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:+