Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Way Out West


Way Out West; comedy, USA, 1937; D: James W. Horne, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson

The wild west, 19th century. Laurel & Hardy travel slowly with their donkey so they hitchhike a carriage to a nearby town. There, the sheriff warns them that they must leave the town. Laurel & Hardy enter a saloon and and inform the owner that they are here to give a certain Mary the ownership rights of a gold mine that she inherited from her late father. But the greedy owner doesn't want her to get the permit so he persuades his wife Lola to play Mary. After they give her the documents, Laurel & Hardy realize the fraud. During the night, they steal the document from the safe and give it to Mary.

"Way Out West" is a triumph of the comic duo during their feature length movie phase: a dynamic rhythm, striking humor and good directing are the main virtues of this comedy. The opening is rather lethargic (a donkey is dragging Hardy lying on an armchair, until it stops in a river) whereas the intrigues of the greedy saloon owner (James Finlayson, practically a "third" member of the Laurel & Hardy team, in an untypical role of a clear bad guy) whose goal is to get a hold of the gold mine rights are slightly annoying. However, the story easily manifests hilarious jokes: the sequence where Hardy loses his appendage under his shirt so Laurel is disrobing him in order to find the object is equally as successful as the moment where Lola and Laurel exchange this dialogue: "Is my father really dead?" - "I sure hope so. We already buried him." Still, despite virtues, "West" does not extend itself into an excellent film. The music was even nominated for an Oscar.

Grade:++

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bad Teacher


Bad Teacher; black comedy, USA, 2011; D: Jake Kasdan, S: Cameron Diaz, Lucy Punch, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel, Molly Shannon

Elizabeth only works as a teacher at a high school in order to have a laziness alibi for her sugar daddy, a rich guy. However, when he figures she just wants to marry him for the money, he breaks up with her, and thus she now has to work for a living as a teacher permanently. Elizabeth fancies the new substitute teacher Scott because she think he is wealthy, ignoring the nice gym teacher Russell. She cheats in order for her class to win the state test so that she can get a bonus and pay for her breast surgery. She also starts a feud with teacher Amy. In the end, she falls for Russell.

An inversion of "Stand and Deliver" (which is even shown in a clip during the class) and a slacker female version of "Great Teacher Onizuka", "Bad Teacher" is an uneven (anti-)school comedy, as heavy handed as the methods the heroine uses in her class, yet contains enough good jokes for a casual viewing experience. Exclusively thanks to the charisma by Cameron Diaz does this vehicle work because the screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg is clumsily structured, rushed and chaotic, resembling more a "Family Guy" episode that starts with one story and then wonders off into completely different territory than a coherent whole. Fast and pointless, "Bad Teacher" does have a good chuckle hidden here and there: for instance, when Justin Timberlake's character Scott is playing his self-styled song "Sympatico" on his guitar, and the joke where he and Elizabeth have sex with their clothes on (!) is so bizarre it's a must see. A small jewel here is the performance by Jason Segel as gym teacher Russell, who seemed to have smuggled somehow his charisma from the excellent comedy show "How I Met Your Mother" into the story occasionally, especially in the scene where he is arguing with a little boy over whether LeBron is better than Michael Jordan ("Call me when LeBron has six championships!" - "That's your only argument?" - "It's the *only* argument I need, Shawn!").

Grade:++

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Brute Force


Brute Force/ The Primitive Man; silent adventure, USA, 1914; D: D.W. Griffith, S: Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, William J. Butler, Wilfred Lucas

During one dinner party, one gentleman spots a lady and falls asleep while reading a book, imagining how cavemen had it "easier" because the only thing they had to rely on to find a wife was brute force. In his dream, he is a weak inventor in a tribe with a lot of women. When their cave is attacked by a woman-less tribe, the inventor beats them thanks to a club. The enemy tribe creates a club themselves, but the inventor invents an arrow and wins, becoming the new leader of the cave.

One of D. W. Griffith's lesser films, his short silent caveman version of "The Abduction of the Sabine Women" is just an exercise for his future films, yet it remained a peculiarity as a rump forerunner to cult fantasy-trash "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth". Basically just a 24 minute extravaganza where two caveman tribes fight with clubs, simplistic "Brute Force" has little to nothing to show, neither stylistically nor thematically, except for the sole unusual setting. However, it went down in history as the first film that tried to depict dinosaurs on film, unfortunately with little success: if the snake and the crocodile with silly wings placed on its back are excluded, the only dinosaur shown is a Tyrannosaurus Rex in front of a cave, but since it is just a stiff, 10 feet tall puppet that barely moves its jaws, this 10 second scene does not match the kinetic stop-motion special effects of its successor that stimulated the imagination of the viewers more, the uneven but interesting artifact "The Lost Word" filmed 11 years later.

Grade:+

Our Relations


Our Relations; Comedy, USA, 1936; D: Harry Lachman, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, James Finlayson, Sidney Toler

Laurel & Hardy are married, wealthy and respectable friends. Thus, they are ashamed of their twins, Alf and Bert, who work as sailors on a boat. Their twins just arrived in the city in order to transport an admiral's ring. But they don't have any money in order to pay some ladies a drink at a bar, so they leave the ring as a payment. When Laurel & Hardy pay the bill, not knowing for what, though, they receive the ring. Since Bert and Alf start a fight with the owner of the bar, who is convinced he returned their ring, they land in prison. There, the judge releases them, mistaking them for Laurel & Hardy. When the twins finally meet, they realize what caused all the commotion.

"Our Relations" are as a whole a proportionally memorable Laurel & Hardy comedy having in mind the lax opening. The story presents the two comedians in a double edition, since they star both as themselves as well as their own twins - Alf and Bert! - so the majority of the story revolves around troubles caused by the latter on one place which are then "inherited" by Laurel & Hardy who accidentally show up there and then have to settle things out for them, without knowing why. In one joke, Alf & Bertie show up at a bar and promise to pay some ladies a drink, but have to leave the premise in order to get more money. Two hours later, Laurel & Hardy enter the same bar - with their wives - and obviously, the bar owner immediately attacks them because they didn't pay the bill, which they do without knowing why, though the ladies ask them "what took you so long?" It's a simple, accessible and fun comedy, with flaws and some omissions, yet it contains arguably the funniest, most insane and laugh-out-loud sequence in the entire career of the comic duo: the one where Laurel & Hardy have their legs placed in oval cement blocks; when gangsters push one of them, both of them tip, but then dodge back and start uncontrollably swinging, accidentally throwing gangsters into the sea, break the door, get stuck in a barrel and all other wacky, impossible swinging movements while trying to catch each other.

Grade:++

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Seven Beauties


Pasqualino Settebellezze; grotesque, Italy, 1975; D: Lina Wertmüller, S: Giancarlo Giannini, Shirley Stoler, Elena Fiore, Enzo Vitale, Fernando Rey

Naples, shortly before World War II.
Pasqualino acts as a macho and wants to protect the oldest of his seven sisters, the chubby 37-year old Concettina, from a pimp who wants to make a cabaret star out of her. When the pimp persuades her to become a prostitute, Pasqualino shoots him. He gets sentenced to 12 years and sent to a mental asylum. There he charms the female director and in order to get out enlists to fight in the Italian Army. He deserts somewhere on the Eastern front and lands in a Nazi concentration camp. In order to save his skin, he seduces the obese female camp commandant. Back at home, he forgives his fiance for surviving as a prostitute and wants 25 children.

A grotesque (and far more realistic) forerunner to Benigni's "Life is Beautiful", "Seven Beauties" didn't just gain cult reputation because its author Lina Wertmuller became the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for best director, but also due to a black humored story that dismantles the masculinity myths, showing how the main anti-hero transforms from a 'macho' who dictates his seven sisters how they should live to an obedient servant in a Nazi concentration camp who seduces the obese female camp commandant in order to survive, thus yielding to feminine power. From the bizarre opening showing archive footage of World War II accompanied by the legendary song "Oh yeah", that sums up symbolically all the human vice, up to small jokes about the mafia (the double-bottom coffin where an "extra" corpse can be secretly added by mobsters), Wertmuller shows she is a nihilist who views the whole world as a huge mess, which is why some have criticized her for depicting life as purely biological survival, without any spiritual or emotional dimension that enriches it.

Numerous scenes are haunting and entirely extreme, but also comical at the same time, especially when Pasqualino is "neurotically" trying to seduce the repulsive female camp commandant by "whimsically" whistling a "seductive tune" to her, while the camera just shows her deadpan face in an extreme close-up, until she slaps him and yells: "What kind of nonsense are you doing here?" The scene where he is having intercourse with her with his eyes shut turns into a grotesque without limits. Dark and cruel, and yet Wertmuller is - more or less - stylistically consistent, even in the end saying something about life - people who die for ideals will not survive, people who give up their ideals to live on will - advancing almost into an 'ugly classic', whereas her only sympathy is shown towards anarchist communists, one of whom, a camp inmate, gives a long rant about how in "200-300 years there will be 20 billion people on Earth and then it will be worse than here, because people will be killing each other for a piece of bread and an apple."

Grade:+++

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vertigo


Vertigo; drama, USA, 1958; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore

San Francisco. During a pursuit of a robber, emotional police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson discovers his fear of heights when he gets stuck hanging from a roof, a feeling which is only exacerbated when his colleague dies trying to pull him up. Now retired, Scottie is hired by his old friend Elster to follow his wife, blond Madeleine, because she acts strangely and wonders around aimlessly. Scottie falls in love with her and she tells him she thinks she is Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in the 19th century. When Madeleine insists on going to Mission San Juan Bautista, she climbs up a bell tower. Scottie just sees her body falling from the roof and a committee concludes that she committed suicide due to a mental disorder, acquitting him and Elster from every guilt. Years later, Scottie meets a girl, Judy, who looks exactly like Madeleine. When he brings her to the tower, she admits she just played her, while Elster killed the real Madeleine and threw her from the tower so that it only looks like suicide. Unfortunately, Judy slips and falls from the tower.

"Vertigo" is probably one of Hitchcock's most misunderstood films: first underrated during its premiere when it confused the audience and then overrated 44 years later when the self-righteous voters awarded it the 2nd place among the best films of all time in "Sights & Sounds". Hitchcock himself viewed the film years later, trying to figure out why it was such a commercial failure, and concluded that it was probably because it is an "endlessly depressing" film. His comment is indicative because the audiences and critics consistently tend to error and perceive "Vertigo" as a thriller, when there is hardly any suspense in it since it is a clear case of a psychological drama about loneliness. It starts off with opening credits dwelling in psychedelic colors and then moves on to humorous dialogues involving hero Scottie (while observing an unusual bra, Midge explains to him:"An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it; he worked it out in his spare time," and he replies with "What a hobby..."; when his acquittance Elster asks him if his fear of heights burdens his everyday life, Scottie replies that he just has to avoid "At the top of Mark's" bar) and then goes to the main tangle, revolving around the mysterious behavior of blond Madeleine, which will in a plot twist turn out to be just a fake decoy for establishing a conspiracy.

In one small line, Scottie says he has never been married. He is an emotional, middle-aged detective who is a perfect prey for the ploy when he falls for the attractive Madeleine: he thinks he finally has the chance to find the love of his life, that it is still not too late. She leads him through numerous false trails and pulls his leg, though thanks to Hitchcock's direction the story flows naturally, especially thanks to small details (especially memorable in the cross-section of a very old tree that shows the history of almost a thousand years during the grow of the plant, while she touches its edge and points to when "she was born and when she will die"). The final third, the "revelation segment", is arguably the weakest in the entire film. Some unusual solutions, the peculiar "art-deco shot composition" and the dumb, clumsy ending involving the nun are notable flaws. However, as a whole, "Vertigo" is practically a romantic Greek tragedy: Scottie lost the chance to find the love of his life, Madeleine, and then when he got another chance, he lost it again, conveying fatalism of his destiny.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sons of the Desert


Sons of the Desert; Comedy, USA, 1933; D: William A. Seiter, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Christy

Laurel & Hardy are members of a club, "Sons of the Desert", which is about to hold an anniversary meeting in Chicago. Since they live in Los Angeles and their wives don't even want to hear about their silly club because they plan to go on a trip to the mountains, Laurel & Hardy decide to think of a scheme. Hardy pretends he is sick and persuades his wife that Laurel will accompany him to Hawaii. But in reality, of course, they go to the meeting. However, their alibi is refuted when the news report that the ship for Hawaii has sunk, so they have to hide on the roof, fearing their wives will reveal them. Laurel admits the lie to his wife and she forgives him, but Hardy gets into trouble.


According to some circles, like the American Film Institute which even ranked it number 96 on its list of "100 Years...100 Laughs", "Sons of the Desert" are the best feature length comedy by the Laurel & Hardy duo, a fun childish comedy of misunderstanding. Even though the two comedians were always better in their short movies, even here they manage to achieve that humorous 'chemistry' - why, the scene where the two of them show up late during a meeting and interrupt it while "quietly" seeping through the lines is a moment that only the two of them could have been able to pull off. Numerous jokes are also comical independent from their talent, especially during the "plot twist" that demolishes their lie that they went off to Hawaii via the newspaper with the headline: "The ship for Hawaii was sunk by a typhoon!". As always, the authors were not ambitious nor deep, but only correct. Laurel & Hardy are excellent, and yet, still, if they at least shot one film like Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" or Keaton's "The General", they would have been even much greater actors.

Grade:++

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Devil's Brother


The Devil's Brother; comedy, USA, 1933; D: Hal Roach, Charley Rogers, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Dennis King, James Finlayson

Italy, 18th century. Fra Diavolo is a famous outlaw who robs rich people. When Laurel & Hardy get robbed, they decide to become thieves themselves and thus accidentally attack Diavolo. He and his gang at first want to hang them, but then change their mind. Diavolo introduces himself as Marquise of San Marco and brings Laurel & Hardy to a small town in order to seduce dutchess Pamela and steal her money. When the commander captures Diavolo, Laurel & Hardy also get arrested. Just as they were about to get shot, a bull shows up and disperses everyone.

Based on the "Fra Diavolo" opera, "The Devil's Brothers" are a simple, light, naive children's comedy, one of the lesser efforts of the famous Laurel & Hardy duo. The biggest problem is an uneven structure: too much time is wasted on Fra Diavolo (Dennis King), who is a too serious character, and on unecessary musical sequences, whereas the main attraction, Laurel & Hardy's humor, is rather overstretched (it again turns out that they work at best in comedy shorts). Of course, a few jokes are truly funny, like when Laurel has to hang Hardy and thus tries to lisp him: "This is going to be a lot more painful to me than to you!" - "I wish I was on your place." - "When you die, do you want me to burry you or to stuff you?" They save the movie from too large chunks of straightforward, serious segments revolving around the main bad guy.

Grade:++

Pack Up Your Troubles


Pack Up Your Troubles; Comedy, USA, 1932; D: George Marshall, Raymond McCarey, S: Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Tom Kennedy

The US enters into World War I. Laurel & Hardy would gladly avoid getting drafted, but a general catches them on a bench. Since they are clumsy, they bring garbage into general's room and thus get brought into jail. On the French battlefront, the duo accidentally immobilizes the German army, but their colleague, Eddie Smith, dies and thus his daughter is left an orphan. Laurel & Hardy decide to find her grandfather so she can stay with him, but the whole town is filled with people whose last name is Smith. Just as the police is about to bring her to an orphanage, the grandfather finds her.

After a mass of light comedies, Laurel & Hardy made an untypically ambitious film, "Pack Up Your Troubles", which almost has a touch of dramatic flair: not only does it depict US soldiers in World War I, but also a little girl who was left without parents, so the duo tries to find her grandfather. However, when all is said and done, this is still a straightforward comedy with a whole list of funny jokes and situations (i.e. a cook is threatening the two heroes who are sitting on a bench, but when Laurel stands up, Hardy's weight tips it and the bench hits the bad guy; a police officer exchanges this line with Laurel regarding the girl: "Are you searching for her grandfather?" - "We are not searching for him. We want to find him.") Probably the most absurd scene is when the two heroes storm a wedding and claim they have "Eddie's daughter", and the husband is truly called Eddie, but Headaway, not Smith! However, just like most of their films, even this one suffers from 'rough' style and spasmodic execution.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Music Box


The Music Box; Comedy, USA, 1932; D: James Parrot, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Billy Gilbert

A woman buys a piano and Laurel & Hardy have to deliver it to her home. But they quickly get shocked when they find out that her address is on a hill, and only steep stairs lead to it. Half-way there, the duo has to go back to let a mother with a baby pass. Finally up there, they descend down stairs again to deliver the piano with a wagon. Then they break into the apartment in order to hand the piano over to the owner, accidentally breaking a lot of stuff. When the owner shows up, he breaks the piano because he hates music, but then his wife shows up and informs him it is a present, so he thanks her.

"The Music Box", though a very simplistic comedy, achieved legendary reputation since it was awarded with an Oscar for best short film, becoming the only Laurel & Hardy film to win that award (Stan Laurel later on went to win an honorary lifetime achievement Academy Award in '61). "The Music Box" is not their best film, but the story about troubles during transportation of a piano on a hill is childishly sweet and fun: it works the best in the first half, with agility stemming from the expressions of the two heroes when they discover the address of the delivery is on a hill and the only way to it is the almost monumental piece of stairs or when they have to get down half-way up to pass a mother with a baby. Later on, the rhythm depletes itself due to banalities (the postman tells them they could have delivered the piano through a road leading to the address, so they go down stairs again and actually do it!), yet the film is still a good fun.

Grade:++

Pardon Us


Pardon Us; Comedy, USA, 1931; D: James Parrot, S: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walter Long, James Finlayson

During the prohibition, all alcohol drinks are forbidden, so Laurel and Hardy decide to make their own home brew. Since they offer their first glass to a police officer, they land in jail. The duo has to share their cell with four criminals. They manage to escape and disguise themselves as African-Americans working on a field. Since Laurel whistles because he has a hole in his tooth, he is recognized by the warden. In prison, they discover a plan for mass escape and stop it, so the warden releases them on freedom.

The first feature length film by the legendary Laurel and Hardy, if the running time of barely 60 minutes can be called that way, "Pardon Us" is a spoof and an ironic commentary on the prohibition era. This comedy is an obvious example how the duo works the best in comedy shorts (stand out "Big Business", for example) than in overstretched feature length films, but maybe the main problem lies in rather thin jokes: i.e. Laurel has a hole in his tooth and thus always whistles when he talks (which starts to become lame after a while) or when Hardy slips on a soap and falls into the prison pool, so he wants to hit Laurel with a towel, but accidentally hits the prison guard. Ironically, the funniest dialogue is delivered precisely by two supporting characters, an inmate and the teacher ("Who was Columbus?" - "The mayor of Ohio." - "What did he do?" - "He died." - "...And who killed him?" - "Cock Robin!") and not by the two main stars. A light comedy, however the comic duo still occasionally breaks through with their charm, like in the fun scene where they disguises themselves as African-Americans, but Hardy has a white cheek on one side.

Grade:++

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pretty in Pink


Pretty in Pink; Drama, USA, 1986; D: Howard Deutch, S: Molly Ringwald, Jon Cryer, Andrew McCarthy, James Spader, Harry Dean Stanton, Annie Potts

Andie (18) is a poor teenager who lives alone with her father who still cannot get over the fact that his wife left him. Andie isn't popular in school, but the clumsy Phil, nicknamed "Duckie", has feelings for her and is her best friend since childhood. Unfortunately for him, she falls in love with the rich Blane and they become a couple. Andie and Blane go to a party but his friend Steff insults her, and when they go to a disco, "Duckie" insults him. Realizing how much money makes them different, Blane ends the relationship. Still, "Duckie" finds a girlfriend while Blane returns to Andie.

"Pretty in Pink" is a too neat, too artificial and rather sentimental drama about the problems of youth, mostly thanks to kitschy writing by screenwriter John Hughes, yet at the same time it has some spark that captured that 80s flair. Despite simplistic construction, this modern "Cinderella" story has characters with a soul, is correct and kind-spirited as a whole, thus turning into a solid hit at the box office. The clothes and attitude do not manage to convince that Andrew McCarthy's Blane is rich while Molly Ringwald's Andie is poor, which is why the actors did a much better job themselves, especially excellent Jon Cryer as Andie's best friend who has a secret crush on her. Often attempts at humor also help to lighten up the dramatic story, some to lesser and some to better extent ("You must have a sense of humor when you go out with such a poor girl", says one character cynically) whereas the authors themselves made their own remake of this with "Some Kind of Wonderful", released a year later, which also achieved cult status.

Grade:++

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Earthquake


Earthquake; Disaster film, USA, 1974; D: Mark Robson, S: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Geneviève Bujold, Lorne Greene, Ava Gardner, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Walter Matthau

Los Angeles. Several stories and personal fates - ex-football star Stewart is in love with the widowed, struggling actress Denise who lives with her son Corey, while Stewart's ex-wife Remy is trying to undermine their relationship by asking her father, Stewart's boss and superior, to promote him if he yields; police officer Lou is disappointed by his profession; a stuntman wants to impress a Las Vegas talent scout; a bullied store manager enlists for the reserve army - are shaken by a devastating earthquake that destroys large parts of the city and causes the release of water from the dam.

For all the machinations with the now defunct "Sensurround" extravaganza that tried to conjure up the feeling of tremors in theaters, Mark Robson's "Earthquake" is a solid and even today proportionally effective piece of 70s disaster film genre that massively attracted audiences optative to sense hysteria in a story of an unstoppable natural disaster. Penned among others by Mario Puzo, "Earthquake" tickles the ever present fear of a large earthquake hitting L.A., and despite some roughly patched stories contains enough good scenes, mostly humorous ones, such as when two disappointed police officers are sitting at a bar and not reacting to a fight behind their back, whereas Genevieve Bujold is great as struggling actress Denise, especially when she tries to describe her small role to the hero ("Talk, talk, talk, I walk in, introductions, introductions, introductions...Then...The main star, you, makes his appearance."). The sole 9-minute sequence of the tremor in the middle of the film is phenomenal (a highway collapse that derails a truck, mass panic of people on the streets, collapse of buildings...) equipped with a small humorous touch involving Walter Matthau's character who just indifferently sips his drink at the bar the whole time, while the film turns rather tiresome and schematic during dry scenes of saving people, up until the unusual, completely untypical ending that shows that not every event can end up that neatly.

Grade:++

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dangerous Liaisons


Dangerous Liaisons; drama, UK/ USA, 1988; D: Stephen Frears, S: John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves

France, 1780. The Marquise de Merteuil is a mean-spirited woman who was left by her lover Bastide because he wanted to marry Cecile (15). Therefore Merteuil colludes with sneaky Valmont, persuading him to sleep with Cecile in order to bring shame to Bastide. However, Valmont refuses in order to take on an even bigger challenge: seducing the religious, conservative beauty de Tourvel. At first, Tourvel banishes him from her castle because she heard awful rumors about his character, but in the end she gives in. In the meantime, Valmont slept with Cecile anyway and leaves de Tourvel in order to get Merteuil's body, as she promised as his reward, but she betrays him with a lover. In a duel with the lover, Valmont dies but gives him letters that confirm Merteuil's intrigues. In a theatre, everyone thus despise her.

Coincidentally or not, two Hollywood adaptations of Christopher Hampton's play "Le liaisons dangereuses" were planned and filmed in 1988, "Valmont" by Forman and this critically acclaimed drama which is truly excellent and wonderful in transmitting "old characters" from the 18th century into real characters who seem fresh and alive no matter in which epoch you are watching them. Winner of 3 Oscars (best adapted screenplay, costume design, art direction) and two BAFTA awards (best screenplay, supporting actress Michelle Pfeiffer), "Dangerous Liaisons" creates a sober drift in our perception of an innocent epoch of the 18th century: the main protagonists are cheaters who seduce and then dispense people out of a bet or boredom. To them, affection is just a tool to control people. Only in the end does one of them, before his death, realize that he was truly in love. The exposition introduces those anti-heroes in humorous light: servants apply make-up to Mertuille's cleavage whereas they pull hair from Valmont's nose. Valmont (excellent John Malkovich) is a finely conjured up character who masterfully manipulates people, but himself doesn't really know what he wants. When a spy is "secretly" following him, he complaints at what a "loud spy" he is and even uses the naked back of his lovers as a table to write letters. Director Stephen Frears is skilfully creating an easily engaging film with an emotional touch and Pfeiffer is great as the beauty who falls for Valmont.

Grade:+++

Monday, August 8, 2011

Barefoot Gen


Hadashi no Gen; animated drama/ disaster film, Japan, 1983; D: Mori Masaki, S: Issei Miyazaki, Yoshie Shimamura, Takao Inoue

Hiroshima, World War II. Gen is a young boy who helps his family in search for food. His little brother Shinji, older sister Eiko and father are all concerned about their pregnant mother. In the early morning hours of 6 August, US plane Enola Gay drops an atom bomb on the city, causing utter destruction and mass mortality. Father, Shinji and Eiko all die in the burning house, while mother and Gen, who was outside during the explosion, survive. Mother gives birth to a baby, but radioactive rain, corpses and lack of food make the survival unbearable. The baby dies, but Gen finds a little boy who resembles Shinji and adopts him in the family.

Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which killed at least 70,000 people in only 10 seconds, was for the longest time a taboo topic in Japan's society, yet its catastrophic effects stayed in the subconscious and were sensed in numerous films. Various documentaries showed the explosion only from the American perspective, i.e. just showing the bomb dropping from the airplane, yet "Barefoot Gen" is one of those rare stories that actually show the event from the perspective of people who actually lived through it. This anime actually has additional weight because the author Keiji Nakazawa actually experienced the explosion as a child himself and lived to tell the tale. "Gen" is without a doubt one of the most terrifying movies of the 20th Century: the first third revolving around the struggling family with a pregnant mother, when everything is quiet and tranquil, slowly creates an intense mood of uncertainty whereas the sole 5-minute sequence of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima is a sight of unforgettable horror.

The camera shows at first just small hints of the upcoming disaster: ants mysteriously rush into the house, Gen and a girl observe a plane high in the sky while shots of a clock are ominously ever-present. The virtuoso sequence of the explosion, where buildings, streetcars and trees just get blown away, is corroborated by human tragedy when it shows how people decompose on the streets from heat and how Gen survived just because he ducked behind a wall to pick up a rock on the floor. Even more devastating than "Grave of the Fireflies", "Gen" abounds with shocking scenes (a man who is covered by maggots, for instance), but they do not seem fake, cheap or perverted but honest precisely because they constitute an honest story that shows the way things were back in those days. Despite everything, this is a monument to hope, peace, the message that life will find a way even in the darkest times and fight for humanity, which makes it somehow positive in the end, and it is one of those rare movies that are both vicious and gentle at the same time. The ending is one of the most touching, emotional ones in the history of anime - among the ranks of "Only Yesterday", "Utena", "Sailor Moon" and others - precisely because it managed to make the viewers so genuinely care about the characters.

Grade:+++

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Airplane II: The Sequel


Airplane II: The Sequel; parody, USA, 1982; D: Ken Finkelman, S: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, William Shatner, Sonny Bono, Raymond Burr

After a shuttle crash is blamed on him, pilot Ted Striker is sent to a mental asylum. However, when he hears that the same type of deeply flawed shuttle is about fly to the moon with his ex-girlfriend Elaine, he joins the crew. The computer in co-charge of the flight malfunctions and diverts them towards the Sun, but the passengers get into panic only after they find out they are all out of coffee. Using a bomb, Striker destroys the computer and lands on the moon semi-safely, thanks to coordination of Murdock, the Commander of a lunar base.

"Airplane!" was a parody that walked on thin ice the whole time, but still managed to ignite a very high number of funny jokes. Despite the fact that almost all actors from the original were recruited and the budget was bigger, "Airplane II" simply cannot offer the originality, humor or inspiration of Part I, among others because the director is Ken Finkelman who replaced the daft Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio - and thus it broke the thin ice. "Airplane II" has a joke every a quarter minute - but there is a big difference between funny and lame jokes. With forced jokes, violent humor and crude ideas too dumb to pass through the story without wrecking it, this comedy is a mess that borrowed at least a dozen gags from the first film. For instance, despite bombarding us with attempts at humor, the first 20 minutes of the movie have only truly one brilliant gag: the "Rocky XXXVIII" poster featuring an old wimp. A parody is a genre that can always easily go wrong, though this is still a solid flick with a stand-out small role by William Shatner as the hilariously wacky Commander Murdock who spots "USS Enterprise" in space with his telescope.

Grade:+

Bad Day at Black Rock


Bad Day at Black Rock; crime drama, USA, 1955; D: John Sturges, S: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin
Black Rock, a small Californian town after World War II. For the first time in four years, the passenger train stops at the local station and drops off a stranger, the one-armed J.J. Macreedy. The people are all acting suspicious while the nice stranger takes a hotel room and inquires about the fate of Japanese American Komoko. Macreedy discovers that Komoko was killed by the local bully Smith. However, Macreedy confirms that Komoko was a loyal American since his son sacrificed his life for him in the war. In a showdown at night, Macreedy beats Smith and leaves the town.

One of those good 'old school' movies that talk about some controversial topics in an intelligent, calm, measured and natural way to such an extent that even children could watch them and understand its universal messages without feeling traumatized, "Bad Day at Black Rock" is arguably the best achievement by director John Sturges. Spencer Tracy, who won the Cannes award and was nominated for an Oscar as best actor, is absolutely phenomenal as the kind, simple one-handed stranger who visits the title town and causes a commotion among the locals, easily establishing an engaging and accessible mystery story that grips the viewers right from the start - once you watch the first minute, you just get the urge to see it to the end. Tracy's character Macreedy is wonderfully humorously determined to find his goal - when he enters a hotel, he exchanges this dialogue with a suspicious local: "Can I help you?" - "Are you the owner of this hotel?" - "No." - "Then we don't have anything to talk about"; whereas when the hotel manager tells him that all vacant rooms are "reserved", he just takes one key himself and goes to one empty room anyway. Another humorous moment shows up when Macreedy goes to the local prison and spots the Sheriff sleeping on a bed in the jail - the one-armed hero wants to close the jail door but then the Sheriff wakes up and steps outside, exchanging this line with him: "I just wanted to close the door! I thought you were the guest!" - "Guest? I'm the host!" Cleverly contemplating about the strained treatment of Japanese Americans in the US during World War II, this is an elevated, shining classic where only the last 20 minute lose that tight grip.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

And Now for Something Completely Different


And Now for Something Completely Different; Comedy, UK, 1971; D: Ian MacNaughton, S: John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam

Several people are hiding in a forest. Whenever the narrator calls someone by his or her name to stand up, that person is immediately shot...A Hungarian immigrant has troubles communicating in English...Arthur arrives with his wife Deidre to see a marriage counselor, but he seduces her...A gym teacher demonstrates to his students self-defense against people attacking with fresh fruit...Several grandmas are terrorizing people on the street...A secretary is attacked by Mao Zedong's servants...A giant cat attacks a city...A dirty fork in a restaurant turns into a melodrama for the chief manager and the cook.


The 1st film by the Monty Python team, "And Now for Something Completely Different" is actually just a rehash of 40 of their best sketches (as always roughly) patched together, which is why the British audiences were not especially overwhelmed back in those days, perceiving it as a rerun of their TV show, yet for all those unfamiliar with the "Flying Circus" or simply fans of hilarious humor, this edition is still a blast. From the opening with the title saying "The End" through the bizarre-wild animated segments up to the gym teacher teaching his students how to defend themselves when someone attacks them with a banana ("The banana has to be eaten, thus disarming him and rendering him helpless!"), the Pythons again display their "satire on acid", the type of humor where anything can happen and a reference to reality is shockingly absent. As such, their taste is not for everyone, yet the film is simply funny and they work arguably the best when they present childishly-innocent jokes which seem as if they saved them from high school, such as the twist joke where a delinquent gang of grandmas is harassing two teenagers in a park or when an extended arm wants to take the leaf covering the genitals of Michelangelo's David, but when it does it reveals just a face of a whiny, uptight old woman who pledges that such obscenity will not be shown on film.

Grade:+++

Monday, August 1, 2011

Wayne's World 2


Wayne's World 2; Comedy, USA, 1993; D: Stephen Surjik, S: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Tia Carrere, Christopher Walken, Ralph Brown, Kevin Pollak, Kim Basinger, Ed O'Neill, Chris Farley, Charlton Heston, Drew Barrymore

One year after their misadventures, Wayne and Garth are still making their own comedy TV show, "Wayne's World". When Wayne has a dream in which Jim Morrison orders him to organize a concert in Aurora, he decides to make his own "Waynestock". However, his girlfriend Cassandra has an argument with him and runs away with producer Bobby while no band wants to sign on for "Waynestock". In the end, the bands eventually do show up and the concert is a success.

After the huge success of the first film, the authors expressly assembled a sequel a year later that is so faithful and true to the spirit of "Wayne's World" that is seems like a natural extension to it. Some critics complained at it, just like they do at every sequel, yet the only aspect where part II lacks is in crudeness and obscure jokes, which is a good thing, instead improving the story with a smooth structure, "concrete" jokes, elimination of some useless side-characters and a tighter directing by debut director Stephen Surjik. The subplot where Cassandra again falls for a greedy producer is a rehash of the 1st film, yet the whole main plot revolving around "Waynestock" is entirely original, at least two lines by backstage manager Del - the long monologue about how he broke into a Ceylon store with Keith Moon and David Crosby to get some M&Ms at night and the remark about Woodstock ("It rained all morning, and then it cleared up in the afternoon. And that's it, I almost remembered something else, but it's gone!") - are funnier than anything in the original film; the "Keith Richards can't be killed with conventional weapons" remark is a riot, whereas Myers obviously loved the joke involving staring at a bureaucratic official's different eye colors so much he recycled it in "Austin Powers 3" with the "mole joke". The ending might seem slightly shaky, just like in the first film, yet Wayne's and Garth's antics and positive energy are simply indestructible, which is why it is a pity there was never part III of their adventures.
Grade:+++

Wayne's World


Wayne's World; Comedy, USA, 1992; D: Penelope Spheeris, S: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Tia Carrere, Rob Lowe, Lara Flynn Boyle, Kurt Fuller, Brian-Doyle Murray, Ed O'Neill, Alice Cooper, Chris Farley, Donna Dixon

Aurora, Illinois. Wayne and Garth are two youngsters who run a local show at an open channel, "Wayne's World". They still live with their parents and don't have a job, but enjoy their lives and music. Wayne starts a relationship with Cassandra and the wealthy producer Benjamin buys their show to promote it. However, when Wayne makes fun of his sponsor, he is fired while Benjamin goes to Chicago to film a music spot with Cassandra. Still, Wayne manages to gain Cassandra's heart again in the end.

Based on the eponymous popular sketch from the TV show "Saturday Night Live", "Wayne's World" is one of those movies that charm more with their enthusiastic energy than successful jokes, yet since the sympathetic Wayne and Garth are Mike Myers' and Dana Carvey's lifetime achievements, it is simply difficult for viewers to ignore their contagious fun. Somewhere near the opening, when Wayne, Garth and their friends are driving in a car, listening to Queens' "Bohemian Rhaspody", the lyrics "Nothing really matters..." sum up how their characters are entirely uninterested in politics, life problems or social order and only live for jokes and music. The Shitty Beatles rock band joke is a riot, the "Camera 1, camera 2, camera 1" sight gag, when Wayne is flip-flopping between his left and right eye while looking at Cassandra, is sympathetic whereas Garth's antics and one-liners are incredibly underrated and almost steal the show ("Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and played girl bunny?"; "It's like a new pair of underwear. At first, it's constrictive. But after awhile it becomes a part of you"). There are too many obscure gags, definitely, whereas the ending is clumsy and rushed, yet just like similar "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure", "Wayne's Word" is simply a good 'hangout' comedy film, perfectly able to carry their daft mood and entirely relaxed in being true to its own spirit.

Grade:++