Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tales from the Golden Age

Amintiri din epoca de aur; satire, Romania, 2009; D: Hanno Höfer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru, S: Alexandru Potocean, Avram Birau, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Sapdaru, Diana Cavallioti

Five comical stories set in Romania during the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu: an important official is about to pass through a village, so the party inspector tries to "beautify" everything using the help of the locals. However, once they start the carousel, they realize that the engineer is also on board and nobody is on the ground to turn it off. They thus rotate the whole night and miss the visit...The official photographer modifies an image by putting a hat on Ceaușescu, yet the press has to be stopped when everyone realizes that they forgot to delete the hat in his hand...A chicken driver gets arrested for taking eggs from the chickens in his truck...A fat police officer kills a pig before Christmas by gassing it in his kitchen. Yet when he uses his flame, the gas in the pig explodes...A poor student, Diana, decides to earn some money by teaming up with a con-artist, pretending to work the Ministry of Chemistry and taking samples of air from apartments, but in reality collecting bottles.

An anthology of five directors directing five comical stories set in Romania during the 80s, "Tales from the Golden Age" are a surprisingly catchy and engaging satire, with a sharp jab aimed not necessarily at socialism or communism, but at the loathed egocentric regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu that left the whole society in chaos. Predictably, the anthology is uneven since every director had his or her own take on the story, written by Cristian Mungiu who already took a serious approach at the same subject with his previous film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", yet as a whole it is coherent - the first two stories are arguably the best. The first story should be commended for engaging the viewers instantly through its humorous take on a official visit to a village where the party inspector demands for pigeons to be released during the passing of the car - a man asks: "He had pigeons, right?" and gets this answer: "Yeah, but he ate them." In the same scene, someone asks for the carousel to be turned on, but gets the reply that they still did not get fuel for it. In that one scene, thus, the director already showed how the people are forced to glorify a leader that not only leaves them hungry, but also scarce on other resources as well. The second story is also sharply witty, but the third story already shows that a sudden switch from comical to serious was not that even, whereas the forth segment, in which a fat man tries to kill a pig in his apartment, could be seen as an allegory promoting vegetarianism, yet in a heavy handed way. The fifth story again returns to the purely "A je to!" nonchalant tone, yet the movie is slightly overlong by that time.

Grade:++

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dreaming the Rose

San o ruži; drama, Croatia, 1986; D: Zoran Tadić, S: Rade Šerbedžija, Fabijan Šovagović, Iva Marjanović, Ljubo Zečević

One night after returning from work, Valent, an ordinary worker in a steel mill, observes a gang of thugs killing a man on the street. He finds a bag near the man's corpse and takes it. Subsequently, he finds it is filled with money. Since his wife Ljuba and his two kids live in poor conditions, he decides to spend the money on his family. However, the local butcher witnessed him taking the bag and tries to blackmail him. When the butcher gets arrested by the police, the thugs capture Valent and interrogate him about the money. However, he shoots them with his gun and disappears.

One of the more overrated Croatian movies of the 80s, "Dreaming the Rose" gained most of its hype for bravely depicting how the social situation of the lower class in pseudo-communist Yugoslavia was not that rosy as it was presented in the news back in those days, yet from today's perspective that hardly seems revolutionary, just normal example of European critique of society. The story about a man (excellent Rade Serbedzija) who finds a bag full of money and decides to keep is stimulative and has spark, yet it is never fully developed by director Zoran Tadic, except on symbolical basis as an essay about ethics and morality. Tadic's scarce style was also present in "The Rhythm of Crime", yet unlike that great crime drama the difference in quality is sensed in artificial story flow, lukewarm dialogues and the stand-out magnificent ending that overshadows almost the whole story up to it, which is the only truly intense crime example - just as the thugs interrogate the hero in a shabby place, demanding for the money, an unexpected twist surprises the viewers and gives them a "run for their money".

Grade:++

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story; comedy, USA/ Germany, 2004; D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, S: Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, Justin Long, Stephen Root, Hank Azaria, William Shatner, David Hasselhoff, Chuck Norris

The conceited owner of an elite gym, White Goodman, wants to buy off a washed up gym right besides his, the "Average Joe gym", in order to shut it down and make a parking lot instead of it. In order to repay their debts, Peter, Justin, Gordon and others, aided by lawyer Kate, attend a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas and win the top prize, 50,000 $.

Despite a fast pace and a few hilarious jokes, this dodgeball variation of "Kingpin" is an uneven and heavy handed comedy that reaches too often for cheap, crude and banal means when setting up a punchline. There's an unwritten rule that the most outrageous comedies always ignite the biggest laughs, as opposed to more intelligent, but timid ones, yet some authors still managed to occasionally combine the best of both worlds, like the Monty Pythons, the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio or the Marx brothers, while "Dodgeball" does not manage to juggle with it - one of the rare instances where it proves otherwise is the already legendary Chuck Norris joke, though it does manage to be really funny in presenting some stupid jokes, such as when Gordon trains the aforementioned sport by trying to "dodge" cars on a road. Some less funny ones are just cringe worthy. Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller are in good shape, the ending is surprisingly satisfying whereas the movie should at least also be given credit for reviving the interest for dodgeball, probably one of the most underrated sports (though the European version of it is better conceived).

Grade:+

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ella Enchanted


Ella Enchanted; fantasy comedy, USA, 2004; D: Tommy O'Haver, S: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Aidan McArdle, Cary Elwes, Minnie Driver, Eric Idle

In a medieval magical land, a clumsy fairy gave baby Ella the "gift of obedience" - as a consequence, Ella is forced to do whatever others tell her to. When her stepsisters find that out, they exploit her. Still, Ella meets prince Charmont and persuades him to use his future power to stop the oppression of elves, ogres and giants which is carried out by his suspicious uncle Edgar. Having found out about her secret, Edgar orders Ella to stab Charmont at midnight. However, she refuses and thus breaks the spell.

"Ella Enchanted" is such an audaciously outrageous fairytale comedy that it can easily divide the audience, yet its charm in blending in "The Princess Bride", teenage girls, "Cinderella" and an amended variation of "Liar Liar" outweigh towards the positive tone and help mitigate an occasionally silly moment. 90 % of that charm was achieved thanks to the talented Anne Hathaway and a couple of sharp satirical ideas (one of the best is when Ella's activism and fight for ogre rights is shown in the scene where she protests against the prince and his rule by holding a banner that says "Say no to ogrecide") while the rather contrived basic premise did not catch some viewers on the right foot. Banal solutions aside, this is a fairly good family fun with postmodern references and a spectacularly sneaky satirical jab at conformity and populism, which is faithful to its simple constitution.

Grade:++

Friday, December 23, 2011

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze; fantasy action comedy, USA, 1991; D: Michael Pressman, S: Mark Caso, Michelan Sisti, Leif Tiden, Kenn Troum, Paige Turco, David Warner, François Chau

A year after the first events, ninja turtles Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo have cozily settled into April O'Neil's apartment, much to her annoyance. However, Shredder survived and using a toxic chemical creates two mutants, Rahzar and Tokka, unleashing them against the turtles. The four heroes manage to transform the two creatures back to their form while Shredder dies trying to make a dock collapse on them.

"Turtles II" starts off with such a stimulative, charmingly engaging opening sequence and entrance of the four title heroes that it instantly brought a smile to children's faces and topped the opening of the first film. The sharp cinematography is also an improvement to the first film. And Paige Turco is a more charming April O'Neil. However, that's where the praise stops since part II is palpably inferior to the original on every other level. Unlike "Turtles I", this film shows the four ninja heroes without charm, presenting them as nearly identical characters without any distinguishing features (could anyone tell the difference between Michelangelo or Raphael, for instance, without the color on their bandana?), the fight sequences are naively choreographed (instead of the whole Foot gang attacking the turtles at once, they wait in the background until they fight one-on-one?), the story has too much plot holes to handle, especially in the rather ill-considered trashy Frankenstein concept involving around the mutating Oooze, whereas the low point was achieved in the embarrassing sequence in the night club where Vanilla Ice continues to sing and the audience continues to dance (!) despite six mutants suddenly storming the place and fighting there. The humorous final sequence brings the movie right on the back tracks again, and the costumes are again amazing, yet by that time the audience wished for a different kind of film.

Grade:+

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple; comedy, USA, 1968; D: Gene Saks, S: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler

Introverted Felix is affected by the the fact that his wife left him and took their kids. When he tries to commit suicide by jumping off from a building, he cannot open the window and gets a cramp in his back. His friends calm him down and tell him that there is a lot worth living for, whereas colleagues Oscar, also divorced, takes him into his apartment. The odd couple quickly turns chaotic: Oscar is messy and is annoyed by Felix constantly cleaning rooms and cooking. After two ladies ladies invite them to their apartment, Felix rejects them so Oscar throws him out of his apartment. Later on, he apologises.

"The Odd Couple" is not so fresh today, but is still a good comedy nonetheless that gains its source of agility from the chemistry between comedians Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (both nominated for a Golden Globe in a musical or comedy). The screenplay by Neil Simon (also nominated for an Oscar) actually offers an anecdotal little story about two divorced friends living together and clash due to different perspectives, equipped with a few funny jokes: in one comical moment, friends tell Oscar that he has a messy apartment before he answers the phone, so he replies to them: "Yes, I am divorced, messy and broke! (phone rings) Hallo? Divorced, messy and broke?" Felix is an equally comical character, an introverted counterpart for Oscar, who among others moves his jaw up and down and makes strange noises ("Mbwab!...Mbwab!") when he wants to unclog his ears. Today, one could almost decipher hidden gay subtexts from their feuds, especially since Oscar even jokingly tells him "yes, dear". Still, it is obvious that Saks does not have a sure director's hand in this occasion, whereas other flaws are a lukewarm mood and a fair share of not so funny jokes.

Grade:++

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Friends

Friends; comedy series, USA, 1994-2004; D: Gary Halvorson, Kevin Bright, Michael Lembeck, James Burrows, David Schwimmer, S: Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Elliott Gould, Tom Selleck

The story revolves around everyday events and misadventures of six friends in New York: Rachel, who starts off as a waitress and then finds as job in a department store; Joey, who is a struggling actor; eccentric Phoebe, who decides to give birth for her brother and his wife; paleontologist Ross who got divorced from his wife and his sister Monica who wants to be a cook; as well as the often sarcastic Chandler. Ross and Rachel break up but still have feelings for each other. Those culminate when Rachel ends up pregnant after a one night stand with him and gives birth to a daughter.

Subconsciously or not, the authors gave a special feeling of comfortability among the viewers by giving the title "Friends" to one of the most popular and acclaimed TV shows of the 90s, which still holds up pretty well today despite some omissions. Even though it was more a hit in the US than in Europe and the rest of the world, "Friends" have a certain universal appeal in presenting some everyday problems and misadventures, that "slice-of-life" flair that manages to build up awe from scratch, whereas a lot of credit should go to the six main actors who established a strong chemistry and carried even weaker seasons thanks to their charm: the story is a true ensemble cast since none of the actors stands out more than the other, equal care was given to everyone. The first three seasons were arguably the best, until the writers made a crucial error: the break-up between Ross and Rachel was unnecessary and pointless. They tried to make it suspenseful by having the viewers guess until the end whether or not they will make up again, yet the sole concept was erroneous: would an ex-couple still hang around as friends after such a bitter split? Some remarks made by Rachel aimed to belittle Ross were especially mean-spirited and seemed as if they came from a sitcom called "Enemies". Generally speaking, whenever Ross' character swims at top, the episode would always be at least good.

However, during its prime the story offered truly a lot of funny ideas and social observations. In one especially comical episode, Joey exaggerated his CV during an audition for a musical in order to win the role, claiming he had years of experience in step dance. When the supervisor asked him to train a whole class of students for a dance rehearsal, the music started and Joey, after a moment of awkward silence, simply just ran away outside. During another audition, he had to show his uncircumcised penis for a sex scene in a movie, but since it was made out of salami, it fell off. Ross plays a tune and then stops. Joey thinks he found a job as a photo model, but the next day his photo shows up in the city in the form of an add for sexually transmitted disease. The static camera and lax story flow towards the end, when the show lost steam, bother, yet if there is one episode that achieved perfection of cosmic proportions and that should be seen by those who never intend to see the show, then it's in season 5, "The One Where Everybody Finds Out", written by Alexa Junge. In it, Monica and Chandler are still hiding that they are a couple, but Joey, Rachel and Phoebe already know that and are annoyed by endless pretending. So, Phoebe decides to "push the limits" by pretending to seduce Chandler, mischievously "exploring" how far he will go until he finally admits that he is already with Monica. But he and Monica figure out that Phoebe is just faking it so they decide to switch the tables and have Chandler pretend he wants to sleep with Phoebe, too, which culminates in the sequence in his apartment where they both dare it more and more (a stroke, a kiss...) to see who will give in first. That episode was so virtuoso, so deliciously written that you did not care about directing, acting, shot composition or anything else at that moment - you were simply fully absorbed by the story.

Grade:++

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Beauty of Sin

Lepota poroka; erotic drama, Montenegro, 1986; D: Živko Nikolić, S: Mira Furlan, Milutin Karadžić, Petar Bozović, Alain Noury, Ines Kotman, Mira Banjac, Jasna Beri

In the Montenegrin hinterland, some villages are still rigidly conservative and the tradition is that a husband kills his wife with a mallet if she cheats on him. One such rural couple, Jaglika and Luka, decide to follow the invitation of their relative Đorđ in order to find a job along the liberal coastline. Đorđ turns out to be a notorious con-artist who cheats on his wife and even fires Luka while Jaglika finds a job as a housemaid in a nudist resort. There she befriends a nude English couple who awaken her extroverted side. Back in the village, Jaglika admits to Luka that she cheated on him, but he does not kill her.

After the authority of censors started to deplete in the 80s, the Yugoslav cinema slowly started to catch up with the European trend of erotic dramas, vividly represented with Pasolini's trilogy of life that started with "The Decameron", Vadim's "And God Created Woman", Luna's "Ham Ham" and others. Zivko Nikolic's "The Beauty of Sin" does not have an artistic authority, but it is surprisingly honest, avoiding "cheap flesh" in favour of a more-or-less even presentation of a shy, conservative woman, Jaglika, slowly awakening her untrammelled passionate side in the middle of a nudist resort. In this edition, the "fish out of water" story is a gentle rubbing of a collision of two opposite worldviews - the conservative and liberal wing - whereas Nikolic shows the effects of both of their negative extremes - bigotry and decadence. The film needed more humor and at least three more truly skillful sequences (one of the rare examples that prove otherwise is when the shy heroine, working as a housemaid, is surprised to encounter a couple lying naked on bed, so the wife makes a humorous remark: "Maybe we should wear clothes until she gets accustomed to us.") yet it enjoys the reputation of a cult classic for some examples of sophisticated erotic (the sole scene where Luka finds himself in the room with a naked prostitute with large breasts but freaks out and runs away is a favourite among the fans of such genre), aesthetic images of beach and the wonderful character of Jaglika - she is basically the only fully circled out character, so the viewers can truly easily identify with her whereas Mira Furlan plays her wonderfully sincere.
Grade:++

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hellsing Ultimate

Hellsing Ultimate; animated horror series, Japan, 2006-2012; D: Hiroyuki Tanaka, Tomokazu Tokoro, Yasuhiro Matsumura, S: Jouji Nakata, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Fumiko Orikasa, Nobuo Tobita, Norio Wakamoto

United Kingdom. After police officer Seras Victoria falls as a casualty to a ghoul, vampire Alucard abides her wish and "saves her" by transforming her into a vampire herself, recruiting her to fight in the Hellsing organization - led by Lady Integra - against those vampires that threaten humans. However, they get in the middle of a huge battle involving a neo-Nazi Major who uses SS-vampires to level London to the ground, on one side, and the Iscariot organization, a catholic fraction led by Vatican and priest Anderson, who fight against all three: Nazis, protestants and vampires.

The 2001 anime series "Hellsing" was a success, though it "amputated" the main tangle in the manga and thus caused complaints by fans, so a new creative team decided to "remake" it five years later with the "Hellsing Ultimate" OVA series that is more aligned towards Kouta Hirano's original work. Unfortunately, in this edition "Hellsing" went on the way of "Fist of the North Star": it dropped the mood in favor of splatter and (sometimes cheap and banal) violence which went way overboard. It is difficult to pin down why this OVA is so ephemera and convulsive when it has so many things going for it: the main tangle, for instance, intact in this edition, is unbelievable by revolving around a Major who "rebuilds" a new Nazi force in order to continue there where it ended after the World War II and his Blitz part II against London is a sight to behold - the scenes of Britain's capital getting demolished and burned in flames are a rare spectacle of the bizarre without limits. Some expressed worries against such a neo-Nazi "revisionist" story, yet it clearly distinguishes them as the bad guys. As a matter of fact, the sole subtext is subversive since one of the themes in "Hellsing" is the relativity of evil: Alucard is a vampire, but when his evil force is used for good, then it is acceptable. All three sides in the conflict have an evil side to them and the question is thus whether a goal can justify any means. Alucard himself puts it nicely in one episode: "A monster fighting for God. And a monster fighting against God. That's all the same."

The animation and character designs are top-notch, yet since the production is slow and it takes sometimes up to a whole year for a new episode to show up, the mood is uneven since the authors constantly have to remember to "pick up" there where the previous events left - after all, you have to expect a toll for consistency for a series whose production was stretched to half a decade, yet it plays out in only two nights - whereas the long, absorbing takes of standoff do tend to seem hesitant after a while (the 6 minute long monologue of the Major in one episode is truly too long), not entirely managing to recreate that desired Leone touch. Seras actually comes off less developed in this OVA: in the first "Hellsing", the authors took their time to show her struggle with becoming a vampire, while here everything was already consolidated in the first episode. For instance, the scene in the first anime where Seras tackles and immobilizes Jan had weight because it was so real, while here it seems too neat (also, her yellow uniform does not suit her so well). The best ingredients were again found when the story went into some absurd-caricature spheres, which were there to relax from the otherwise bleak events (in the closing credits for episode 4, the Major and the Doc show up wearing anime shirts, singing in a karaoke and having tourist equipment when they go to England!). "Ultimate" is more faithful to the manga, yet that does not automatically mean that is superior than the first "Hellsing" - the Fleischer brothers "Gulliver's Travels" is, for instance, quite unfaithful to Swift's novel, but it is still superior than the loyal '96 miniseries of the same title - therefore, these two do not necessarily contradict each other. Despite some genius ideas, "Ultimate" crammed so many bloody violence that it numbed the viewers, and ultimately the whole viewing experience.

Grade:++

Monday, December 5, 2011

Greed


Greed; silent drama, USA, 1924; D: Erich von Stroheim, S: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt

A former miner, brute McTeague, becomes a dentist in San Francisco. One day, he falls deeply in love with one of his patients, Trina, who is the girlfriend of a certain Marcus. When McTeague tells him about his love, Marcus decides to generously "give up" on Trina. However, he regrets it when Trina wins 5.000 $ on a lottery. She and McTeague get married and move to a new house. Still, despite her fortune, she turns out to be a real penny poacher and refuses to give anything to McTeague after he loses his license as a dentist and can't find a job. He steals 450 $ from her and runs away. On Christmas, he returns, kills her and takes the rest of the money. He returns to the mine and then flees to Death Valley where he meets Marcus again who wants the money. McTeague kills him, but stays handcuffed to his corpse.

Greed has always been a great source of inspiration for movies and novels, whether it is the central theme in the dramatic "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or humorous novel "L'Avare" by Moliere, probably because of the sheer intensity of characters found between it that collide with huge intensity. Just as the anti-hero McTeague was obsessed with it in "Greed", director Erich von Stroheim was in equal measure obsessed with greed for perfection found in overlong running time of the movie - seven hours are truly too long to sustain the viewers' concentration, even in such a great classic. Von Stroheim's greed was outmatched only by those of the producer's for profit who cut the movie to only 2 hours, yet the 4 hour version was restored and can be today compared.

The ideal movie would probably lie in the middle - some subplots in the extended version are unnecessary (Zwerkov and Maria, for instance, who are just there to foreshadow what is going to happen to McTeague and Trina) yet von Stroheim shows remarkable sense for "proper/inner" directorial skill in meticulous details (the minute the brute McTeague exits the coal mine but stops to pick up a bird on the ground and kiss it, he is able to reach the viewers), just the right balance of delicious emotions, which are neither too cold nor to sappy (i.e. the scene where bride Trina clings to her mother because she is afraid to spend her first night with her husband alone; the detail where she buys him a present, a giant golden tooth) and even slightly provocative-subversive ideas for those times (the legendary scene where dentist McTeague kisses a tranquillized Trina, who was still only a patient to him; the obsession with money over love/human relations as a critique of capitalism) all revolving around the story where instead of a couple consuming money, it consumes them. "Greed" is surprisingly dark and bitter even today, entirely opposite to many sugary movies of the 20s, a raw, existential allegory on selfishness, bravely tackling the "unpopular" Hollywood theme of lower class, with the expressionistic finale in Death Valley remaining an unforgettable example of "black ending", which is actual even in our time, and the repeated McTeague's line "You won't make small of me!" is brilliant.

Grade:+++

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Brainstorm


Brainstorm; science-fiction drama, USA, 1983; D: Douglas Trumbull, S: Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson, Alan Fudge

Scientists Lillian and husband and wife team Michael and Karen create a device that can record a person's audio-visual-sensory experience on a tape and then play it for other viewers via a special helmet. After the military insists on exploring the invention, Lillian has a heart attack in the laboratory, but uses her last piece of strength to turn the device on and record her own death. Michael wants to play the tape to see a human's experience of death, with amendments that will not affect his own heart. Since the military wants to use the tape for torture, Karen hacks into the factory to cause chaos among the machines while Michael downloads the tape and sees the death experience in the shape of space travel to another galaxy and fairies.

With all due respect for Natalie Wood in her last screen performance, science-fiction movie "Brainstorm" as a whole seems like patchwork, an uneven and incoherent story based on a fantastic premise of "recording" people's audio-visual experiences, whereas it stays open if Wood's sudden death caused certain rewrites in the film or even lack of whole sequences since she was one of the leading roles. In this forerunner to "Strange Days", the authors did not manage to exploit all the rich possibilities of the stimulative concept to the maximum (one of the rare examples where they prove otherwise is the idea that a man can "record" his sex experience with a woman, which is then replayed by one "viewer" to the point where he gets dizzy from too much orgasms) which is why "Brainstorm" seems rather underused, sadly waisting its running time only on an (albeit subversive) subplot where the hero Michael is trying to obtain a "death tape" from the military who has taken over his research centre in order to use it as some sort of MKULTRA project. The sole visual style of the movie that "replays" the recorded experiences is excellent, though, using fish eye lens in filming a person's POV of riding a horse, flying, driving or going down the water slide. The ending turned out the worst, both in not resolving/neglecting what will happen to the device in the army's hands and Michael's surreal (and pointless) obsession with seeing the "death tape" that inappropriately drifts away into the religious since he sees a person's soul traveling through space, which is entirely out of character with the whole previous "scientifically cold" tone of the film up to it.

Grade:+

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cow and Chicken


Cow and Chicken; animated comedy series, USA, 1997; D: David Feiss, Robert Alvarez, S: Charlie Adler, Dee Bradley Baker, Candy Milo

An array of misadventures revolving around Cow and Chicken, children of Mom and Dad (whose faces are never shown since they only have legs), who often encounter the Red Guy, an incompetent nemesis: the school goes for a field trip to prison (!); Cow and Chicken decide to become sailors; Cow writes a screenplay for a play about "The Ugliest Weenie" or decides to assist a "king and queen of cheese"; Chicken finds a credit card and fakes a comet in the sky in order to scare the city...

An eccentric and extremely comical satire, "Cow and Chicken" by director and screenwriter David Feiss received critical acclaim after his short cartoon, "No Smoking", was picked by Cartoon Network and expanded into a TV show which even surpassed the pilot. TV shows mostly start to loose their freshness after running for a long while, yet that was avoided here since "Cow and Chicken" span only 52 episodes, just enough to end on a high note. The main attraction in this roundabout of insane jokes became undoubtedly the Red Guy (the devil in the pilot), but since the story is deprived of any deeper philosophical connotations, "Cow and Chicken" still remained a children's animation: this is one of the rare examples of a comedy that blends both the outrageously grotesque and childishly naive humor and gets away with it since it somehow almost always outweighs towards the latter, towards the harmless tone, whereas a huge portion of kudos should go to Charles Adler who provided a bravura triple dub by voicing Cow, Chicken and the Red Guy - I watched the show dubbed in a different language once, and it wasn't even 50 % as funny as the original, which really says a lot about his comic delivery.

Whether it's the dialogues (in a store, a clerk says: "Hallo, can you be *helped*?"), the creative sight gags making fun of the fact that Mom and Dad's faces are never shown (they push it to such an extent that in one episode Dad's legs are seen in the lower part of the screen while an inch-thin horizontal pole "hides" his nonexistent upper part), the demented character designs (often showing men with red lips) or simply insane-surreal situations (in one episode, the Red Guy is hired to teach Cow and Chicken how to play the piano: Chicken just pounds the keyboard with its beak while Cow pounds it with its utter, creating awful music. Since the Red Guy observes that they both have only three fingers, he concludes that the problem is resolved by simply removing a third of "needless" keyboards from the piano. Some time later, in order to show his "capacity" and their musical progress, he organizes a real concert which is attended by a huge crowd. But when the curtains go up, Cow and Chicken just simply continue pounding the partial keyboard on the piano, creating again awful music!), this is a howlingly funny show and a fantastic fun, if the "I Am Weasel" segment is excluded.

Grade:+++

Monday, November 28, 2011

For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only; action, UK, 1981; D: John Glen, S: Roger Moore, Carol Bouquet, Chaim Topol, Julian Glover

Somewhere in the south Adriatic sea, a British spy ship collided with a mine and sunk. It contains ATAC, a system that could order submarines to fire at their own cities. Timothy Havelock is killed by pilot Gonzales from a helicopter that was about to retrieve ATAC from the sea. His daughter Melina wants to take revenge on the people responsible for it. James Bond stumbles upon Gonzales, but the latter is killed by Melina. They both flee to the Italian peninsula, and then to a Greek town where they discover that the villain Kristatos wants to sell ATAC to the Soviets. In an ambush, Bond retrieves ATAC and destroys it, whereas Kristatos dies. For his vacation, Bond brings Melina with him.

With the action thriller "For Your Eyes Only", director John Glen managed to conjure up a truly good James Bond film and thus saved the movie series, whereas even Roger Moore's performance is much more dignified in this edition. Bond is basically a long spy soap opera, so Glen choose wisely when he decided to craft it as an unpretentious fun full of attractions. There are comical scenes, such as when a computer makes a phantom image of a villain with a nose as big a Pinocchio's or a burglar who wants to break into Bond's car despite the warning, so the vehicle explodes with him in self-defence. Even the action is top-notch: downhill car chases are equally as spectacular as the pursuit of Bond on skis. Despite the fact that the ending is slightly confusing and illogical, this 12th Bond film is a very polished and satisfactory edition.

Grade:++

The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me; action, UK, 1977; D: Lewis Gilbert, S: Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curd Jürgens, Richard Kiel

British and Soviet ballistic-missile submarines mysteriously disappear in the sea, thus both governments decide to jump over their shadow and cooperate. The English call their agent 007, James Bond, who on his way down the mountain kills a Soviet agent - a close friend of Soviet agent Anya who now has to cooperate with Bond. In Egypt, they manage get a hold of a secret microfilm who indicates the way of the submarines, but are persecuted by Jaws, the villain with metal teeth. Bond and Anya discover Stromberg on a platform on the sea, who plans to destroy Moscow and New York. Bond kills him and diverts the fired rockets on submarines, causing them to self-destruct.

It is strange that Roger Moore once stated that "The Spy Who Loved Me" is his favorite James Bond film, since it is one of his weaker products and in reality his best Bond is "For Your Eyes Only." The opening is quite fun: a love couple lies on a bed, but just then the spy device rings - ironically, not the man, but the woman is the one who answers the call, whereby the story gives a neat satirical jab at a "female Bond" who also enjoys seducing. The opening credits are creative whereas one of the main bad guys is "Jaws", the giant with metal teeth. But the main story is boring, standard and naive (when the submarine crew spots that a giant platform is about to swallow them, why don't they simply dive?; "Jaws" destroys a van with agents with his bare hands (!)...) despite the chemistry in the British/Soviet joint cooperation between Bond and Anya and a good box office result. As a whole, the movie is unusually clumsy and anemic due to a too serious tone and wooden characters, which is why the initial fun spark already disappears some 60 minutes into this 2-hour movie.

Grade:+

Saturday, November 26, 2011

H-8


H-8...; drama, Croatia, 1958; D: Nikola Tanhofer, S: Boris Buzančić, Đurđa Ivezić, Antun Vrdoljak, Vanja Drach, Marija Kohn, Mia Oremović, Marijan Lovrić, Mira Nikolić, Fabijan Šovagović

On 14 April '57, a passenger bus was driving from Zagreb towards Belgrade. Among the passengers are piano student Alma Novak; reporter Boris; actor Krešo who lost his career since a doctor's treatment made his laryngitis even worse and thus has a grouch against Mr. Šestan just because he is also a doctor; a young mother with her baby; a middle-aged Swiss man who is jealous of his young wife just for talking with anyone; aging poet Nikola; a couple with a little girl with a nosebleed. At the same time, a truck from Slavonski Brod is driven by Rudolf. 147 km from Zagreb, at 8:34 pm, an unknown car driver with a license plate starting with H-8, wants to pass the bus even though the truck was heading towards him in the opposite direction. In order to avoid the car, the truck makes a sharp turn left and thus crashes into the bus. The car driver escapes.

One of the most critically acclaimed Croatian movies of the 20th century, based on a real event, road movie drama "H-8" is indeed a small classic, a cleverly conceptualized and executed story. The inventive opening already gives a small summary of the road accident for the viewers, determining the exact time (8:34 pm), location (147 km away from Zagreb) and causes of the crash between the truck and the bus: the story then "rewinds" and goes back to the start of the bus journey and the slow build-up of suspense results from the viewers knowing which passenger seats will be fatal (at the front, number 2, 3, 4 and 5) yet the uncertainty is heightened since the characters exchange their seats several times (a mother with a baby cannot close her window, so a soldier concedes his seat to her and thus resettles towards the "death row"), unknowingly "playing" with their fate, so the audience is always hoping their "favorite" will survive while the bad guy will die.

Director Nikola Tanhofer leads the moody story with a sure hand, yet at times the weakness of the writing is not entirely hidden since there is too much babble among the passengers which is at times "just there" to fill the story, instead of acting natural, like the slightly superior example of "Who's That Singing Over There?" where practically every line of the passengers on the bus was essential to the story or simply fun. Still, numerous lines reveal fine writing ("We were poor, we had only 7 dinars when we got married. For our honeymoon we went to the cinema" or "Doctors have it easy: their "successes" praise them, while their failures are buried!") whereas the 'fatalism' of the crash is a source of gripping storytelling towards the end when the inevitable is about to happen, which is why this is a quality achievement.

Grade:+++

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; animated-live action fantasy crime comedy, USA, 1988; D: Robert Zemeckis, S: Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer (voice), Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner (voice), Joanna Cassidy

Hollywood, '47. Cartoon characters, the "Toons", are alive and interact with humans. A washed up alcoholic private detective, Eddie Valiant, gets in the middle of a conspiracy after his photos revealing a fling between Mr. Acme and "Toon" Jessica Rabbit cause an outburst of jealousy by her husband Roger - the next day, Acme is found dead and the police suspects Roger killed him. However, Valiant believes Roger is innocent and helps him dismantle the plan of ominous Judge Doom who wants to buy off Toontown, destroy it and build a freeway stretching through it. It turns out Doom not only killed Acme, but is a "Toon" himself, yet dies by his own acid invention, "the dip", whereas Roger is acquitted of charges.

One of the most commercially successful collaborations between producer Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis, unusual crime comedy "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" is dedicated almost as some sort of an "edgier" lesson to Disney's "Mary Poppins", whereas in it there is more chemistry between real and animated characters than there is between two real ones in many movies. The story actually manages to circumvent all copyright laws and encompass several cartoon characters from rival studios in one, which is why this is to date the only movie where Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - from the rival Walt Disney and Warner Bros. studios - appear together on screen - though, truth be told, considering that, their scene actually should have contained a far better joke than the standard one we got. The combination of the live action and animated parts does indeed have inventive solutions, jokes (an animated car driving a real car) and dialogues ("I am not bad. I am just drawn that way" or "You almost got me a heart attack!" - "In order to have one, you must have a heart first!"), yet the disjointed blend between a film noir for grown ups and animated characters for kids still seems heavy handed at times, nonetheless. Christopher Lloyd (fantastic as the villain Doom who comically writes "Rabbit dip" on the chalkboard in the bar sequence) and Bob Hoskins (nominated for a Golden Globe) are consistent, the finale is virtuoso crafted, but some cartoon characters indeed tend to go "way out of line" with distorted grimaces and annoying antics, which seems forced. Instead of infantile characters from Looney Tunes and co., it would have been far more interesting to actually see a live action-animated interaction with animated characters for grown ups from the far East, like Seras Victoria, Spike Spiegel and Faye Valentine, Minako Aino, Usagi Tuskino and Haruka Tenouh, Kagome...Now, that would have been a blast.

Grade:++

Monday, November 21, 2011

The American


The American; thriller-drama, USA, 2010; D: Anton Corbijn, S: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli

Assassin Jack arrives to the small Italian town Castelvecchio for another assignment of his boss Pavel. One of his associates, Mathilde, wants him to build a tailor-made sniper rifle, so Jack goes on to assemble it from various devices. Upon meeting a priest and a kind prostitute, Clara, who falls in love with him, Jack starts to feel the effects of his long suppressed loneliness and the urge for love. He creates the rifle but tells Pavel he quits his job afterwards. After delivering the weapon, Pavel and Mathilde try to kill him, but Jack outsmarts them. Still, he succumbs to his wounds before he could start his love with Clara.

Even though it might seem sterile and pointless at first, contemplative minimalistic art thriller-drama "The American" actually subsequently turns out to be a quality made film with a precise purpose, where the long and empty scenes evoke existentialism of the tragic protagonist, assassin Jack (great George Clooney) who in the end gets so consumed by his profession that he can never relax, fearing that every passer-by might be his killer. By setting the story inside a small, rural Italian town where people still seem to have some traditional values, friendship, and some kind of joy of life, the authors set-up the stage for Jack "melting away" and wishing to blend in with them, creating very good character development: the scene where he and assassin woman Mathilde lie on the meadow for a "fake picnic" but then suddenly observe a butterfly gently landing on her, sums up perfectly the contradiction of two "ugly" antagonists suddenly getting puzzled by beauty. The movie is not original, nothing here was not already shown before, yet just like its forerunners, Melville's "The Samurai" and Furuhashi's "Samurai X: Reflection", it bravely shows the only possible conclusion for a hitman who cannot live happily ever after after what he has done, but will experience death himself, which is precisely why the ending is so intense.

Grade:++

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Big Knife


The Big Knife; drama, USA, 1955; D: Robert Aldrich, S: Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Shelley Winters, Rod Steiger

Charles Castle is a successful actor. One day, he is visited by reporter and friend Patty who inquires when he is going to divorce from his wife Marion, but the latter chases her away from the mansion. Charles, upon Marion's suggestion, does not want to sign a 7 year contract for a studio since he would have to star in bad, cliched movies, but producer Stanley persuades him to sign it anyway, blackmailing him about his car crash accident. After a while, Charles' career starts diminishing while an actress, Dixie, also wants to blackmail him. When Smiley, Stanley's lawyer, suggests Charles to kill Dixie, he starts an argument and renews his relationship with Marion. Charles in the end takes his own life.

Hollywood gained quite a negative reputation in modern times, yet already in 1955, black drama "The Big Knife" made an anti-ode to 'the dream factory' by subtly creating an epitaph to movie art which was replaced by the urge for profit: in this version, a studio boss (excellent Rod Steiger) practically blackmails actor Charles (Palance) to sign a seven year contract for new bad movies since he holds him in his hand by concealing an unfortunate car accident from the public, whereas towards the end the law extension of the movie producers even considers murder to achieve their goal. By bravely showing a situation where a major industry can coax the state system in order to 'audit' circumstances towards their advantage, "Knife" crafted a story full of bitterness and pessimism, which is felt even in dialogues ("All roads lead towards disaster" or "You always do the worst towards people you love the most"), whereas the whole film is almost entirely placed in Charles' mansion, which gives a feeling of static touch. But at the same time the whole thing is also tiresome to watch whereas too much babble reduces the enjoyment value.

Grade:++

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hellsing


Hellsing; animated horror series, Japan, 2001; D: Yasunori Urata, Umanosuke Iida, S: Joji Nakata, Fumiko Orikasa, Mika Doi, Akiko Hiramatsu

An older gentleman starts kissing a pale woman in his mansion. But he is interrupted by a certain Alucard, a mysterious man in red clothes, who shoots the woman with a silver bullet. The woman disappears because she was a vampire. Alucard himself is a vampire, but works for people in an organization called Hellsing, lead by Lady Integra Hellsing. After a police woman, Seras Victoria, is wounded while taken hostage by a priest ghoul, Alucard saves her by making a vampire out of her. Still confused, Seras now has to get use to sleep in a coffin and eliminate vampires for Hellsing, whether they are vampire brothers, authors of Internet snuff movies or the henchman called Incognito.

The brilliant character of police woman Seras Victoria (voiced by Fumiko Orikasa) completed the tone of the esoteric "Hellsing": this agile-stimulative fantasy-horror anime series manages to present the vampire theme sufficiently in only 13 episodes, but this time in the interesting Hanjian concept where an invincible vampire, dissident Alucard ("Dracula" spelled backwards), actually fights against vampires and is a collaborator with humans, personified in the ironic fact that his master Lady Integra is actually weaker than him. Already the first episode crystallized an eerie mood: among others, Alucard sees the sky in red whereas when his enemies tear his whole body to pieces in the shootout, he just rejuvenates again with ease due to his super-powers. That pilot episode is conventionally suspenseful, but still in the end contains a genius abstract scene that wondered off far into the spheres of anime shrillness: an overweight ghost of a man in a robe floats above the ground and comments the first episode ("No girls, no sex...What a pity!") but then Seras, drawn in comical-caricature manner, shows up and scorns him. The animation is slightly "wooden" at times whereas the original manga remains an untouched ideal (the main plot of the comic-book, revolving around Nazi vampires (!), was "amputated" away from this anime, which was later tried to be corrected with the more faithful "Hellsing Ultimate" OVA 5 years later), but as a whole, this is an unusually aesthetic series, whereas Seras is truly fascinating in scenes where she throws blood into the toilet because since does not want to drink it or fights in her police uniform.

Grade:+++

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hound of Baskervilles


The Hound of Baskervilles; crime/ mystery, USA, 1939; D: Sidney Lanfield, S: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie

19th century. After another member of the Baskervilles dies under mysteries circumstances, the last heir, Henry, is summoned to inherit their valuable estate in Devonshire. First he arrives to London, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson assume that someone wants to kill him too. Watson and Henry go to the Baskervilles mansion, where they meet the neighbors, Beryl and John Stapleton. After a while, Holmes shows up himself. It turns out that John wanted to kill Henry with a dog trained to attack, so that he can inherit the estate. Luckily, Holmes saves Henry and prevents his plan.

Hailed as the best movie adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's cult crime novel with the same title, Sidney Lanfield's "The Hound of Baskervilles" is a thoroughbred mystery-detective story with just two major flaws that undermine it - in the middle part of the film, the absence of the main hero Sherlock Holmes is too long whereas the ending is a real anti-climax that should have been handled better and/or should have shown what happened to the villain - yet the remaining part of the film works, especially since Basil Rathbone is great as the legendary logical detective. The story is compact and gains the most of its plus points thanks to a spooky mood that was achieved thanks to the expressionistic play with shadows and fog (definitely one of the most convincing examples of fog being put on film in the 20th century) surrounding the isolated mansion at night, stimulative moments (from the mansion, Dr. Watson and Henry discover that someone is giving light signals from the dark marsh forest, so they decide to go out and find its source) and a generally fine use of a straight-forward style that neatly blends it all together.

Grade:++

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Burn After Reading


Burn After Reading; black comedy, USA, 2008; D: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, S: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, David Rasche, J. K. Simmons

After his superior informs him that he is downgraded from his CIA position, Balkan analyst Osbourne Cox is so furious that he quits his job and decides to write memoirs with sensationalistic undertones. At the same time, his wife Katie is having an affair with Harry, a womanizing Treasury employee and US Marshal. After a careless lawyer loses Osbourne's CD with his memoirs, it is found in a gym by Linda and Chad who want to return it for 50.000 $, mistakenly thinking it is a highly classified CIA file. After Harry accidentally kills Chad in Osbourne's apartment and finds out his wife is also planning to divorce him, he decides to leave the US. Osbourne wanted to kill Ted for breaking into his apartment searching for more documents, but both were shot by CIA agents. Back at the CIA headquarters, Palmer and director are puzzled by the mess of the events in the report.

The 13th film by the Coen brothers, "Burn After Reading" is another edition to their 'misanthropic comedy' list, yet the directors and writers became so comfortably 'Hollywoodized' in the meantime that they lost their 'Coen touch' which adorned their fresh first phase of their career. A spoof of two major US institutions, the CIA and the body-beauty industry, "Burn" is as a whole a surprisingly circled out movie with a polished structure and cold calculation, yet the Coens do not manage to show their pure sense for comic timing, which is also undermined due to their bleak-negative perspective which belittles almost every character in the film. All actors are good, yet the movie "clicks" only when George Clooney and Brad Pitt (who once again showed that funny-relaxed roles suit him more than melodramatic ones) are on the screen, yet in all other examples it takes too much time to bring a point across or is simply not that funny. The chair with the dildo scene particularly seems as if the Coens lost their taste and sense for measure. Two great payoffs, though, come towards the end of the film: in one, Malkovich plays Osbourne, the kind of guy who is a wimp and suffers from a minority complex: you get the idea that he was only in the CIA to show off, but once he loses his job nobody perceives him as an authority. Towards the end, when he stumbles upon an even bigger wimp, Ted, who broke into his house to steal data from his PC, he finally enjoys the chance to "show his strength" and even says: "You're one of the morons I've been fighting my whole life. My whole life. But guess what... Today, I win." What follows is a hilarious scene of insanity. Secondly, the conclusion with the two CIA officials summing up all the events and commenting how crazy they were are simply a riot, with the underrated actor J. K. Simmons showing his full potentials.

Grade:++

Twilight

Twilight; romantic horror, USA, 2008; D: Catherine Hardwicke, S: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Taylor Lautner

Bella is a teenage girl who moves away from her mother in Phoenix to live at her father's place, Forks, situated on the north-western part of the US. The weather there is cold, rainy and generally rarely sunny. Bella adjusts to er new high school and meets an unusual teenager, Edward Cullen, who saves her one day by stopping a van from hitting her. Puzzled by him and the legend of the city, she discovers that he is a vampire. They fall in love and Edaward meets her with his family. When a nomadic vampire, James, decides to hunt Bella "for sport", Edward saves her and goes to prom with her.

One of the most hyped and famed movies of the decade, the originator of the "Twilight" saga, this first movie adaptation of the series of novels by Stephenie Meyer is an interesting attempt to blend the "impossible" romance with horror, yet as a whole seems like patchwork: the romantic segment is surprisingly good, moody and even slightly stimulative, yet the horror segment is chaotic and 'anemic'. The reason for why teenage girls went so crazy about kind vampire Edward lies probably in the fact that he represents a triple manifestation of male attraction in one: a forbidden 'naughty guy', a prince charming and strong protector of the heroine. Robert Pattinson is solid in the role, appropriately wearing pale make-up to emphasize his origin, yet it is not quite clear why Bella is so pale too. "Twilight" achieves the most when it attempts to create that 'slice-of-life' mood presented from the teenage female perspective, reminiscent of the narrower writing skills of the classic series "Sailor Moon" and others, such as when Bella also hangs out with Native Americans, feels as an outsider in high school or simply goes to buy a dress with her friends for prom night, whereas her romance with Edward fits in into the concept, equipped with a few neat scenes, such as when he climbs up a tree, carrying her on his back to impress her. However, the story does indeed tend to "show off" and "ham it up" excessively, which is why the horror parts indeed seem unintentionally comical at times (especially the basketball sequence). The finale is entirely illogical: why would James all out of blue suddenly decide to hunt Bella "for sport"? The cause of the confrontation was not well thought out whereas the movie needed more wit and is indeed weaker than its forerunner "Let the Right One In", yet it does have some bizarre charm.

Grade:+

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sunshine Boys

The Sunshine Boys; tragicomedy, USA, 1975; D: Herbert Ross, S: Walter Matthau, Richard Benjamin, George Burns, Lee Meredith, Carol Arthur, F. Murray Abraham

New York. Clark (73) is an old comedian who has not worked with his ex-partner Lewis for 11 years. Clark's nephew Ben is trying to find him a job, but to no avail: in an audition for a commercial, he has troubles remembering his lines. Ben tries to persuade Clark to attend a TV reunion with Lewis since the studio is willing to pay 10,000 $ for them, but Clark is opposed to it - Lewis often spat while talking and poked his chest. Still, Lewis arrives to Clark's apartment. They start an argument over an old sketch so Lewis decides to do the performance, but not talk to him. During the shooting, Clark gets a heart attack and lands in hospital. Lewis visits and comforts him.

This movie adaptation of Neil Simon's play "The Sunshine Boys" received a very good reception: it was critically acclaimed and won 3 Golden Globes (best motion picture - musical or comedy, actor in a musical or comedy - Walter Matthau, supporting actor Richard Benjamin) and one Oscar for the excellent performance by comedian George Burns who prior to this this has not appeared in a film for 36 years. The movie abounds with humor, wit and inspired dialogues, yet is clumsy in the melodramatic dramaturgy which often tends to be sappy-pathetic: Matthau stars as the bald, aging comedian Clark who is senile (he does not distinguish the whistling of the teapot from the telephone ringing) and thus a fair share of misunderstanding tends to be more tragic than comical whereas Burns shows up only some 40 minutes into the film. Still, Simon's fabulous dialogues and quotes are indestructible: "Will you star with him again? Can we discuss this?" - "No, I am busy!" - "Busy with what?" - "With not discussing." / "Is your father dead or alive?" - "Both." - "What do you mean, both?" - "He was alive, and now he is dead." / "Your father laughed the only time in his life in 1932." / "I haven't seen Lewis in 11 years. I haven't spoken to him in 12 years." Despite the fact that the tragic tone somehow undermines the jokes, some of them are simply fantastic nonetheless whereas the chemistry between Burns and Matthau is great.

Grade:++

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The U.S. vs. John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon; documentary, USA, 2006; D: David Leaf, John Scheinfeld, S: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Ron Kovic, Tariq Ali, Bobby Seale, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky

The documentary explores the awakening of political and activist consciousness within ex-Beatles member John Lennon during his stay in New York at the time of the Vietnam War. Rebellious since his childhood, Lennon and his love Yoko Ono made the public stunt of staying in bed in Amsterdam as long as the war is still waging; he wrote the songs "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" where he advocated peace as well as give public anti-war speeches and support the Black Panthers. In a transparent attempt, the government tried to deport him from the US. Still, Lennon won the case and the war ended in '73.

Since John Lennon is one of the most opulent personalities of the 20th century, almost any movie trying to put anything from his life on the screen already has the potential to be interesting, and this documentary by the directorial duo Leaf-Scheinfeld gives a quality retrospect of his his political activism burning inside his blood during the wild 70s and the Vietnam War. Back then, Lennon was almost some sort of a forerunner to Michael Moore: he was a showbiz celebrity who used his status to promote liberal-pacifist messages to the masses, deliberately attacking the government in office. The realization of the movie is standard, yet the energetic guest speakers (from Tariq Ali up to Gore Vidal), frequent use of the protagonist's songs and the extensive use of rare-obscure archive footage of a "daft" Lennon back in those days (especially in the humorous publicity stunts where he and Ono would cover their whole bodies with a sheet during an interview in Vienna or stay laying in bed in a room in Amsterdam as long as the war is waging!) give it charm and wit that lack in the "present" chunks of the movie.

Grade:++

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jamaica Inn


Jamaica Inn; crime, UK, 1939; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks

England, 19th century. A gang of thieves is notorious for igniting a light above cliffs at a coast during stormy nights in order to attract ships who mistake it for a lighthouse, who then crash at the shore where the gang robs the passengers. Mary arrives to the infamous Jamaica Inn tavern and finds out that Joss, her aunt's husband, is the leader of that gang. She saves a man from hanging, James, who turns out to be a spy working for the police. It also turns out that the local judge Humphrey is actually the covert chief of the gang. Humphrey kidnaps Mary, but when James and the police surround his ship, he commits suicide.

Alfred Hitchcock's last film shot in the UK before he moved to the US to pursue his Hollywood career - where he untypically made some of his best films and actually managed to make the mill run his way in the tough studio conditions - "Jamaica Inn" is one of his rightfully forgotten films, a patchwork that does not know what direction it should take and in the end gets lost, just like his earlier films "Juno and Paycocok" and "Rich and Strange". A large part of the blame should go to Charles Laughton who is a very good actor, but - since he also took the role of the producer - egoistically subordinated the whole story to his character, the bad guy Humphrey who actually turned into a leading role, and thus hammed it up too much, mistakenly thinking that he knows better what is good for the film than director Hitchcock. The black and white cinematography, with some moody shots of the shore and stormy nights, is charming whereas the first half actually works as a crime story, yet towards the end the movie crammed too many illogical situations, plot holes and inconsistencies (in one of the many goofs, Mary is supposed to be guarded by the gang during the luring of the ship towards the coast, but then her guard just makes a few steps forward and she just conveniently runs away without anybody noticing!) while it was probably a mistake for Laughton to insist that his character gets revealed as the bad guy so early in the story, since it took away a dimension of awe later on.

Grade:+

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My Life in Pink


Ma vie en rose; drama, France/ Belgium, 1997; D: Alain Berliner, S: Georges Du Fresne, Michèle Laroque, Jean-Philippe Écoffey, Hélène Vincent

Hanna and her husband Pierre move to a quiet suburb where their first neighbors are Pierre's boss and his family. Hanna has three sons and a daughter. During a welcoming party, the guests are disturbed when Hanna's youngest son Ludovic shows up in a pink dress. Ludovic even starts saying that he considers himself a girl and shows interest for "female shows", which is why only his grandmother has understanding for him. When Ludovic has a fake wedding with the son of Pierre's boss, the parents send him to a psychiatrist. He starts feeling shame whereas the school kids make him an outcast. The family moves to a new town. At first they are angry at him, but gradually accept him.


Winner of the Golden Globe for the best foreign language film, Alain Berliner's feature length debut film "My Life in Pink" is a gentle essay about the different views between kids and grown ups: even though the plot revolves around a boy, Ludovic, who considers himself a girl, this is not entirely a movie with a gay-transgender theme, but also (and maybe even to a larger extent) a story about the search for one's identity and freedom, despite intolerance. The best scenes are those done with measure, taste and even little humor, such as the one where Ludovic secretly takes the place of the sleeping Snow White during a school play, thus forcing the boy he likes and who plays the prince to kiss him or the imaginative-surreal scene where the TV character Pam exists the TV set and flies away. As a whole, the movie is indeed slightly uneven - maybe it was not the best decision choose a little kid for such a delicate story, but a grown up - sometimes heavy handed and stylistically unsure, yet Berliner truly seems to love his story and crafts strong characters, some of which establish an intact character development thanks to only one scene, such as when Ludovic's mother takes revenge on the racist boss by simply kissing him in front of his wife, thus causing a thorough marital feud.

Grade:+++

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Haunting


The Haunting; horror, UK, 1963; D: Robert Wise, S: Julie Harris, Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn

A remote English mansion has the reputation of a haunted house and in its 90 years of existence several of its owners either died from mysterious circumstances or committed suicide. When Dr. Markaway, a parapsychology enthusiast, is given the opportunity to investigate it, he invites three other guests: Theodora, Luke and the outsider Eleanor. The latter hears strange knocks on the door of her room during the night. When a fifth lady shows up, she disappears. Feeling she is disoriented, Dr. Markaway sends Eleanor home, but she loses herself and crashes with her car into a tree, dying. It turns out that the missing lady accidentally caused the accident when she showed up on the road.

"The Haunting" was not one of the first 'haunted house' movies, yet its distinctive creepy tone helped to cement the aforementioned setting as a genre for itself. Using some brilliant camera tricks (wide angle or fish eye lenses; "rotation" of the camera around an object which creates the feeling of dizziness; camera climbing up spiral stairs) combined with the spooky location assured a moody 'kammerspiel' for "The Haunting" which is why some consider it as a small classic of psychological horror. The characters are also well rounded up, especially the outsider Eleanor who arrives to the mansion since she simply hates her life with her mean sister, yet the story is inconsistent. For instance, during their first night in the mysterious mansion, Eleanor and Theodora are shocked when they hear strange, undeniably paranormal knocking sounds on the door of their bedroom. A short while later, Dr. Markaway and Luke arrive from the hallway but claim they did not hear anything outside, upon which Eleanor and Theodora burst in laughter, joking that someone "knocked on their door with a cannon". That is an entirely illogical reaction for the two women: they just experienced a genuine paranormal fright and yet joke at it as if it was not such a big deal? Likewise, the story again resorts to double explanation, i.e. the ending can be interpreted both ways: that ghosts indeed exist or that Eleanor was just crazy, which is slightly contrived. Still, it is a good psychological horror and the sequence with the spiral stairs and the image of a woman emerging from the trap door is an anthology of suspense.

Grade:++

Friday, November 4, 2011

Julius Caesar



Julius Caesar; drama, USA, 1953; D: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, S: James Mason, John Gielgud, Marlon Brando, Louis Calhern, Edmond O'Brien, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr

Rome, 44 BC. After another triumph, Julius Caesar returns to the city and reaches the peak of his power when the Roman Senate proclaims him as the lifelong dictator. Nonetheless, numerous senators see this as the end of freedom in their state. In order to save democracy, Cassius and Casca decide to kill him and even persuade Caesar's adoptive son Brutus to help them. Despite a bad feeling of his wife Calpurnia, Caesar goes to the Senate, where he is killed. Marc Antony seizes power and persecutes the conspirators. Left alone and isolated, Cassius and Brutus commit suicide.

This is an interesting example of how not every movie from the 50s is automatically a classic: despite an ambitious setting, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the play "Julius Caesar" is today a stiff, schematic and dated achievement, one of those dry monumental movies where the basic themes are strong (struggle between being loyal to a friend who "lost his way" or being loyal to your principles and integrity) yet are diluted and therefore difficult for the modern audience to identify with, whereas Shakespeare's artificial and overlong dialogues and monologues also tend to seem more forced than poetic. At times they indeed reach a high level of sophistication ("Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once!" or "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more...as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it, as he was valiant, I honor him, but as he was ambitious, I slew him!") and this movie adaptation is indeed intelligent and demanding, yet as a whole "Caesar" simply does not manage to engage the viewers to the fullest. The maximum was achieved from great actors, James Mason, John Gielgud and especially Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, who was so electrifying during the big speech sequence that the Academy Awards actually nominated him for an Oscar as best actor in a leading role - when he was actually a supporting character! - and won his third BAFTA in his third consecutive year, after "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Viva Zapata!"

Grade:++

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Initial D: Extra Stage


Initial D: Extra Stage; animated sports/ romance/ action, Japan, 2001; D: Shishi Yamaguchi, S: Michiko Neya, Yumi Kakazu, Keii Fujiwara

Mako and Sayuki are two girls who enjoy car races and their Nissan Sil80, the so called "Impact Blue" is the fastest car in their suburb. Sayuki often hangs around with her pal Shingo, whereas his friend Nakazato has a secret crush on her. The two girls surprise them when they audaciously accept a car race against a champion from the Emperor gang and win. At a ski resort, Sayuki wants to match Mako with a guy, but she declines since she still has feelings for someone else.

This anime OVA from the "Initial D" series surprised with its feminist take on car races, providing only one racing duel in the middle - and on top of that a one that gives the main heroine who drives inspiration and strength when her male opponent gives her a sexist remark, namely that women can't drive - yet the story is evenly spaced out thanks to a good mood that juggles with gentle romance and drama, which is why it does not look like an empty vehicle. The two main heroines in this story, fan favorites among the "Initial D" series, Mako and Sayuki, are both attractive (truth be told, Sayuki has a mannish face with "Cow and Chicken" like lips, but is otherwise quite feminine) and thus sometimes give the authors a "pretext" for some standard fan service - Mako in the short scene while having a shower, Sayuki slightly less in the spa scene - which is just there to sustain the attention of the audience. "Extra Stage" is a neat, good, but not great achievement. More could have been made out of the potential romantic subplot where Mako wanted to give her virginity to a guy she fancies, but he showed no interest in her, whereas the story lacks intensity and spark, yet flows in a solid manner.

Grade:++

Thursday, October 27, 2011

She-Ra: Princess of Power


She-Ra: Princess of Power; animated fantasy adventure series, USA, 1985-1987; D: Bill Reed, Lou Kachivas, Richard Trueblood, Ed Friedman, Tom Tataranowicz, S: Melendy Britt, George DiCenzo, John Erwin, Linda Gary, Alan Oppenheimer, Lou Scheimer

Former member of the Horde, Adora switched to the side of the rebellion that is trying to rid the planet Etheria from the autocratic rule of Hordak and his troops in order to restore freedom for the people. She is aided by Bow, Glimmer, Madame Razz, Kowl and others. Likewise, she can transform into She-Ra, a heroine with super strength. Their clash sometimes overlaps when Skeletor and He-Man visit their world and also choose their sides.

A feminist follow-up to "He-Man" and an American forerunner to "Sailor Moon" and other editions of the 'magical girl' genre, "She-Ra" is one of those mainstream animated shows that erred in some areas - the dialogues and situations tend to seem unnatural at times, the character development is thin whereas the sole story doesn't have an ending (the final episode, "Swift-Wind's Baby", does not conclude the outcome of the fight between the Horde and the rebellion) probably because the authors intended to make episodes indefinitely, which gives it a feeling of unfinished business - yet it is easily watchable and interesting even today, which means that the authors obviously did something right. Despite a weaker popularity, "She-Ra" is actually a better show than "He-Man" since it has twice as many good episodes and a higher budget, which gave the animation fluency: as in the aforementioned show, the drawings reach almost rotoscopic quality at times, yet feel stiff because some movements are over-recycled.

"She-Ra" is indeed not a classic of animation, yet it is refreshing and sweet: the crossover episodes involving He-Man and/or Skeletor visiting Etheria are almost always twice as fun whereas the sole transformations of Hordak's arm into a cannon or even his whole body into a rocket, a tank etc. are stylistically pleasant, giving authors room for some highly creative enterprises. For instance, isn't the episode "Of Shadows and Skulls" where Hordak transforms his arm into a drilling rig and causes a rift which captures Skeletor an excellent example of mise-en-scene? Or She-Ra's elaborated fight with Hordak who transforms multiple times in "A Loss for Words"? Some episodes, on the other hand, are boringly formulaic, and generally the stories achieve the most when She-Ra is not performing "cartoonishly impossible" things (such as simply whirling to dig out a tunnel underground) but is actually challenged and when the Horde is actually menacing. Unfortunately, unlike Usagi Tsukino, we do not find out much about the heroine except for the fact that she is kind: one of the rare examples of character development is only truly found in two episodes, when Adora locks herself up in the prison so that her beloved Sea-Hawk can "save her" and in the smashing "Sweet-Bees Home", the best and only truly romantic episode of the show where characters' faces were animated entirely alive, which payed out when He-Man made his only grimace in the entire two shows when Frosta tried to seduce him! Story editor J. Michael Straczynski should again be given credit for his effort. "She-Ra" never reaches the grace of the movie it originated from, Filmation's magnum opus "The Secret of the Sword", but even her flaws somehow give it charm.

Grade:++

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Braindead


Braindead; black horror comedy, New Zealand, 1992; D: Peter Jackson, S: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie

An official manages to transport a mysterious and cursed monkey from Sumatra to the New Zealand Zoo. Wellington. After her mother prophecies the love of her life, the shy clerk Paquita decides to start a relationship with the clumsy Lionel, who lives with his dominant mother Vera. While spying on them, Vera gets bitten by the Sumatran monkey and thus squashes it. However, she soon becomes a Zombie. Lionel, determined to keep it a secret, fakes her funeral and keeps her at his place. Still, since she attacks others, the house is soon found under siege by hundreds of Zombies. Using his lawnmower, Lionel grinds all the undead and finishes off his giant, mutated Zombie mother by throwing her into the burning house, also discovering that she killed his father after he had an affair. He thus starts a new life with Paquita.

One cannot really complain at the lack of intelligence in a movie that calls itself "Braindead" nor can one pin down that it is exaggerated without limits when it already sets up its own internal logic of 'over-the-top' right from the start, yet this homage to "Evil Dead" and its aesthetics of "impossible" blending of slapstick and hard horror cannot avoid the flaw of empty "shock for shock's sake", since it seems like Peter Jackson back then followed the rule that the best way to make your film stand out when you are an unknown film maker (and on top of that in an "unknown" cinema of New Zealand) is to gain attention by simply being controversial without limit. Unfortunately, while this cult film indeed crosses every limit of controversy (necrophilia, scalping, mutilation, acrotomophilia...), it does far less so with crossing the limits of quality. Jackson copes the best in the first half of the movie, when he establishes a stylish mood (with the creepy opening in Sumatra when the two explorers are running through a narrow canyon or unusual camera angles) and genuinely funny moments, both with sympathetic innocent jokes (like when Paquita's dog jumps over the fence and lands on the clumsy Lionel) and even more grotesque ones (such as when Lionel's mom, after being bitten by the Sumatran monkey, squashes its head with her heel - the scene would have otherwise been disturbing, but since the monkey's head is so obviously a fake puppet with "button-eyes", it actually has a comical effect).

Nonetheless, while the humor was natural in the first half, it turns forced in the second. Jackson crammed so many Zombies and splatter violence there that it numbed not only the viewing experience but also the characters: the best example is the character of the priest, who is hilarious when he says "I kick ass for the Lord!", but as soon as he transforms into a Zombie himself, becomes just a boring extra who doesn't stand out in any way anymore and you don't even register him among the Zombies. Likewise, the Zombie baby segment is disastrous, perverted and stupid in trying to make fun of infanticide: even when you make a movie about bad taste, you must have at least some taste. "Braindead" is indeed at least 30 % garbage, but it has that sheer enthusiastic energy of a young author as well as a hidden message that almost gives more meaning than an other edition of the genre: Lionel, whose life is dictated by his over-dominant mother, has to become independent and stand for his "forbidden love" with Paquita. Symbolically, he has to break free from the past, get over his suppressed family secret, his burden, and move on to live in the present. As such, Paquita is a symbol for the romantic genre while his mother for the horror genre, and he must choose which he wants. The finale with killer intestine and others is a spectacle of the strange, which is why the movie is almost never shown on TV, yet the story in the 2nd part still longs for the humor from the opening, which is only found in small crumbs, such as the performance of uncle Les who acts as if Rodney Dangerfield got lost in a Zombie movie. Too much gore, too little sophistication.

Grade:++

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Viva Zapata!


Viva Zapata!; adventure drama, USA, 1952; D: Elia Kazan, S: Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Joseph Wiseman, Jean Peters, Arnold Moss

After they visit the Mexican president Porfirio Díaz to complain about their land that was taken away from them by the government, the peasants led by Emiliano Zapata realize that the whole political top is part of their problem, not their solution. Zapata and his brother Eufemio start a rebellion which advances into the Mexican Revolution, conjoined by Pancho Villa from the north. After Diaz is ousted, the moderate Francisco Madero takes over the rule, but his general Huerta has him assassinated and thus creates a coup d'etat. Eufemio is killed while Zapata marries Josephine. In an ambush, Zapata is killed, but his white horse survives.

Nominated for five Oscars and winning one for best supporting actor Anthony Quinn, "Viva Zapata!" was boosted by the Academy Awards back in those days, but today it's a moderate viewing experience, sandwiched between two superior Elia Kazan-Marlon Brando collaborations, "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront". The Mexican Revolution, a conflict with the biggest death toll played out entirely on the Western Hemisphere, is an interesting topic for a film, and even though Kazan manages to insert his strong-electrifying directorial style on numerous occasions, some parts were uninteresting or simply too standard and schematic for his talent, especially in the conventional second part, up until the poetic tragic ending with the white horse. The most banal moment is when a disobedient farmer openly speaks out against the government taking away his land and the angry Zapata, now part of the government himself, circles out his name on a paper, the identical way when dictator Diaz circled out his name when he spoke out about the same problem at the start of the movie, which was aimed at a jabbing the corruption of power and politics, yet luckily the movie is more skillful in other parts. The story is fictionalized, yet never glamorous (it bravely depicts how Josephine was not interested in Zapata when he was poor, but married him as soon as he gained power and wealth) whereas the undoubtedly best ingredient is Marlon Brando's powerful performance as the title hero. With this film, Brando won a BAFTA as best actor and thus started his back-to-back wins for the next three years, which were followed by "Julius Caesar" and "On the Waterfront".

Grade:++

Monday, October 24, 2011

Big Business


Big Business; silent comedy short, USA, 1929; D: James W. Horne, Leo McCarey, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson

California. It's Christmas time and Laurel & Hardy drive with their car, trying to sell Christmas-trees from door to door. After a few failed attempts, Hardy decides to take a more "aggressive" approach with the next customer, a bald man. Neither he is interested in Christmas-trees and shuts his door in front of them. Since their tree gets stuck in the door, Hardy rings the bell several times in order for the man to open the door again and release it. However, the man loses his patience and cuts their Christmas-tree. Laurel & Hardy decide to strike back with the same measure and start destroying his house, while he starts demolishing their car. A police officer stops them so the duo escapes.

Comedians Laurel & Hardy shot over 100 films together, of short and (much weaker) feature length format, whereas the website Internet Movie Database lists "Big Business" as their 2nd highest rated film - right after the good, but overhyped "Music Box" - that short silent comedy has a barely 20 minutes running time, yet still manages to encompass a whole spectre of their comic possibilities. Arguably, it is their best film. The story is simple - while persistently striving to sell a Christmas-tree to a reluctant man, Laurel & Hardy start such an argument with him that it escalates into an excessive spectacle of destruction in which he wrecks their car while they deconstruct his whole house (!) - turning into a surprisingly 'politically incorrect' anarchic comedy for them, some critics even going so far to perceive the absurd destruction and violence against inanimate objects as a foreshadowing of untrammelled violence in cinema later found from Peckinpah to Scorsese. Still, if the violence against Christmas-trees is ignored, "Business" is first and foremost a classic childish comedy, a gentle jab at both "aggressive sales tactics" and human weakness to restrain from escalating conflicts, entirely exploiting the potentials of the concept in such hilarious scene where the bald man (Finlayson) gets tangled and "fights" with the Christmas-trees, in the end not knowing how to destroy Laurel & Hardy's wrecked car in any possible new way, so he just lights and throws a dynamite at its rubble, whereas Laurel & Hardy again prove their chemistry when they destroy his door and his chimney.

Grade:+++