Monday, 28 September 2009

District 9


District 9; Science-fiction drama, South Africa/ New Zealand/ USA, 2009; D: Neill Blomkamp, S: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Vanessa Haywood, David James

One day, a refugee alien spaceship starts hovering over Johannesburg. After months of status quo, people cut a hole inside and find over one million arthropod like aliens stranded there who are transferred to Earth, getting their nickname "Prawns". But due to intolerance, the government puts them in an isolated slum. The MNU organization plans to re-locate them away from Johannesburg, in a camp, but one of their eviction superiors, the clumsy Wikus, gets infected by one of their liquids and slowly starts transforming into a "Prawn" himself. Still half-human, he makes friends with a "Prawn", Christopher, and helps him get enough fuel to escape back to the ship and send help. He himself becomes a "Prawn".

30 million $ was a modest investment into South African cinema, but sufficient for the debut director Neill Blomkamp to craft a spectacular cult science-fiction film, "District 9", that juggles ambitiously with themes of xenophobia, intolerance and specism (as opposed to racism). The first half isn't especially good, but the second one therefor is. At the beginning the director very skillfully conjured up the feeling of a 'mockumentary', incredibly easy "sliding in" the middle of the story from the first scene where Wikus looks into the camera in his office and introduces himself. One of the most refreshing aspects of Wikus is that he is a completely untypical hero - with that moustache, way of talking and clumsy outbursts, he acts sometimes almost as Inspector Clouseau, like in the scene where he wants to "show off" in front of the cameras by bossing around, so he tells one soldier that he "took too much ammunition with him", which of course causes an angry backlash from the Colonel - but the director too often encroached for cheap solutions and 'crude' ideas, which is why at the beginning too much time is wasted on Wikus throwing up and losing his fingernails when he slowly transforms into a "Prawn" or the the way Nigerians in the occult rituals eat the hands of aliens to gain their power, which is misguided.

Luckily, the second half is much better, balanced and poignant because its more oriented towards drama, and much less towards horror, when it nicely portrays how the hero throws away xenophobia and starts understanding the other species - by which the film advocates that life is life, no matter in what form or shape, and as such it's precious. Wikus' friendship and bondage with alien Christopher is the best part of "District 9": such an emotionally strident charge was created that the viewers will actually cheer and cry for the alien Christopher, up to the nail-biting, intensive (action) finale where it's never quite clear if the two human-alien protagonists will make it or not. Some of the action scenes towards the end are virtuoso directed, which is why they compensate for the illogical situations (for instance, since the humans want to get rid of the aliens so badly, why are they trying to stop them from enabling their spaceship again? And since the spaceship has the power to hover above Johannesburg for over 20 years, how come it doesn't have enough power to simply send a signal to their species for help?). All in all, a qualitative film, even though the screenplay could have been writen with more sophistication.

Grade:++

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Sneakers


Sneakers; Thriller/ Comedy, USA, 1992; D: Phil Alden Robinson, S: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, David Strathairn, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, Stephen Tobolowsky

"Sneakers" are an organization of numerous hackers and computer specialists - 'Mother', Carl, Donald, Erwin - who test the security networks of banks to check if they have any weak spots. Their leader is Martin who has a dark secret - in '69, he hacked the US government computers to steal the money from Richard Nixon. He escaped, but his friend Cosmo was arrested. Now free, Cosmo presses Martin to find a special machine that can universally decipher any code. But, using a lot of tricks, Martin and his crew trick him, return the machine and gain immunity from the NSA.

"Wonderful fun", wrote "The Washinton Post" for the unusual film by Phil Alden Robinson, "Sneakers", which is constructed as a stylish-moody coper thriller with an equally good function of a light dose of comedy, and which starts with a long take where it shows a television set that runs the dark past of the hero Martin, only for the camera to move away and then move on elegantly to him in the present (where he is played by Robert Redford). Throughly interesting and 'smooth', the film still reduced its grade due to cold approach and too long story: even the remaining final third of the film is engaging, but with a lesser intensity. The stand-out thing in the film, beside very competent direction, is the especially funny performance by Dan Aykroyd who plays 'Mother', a technical expert who is also, by the way, "burried" by conspiracy theories, which results in some deliciously comical lines, like "OK, boss, this LTX-71 concealable mike is part of the same system that NASA used when they faked the Apollo Moon landings. They had the astronauts broadcast around the world from a sound stage at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernadino, California. So it worked for them, shouldn't give us too many problems" or "We'll get 20 years on the electric chair, that's what!"

Grade:++

Digimon: The Movie


Digimon: The Movie; Animated fantasy, Japan, 2000; D: Mamoru Hosoda, Miroru Hosoda, Shigeyasu Yamauchi, S: Joshua Seth, Lara Jill Miller, Doug Erholtz

Japan. Tai and his sister Kari got their first Digimon, a mysterious digital monster, as children when it hatched from a Digi-Egg that came out of the computer. Tai likes the creature, called Koromon, but it transformed into the huge Dinosaur like creature, Greymon and attacked some bird Digimon. Months and months later: Tai found many friends who also have Digimon and fights together with them against the strange Digimon virus that is destroying the Internet and even wants to activate nuclear weapons. But he also has problems with Zora, his girlfriend. Months and months later: The friends go to New York to help Willis who created a mad Digimon.

At the start of the "Digimon - The Movie", the viewers are in for a shock: there Angela from the cutout animation show "Angela Anaconda" goes with her friends to the cinema to watch the "Digimon" movie, turns into 'Angelamon' and it somehow at first isn't clear if the viewer is in a wrong film. When the real film finally starts, it turns out its more intriguing than the monotone mainstream show, but not enough for grown ups or non-Digimon fans. The sweet creatures from the title shaped like birds, dinosaurs and rodents are slightly a copy from "Pokemon" which is why they don't reach some huge quality heights. The kid heroes are developed fragmentary, the uninteresting parts are featured the most while the most interesting parts (Tai's argument with his girlfriend Zora) are featured the least. Among the better jokes is when a truck passes by the dinosaur Digimon ("Have you seen that?" - "No, I was asleep." - "But you are driving!") and when the girl leaves such a long introduction on her answering machine that Ty has only 2 seconds for his message. An anime without delight.

Grade:+

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Professional


Profesionalac; Grotesque, Serbia, 2003; D: Dušan Kovačević, S: Branislav Lečić, Bora Todorović, Nataša Ninković, Dragan Jovanović

Teodor Teo Kraj is a middle aged factory owner where currently all the employees are on strike. Suddenly, a stranger enters his office, introducing himself as Luka Laban, a former secret agent, and gives him a book where all parts of his were documented. Laban explains the stunned Teo that he spied on him for 10 years, following the orders of the Slobodan Milošević regime. Back then, in the 90s, Teo protested against the regime so the disguised Laban constantly secretly followed him, beating him up in more occasions and once even saving his life. On top of all, Laban's daughter fell in love with Teo and went to Canada. Teo is at first furious, but later on makes up with Laban.

After the screenplays for numerous brilliant Balkan satires like "Who's That Singing Over There?" and "The Balkan Spy", that went on to become local classics, and even subsequently symbolically predicted the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, the inspired writer Dušan Kovačević ran out of shape in the movie he directed himself, "The Professional", which he adapted based on his own play. All in all, "The Professional" is more than solid but, obviously, is missing that special energy that adorns truly qualitative films. Many scenes are, at first sight, amusingly written (police officers disguised as Santa Clauses; people in Serbia throwing stones in the sky after the bombing of NATO planes in '99; Laban gets so carried away by acting Teo's follower that he even protests against Milosevic himself...) but in practice turn out grim-pale due to the pathetic dramaturgy and lack of humor, which is why it's a pity that Laban wasn't played by the deceased legendary comedian Danilo 'Bata' Stojković, who portrayed him in the plays.

Grade:++

Train in the Snow


Vlak u snijegu; Adventure, Croatia, 1976; D: Mate Relja, S: Slavko Štimac, Željko Malčić, Gordana Inkret, Ratko Buljan

Veliko Selo, 30s. Children Draga and Ljuban are best friend, and Pero would have been too if he wasn't so greedy. Together with some 30 children, they attend an elementary school. One day their teacher suggests to organize the class according to the principle of a democratic community. Ljuban gets elected as the president so Pero becomes jealous. When the class takes a train trip to Zagreb, their teacher becomes sick. Thus, the children take the journey alone, but their train gets stuck in a snow storm. Ljuban organizes the kids to help remove the snow from the tracks, and even the rebellious Pero helps. In the end, the train manages to free itself from the snow.

Legendary Croatian children's film "Train in the Snow", an adaptation of the novel with same title, is proportionally sympathetic but dated and poor with excitement. Unlike the impressive animated film "The Elm-Chanted Forest" from '86, this film doesn't offer some kind of a special event, the narration is lax whereas the direction by Mate Relja is routine. The humorous moments remained the best in the story, like when scenes of gooses fighting where inserted during the fight between Draga and Marija or when the two boys scare their colleagues, who reenact a wedding ceremony, with skulls of horses. The most important segment of the story - the train trapped in snow - shows too late, only in the last third of the film, but holds the best adventure potentials, turning unassuming, fun and in the end even a little bit nostalgic.

Grade:++

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Golden Boy


Golden Boy; Animated comedy series, Japan, 1997; D: Hiroyuki Kitakubo, S: Mitsuo Iwata, Hiromi Tsuru, Yuuko Minaguchi, Mika Kanai

Kintaro Oe (25) is an honest and nonchalant young lad with a law diploma who travels across Japan on a bicycle. All his part time jobs get him into trouble: when he gets employed in a computer company, he wants to seduce his female boss, but she throws him out. Only later on does she find out he improved her diskette and wants to apologize. Election campaign: Kintaro falls for Naoko, the daughter of a mobster, who just provokes him, but later on apologizes. Noodle restaurant: Kintaro prevents the evil tycoon from seducing the daughter of the owner. Pool: Kintaro volunteers for a swimming instructor to impress a girl, but is again misunderstood. Temple: Kintaro wins in a race with a motorcycle girl. Anime studio: all the girls get together to help Kintaro complete a fantasy anime, but he again leaves on his bike.

Bright and joyful anime comedy series "Golden Boy" is unusual and stands out with ease since most of the works from that genre are serious. The hero, voiced in original by Mitsuo Iwata, is deliciously chaotic whereas especially funny is his sudden change of animation design in extreme situations which goes from detailed-naturalistic into caricature-cartoonish in the same scene. Nothing less hilarious are his seduction attempts aimed at attractive women, which are, for an "erotic comedy", surprisingly harmless and not embarrassing at all, refreshingly joking at its own expense. However, only the two girls from the first two episodes are satirically exaggerated: his female boss with giants breasts that "bounce" even at the slightest movement and Naoko, the daughter of a mobster, who seduces him just because she is bored. Looking at the truth straight in the face, the remaining 4 episodes are not that funny and shrill anymore. They roll out inconsiderate. Though, even this result is quite fun in spoofing some male-female cliches, for those who can laugh at self-absorbed chauvinism-feminism exaggerations.

Grade:++

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Trinity Is STILL My Name!


...continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità; western comedy, Italy, 1971; D: E. B. Clucher, S: Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Yanti Somer, Jessica Dublin, Enzo Tarascio, Harry Carey Jr.

Overweight "Bambino" stumbles into bandits somewhere in the desert and robs them, taking also their horses with him. His brother Trinity also stumbles onto the same bandits and eats their whole beans. Bambino and Trinity accidentally meet in the house of their mother and promise their father on his death bed that they will rob together. But already their first attempt backfires: not only do they not rob a family in a carriage, but give them some money out of pity. In a town, they beat the unbeatable card player while gangster Parker mistakes them for government agents and gives them a 4,000 $ bribe to leave him alone during his arms smuggle. They, of course, cannot allow such thing and capture Parker and his bandits in a monastery, beat them up and call the authorities.

After the acclaimed and highly popular cult comedy "My Name Is Trinity", that back in '70 already set up the whole Bud Spencer/ Terence Hill comic formula and started an unstoppable campaign at the Italian box office, their often director E.B. Clucher made this sequel with them which was also received well, but is of a somewhat weaker quality, proving again that it is hard to repeat something twice and expect an equally strong reaction just like the first time. Some funny jokes really do shine, however, because of their authentic charm - one is the unknown legend moment where Trinity is so fast that he is able to draw his gun, holster it and then slap another gunfighter before the other one can even get the chance to move his arm, which is an indestructible blend of 'cool' and comedy.

Other jokes are also well made, if not brilliant as well (for instance, Trinity draws his gun and shoots at some bandit's cigarette, thereby lighting it, while Bambino shoots right afterwards in order to extinguish it; the comical dialogue between Trinity-Bambino and the monks: "Why did you beat people up?" - "It wasn't us. It was... Lucifer!" - "Lucifer? I don't know him." - "Must be some bandit from the East." - "If you meet him, tell him to go to hell!"). Undoubtedly great scenes, even though the previous film has more highlights, whereas the slightly chaotic-episodic story takes all until the last third to manifest itself completely, whereas in the previous film the structure of the storyline was so tight that we knew right from the start what was going on, which did not allow for the narrative to go into four subplots like here. For the majority of the viewers, the only thing worth waiting for is the comic Hill-Spencer trademark "fist-fighting", which encapsulates three sequences, and thanks to the intelligent supporting writing, here it even does not seem like a 'guilty pleasure'.

Grade:++

Otto - The Outer-Frisian


Otto – Der Außerfriesische; Comedy, Germany, 1989; D: Marijan Vajda, Otto Waalkes, S: Otto Waalkes, Barbara May, Volkmar Kleinert

The blond Otto lives in a lighthouse in north Germany. He takes money from tourists and a local millionaire by selling cheap souvenirs and here and there brings milk to a kindergarten. There he is in love with the teacher. But his region, East Frisia, is threatened by the evil multi-corporations because the rich boss wants to build a rocket route there. Otto, disguised as a waiter, reveals their plan and goes to Florida to ask help from his brother called Benno, who saves everything and returns to Germany. Otto gains the heart of the teacher.

The 3rd film from the mega popular five part "Otto" movie series already started to decay by showing more flaws than virtues, going hand-in-hand with the critics who characterized the series as getting worse with every new sequel. The screenplays and star Otto Waalkes didn't manage to accumulate enough good jokes which is why the film is quite overstretched and unfunny. Still, some of the best gags are still amusing - for instance, two computers are advising a sheep dog on a meadow how to catch sheep or the one with the slogan of the greedy company: "The Earth was just lend to us...but nobody said anything about giving it back". The rest of the humor is rather silly, pale and too much centered around German culture to find universal appeal, which is why two guest appearances are welcomed: the one of tennis star Steffi Graf and comedian Loriot ("Ödipussi") in the scene where all the fans go to him, and not to Otto.

Grade:+

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Otto - The New Movie


Otto - Der neue Film; Comedy, Germany, 1987; D: Xaver Schwarzenberger, Otto Waalkes, S: Otto Waalkes, Ute Sander, Anja Jaenicke

The metropolis is plaguing Otto since he has more and more debts. He takes on two jobs: one is removing garbage from the home of a Nazi grandpa and his "German" dog and the other one is replacing a famous professor and watch his cat that wants to commit suicide. In order to impress the nearby neighbor Gaby, Otto introduces himself as the professor and ignores the housemaid Anna who is in love with him. When the real professor returns, he gets overwhelmed by the little kittens of his cat she had with a dog. Otto goes with Gaby to the premiere of an action film where she leaves him for the star of the film. Otto finds Anna in his apartment, with make up, and falls in love with her.

Film no. 2 in the five-part movie serial "Otto" doesn't offer any kind of improvement or further development of style, but it's still fun. The biggest complaint, besides a few flat jokes, is that all supporting characters from the first film (including the charming Jessika Cardinahl) were simply dropped for this story, while their replacement isn't first class. The story is again too artificial and assembled out of vaguely connected vignettes and sketches. However, Otto Waalkes still has childish energy and fresh inspiration, from the jokes that mock the boring TV programme ("What am I not paying the TV bill for?") up to spoofing a nationalist grandpa who has a lighter shaped like a grenade.

Grade:++

Otto - The Movie


Otto - Der Film; Comedy, Germany, 1985; D: Xaver Schwarzenberger, Otto Waalkes, S: Otto Waalkes, Jessika Cardinahl, Elisabeth Wiedeman, Sky du Mont

Somewhere in the sea, Otto is floating in a toilet. He narrates what happened: as a young boy, he lived in northern Germany surrounded by too much care from his mother, so he moved to town as a grown up. There he borrowed money from a credit loaner, Shark, and from there on he owes 9.876, 50 DEM. Otto opens his own store that doesn't do well, but when the rich Silvia falls from the building, he saves her. Unfortunately, the only award he gets is vine. Even though she is engaged, she falls in love with Otto, but gets disappointed by him and leaves. After getting rid of his debt, Otto followes her to a flight to Rio de Janeiro, but lands the plane in the sea. On an island, the couple finds to each other.

The first film by one of the most famous German comedians of the 80s and 90s, Otto Waalkes, after the producers persuaded him for 5 years to finally film it, is an amusing and appropriately restrained comedy, probably the best in the long "Otto" movie series. Many comedians are distracted once they are ordered to make a film, often making the mistake of not being natural but trying to act "someone else" once on the big screen, though Otto managed quite well, delivering a refreshingly relaxed performance - truth be told, however, the hero isn't always funny, the direction by Xaver Schwarzenberger is wooden while the modest budget makes it look cheap. Still, "Otto - The Movie" became the most commercially successful film at the German box office in the 20th Century with 14 million viewers. German humor can sometimes be even more hermetic than the British one, but here most of the jokes were simple and accessible: for instance, in one scene, Otto narrates: "My parents loved me like their own son". When the criminals rob a bank, they constantly speak out their names aloud and even the route they want to take for their getaway, whereas when Otto sends a homing pigeon by mail (!) it gets finished off by a seal. A simple and good queue of jokes.

Grade:++

Friday, 18 September 2009

Black Book


Zwaertbook; War drama, The Netherlands/ UK/ Germany/ Belgium/ USA, 2006; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Derek de Lint, Halina Reijn

In '56, Dutch woman Ronnie recognizes her old friend Rachel Stein in a kibbutz near the sea of Galilee. Rachel then remembers her traumatic past during the last few months of World War II: as a Jewish woman, she was hiding in the Netherlands. When the Nazis discover her whereabouts, she trusts a police officer, Van Gein, and boards a boat with the other Jews who were promised to get transported to safety. The Nazis kill them in a trap, but Rachel survives, finds a new name, Ellis, and joins the resistance members led by Gerben. By seducing the local SS Commander Muntze, she mingles in the elite circles and places a microphone in the Nazi headquarters. But she really falls in love with him. The Nazi officer Franken double-crosses the resistance, shoots many of them in a trap and blames Ellis for everything, labeling her as a traitor. After the end of war, Muntze and Franken get killed, Ellis is accused of being a traitor, but manages to find the real traitor, Hans, and kill him with Gerben. Back in the kibburt with Rachel in '56, another Arab-Israeli war starts.

Nominated for a BAFTA as best foreign language film, the fore-last film by director Paul Verhoeven, voted by the Dutch public in '08 as the best Dutch film till date, "Black Book" is a slightly overrated, but extremely energetic World War II film that doesn't avoid some of the cliches of the genre, but still manages to change a good part of them and present them as something good. As with most of Verhoeven's films, "Book" is also slightly heavy handed, but its chaos is actually quite meaningful and builds a hidden theme inside throughout, especially towards the ever increasing power of bitterness in the finale. The main theme is that people are evil or always take the easier wrong route of violence and aggression than to actually do the right thing, which is why the good individuals, like the main heroine Ellis, have to suffer. After her family was killed by the Nazis, she decides to become a spy of the resistance and go all the way (she dyes her pubic hair blond; sleeps with SS Commander Muntze) but gets double-crossed and the Nazis make her partners believe she actually betrayed them. The label of a traitor gets perversely imposed on her and she has to take the punishment she doesn't deserve (i.e. the angry Dutch pour feces over her). Some of the "heroine gets saved in the nick of time" gimmicks are far fetched, but Verhoeven's passionate take on the subject are so gripping they will make the viewers accept them. In one moment, he did touch perfection: in the final scene of the film, that says absolutely everything about some every lasting cycles of hate and violence in life, while the tragic good people try to live their normal lives.

Grade:+++

Jack


Jack; Fantasy tragicomedy, USA, 1996; D: Francis Ford Coppola, S: Robin Williams, Diane Lane, Jennifer Lopez, Brian Kerwin, Bill Cosby, Fran Drescher

Karen is very surprised when, already in her 2nd month of pregnancy, she gives birth to her baby, Jack. The scientist diagnose that Jack's cells are aging 4 times faster then normal. That's a problem for him, since at the age of 10 he already looks like a 40 year old. His private teacher Woodruff suggests his parents to let him attend a public school. Jack is of course much larger than other children, but manages to blend in, exceeding in basketball. His curiosity leads him to an adult club where he starts a fight and lands in jail. He accepts school and with 17, when he is already grey and looks like 68, finishes high school and goes to party with his friends.

This unusual fantasy drama about transience, handicap and acceptance of unusual outsiders has an undoubtedly excellent idea about a child that ages 4 times faster than usual, but all other details built around it are problematic. Into solid "Jack" director Francis Ford Coppola inserted a lot of personal details and metaphysical touches, but the story's crushing sentimentality and pathetic tone somehow seem more apparent, inevitably bringing it down. It's a paradox that at some parts the concept was exploited well (for instance, Jack buys porno-magazines for his kid buddies or pretends he is their principal) but for the majority of the film it wasn't, since the authors instead decided to waste much more time on flat observations or vulgar jokes, like when kids eat earthworms with mayonnaise. Robin Williams is all right as the main hero and moderately amusing, though some viewers may find his antics annoying and forced. There's some spark of miraculous here, but it wasn't ignited into a real flame.

Grade:+

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie


The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie; animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2004; D: Stephen Hillenburg, S: Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakle, Clancy Brown, Rodger Bumpass, Doug Lawrence, Jeffrey Tambor, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, David Hasselhoff

SpongeBob SquarePants dreams of becoming the manager of the new Krusty Krab restaurant, but his boss Eugene Krabs gives it to cashier Squidward tentacles, saying SpongeBob is "just a kid". But when the rival Plankton steals the crown of King Neptune and frames it on Krabs, SpongeBob and his friend Patrick have to find the crown in a few days or their boss will be executed. Neptune's daughter Mindy is helping them. They manage to find the crown and, thanks to David Hasselhof's assistance, bring it back in time, saving Krabs and punishing Plankton.

The big screen adaptation of the shrill television series with the same title, "SpongeBob SquarePants" could have suffered from the same syndrome as many TV adaptations who forgot their original tone and tried to cheaply attract the wider audience with populism and silliness, but the authors here managed to swiftly avoid such a scenario and present an amusing film. Truth be told, some of those tiresome populism and silliness elements can be found even here, in the middle part of the film which is pure garbage, relaying too much on SpongeBob and Patrick monkeying around and screaming than to offer anything substantive, but in the first 25 minutes and the last 25 minutes of the film, the authors displayed their integrity potentials with good creative humor.

One of the most hilarious jokes comes in such a childish way that it has universal appeal - when King Neptune wants to punish Krabs for allegedly stealing his crown, SpongeBob intervenes and ask why the crown is so special. Neptune then admits its solely there to hide his bald spot, but Spongebob tells him it "can't be that bad". Neptune then takes the paper bag from his head - and dozens of fishes in the restaurant start instantly shouting: "Bald! Bald! Bald! Bald!" while one even screams: "My eyes!", which causes him to put the bag back on his head again. The joke where SpongeBob and Patrick pass the county line and a robber instantly steals their car is a legend whereas the finale where David Hasselhoff spoofs "Baywatch" and helps the two heroes get to their destination has cult potential. The character of Mindy, voiced gently by Scarlett Johansson, is also wonderfully charming and alive, which is why, despite the sometimes too goofy tone and an occasional bad joke, the movie has sense and just enough genius to please.

Grade:++

Sweet and Lowdown


Sweet and Lowdown; Tragicomedy, USA, 1999; D: Woody Allen, S: Sean Penn, Samantha Morton, Anthony LaPaglia, Uma Thurman

In the 1930s, there lived Emmet Ray, a virtuoso musician who was, according to some, the 2nd best guitarist in the World, right behind Django Reignhart. But he was a kleptomaniac and an alcoholic, which is why he was often late for his own performance in various clubs. He met the mute Hattie who became his lover. After an unsuccessful attempt to make it through in Hollywood, he had financial problems and left Hattie. He married the eccentric Blanche, but she cheated on him which is why he started mourning after Hattie and suddenly disappeared.

Woody Allen wasn't in best shape at the beginning of the 90s, but eventually still managed to direct a few excellent films, like "Mighty Aphrodite", "Everyone Says I Love You" and "Deconstructing Harry". Even his nostalgic humorous drama "Sweet and Lowdown" was exceptionally praised, and it is truly fun and elegant, but not also flawlessly crafted. In the first scene, surprisingly, Allen appears himself and, looking into the camera, is doing an interview and admits how guitarist Emmet Ray was his idol. Ben Duncan announces the same, expressing his deep admiration for him, but the punchline is that Ray is actually a fictional character. The warm and gentle story, paraphrasing Fellini's "The Road", has a few excellent jokes - for instance, Ray once says he had intercourse for the first time when he was 7 years old and that he once stole an alarm-clock of a musician who, as a consequence, overslept and was late for recording - while Sean Penn and Samantha Morton (who plays the mute Hattie and doesn't say a single word in the entire film, slightly resembling Gelsomina from the already mentioned "The Road") are in top-notch shape and were rightfully nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. As a whole, the story seems too light and mild, and it wouldn't have been in the way if the deflating humor would have been more powerful, yet the touching story still manages to strike many right cues to insure a pleasant experience.

Grade:++

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Celebrity


Celebrity; Tragicomedy, USA, 1998; D: Woody Allen, S: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna, Famke Janssen, Melanie Griffith, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, Hank Azaria, Debra Messing

A movie is being shot while reporter Lee Simon mingles with the crew to make connections. He is constantly making interviews with famous movie stars and when he asks actress Nicole Oliver to show him her old house, she becomes intimate with him. Simon also has a screenplay about a heist and thus talks with teen star Brandon to help him realize it. Simon's ex-girlfriend Robin quit her job as a teacher to become a reporter whereas she even found happiness with producer Tony. Simon's new girlfriend, in an act of jealousy, throws his script into the sea so he remains stuck as a reporter.

The best part of "Celebrity" is the beginning where the airplane writes the word "HELP" on the screen while the people are confused by it. Even the rest of the story has an occasionally funny joke ("Sometimes I have a nostalgia for religion") but it's at the same time also empty, with too much empty babble that seems to be written just because the characters have to talk and has too many useless supporting characters which remain underused. Woody Allen also made a mistake in the commercial sense: he shouldn't have shot the film in black and white when he had such popular actors at his disposal, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Melanie Griffith. Leaving the irrelevant box office results aside, "Celebrity" doesn't hassle as some Allen films since it's shrill, but not nearly as imaginative as his previous "Deconstructing Harry".

Grade:++

Deconstructing Harry


Deconstructing Harry; fantasy comedy, USA, 1997; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Elisabeth Shue, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Richard Benjamin, Demi Moore, Judy Davis, Bob Balaban, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Garner, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Robin Williams

A happily married man has a secret affair with the sister of his wife. During intercourse, their grandmother accidentally enters the room, but since she is blind, she doesn't notice anything...That's the scene from the novel of the nihilistic writer Harry, but his ex-girlfriend Lucy recognized herself in the story and wants to shoot him with a gun. But he tells her a story from his earlier novel, revolving around when he ordered a prostitute for the first time. Lucy laughs and lowers the gun. But she is not the only disgusted Harry's ex-lover: there's also Amy, Jane, his ex-wife Joan and student Fay. They are all victims because he uses their private secrets in his novels. Thus, when he goes on a journey to his former university, where he is to be honoured, only his son, his friend and a prostitute accompany him. There he gets arrested while Fay gets married. Once on freedom, Harry gets inspiration for his new novel.

"Deconstructing Harry" is the most merciless, unusual, uncompromising and "dirty" serious film by Woody Allen in the 90s, a one where even special effects are used whereas events of the characters are mixed with the events of the novels of the title protagonist. Unlike the typical 'neurotic Allen film', here the story is more imaginative: in Harry's novel, Robin Williams plays an actor who is "out of focus", i.e. blurry, so people have to wear glasses to see him sharply, while his children even mock him: "Daddy's out of focus!" Harry and the character who symbolizes him in his novel appear in the same scene. Harry takes an elevator to Hell while the elevator voice makes brilliantly satirical comments ("Floor 6... right-wing extremists, killers, lawyers who appear on TV...Floor 7...the media. Sorry, it's all filled up...Floor 8...escaped war criminals, TV evangelists and the NRA"), and the set design of the actual place in unbelievably detailed, though his interaction with the Devil (Billy Crystal) is slightly lacking inspiration (for instance, Harry tells him he is a bigger sinner then him). The star ensemble is maybe too large to give everybody enough room in the story, but Allen is once again full of inspiration when he drafts a story about the tragicomic hero who can't function in real life and thus, as an artistic soul wrecked by the cruel world, finds refuge in his imaginary novels and their worlds. Untypically including swear words and more "adult" material, Allen showed how he can't be put in a box but that his imagination takes twists that defy any category, resulting in a deliberately restless film, "Deconstructing Harry", which marked the end of his inspiration phase in the mid 90s, since he wouldn't direct an excellent film for 8 years.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Mighty Aphrodite


Mighty Aphrodite; comedy, USA, 1995; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter, F. Murray Abraham, Michael Rapaport, Olympia Dukakis, Peter Weller

Sports reporter Lenny Weinrib and his wife Amanda adopt a son, Max. He grows into a smart little boy so Lenny, after his marriage becomes shaky, decides to seek out Max's biological mother - and finds out she is a prostitute and ex-porn star, Linda Ash! Lenny meets her and they become friends, while he even manages to get her out of the claws of her pimp. He tries to find her a boyfriend, but with no result. Lenny sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant and gets a daughter from him, but conceals it from him and marries a pilot. Lenny returns to Amanda.

The 25th film by Woody Allen, "Mighty Aphrodite" grossed only 6 million $ at the US box office, but has a much bigger appeal than the wider audience thought it has. All emotions have their why and because in the story, and are intriguing, while the warm humor gives it power, stimulates the viewers to think, whereas the screenplay seems like a fruit of a mature and intelligent artist. The direction is low-key and effective at the same time, while some scenes are masterful. Allen crafts the film with such a sure hand and unobtrusive way that it seems like the it is a real event from life. The chore pleasure of "Aphrodite" is the unusual, shrill, untrammelled fun story where the hero Lenny finds out the mother of his adoptive child is Linda - a prostitute! The chemistry between Lenny and Linda, where he has platonic-non-platonic feeling towards her, is irresistibly fascinating, with some outrageous jokes (in one scene, Lenny is shocked when he spots puppets depicting intercourse in Linda's apartment, while she just nonchalantly tells him that she placed it there because "she can laugh at her own expense") while Mira Sorvino played her character wonderfully simple, for which she won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a New York Film Critics Circle Award as best supporting actress. Riding on the wave of inspiration in the middle of the 90s, Allen crafted an excellent film, except maybe that it was a mistake that Lenny never tells Linda about her child. "Breaking" the main story is the 'Greek chorus' (among them F. Murray Abraham) who foreshadows the events in the story, which is sometimes quite amusing, like when the chorus calls Zeus, but only his secretary's voice responds: "Leave your message..."
Grade:+++

Everyone Says: I Love You


Everyone Says: I Love You; Musical comedy, USA, 1996; D: Woody Allen, S: Woody Allen, Goldie Hawn, Julia Roberts, Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, Alan Alda, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natalie Portman, Natasha Lyonne, Tim Roth

Adventures of a upper class New York family: mother Steffi is rich and promotes an improvement in prison conditions, even going so far to bring one inmate into her house. Her husband Bob is convinced his son picked the wrong political belief while his daughter finds a boyfriend. Steffi's ex-husband Joe Berlin lives in New York, but travels to Paris and Venice where he falls in love with the married Von. Since he wants to impress her, he listens to the advice of his daughter who spies on Von when she visits her psychiatrist. In the end, he returns to Steffi.

This light comedy, with a few musical-dance acts, mostly exploits the charm potentials of Woody Allen's writing and acting potentials of a truly huge star ensemble - Goldie Hawn, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Tim Roth and Natalie Portman all have their moments and portray well their eccentric, but warm characters, even singing charmingly amateurish. With a few outstanding dialogues, but always insisting on shooting the film in as few shots as possible, Allen again crafts more construction and stiffness than pleasure, but in doing so the story seems fabulously realistic and has style, as well as sympathetic scenes, like the ones when Barrymore's character swallows the engagement ring in the food. And a few fantasy scenes as well: like when Hawn's character dances and flies or when grandpa's ghost is dancing on the funeral. "Everyone Says I Love You" was nominated for a Golden Globe as best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.

Grade:+++

Sunday, 6 September 2009

A Few Good Men


A Few Good Men; Drama, USA, 1992; D: Rob Reiner, S: Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Jack Nicholson, J.T. Walsh, Kevin Pollak, Kiefer Sutherland

Two US Marines are charged for murder if their colleague Santiago due to too violent mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay Base in Cuba. Santiago previously requested his re-location from the base several times, but not only did he not get it, but he also attracted the rage of Colonel Jessup, who is accused of ordering the harsh treatment. With an apple in his mouth lawyer Kaffee comes into the office of Naval Investigator JoAnne Dalloway. Together, they try to defend the two soldiers on trial. They manage to trick Jessup and have him arrested.

"A Few Good Men" was in '93 vainly nominated for 4 Oscars (best picture, supporting actor Jack Nicholson, editing and sound) and 5 Golden Globes (including best picture - drama and director), but it still stands the test of time and seems fresh and energetic despite the formulaic story. It seem obvious that director Rob Reiner was fascinated with off stage games in the military and juridical system and he managed to excellently transport it on the big screen, making it suspenseful and intelligent until the end. Most of the cynical one-liners were collected by Jack Nicholson's character Jessup whose outstanding presence and charisma make him seem like a really important protagonist, even though he appears in only 4 sequences throughout the entire film: his comments about Santiago's numerous written requests for getting transferred off the base ("He wrote a letter to everyone except Santa Clause") or the classic "You can't handle the truth!" line are great and really transmit passion. A very polished and solid trial film, but unfortunately crafted mechanically perfect, while the soul of the film was left out, as well as for some deeper layers, the naive end and, occasionally, Tom Cruise with his baseball bat. Still, the film has sparks and they cannot be denied.

Grade:++

Murmur of the Heart


Le souffle au cœur; Drama, France, 1971; D: Louis Malle, S: Benoît Ferreux, Lea Massari, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale

Dijon, '54. Laurent Chevalier is a nervous, secluded 14-year old kid who is annoyed by pranks of his two elder brothers. His father is a gynecologist. His mother Clara acts very sisterly towards him and his brothers. When his brothers bring him to a brothel so that he can lose his virginity, they again play a prank on him when they march into the room just as he was sleeping with prostitute Freda. When Laurent is diagnosed with murmur of the heart, he spends a few weeks with his mom in a sanatorium. There he meets a blond girl, but she is cold towards him. Eventually, Laurent lands in bed with his mom and sleeps with her. They decide to keep it a secret.

Not everybody can make "Amarcord": Louis Malle's bizarre teenage drama with autobiographical elements copes with a few daringly courageous themes, has a great premise and would look like a field day for Freudian psychologists who are analyzing the Oedipus complex, but as a whole "Murmur of the Heart" is a slightly damaged and miscalculated film that more taunts the 14-year old hero Larent with the incestuous theme than it does handle it in a sophisticated way. The actors are great, some details are exquisite and the whole story seizes with its open-hearted approach, but some of the details depicted there come across as too backward and mean-spirited, most notably in the infamous two brothers who pick on Laurent, like when one of them dresses like his mom and ridicules him by impersonating her sweet words or when the two of them unzip their zippers and compare the size of their penises. They even go so far to storm in the room just as he was in the middle of his first intercourse, with a prostitute. The second part of the film, situated in the sanatorium where Laurent becomes more and more attracted to his mother, is better, not just because of fresh acting by Lea Massari, but because it is more subtle (in one scene, he puts her underwear on the bed and then her dress, imaging her) and doesn't explicitly show the sole intercourse moment between them towards the end, yet Malle's uneven and heavy handed approach sometimes still seems like patchwork.

Grade:++

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The Crying Game


The Crying Game; Drama, UK/ Japan/ Ireland, 1992; D: Neil Jordan, S: Stephen Rea, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson, Forest Whitaker, Jim Broadbent

Fergus, Jude and Maguire - members of IRA - kidnap British soldier Jody. They threaten the British authorities that they will execute him if one of their fellow IRA members isn't released. Jody becomes friends with his guard Fergus and persuades him to take care of his girlfriend Dil if anything happens to him. While trying to escape, Jody is accidentally killed by British tanks. Fergus hides in London and finds Dil who works as a hairdresser. He falls in love with her and they start a relationship. But one night Fergus discovers that Dil is - actually a man. Disgusted, he breaks every contact. But he can't resist not to re-new the relationship. In a conflict, Dil kills Jude but Fergus takes over the responsibility and lands in prison.

In some movies, plot twists became so famous and influential that the viewers found out about them even before they saw the sole movie themselves, which extracted a dose of magic and mystery away from them. Such a destiny was attached to love drama "The Crying Game" which contains probably the biggest public secret which happens somewhere in the middle of the film. Really, unwillingly, I found out about the plot twist at least 3 times in various newspapers before I actually saw the film. Still, luckily, the story works good even for itself because it's a refined essay about unconditional love that traverses all obstacles, search for identity and insight into the life of a terrorist who meets the victims of his deeds and thus changes. Jaye Davidson is phenomenal in the role of Dil, but Stephen Rea also did a good job, which is why the film works as a whole despite a few ungainly-forced moments. The screenplay won an Oscar and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.

Grade:+++

Night of the Living Dead


Night of the Living Dead; Horror, USA, 1968; D: George A. Romero, S: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman

One evening, girl Barbara and her brother Johnny go to the cemetery to visit the grave of their father. But there they are attacked by a zombie who kills Johnny. She runs away and hides in a house in the valley. There she meets the African American Ben who just ran away from a real zombie army. On a television, the reporters announce how zombies attacked the whole country and that the reason may lie in the radiation of a defect satellite, as well as that they can only be killed with a shot in the head. The owners of the house, Mr. Cooper and his family, as well as Barbara, are killed by zombies. In the morning, only Ben stays alive. But he is shot by the police who mistake him for a zombie.

Unusual camp horror "Night of the Living Dead", that was shot for only 144.000 $ but grossed over 20 million at the box office, was heavily disputed during its premiere yet achieved cult status with time and inspired a whole series of zombie films. The sole story about zombies admittedly falls under the unappreciated horror genre and doesn't seem glamorous, but a sole topic or glamour don't constitute a film alone. Director George A. Romero wasted his career later on with cheap sequels, but here he has a sense for the creepy, already manifesting a relaxed tone and opulent mood in the ironic exposition on the cemetery, deepening it with unusual camera angles, while it only starts to wear off towards the overstretched finale. The messages of the film underwent various interpretations: some saw the zombies as an allegory for soulless killers (on Television they are even described at first as a "sect that is committing mass murders") and others for consumeric, bankrupt society that is destroying itself. One thing though, and the ending underlies that specifically, is an obvious symbol, namely that the "monsters", the zombies, look almost like "us", and seem like a mass agitated during a war. They are evil, but they also show at the end how quickly the "good" can become evil too when faced with the same situation.

Grade:+++

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Days of Thunder


Days of Thunder; Action drama, USA, 1990; D: Tony Scott, S: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, Michael Rooker

To some, race cars are a life assignment. The owner of a team, Tim Daland, persuades trainer Harry to quit farm life and return to teaching race car driving. His newest candidate is the young Cole Trickle who drives brilliantly and wants to participate at the stock car races. Still, he and Harry argue a lot, which doesn't help attracting sponsors. Cole's friends organize a striptease party for his medical check, but when the real doctor arrives, Claire, there's an embarrassing misunderstanding. Later on the become a couple but Cole's rival Rowdy gets injured in a race. Cole starts to fear the cars, but manages to win at the great race despite engine trouble.

Polished up and spectacular action sports drama "Days of Thunder" only has brilliance in the brilliant race car drivers, but not in the thin cliche story that suffered a box officer failure. Through aesthetic, sharp cinematography and dynamic editing, Tony Scott directs the film very 'mannequin' like, but effectively, even though one must add that the viewers who are not inclined towards cars will not change their opinion after they see this film. It's all too infantile while the ending is typically a happy mainstream one for the main hero Cole who is well performed by Tom Cruise, but Randy Quiad is much more amusing in his small role. Moreover, the best moment doesn't involve car action at all, but great character chemistry: at a medical check, Cole finds out his friends arranged a stripper for him, but when the real doctor (Nicole Kidman) arrives instead, there is a very tantalizing misunderstanding.

Grade:++

Risky Business


Risky Business; Comedy, USA, 1983; D: Paul Brickman, S: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Joe Pantoliano, Curtis Amrstrong

Joel (17) is constantly dreaming that a naked girl is taking a shower in his bathroom. When he parents leave for a vacation, he finally has the whole house at his disposal. Spontaneously, he orders a prostitute, Lana, with whom he has intercourse, but when she demands 300 $, he doesn't have the money to pay. Still, when he saves her from the pimp and lets her live at his place, she falls in love with him. Unfortunately, Joel sinks dad's car in a lake and thus needs money to repair it. With friends and Lana, he organizes a brothel in the house and persuades a man to enlist him to Princeton. Lana's pimp steals his furniture so Joel pays him for it before the parents return.

Inappropriate teenage comedy for the dumb was a surprising box office hit and helped Tom Cruise's career considerably, even thought the director almost chose someone else for the leading role. The legendary, often copied and imitated scene when Cruise slides on the floor in his underwear after his parents left the house is a small classic that's almost instantly recognizable, but the rest of the story is boring and unfunny. Moreover, Cruise is here actually playing a character who is more a loser and a naive person, since his friends mock him (they bring a transvestite for his "date") while the misadventures are more embarrassing than they are truly comical. Occasional nudity is just here to keep the viewer awake because, disregarding good performances by Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay, the whole film wasted a potentially great story that doesn't offer inspiration neither in dialogues nor the thin writing.

Grade:+