Wednesday, February 27, 2013
50 years after a nuclear overkill, war has been banned and the two opposing forces - the US and the Soviet Union - conquer territories exclusively through tournaments in which a giant, 70 foot tall robot fights on each side. The Soviet pilot Alexander manages to win every fight, but the one involving American Achilles ends in a draw. The robot match is suppose to repeat in a week, but Achilles refuses to fight anymore because his robot accidentally fell on the audience and killed people. Achilles' jock Tex also turns out to be a spy. When a woman, Athens, is injured piloting his robot to fight Alexander's, Achilles replaces her. The two robots destroy each other, but Achilles and Alexander decide to stop fighting.
Long before "Real Steel" and "Pacific Rim", and almost simultaneous with the 'mecha' genre developing in the Japanese animation, Stuard Gordon directed this cult robot fighting extravaganza with far less blood than his feature length debut, "Re-Animator". "Robot Jox" is a 'guilty pleasure', a surprisingly solid B-movie that embraces the viewers' fascination with giant robots, but is overall rather stale - it consists solely out of two robot fight sequences, one at the beginning and one at the end, while the rest is your standard, monotone training of the pilots, entirely eclipsed by the action of the mechanical creatures, lifted only occasionally thanks to three or four good jokes (after doctors ask him to donate his sperm for a good breed, Achilles flat out says: "How about I make a direct deposit?"; "If they are our future, I'm glad to be history."). The movie has a certain 80s flair, and thus an opulent charm, even in the stop-motion effects of the robots, yet isn't half as fun as one might think, remaining too much in the grey territory of banal dialogues, banal (human) events and the dated US-Soviet rivalry, except for a refreshingly untypical ending. It's a wrestler movie without pathos, an action movie with too much dull moments and too little satire, however, the concept is not to be that easily dismissed: if you are looking for a better equivalent, in "Shin Seiki Evangelion", for instance, Anno showed that a giant robot fight can be stylized so much that it becomes true art.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
In the 36th century, the whole galaxy is divided between two forms of government: the democratic Free Planets Alliance (13 billion people) and the autocratic monarchy of the Goldenbaum dynasty, the Empire (25 billion people), with the neutral planet-state Phezzan (2 billion people) situated in the middle. The Alliance and the Empire have been at war for 150 years, aiming to spread its political system on the other, but the things are changing: in the Alliance, Admiral Yang Wenli starts to climb through the ranks and gives it boost thanks to his almost undefeated military strategy; in the Empire, the poor Reinhard von Lohengram topples the corrupt Goldenbaum dynasty in order to give its citizens a better life. The two cannot beat each other, while a secret Earth cult wants to covertly rule the Universe once one side conquers the other.
After the Arab Spring and the ever actual conflict of what is the better system of government - democracy or autocracy - several critics remembered a classic unknown anime from the archives, "Legend of the Galactic Heroes", that pretty much said almost everything that can be said about that theme. It is one of those stories that make the viewers think about some ideas they never considered before: it is easy for analysts from democratic countries to dismiss autocratic ones as dictatorships when they are failures (Khmer Rouge or the Soviet Union, for example), but things get more complicated when some of those autocracies work and bring prosperity, which was the key aspect of the author Yoshiki Tanaka: a democracy can be free, but its citizens can still be poor and the politicians corrupt, while a monarchy can be autocratic, but a king may still be a kind ruler who makes the lives of his citizens prosper. This thought provoking essay is here presented in cosmic proportions, dividing one half of the galaxy into democracy and the other into autocracy, while even the narrative is colossal because it takes a difficult task of following over a 100 characters throughout it. The viewers may need some time to distinguish the two sides - the soldiers of the democratic Alliance wear berets on their heads while the soldiers of the Empire wear black uniforms and shoulder bids - while the story needs some 20-30 episodes until it gets going, but once it does, it is difficult to find a similar movie or an anime that went so far into the spheres of political contemplation.
There are space battles, but the action is irrelevant here. There are no aliens. No big emotions. No humor. No clear bad guys, either. It is pure, dry philosophy. Some viewers will not be able to 'connect' to that bare frequency, but those who will are going to be intrigued. Throughout its 110 episodes, numerous actions, battles and ploys mirror the human history: the religious Earth cult that secretly wants to topple the government and covertly rule the Universe bears remarkable similarity to the Yellow Turban Revolt; veteran Empire Admiral Merkatz defecting to the Free Planets Alliance reminds of dissident No Kum-Sok... The two main protagonists, Yang Wenli (defends democracy) and Reinhard von Lohengram (defends the monarchy) are truly remarkable: so different, almost as Yin-Yang, but equally unmatched in strategic planning, so they end up in a stalemate whenever they crash. Reinhard reminds of Cyrus the Great and Napoleon, rulers who also brought good things despite their invasions, while Yang Wenli reminds of George Washington, Hannibal and Saladin, with a little touch of Socratic philosophy. The contemplations about total war, human obsession with war and the inability of two opposite sides to live in peace are strong, but Yang Wenli is the main highlight here: he is truly one of the greatest anime characters ever created, one of those rare Admirals who are kind and considerate, a simple, humble, sympathetic person anyone can identify with. Some of the things he says are unbelievable: "Dictatorship itself isn't necessarily evil, it's just another form of government." In the original novel, he says: "There are few wars between good and evil. Most are against one good and another good." His colleague, Julian, picks up observations after him: "As a place for immense talent to act freely, an autocracy is better suited than a democracy." Sentences like that were probably never before uttered in a cinema from the democratic world before.
A few episodes should have been shortened - notice the empty walk between boring episodes 83-91 - some gimmicks and the dated presentation of the 36th century technology occasionally bother, some plot points are forgotten - i.e., Reinhard's sister plays a major role in the first season, only to be clumsily forgotten later on - a strange turn of events in episode 53 ruins a part of the goodwill towards the show's consistency, whereas the final, fourth season is disappointing, but the story surprises with a sustained awe (a space elevator; catapulting an ice meteor with the speed of light in order to use it as a weapon in destroying the 'Artemis necklace' defense system; siege of the Geiersburg planet; in episodes 51-52 the battle of Vermilion stands out by involving thousands of spaceships in a battlefront that encompasses light years (!) and makes even the battle or Stalingrad and Vukovar seem pale in comparison) and even inner-directing skills (in episode 63, where the inferior equipped religious zealots of the Earth cult frantically attack the imperial soldiers, who are storming their Himalayan temple, with such a suicidal fanaticism that they even make the Taliban seem tame; the imperial invasion of the neutral planet-state Phezzan, which is almost equivalent of an army invading Switzerland; virtuoso episode 56 showing that man's sphere of influence has expanded to 60 light years around Earth by year 2480, and 90 light years by 2580...). In episode 54, when Yang and Reinhard meet for the first time in person and talk about the types of government, is a jewel (Reinhard points out that the people democratically elected dictator Goldenbaum, while Yang replies: "The right to violate the rights of the people belongs only to the people.") while some plot twists come unexpected - at first you may wonder why one character takes up so much running time in the story, until he is later revealed to be pulling the strings in the background. Could you imagine what would it look like if "Blade Runner" or "War and Peace" were to be forgotten? But precisely that happened to this anime that should not have been forgotten. Just like novels from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, "Legend" stands there, unnoticed by the majority of the audience due to its unappealing volume (110 episodes) as well as a 'taboo' re-questioning of both democracy and autocracy, yet keeps its accumulated wisdom to only those selected few that decide to check it out. As long as the series may seem to you, you will spend longer thinking about it.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Naples. Inspector Rizzo, nicknamed "Flatfoot", is famous for not wearing a pistol and solving trouble with bare fists. When a prostitute is assaulted for refusing to smuggle drugs, Rizzo finds out it was done by thugs of Ferdinando, a local mobster. Rizzo confronts him and, thanks to small time crook Manomozza, finds and destroys his laboratory where drugs are fabricated. However, when Ferdinando is found dead, Rizzo is removed from the case. Drugs are distributed to youngsters, so Rizzo decides to investigate on his own. He finds out Manomozza took over the drug cartel, so he beats up him and his gang. As a reward, Rizzo is returned back to the police.
In 1973, comedian Bud Spencer made a strange and daring turn by taking a "Dirty Harry" like role in "The Knock Out Cop", a rather serious crime flick that is a departure from his usual comedy genre. The turn is interesting, but without a true payout. Namely, even though this is easily the best film in the "Flatfoot" series - followed by three less serious sequels - its story is little less than simplistic and bland, a standard crime fare that could have been more inventive and "juicy", while sometimes clumsily reaching for some banal solutions: for instance, in the opening with the sailor shooting at people from the roof, it is revealed that he did that because he went crazy from drugs, which is entirely unnecessary and blatantly obvious "demonization", since it would have already sufficed for the movie to send its message by just showing youngsters taking drugs and Salvatore becoming sick from it. Rizzo's entrance - a police officer on the ground raises a rifle at the roof, but the standing hero lowers it with his foot - is cool, but that's pretty much it, he did not have more of such moments for the rest of the film which would show his more dramatic capabilities. The story does not shy from violence (in one scene, a motorcycle gang even hits Rizzo's back with chains) or action sequences (a car chasing a motorcycle down the stairs) which gives it an overall honest and solid tone. It is an all right effort, yet this crime milieu did not conjure up even half as much as magic out of Spencer as much as his more comic roles.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
During one winter, a Slovenian village in the 19th century is still following the pagan tradition of summoning the spring by dressing people into a fur of ram and ritually dancing. Since the church considers that tradition "devilish", she summons the army to ban it. A soldier, Simon, is in love with Suzana, but she was sold and married to Štefan, the son of the main man who summons the spring. Simon's father advises him to use the ban to kill Štefan as an excuse and get Suzana, but he refuses. Simon abandons his uniform and puts on the ritual mask himself. Štefan kills a man behind the mask, thinking it is Simon. But when the mask is revealed, it turns out he killed his brother.
The penultimate film of the talented director France Štiglic, "The Call of Spring" is not among the most significant movies in the Slovenian cinema, nor in his own filmography, either. It is a folklore based, ethnic-history drama where the main tangle - a pagan tradition of summoning the spring with ritual dancing behind masks - is just a polygon for a love triangle that re-examines some themes of honor, integrity and opportunism. By having the two men, Simon and Štefan, dress in the traditional cloth of a ram, the director let's them fight for the girl they both love, symbolically just like two rams clash to get a female sheep. The ritual dancing - sometimes even filmed in slow-motion - gives the story a surreal touch at times, hinting at some cyclical events in human lives, the cinematography and the mood are naturalistic and the snowy landscapes aesthetic, yet "Spring" is indeed overlong, especially in the already tiring finale, to sustain a sharper impression among the audience, while the dialoges were too conventional. The hidden theme - a clash between tradition and modernism, evident also in heroine Suzana who does not want to yield to traditional marriage with Štefan, but wants to be with Simon, a man of her own choice - is refreshing, while the actors all give very good performances in the overall solid execution.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Shaggy, Welma, Fred, Daphne and the huge dog Scooby-Doo are a gang that solves mysteries. After the newest case, where they reveal that a supposed ghost is actually a man in disguise, an argument ensues, among other due to Fred's ego, and the team breaks apart. Some time later, they meet again on the "Spooky Island" in order to investigate strange phenomenons in an amusement park. The monsters are controlled by Scrapy, Scooby-Doos nephew, who wants to rule the world. Scrapy is thus arrested.
With all due respect to the legendary William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, but the animated TV show "Scooby-Doo" was simply an annoying hassle. The jokes were weak whereas the structure of the story constantly repeated itself, without doing anything to advance. The live action adaptation for the big screens is of little to no improvement, due to an "ordered" script and passive direction by Raja Gosnell, though it could also be the case that the producers restrained his more creative-daring side because they did not want anyone to meddle with their franchise. The opening is actually quite good: the heroes reveal a ghost to be just a man in disguise, whereas Pamela Anderson has a neat and surprising cameo there. The best jokes are found in the first half, for instance when the vain Fred reads a book titled "Fred about Fred", which he wrote himself, yet as the time goes by, the storyline seems to be "hijacked" by the typical cheap attempts at appealing the wide audience and the increasingly misguided mood. For instance, the awful duel in farting and belching between Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, the dog Scrapy who transforms into a monster or a machine that steals the people's souls. The watchable grade is sustained only thanks to the sympathetic performance by Velma (interesting Linda Cardellini) who is very good in improvising during problematic situations (the dance sequence), whereas the majority of the audience were interested to see how a live-action version of Scooby-Doo is going to look like, here embodied entirely thanks to CGI.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
A Polish-Jewish village, early 20th century. A man returns home one winter and brings Groshkover, an old man who helped him in the snow. But the man's wife is persuaded that Groshkover died three years ago and stabs him. Groshkover stands up and leaves... Minnesota, '67. Larry is a physics teacher of Jewish heritage, married and has two kids. But lately it seems as if all the troubles in the world have decided to plague him: Larry's wife announces that she wants a divorce and him to move out so that her new lover Sy can live in their home; he is pressured to take a bribe in exchange of changing a student's grade; his brother Arthur still lives in their house... Larry turns to three Rabbis to find the cause of his misfortune, but finds out nothing.
After their excellent "No Country for Old Men" returned them back to shape, the Coen brothers returned back to their stagnation phase with two uneven movies, black comedy "Burn After Reading" and drama "A Serious Man". The latter seems to be a rare intimate, personal film of the Coens, exploring such themes as religion, emotions and spirituality - but the problem is that the Coens were never emotional or spiritual in their films in the first place, which gives "A Serious Man" a strange bipolarity. One could argue that they were hiding that side until now, but even in this story, they are rather cold and detached than intimate and warm. Unfortunately, there is not much in the story, either: the opening prologue set in a Jewish-Polish village in the early 20th century is pointless, numerous characters (Arthur) are pointless, the three dreams the hero experiences are pointless, yet the Coens still manage to score a few plus points thanks to the cynical message that bad things happen to good people without a reason, and that religion does not have any answer to it (in the darkly ironic end, they even show that a bad thing happens to the hero with a reason - for once). The Rabbi's story about the dentist is probably even deliberately pointless in order to show that for some events there is no deeper meaning, no matter how we try. Yet, movies should have one, though. It almost seems as if they tried to imitate W. Allen. It is another Coen brothers film without their Coen touch, yet it has a truly genius comic moment when Larry is in his office and laments to his colleague because bad things are happening to him despite his good nature ("I don't know what I am doing wrong...Maybe because I saw 'Swedish Reverie' once..." - "No, it's OK, we don't need to know...!" - "...It wasn't even erotic!").
Saturday, February 9, 2013
A motorbike gang consisting of Brahmin, Dante and Slick drives across California and harasses girls. One day, they rape Gail in her house, so her husband Cory goes on to pursue and take revenge on them. Following them, he stumbles upon the wounded Ruby whose husband was also killed by the gang. The leader, Brahmin, finds a gun and shoots his colleague Slick. His other member Dante escapes from him. Brahmin starts shooting at Cory and Ruby from a hill, but is blown up by dynamite when he descends down.
Once a solid hit, "Motorpsycho" is today forgotten and overshadowed by Russ Meyer's own film released the same year, "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" - the reason why the first was "disposed" off while the second one became a cult classic, even though they both have a similar story - three gang members assaulting someone - lies in the fact that "Motorpsycho" is typically cliche, while "Pussycat" turned that cliche upside down and offered something new and original by having three girls play the gang members. "Motorpsycho" again follows Meyer's exploitation formula: men harassing women, violence, murder, sexism...But, unfortunately, they are all again shown in banal and cheap ways, without offering something innovative (except for being one of the first movies that showed PTSP caused trauma when it is hinted near the end that the violent gang leader is a Vietnam War veteran). The scene where Ruby sucks out snake's poison from Cory's leg is ultra-trashy and unintentionally comical, the dialogues are blatant while the actions of the protagonists often do not make any sense. As always, Meyer somehow found busty women to play small roles throughout, who do best out of their thin roles, this time by newcomers Arshalouis Aivazian and Sharon Lee.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
One summer, teenagers Julie, Helen, Ray and Barry are partying near the coast one night, until their reckless driving accidentally hits a man on the street. Panicking, they decide to throw the corpse in the sea and hush everything up. The corpse moves, though, but they throw it anyway. A year later, the four of them get threatening letters, which means that the man they hit somehow survived and wants revenge. Barry and Helen are killed with a hook. The murderer turns out to be Willis, a fisherman who killed a teenager himself that night. Ray manages to save Julie and throw Willis into the sea.
It's the darnedest thing when you figure out that intelligence is actually an obstacle for watching a certain horror movie. When those two are mutually exclusive, the result will likely not be good. Once a hit film, "I Know What You Did Last Summer" has an interesting concept and is solid in the first half, but in the second it starts to cram so many plot holes that you loose count - even worse, it turns into one of those movies that makes a fool out of the audience. How else to explain the frequent use of the cliche "boo" trick (Helen and Julie chat in the car, when all of a sudden Missy shows out of nowhere and violently knocks on their window and shouts: "HEY!" And then she turns back to normal and finishes: "...You forgot your cigarettes.") or a dozen of insane sequences where the bad guy seems to be an agent with magical powers from the Matrix because he hides and gets away with what ever he intends without a problem: in one scene, Julie opens the trunk of her car and finds a corpse with hundreds of crabs on it. She quickly runs to Helen's house and returns - in less than a minute - with Barry and Helen only to find - a clean and empty car, without even a stain. Yeah, right. In another, the killer is "chasing" after Helen, but that "chasing" is rather relative because she is running - but he is just slowly walking behind her. Even when she is in front of the door, he still walks slowly, really slowly behind her until she manages to enter and escape from him. One almost wishes Helen stopped running herself and teased him by starting to slowly walk in front him, too. The actors are fine, including Jennifer Love Hewitt, yet they cannot save a horror with cheap scares and dumb moments. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson has seen better days.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Several years ago, US Navy pilot "Mailman" crashed and died, while everyone placed the blame on his co-pilot Leland Harley. Even today, that incident is plaguing Harley's son Topper, also a pilot, who gets help from psychiatrist Ramada. Topper falls in love with her, leading to a clash with Gregory, his rival fighter pilot. However, all of them are called in to an aircraft carrier led by Admiral Benson for a top secret mission: the US war planes are suppose to fly to Iraq and throw bombs that will destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear power plant. Despite his inner struggles, Topper succeeds, returns safely and ends up with Ramada.
"Hot Shots" is one of those popular movies that seem slightly dated today, because despite an overall good fun, its cartoonish jokes that are often banal and lame announced the eventual self-destruction of the parody genre a decade later. There is almost no empty scene, every moment is filled with a joke, yet, as said, a large share of them do not seem fresh today - a good example is the little dog joke that simply isn't funny, but is repeated nonetheless again and again, to death. Director Jim Abrahams still manages to sustain a sure director's hand in such a chaotic/anything goes environment - and even improve it in the far better sequel, "Hot Shots: Part Deux" - yet one can sense that the strength of a point was not constructed at the same level as his comedy classics "Airplane" and, especially, the phenomenal "Top Secret". The actors are all in top-notch shape, though, especially Lloyd Bridges in the brilliantly silly supporting role as the ever clumsy Admiral Benson, which advanced into a small comic gem. The most interesting ingredient in the storyline is the analogy of Operation Opera in the final third, delivered directly but refreshingly relaxed, while the popularity of the movie was boosted by the Gulf War that ensued that same year. All in all, a wacky, crazy, but good parody with a few hilarious jokes (the transfusion scene).
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Texas, 19th century. One night, German immigrant, bounty hunter and ex-dentist Schultz frees African-American Django from slavery so that the latter will help him identify the wanted Brittle brothers. Their cooperation continues the whole winter and they are able to kill a lot of outlaws and collect their reward from the Sheriff. In spring, Schultz decides to help Django find his wife Broomhilda, who is held as a slave at the plantation of Mr. Candy. Eventually, Candy sees through their pretext of customers interested in fighting, but sells them Broomhilda for $12,000, anyway. However, Schultz cannot help but to shoot Candy, anyway, so a wild bloodbath ensures. Django in the end frees his wife and blows up the mansion.
After taking on kung-fu movies, exploitation movies and World War II movies, Quentin Tarantino revived another genre, that of a "Spaghetti western", without missing out an opportunity to add something new to it (this time, an African-American is the "main cowboy") but ended up in a too "Hollywoodized" and too polished edition, a step back from his previous film, the stylish "Inglourious Basterds", where he seemed to be getting back into shape. "Django Unchained" is a good film, with strong performances, fine cinematography and the well conceived idea that two minorities - a German and an African-American - help each other in the Wild West, yet the story is overstretched to such an extent that long sequences are less and less accompanied by something inspirational, ending occasionally in artificial story flow, whereas even Tarantino's famous dialogues seem diluted here, tiresome, as if he saved his best ones for another film: except for a neat way Schultz is introduced, it takes some good 45 minutes into the film until a dialogue worthy of a true Tarantino finally shows up, the Ku Klux Klan sequence that degenerates into a genius, hilarious comic quarrel about how the holes on their hoods are too small to see anything. Unfortunately, Tarantino here shows only small crumbs of his virtuosity from the 90s.
Surprisingly, Leonardo DiCaprio's character Candy is completely wasted. The whole character went through the film without causing any reactions. In the scene where he takes the skull from the bag, you think Tarantino is going to make some brilliant Hamlet reference, but it just turns out into a "meh" moment anyone could have written. Even the sequence where Candy exits from the carriage to confront a fighter on a tree, leads to nowhere. Ironically, the actor practically nobody mentioned in the reviews, Samuel L. Jackson, delivered by far the most memorable performance of the entire film, creating a small gem as Stephen. The double bloody finale is anti-climatic precisely because the first finale caused the real climax, and the following 30 minutes where Django goes on to save Broomhilde for the second time was not enthralling because not enough was done to care about their relationship or to anticipate another copy-paste fight. Tarantino can do better than this. References to other movies are fascinating, though, from the snowy shootout ("The Great Silence") up to a small cameo from Franco Nero, the original "Django", standing side by side with the Django from the new generation, Jamie Foxx, ironically remarking how he knows how to pronounce his name. And in the closing credits, the tune from "They Call Me Trinity" can be heard - that is by far the greatest moment of "Unchained": a song from a Spencer-Hill comedy in a Tarantino film.