Sunday, 26 August 2012

Parker Lewis Can't Lose

Parker Lews Can't Lose; comedy series, USA, 1990-1993; D: Bryan Spicer, Rob Bowman, Larry Shaw, S: Corin Nemec, Billy Jayne, Troy W. Slaten, Melanie Chartoff, Maia Brewton, Abraham Benrubi

Teenager Parker Lewis and his friends, music fan Mikey and the intelligent Jerry, try to make the best out of their annoying years in the Santa Domingo high school, frequently outsmarting the rigid principal Mrs. Musso and her henchman, Frank. Parker's parents work in a video rental store whereas his little sister Shelley always tries to wreck his moves. The super-strong Larry Kubiac slowly becomes his friend. Parker also finds a girlfriend after a while.

Even though it is a loose spin-off of it, "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" is actually what "Ferris Bueller" should have been - even by today's standards, this cult show is one of the better comedies in the 90s of the TV format that stimulates the mind through its inventive-dynamic visual style, shrill ideas, extremely correct jokes, a good sense of understanding teenagers as well as a likable hero, unlike Bueller. Other characters all have a seal of uniqueness, from the "mean" Mrs. Musso up to the annoying sister Shelley, but a special charm is given by Abraham Benrubi who gave the role of a lifetime as the phenomenal Larry Kubiac who undergoes an amazing transition from a school bully in the first episodes to a lovable gentle giant.

Author Clyde Phillips truly demonstrated a sense for wacky jokes: from the scene where Kubiac is so "tough" that even his tear destroys the floor when it falls on it, through spoofing the classic joke of a "disruptive event" just before someone's photo is taken (a chicken randomly flies pass Mikey's face who bursts in laughter before the photo flash) up to neat sight gags (a student driving through the school corridor on a motorcycle). A 'tour-de-force' of the show was achieved in a legendary episode,  Raging Kube, where Kubiac became a pacifist for his girlfriend, but a new school bully challenges him for a duel which culminates in a howlingly funny finale - sufficient to say it involves a school bus. Even those who completely forgot about "Parker Lewis" still have at least some kind of trace of memory of that delicious episode. Unfortunately, the impression is spoiled by the third, last season that wrecked the show with dry and schematic execution that - despite a funny new character, coach Hank (John Pinette) - only showed that "Parker's" characters went on but their wit remained somewhere in season two. Corin Nemec's dreadful new hair due didn't help either. However, third season excluding, this is still one of the more positive shows from its era.

Grade;++

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Way We Were

The Way We Were; romantic drama, USA, 1973; D: Sydney Pollack, S: Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Patrick O'Neal

In a bar, Katy meets the drunk Hubbell, now an officer in World War II, whom she had a crush on during college. Back then, she was a communist activist and poor, while he was a rich lad. Back in present, she brings him to her apartment where they spend the night together. Little by little, they hook up. When Hubbell writes a novel, they move to Hollywood for a movie adaptation. However, the McCarthy persecutions start and Hubbell "sells himself out" by allowing the producers to appease the controversial plot points in the novel. Katy gets pregnant, but their differences cause the end of the relationship. Years later, they meet again in New York.

"The Way We Were" is a one-sided romance, a movie that channels all its weight to one character, Katy, while at the same time "stealing" almost all character development from her partner Hubbell, who is barely anything more than just a passive puppet who just jumps from one plot point to another like a grey stone. Overall, it is a romantic and correct, but standard film that achieves a few more elevated moments exclusively thanks to the excellent performance by Barbra Streisand, nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. Robert Redford was not awarded a thankful role as Hubbell, which narrowed his potentials, except maybe in the sequence set during the McCarthy era when he admits he would rather "sell out" and continue to have his job than starve for ideals. Director Sydney Pollack did not show his skills to the fullest - though a simplistic story with bleak dialogues like this hardly gave even better directors than him their finest hour - whereas the break-up of the protagonists does not follow any sense or logic because the scenes interpreting them (Hubbell getting "blacklisted" for being married to a "communist" wife) were cut and thus a layer for its understanding was quashed. However, the college segment is finely directed whereas Pollack and Streisand showed their full potentials in at least one beautiful scene - when a drunk Hubbell lies unconscious in Katy's bed, she bashfully takes her clothes off and lies next to him, naked. Shyly, she looks at him and his shut eyes and has this smile that says more than a thousand words in one of the most magical moments of the 70s, even though it lasts for only a few seconds.

Grade;+

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Arrival

The Arrival; science-fiction thriller, USA/ Mexico, 1996; D: David Twohy, S: Charlie Sheen, Ron Silver, Teri Polo

One night, SETI employee Zane Zaminski records an unusual signal from a star 14 lights years away from Earth. He hands the tape over to his superior, Gordian, insisting it is an alien signal. A few days later, Zane is fired from NASA, but constructs a new satellite dish at his home. Upon discovering the same signal coming from Mexico, he goes there and discovers an underground base run by aliens who are artificially causing global warming in order to make Earth more suitable for their colonization. Despite persecution, Zane and his girlfriend Chara tape Gordian into admitting the plan and broadcast it on TV.

Overshadowed by "Independence Day" released the same year, David Twohy's "The Arrival" still subsequently gained attention and turned into a minor cult film for its unbelievably audacious concept - that aliens are actually artificially causing global warming in order to "terraform" Earth according to their planet. What it lacks in limited budget and some omissions (it is somehow difficult to believe that aliens could assassinate so many people to keep their plan secret, but are unable to stop Zaminski) it compensates with a few clever ideas and inventive solutions (extraterrestrial miniature robots "disguised" as scorpions so that the assassination will look like an "accident"; the subtly ironic lecture in which the increasing temperatures of Mars are taken as an example of "terraforming"), whereas at least two moments are unforgettable: the ontological 10 minute sequence where Zaminski enters the underground alien base that culminates in the suspenseful elevator scene where an extraterrestrial disguised as a human is talking in an incomprehensible language to him and the truly "foreign" design of the aliens, who have knees bent "backwards" like a chicken. Charlie Sheen is an untypical choice for the paranoid hero, but copes well in the story, whereas the movie - despite the fact that the concept could have been exploited far more imaginatively - is engaging up until the end.

Grade;++

Friday, 17 August 2012

American Graffiti

American Graffiti; tragicomedy, USA, 1973; D: George Lucas, S: Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Paul Le Mat, Ron Howard, Candy Clark, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford

One night in California, '62. Four stories revolving around teenagers: Curt is wondering if he should accept a scholarship which would bring him to a college far away from his friends and family. He is also fascinated by a beautiful woman he saw in a car and tours the streets hoping to find her this last night before departure, but just stumbles upon a gang and meets a DJ called Wolfman...Steve and his girlfriend Lauren have a harsh argument...Steve borrows his car to the unpopular Terry, nicknamed "Toad", who is overwhelmed when an attractive blond, Debbie, accepts to have a ride with him...Driving in a yellow car, Milner ends up with the childish, but charming Carol. After a race which ends in a destroyed car, the friends say goodbye to Curt.

Nominated for five Oscars (including best picture and director), winner of a Golden Globe (best motion picture - musical or comedy) and a New York Film Critics Circle Award (best screenplay), "American Graffiti" is one of the better examples of gentle-nostalgic teenage comedies with a realistic anchor to their misadventures and still seems as fresh as during its original release. However, the movie is by far not perfect: out of the four stories set during one last night before the friends will separate, one is entirely uninteresting (involving Steve (Ron Howard) and his relationship with Lauren) and one is good mostly thanks to the moving performance by Richard Dreyfuss (as Curt, who is about to leave the town for college), but de-tours to an unnecessary subplot involving a gang called "Pharaohs".

The movie gains the biggest impression from the two other excellent stories that show a fine sense for slice-of-life. The one involving Milner, stuck with a childish teenage girl, Carol who pretends to be an adult, has incredible charm and wacky jokes (a random cars drives next to his and one girl in it gives him the "prize" for it, throwing a water balloon that splashes right into Carol's face; Harrison Ford's character humorously addressing Milner's "urine colored" car, saying how he feels "embarrassed just by driving near him") whereas the fourth one is a blast, showing a "nerdy", hapless Terry who cannot believe his luck when he brings the attractive blond Debbie for a ride. If she were just a stereotypical girl in search for a 'sugar daddy', she wouldn't have been so special, but the fact that she in the end admits that she liked spending the night with him, despite an unfavorable conclusion, makes Candy Clark's performance one of the few examples of an attractive woman having a crush on a "nerd", for which she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress. Despite omissions, it seems as if George Lucas had a much better sense for true characters and emotions in realistic than in SF stories.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Gospa

Gospa; drama, Croatia/ USA, 1995; D: Jakov Sedlar, S: Martin Sheen, Paul Guilfoyle, George Coe, Michael York, Morgan Fairchild

Međugorje, Herzegovina. On 24 June '81, six children - four girls and two boys - claim to have an apparition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, on a hill. A local priest is sceptical at first, but a few days later hundreds of people attend the hill with the children. This draws attention of the Yugoslav authorities, who disperse the crowd and try to suppress the event. One priest, Jozo Zovko, protects the children and even holds a speech during mass, which is later used against him on trial for alleged "revolutionary" messages against Yugoslavia. Despite his lawyer Vukovic, Zovko is convicted and serves a year and a half in prison, but the Međugorje event remains.

From today's perspective, "Gospa" is a solid, but mild film that seems like a TV-pilot, yet it attracted attention of the audience for the sheer fact that it is one of the few movies that depicted the events in Međugorje - today a pilgrimage - and one of first movies of the independent Croatia that rallied an international cast (very good Martin Sheen, Michael York and Morgan Fairchild) filmed in English, which gave it the impression of a more elevated production than it is. The events in Međugorje were never satisfactory explained, just like every apparition, and were rather too "thin" for a movie adaptation (the six children publicly just passed on vague messages - be good, pray and fast - which is far less interesting than the three Fatima secrets) and so director Jakov Sedlar focused on them only so much he thought it was enough, the first 30 minutes, then switched to the Yugoslav state security persecuting the priest Jozo who helped the children, swinging thus to another theme of state suppressing religion. The intentions of the film are good, yet it has too little inspirational moments (one of them is the cynical Yugoslav official who comments on the event: "What can I do? I cannot arrest the mother of Christ!"; the opening where Jozo and two other priests observe how the event gains momentum when hundreds of people climb up the hill to observe the six children, who always have visions at 5:30 PM) whereas its handling of the theme is too often black and white (some Yugoslav officials and especially the caricature judge are transparently demonized). As a whole, "Gospa" is a rather well meant allegory that has a nice story flow, whose events are standard, yet even.

Grade;+

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Italian Job

The Italian Job; crime comedy, UK/ Italy, 1969; D: Peter Collinson, S: Michael Caine, Noël Coward, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley, Maggie Blye, Benny Hill

As soon as Charlie is released from prison, he already starts planning the next heist for his deceased boss - stealing Fiat's four million $ in gold from a convoy that goes through the streets of Turin. With the financial back-up from criminal Bridger and the assistance of computer expert Peach, Charlie assembles a crew despite the warnings of mafia boss Altabani. Charlie causes a traffic jam, steals the vehicle with the gold, transports the gold into three Mini vans and escapes with them while they are chased by the police. Outside, the Mini vans enter a bus and hide from the commotion.

From the hilarious sequence in "The Blues Brothers" up to the 'raw' pursuit across San Francisco in "Bullitt", few car chases caused such an interest among the cineasts as the finale in "The Italian Job". That light crime comedy is by today's standards rather overhyped and overrated, to such an extent that some critics even proclaimed its remake better than the original (!), yet even though Collinson's story consists just out of simplistic one-liners and sly preparations for the heist, it still has enough charm to ignite even the modern audience, thanks to the sharp performance by Michael Caine (in Lupin style) and the untypical 5-minute performance by comedian Benny Hill as the wacky computer expert Peach who is crazy for 'large' women. The one-note plot takes some time to ignite since only the sole heist and the now legendary 10-minute car chase sequence are truly stand out elements in it, but for a relaxed and correct film this does not burden it too much, not even the (in)famous open ending. The car chase is especially well choreographed, with a few brilliant 'down-to-earth' stunts, involving the three Mini vans in red, white and blue driving down the stairs, into the subway, across the rooftop, climbing up on the roof of an opera and even passing through a shallow river, all the while the police is chasing them. It was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film. 

Grade;++

Monday, 6 August 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!; action crime, USA, 1965; D: Russ Meyer, S: Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams, Susan Bernard, Stuart Lancester

Three strippers - Billie, Rosie and their leader, the busty Varla - enjoy driving their race cars across the Mojave desert. Upon stumbling upon a young couple and getting into an argument with them, Varla kills a guy and takes his girlfriend, Linda hostage. The four of them arrive at an isolated shack where and old man is supposedly hiding a huge sum of money, so Varla proceeds to seduce one of his two sons. When Linda escapes, Varla kills Billie, the old man and his son. She catches up on the other son and wants to kill him, but he saved when Linda runs her over with a car.

Sometimes only one role in a movie is needed for an actor or an actress to forever stay remembered in the world of cinema. Such was the case with Tura Luna Yamaguchi, aka Tura Satana, who performed as a never before seen female gang leader, Varla, in the cult independent  "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill", the only good film by director Russ Meyer - that was even proclaimed as "the best film ever made" by J. Waters. Always giving the leading female role to an actress with large breasts, Meyer cast her in the film, but unlike other weak-passive beauties in his filmography, Satana didn't just add a strong cleavage to the story, but also a very strong, deliciously feisty persona and humor, a seal of authenticity and uniqueness, outgrowing the director's thin outline of the plot and practically advancing into a super-woman, which is why at times the film almost seems like 'sophisticated-trash' at moments.

It is a pity that she is a villain, but she is strong and almost indestructible, a woman who beats up men (unlike some Meyer films where vice-verca is the case) and can only be stopped in the finale by another woman (!), giving it enough food for a discussion that it is a rare forerunner to feminist cinema. Some of her comical lines are truly hilarious - when Rosie nervously waves her lighter in front of her face to ignite her cigarette, Varla says: "Easy baby, you're almost a fire hazard!"; after an argument (without any reason) with Tommy, where she slaps his fist, he says: "You got a weird sense of humor!", upon which she replies without losing a beat with: "Try again, I get even funnier!"; when Linda runs away from the old man, Varla is pissed. The old man says: "What did I do? I am just an old man bound to this wheelchair", and Varla gives a typically cynical line: "You ought to be nailed to it!" - which gives these characters charm even when their actions and motivations do not make any sense. The ending is stupid (everybody surely secretly rooted for Varla to swim at the top) yet the movie simply got so much out of Satana than many more famous A-list actresses in far better conceived films. One of the best examples of 'guilty pleasure'.

Grade;++

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings; animated fantasy, USA, 1978; D: Ralph Bakshi, S: Christopher Guard, William Squire, Michael Scholes, John Hurt

In Middle-earth, the evil lord Sauron forged a magical ring to rule over men, dwarfs and elves, but he lost. The ring was found by Smeagol and then again changed his owner when it was found by hobbit Bilbo, who brought it to Shire. Wizard Gandalf persuades him to give the ring to Frodo. 17 years later, Gandalf, Frodo and three other hobbits start a long journey to Mordor, because only there can the ring be destroyed. On their way, they team up with Aragorn and Legolas. While Frodo and Sam separate and meet Smeagol, Gandalf helps a king to protect Helm's Deep from Sauron's army.

It's interesting how things change with time and movies that were once deemed "dead" would some time later get "revived" after a change of perception - after a mixed premiere in 1978, Ralph Bakshi's animated fantasy "The Lord of the Rings" was placed in the 'bunker' from the studios, until Jackson's eponymous live action trilogy allowed people with an open mind to view it in a different, more positive light, since this first movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's (one and a half) novels proved very helpful in visualizing the literary storyline, since Jackson's Gandalf, the hobbits, Black riders and the Gollum have practically identical designs as Bakshi's early adaptation. It was about time for the audience to give cult director Bakshi a break since he bravely tackled a very complex and epic matter with such a modest budget, proving to be adequately opulent and imaginative at times - the majority of the critics lamented only because part II was never filmed (the story stops abruptly somewhere during the "Two Towers"), but that was not his fault since he wanted to make it, but the producers were not willing to finance a sequel and missed out a golden opportunity - it is tempting to be so exclusive, but would "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" have been a bad movie had Jackson never directed two follow-up films? Bakshi is still a step back and lacks awe because the narrative is so rushed while trying to stuff so many events in only two hours, as opposed to Jackson who had more money and time at his disposal and was thus able to elaborate this world, giving the audience a real "taste" of its mentality and culture, whereas the Black riders and Orcs were presented so surreal (in rotoscopic fashion) that it is almost disturbing. Still, overall, this is an interesting stand alone film that stimulates the imagination despite omissions.

Grade;++

Thursday, 2 August 2012

JFK

JFK; thriller, USA, 1991; D: Oliver Stone, S: Kevin Costner, Michael Rooker, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Wayne Knight, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, John Candy, Brian-Doyle Murray, Laurie Metcalf, Walter Matthau 

On 22 November '63, US president John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. While the whole nation is shocked, the police accuse a certain Lee Harvey Oswald as the perpetrator, but he is killed by a certain Jack Ruby before a trial could start. A few years later, after observing numerous plot holes in the Warren Report, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and his friends start questioning witnesses themselves, leading them to a very different conclusion: namely that there were at least two assassins, that someone was using Oswald's identity and that there was a conspiracy from the military top to eliminate Kennedy in order to keep waging wars in Vietnam. Garrison indicts Clay Shaw, but since many witnesses died mysteriously, the trial acquits him.

Excellent "JFK" is arguably Oliver Stone's best film: one part of the audience views it as propaganda that invents facts, the other part views it as a visualization of independent investigation thinking 'outside the box', but all had to admit that it is a passionate, incredibly tight cinematic experience that electrifies regardless of anyones political beliefs. Stone here has such an authority that he is able to get away with miles of long monologues (Garrison's final speech in the courtroom alone probably ran for at least ten pages in the script), rally half of Hollywood to star in the film and even his thousands of cuts somehow seem to have a point because they all manage to align themselves into a clear narrative, expanding the perspectives of what happened during the famous assassination: despite a running time of three hours, there is no empty walk and no scene sounds pointless. The speculation of the story is debatable - for instance, Dave Ferrie never admitted to have been part of a conspiracy to kill JFK, which says clearly in Garrison's book, on which the film was based, whereas the mysterious Mr. X, who claims that the assassination was a "coup d'etat" because JFK wanted to end the Cold War while the military wanted to continue the war due to its increasing budget, is just someone's opinion - yet Stone refuses to push the story towards the black and white territory (i.e. in one scene, during dinner, a sleazy lawyer (John Candy in an unusually serious edition) confronts Garrison about his theory, asking him why Bobby Kennedy didn't sue the government for killing his brother if there was a cover-up), reaching almost the level of gnoseology and the limits of knowledge for man, here untypically set in the political world. This is rare: a director taking a dry law report and transforming it into a suspenseful 'whodunit' mystery a la Agatha Christie.

Grade;+++