Friday, 26 September 2014

Captain Tsubasa

Captain Tsubasa; animated sports drama series, Japan, 1983; D: Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu, S: Akari Hibino, Hiroko Maruyama, Hirotaka Suzuoki

Tsubasa Ozora is an 11-year old who has a genuine talent for playing Association football. He enters a football junior team, Nankatsu, and quickly jumps through the ranks thanks to his virtuoso techniques. He also finds a lot of friends there, among them Wakabayashi and Ishizaki. He learns a lot thanks to trainer Roberto, who flew back to Brazil to wait for him until he matures. Years pass by and Nankatsu finds itself playing a neck-on-neck championship match against Toho and its captain Hyuga, who wants to prevent Tsubasa from winning a third time over their team. They share the win due to a tie, and the best players are chosen to play in the international league.

Many questioned if a 128 episode series could carry such a 'vague' theme as Association football, but they obviously did not reckon with the way Japanese authors approach anime and give them epic proportions, which were applied even in "Captain Tsubasa": football fields seem miles long; seconds last for minutes; players put such an energy into their work that a flying football can rip through the net of a goal and even make a crack when it hits the wall; scoring a goal is a matter of life and death while a loss of a match leaves as much of heavy casualties as the shelling of Grozny. Anime authors insert so much pathos in a given story that they could probably even make a story about stamp collecting intriguing. The secret lies in the fact that they tell the always noble theme about how ordinary protagonists can achieve extraordinary deeds thanks to their superhuman efforts and devotion to something. "Tsubasa" is formulaic and standard in its dramatic moments, and the always same variation of a football match can only go so far after 128 episodes, but when a football match is on, this is where this anime shines and goes into heights. Also, the main hero, Tsubasa Ozora, is a simply wonderful character who matures and grows - from 11 years in the beginning to 15 years in the finale - and mirrors something pure due to his love for something - football.

The fascinating thing is that "Tsbuasa" manages to engage even viewers indifferent to football and sports in general: the dynamic presentation is achieved thanks to a fast pace, slow motion scenes that give weight to events and gripping words of the sports commentator. When one player brags by shooting a goal despite three (!) goalkeepers, you just have to root for someone to crush his arrogance. Despite its simplistic presentation at times, the final match between Tsubasa's Nankatsu team and Hyuga's Toho - starting from episode 105 - reaches almost masterworkish dimensions in a single game that spans a total of 20 episodes (!): it is a football thriller, a sports "Iliad and Odyssey", an experience so exciting, so epic, so monumental and so unpredictable that you cannot believe it. It is a finale out of this world. The secret is that is not just a simple game, but a clash of dreams (Tsubasa's dream is to win for a third time to achieve his dream of going to Brazil, whereas Hyuga and goalkeeper Wakashimazu vowed to quit football if they don't win this championship), which makes it so heartbreaking. Among the most astonishing moments there is the one where Tsubasa shoots the football heading towards the goal, but Hyuga just jumps and shoots it heading back (!); three Nankatsu players line up to stop Hyuga's flying football; the flashback of Hyuga's training at the beach, where he practised by shooting footballs at waves (!); a flying football catapulting goalkeeper Wakashimazu, but Hyuga jumping to stop him from falling into the goal; the moment where a Toho player lies on the ground and puts his feet up, thus enabling Hyuga to jump on top of them and jump over Nankatsu's defence, and then intercept a flying football to attempt a shoot at their goal. This is a finale that really blows your mind, almost seven hours of pure suspense that leave you with a realization that even the most dramatic moments can be chanelled in mundane events.

Grade;++

Friday, 19 September 2014

A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda; black comedy, UK/ USA, 1988; D: Charles Crichton, John Cleese, S: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Tom Georgeson

London. Four criminals - George, Wanda, Otto and Ken - successfully rob a bank and then hide. Wanda, however, decides to double cross George and persuades Otto to snitch him to the police. Unfortunately for them, George already hid the stolen diamond and thus Wanda decides to seduce George's lawyer, Archie Leach, in order to find out if he told him where the loot is hidden. Archie figures what is going on, and then escapes together with Wanda to South America with the diamond, whereas Ken takes revenge on Otto by rolling him over with a steamroller.

Charles Crichton's last film, black crime comedy "A Fish Called Wanda" has an enjoyment value that depends a lot about the attitude of the viewers: it is going to be enjoyed more by sardonic cynics and less by the humanistic audiences. The first 30 minutes are excellent, and even later on do inspired examples of writing show up, with some comical dialogues almost reminiscent of B. Wilder ("I love robbing the English! They are so polite!"; "I wore dresses that had a higher IQ than you!"; "You just cannot stand winners!" - "Winners? Like North Vietnam?" - "Shut up! It was a tie!") and a clever story where every character wants to double cross the other, but the rump Monty Python crew repeats a few of the negative traits of their Monty Python days, namely too mean-spirited examples of humor and tasteless jokes, which become an excess - the running gag of Ken trying to kill an old lady, but always just inadvertently kills one of her three dogs, is too cruel, whereas the infamous scene where Otto tortures Ken with French fries almost kills the film. Likewise, as smooth as the structure is, all the characters are selfish which makes it unsuitable to root for them. The best job was done precisely by John Cleese as Archie Leach (Cary Grant's real name!) because his character is the only likable one, and the comedian truly delivers a brilliant performance, one of the best ones in his career. However, even that antagonism of characters has its moments, especially in the finale when Ken takes a delicious revenge on Otto, which ironically comes as slow as his stutter. Two years later, a similar crime comedy, "Quick Change", made a better execution of the concept, but it remained in the shadow of the popularity of "Wanda".

Grade;++

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin; CGI animated adventure, USA/ UK/ New Zealand, 2011; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Toby Jones

When the young reporter, Tintin, buys a miniature model of a ship, he finds himself in the middle of an adventure, since the same ship is sought by Sakharine, who wants to collect three models of ships containing scrolls which could lead him to the location of a real sunken ship, the Unicorn, that contains a lost treasure. The fight for the ship was between Sakharine's and Haddock's ancestor, so Tintin teams up with the always drunk Haddock. They manage to arrest Sakharine and get the scrolls.

Steven Spielberg's first (CGI) animated film, "The Adventures of Tintin" has a very good concept based on pure adventure, but a weaker execution: the sole fact that Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson actually knew about the Belgian cult comic-book series "The Adventures of Tintin" by Herge, already testifies how literate they are, yet the film has too much 'rough' edges and chaotic moments, which makes it quite uneven at times. The first half an hour is disappointing, wasting too much time on empty walk and goofy jokes, and Spielberg rarely rises to the occasion there, but the film livens up a bit when Haddock shows up, which results in arguably the best part of the film, the comical ship sequence, filled with fun stylistic ideas reminiscent of B. Keaton - among others, Haddock wants to lower a lifeboat and leave the ship with Tintin, but just then, a bad guy emerges from a blanket on it. The bad guy aims his gun at Haddock, who is holding the rope connected to the lifeboat, and orders him: "Hands up!" Haddock obeys, and let's the rope go, which ironically causes the lifeboat to fall down to the ocean, together with the bad guy in it. After that good part, though, the film returns to the less memorable, albeit solid territory, but sometimes the banal examples of humor and over-the-top stunts do not make it any favors (the airplane sequence is almost a buffoonery). However, overall it is a fairly well made achievement, and the finale - the Bagghar chase scene, filmed in a single 3-minute long take (!), truly takes the cake - once again gives a glimpse of inspiration, which should not have been that sparse.

Grade;++

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Dot and the Kangaroo

Dot and the Kangaroo; animated-live action family film, Australia, 1977; D: Yoram Gross, S: Barbara Frawley, Joan Bruce, Spike Milligan

Australia. A little girl, Dot, wonders away from her farm and gets lost in the forest, but meets a kangaroo mother who lost her cub years ago. The kangaroo decides to help Dot find her way back home. They talk to the council of animals, who send them to talk to the platypus, but none of them knows how to help Dot. They are even attacked by three wolves. In the end, they find her home again. Dot is reunited with her parents, but when she turns back, she finds out that the kangaroo left because she knows she does not belong to the human world.

A gentle and good natured story, "Dot and the Kangaroo" has a distinctive feature that separates it from the mainstream trend of children's movies: it has the predictable and routine singing sequences, yet it is an original blend of animated characters and a live action environment in the background - which is very unique and creative - and takes care of avoiding the American traits, trying to stay faithful to its very own world of flora and fauna of Australia, even when it is slightly overemphasized (the overlong platypus sequence). The middle part has too much empty walk and banal, repetitive singing, yet the opening has charm and at least one universally acclaimed song, the extremely catchy and positive "Dot in the Pouch of a Red Kangaroo", which is so good it advanced into a small classic. As harmless as it seems, "Dot" has one of the most emotional and saddest endings of all times, whose sheer intensity is simply staggering: farewell endings were always a grateful mean to trigger an emotional reaction from the viewers, but few were so genuine as the one here. An ending so noble, so humble, so inexplicably compassionate, so mature in its simple children's presentation - is it so melancholic because it speaks about self-sacrifice? Or the inseparable gap between humans and animals? Or because a child can have only one mother? - it gives the film aura, and makes it more than the sum of its events leading up to it.

Grade;++

Shutter Island

Shutter Island; crime/ thriller/ mystery, USA, 2010; D: Martin Scorsese, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, Elias Koteas

In '54, US Marshall Edward Daniels and his new partner Chuck arrive via ship to Shutter island, designated to treat patients in a mental asylum led by Dr. Cawley. They are there to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Rachel. Edward explains to Chuck that he wanted to get this case because he suspects Andrew Laedis is there, as well, whom he suspects of starting a fire that killed his wife Dolores. Edward investigates and presumes the island is being used by the government to experiment on patients in order to create a secret mind control program. Just as Edward storms a lighthouse, where he suspects the experiments are being done, he only meets Dr. Cawley who explains that he suffers from a mental illness, caused by Dolores killing his children, whereupon he actually killed her. Edward is actually Andrew and just imagined he is a Marshall in order not to confront himself with the bitter truth.

Martin Scorsese's 22nd feature length film, mystery drama "Shutter Island" did not leave such a trace in the history of cinema as his earlier films, yet it is a well made, clever and very bold achievement that demonstrates that the director still has a "reserve" of craftsmanship. Based on the eponymous novel by Dennis Lehane, cozily set on an isolated island where something suspicious is going on, "Shutter Island" starts off as a film noir, only to quickly abandon all its traits and turn them on their head, providing bizarre scenes (Edward's hallucinations and nightmares) and moments that at first seem "out of place" (Edward's recollection of his mission as a soldier who freed the inmates from the Dachau camp in World War II), blending those elements with paranoia and conspiracy theory genre, which also seem "chaotic" at first, only to align into a harmonious whole at the fantastic 'twist ending' that explains everything down to a T. The labyrinth structure, where the viewers are not quite sure if Edward is hallucinating or if the events are real, already gives a hint to the resolution of the puzzle, but it is staggering nonetheless once it sets in. A similar twist ending overlaps with "The Ward", but it has stronger resonance here: rarely has there been such a sly commentary and jab at the "conspiracy theory" mania which spreads through the (today's) masses, putting them to rest by simply explaining how people invent all sorts of excuses, explanations and wild beliefs just to dodge the obvious, the uncomfortable truth that affects them personally. Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese's new "De Niro", gave a very good, if not excellent performance as the troubled hero.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Victorious

Victorious; comedy series, USA, 2010-2013; D: Steve Hoefer, Adam Weissman, S: Victoria Justice, Leon Thomas III, Elizabeth Gillies, Matt Bennett, Avan Joggia, Ariana Grande, Daniella Monet

When her sister, Trina, gets sick, teenager Victoria is persuaded to save a show and sing her song, "Make it Shine", on the stage. The audience is so overwhelmed that Victoria is ofered to join the performing arts high school Hollywood Arts, which she accepts. She finds new friends there - Andre, Robbie, Cat as well as Beck and his cynical girlfriend Jade - and goes with a lot of misadventures with them, ranging from a new principal in school, audition for a film up to a director taking all the credit from the crew for a short film.

"Victorious" is one of those teen comedy shows that did not achieve huge popularity for nothing, since the authors managed to make the series fresh and engaging: creator Dan Schneider conjures up characters that are so easily likable that you enjoy watching them even in episodes and situations that are not funny. Not every joke works, since there is too much corny humor, and in the long term some of the original energy starts to waiver in the later seasons, yet they managed to create such a positive youthful energy that it carries the storyline throughout. The most hilarious episode is "Sleepover at Sikowitz's", the one where the teacher challenges his students to play various eccentric parts and never "break character" during the stay at his home, which results in numerous delicious moments, especially since Robbie plays a hyperactive motivational speaker and Tori a daft police girl who constantly eats cereals. A close 2nd is "Blooptorious", where Robbie's puppet leads an interview with the "Victorious" cast and ostensibly pretends to be a neutral moderator while insulting them in reality.

It is a pity "Victorious" never went to some deeper themes, except once, in the only romantic episode in the show, but a one that was almost perfect: in "Jade Gets Crushed" Andre involuntarily gets a crush on her while listening her singing, while Tori tries to dissuade him from those feelings by dressing up as Jade and acting as cynical and mean as her. This one is a triumph on two fronts: not only in narration, for being so wonderfully melancholic in a relaxed way, but also in music, since Andre's love song that he wrote for Jade, "365 Days", is so magical it brings down the house. A few tasteless jokes do show up here and there, but luckily, they are far less common than numerous other comedy shows. As great as Victoria Justice is in the leading role, demonstrating not only that she can act but also sing, the main highlight are two excellent supporting characters that outshine her: "Goth girl" Jade, played wonderfully cynical by Elizabeth Gillies, and Tori's clumsy sister Trina, who is simply so genuinely hilarious that it is impossible not to notice her - the fact that she seems so untalented and awful of an actress, just shows how the real actress playing her, Daniella Monet, is actually so talented and brilliant of an actress in reality.

Grade;++

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Moonstruck

Moonstruck; romantic comedy, USA, 1987; D: Norman Jewison, S: Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, John Mahoney

New York. The 37-year old widow Loretta, whose husband died when he was hit by a bus, half-heartedly accepts a marriage proposal from the irresponsible 42-year old Johnny. When he heads off to Sicily, to see his dying mother, Loretta decides to plan the wedding, but has an affair with Johnny's younger brother, Ronny. The full moon over the city affects even others, it seems, because her father Cosmo has a fling with a lady and Loretta's mother Rose has a nice chat with an ageing bachelor, professor Perry. When Johnny returns to New York, Loretta wants to admit she fell for Ronny. However, before she can do that, Johnny announces he is cancelling the wedding because his mother recovered.

"Moonstruck" is a film without any excess and without a truly bad scene, but, unfortunately, it is in equal measure lukewarm and meek, without any truly great scenes, either. The main concept about a woman falling in love with someone else before her wedding is nothing new, and the treatment of that concept isn't new nor is there a twist to it, which causes the potential for overwhelming the viewer to collapse: Cher and Nicolas Cage do their best, but their roles are underwritten and thus they cannot do much with them, but Loretta is at least a likable character, while Ronny is one heck of an unromantic blockhead. One example of the contrived writing is this one: Loretta meets Ronny in the bakery and asks why he is so full of anger against his brother Johnny, for years. Ronny then, in all seriousness, gives no reason at all, but just says that he lost his hand in the bread slicer, which is the cause of his anger - even though Ronny had nothing to do with that accident! A better motivation for his behavior would have been welcomed. Likewise, it is not clear why Loretta would have an affair with Ronny only hours after meeting him for the first time, since there is no chemistry between them. Can you seriously expect a romantic vibe from a guy who says this cringe worthy sentence: "The storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!"

Maybe this could have worked if it was an erotic film, about a passionate attraction between two opposites, but they treat this at something gentle and amorous. Ironically, the short subplot where Loretta's mother Rose has a chat and a "stolen date" with an ageing professor - who gives her a beautiful speech about how his lectures became routine, but to new students, they still seems new and exciting - has far more spark than the main plot. The only truly great character here is Loretta's dad Cosmo, played by excellent Vincent Gardenia, because each and every one of his comical lines is example of inspired writing ("I don't sleep anymore. it feels too much like death"; "No, he wasn't killed by a bus. It was bad luck! Your mother and I have been married for 50 years and nobody died!"; "I don't like that Johnny. When he smiles I can't see his teeth. What is he hiding?"), something that cannot be said for the rest of the characters or the thin storyline. Here and there a more inspired line or moment shows up, which raises the charm for a notch, yet there is too much empty walk, whereas it has one of worst cop-out endings since Reiner's "All of Me". "Moonstruck" seems like a bowl of tepid soup with only traces of spice here and there.

Grade;+

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Raven

Le Corbeau; crime drama, France, 1943; D: Henri-Georges Cluzot, S: Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Pierre Larquey, Helena Manson

Remy Germain is a doctor in a small town, often accused of being heartless and cold while treating his patients. One day, angry letters start circulating around the town, accusing Dr. Germain of having an affair with Denise and Laura, the young wife of the older Chief Physician Dr. Vorzet, as well as performing illegal abortions. The letters are only signed with "The Raven". His life becomes unbearable, and the situation escalates when a patient commits suicide after receiving a letter that he has terminal cancer. In the end, Germain thinks he caught the perpetrator, when he finds the "Raven's" imprint in Laura's desk and agrees to sign a paper to send her to a mental asylum, upon the instruction of her husband Dr. Vorzet, who could not send her himself because they are married. However, Laura plea she is innocent, and Germain Dr. Vorzet dead on the table, with "Raven'" letter under him - he was killed by the mother of the killed patient.

Henri-Georges Cluzot's 2nd feature length film, "The Raven" heralded him as the next young hope of the French cinema, proving to be in his element with the crime-thriller genre that, it seems, works both as a Hitchcock and Chabrol at the same time, since he manages to paint a fine picture of the society using the crime story as a pretext. Not as suspenseful as much as it is intriguing with ease, this is an excellent little film about the effects of posinous gossip and envy, while the viewers are left guessing who among the characters might be the author behind the nasty letters circulating around the town and destroying the hero's reputation. There is a delicious little sequence at the start of the film, where Dr. Vorzot wants to confront his subordinate, economist Bonnevie, with "Raven's" letter, reading it out aloud to him in the office ("Watch out for that economist of yours, Bonnevie, because he likes to plot: he managed to set up a deal for his friend on the 15 January..."), but just then, Bonnevie takes out another "Raven's" letter himself, and tops it when he reads it aloud to him as well ("I hear you are friends with that abortist Germain. I suggest you to stay in good relations with him, because that old fool Dr. Vorzot is seeing your daughter Jeanette..."), which actually makes Dr. Vorzot uncomfortable. There is also a great sequence where all the suspects are rounded up, seated in a classroom, and ordered to write "Raven's" letters for several hours, in order for the authorities to analyze their signature. Cluzot has a natural way to engaging the viewers with ease, an impression that has not dated even today in this film, whereas the double twist ending is fantastic, leaving room for more than one conclusion to the story.

Grade;+++