. Where the film never succeeds, however, is the impression that the story has any weight at all. Strangely, it seems as if nothing is going on in the entire film. For a while, the film is interesting, yet with time it gets more and more bland. One of it's major problems is that it's too episodic, with vignette after vignette that don't connect on any level - in one scene Marie has a baby girl, in the next she already has a baby boy, then in the next the kids are already 5 years old...Some ellipses that jump so sudden are almost absurd. Also, almost no reasons are shown why the French Revolution started in the first place, nor why the people had something against her. After all, the dreamy mood in the film isn't so dreamy to carry everything after all. It may seem rather impolite, but so much more was said about Antoinette's life in an animated series where she was only a supporting character, "The Rose of Versailles".

Grade:+