Sunday, August 25, 2013

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin

Starchaser: The Legend of Orin; animated science-fiction, USA/ South Korea, 1985; D: Steven Hahn, S: Joe Colligan, Carmen Argenziano, Anthony De Longis

On the planet Trinia, Orin and all the humans around him have known only one kind of life: living in the underground and mining minerals for their ruler Zygon and his robots. Upon finding a magical sword, Orin is stimulated to break the rules and dig up, thereby discovering surface for the first time in his life. He meets cynical smuggler Dagg and is shocked to find out that here the case is vice-versa: the robots actually work for humans. He meets and falls in love with Aviana, discovering that Zygon is actually a robot who forced all the humans to work underground while preparing the robots to fight and take away the power all across the known universe from humans. In a duel, Orin kills Zygon and leads his people to the surface.

Even though many have compared this unusual cult animated science-fiction film with "Star Wars", its adult, raw and savage tone is more congruent to some of Bakshi's lascivious animated films for grown ups whereas its storyline - humans working for robots instead of vice-versa, mirroring the inversion of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat - reminds more of Karel Čapek's visionary play "R.U.R." about robots starting a rebellion and taking over their masters, whereas the subplot of humans living underground and not knowing for anything else outside is reminiscent of Plato's allegory of the cave. The sole film is very bipolar for today's standards: the first 25 minutes, crudely and disgustingly showing the harsh living conditions underground, are garbage and exploit some of the worst cliches of cartoons for grown ups, whereas the main hero is bland, but as soon as the cynical smuggler Dagg and female robot Silica show up, "Starchaser's" level is raised by at least 50%, and luckily those two excellent characters stay for a very long time afterwards, up until the end of the movie.

There is one great little sequence where Dagg wants to exchange a crystal for gold in a tent of suspicious merchants; when the merchants don't want to let him go without taking Orin, too, Dagg just ignores them and advises them to let him and Orin go because his spaceship outside is programmed to blow up the whole tent if he doesn't leave it safe and sound. Some ideas are just plain refreshingly humorous (Dagg finding out fembot Silica's main program is found in her metal butt, so he goes on to re-program her from there), though rare, whereas the animation and some solutions for action sequences are great (a spaceship "barging in" in front of another spaceship, in order to get itself caught by the tractor beam instead and free the latter). A strange film that is not for everyone's taste, but has a lot of redeeming virtues in the second half that makes it worthwhile and a storyline set-up to have a point and make a full circle.

Grade;++

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity; horror, USA, 2007; D: Oren Peli, S: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloath, Mark Fredrichs

In September, Katie and her boyfriend Micah move to a new house in San Diego. However, Katie has experienced strange apparitions of ghost when she was 8 and 13 years old, and now strange noises are heard even in this house at night. Micah buys a camera and leaves it recording the bedroom the entire night. Doors are seen moving and Katie sleepwalking, but she doesn't remember anything. A psychic recommends a demonologist, but Micah persuades Katie to wait a while. One night, the camera records how Katie exits the bedroom, Micah goes after her and then he is seen catapulted several feet away and she entering back possessed.

"Paranormal Activity" gained a lot of attention and became a hit at the box office, yet the "found footage" format, which it uses itself, started to lose its dimension of awe by that time and become standard and routine. Taking on the same formula as "The Blair Witch Project", and even having a similar open ending which reveals nothing because not much was set-up as a point anyway, "Paranormal" just takes the setting from the forest into a haunted house. The concept of a couple recording their bedroom in order to catch a ghost at night is very stimulating, yet something richer could have been done from it; the dialogues are again bland for the "found footage" genre, as if a shaky camera is enough for itself whereas it is again contrived to set the whole film only from the perspective of the home camera, not also from the "neutral movie camera", since people rarely film themselves arguing or going to the toilet anyway. The first 50 minutes are slightly slow, yet the story does pick up with the powder on the floor sequence, and the moment where the couple is sleeping and all of a sudden the blanket is lifted from their bed is a refreshing example of sophisticated suspense. But alas, there is too little of that, the movie is rather thin and more could have been done to increase the suspense than just the door moving by two inches.

Grade;++

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Inuyasha (Season 4-6)

Inuyasha; animated fantasy action series, Japan, 2004; D: Yasunao Aoki, S: Satsuki Yukino, Kappei Yamaguchi, Houko Kuwashima

With the help of the jewel shards, half-demon Naraku revives the Band of Seven, a notorious gang that was executed years ago, in order to be his instrument in fighting Inuyasha, Kagome, Miroku, Sango and Shippou. After a long battle, in which even Koga is dragged in, Inuyasha defeats the last member and leader of the band, Renkotsu, inside Mt. Hakurei, where Naraku re-assembled his body parts of demons. Mt. Hakurei collapses afterwards, while Naraku kills Kikyo, who is resurrected, however, once again as St. Haijiri. There is also demon Hoshiyomi, who is after two magical blades that will give him power; Naraku's new incarnation, Hakudoshi, who is after a magical horse, Entei, that could give him even more powers and Princess Abi whose birds are sucking the blood of people in order to give it to her demon mother inside a cave and dilute her poison. After a giant fight, Naraku escapes once again.

From season 4 onwards, "Inuyasha" turned into "Dragonball". The beloved characters are still here, but the magic and passion, that made this anime so beloved in the first place, stayed somewhere in season 3. The only thing remaining are endless tiresome battles. Instead of focusing on romance, humor and poetic drama in the first three seasons, while horror and action were in the background, in this rump version of "Inuyasha" the authors reversed that tendency and lazily just decided to give a ratio of 4:1 in favor of the latter. The ration between humor-romance-drama and monotone horror-action simply could not be sustained anymore at a right balance, whereas the quest for Naraku and the jewel shards went on ad nauseum. The segment where the Band of Seven, Naraku's goons, fight Inuyasha and the others for over 20 episodes is so overstretched that it is practically a dissertation on stalling: Inuyasha fights Renkotsu, they both seemingly die in the duel, then resurface again untouched. They they meet and fight again, they both seemingly die in the duel, then resurface again untouched. Then they meet again, they both seemingly die in the duel... And so this goes on for a dozen times. and then Renkotsu is replaced by Naraku with Hakudoshi, Princess Abi...Cue to a whole new level of repetition. The Band of Seven is also comprised of bland members: the only two truly interesting characters are the gay Jakotsu and Dr. Bankotsu, who at times struggled to remain his good personality as a doctor instead of succumbing to his evil side, though even that was not half as good as it could have been.

In episodes 104-106, Kagome, Miroku and Sango were intoxicated by a poisonous gas of one of the Band of Seven. At one point, they even died. This could have made a poetic and untypical conclusion: to have, let's say, Sesshomaru show up and bring them back to life with his sword of life, just like he did with Rin. Unfortunately, they decided to take the dumbest possible way out: the "dead" Kagome, Miroku and Sango suddenly cough and, presto, they are alive again. How? Myoga, the flea, sucked out their poison. Maybe this would have worked as a comedy, but they actually try to present us this with all seriousness. Some ideas and subplots are entirely misguided, like the idea that Kohaku, a child, kills people, or the infamous "Rosemary's Baby" subplot in which Naraku is getting a new incarnation of himself as an infant. One great moment cannot compensate for the exhausting and generic rest, but there is one special scene in episode 117 that is truly a jewel: Inuyasha shows up alive after everyone thought he died in a fire. He and Kouga start arguing, but the overwhelmed Kagome runs towards Inuyasha and simply hugs him, crying. Inuyasha is proud that she cares so much about him and even starts teasing Kouga, upon which Kagome thinks to herself: "It is somehow getting harder and harder to cry". A few refreshing episodes show up after that and remind of the good old "Inuyasha", such as the humorous episode 128 playing out in the school festival, where Kagome was cast as Lady Escargot in a play, or episode 130 where Shippou does anything to keep his fandom of five fox demons - and episodes 160 and 161 contain two jokes involving Sango that are so howlingly funny that one could almost - almost - forgive these three seasons and raise their grade by a point as a gift - yet they are all in the vein of too little, too late and cannot turn the tide of generic battles the authors placed themselves. By milking the franchise in order to be as long as possible, they turned a great anime into a soap opera. Watching "Inuyasha" season 1-3 first and then "Inuyasha" season 4-6 afterwards is a strange experience. It is almost like first watching "Casablanca", the great movie, and then right afterwards watching "Casablanca", the mediocre version.

Grade;+

Monday, August 19, 2013

Muriel's Wedding

Muriel's Wedding; grotesque/ drama, Australia, 1994; D: P. J. Hogan, S: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter, Sophie Lee

Muriel is ugly, unemployed, single and has no friends after even her high school acquaintances tell her to stay away from them. However, she still daydreams of a wedding. Her two brothers and a sister are equally unsuccessful and on the lower social hierarchy. One day, Muriel takes a blank check from her father Bill, a semi-politician who did not manage to enter into the government, and decides to spend thousands of dollars on a vacation. She meets a girl from high school again, Rhonda, and together they escape to Sydney to start a new life. Finding a job in a video store, Muriel meets a guy, but her first sex in interrupted. Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer and bound to a wheelchair, yet Muriel manages to covertly find a husband - David, a swimmer from South Africa who needs the Australian citizenship. They divorce, and Muriel takes Rhonda back to Sydney to again try it a new.

One of the most hyped and heard about Australian movies from the 90s, "Muriel's Wedding" is a messy, chaotic, but honest ode to losers and outsiders who also want to achieve their dream, no matter how more difficult they are than usual. P.J. Hogan crafts an untypical-shrill blend between grotesque and sad drama, with some better and some lesser, 'rough' results - the most problematic aspect is the blatant way it is shown how everyone bullies Muriel, which trips too often in the territory of "make the viewers hate the bad guy(s), no matter how cheap and no matter the method". One example is the dinner with guests where the father, Bill, publicly calls Muriel useless because she cannot find a job as a secretary because she "can't even type". It is more than far fetched that a father would talk precisely about such a topic in front of a business meeting. The same goes when the mean girls tell Muriel not to go on an island because they will be vacationing there. When Muriel does go to that island, regardless, the girls spot her and angrily throw a drink into her face. Entirely overreacting and not quite convincing of a set-up for future events. One of the few subtle examples of insulting is when they say to Muriel that they do not want to be friends with her, and tell her she should "find friends on her own level", which is so sly and clever that it would have sufficed the story without the two above mentioned sequences. The movie is carried entirely by the brilliant Toni Collette, who was nominated for a Golden Globe as best actress in a musical or comedy and keeps her character convincing for every second, especially in the quietly hilarious sequence involving Muriel's wedding with the unwilling David - the look on his face on the aisle is priceless. Hogan must also be congratulated for having the courage to avoid a happy ending and present the rather open one, whereas the soundtrack is crammed with some of the finest ABBA songs.

Grade;++

The Ward

The Ward; horror, USA, 2010; D: John Carpenter, S: Amber Heard, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jarred Harris, Mamie Gummer

Kristen, a young girl who set a farmhouse on fire, is sent to a mental asylum. She refuses to cooperate with the staff, avoiding taking pills and getting suspicious of the head Dr. Stringer who wants to perform an experimental therapy on her. Kristen meets several other girls in the asylum, among them Iris, Emily, Sarah and others, but they all keep disappearing. Kristen suspects a Zombie like girl, Alice, is killing the girls, because she was once a patient herself and wants to take revenge. However, Dr. Stringer explains to Kristen that she is actually Alice - after being kidnapped and raped as a minor, she split her personality into Iris, Emily, Sarah and others to suppress her memory.

After "Ghosts of Mars", it took nine years until John Carpenter directed a new feature length film, psychological thriller "The Ward", but as some critics already observed, this is not the "Halloween" or "They Live" subversive Carpenter anymore, but a half-hearted one who took on an impersonal assignment project. And while "They Live" and "The Thing" were misunderstood during their premieres, but retroactively re-emerged and gained cult status, "The Ward" will remain equally as unflattering and neglected even 20 years after its release: the blend between "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Friday the 13th" does have its moments here and there - in one great little scene, the nurse gives two pills to Kristen and says they will "make her feel better", upon which Kristen takes the pills, throws them on the floor and squashes them, replying humorously: "You were right, I feel better already" - whereas the casting of charismatic Amber Heard was a stroke of genius, yet the scare moments are purely and exclusively cheap and banal, without any sophistication or inventive interventions, whereas the misguided scene of the "Zombie" electrocuting one girl to death was done in poor taste. Contrary to the popular belief, the twist ending is the only thing that saves the routine storyline and manages to somehow explain and cover for the numerous illogical moments where the "Zombie" suddenly appears out of nowhere and then disappears, yet, as also already mentioned, a similar twist ending was already done earlier in at least three films, but mentioning them would spoil their surprise too.

Grade;+

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Game Change

Game Change; drama/ comedy, USA, 2012; D: Jay Roach, S: Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson

Campaign strategist Steve Schmidt recounts the '08 Presidential campaign: he initially promised his wife he will not participate, but Republican candidate John McCain managed to sway him. Together with Rick Davis and Nicolle Wallace, he took on a bold choice: sensing many women felt resigned after Hilary Clinton lost the candidate position to Barack Obama, he decided to collect those votes by having a woman be McCain's vice presidential nominee: Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. However, while at first charming, Palin soon turns out to be a problematic person, ignoring instructions and trying to take over the spotlight away from McCain herself. In the end, Obama won and became the new president of the USA.

An HBO adapatation of the eponymous book, "Game Change" is a sly TV film satire on the '08 presidential election and an interesting insight into the campaign involving Sarah Palin, where director Jay Roach was luckily more restrained and balanced due to the very concrete script. Ed Harris may be an odd choice to play John McCain - he is a great actor, but simply doesn't look like him - yet casting Julianne Moore was a stroke of genius since she looks and acts like Sarah Palin to such an extent that it is almost freaky at moments, and thus rightfully won a Golden Globe as best actres in a Miniseries or TV film. However, Woody Harrelson's great performance is often overlooked as campaign strategist Steve Schmidt who with time regrets his choice of picking Palin more and more: in one priceless, quietly hilarious sequence, Steve explains to Sarah that the British Queen is not the Head of Government, but the British Prime Minister, upon which he has an uncomfortable smile which is quickly covered up when he takes a cup of tea. The main controversy for some critics is still if Palin was portrayed objectively or was the film just simply another attempt at mocking her: indeed, at times it almost comes across as if the writers are lingering some of her ocassional lack of knowledge to such an extent that she is presented as Forrest Gump, culminating in the questionable scene where Palin yells at Nicolle after the disasterous Katie Couric interview and throws the cell phone at the wall, yet she is also presented in a positive light at times (loves her kids and country). Either way, it is an easily accessible and engaging film, and a warning on political candidates who are trying to appeal to the masses in any way possible, no matter how cheap, since it may backfire by attracting all the wrong kinds of crowds.

Grade;++

Friday, August 9, 2013

Munich

Munich; thriller-drama, USA, 2005; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Lonsdale, Moritz Bleibtreu

Munich, '72., during the Olympic games. A group of Palestinian terrorists storm the residence of the athletes at night and takes 11 Israelis as hostages. In the ensuming chaos, both die. In order to punish the perpetrators, the Black September group, Israel's Mossad assembles a group of agents, led by Avner, whose task is to find and kill the 11 Palestinians allegedly involved in the massacre. The first target is an ageing poet in Rome, so the team kills him hesitantly. After him, they kill Palestinians in Paris, Cyprus... However, when the team becomes a target of unknown assassins themselves, Avner starts feeling repulsion towards further violence. He quits and returns to his wife and child in Brooklyn.

Drama "Munich", nominated for two Golden Globes (best director, screenplay) and five Oscars (including best screenplay, director and picture), is a very thought-provoking essay that forces the viewers to think, and possibly an intimate film by Steven Spielberg, whose dark phase in his career started with "Schindler's List" and - indicatively - ended 2005 with this film. The taboo - and very delicate - topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was handled here by screenwriters Eric Roth and Tony Kushner by mirroring it representitavely through the '72 Munich massacre and its aftermath: in the first 10 minutes, Spielberg shows the awful, shocking way Palestinian terrorists killed peaceful Israeli athletes, but for the remainder of the film shows Israeli agents killing several Palestinians across Europe, in order to emphasize the tragic message where violence is not enough of a solution anymore and new ways and approaches must be sought. Violence results in more violence, and its endless repeat gives the story a "Groundhog Day" like dimension where something is crying for a change. The moment where the two team members find the aging poet Zwaeter but are hesitant to shoot him because he appears harmless is incredibly strong and cannot leave an indiffirent impression, whereas the phone-bomb-in-Paris sequence reaches almost Hitchcockian intesnity of suspense. A few 'rough' edges appear here and there, though, such as the pretensious sequence where Avner's sex is inter-cut with the Munich massacre scenes, a few clumsy attempts at humor and a slightly overstretched running time. However, overall, "Munich" is a strong film that dared to take on such a difficult topic and start a debate.

Grade;+++

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Let's Fall in Love

Hajde da se volimo; musical comedy, Serbia/ Croatia/ Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1987; D: Aleksandar Đorđević, S: Lepa Brena, Svetislav Goncić, Dragomir Bojanić Gidra, Milutin Karadžić, Milan Štrljić, Bata Živojinović

Famous singer Lepa Brena and her band are travelling in a bus for their tour across Yugoslavia. Two police officers stop the bus because of speeding, but when they spot Lepa Brena sleeping, they decide to let them go. However, wherever they go, a gang trio is always attempting to kidnap her, so the two police officers are trying to apprehend the criminals responsible. At the same time, one band member, Bale, is running away from four girls because they heard he is "good in bed". In Dubrovnik, the gang trio, disguised as Arabs, try to kidnap Lepa Brena once again, but her band saves her. Her manager arranges a meeting with Mr. Jenkins, an influential music producer who offers her a good offer after seeing her music video.

The originator of one of the most popular movie trilogies in the former Yugoslavia, "Let's Fall in Love" is a vehicle to promote the famous singer Lepa Brena and is at moments so dated that it is almost charming. The story is just an excuse to showcase her singing acts, and as such is rather thin, especially in the second half where the gags deplete themselves (the running gag of Bale, who is constantly running away from four girls who are after him because they heard he is "good in bed", becomes so tiresome and lame after a while), yet in the opening act, "Let's Fall in Love" does have a certain wit that can be enjoyed more than just a 'guilty pleasure', like in the scene where Brena shows how strong she is when she saves herself by pushing her kidnapper out of a plane and then landing, or in the random singing act of the crowd in the village that is so contagious with 'good vibes' that one of the three kidnappers in disguise cannot resist but to start dancing himself. A nostalgic trip across Yugoslavia, featuring opulent locations from Mostar to Dubrovnik, "Let's Fall in Love" is a goofy and silly cult movie, yet easily accessible, just not as great as other examples of movie-promotions of famous singers, such as "A Hard Day's Night" or "ABBA - The Movie", where the Beatles and ABBA would simply display more charm and room to act.

Grade;+

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!

Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!; crime, USA, 1968; D: Russ Meyer, S: Anne Chapman, Paul Lockwood, Gordon Westcourt

Paul is the owner of a strip club bar. The madam of a brothel phones him and invites him to have sex with a new girl, but there he is knocked unconscious. Paul is dragged to his home where he has an argument with his wife Kelley. Angry, Kelley decides to strip in his bar out of spite, thereby attracting the attention of bartender Ray. However, while they are out, two burglars break into the club in order to rob the safe. When Kelley, Ray and Paul return to the bar, the burglars tie them up and threaten to rape Kelley if Paul does not tell them the combination of the safe. In the fight, Ray, the madam and the two burglars are killed.

This watchable movie is another example of Russ Meyer's formula for a successful film with a low budget, namely large breasts and a hard crime story that sets in near the end to add some edge and danger for the idyllic love couple, but once again, the latter seems unnecessarily violent and exploits too many cheap cliches. Meyer can be original and engaging just through charm, noticeable in the inventive opening act where the opening credits are displayed without titles, just with the billing of the crew printed on bottles in the night club sequence, or the always wonderful use of Sergei Rachmaninoff's music, yet the rest seems just like hastily patched up semi-story that was salvaged from several other scripts and released just to earn a few fast bucks. For instance, the long conversation between Paul and the prostitute, an ex-Amish, has only truly one great line ("I soon found out that sex is better than religion."), Kelley's affair with Ray is bland whereas the heist finale is backward and low. As attractive as Anne Chapman is, her role is reverse proportionally to anything else her underwritten character has to show, either through charm, humor, wit or brains. And indeed, there is simply too little for any of the characters to show, they are all too passive to be anything.

Grade;+