Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Aria the Animation

Aria the Animation; animated science-fiction drama series, Japan, 2005; D: Junichi Sato, S: Erino Hazuki, Chiwa Saito, Junko Minagawa, Ryou Hirohashi

In the 24th century, Mars has been terraformed and is now filled with oceans. Akari is a young girl who recently moved from Earth to the Mars city of Neo-Venice and wants to become an undine, i.e. a gondolier. She is hired by the Aria company for training. Rowing with her boat through the coast city, Akari meets other undine's - Aika, from the Himeya company; Alice; Akira; cat Aria and others. She spends her time abstaining from technology and doing a lot of things the old fashioned way. Her friends spend the New Year's eve together at the main square of Neo-Venice.

Kozue Amano created a manga with a very unique concept - even though the story is set on terraformed Mars in the 24th century, this is not a Sci-Fi story, but a simple, humble slice-of-life story that seems as if it plays out in the world of today - yet even though hopes were up when director Junicho Sato adapted it into an anime, the first season, "Aria the Animation", did not reach the level of his all-time classic "Sailor Moon". The notion of Akari and other undines living as some sort of "Amish of the 24th century" in order to enjoy the small things in life and not alianete themselves from too much technology is wonderfully sweet and optimistic, yet the minimalist story manages to conjure up only two truly great moments: one is in episode 2, where the feisty Akira starts lamenting against Alice, complaining how she became an undine before her, has whiter skin, etc... Alice shrugs all this off by giggling and constantly repeating "My my my", causing Akira to point her index-finger and threaten her: "Giggling isn't allowed! "My my my's" aren't allowed!" Alice though just keeps repeating "My my my" and giggling, causing Akira to chase her around the building. There is also one great episode where the heroine has to deliver a letter to a "vanished" address, only to find out it disappeared after the flooding of Mars, but manages to find the grave of the recipient and play the message over its grave.

Unfortunately, except for that, little else manages to ignite some spark or keep the viewer's attention. There is simply too little in this anime to show. The plot outlines are enough to sum up entire episodes - Akari goes to the main square to spend the New Year's eve there. And that's truly all that happens. In fact, one just needs to compare to put things into perspective: in episode 9, Akari and her friends meet an older woman in a garden and go to a spa. Nothing happens. But so much happened in a spa in Sato's "Sailor Moon" SuperS episode 136 that one cannot put it into words. Also, compared to other 'slice-of-life' films, like "Kiki's Delivery Service" or "Only Yesterday", it is evident that they do not need a story either, yet their warm emotions are able to create magic you feel, and don't just pretend to feel. "Aria the Animation" seems as if the authors wanted to create a minimalist anime, but fell into the trap of an empty walk. A one so lukewarm that it almost reaches the level of "Teletubbies" at some point. In fact, nothing happens throughout, to such an extent that you wish some guy would show up and make a scene by pinching one of the girl's butt just to finally live it up a bit.

Grade;++

Monday, 29 December 2014

Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman; fantasy/ horror, USA, 2012; D: Rupert Sanders, S: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Lily Cole, Ian McShane, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Bob Hoskins

Snow White is the daughter of a widowed king who made his empire prosper. However, he meets a beautiful, but coniving woman, Ravenna, who seduces him and becomes the new queen. After Ravenna kills the king, she takes control of his empire and causes it to fall apart. She also kills young women to maintin her beauty. When Show White escapes from her, she teams up with the Huntsman who was sent to hunt her down. The two of them also meet eight dwarves and make friends with the opposing forces who want to remove Ravenna from her throne. Snow White is tricked into eating a poisoned apple and dies, but is revived by the Huntsman's kiss. Snow White leads the army that invades the castle, and there she kills Ravenna.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" once again demonstrates a problem of cinema in the 21st century: while the level of technical achievements (cinematography, editing, lighting, special effects...) just got higher and higher, the quality of the storyline just became lower and lower. This is once again an example of perfectly filmed 'autistic' events where the only things that cause the reaction from the audience are cheap scares, disgust, violence and depressive-dark mood which are suppose to carry the entire film. While the '97 film "Snow White: A Tale of Terror" was there before to give a twist to the classic fairy tale and present it in a horror edition, it suffered from same problems as this film: it had no inspiration from such an endlessly dark, bleak and colorless approach. The sheer level of depressive darkness is almost bizarre: Snow White encounters a beautifully white horse, only for it to later fall into the mud and drown in it; Snow White encounters a beautiful white deer, only for it to be shot with an arrow; the evil queen Ravenna emerges from a dark slime... It is unknown for whom this is all aimed at, but it just seems pointless, lifeless, humorless and negative without a measure. Unfortunately, not even the eight dwarves have charm of life to them, and are scarcely featured in the story, where they interact very little with the heroine. One of the few characters who actually seem alive - despite his 'abridged' presence - is the dwarf Muir, played by brilliant actor Bob Hoskins, who here unfortunately delivered his last film performance.

Grade;+

Friday, 26 December 2014

Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers; comedy, USA, 1930; D: Victor Heerman, S: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth

Explorer Jeffrey T. Spaulding returns from an expedition in Africa back to the US. In order to commemorate his return, Mrs. Rittenhouse organizes a party at her mansion and plans to unveil a famous painting worth 100,000 $. Two other weird guests show up, Ravelli and his mute friend. Horatio and Arabella plan to switch the painting with a copy, but it gets stolen. The police finds the painting, while the rich Chandler hires Horatio impressed by his painting skills.

"Animal Crackers" is the 2nd best feature length comedy in the careers of the Marx brothers, right after their phenomenal "Duck Soup": here they are given a free hand to be in their element, the anarchic-burlesque humor, and manage to create such a frequency of brilliant jokes that they bring down the house. The vague plot is once again just an excuse to have something Groucho and the gang can lean on to, whereas a few musical scenes tend to seem slightly unnecessary (for instance, the overlong scene of Harpo playing a harp), but the highlights overshadow all these complaints with ease since the sheer number of inspired jokes is staggering, and even their fillers are funny. The most is once again achieved from unheard off comical dialogues and wise-cracking comments ("You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which doesn't say much for you."; "How much are you paid to play?" - "10 $ per hour," - "And how much are you paid not to play?" - "12 $ per hour." - "How much would you charge to run into an open manhole?"; Spaulding says: "I'm Jeffrey T. Spaulding. Do you know what the "T." stands for?" Chandler leans closer towards him and says: "Thomas?" - "No. Edgar. But you were close. In fact, you still are"; when Chico and Harpo start fighting, Groucho goes: "They are going to exterminate each other. That's the best thing that could happen to either of them.") as well as a few of weird slapstick stunts (Harpo's habit of constantly putting his leg on someone's hand). Very few absurd comedies manage to get it right, to align into a harmonius whole that simply makes the viewers want to forgive them whatever they do, and this is one of them.

Grade;+++

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Hamlet

Hamlet; drama, UK, 1948; D: Laurence Olivier, S: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan, Peter Cushing

In the Danish Kingdom, the young prince Hamlet is plagued by sadness because his father, the king, supposedly died when he was bitten by a snake, while Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, hastily crowned himself as the new king and married his brother's wife, queen Gertrude. When his friend Horatio tells him he had a vision of the dead king's ghost, Hamlet goes to the fortress next night and indeed sees his ghost, who tells him that he seeks revenge since Claudius poisoned him in order to obtain the crown. Slowly losing his reason, Hamlet stabs Ophelia's father Polonius and leaves for England. He returns for Ophelia's funeral and accepts a fencing duel set up by Claudius. Laertes stabs Hamlet with a poisoned sword, but Hamlet stabs him with the same sword and kills Claudiius, as well.

Laurence Olivier's second directorial achievement found the actor in his element, the world of Shakespeare, as he proved to really have the most of inspiration in it, achieving an excellent adaptation that set the standards for numerous other future adaptations of the writer's plays. "Hamlet" has been rightfully praized for numerous well directed sequences - especially memorable is the opening sequence where the three soldiers in the fortress see the apparition of the dead king's ghost emerging from the fog at night or the inventive decision to have Hamlet's long monologues presented as his thoughts, as to not have him speak aloud all the time - whereas Olivier is indeed brilliant in the leading role, conveying both Hamlet's fragile, torn state caused by the injustice of his uncle killing his father to get the crown and his mother, as well as his fall into mental madness. The famous "to be or not to be" monologue is impressive, but so are many far more impressive ones as well (Ophelia's: "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be..."; Hamlet's "Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right..."), whereas the whole film feels truly alive and energetic, and not just a stiff theatre imitation. If a few flaws have to be mentioned, then it is that some of Shakespeare's archaic words are not used anymore in modern English and thus feel slightly dated, whereas the third act is slightly anticlimactic and some have complained that Olivier cut certain parts out of the films (for instance, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are omitted). However, these flaws are so insignificant that they cannot corrode the overall high impression of a very cultured and elevated film. This is rare: a movie adaptation that is the equivalent of the book or play it was based on.

Grade;+++

Monday, 22 December 2014

St. Vincent

St. Vincent; drama/ comedy, USA, 2014; D: Theodore Melfi, S: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd

Vincent is a retired Vietnam war veteran, broke, cynical and spends his time drinking all the time. When his new neighbors, the single mother Maggie and her adopted son Oliver, move in, and the moving company accidentally breaks off a branch of Vincent's tree, he demands compensation. In order to appease him, Maggie decides to pay him for picking up Oliver from school and watching over him when she has to stay late in the hospital. However, Vincent slowly softens up for Oliver and teaches him to defend himself and think for himself. After Vincent has a stroke, he has to be taken care of by his semi-girlfriend, the pregnant prostitute Daka, while Maggie has to accept joint custody of Oliver from her ex-husband due to Vincent's poor influence. Oliver, though, makes research of Vincent's life and concludes he was a noble person, thereby proclaims him "St. Vincent".

Films about a little kid meeting a grumpy older man only to soften his heart and make him a better person have already been made on numerous occasions, from "Little Lord Fauntleroy", "Gran Torino", and others, while a similar theme has even been used in one Bill Murray film as well, "Rushmore", yet "St. Vincent" proves that this timeless tale can indeed be timeless if one simply adds a certain new constitution to it: this is a refreshingly honest, emotional, funny, humane and alive film, since Theodore Melfi - in his feature length debut film - simply proves to have something vibrant to offer as an author. For one, he created a great, dignified role for brilliant Murray, which offers not only his elevated Murray humor (the "Porsche" joke; Vincent joking how he is making exercises by lifting his drink up and down before drinking it; Vincent putting his drink near a punching bag as a "challenge" to Oliver who has such a soft punch that he cannot spill it...), but also an emotional dimension - Oliver finds out that inside that cold, defensive shell, Vincent actually has a kind soul and did many good deeds without bragging about them, which culminates in the sequence where the kid proclaims him "St. Vincent" - it is so touching it sends shivers down the spine. Melfi has a wonderfully elegant hand in crafting the 'slice-of-life' storyline and a sovereign sense for wonderful supporting characters, especially the very realistic character of Maggie played by excellent Melissa McCarthy. The only serious, major complaint is one "plot twist" in the second half (Vincent having a stroke and thus having to learn how to talk and walk properly again) that is untypically melodramatic and sappy compared to the rest of the film, since Murray was always above playing handicapped roles for film awards. However, the momentum of the film is so strong that not even such a subplot cannot corrode it: it is simply an inspired film.

Grade;+++

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Bad Santa

Bad Santa; black comedy, USA, 2003; D: Terry Zwigoff, S: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bret Kelly, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Cloris Leachman

Each Christmas, Willie works as Santa Clause with his partner, the short Marcus, who plays an elf, in order to later rob the safe of the mall. Naturally, they have to change towns each year. This Christmas, though, they land in Phoenix and Willie is getting too sloppy due to his alcoholism, swearing and anal sex, which threatens to bust them. Willie meets a little kid who thinks he is truly Santa and invites him at his place. Willie accepts, but slowly starts to like the naive, but charitable kid. He also meets a woman, Sue, who is turned on by Santas. When the manager of the mall figures who they are and demands 50 percent of the theft, Marcus kills him. The police bust them, and wound Willie, but he is able to give a present to the kid before the shootout.

Director Terry Zwigoff marched two steps back compared to his previous, excellent independent film "Ghost World" when he directed the black comedy "Bad Santa": as some have already noticed, it is a sickeningly disheartening and grotesque film that is not a spoof, but a perversion of the Christmas holidays genres, in which the mean-spirited tone simply went way, way overboard until it killed the story. It was simply in poor taste to have an idea where a Santa Clause is played by a man who swears in front of kids, steals the safe and car of a kid who invited him to his home and is a chronic alcoholic. There are some universal themes - already present in Zwigoff's own "Ghost World" - about losers and unadjusted outsiders, but just done worse, since here the main protagonist is not an intellectual. Disappointingly, he is just a vile, primitive person, and so is the entire film. The only redeeming features are a few good jokes here and there ("Are you kidding? That kid has no friends. Even his imaginary friend probably ditched him!"; the 'bargaining' duel between Marcus, who is slowly forced to raise the percentage of his share from 30 percent upwards, and Gin who just stays with his demands - "half" - the entire time) and a surprisingly touching subplot involving a naive, innocent kid with a heart of gold who never loses faith in the main character, which culminates in a touching ending. Unfortunately, that is too little. "Bad Santa", bad movie.

Grade;+

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Little Lord Fauntleroy; drama, UK, 1980; D: Jack Lord, S: Ricky Schroder, Alec Guinness, Connie Booth, Eric Porter

New York, 19th century. The 10-year old Cedric lives with his American mother Errol, ever since his father, a British citizen, died. Cedric never met his grandfather, Earl of Dorincourt, because he was always ashamed that his noble son fell in love with an ordinary American woman. However, since all his other sons died, and Cedric is the only heir to the family, the rich Earl summons him to England. However, Cedric's mother is not invited and she must live in a house outside the Earl's castle. However, the cheerful and charitable Cedric quickly softens the Earl's cold heart and persuades him to help the poor, for instance by improving the living conditions of the tenants. After a suspicious woman claiming to be the mother of Earl's rightful grandson and heir is discredited, Cedric is acknowledged as the rightful heir and the Earl makes up with his mother, who is invited for Christmas.

Jack Lord's "Little Lord Fauntleroy" is one of the most popular film adaptations of the famous and beloved eponymous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and steadily built up quite a reputation - for instance, it is regularly shown on German TV almost every year for Christmas, thereby turning into a trademark for the holiday season - and is, despite its hype, a sweet and lovable, unassuming little film. The opening 20-30 minutes are rather slow and need time until they get going, whereas a few flaws can be easily detected by more serious film critics (for instance, the schematic presentation of a few messages; a few mechanic moments; a simplistic presentation), but overall, this is one of the most positive, emotional and well meaning films of the 80s, a wonderful story about a kid with a heart of gold who manages to ignite a spiritual transition of his grandfather's character from an extreme misanthropy to an extreme philanthropy. The viewer's hearts are definitely swayed in the scene where Cedric is riding on a pony, but spots a poor child walking on one crotch due to his disabled leg, stops and offers him a ride to him home - and to buy him another crotch. Even though more of his positive charitable actions should have been shown, instead of just three, it is enough to get the "bigger picture" and for the viewers to realize the deeper theme about the abolition of prejudice and stubborn selfishness. Ricky Schroder probably gave the role of a lifetime as the title kid, but Alec Guinness is great as the slowly transforming grandfather, as well, thereby strengthening the storyline.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl; comedy, UK/ USA, 1957; D: Laurence Olivier, S: Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Sybil Thorndike

Regent Charles, the ruler of Carpathia, a Balkan state, arrives in London to attend the coronation of George V. When he attends a stage musical, "The Coconut Girl", and is charmed by a showgirl in it, Marina. He invites her to his embassy for a one night stand, but she falls in love with him and drops unconscious from drinking alcohol. Charles wants to get rid of her the next morning, but Marina meets his mother-in-law, Dowager Queen, and thus stays to attend the coronation with the uneasy Charles. Staying around the embassy, Marina manages to stop a coup d'etat planned by Charles teenage son Nicholas, and actually helps them make out. Charles informs her that he will be an ordinary citizen in 18 months when Nicholas succeeds him, and Marina tells him she will wait for him.

Laurence Olivier's only comedy as a film director, "The Prince and the Showgirl" is a curiosity in his career, and a very uneven and stiff achievement since it seems he had difficulties handling humor instead of Shakespearean drama. For all the hype surrounding the actual filming, mostly focusing on the alleged problems with Marilyn Monroe who was supposedly very difficult to work with, it is even more surprising that in the final result, it is actually Monroe who is wonderfully charming and alive, whereas Olivier is weak. Actually, "The Prince..." is only and exclusively a good film thanks to Monroe, and without her - or some actress her calibre - it would have been a mediocre flick. It may seem like a heresy to claim that Monroe eclipsed Olivier, but in this edition, she simply did. Olivier plays the Prince with an awful accent, a stiff persona and no sense for comic timing, whereas his actions' are often puzzling: for instance, in his embassy, he obviously wants to seduce Marina for dinner, but for some reason spends the time reading newspapers while she is serving the food to herself at the table. When he finally does get into the mood, by having one of the servants play a violin outside the room, and Marina indeed tells him she is falling in love, she falls unconscious from too much alcohol - and he just drops her on the floor? And then leaves the room? It may have been a intentional choice to show the Prince as a nobility who lost touch with normal people, but it made him very difficult to like for the audience. The odd open ending does not help in the impression, either, but it has a certain spark thanks to Monroe. 54 years later, a film about filming "The Prince..." was made, "My Week with Marylin", which was - despite questions of its factual accuracy - a far more interesting take on it.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My Week with Marilyn

My Week with Marilyn; drama, UK, 2011; D: Simon Curtis, S: Eddie Redmayne, Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Dominic Cooper, Julia Ormond, Judi Dench, Emma Watson

Even though his parents think he is wasting his time with films and should instead find a real job, the 23-year old Colin Clark leaves his suburban home to go to London and somehow make it into film business. In '56, he gets a job as an assistant for the new film directed by Laurence Olivier, "The Prince and the Showgirl", starring Marilyn Monroe. Olivier and the studio were very excited to have her at first, but that quickly turned into a hassle when Monroe suffered from depression, forgot her lines, always came too late and would refuse to even rehearse without her coach. Olivier became a nervous wreck, but Colin managed to bond with Marilyn and they spent a weekend together as friends. After the film was completed, she left back to the US.

While "The Prince and the Showgirl" was a good film, some rightfully concluded that the turbulent relationship between its director, Laurence Olivier, and his star, Marilyn Monroe, during filming would have made for an even better film. Simon Curtis took over the direction position and brought those times back to life in "My Week with Marilyn", a bitter-sweet essay on the clash of two perspectives of appearance of celebrities - idealism and reality - told from the point-of-view of Colin Clark, who was an assistant during the making of the "The Prince..." and witnessed the events. While Clark's account is romantic and melancholic, especially during the week he spent with Marilyn - because he acted as her friend, not as her fan, and was thus true to himself, which she needed - he does not shy away from showing Marilyn's bizarre and confusing states of mind: one moment, she swims with him naked in a lake; the next one she shows him the cold shoulder, as if she does not know him anymore.

Monroe was more fascinating as a person than as a star, since, as the movie implies, only wanted love, but realized that maybe being a famous movie star was the wrong way to get it. As she says at one point in the film: "People want to be with Marilyn Monroe. And when they realize I am not her, they run away." This comes inside one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, when Colin climbs inside her bedroom after she locked herself inside and caused the people to worry since she did not reply. Even she needed a break from all the hype around her, and just a normal person to talk to. Michelle Williams delivered a great performance as the title heroine, and was, through some sweet irony, nominated for the same award as Monroe in "The Prince..." in '57, for a BAFTA as best actress. In such times of mass fake, action spectacles without a normal, decent story, "My Week..." seems even more refreshing: it is a simple, wonderful little story. And that's all it needs to be. And a giant love song to Marilyn and her sad side.

Grade;+++

Monday, 15 December 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; adventure fantasy, USA, 2007; D: Gore Verbinski, S: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Jack Davenport, Tom Hollander, Chow Yun-fat, Keith Richards

Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann and Barbossa team up to go Singapore to get special maps from  pirate Sao Feng, in order to get with their ship to the Underworld and return Jack Sparrow back to the living. With the nine pirate Lords now complete, they hold a meeting in order to declare a fight against the East India Trading Co., which created an alliance with Beckett and humanoid tentacle Davy Jones, who want to root out piracy completely. In a final duel, Sparrow and his ship crew prevail and kill Jones by stabbing his heart, which was locked inside a magical chest. Elizabeth and Turner marry.

With the 3rd part of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series, "At World's End", one can simply apply one logical conclusion: some films simply have a good story. Others, like this one, just convolute one obscure subplot into another, and then convolute it into another, and then into yet another, and another, until they get an artificially complex film consisting out of four weak subplots at once. But that contrived "muddle method" does not make those weak subplots any good, though. There are underworlds, humanoid tentacle monsters, black magic, a sea goddess and other combined with pirates, but one should not bother with trying to understand these storylines. To put is simple: the previous films were a hit, thus a sequel has to continue the franchise, and it would not matter even if UFOs and the Monster of Loch Ness would appear just as long they make the story go on and on. Even though it made history as the first film that broke the 300 million $ mark with its huge budget, "At World's End" is a completely obscure film, a pompous and tiresome CGI overkill with so little energy and care that it does not justify breaking the mark as previous films whose authors took a lot of care in making them great as well, such as the first film that had a budget of 100 million $ (Cameron's "Terminator 2") and 200 million $ (Cameron's "Titanic").

Numerous episodes lead nowhere. For instance, what was the point of the sea goddess Calypso, who had a grand announcement, only to grow into a giant and then desintegrate into thousands of crabs? What was the point of having the Singapore pirate, played by Chow Yun-fat, only to have him killed so soon in the story? On the other hand, the opening is actually quite funny: the mass arrest and execution of people suspect of aiding pirates, and a decree that proclaims the abolishment of habeas corpus, is maybe a sly commentary on Bush's treatment of people suspect of terrorism, whereas the first appearance of a singing Elizabeth and Barbossa, who encounter a Singapore guard, has a deliciously comical exchange (Guard: "A dangerous song to be singing for anyone ignorant of its meaning... Particularly a woman... Particularly a  woman alone." - Barbossa: "What makes you think she's alone?" - Guard: "You protect her?" - Elizabeth (puts a knife to the guard's throat): "What makes you think I need protecting?"). These comical moments are the only ones that ring true and are a welcomed "reserve" once the generic action and battles sequences start, which are sometimes unnecessary gory. The final battle is nowhere as fun or exciting as it could have been, but a few comical scenes even there - among them the wedding of Elizabeth and Will while fighting on the ship - shows that the authors still had some small sparks of inspiration that refused to die so easily in the sequel matrix.

Grade;+

Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; fantasy, USA/ New Zealand, 2012; D: Peter Jackson, S: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood

Bilbo Baggins recalls an adventure he had as a young lad: dragon Smaug showed up in a dwarf kingdom and expulsed its inhabitants, thereby taking the mountain of gold in the capital. The grandson of the former king Thror, Thorin, is thus angry at Elves for just standing by and not helping them. Wizard Gandalf shows up at Bilbo's home in the company of Thorin and 12 more dwarves - Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Dori and others - and persuades him to join them on their quest of reclaiming the capital from dragon Smaug. Along their way, Bilbo encounters Gollum and goblins who want to kill the group, but they manage to arrive at the edge of the mountain.

Almost a decade after "The Return of the King", director Peter Jackson returned to Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle-earth, but despite a solid result, the Jackson who did "Hobbit" coped far less here than the Jackson who did the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Numerous post-"The Lord of the Rings" fantasy films tried to rip-off Jackson's original film series, but what is truly surprising, is that Jackson in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Jounrey" actually tried to rip-off himself. Indeed, "Journey" is not so much an adaptation of Tolkien's eponymous beloved children's book as much as it is a huge reference and nod to "The Lord of the Rings", and too much of it, too, since it overshadowed the main plot. The first third of the film is actually good and has charm, especially the comical sequence where Bilbo is an unlikely host for the unexpected visit of a dozen dwarves and Gandalf who eat up all of his food supplies for diner, whereas the dragon attack sequence is finely made, especially since we do not see the dragon but only his flight above the village, yet as the story progresses, it is getting more and more obvious that the original "Hobbit" book could have been made in two, maybe even only one film, and that the narrative is getting heavily overstretched in order to fit into a movie trilogy - which is further exacerbated by the fact that even this first film last for 169 minutes! Events unfold, but the narrative is on "Stall" phase all of the time, until the end where the heroes finally reach their destination visible above the horizon. The CGI is an overkill, without a sense for adventure or awe, and instead just relies on endless display of CGI creatures, until the viewers become numb to the special effects. "Journey" is a solid film, but eclipsed by the better impression left by the same crew a decade ago.

Grade;+

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars

Battle Beyond the Stars; science-fiction action, USA, 1980; D: Jimmy T. Murakami, S: Richard Thomas, Darlanne Fluegel, John Saxon, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, Sybil Danning

Space imperialist Sador arrives with his army at the orbit of peaceful planet Akir and demands that the people surrender to him. Refusing the annexation, but unable to fight, the nation sends one lad, Shad, to escape with his spaceship and go on a search to find mercenaries who will fight for them. Shad finds seven willing - a girl, Nanelia; a Space Cowboy; Gelt; a collective of aliens, Nestor; reptile Cayman; another alien and Saint Exmin, a blond Valkyrie warrior. In the self-defence, all of them die, except Nanelia and Shad, who manage to detonate a bomb inside Sador's spaceship, thereby killing him.

This cult patchwork Sci-Fi retelling of "The Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven" is a solid and easily watchable film without reaching the heights of its role models, and enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame in the 80s because it was riding on the wave of Sci-Fi 'boom' after "Star Wars" and "Alien". Despite 'abridged' special effects and a limited budget, some effects of spaceships in space are surprisingly good, whereas the story flows smoothly, however, for a screenplay written by John Sayles, the story lacks charm and its two main protagonists - Shad and Nanelia - are disappointingly bland, stiff and unmemorable. A few moments of inspiration and wit show up here and there (a humorous scene where an alien says how it is refreshing that humans only need two genders to have sex, while three genders are needed for its species; the Nestor collective of aliens tries an assassination attempt by controlling the transplanted arm of one of their specimen that was implanted on dictator Sador), but they are in the minority and the story seems pretty standard most of the time. As such, "Battle Beyond the Stars" is not as fun as it could have been, though it is done with measure and without excess. Some supporting characters almost steal the show from the two heroes, among them Robert Vaughn as mercenary Gelt, whereas Sybil Danning stands out the most as the feisty, blond Valkyrie woman with a silver bikini and diadem that make her irresistibly beautiful - quite frankly, she should have been the lead.

Grade;+

Friday, 12 December 2014

Something Evil

Something Evil; horror, USA, 1972; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy, Johnny Whitaker

While painting a farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, Marjorie persuades her husband, Paul, to buy the house. Since Paul is a busy TV commercials producer working in New York, he is often absent while Marjorie is alone in the farmhouse with their two kids, son Stevie and a daughter. One night, she hears a child's moaning in the barn, but finds nobody there. After filmming a commercial in the house, a crew member and his wife die in a bizarre car crash after driving back home. After hearing the previous owner killed himself, Marjorie concludes the farmhouse is haunted and wants to sell it, but Paul is against it. She hires a paranormal enthusiast, Harry, to investigate, but he too is soon found dead. It turns out Stevie is possessed by the devil, but Marjorie is able to save him through her love. The family then abandons the house.

Sandwiched between his two thriller-horror classics, "Duel" and "Jaws", haunted house film "Something Evil" is a curiosity in the early career of director Steven Spielberg, and forms his unusual semi-trilogy of horror films during the early 70s. While undeniably weaker than those two aforementioned films, "Something Evil" is still a surprisingly good and nicely made film: the location scouts found the film a fantastic location of a secluded, countryside farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, which neatly sets up a mood of isolation in case of danger, and Spielberg knew very well how to slowly build up elevated, sophisticated suspense at times - for instance, the eerie sequence when an editor calls Paul to show him the footage of the commercial filmmed in front of his house, and then pauses when two red eyes can be clearly seen in the window in the background - but that high impression is not supported in the second half of the film, which turns out slightly overstretched, chaotic and repetitive as time goes by. For instance, when the mother wakes up in the middle of night to inspect a sound of child's moaning in the barn, the sequence works and has suspense. But when she goes for a 2nd time, it is not that genuine anymore. Likewise, the authors were not as inventive enough in that second half to conjure up any new "spooky details" that would cause suspense in the house, except for the standard ones like things flying through the house. The visual style is very fine and this is an overall interesting forerunner to Spielberg's own "Poltergeist" made a decade later.

Grade;++

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Who Am I?

Wo shi shei; action comedy, China/ South Africa, 1998; D: Jackie Chan, S: Jackie Chan, Ron Smerczak, Michelle Ferre, Mirai Yamamoto

Somewhere in the South African desert, Jackie awakens after a head injury in a village of a local tribe, and cannot remember who he is. He decides to head for civilization and encounters Yuki at a desert race. In Johannesburg, he is contacted by a man who claims to be from CIA, Morgan, who questions him but gives up when he realizes he suffers from amnesia. Jackie teams up with Christine, a woman who claims to be a reporter, and remembers he was part of a secret unit that was disposed off in a helicopter after they had scientists kidnapped to create a mineral that whose energy can be used as a weapon. Jackie and Christine travel to Rotterdam and apprehend Morgan, who betrayed the CIA in order to get rich by selling the mineral. Christine herself turns out to be from the CIA.

Another strong example of Jackie Chan's comic and martial arts abilities, this humorous forerunner to "The Bourne Identity" excels the most in virtuoso choreographed action sequences which eclipse many other action films of its time. "Who Am I?" is a super fast, dynamic and engaging film done in the 'good old school' way, i.e. with a classic narrative and good and bad guys, whereas the crystal clear cinematography is fantastic, and the only aspect that disappoints is the pale music and a lack of a proper resolution of the storyline (the fast pace may have fooled some viewers to forget about the fact that the second female heroine, Yuki, simply "disappears" in the last third of the film, while Jackie never returns to visit the African kid who helped him when he was in his village). The story is all over the place, but it is just a front to have Chan do some fighting, anyway, and some of his stunts may again cause dizziness - the "slide" down the tipped roof of the building; the humorous scene where Chan climbs up the top of a tree to escape a lion that climbs half way, as well; using a jacket to capture a villain's hands and tie them into a not on his head; the way Chan saves a dog while a piano and a glass cube crash in front and behind him... The locations in South Africa are very aesthetic, as well. A small jewel here is the very charismatic Michelle Ferre as the main heroine Christine, one of the best actresses the producers were dumb enough never to use again.

Grade;++

Friday, 5 December 2014

Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour; musical, UK, 1967; D: Bernard Knowles, S: Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Jessie Robins

Richard Starkey and his aunt Jessie board a bus for a magical mystery tour. The bus is filled with passengers, including a tour director, a hostess and a dwarf. Along the bus drive through the countryside, they stop by and encounter several misadventures, including entering a small tent holding a screening room inside, whereas Jessie has dreams about food in a restaurant. At the end of the journey, they reach a stage where the Beatles perform a song.

The 3rd out of only four films featuring the Beatles - excluding their documentary "Let it Be" - "Magical Mystery Tour" is almost unanimously considered their weakest film, and with only 52 minutes of running time, their also shortest and least inspired one. The film is deliberately confusing, trying to just play out as a film without a plot or a script, full of random ideas, yet most of them are underdeveloped and do not have a point, which makes them - and the whole film - seem unfinished. The ending could very well come at any point, since nothing connects with anything. The main framing point, the bus drive through the countryside, is stimulative, but it is constantly interrupted with various fantasy sequences that stick out as a sore thumb (a man dreaming that he is at the beach with Ringo's aunt Jessie; Jessie dreaming of food in a restaurant; the magicians; dwarfs wrestling...), ultimately creating a bizarre contradiction - the Beatles in a weak film. Only small crumbs of fun are present here, such as the "stolen" moment where Lennon has an exchange with a little child ("I have a present for you. Do you know what it is?" - "No." - "Take a guess!" - "No." - "Take a guess!" - No!" - "Well, I will give it to you anyway"). Admittedly, one has to point out that almost every film Beatles film was surreal, but this one was the least fun and has the weakest soundtrack of them all (the weak song "I Am the Walrus" does not give you a kick as much as the songs in "A Hard Day's Night", for instance). However, the Beatles would a year later spectacularly redeem themselves with their best film, the dreamy "Yellow Submarine", which is a holiday for film buffs.

Grade;+

Thursday, 4 December 2014

From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love; thriller, UK, 1963; D: Terence Young, S; Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz

In order to obtain the Soviet cryptographic machine, the Lektor, and take revenge on secret agent James Bond for killing Dr. No at the same time, the secret organization SPECTRE envisages a sly plan: they order the their loyal secret agent, Soviet operative Rosa Klebb, to find a woman from the Soviet embassy in Istanbul, Tatiana, to feign that she wants to defect to the West and give them the Lektor, but only on the condition that Bond accompanies her. MI6 takes the bait, and Bond goes to Istanbul and meets Tatiana. They steal the Lektor and take a train trip through the Balkans to get to Trieste. SPECTRE agent Grant tries to kill Bond but fails. Bond thus arrives to Trieste while Tatiana truly falls for him.

The 2nd James Bond film, "From Russia with Love" is an improvement to the shaky first film, "Dr. No", and an appropriately suspenseful, dynamic and engaging spy action flick, a product of its time, namely the Cold War. Obviously, it is a too simplistic presentation of the matter, an escapist action fun, yet since it never aims for some higher ambitions, it is unpretentious and completely relaxed, thus entirely suitable for a light entertainment. Sean Connery made a huge improvement in playing James Bond compared to the 1st film, and is very charismatic and assertive in this film, whereas the Bond franchise "trademark", the opening credits - here involving the cast credits being screened on the body of a woman in the dark - are among the most inventive, visually exquisite of the entire film series. The story takes a while until it gets going, and more could have been done out of it, but as it is, is has enough highlights, especially in the untypical train sequence where Bond and Tatiana are travelling across Belgrade and Zagreb to get to Trieste, which is refreshingly devoid of action and focuses more on the build up of tension, since it is never known how the secret organization SPECTRE is going to assault the two protagonists. Tatiana is also a surprisingly well made character, who goes through a transformation when she decides to abandon the Soviet Totalitarianism and honestly escape with Bond to the West. Overall, a very fluent, and very confident Bond film.

Grade;++

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Undo

Undo; science-fiction drama short, Croatia, 2014; D: Vedran Pavličević, S: Sven Jakir, Matea Koller, Vedran Knez, Bojana Benić, Marko Dabelić

A guy is running through the streets towards his girlfriend, but only finds an empty bus station - she left in the car of another guy just seconds ago. He decides to sit on the bench and wait for the bus. He finds a computer keyboard on the floor, presses the "undo" button - and finds out it can undo events a couple of minutes ago. The bicycle man who passed by him passes again; a girl who walked pass him, passes again... The guy thus decides to press the button ever further, hoping to turnabout the time, up until the point before his girlfriend left. He manages, but at a terrible cost - the two timeline events clash, and he is hit by a car and killed.

In his directorial debut, Vedran Pavlicevic showed a remarkable sense for filmmaking and a sure director's hand in compiling events into a harmonius whole. "Undo" is a sharp, well made short, a film without any dialogues or character names, where the viewers get just enough data to figure what is going on. Even though it may be classified as a time travel film, it is more of a symbolic, imaginative "what if?" concept which explores what would happen if a guy would discover a PC keyboard that could "undo" real life events, just as it is done to correct a mistake while writing on a PC document. This is a minimalist film, and done with weight. The scene where a girl, some passer-bys and a bicycle man pass by the protagonist sitting on the bench, and he presses "CTRL + Z" on the keyboard, upon which the same girl, the same passer-bys and the same bicycle man pass again, the hero starts laughing realizing the potentials of the magical keyboard - it is a powerful moment. We do not know why he was running towards the girl. We do not know why the girl left in some car, before he could reach the station. But we sense there is something romantic between them and this justifies why the guy keeps pushing the undo function, hoping to travel further and further back in the timeline to meet her again and change the past. Even though it is reminiscent of the ending of "La Jetee", the plot twist is strong and seems genuine, because the set-up of intervening timelines is done so subtly many viewers will have to watch two crucial scenes carefully (the bicycle man crashing with someone is a "smoking gun"). For a 15 minutes short, "Undo" pretty much exploited all its potentials.

Grade;+++

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Watch

The Watch; science-fiction comedy, USA, 2012; D: Akiva Schaffer, S: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade

Ohio. In order to find the murderer of a security guard of his store, manager Evan decides to assemble a local neighborhood watch. However, only three people join him: Bob, Franklin and Jamarcus. They design their own jackets and isignia and start patrolling the neighborhood at night. One night, they find a strange orb that can shoot destructive laser beams. Evan and Jamarcus even manage to capture a real alien, but it escapes. They discover that the aliens plan to destroy the human kind - they hear that from Jamarcus, who himself reveals to be an alien in human disguise. However, with Jamarcus' help, they are able to stop the aliens and save the world.

"The Watch" is a very, very uneven patchwork, but thanks to some good parts, it is at least a 'guilty pleasure'. There are several problems that plague the film. For one, the original title, "The Neighborhood Watch", was perfect, but the producers decided to opt for this one after one murder incident in 2012 involving the neighborhood watch - 2012 is gone, but the film is now forever stuck with an abridged title. The sole concept is great, and it takes an unusual twist by turning into a SF alien story in the second half, aiming at the "Ghostbusters" vibe, except that Venkman, Stantz and Spengler had a more sophisticated, elevated humor and would definitely never talk about such vulgar things as "cum" or childish comments about someone's marriage problems caused by infertility, which makes "The Watch" crude.

The storyline strays in several directions, but ultimately it would not matter what direction it would take as long as it would have inspiration and be funny, yet, unfortunately, the majority of the attempts at humor lead nowhere - for instance, in one sequence, the four protagonists are sitting in the car at night, observing a building. Bob has to pee so he uses an empty beer can to urinate inside. One would expect that a brilliant comic payoff would come after this, but for some reason, this empty scene is all there is, and that's it. The bizarre 'plot twist' also clashes with practically everything already seen in the film and is unnecessary. However, at least two jokes somehow made it to the top and are worth seeing. One is when Evan and Franklin bring a teenager to the police department and accuse him of throwing eggs at them, and Even simply has to add a hilarious, killer line: "He threw eggs at us. Eggs. Coward's weapon." The other sequence simply tops everything in the film and is howlingly funny: after they capture a dead alien in their home, the four protagonists spend dozens and dozens of parade photos, involving putting a blond wig on the alien (!), putting a cigar in alien's mouth or Franklin making a sexual innuendo position by standing behind it.

Grade;+

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Now You Tell One

Now You Tell One; silent comedy short, USA, 1926; D: Charles Bowers, Harold L. Muller, S: Charles Bowers

The Liars Club members hold their meeting and compete by telling the most outrageous stories in order to get the big prize as the biggest liar. However, one member thinks those are petty lies and leaves the meeting. He finds a man, Charley, trying to light a cannon with his head inside, and brings him to the Liars Club. There, Charley tells them his story: he invented a potion that enables him to grown anything fast thanks to simple grafting. He is thus able to grow eggplants, trees and other from seeds in a matter of seconds. However, he met a girl who was plagued by mice in her house, so he grew dozens and dozens of cats to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the girl wasn't the farmer's daughter, but his wife. Charley thus gets the liars prize - but his story was true.

One of the best films of the unknown and neglected comedian Charles Bowers, who coined a trademark with playing a geek character who creates the most insane inventions, "Now You Tell One" is a great little silent comedy short that features some of his most creative and inventive ideas involving his other trademark, the bizarre stop-motion animation effects. The sole setting inside a Liars Club meeting, who try to outdo each other with incredible lies, is already very fun - since their stories are "embodied" with short clips (one member brags how over 40 elephants went to the Capitol Hill, and then elephants are shown entering it; the other is shown literally shrinking in order to hide under his hat, a when the suspect enters the room and throws the hat away, he emerges from it behind the bed and catches him). Once Bowers enters the stage, the storyline just gets even crazier, and in a good and clever way, too. His invention, the potion that causes anything to grow and graft super-fast, is totally weird but very comical, and has inspiration in several moments (he puts a small plant on the ground, under a farmer's foot, and the plant starts growing so fast it enters the farmer's pants and sleeve, transforming into a tree whose branches "perforate" him, making him stay on the tree like a scarecrow). Even though the story starts losing momentum near the end, since a few empty scenes do not make up a natural continuation of the high impression assembled at the start, "Now You..." manages to become one of Bowers' most complete achievements, a pure comedy of the absurd.

Grade;+++

There It Is

There It Is; silent comedy short, USA, 1928; D: Harold L. Muller, Chrales Bowers, S: Charles Bowers, Kathryn McGuire, Melbourne MacDowell

When a chicken emerges from a scrambled egg and some unworn pants start dancing by themselves, four people of a mansion suspect the place is haunted. They call the Scotland Yard, who sends them detective Charley from Scotland to investigate the case. He finds a mysterious man with a beard quickly moving across the house, and the butler suspects it might be the ghost. However, it turns out the man with a beard is just a grandfather whom a family forgot to pick up, and that the people inside the mansion are actually patients in a mental asylum.

A haunted house story was always a very thankful concept for a film, and neglected comedian Charles Bowers made a good film out of it in "There It Is", but not a great one as did Linder in "Help!" four years prior. Interestingly, both films also have a similar twist ending, but even the one in "Help!" seems much more consistent and logical. Abandoning his trademark of inventions here, Bowers does a good job as a man who investigates the case of a haunted house, yet the storyline is never as fun as it could have been and loses steam in the middle. The highlights are definitely once again Bowers' other trademark, the bizarre stop-motion animation sequences: in one great scene, the bed starts "shaking" all by itself while Bowers is trying to sleep, whereas a painting of a ship on the sea "comes to life" and even splashes water from the wall on the protagonist. Another great moment comes when Bowers wants to make a phone call, but flies several feet up in the air because the handset starts floating. Overall, an untypical, but well done silent short.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Idiocracy

Idiocracy; science-fiction satire, USA, 2005; D: Mike Judge, S: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Allan Crews, Justin Long

The most average man on Earth, Joe, accepts participating in a military hibernation experiment, together with a prostitute, Rita. However, the experiment in forgotten, and instead of staying frozen one year, the stay for 500 years, awakening finally in 2505. Joe and Rita are shocked to find out that people actually became more stupid in the future. This makes Joe the smartest man on Earth and he is drafted by the US President, Camacho, a former porn star, to help save the economy. Joe suggests to start watering the plants to save the crops, instead of pouring a sports drink on the field, but the people rebel and punish him by throwing him into a monster truck show. Joe manages to survive when the crops start to grow. He is elected the new President of the US, and marries Rita.

"Dumb and Dumber" meets "Mad Max" - Mike Judge's 3rd feature length film, "Idiocracy", is a shocking twist to several utopias that envisaged a perfect future thanks to human progress, by pointing out that dysgenics may cause a decline of the human IQ and that the 20th century may have been the human highlight, though, as it is often said that almost every film is a product of its time, it may also be a sly commentary on the Bush administration and where the society may take a wrong turn when stupidity is presented as something cool. The opening is brilliant: it highlights two couples - an intelligent one and a dumb one - and then shows that the intelligent lose their spot in the Sun when they rationalize too long about having their first kid while the dumb couple just simply has several kids, without any thinking or planning, who in turn again have several kids, until the dumb ones become a majority. The main plot, where Joe and Rita become the smartest people on Earth in 2505, is great, but the execution is far weaker since too many jokes are delivered only at first glance - i.e. dumb people doing dumb stuff - and only few of them actually carry something sophisticated to them (one great exception is when Rita asks Joe: "Do you think Einstein walked around thinking everyone was a bunch of dumb-shits?" or when the movie makes fun of the TV shows of the future that consist only from people farting or getting kicked in the crotch, pulling parallels with today's simplistic entertainment). The sloppy and underdeveloped storyline, equipped with an anticlimactic ending, makes the viewers wish for a better format of the concept, yet its cult status is assured, since too many of those characters seem eerily familiar with the people around us.

Grade;++

Monday, 24 November 2014

A Separation

Jodai-e Nader az Simin; drama, Iran, 2011; D: Asghar Farhadi, S: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi

A married couple, Nader and Simin, file for divorce: she wants to leave the country with her daughter Termeh, while he wants to stay. Once Simin leaves their apartment, Nader is in a pinch since he needs someone to take care for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, while he is at work and Termeh in school, He hires a woman, Razieh, for that job. However, when he returns early from work, he finds his father on the ground, with his arm tied to the bed, in the empty apartment. Razieh returns and apologizes, claiming she had to leave for five minutes, but Nader fires her. In the commotion, he drags her out of his apartment. That evening, Razieh lands in the hospital and has a miscarriage, while her husband presses charges against Nadin for pushing her down stairs. Simin tries to make a settlement out of court.

Asghar Farhadi's most famous film - in international aspect - is a contemplative and ambitious intimate drama about family problems, with numerous bitter details that seem almost too painful, but that is refreshingly calm, emotional and genuine, congruent with Iran's meditative-conservative mentality. The main title, "A Separation", is actually misleading: the plot veers off of course to focus on Nader experiencing too much pressure at home when he has problems finding someone to take care for his old father suffering from dementia, and there is another storyline - the miscarriage trial - which quickly becomes the main plot point and carries the most weight. However, while this three plot structure may seem uneven, it is overall engaging and has power - the trial is definitely the main highlight: the viewers root almost the entire time for Nadir, who is an educated and rational man, whereas one questions the motives of Razieh, a woman from poor suburb who claims that she had a miscarriage after he pushed her downstairs. And that disputed event is directed wonderfully subtle: it comes when you least expect it, it happens in only three seconds and then the movie quickly moves on. But once when you rewind the film and return to that disputed event, it is clearly visible that Nadir indeed pushed her out of his apartment - and that, despite all the viewer's sympathy, he may, objectively, indeed be guilty. The message is devastating, namely that people may be gentlemen, cultured and sophisticated all their life, but that just one moment of carelessness might lead to catastrophic consequences. Farhadi manages to alleviate the mood, though, (after Nadir interrogates Razieh's little daughter in his home, he tells her she may go now, but adds: "Watch out for that stairs!") and crafts a honest and unassuming little film.

Grade;+++

Friday, 21 November 2014

A Special Day

Une giornata particolare; drama, Italy/ Canada, 1977; D: Ettore Scola, S: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, John Vernon

On 8 May 1938, Hitler visits Mussolini in Rome. Antonietta is a obedient housewife and mother of six children, and stays in her apartment while her husband, kids and neghbors all go to watch the event. Her bird escapes from the cage and lands at the window of a neighbor, Gabriele. She enters his apartment and he helps her catch the bird. Later, since they are the only people in the apartment complex, he visits her and they start talking about life, feminism and art. She kisses him, but he admits he is gay, which is why he lost his job. However, they still have sex. He returns to his apartment only to be taken away by two agents of the special police, while Antonietta starts reading the book he gave her, and starts thinking she is more than just what the society tells her to be.

Ettore Scola came up with a magical title for his film, "A Special Day", a minimalist drama that plays out on only one location for 24 hours, but the film is only sporadically magical itself. The setting and the concept are brilliant: when two Totalitarian dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, meet in Rome, all the scum leaves an apartment complex to watch their "power", while only two human beings with a soul remain, two neighbors, Antonietta and Gabriele, and thus find to each other in this vacuum. There is something opulent in this concept that makes you enjoy "crunching" it down in your mind. The (2nd) opening shot (just after the archive footage of the dictators arriving), in which the camera rises to the window of the apartment and into the room of Antonietta, is virtuoso made, filmed in one take. Unfortunately, the sole core of the film, the interaction between Antonietta and Gabriele, is sadly lukewarm. We never get why they connect, how or on which level, whereas their talk is not that stimulating and lacks true spark and passion. We find out that Gabriele is gay and will thus become one of the victims of the authoritarian regime, while his contemplations manage to transport some anti-totalitarian thoughts in Antonietta, which may explain why he awakened her interest by sparking her feminism and independence, but except for that, little else prevails to hold their interaction on a higher level. We see them, but don't (entirely) feel them. Still, "A Special Day" has a very smooth structure and only one poor scene - while Antonietta and Gabriele are about to have sex, Hitler's voice and the crowed cheering are heard in the background, which is very rough and disproportionate. One can guess what Scola was aiming for, to show the contrast between hate and love in one scene, but it still seems weird nonetheless. Overall, this is a quality, intelligent and contemplative little film that evokes memories of "Brief Encounter".

Grade;++

B Gata H Kei

B Gata H Kei; animated erotic romantic comedy, Japan, 2010; D: Yusuke Yamamoto, S: Yukari Tamura, Atsushi Abe, Yui Horie

Yamada is a high school girl who thinks it is about time she lost her virginity. And she is popular enough to do so, but decides to try it out first with an uglier guy, Kosuda, a virgin himself, thinking it will be easier since such an inexperienced guy won't notice her strange looking vagina. However, Yamada is awfully indecisive and spends weeks setting up pretexts to meet him, only to give up on everything in the last minute. Even her classmate Takeshita is annoyed by that. Finally, Yamada and Kosuda rent a room in a love hotel - but just as they were about to do it, she accidentally presses a button that starts rotating the bed, which injures Kosuda and sends him in the hospital.

When a heroine at the beginning of a story announces that she will sleep with "a thousand men", and by the end of the show she is still a virgin, one can safely assume that the show is misleading the audience. "B Gata H Kei" is a truly anticlimactic anime: despite setting out to be an erotic romantic comedy, it ends up being not even a romantic comedy, or just a comedy, since the silly and goofy "Loony Tunes" like jokes disrupt any attempts at romance, and are not sufficient to carry the comedy assembly. The main problem is that the heroine in question, teenage girl Yamada, is catastrophically indecisive - on one hand, she wants to seduce Kosuda, but on the other, just as she is about to do it, she suddenly backs off and runs away. And this is repeated for the entire storyline. For instance, when she is about to "seduce" Kosuda in the photo darkroom, someone knocks on the door and interrupts them, and when he is about to say that he loves her, the doors of the rapid transit close and "pinch" his head, whereupon the train drives off before he can finish his sentence. Needless to say, it becomes tiresome really quickly.

Out of 12 episode, the only good stuff is in the first two and the last two, while the whole middle is full of empty walk. The supporting characters are interesting, like the purple haired "villainess" Kyoka Kanejo (in one great humorous scene, she even plays piano and sings her "rivalry" song aimed at "destroying" her nemesis Yamada, with such lyrics as: "By stealing Yamada's boyfriend and chucking him, I'll show the difference in power between us..!"), but the majority of them plays almost no role in the story or rarely have moments when they can shine, which makes their presence here hardly necessary. As said, only the last two episodes have some interesting moments, but even when Yamada and Kosuda are finally alone in a love hotel, just about to have sex for the first time, even then the author ruins it - with more dumb humor. There was never a season 2, and that is good that way, since it would have been tiresome to watch further 12 episodes of Yamada and Kosuda messing it up just to remain virgins at the end, anyway.

Grade;+

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Sitter

The Sitter; comedy, USA, 2011; D: David Gordon Green, S: Jonah Hill, Max Records, Landry Bender, Sam Rockwell, Ari Graynor

The lazy and unemployed Noah is persuaded by his mother to accept a job as a babysitter for Mrs Pedulia's three kids: the over-sensitive 13-year old Slater, the celebrity obsessed Blithe and the adopted, problematic Rodrigo who often likes to play with dynamite. When a girl, Maria, phones him to bring cocaine to her party, Noah takes the three kids with him to New York. Unfortunately, Rodrigo steals and breaks the egg full of cocaine from a gangster, Karl, who now gives Noah until midnight to bring him 10,000 $ as a compensation. Through various misadventures, Noah manages to stop Karl by having a gang beat him up; talk and bring some sense to the three kids before bringing them back home and meeting a new girlfriend, Roxanne.

"The Sitter" is one of those mainstream comedies from which the most you can expect are a few good laughs here and there, and nothing else. Unlike other babysitting comedies, like "The Pacifier", this one surprisingly does not play out inside the home of the kids, but goes bizarrely out of the way when the babysitter Noah goes into the city and brings the three kids with him: it is almost as if the movie started with one plot point, only to swing over to a completely different one. Because, for the remained of the film, the story is only about Noah trying to get money to appease the gangster Karl, and the three kids that accompany him in the car seem almost like a third wheel in the narrative. They are practically not needed. However, one has to admit that Jonah Hill is excellent in the main role as Noah: unlike other comedians who are hyperactive, loud and full of grimaces, he is perfectly calm and stoic almost even during panic situations, which gives him an aura of a more elevated comedian. There is this brilliant scene when his character says a quietly hilarious line: "Even for a kid, you sound like an idiot." Likewise, near the end of the movie, Noah actually gives two wise advices to Slater and Blithe, which somewhat justifies their presence in the story - but not of Rodrigo, whose character of a kid who throws dynamite to blow up public toilets was completely misguided from start to finish. A mess of a film, with several questionable ideas (for instance, having Blithe, the little girl, wear too much make up the entire film), yet with a few funny moments, the best arriving with the closing credits of the main characters appearing as police sketeches with hilarious captions. But "Uncle Buck" it ain't.

Grade;+

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Scientific Cardplayer

Lo scopone scientifico; comedy, Italy, 1972, D: Luigi Comencini, S: Alberto Sordi, Silvana Mangano, Bette Davis, Joseph Cotten

For years, a strange tradition is upheld: an extremely rich old American lady invites a poor couple, Peppino and Antonia, to play the card game scopone in her mansion, with her driver George. Each time she borrows them money to play with her, but at the end of the night, she wins every time. Peppino, the father of five children, decides to win at least once. And indeed, they win several millions of lire. However, Antonia becomes greedy and persuades Peppino to return to the mansion in order to win even more money from the ol lady. They win a huge amount of money, but lose it again in a 'double-or-nothing' rule. When they even invest their own money, they lose and become homeless. However, their daughter gave a poisoned cake to the old lady before the latter went on a airplane trip back home.

A modern retelling of the Greek mythological figure of Tantalus, in which a poor couple are taunted with the prospect of winning millions of lire in a card game just to lose them every time, "The Scientific Cardplayer" is an appropriately black comedy, a good, but not a great achievement. Considering that the majority of the viewers do not know anything about the scopone card game, nor about the rules or their procedure, it is remarkable that it still manages to carry the whole film, kudos to director Luigi Comencini who tied it with the fate of the poor couple who are always on the edge of their seats and whose lives are at stake in every game, which makes it engaging. However, the movie is very flat in its dramaturgy, which can become slightly monotone after a while, and a few major punchlines in the jokes are "missing". As a compensation, considering that the viewers rooted for the poor couple to win, and that in any mainstream film they would, the ending is a complete, genuine surprise, and catches you off guard. Also, one simply has to mention Bette Davis in the role of the 'sadistic' old rich lady, who seems to be enjoying taunting the poor couple, which is expectadly another great perfromance of hers.

Grade;++

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Farewell

Proschianie; drama, Russia, 1983; D: Elem Klimov, S: Stefaniya Staniyuta, Lev Durov, Alexey Petrenko, Leonid Kryuk

One day, peaceful people of a small, idylic village of Matyora, situated on an island with the same name, are informed by the authorities that every one of them must leave the place because the whole area will be flooded in order to build a hydroeletric power plant. The authorities slowly implement the expulsion, while a very tall tree seems to be impossible to uproot. One old grandmother is particularly sad that she has to leave the place she lived in all her life, and the graves of her ancestors. When all the animals are deported, she spends the last night in her home before the authorities put it on fire. The island is flooded, but one inhabitant starts screaming "Matyora!" while passing in a ship on the flooded area.

Elem Klimov's 4th and penultimate film, "Farewell" is a slow and heavy, but very ambitious drama that works on several layers. For one, the most obvious theme is the ecology, the toll caused by the ever increasing technology that threatens to swallow the last idyllic places of nature, as well as the contemplation about people who live in harmony and respect with nature - embodied by the grandmother to whom the island has an almost religious importance - and the new generation that finds more satisfaction in machines and virtual reality than true reality, whom they don't care about anymore. This is embodied in the giant, tall tree that serves as the spirit of the island and defies the efforts of the cold authorities to remove it - they try to chop it, but the chainsaw breaks; they try to tip it, but the bulldozer stops when it crashes into it. However, there seems to be a more subtle theme in here, as well, a one that went right over the heads of the viewers, namely that the story is actually an allegoric catharsis caused by one specific subconscious guilt - the Soviet deportations. The parallels seem very palpable when one has this in mind: people are informed by the authorities that they must collectively leave their homeland, to go into the unknown, and the scenes corroborate this notion (the cattle collected on a ship to be shipped away; the grandmother who spends the last night at her home; authorities who burn all the houses, almost as if to "wipe" out every traces of the existence of this nation). This seems almost identical with what Estonians, Lithuanians or Chechens had to endure. "Farewell" suffers from too much empty walk and overstretched moments, yet Klimov never tests the patience of the viewers as much as let's say Tarkovsky. Maybe the characters could have been better developed, as well, but the overall story works even without that.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Office Space

Office Space; satire, USA, 1999; D: Mike Judge, S: Ron Livingston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Jennifer Aniston, Gary Cole, Stephen Root, John C. McGinley

Peter has a terribly monotone and stressful job in a software company, and is increasingly anxious for having to work in cubicles. However, one day, a psychiatrist manages to hypnotize him and end his tension. Completely relaxed, Peter does not show up for work for days, and when he openly tells two downsizing consultants that he does not have any motivation for his work, instead of getting fired, he is promoted and his boss punished for not motivating employees. He even takes courage to take a waitress, Joanna, out for a date. Together with two employees who will get fired, Michael and Samir, he coins a software that will extract penny decimals of company's transactions to their account. Luckily, the company ends up in flames and thus they are not caught.

After his thin debut film "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America", Mike Judge surprised with his 2nd film that reversed his cheap humor, the intelligent "Office Space", which is a grand satire on corporatism and the toll of stressful jobs on employees. From the opening - where the hero Peter is waiting in his car in an endless traffic jam, then switches to the right track because the cars are moving there, only to find out that his "new" track has now stopped, while his "old" track started moving as soon as he left it - is a brilliant introduction of the "cursed" little worker who finds endless plight surrounding even the path to his humiliating job, while the movie works and grows thanks to clever observations and quietly hilarious humor originating from the work environment in which people are treated as cattle - the highlight is probably the funniest joke, where consultant Bob informs the boss that one meek employee, Milton, "was fired five years ago, but no one ever told him about it; but through some kind of glitch in the payroll department, he still gets a paycheck". There is something true to this storyline, and one can sense it. One great way of escapism is provided after Peter finally manages to relax after years of stress, and completely turns his behavior upside down in one subplot. The last third of the film is the weakest, since it abandoned the theme of work and went on to an obscure software heist scheme that leads nowhere, thus diminishing the overall effect. Nonethless, despite various omissions, this forerunner to "The Office" is a therapeutic essay on work many can identify with, and a tribute to anyone who ever had a job he/she did not like.

Grade;+++

Ikarie XB-1

Ikarie XB-1; science-fiction, Czech Republic, 1963; D: Jindrich Polak, S: Zdenek Štepanek, Radovan Lukavsky, František Smolik, Otto Lackovič, Jozef Adamovič

In the future, a crew of about 40 astronauts is travelling in the spaceship Ikarie XB-1 to Sun's nearest solar system, Alpha Centauri, to explore if there is life there. Due to their high speed, it will take two and half years until they get there, but 15 years will have passed on Earth. They encounter a space ship, but it turns out to be from Earth, sent there in the 20th century, while all inhabitants are dead. That ship explodes and kills two crew members. One crew member goes crazy from isolation in space and threatens to sabotage Ikarie XB-1, while one woman is pregnant and gives birth. They are also followed by a strange, unknown dark star. They finally reach Alpha Centauri's planet, and find a city on its surface,

"The Magellanic Cloud" is not among Stanislaw Lem's better SF books, but it is still superior - and far more conclusive - than the movie that was based on it, "Ikarie XB-1", which nonetheless gained cult status for being one of the handful of Czech SF films of the 20th century, thereby showing remarkable audacity. Unfortunately, remarkable audacity aside, the film itself is sadly dated: filmmed in black and white, with noticeably 60s set designs of the spaceship and uniforms, as well as disappointingly bland and one-dimensional characters in which nobody stands out, which makes the whole storyline faceless. Unlike the book, the film does not have a beginning nor an ending - it starts with the crew already travelling inside the spaceship, without showing the "why" and "how" that lead to it, and it ends with one of the worst cop-out, anticlimactic endings that abruptly terminate the story just when it became good - which makes it seems as if half of the narrative is missing, as well as some sort of an conclusion. In one sequence, for instance, after entering the Alpha Centauri system, the spaceship finds a derelict spaceship from Earth (!), with dead people inside it, sent from the 20th century, but there is no explanation as to why or how it got there. Such and other inconsistencies bother, yet one can enjoy bits and parts of it that are good, since such films were rare outside the English speaking cinema world.

Grade;+

Monday, 10 November 2014

Agony

Agoniya; drama, Russia, 1975, D: Elem Klimov, S: Alexei petrenko, Anatoly Romashin, Velta Line, Alisa Friendlich

Imperialist Russia, 1916. The emperor, Tsar Nicholas II of the Romanov dynasty, is increasingly influenced by charlatan and mystic Grigori Rasputin, which further exacerbates the already disastrous mismanagement of the country, where the poverty and the neverending war in World War I front already alienated the people from the court. Claiming to be a healer and a prophet, Rasputin just uses the Romanovs to stage decadent parties. He even starts influencing Nicholas II in decisions at the front. Finally, he is exiled and killed, which signals the end of the empire.

Elem Klimov's 4th film, "Agony" is a disappointing achievement that has very little of the dazzling style of director's other films, and is arguably his weakest film. It is an overlong, boring and ponderous historical account, a one in which the event portrayed - the bizarre influence of the mystic, healer and all-around fraud Rasputin on the naive people around him, which went all the way to the highest circles, thereby mirroring the theme of how religion can be misused to deceive the masses - is very interesting, but it is shown in a very uninteresting manner. Full of chaotic scenes of decadent parties and carnival at the court, stiff characters and inconsistent narrative, this is an overall a mess of a film, with a few very questionable scenes (one example of animal cruelty, where the actor playing Rasputin throws a living pig and sends it smashing on to a table full of beverage). The only scarce examples of Klimov's more imaginative style are black and white scenes of archive footage combined with the played events, and the use of subtitles to introduce and identify several historical characters. If anything, at least Klimov refused to succumb to Bolshevik propaganda since they are not shown in this - for them - important time before the October revolution. Other than that, even though it was banned and tempered with, this is a mediocre film.

Grade;+

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

Beavis and Butt-head Do America; animated comedy, USA, 1996; D: Mike Judge, S: Mike Judge, Robert Stack, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Cloris Leachman, Richard Linklater

When two small time crooks steal their TV set, Beavis and Butthead crash into a motel apartment because a TV was on, but the man inside, Muddy, mistakes them for two contract killers he hired and sends them in a plane to Las Vegas in order to kill his wife Dallas. However, Beavis and Butthead are so dumb they mistake his contract for a hired sex with her, and once they meet Dallas, she sends them to Washington because she smuggled a dangerous virus in a unit she hid in Beavis' pants. This causes a wild goose chase since FBI agents are looking for the virus. In the end, the agents get the virus and arrest the wrong man, while the two teenagers are decorated as heroes.

This movie adaptation of the cult comedy TV show "Beavis and Butt-head" somehow brings back memories of a legendary quote by Alan Moore who said that "it is not the job of an artist to give the audience what they want, but what they need". Namely, there are some 3-4 good jokes here, but the rest is one long, overstretched story about nothing, about two teenagers who see sexual innuendo in every sentence someone says and who are so dumb that at one point it becomes almost damaging and detrimental by itself. However, just as with "Dumb and Dumber" and many others comedies about dumb protagonists, there is something subconsciously attractive for the masses that made them all hits, probably because by living in civilization and culture somehow makes it interesting to see something really primitive for a change. Still, Mike Judge managed to squeeze a few funny jokes, nonetheless - the most hilarious being the one with the Federal agent who says to another one: "Never end a sentence with a preposition" - whereas there is only one example where Beavis and Butt-head's stupidity was used for an intelligent joke, but it was great: when the two teenagers announce on the Congress speakerphone that they are ready to "score", there is an awkward pause, but then all politicians inside start giggling 'Beavis and Butthead'-style. The only point of interest is spotting a small cameo by Daria Morgendorffer some 50 minutes into the film, whose authors did exactly the opposite and made the far superior spin-off "Daria" about intelligence and humanity, thereby quickly leaving their origins far behind.

Grade;+