Sunday, December 26, 2010

Project A-ko


Project A-ko; Animated science-fiction comedy, Japan, 1986; D: Katsuhiko Nishijima, S: Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Shuichi Ikeda, Tessho Genda, Megumi Hayashibara

Two transfer students, teenage girls, red-haired A-ko and blond C-ko, are late for school. So A-ko starts running with super-human speed, holding C-ko, and they manage to get on time. However, the teacher is annoyed by them while their classmate, B-ko, has a crush on C-ko and thus challenges A-ko for a duel. It turns out A-ko also has super-human strength and destroys every robot she makes. Still, B-ko matches her with a strong suit and a battle erupts which destroys half of school and town. Just then, an alien spaceship shows up and kidnaps C-ko because she is their long lost princess. A-ko and B-ko rescue her and crash the spaceship on Earth.

"Project A-ko" is a fun and "cartoonish" parody of numerous anime shows and films from the 70s and 80s (the teacher, Mrs. Ayumi, looks like the title character of "Magical Angel Creamy Mami"; the Captain of the spaceship is a drunk version of Captain Harlock; characters from "Urusei Yatsura" appear in the cinema scene), some parts being executed with such audacity that it secured it a status of a cult classic and an anime institution in the 80s. As a whole, the film isn't so funny as some claim it is - some gags, like the one where Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders (!) appears in a horror film in the cinema scene or the last minute introduction of A-ko's parents (pay attention to the newspaper her dad is reading, or you might miss the joke!) are quietly hilarious, while others are rather sparse or thin or you simply won't recognize them if you are not familiar with the anime subculture - whereas the "loose" story seems to be written as we go. The best part of "Project A-ko", by far, is hidden in the last 30 minutes: the fight between the super strong A-ko and the super strong suit which is wearing B-ko quickly reaches epic levels and tops even budspenceresque fights when half of the school and the town get leveled to the ground. Actually, it seems as if the authors enjoyed wrecking everything there is to wreck, when they crammed even mecha and aliens in the finale, yet the sequence where A-ko is jumping from one flying fighter jet to another, and then even hops from a missile to missile to reach the spaceship above her, is a rare example of inspirational wackiness.

Grade:++

Friday, December 24, 2010

Into the Wild


Into the Wild; Roadmovie/ drama, USA, 2007; D: Sean Penn, S: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian H. Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook

After graduating, the 22-year old Christopher McCandless, disgusted by civilization's rigid controls and norms, quits his entire lifestyle and leaves home without telling his parents or sister. Equipped with just a backpack, he travels by foot from California to Alaska in order to live in nature. On his way, he meets numerous individuals: a middle-aged hippie couple, a harvest farmer and a retired man, Ron. Finally in Alaska, he settles in an abandoned bus in the forest. But he has trouble finding food and accidentally eats a poisonous plant. He dies there.

Sean Penn's 4th directorial work, "Into the Wild" has some artistic value because it presents quite an unusual (true!) story, about Christopher McCandless, a young lad who was disgusted by civilization and went to live in the wilderness, without any contact with society. In portraying such an audacious story - where McCandless de facto became "Robinson Crusoe" in America's Mainland - Penn coped well with the subject, avoiding the trap of romanticizing it too much, even though it is obvious he admired his protagonist for his courage to live "free" (it is difficult to take the story as "ideal" when McCandless cuts all his credit cards, passes through a river during winter and slowly starves from hunger because the flies ruined his meat from a moose) whereas the cinematography captured some beautiful images of nature. However, the film has two big flaws: it seems too episodic and too long. The episodic feel is also apparent in "unnecessary" small scenes - it's as if the camera shot absolutely everything, and then they decided to cram it all into the film, from some cowboys standing on the street through a train passing through the railroad up to some crab walking in the sand. There are echoes of Herzog and Malick, but not with their sense to fit these images naturally into the film. Likewise, with 140 minutes of running times, the film drags slightly towards the end. Still, it is ambitious while Hal Halbrook's appearance near the end is a small delight.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives


Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat; Drama, Thailand, 2010; D: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, S: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee

Aging uncle Boonmee, who suffers from kidney failure, drives with his family to a small village near the rainforest. One evening, while he was having dinner with Jen and Thong, the ghost of his deceased wife, Huay, shows up, and then the ghost of his deceased son Boonsong, in the form of a monkey. The latter tells him he made photos of the monkey ghost, but merged himself with it in the end. Boonmee thinks his sickness is karma for killing so many communists when he was young. He goes to a cave where he tells about his dream of the future. He then dies. Tong becomes a Buddhist monk. While he was watching TV with Jen, their doubles went to a karaoke bar.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Uncle Boonmee" is another hermetic and very minimalistic film by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul - calm, smooth and almost without a plot. The opening dreamy sequence with a cow escaping into the rainforest at night, and with the dark figure ghost whose red eyes sparkle in the night, connects with his best film, "Tropical Malady", where he went far into the spheres of subconsciousness and realm of the senses, yet the last two thirds of the films recapture that feeling only to a certain extent, maybe not even 50 % of it. Not so much a story about ghosts visiting the title hero as much as it is a platform for showing people of Thailand coping with the clash between the tradition and modern, cold civilisation, "Uncle Boonmee" is overstretched and without a clear point - Weerasethakul's bizarreness even seems more natural than it would have been in some other director's hands (the weird scene of a princess mating with a catfish in a lake), yet here its delight is smaller, with only small crumbs of poetic moments (minerals illuminated in the walls of the cave). "Uncle Boonmee" is a quality film, yet doesn't have that indestructible enchanting power that adorns only those 1 % of special films in cinema, as it was the case with the magical "Tropical Malady" by the same director.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's


Breakfast at Tiffany's; Drama, USA, 1961; D: Blake Edwards, S: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, Mickey Rooney

New York. Holly Golightly, a young partygirl who pays her rent by going out or hanging out with gentlemen who give her money, meets an aspiring writer, Paul Varjak, who moves in just in the apartment above her. Paul instantly likes her, but is increasingly appalled by her lifestyle, since she openly admits that she wants to marry only a rich man. He finds out she has divorced in Texas and left a movie agent just a day before she was about to make a film. Holly intends to marry a tycoon from Rio De Janeiro, but due to a scandal he leaves her, fearing for his reputation. Just as she was about to leave anyway, she returns and falls for Paul.

One of Blake Edwards' better films, a loose adaptation of Truman Capote's novel with the same title, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is still a charming humorous drama about two outsiders who find their way together that, despite some rough edges in the minority - Mickey Rooney's portrait of the Asian landlord that borders on heavy caricature and seems more like Cato from "The Pink Panther" series, an occasional corny dialogue, occasionally stiff performance by actor George Peppard - has a lot of things going for it in the majority and thus gave Audrey Hepburn the most recognizable role of her career, for which she was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best actress. When Edwards isn't trying to force (banal) humor into the film (at a party, Holly's cigarette accidentally puts some lady's hat on fire; a drunk madam is talking with herself in the mirror...), he shows a surprisingly emotional and honest sense for its two sad heroes. As a matter of fact, he even hints at a small socially critical note aimed at social hierarchy based on money.

It has been widely debated at what exactly Holly's "profession" really is, ranging from that she is a prostitute up to that she is only a partygirl; the first doesn't seem that far fetched since such harsh themes were only possible in a milder version in the 60s, and there is a great little sequence where Holly exits from her bathroom window, away from her date, a drunk man who is pounding on the door, and walks the stairs up to spot Paul sleeping in his bed, while his "mistress", an older, rich lady, leaves him some money. Some saw symbolism in it, though in the end the story leans more towards "Enjo kosai", i.e. that Holly is actually a girl constantly looking for a "sugar daddy". Hollywood happy endings are often too contrived and "too safe", but this is one rare example where no other ending would have suited the film better than here: besides a fantastic little line ("I'm in love with you." - "So what?" - "So what...? So plenty!"), it has a fantastic romantic spark (just imagine that the cat is a symbol for Holly's humanity - then pay attention what happens when she kicks it out of the taxi) whereas the song "Moon River" by Henry Mancini is simply perfect.

Grade:+++

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Will & Grace


Will & Grace; Comedy series, USA, 1998-2006; D: James Burrows, S: Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Sean Hayes, Megan Mullally, Shelley Morrison

"You're so gay you're Marvin Gaye!" With that sentence, lawyer Will Truman finally admitted to himself that he is attracted to men, even though he was in a relationship with Grace Adler when they were younger. The two of them still remained friends and occasionally shared an apartment in New York. Will's former lover, Jack MacFarlane, is an aspiring gay actor with a shrill attitude who often drops by at his place, often to tell a joke about lesbians. Grace works as a decorator while her assistant is the lazy Karen, wife of a tycoon. After numerous misadventures, Grace thinks she found the love of her life, Leo. However, they split up. In the end, Will and Grace's friendship ends, but their kids fall in love.

In one scene, just after his performance on stage, Jack asks Karen: "Did you like my penis monologues?", upon which she replies with: "Nah, I'm not such a big fan of ventriloquism". In another scene, Will is sitting naked on the couch, reading a book that just about cowers his genitals; just then, Grace suddenly enters his apartment and asks: "Couldn't you just buy a bookmark?" These are just two examples of uncontrollable, untrammelled, explosive hilariousness that simply cannot be ignored - it's so contagious, once the viewers are engaged, they get addicted. Nominated for a Golden Globe in five categories and honored with a 3rd place by the TV ratings in 2000, "Will & Grace" is a fun comedy series that tackles the gay topic in an unobtrusive and natural way, even when spoofing its cliches. This is the show "Ellen" should have been: most of the praise goes to the inspiring director James Burrows who excellently knows how to extract style even from movements or small gestures of the actors. Rarely do you get a series that works with young artists and immediately gives four lifetime roles for its four main actors. A lot of credit should also be given to writers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who wrote some insanely good dialogues, lines so funny and stimulative they seem like music to ears of a comedy fan: in one episode, for instance, Karen reads some magazine and says out loud: "Oh Minnie Driver, who ever told you, you could pull off a leather jumpsuit?" (though Driver did eventually have a small role in the series later on).

In another, Karen talks with a middle-aged lesbian and says: "Honey, we are all lesbians when the right man isn't around", and she even calls the short Leslie "Seed of Chucky". These are all just small examples of sizzling lines in the series, while actors Eric McCromack, Debra Messing and Megan Mullally are excellent, with Sean Hayes being very good, though his character Jack may not be for everyone's taste due to his often too caricature nature and squeaky voice. Some celebrity cameos in the series were surprisingly refreshing, like the one by Woody Harrelson, but with time too many cameos started to seem contrived, unnecessary and lax, many making no sense - it is difficult to believe, but the writers didn't even manage to create anything more than a decent role for Sandra Bernhard - how can you miss the potentials of her cult charisma? Likewise, "Will & Grace" started to lose steam as the show progressed, which is why the last two seasons were routine, pointless, empty and an unworthy farewell to the show. Still, in its best days, this was an unbelievably funny show, while it even managed to insert a substantial amount of emotional care for its characters, especially in the caring friendship between the two title protagonists (i.e. in episode "AI - Artificial Insemination", Grace decided to sleep with gay Will in order to have a baby with him, much to his discomfort).

Grade:+++

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Naked Among Wolves


Nackt unter Wölfen; War drama, Germany, 1963; D: Frank Beyer, S: Erwin Geschonneck, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Krystyn Wójcik, Fred Delmare, Viktor Avdyushko

The final days of World War II. Prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp hear the rumors that the Soviets are marching from the East, while the Americans are marching from the West, passing Rhine river. A Polish prisoner smuggles a little Jewish boy, born in Auschwitz, in the camp, while prisoners Höfel and Kropinski promise to take care of him and hide it, even though he is a burden for the prisoners who plan a rebellion. A Nazi commander discovers the boy, but decides to let him live, hoping it will assure him a bonus after the American victory. However, the other Nazi officers have no mercy and start searching for the boy, torturing Höfel and Kropinski. In April, the commanders start evacuations of the camp. Just then, the rebellion starts and frees numerous prisoners.

An extremely brave and honest film, "Naked Among Wolves" is a dark adaptation of the biographical novel with the same name by Bruno Apitz, who personally spent 8 years in the Buchenwald concentration camp. Director Frank Beyer crafts the film as an allegory of integrity and humanity, though he let's it seem more as a "prison film" than a "detention camp film", with sometimes scarce examples of horror - one of the few truly scary moments, except for the main tangle where a little boy spent his whole life in camps, is when the prisoners are fighting to get a bowl of food or the interesting observation of conversations of the camp commanders who question whether they should kill the prisoners or let them live, knowing the advancing American army will inevitably held them responsible after the war - which dilutes the dark mood, but only slightly. All the actors are in top-notch shape, especially Armin-Mueller Stahl, whereas the set-design conjured up a realistic and chilling feeling of the camp. The film may be slightly overstretched and lax at times, yet it is a valuable document of self-admittance, an intelligent, ambitious and complex piece of cinema.

Grade:++

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cracker - The Mad Woman In The Attic


Cracker - The Mad Woman In The Attic; TV crime, UK, 1993; D: Michael Winterbottom, S: Robbie Coltrane, Adrian Dunbar, Barbara Flynn, Christoper Ecleston, Geraldine Somerville
Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald is an alcoholic, broke and overweight forensic psychologist who is detested by his wife and his two kids. One day, a woman is slashed on a train, the second in the series of a serial killer. An unconscious man is found on the railroad and claims he doesn't remember anything because he suffers from amnesia. When the police is unable to find any evidence against him, Fitz is brought on the case to have a chat with the elusive man. With the assistance of DS Jane, he helps the man remember his name is Thomas and finds the real killer and stops him from another murder.

"Cracker - The Mad Woman In The Attic" marked the birth of the cult classic character, Dr. "Fitz" Fitzgerald, and is considered by many to be *the* TV crime film that has not been topped since, despite numerous episodes of "CSI" and "Profiler". Competent and skillful direction by Michael Winterbottom as well as a clever screenplay gave "Cracker" the "stuff" it needed to become a legend, yet one most not forget the lifetime performance by Robbie Coltrane as Fitz, an untypical forensic psychologist; for one, the episode starts with him about to hold a lecture in front of numerous students. Fitz just shows up, says: "Spinoza...", throws a book, continues: "Descartes...Freud...Hobbes...Locke...Adler..." and keeps throwing one book after another into the audience (!), until over a dozen books are lying on the floor and he says "Lecture over!" He then returns for a moment to the puzzled audience and tells them they should "first feel what they really feel, not what others tell them they should feel" before they read all of those books. In another scene, he asks his son and his daughter to lend him money in order to pay for his cab. The notion that a sloppy individual may exceed in excellence on some field has been tried already, yet it doesn't seem too fake here, whereas despite a mild finale and some unusual decisions, this episode intrigues and feels genuinely real.

Grade:+++

Irréversible


Irréversible; Thriller-drama, France, 2002; D: Gaspar Noé, S: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia

Marcus lands in the hospital, his friend Pierre is arrested and a man mistaken to be Le Tenia is dead, his face squashed by an fire extinguisher. Earlier, in a night bar called 'Rectum', Marcus mistakes a man for Le Tenia and had a fight with him. Earlier, underworld criminal Le Tenia intercepted Marcus' girlfriend Alex in an underpass at night, brutally raped and beat her, until she landed in a hospital. Earlier, Marcus, Alex and Pierre were celebrating in a disco, but Alex left alone after an argument. Even earlier, Alex found out she is pregnant with Marcus.

After the shocking, but very stylish drama "I Stand Alone", director Gaspar Noe continued his "shock cinema" streak with not less tamer thriller-drama "Irreversible". The film stayed remembered for two things: for a story assembled out of 13 chapters presented in reverse chronological order, first showing the end and then the beginning, just like "Memento"; and for the nauseous rape scene of Monica Bellucci's character. Noe has a talent for masterfully directing ordinary moments (every chapter is shot in one roughly 10 minute long take) but frequently it seems he just wants to shock the audience without a deeper meaning, i.e. only to draw publicity for his films, which is why "Irreversible" doesn't seem completely satisfying. Likewise, his pessimism is sometimes too pretentious and aggressive. However, the exposition is genius - already in the first scene, the closing credits start rolling (!), backwards (!), until the camera starts tilting extremely, following the monologue of the Butcher, the protagonist from Noe's previous film "I Stand Alone". The whole film is extremely negatively erotic and depressive, yet intriguing for almost every minute, mostly due to the excellent actors Cassel and Bellucci, though it doesn't offer anything more.

Grade:++

I Stand Alone


Seul contre tous; Thriller-drama, France, 1998; D: Gaspar Noé, S: Philippe Nahon, Blandine Lenoir, Frankye Pain, Martine Audrain

A nameless Butcher was born. He beats up the person who tried to seduce his mentally retarded daughter Cynthia and is released from prison only after he turned over 50. He hits his pregnant mistress in the stomach after she provoked him and runs away to Paris in fear from the police. He sleeps with a prostitute, runs out of money and is convinced that life is meaningless. After the Butcher gets insulted in a bar, he decides to kill himself and his daughter with a gun, but changes his mind and becomes happy with her.

Explosive-energetic thriller-drama "I Stand Alone" is some sort of French answer to US "Taxi Driver" from '74, turning into one of those examples of "shock cinema" that isn't for everyone, yet director Gaspar Noe colored the story with amazing stylistic interventions. For instance, a text shows up on the screen in the exposition saying: "You are watching a movie about the fight of one man against social injustice", followed by a 2 minute long queue of images narrated by the anti-hero: "This is the life of a butcher. That man is me." It's a dark irony that the brute Butcher is allowed to kill animals since it is "socially acceptable", his job even, but when he turns his aggression against humans, he gets punished. One of the most inventive ideas is when a text shows up on the screen, saying: "Warning! You have 30 seconds to stop watching the film!", followed by the Butcher imagining to kill himself and his daughter; surprisingly, very little violence is actually shown on film, but the shot composition, huge close ups and dynamic editing create suspense "out of nothing", a tight mood that radiates fear even when the Butcher just looks into the camera, which is why the film is never boring and it even offers an unusual "happy end" where he throws away his depression.

Grade:+++

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Easy A


Easy A; Comedy, USA, 2010; D: Will Gluck, S: Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Alyson Michalka, Penn Badgley, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Cam Gigandet, Dan Byrd, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell

Teenager Olive is a virgin, but since she lied to her friend Rhiannon that she was on a date, she expands that fabrication and boasts that she lost her virginity last weekend. Unfortunately, the conversation was heard by gossip girl Marianne. Quickly, the rumors spread through high school that Olive is an "easy girl". A gay guy, Brandon, persuades her to pretend they slept with each other at a party, to get rid of his gay rumors, but that starts a whole chain of unattractive guys paying her to pretend they slept with her to boost their reputation. When a counselor resorts place Olive as a scapegoat in order to cover that she cheated on her husband, teacher Griffith, Olive finally tells the truth and ends up with the kind Todd.

A refreshingly pleasant surprise, romantic teenage comedy "Easy A" is a humorous modern 'upside down' retelling of "The Scarlet Letter" combined with humanitarian 'voluntary tramp rumors'. The screenplay by Bert V. Royal tells a lot about a society believing every rumor and its ever tricky handling of sexuality, while also offering a few dialogues so genius and so juicy it's a treat. For instance, heroine Olive says this to the Christian fanatic girl Marianne: "We've had nine classes together since Kindergarten...Ten if you count Religion of Other Cultures, which you didn't because you called it science-fiction." Likewise, Will Gluck's direction is refreshingly considerate, kind-spirited and affectionate towards his imperfect characters, the story is full of clever references at 80s movies (a hopelessly romantic Olive even narrates: "I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me!") whereas the opening credits - with the letters of the titles placed on the ground of the high school yard - are very inventive. Last but not least, Emma Stone is simply smashing in the leading role and carries the film even with an occasionally less inspired moment, though the excellent Thomas Haden Church should also be mentioned as the charismatic teacher Griffith. Maybe the film does tend to lose steam towards the end and maybe it's not so deep, yet it has charm and at least one great romantic line delivered by Todd ("I wish you really were my first kiss").

Grade:++

Protector


Protektor; War drama, Czech Republic, 2009; D: Marek Najbrt, S: Jana Plodková, Marek Daniel, Tomás Mechácek, Klára Melísková, Martin Mysicka

Hana is an aspiring Czech-Jewish actress shooting a film in Prague, married to reporter Emil. After the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia and annex Czechia to the Third Reich, Hana has to hide in the apartment while Emil works as the voice of the radio, now pursuing propaganda. After SS general Reinhard Heydrich dies from an assassin on a bicycle, Emil is seen driving to work with one. He refuses to announce a statement on the radio and joins his Hana who is deported with other Jews from the city.

"Protector" is a solid film about the Holocaust nightmare in Czechia during World War II, though with a small reservation - it would have been more significant if it was made 50 years ago. Since there are thousands of films that already documented almost every aspect of that period, "Protector" doesn't add anything new to the genre whereas Marek Najbrt's direction is competent, though routine and conventional. The two stand-out aspects of the film are the catchy music and the excellent performance by Jana Plodkova as Hana, a character who is a typical victim in the (predictable) storyline, untypically humorless for the shrill Czech cinema. There is one sequence that is great, though - when Hana, despite being Jewish, daringly exits to the street wearing a blond wig, and mischievously let's a friend take photos of her standing in front of dozens of stores and buildings with a sign that says: "Forbidden for Jews". Her sweet teasing is wonderfully ironic, and somehow one can't but feel as if that moment of a strong heroine would have made a far better and fresher film than the standard, but solid edition we got.

Grade:+