Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sailor Moon Crystal (Season 3)

Sailor Moon Crystal: Season III; animated fantasy series, Japan, 2016; D: Chiaki Kon, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Ami Koshimizu, Hisako Kanemoto, Junko Minagawa, Rina Satou, Sayaka Ohara, Shizuka Itou, Yukiyo Fujii

After the last events, Usagi, Rei, Ami, Makoto and Minako are faced with another threat for the world, in the form of Pharaoh 90, a mysterious alien entity from the Tau star system that took control over Dr. Tomoe's body and made him the chief of Death Busters, an organisation that seeks the Holy Grail in order to start a colonisation of Earth. Usagi transforms into Sailor Moon and manages to save Earth, with the help of two new Sailor Senshi, Sailor Uranus and Neptune, as well as dr. Tomoe's daughter Hotaru, who is Senshi no 3., Sailor Saturn.

Season III of the "Sailor Moon Crystal" reboot anime is an improvement compared to the first two seasons: it was given a more 'animesque' character design that suits them more than the manga look, and they were given more room for character development as well, most noticeable in a couple of refreshing and welcomed humorous moments that reminded them of their best days, with at least two moments reaching the creative Zenith that are so genuine that they seem almost as if they came from some lost scene from the original 90s anime (in episode 2, where Usagi transforms into a Mugen Academy student with glasses to sneak into the building, but is then caught by a girl from the "Discipline Committee", who asks her to identify with her name, rank and class; and episode 5 where Usagi and Mamoru's relationship is strained, they sit quietly on the couch with the comic-book subtitle adding the word "Silence", until Chibiusa manages to make them up by asking them to help her with her homework).

Unfortunately, this strong start is not able to reach the threshold potential that would initiate a complete rejuvenation of this anime version, since episode 5 is followed by inferior 8 episodes that again return to the standard, dry or monotone level of the previous seasons, featuring again too many grey moments of the Sailor Senshi only speaking stale speeches or presenting the mythology that takes up way too much time. The female villains drop dead like flies, and their life span is one episode - further complicated by the manga notion that they are outright "killed" by the Sailor Senshi, who act too much like extras. The 90s anime demonstrated a remarkable sixth sense for epic, unrelenting, cathartic battles with an 'inner directing' skill that managed to engages viewers with ease, yet here the 5 episode finale seems strangely monotone and colorless, as the viewers are left with a feeling that they just want to skip it for its obligatory tone. One cannot also simply escape from the bigger picture here, namely the impression that this is by default a proxy war between the classic 90s anime style vs. the high-tech, CGI 2010s anime style, leaving the aforementioned as an easy winner. The iconic (lesbian) Senshi, Haruka and Michiru are simply greater characters in the 90s version, since they seem too one dimensional and abridged in this edition, which did not leave too much room for them to develop. Still, season III shows a remarkable progression, and it seems the creative "spillover" from the 4th season, obvious in the final minutes of the last episode, announce a 'delayed momentum' which just waits to happen.

Grade;++

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Romeo, Juliet and Darkness

Romeo, Julie a tma; war drama, Czech Republic, 1959; D: Jiří Weiss, S: Ivan Mistrík, Daniela Smutná, Jirina Sejbalova, Frantisek Smolík, Blanka Bohdanová

Prague, World War II. In the plan of the Nazis to create a Greater Germany, Jews are deported from the city. Pavel is a young student living in an apartment complex who meets a young Jewish girl, Hanka, and hides her from the authorities in his attic. He has a lot of trouble, since he has to take food from his home to feed her, which causes suspicion from his mother. After the assassination of Nazi chief Reinhard Heydrich, numerous raids sweep the city and one student from Pavel's class is taken away by the authorities. Pavel and Hanka fall in love. However, since the risk gets too high, after being discovered, Hanka voluntarily hands herself in to the Nazis, and gets executed, despite Pavel's plea to save her life.

One of the early Holocaust dramas of European cinema, Jiri Weiss' "Romeo, Juliet and Darkness" is a very good, though a little bit "too safe" played film that hits all the right notes, yet one wishes it was just a tiny bit more daring or unconventional. Setting Shakespeare's eponymous play during World War II, Weiss crafted an ambitious, elegant and emotional drama that is carried both by its tragic plot as well as by its two energetic lead actors, Ivan Mistrik and Daniela Smutna, as well as several distinct supporting characters, such as Blanka Bohdanova who plays the blond vamp girl who is surprised as to why Pavel suddenly does not want to see her anymore. Weiss surges to creative heights the most when he conjures up a genuine feel of 'slice-of-life' of that era, mostly in scarce humorous moments (for instance, during class, the professor notices that Pavel gave a paper note to a student. When the professor asks what he gave him, the student replies with "Nothing" and puts the note in his mouth. The professor asks him to open his mouth, the student swallows and then open his mouth, revealing its is empty, which causes a chuckle among the class; in another moment, Pavel secretly browses through the grandfather's jacket for the keys of the attic at night, despite his mother forbidding him to leave the apartment. Grandfather suddenly enters the room - and tells him to look in the jacket's right pocket, before he leaves, slyly pretending of not knowing anything). It is a fine film, though one wishes the conclusion would have been just a tiny bit more circled out, since the abrupt ending feels somewhat rushed.

Grade;+++

Friday, 29 July 2016

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters; fantasy comedy, USA, 2016; D: Paul Feig, S: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Ed Begley Jr., Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts

Erin Gilbert is trying to build up a serious reputation in academic circles, but, unfortunately for her, the people haven't forgotten a book about ghosts she wrote with friend Abby. These paranormal things start to become real, though, when bizarre ghosts start appearing and attacking people in town. Erin, Abby, Jillian Holtzman and Patty team up to become Ghostbusters that will fight the menace. It turns out that the ghosts originate from Rowan, an angry hotel employee who is sick of bullying and thus decided to destroy the world. Luckily, the Ghostbusters manage to stop him and save the day.

The 2016 reboot of the famed '84 film is decent, though one has to openly admit one thing: even at its best, this film is still "Ghostbusters", "Ghostbusters II" and "The Real Ghostbusters" at their weakest level. 27 years after the last film, and two years after its co-creator Harold Ramis passed away, Paul Feig decided to reboot the franchise with an all female cast, which caused a certain anger among fans, though the impression would not have been a lot better even if the original cast were playing these roles, anyway, since the film "expanded" its repertoire with some crude and vulgar jokes, some of which clash terribly with the original "Ghostbusters" humor that was an intellectual comedy, as well as with too much empty walk and Feig's trademark endless 'small-chat-humor' that is thin: several bad jokes could have been easily cut out, which would have improved the film, especially in the bizarrely pointless running gag of the girls hiring the dumb Kevin as their secretary just because he is handsome, which seems as if it came from one weak "iCarly" episode.

For instance, the moment where Abby asks if there is sugar in the coffee, and Kevin takes a sip and then spits it out in the cup before giving her back, just screams for a 'deleted scene'. Even the cameos from the original cast are meagre, including Bill Murray who usually always delivered a great cameo role. Still, as it is, there are a few good laughs here, mostly when the film puts some effort in dialogues ("The fourth apocalypse? Sounds like a franchise nobody wanted"; "Don't be like the mayor from "Jaws"!" - "Erghh!... Don't ever compare me to the "Jaws"-mayor!"; after Holtzman defeats the ghouls with her karate moves, she says this cute line: "You've been Holtzman-ed!") and some of the cast manages to be charming, such as Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon. The film tries too hard to be likable to the audience, yet works the best when it just simply let's go and tries to be a natural, genuine fun. Overall, a rather solid reboot, though in the shadow of the original two films: it has more ghosts, but less spirit.

Grade;+

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Player

The Player; satire, USA, 1992; D: Robert Altman, S: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Burt Reynolds, Sydney Pollack, Jeremy Piven, Gina Gershon, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Cher, John Cusack, Peter Falk, Elliott Gould, Anjelica Huston, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, Susan Sarandon, Teri Garr

Griffin Mill is a successful Hollywood executive, and decides if a certain script is going to be made into a film or not. One day, he starts getting threats through postcards, and figures it must be from a screenwriter he rejected, but there is a whole pile of them. He thinks it is David, and kills him in an alley. Griffin then seduces David's girlfriend, June. He also allows Larry Levi to make a film out of a dark topic - with a happy ending, of course. Due to lack of evidence, the police drop the investigation against Griffin, and he accepts to make a movie about a Hollywood executive who gets away with murdering a screenwriter.

Just like Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search for an Author" was a sly play-within-a-play, "The Player" is a grand metafilm satire on Hollywood that 'breaks the fourth wall' on several occasions, the key star being, of course, the screenplay by Michael Tolkin that abounds with clever self-referential and auto-ironic moments, which are evident already in the famed opening 7.5 minute long scene filmed in one take: not only is this opening fascinating to watch, but also offers 'inner-directing' skills in the form of quietly genius dialogues, from two people lamenting how modern movies are full of cuts instead of being filmed in one long take like Welles' opening in "A Touch of Evil", up to a screenwriter - in all seriousness - trying to sell his screenplay, a story about "The Graduate" 25 years later, to protagonist Griffin in his office.

Tolkin's script is highly literate and cultured, and thus the viewers will have to have some kind of prior knowledge of cinema or will be faced with "not getting the joke" from so many insider and pop culture references ("Who was the villain in "Ghostbusters"?", asks one party guest, for instance), yet some jokes are just plain funny, anyway (for instance, after the screening of the classic "The Bicycle Thieves" in cinema, some 'out of touch' viewers lament: "What was all that fuss about a stolen bicycle?"; after Griffin kills David, an off screen quote from the producers' room is heard, saying how the happy ending in "Fatal Attraction" was dictated by the preview audiences, which foreshadows "The Player's" own ending, which is incredibly sarcastic and cynical). A couple of flaws are minimal - an occasional clumsy scene; the rather overstretched second act; the somewhat unnecessary tendency to insists on too many cameos from Hollywood stars, some of which are "throw away" 30 seconds episodes, anyway - yet the movie sets and achieves its goal of becoming a sly case study in movie making, as well as society in general, equipped with all of its flaws and compromises, and thus rightfully announced the 'silver age' in Robert Altman's career, which would last over a decade, until his death 14 years later.

Grade;+++

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Top Gun

Top Gun; action, USA, 1986; D: Tony Scott, S: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Michael Ironside, John Stockwell, James Tolkan, Meg Ryan

Pete "Maverick" and his partner "Goose" are pilots in the US Air Force. At a bar, Maverick tries to seduce a blond girl in a bet - only to find out the next day that she is their Top Gun instructor, Charlotte "Charlie". The pilots spend their days training in the military fighter planes, whereas Maverick falls in love with Charlotte. However, during a routine assignment, Maverick's plane malfunctions and crashes, killing his friend, Goose. Traumatized, Maverick contemplates abandoning the post, but returns and completes it with flying colors when he intercepts and destroys several unidentified enemy war planes while saving a communication ship in the Indian ocean.

Jokingly referred to as the most expensive or longest promotional video for the US Air Force, "Top Gun" is indeed too flat and simplistic in its storyline development, yet still has that 80s flair that gives it a certain charm even today. Director Tony Scott dresses the film in aesthetic images and wonderful, modern, crystal clear cinematography, yet they all seem to just be a camouflage for the fact that there is very little in the most crucial part of the film, its story and characters, who - except in the marvellous aerial shots of fighter planes in the sky - spend too much time on bland or schematic interaction, ranging from playing volleyball on the beach or driving in a motorcycle. Such a disparity between content and style would eventually become an all too familiar trait in later Jerry Bruckheimer produced films. Even the story build up is cliche, following the typical prototype of such films: the hero starts as a newbie, gets into a crisis and self-doubt, only to save the day at the end. The best moments are the ones that add some spice into "Top Gun", mostly humorous ones, especially in the sequence where Maverick tries to seduce a blond woman in a bar - only to find out she is his unit's instructor the next day.

Grade;++

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!

Oggi a me... domani a te!; western, Italy, 1968; D: Tonino Cervi, S: Brett Halsey, Bud Spencer, Tatsuya Nakadai, William Berger, Wayde Preston

After spending five years innocently in prison, Bill is released and immediately goes to his savings to gather a gang of the fastest gun drawers in the area: O'Bannion, Jeff, Greenhorn and Francis. They each get 5,000$, which will doubled if they finish his job: namely, Bill's wife, an Indian, was raped an killed by criminal Elfego, who also framed him with a prison sentence. Bill and O'Bannion are captured by Elfego's gang, but their friends manages to free them. Hiding in the forest, Bill and his accomplice stage an ambush at Elfego's gang, and ultimately manages to kill him.

In the 60s, Italian 'Spaghetti Westerns' grew like mushrooms after rain and left an imprint on the entire era, yet few directors truly managed to make something extraordinary out of that genre, such as Leone or Clucher, who delivered a first spoof of it with "Trinity". Even though it was written by Dario Argento, "Today We Kill..." is a good, yet standard example of the genre, with several typical storylines revolving around a revenge story, told in a rather too straight forward manner, though certain elements of surprise can be found in a couple of humorous moments (for instance, when Sheriff Jeff is offered 5,000 $ by protagonist Bill to immediately follow him on his task, he accepts - and releases a prison inmate from jail, giving him the Sheriff's badge (!) to run the office while he is away) and the fact that the protagonist's first helper becomes none other than Bud Spencer, here still in a serious edition. The villain is a typical example of a bad guy who is evil just so that the viewers can hate him, even when some of his actions do not make much sense (in a flashback filmed in black and white, Elfego is seen raping Bill's wife, calling her an "Indian whore", which alludes that he is racist, but since this is all we find out about him, his actions are left rather unintelligible), yet the compact story leads to a proportionally well made finale in the forest, with several gritty, brutal showdowns (such as when Spencer's character has to use a log to fight with Elfego who has a sabre).

Grade;++

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Pandora's Box

Die Büchse der Pandora; silent drama, Germany, 1929; D: Georg Wilhelm Pabst, S: Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Fritz Kortner

Lulu is an attractive, but promiscuous woman who has many lovers. One of them, the respectful newspaper publisher Schön, has had enough of sharing her with so many men and announces he is to get married to the daughter of a Minister. However, during a stage rehearsal where she was about to perform, Lulu manages to seduce Schön again, who gives in and decides to marry her instead. However, even during the wedding, Lulu is flirting with other men, and thus Schön gets a pistol - in the ensuing chaos, he is shot and dies. Lulu is sentenced to five years in prison, but manages to escape together with Schön's son, Alwa. They hide in a ship used for gambling, but have to escape once again when the owner intends to sell Lulu in a brothel. In London, working as a prostitute, Lulu gets killed by Jack the Ripper.

One of G. W. Pabst's most famous and acclaimed films seems almost like a cynical-bitter upside restructuring of the "Odyssey", where - unlike the heroine, Penelope, who is annoyed by the intrusive suitors and only longs for one man, her Odysseus - here the heroine, Lulu, actually treats every suitor the same and never wants to love only one person, but to live in constant state of admiration by men, even after her wedding. "Pandora's Box" caused quite a controversy during its premiere for tackling several taboo topics (promiscuity; a femme fatale; a gold digger...), yet is overall an overhyped film, a too straight-forward melodrama with little exceptions or interventions either in style or storyline to compensate for the rather standard, conventional build up with too much over-reliance on the sole topic which was daring back in those days, but seems normal today. The most was achieved from the expressionistic actress Louise Brooks, whose Lulu became her "trademark" performance of some sort, thanks to her modern hair due and erratic, adamant behavior. The tragedy stems from the ever growing rift between what Alwa and his father want from Lulu (a mature, loyal wife who will love only one man) and what Lulu actually is (an immature woman who does not want to grow up or to ever get attached to only one man), leading to several love triangles which nullify and destroy each other in the end. It is a dark and uncompromising film, yet it is a pity it was not enriched with more spice or director's intervention since it is very simplistic.

Grade;++

Friday, 15 July 2016

The Visitors

Návštěvníci; science-fiction comedy series, Czech Republic / Germany / Switzerland, 1983; D: Jindřich Polák, S: Josef Bláha, Josef Dvořák, Jirí Novotny, Dagmar Patrasová, Viktor Král, Dagmar Havlová

In the year 2484, the main computer predicts that a comet threatens Earth, and thus the council concludes that the only way to avoid a catastrophe is to send four people 500 years back in time to obtain a long lost notebook of a future icon, Nobel prize winner and scientist Adam Bernau, which contains a formula to move continents. They send Filip, Emil, Emilia and Dr. Jacques in a time travel machine disguised as a car to the Czech city of Kamenice in 1984, to get the notebook before the 12-year old Adam puts the house on fire - but they cannot find it. The four thus rent a hotel room and present themselves as geodetics in order to stalk Adam from elementary school to his temporal stay in the hotel, hoping to find the notebook. One man falls in love with Emilia, and she has to gently refuse a relationship. After failing to find the notebook, the four return with the car to the year 2484 - but they accidentally bring Adam's mentor with them, who fixes the main computer which corrects its calculations and thus, it turns out, there was no danger for Earth in the first place.

One of the most noteworthy European - and worldwide - TV shows from the 80s, Czech time travel Sci-Fi comedy series "The Visitors", somewhere also known as "Expedition Adam '84", by writers Ota Hoffman and Jindrich Polak, expressly achieved cult status for its audacity, which did not only stem from the highly unusual and innovative set designs, costumes, props and special effects, amplified by German co-funding of the production. The opening three episodes show a 25th century world with a lot of imagination and ingenuity, but also humor and wit, obvious already in the opening of the pilot episode where Emilia is amusing himself by trying to solve a screen puzzle where she has to re-arrange and "filter" parts of two paintings by Picasso and Rousseau which were entwined together. This introduction is set up with a lot of awe, especially in the location of the car in the middle of a quarry, yet, unfortunately, already in episode 4 do "Visitors" start displaying trouble with screenwriting, with the trademark of some sort of that genre - namely that while people from the future are interesting, once they enter our present time, the plot becomes routine and standard. By having the four protagonists from the 25th century disguise themselves as ordinary people in a hotel of the 20th century, the story loses its humor and charm from the beginning and suffers from a "stranded ship" syndrome - it does not know what to do with this setting.

As such, out of 15 episodes, at least 7-8 seem uninteresting, bland or even boring in the middle part, wasting too much time on empty walk in the form of the four protagonists stalking the 12-year old Adam or trying to repair malfunctions on their gadgets. It was also a wrong decision to have Adam be a 12-year old instead of a grown up student, which could have offered far more interaction between him and the four "tourists from the future". There are some fascinating gadgets in here (for instance, they put a small camera on an item, and then "spray" the mirror in their room and have a live broadcast of it; they use an iPhone of some sorts in order to read data they need), but they cannot compensate for such a disproportionate amount of ordinary moments, such as the four visitors spending their time on a dinner party or the doctor getting mistakenly sent to a hospital for a health check. It takes all the while until episode 14 until the storyline returns back to its creative tracks from before, leaving a sad feeling of a missed opportunity of a tighter narrative for such a high concept, though episode 15 offers one of the grand examples of howlingly funny chaos, the Zenith of Czech humor that is a fantastic fun: it involves a hilarious long sequence where the four protagonists travel with their high-tech car under the surface, and resurface every now and then on the most inappropriate places (their periscope "pops out" from the ground in the middle of the cinema, causing panic among the viewers), all culminating in the editor's office where they want to steal the photo of themselves before it gets published in the newspaper, so they send a chicken dancing and juggling eggs to distract the journalists, in an unforgettable moment of absurd perfection.

Grade;++

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Thundermans (Season 1–2)

The Thundermans; fantasy comedy series, USA, 2013, 2014; D: Jonathan Judge, Robbie Countryman, Shannon Flynn, S: Kira Kosarin, Jack Griffo, Chris Tallman, Diego Velazquez, Rosa Blasi, Addison Riecke, Audrey Whitby

The Thundermans are a family of superheroes with superpowers who moved to a small town to live incognito as an ordinary family. Their parents, Barb and Hank, retired as superheroes, while their kids are an uneven lot: Phoebe and her brother Max, who have telekinetic powers, constantly argue, while the younger siblings, Nora and Billy, have the powers of shooting lasers from eyes or running superfast. They struggle through numerous misadventures to keep their powers a secret.

Against all expectations which predicted another standard TV sitcom, Jed Spingarn delivered a surprisingly fun and fresh superhero comedy show with "The Thundermans" that has just enough spark to carry the premise, at least in the first two seasons. One of the reasons lies in the sometimes deliciously ironic, contagiously fun, untypically shrill or otherwise inspired writing of comic dialogues, some of which are simply funny to crunch down: for instance, in one episode Billy brought an artifact from the museum to bid it for an auction, much to Phoebe's shock, upon which he obliviously says that he thought it "wasn't worth that much" since the price tag on it said "priceless". In another, Phoebe writes cute things about Link in her diary, which causes Max to comment: "The tree that died to make that diary dies a little bit more every time you write something in it"; whereas there is even a moment when Hank runs for cover in the open from bad weather and thunder ("Why does my own birth-day hate me?!").

Though there are indeed a certain number of routine, schematic or bland episodes, whereas it seems the storyline somehow naturally longs for a villain absent from the picture, since the family are a bunch of superheroes, after all. Congruently, the finale in season 2 is both the best and worst episode: the best because it conjures up a cause and (conditional) suspense, with Phoebe's cool 'backflip entrance' to save the day - the worst because it capitulated before the mainstream norm and arbitrarily included a new baby in the family, which disrupted the focus of what the show was originally about. However, as it is often the case with TV shows, even here there is at least one episode that is simply perfection or at least close to perfection: the enchanting, magical "Shred it Go", written by Sasha Stroman, which culminates in a private MKTO concert for a delighted Phoebe, which is beautifully romantic. Another decisive plus point for "The Thundermans" is Phoebe's actress, Kira Kosarin, Nickelodeon's discovery of the decade. Kosarin is simply irresistibly sweet in the story and carries 90% of the show's charm, which reaches such a level that she is deserving of the title of "Audrey Hepburn of Nickelodeon".

Grade;++

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Devdas

Devdas; drama / musical, India, 2002; D: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit Nene, Kirron Kher, Smita Jaykar, Ananya Khare, Jackie Shroff

After studying in London for 10 years, Devdas finally returns to India to the home of his parents, a rather wealthy family of land owners. However, he is the most excited about seeing Paro again, a girl from the neighbourhood who is secretly in love with him since their childhood. However, Paro's mother is humiliated by Devdas' mother who refuses even the idea that their kids get married, since Paro comes from a poor family of a lower class. As a revenge, the mother arranges for Paro to get married to an even richer man, Thakur. In order to forget about his painful memories of Paro, Devdas turns to cigarettes, alcohol and prostitutes. One courtesan, Chandramukhi, falls in love with him. Devastated by his pain, the sick Devdas returns one last time to see Paro, and dies, but she is denied seeing him by Thakur.

The 13th feature length movie adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's eponymous and critically acclaimed Indian novel, "Devdas" is another quality contribution to its opus, with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali delivering a well directed, though a tad too glamorous, too opulent and too "neat" setting of the story about a forbidden love due to class difference, which again contains redundant musical and dance sequences typical for Bollywood, since they only bother in the serious and tragic dramaturgy. With a running time of 3 hours, "Devdas" seems a tiny bit overstretched, yet Chattopadhyay's writing from the novel contains refined, sophisticated lines which are a delight to listen ("Did you brought me one of those English watches?" - "No. But I bring you better times"; "There can be such a thing as too much pride."; "I don't want my life's end to be mirrored in your eyes...") whereas it is interesting and original that the title protagonist, Devdas, does not show up for almost 20 minutes into the film, yet the viewers find out so much through the supporting characters talking about his absence and his upcoming return that it creates anticipation and manages to engage since we finally want to meet him. Shah Rukh Khan surprised with a more dramatic role here as Devdas, demonstrating that he can show his range as well as a restrained performance without humor - the choice may seem unusual at first, yet he has his finest hour when, after talking to Paro in her room, he catches a fly in his hand and says this superior monologue: "If I cannot touch you, no one can!" The film manages to be emotional and strong, standing firm on its own despite the fact that so many other adaptations were already made out of it.

Grade;++

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; erotic drama, USA, 1970; D: Russ Meyer, S: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John LaZar, Michael Blodgett, Erica Gavin

Kelly, Casey and Petronella are members of a girl rock band, and their manager - and Kelly's boyfriend - is Harris. They decide to travel to Los Angeles, where Kelly meets her aunt, Susan, who wants to give her a substantial amount of her family's inheritance. However, Susan's lawyer, Hall, tries to persuade Susan to not give Kelly a single penny of the money. Meanwhile, Kelly's band strikes her fortune in L.A. with the new manager, Z-Man, who propels their careers, but also pushes the three women into the world of drugs and one-night stands. When Kelly finds a new lover, Lance, Harris jumps from the top of the studio and becomes a paraplegic. Angered that Lance rejected his flirting, Z-Man reveals he is a woman and starts killing everyone in his mansion, including Casey. He is stopped and killed by Kelly, Harris, Petronella and Emerson.

Even though it enjoys the status of a cult film, Russ Meyer's first production for a major film studio, 20th Century Fox, and one of rare examples where his film heroines are not large-buxom women, written by film critic Roger Ebert, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is melodramatic trash with too much "invisible" satire that lacks true humor or auto-ironic fun to differentiate it from other typical stories of a couple of girls who go to Los Angeles to become famous, only to also experience the downside of showbusiness. The authors start a lot of subplots, but complete almost none of them, resulting in a chaotic, episodic and bizarre flick that does not have a clear narrative or a purpose, furthermore exacerbated by a catastrophically trashy and violent finale involving a Nazi servant and Z-Man who reveals to have breasts. The script lacks inspiration and true humor, with only a couple of sequences truly reaching a comic timing (Lance meets Kelly and wants to go to her party, but his own date, a blond woman, declines, saying it is "past her bedtime", and then Lance simply goes with Kelly, anyway, adding to his ex-date: "Let me at least call you a cab!"; the red-haired granny among the party guests; the final narration which includes such lines as these: "Z-Man... He forgot that life has many levels, and by choosing to live on only one, lost sight of reality."), thereby consolidating the impression that "Beyond..." is more like a 'guilty pleasure' than a really well thought-out or planned film.

Grade;+

Friday, 8 July 2016

Speechless

Speechless; comedy, USA, 1994; D: Ron Underwood, S: Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Christopher Reeve, Ernie Hudson, Bonnie Bedelia

Kevin and Julia have a lot of in common - they are both suffering from insomnia and are both writing political speeches, but for the opposite political parties. When they meet in a store to buy pills to help them fall asleep, they start a love affair which lasts all until they introduce their profession to each other. As rivals in a political campaign, they try to avoid each other, whereas a snobbish TV reporter, Bob, further complicates the situation since he wants to marry Julia. Julia's party manages to win thanks to a fraud, and thus she leaves her job for Kevin.

The inclusion of many motives and elements about politics, fraud and a forbidden romance resulted in a somewhat overburdened flick with "Speechless". Of all these garments, director Ron Underwood, it seems, picked the romantic ones the least since his protagonists strive more towards humor and arguments and far less towards touching, gentle interaction. That is why the situations like the one where Julia and Kevin talk at the fountain or the one where she writes a speech for him seem precious - though it is somewhat understandable that the narrative tries to make a homage to classic 'screwball' comedies from the 30s and 40s. Despite its title, "Speechless" contains a lot of talk, yet it lacks dynamics and rhythm since the story gets lost in the lukewarm territory on several occasions. It seems the authors started a lot with the movie, yet concluded little. The excellent Geena Davis stands out the most from the cast, and carries the storyline with her charm and wit, making "Speechless" one of her rare on-screen performances in the 90s, before she would take a break from the show business world in later years.

Grade;++

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Rift

Procep; science-fiction horror, Serbia / South Korea / Slovenia, 2016; D: Dejan Zečević, S: Katarina Čas, Ken Foree, Monte Markham, Dragan Micanović

Liz, a Slovenian emigre to the US, suffers ever since her son died from a terminal illness. She is given an assignment by the CIA to join their agent, John Smith, and travel to Serbia, where a secret satellite crashed. They are joined by ex-astronaut Dysart and agent Darko. Once in that rural area, the four discover that there is no satellite - instead, there is only a space suit of an astronaut who disappeared in a pink portal on the Moon 35 years ago, which was witnessed by Dysart. Darko and some old woman get killed, but rize from the dead as some sort of Zombies, and thus John has to decapitate them with an axe. He goes crazy and wants to kill Liz and some lad as well. He kills them, but the pink portal returns Liz to the hospital with her child alive again. TV reports talk about end of times and mass hysteria after the astronaut is seen walking on the streets.

The first science-fiction horror film from Serbia is a title that should have been reserved for a better movie than the viewers got with "The Rift". The film has two virtues: one is an excellent intro, with opening credits displayed around a rotating Moon in space, each time he is eclipsed when behind the Sun; the other is a neat idea that an American story actually goes to Serbia for a change, since the CIA protagonists have to obtain an alleged satellite that crashed somewhere around the periphery far from Belgrade. Unfortunately, everything else is awful. The story is simply unintelligible - the four characters stumble upon incoherent events which seem to unravel as if every new 20 minutes were written by another screenwriter, which range from Zombies up to some pink portal on the Moon, none of which make any sense or seem to align into any conclusion or a point. Even worse, the writing of the dialogues is exhaustingly empty, monotone and standard, with characters talking miles of boring lines. It is often a bad sign in a horror movie when a killer with an axe is chasing someone without running - and instead just walks slowly, so slowly as if a bowl of spinach is waiting for him at the other end. Another is when it resorts to too many of those moments when there is no sound, and then a sudden "boo" moment jumps at the viewers, even if it makes no sense. Unfortunately, there is little sophistication or innovation in "The Rift", an it's simply just not fun, either.

Grade;+

Monday, 4 July 2016

Under Capricorn

Under Capricorn; drama, USA, 1949; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, Margaret Leighton

Sydney, 19th Century. The Irish immigrant, Charles Adare, is introduced to the secretive ex-convict, Sam Flusky, who pays him to anonymously buy more land as his proxy. Adare has a dinner at Sam's mansion, and there he meets his wife, Henrietta - and recognizes her from childhood when she was still living in a Irish town. Adare and Henrietta become friends, and he helps her gain more self-esteem in the chaotic household - much to the dismay of the housekeeper, Milly. After an argument at a party, Adare finally asks Henrietta why she chooses to stay with Sam if their marriage is so problematic, and she finally tells her story: back in Ireland, she fell in love with Sam, who was a stable boy, and they ran away to Scotland to get married. but her brother caught them and opposed their marriage due to class diefference. The brother attacked them, and Henrietta shot him - but Sam took the blame for her and was sent to an Australian penal colony. Henrietta thus moved to that Continent until he was released. In an act of jealousy, Sam shoots and wounds Adare. However, in order to save him, Adare tells the police it was all an accident. Henrietta and Sam thus return to Ireland.

The reception of "Under Capricorn" depends a lot on the viewers' setting and mental flexibility: those who are expecting another suspense film by Alfred Hitchcock will regard it as a disaster since it has no thrills, while those who can just accept it as a period drama will find certain redeeming features and even several interesting observations about human relationships. Hitchcock was already by that time 'typecast' as a suspense-and-crime director, and thus it came as no surprise that "Capricorn" was received negatively upon its premiere, since the audience were mislead as to what to expect, which caused even the director to apologize for the film, yet it is a relatively well made drama with some omissions, focusing more on emotions and quiet psychology of a forbidden "Romeo & Juliet" who had to flee to the Southern Hemisphere to continue their romance. Still, even as such, "Capricorn" is a 'lesser' Hitchcock, since it seems too dry, monotone and stiff to really engage more, with only moderate 'crumbs' of pleasure that compensate for its lax pace - among them exquisite long takes that last up to 10 minutes, an excellent Ingrid Bergman as the tragic Henrietta and the humorous moment where the maids prepare a breakfast for Henrietta, Adare and Sam, with a completely liquid omelet.

Grade;++

Sometimes there's Happiness, Sometimes there's Sorrow

Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham...; drama / musical, India, 2001; D: Karan Johar, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, Kajol, Amitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Jaya Bachchan

Yash is a rich businessman who has one biological son, the chubby 10-year old Rohan, and one adoptive, the grown up Rahul. Yash wants Rahul to enter an arranged marriage with Naina, the daughter of a wealthy man. However, Rahul falls in love with Anjali, a girl from a poor family and a lower caste. Yash thus disowns Rahul, who leaves India. A decade later, Rahul lives with Anjali and their child in London, together with her sister Pooja "Poo", a teenage girl who treats men like objects. However, she is infatuated with an Indian immigrant, Rohan - who grew up and arrived to London to try to reconcile Rahul with his family. At first, he keeps his identity a secret while staying at Rahul's place, until Rahul finally realizes it is his "chubby" brother. They manage to bring Yash to London and reconcile him with Rahul.

Karan Johar's 2nd feature length debut film, after his smashing success with "Something is Happening", was met with the same box office popularity in India, but is a weaker achievement with far less humor and thus with far less cover that leaves the flaws all the more apparent, a melodrama, a soap opera that would have been avoided had it been delivered by Hollywood. Having Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol again in the cast, and incidentally giving them again the same names - Rahul and Anjali - as in their previous film, Johar crafted almost a hypothetical alternative ending to "Something is Happening", in which Rahul and Anjali's romance is forbidden due to their class difference, and they are thus exiled to live in London. Unfortunately, with a running time of 3.5 hours,"Sometimes there's Happiness..." is exhaustingly overlong, dry and overstretched, with several plot points beaten to death by having them repeat 7-8 times, even though they were obvious already the first time, and thus the only interesting thing is the second half which follows the protagonists living in London, since it gives an 'insider' view of Indians living as expatriates, though even that is somewhat underwhelming since they mostly only interact between their four walls, rarely having interaction with the British citizens. Overstretched way past its prime, yet it has a few moments of refreshing humor (Anjali apologizing to Yash for accidentally breaking his vase, and then hurriedly turning around - and breaking another one from the table; teenage Pooja assembling a line of guys and announcing that she will pick a date for a party only based on rating someone on a scale from 1 to 10 - only to arrive at Rohan who cynically rates her a "2").

Grade;+

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sailor Moon Crystal (Season 1-2)

Sailor Moon Crystal; animated fantasy series, Japan, 2014; D: Munehisa Sakai, Hiroyuki Sato, Yoko Ikeda, S: Kotono Mitsuishi, Kenji Nojima, Hisako Kanemoto, Shizuka Ito, Ami Koshimizu, Rina Sato

Tokyo. Teenage girl Usagi Tsukino is thrown out of her daily routine when a talking cat, Luna, gives her magical powers to transform into Sailor Moon and fight the forces of evil that want to destroy the world, controlled by Queen Beryl. Usagi is joined by four other girls with superpowers - Ami, Rei, Makoto, Minako - as well as Tuxedo Mask, actually Mamoru in disguise, who helps them. Usagi falls in love with Mamoru. With the help of the Silver Crystal, Sailor Moon manages to defeat Queen Beryl... Chibiusa, a girl from the 30th century, appears in Tokyo and asks Usagi to help her becase her time is menaced by the Black Moon clan, who rebeled against Neo Queen Serenity - during whose rule time and aging stopped - since they think the "flesh is meant to decay" with time. Sailor Moon manages to defeat them as well, including their source of evil, Wiseman.

All those who still doubt or wonder why "Sailor Moon" was one of the chef-d'œuvres of the 90s Japanese anime should once again watch the reboot "Sailor Moon Crystal" - even though it is designed to be far more faithful to the original manga by Naoko Takeuchi, all the magic and emotions from the 1st arc of the comic-book could not be found on the screen. It is puzzling how the 90s anime and the 2014 anime have the exact same characters and storyline - yet such a vastly different output. Even more when one has in mind that this edition has only 13 episode per season, thus eliminating all the fillers and presenting a far more concise story. After a careful analysis, the conclusion is that the reason of it lies in "Crystal's" tendency to frantically follow the manga, treating it as a "holly text", which leaves the narrative strained, with no break for the characters to relax and simply be themselves, and thus the viewers cannot invest themselves in them. The R season, on the other hand, is a lot like a soccer match with a 0:0 outcome since it was the weakest in either version, manga or anime, anway, due to its numerous problems with the time travel plot.

In order to get to some good parts, the viewers have to go through a mass of schematic, dry and bland 'superheroes-fight-against-evil' plot points - yet, the superhero stories were never about that sole pattern, which is basically always the same, but about how much ingenuity the authors would use to write something imaginative out of that routine. In "Crystal", Usagi and the other characters are too often only Sailor Warriors. In the 90s anime, the fillers actually had a point and allowed them to develop, to instill in them an emotional dimension, a humorous dimension, a spiritual dimension, an imperfect dimension... in short, they were fully fleshed out characters. Here, their (almost) only feature is that they fight. Ironically, the only moments where "Crystal" truly manages to 'twitch' from this grey area are the ones that imitate the original anime, such as the rare concoction of a cartoonish frame with a confused face of Sailor Moon in episode 19 or an angry Sailor Venus in episode 22. Also, the "intercourse scene" between Mamoru and Usagi in 19 should be complimented, as well as the effort to have Usagi be less of a crybaby. Overall, it is not that Takeuchi's "Sailor Moon" manga was not great, but that the 90s anime was simply greater, with a spice added from various screenwriters (Sumizawa, Yanagawa, Enokido..) who started a foray into a territory that was more than just a 'superhero-defeats-evil' scheme - however, the authors here still proved to have some moments of inspiration, such as the first introduction of Makoto-Sailor Jupiter, the warrior of thunder, when she is shown at first just as a silhouette running from a storm in the street, until she is illuminated by thunder in the background.

Grade;++

Friday, 1 July 2016

Something Is Happening

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai; comedy / musical / drama / romance, India, 1998; D: Karan Johar, S: Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, Rani Mukerji, Sana Saeed

Rahul is a widowed man who is living with his 8-year old daughter Anjali. On her birthday, Anjali gets a posthumous letter of her late mother, Tina, which describes how they met: a decade ago, Rahul was a womanizing student in a University who loved to play basketball with tomboyish girl Anjali, but fell in love with the new transfer student, Tina, the daughter of the principal. Jealous at their infatuation, Anjali felt left alone and thus departed to another town. Back in present, Anjali (8) decides to track down the grown up Anjali in a kids' summer camp in order to try to make her fall in love with Rahul. Even though Anjali is engaged, she decides to marry Rahul after all.

A wonderfully sweet and sympathetic amalgamation of comedy and drama - and, somewhat to a lesser extent, musical as well - Karan Johar's directorial feature length debut film "Something Is Happening" marked the era of the 'new kids on the block' among the Bollywood cinema, since its freshness and modern tone were almost unheard off, and so unique that they attracted enough audience - even international - to enter the Top 5 among the highest grossing films of India's cinema of the 20th century. However, the film is assembled out of three segments which are not always even. The first one, where the 8-year old daughter is reading about how their parents met as students in a University, is the film's finest hour: almost every little scene is filled with so much detail, color and positive energy it is a blast, whereas the setting - from the campus on the beach up to the modern clothes of the students and cheerleaders - seems as if it plays out in America.

The comic interaction between Rahul and Anjali (brilliant Kajol) has some indescribable chemistry, including their gestures, some of the jokes are howlingly funny (Rahul meeting Tina for the first time, trying to act cool by making fun of the principal - not knowing she is actually his daughter!) whereas others are just plain irresistibly sweet (the attractive Tina wonders why the students are always looking after her, and Anjali explains: "The guys are looking at you because... Hmm-Hmmm... And the girls are all curious at whom the guys are looking at, so they look at you too!"). The University segment is undoubtedly excellent, a 'tour-de-force' - but unfortunately the film then moves to the other two segments, which never repeat such ingenuity, and instead just settle on empty walk in the form of too much singing and the overlong segment where the grown up Rahul and Anjali re-unite in the summer camp - the film just doesn't know when to stop, and thus overstretches itself to 3 hours, until it depletes the viewers' concentration. Some jokes in the finale just seem strained - for instance, the moment where Anjali (8 years old) and the grown up Anjali call the reception, and Rahul accidentally talks over the phone to the other Anjali again, could have been perfectly romantic, but it just turned silly due to a lame idea that he could somehow not distinguish the voice of his little daughter from the grown up Anjali (!). It is a pity, since there is a great film in here - but it just needs a good editor to trim it to two hours. Overall, it seems that the first third of the film was so fantastic that rarely any contemporary Indian film could have reached it - not even the film's own second and third act.

Grade;++