Saturday, March 24, 2018

True Lies

True Lies; action comedy, USA, 1994; D: James Cameron, S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Tia Carrere, Bill Paxton, Eliza Dushku, Charlton Heston


Washington. Harry is a seemingly ordinary, boring computer salesman, living with his wife Helen and daughter Dana (14). However, unbeknownst to them, he is actually a spy working for the US government, teaming up with Albert to defend his country. His private life takes a major blow when he finds out that Helen is having an affair—with Simon, a car salesman who pretends he is a spy to seduce her. Realising Helen yearns for some excitement, Harry gives her a fake spy assignment. This is interrupted when they are both abducted by Abu Aziz's men, the "Crimson Jihad", a group of Islamic fundamentalists who want to detonate nuclear bombs across the US unless the American army withdraws from the Persian Gulf. Together with his team, Harry manages to escape and stop the "Crimson Jihad", while his wife Helen becomes his new spy partner.

Legend has it that when the producers of the new James Bond film attended the early screening of "True Lies", they said to each other: "It's going to be hard to top this one!" James Cameron's only comedy, a remake of Zidi's '91 French film "La Totale!", the first film with a budget of over a 100 million $, "True Lies" is a virtuoso action spectacle from start to finish, whose level just keeps rising the longer its running time—seldom will the viewers get a chance to see such a quality loud big budget action film that puts almost all James Bond films to shame, on all fronts. As expected, Cameron is a master in conjuring up a 'tour-de-force' demonstration of action sequences, yet the film gains an additional plus and spark by also showing the protagonist's private life, which enriches the story: there is a huge irony that he was hiding that he is a spy from his wife, only to find out that she has an affair with a man pretending to be a spy.

Humorous moments arrive swiftly and in the most unexpected places, and are a delight to watch: in the opening act, when Harry says goodbye to his wife in their home, he hurriedly kisses her on the cheek and runs away, while she just remains there standing, and—in a delayed reaction—makes a kissing expression with her lips all alone. Another sequence has Harry jealously observing Simon from his car, and in anger, Harry's glass in binoculars shatters. As Helen drops her gun, it falls down stairs and randomly shoots, until it kills all the bad guys in a moment of serendipity. The burlesque goes so far that it even features one almost "Hot Shots"-like gag in which the vehicle of the Islamic fundamentalists stops at the edge of a destroyed bridge, but then, out of nowhere, a fat pelican lands on it, tipping the vehicle to fall into the sea. After his underrated film "Last Action Hero" failed to attract the audience in the cinemas, Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to top shape with a more balanced mix of comedy and action, delivering a charming performance, in what is probably his last truly great film, whereas Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent in the role of Helen, with her erotic dance in the middle of the film being an extra highlight. Even though the ending is slightly rushed, this cannot corrode the already established high impression: "True Lies" gives one giant action spectacle as a therapy for the couple's marital crisis.

Grade:+++

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Class of 1999

Class of 1999; science-fiction action, USA, 1990; D: Mark L. Lester, S: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lind, John P. Ryan, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, Malcolm McDowell, Darren E. Burrows

In the future, high school violence has gone out of control in some areas in America. One teenager, Cody, is released from jail and returns to his Kennedy high school, but is shocked to find three new teachers—Mr. Hardin in history class, Mrs. Connors in chemistry class and Mr. Bryles in physical class—who actually beat up students in order to bring order and discipline during class. Two students even die from beatings. Together with Christie, the Principal's daughter, Cody discovers that these three teachers are actually androids, humanoid robots used by the military to launch a new discipline program nation-wide. Upon getting caught browsing their apartment, Hardin, Connors and Bryles decide to persecute Cody. First they kill his brother, Angel, and then kidnap Christie. Together with a gang of teenagers, Cody manages to save Christie and destroy robots in the school at night.

This bizarre syncretism of "The Terminator" and high school juvenile delinquents films achieved cult status, yet did not hold up well with the flow of time after 1999, since it is obviously a simplistic, sometimes even trashy action flick that cannot aim to be something more than a 'guilty pleasure'. "Class of 1999" observes a clash between extreme anarchism and extreme authoritarianism, yet pretty much avoids trying to give an in-depth analysis, instead settling for the shallow exploitation film where the actions and decisions of the characters are only there for someone to fight. The three android teachers look too human (especially Mr. Hardin who even smokes a pipe!), and thus never fool anyone that they are robots, except in the finale when they reveal their robotic parts (including Mr. Bryles taking off his hand to reveal a cannon underneath it) and which almost directly copies the finale in "The Terminator" (featuring the only visual effects sequence in the entire film, the stop-motion of Mr. Bryles with half of his flesh gone, revealing his robotic interior, as he walks after Christie and thus Cody has to attack him with a forklift truck). Critics also attacked the film for inciting a violent clash between students and teachers, which was not seen positively from the educational sector. Still, at least the movie is not sterile, since it abounds with several bizarre moments, some of which are so strange that they deserve to be seen (for instance, when two students interrupt the history class by fighting, Mr. Hardin takes one of them, sits on the desk and publicly spanks him in front of the entire class). Among the three android teachers is Pam Grier, who at least somewhat manages to salvage the confusing impression thanks to a few sequences where she uses her "karate moves" to beat up students into obedience.

Grade:+

Monday, March 19, 2018

Armour of God II: Operation Condor

Fei ying gai wak; action comedy, Hong Kong / China, 1991; D: Jackie Chan, S: Jackie Chan, Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo, Shoko Ikeda

Madrid. Adventurer Jackie is given an assignment by a certain Baron to find 240 tn of gold which were stolen during World War II and buried somewhere in the Sahara by the German commander Hans. Teamed up by Elsa, the granddaughter of Hans, and Ada, the trio travels in jeeps south, to the desert. They are attacked by two Arab men as well as mercenaries, while they meet another woman who joins them, Momoko. They finally discover a tunnel which leads them to the underground base, but are taken hostage by the mercenaries led by a man in a wheelchair, Adolf, the last remaining soldier who survived Hans' poisoning of his team. They find the gold, but the self-destruction mechanism of the base activates. Jackie and the three women manage to escape through a wind turbine before the explosion, but are now lost in the desert.

Even though it was not that well received by the critics, "Armour of God 2" still works as a fresh and elegant action comedy even today, featuring once again all the super-fast and meticulously choreographed battle and martial arts fights by Jackie Chan, who here also took over the control on the director's front. Intended as a light homage to the "Indiana Jones" film series, as well as an often tradition of Hong Kong films filmed in exotic locations around the world (in this example, the Sahara), "Armour of God 2" still finds its own style. It works the best in the first half, which features both inspired action (the highlight is arguably the long chase sequence involving Jackie on the motorcycle, which includes him saving a baby cradle from the street, just before a truck crashes into two cars on that spot) and outrageous slapstick comedy moments (the long "hostage" sequence in which Jackie fights mercenaries in the hotel room, all the while using Ada's towel to distract the enemies, until, in the end, a naked Ada "hides" by entering inside Jackie's pants and jacket from his back, so the two of them walk together by sharing the same clothes). Unfortunately, the second half is much weaker and loses a lot of its initial level due to forced or spasmodic humor, falling all until the action finale that returns it back into shape. The silly story is, once again, basically just an excuse to have Jackie Chan go on an adventure to fight the bad guys, the "incomplete" ending feels rushed and unfinished whereas the supporting character of Momoko plays no role in the story, yet the enormous set pieces and aesthetic images of the sand dunes still manage to compensate for the omissions: one of the best jokes is the giant wind turbine in the finale, in which Jackie shouts "Superman!" as he jumps and let's the wind push him to fly off into a wall in the underground base, showing that he still has that charm and wit, even when doing sequels.

Grade:++

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Chungking Express

Chung Hing sam lam; romance / drama, Hong Kong / China, 1994; D: Wong Kar-wai, S: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Valerie Chow

Two stories from Hong Kong: while going after a criminal, police officer He Qiwu, number #223, encountered an unknown woman with a blond wig for the first time. She organized a drug smuggling business that failed, which left her very upset. Qiwu is sad because his girlfriend May left him on his birthday. Qiwu meets the blond wig woman and they fall in love... Faye, a saleslady in a small snack bar, falls in love with police officer #663, but is too scared to do something directly due to her short hair. When a woman, a flight attendant, breaks up with the said police officer, she leaves him a farewell letter and the keys to his apartment at the snack bar desk—which thus land in the hands of Faye. She uses the keys to secretly enter his apartment and clean it. One day, he catches her in his apartment, but she runs away. A year later, after Faye returns from California, she is now a flight attendant, and the infatuated police officer meets her again.

A lot of critical recognition was aimed at director Wong Kar-wai, and not without reason, since his unusual two-story romantic drama "Chunking Express" is an impressive, gentle, emotional and melancholic little film. The film consists out of two stories—the 1st one that lasts for 40 minutes, and the 2nd one for 60 minutes—which are unconnected, featuring two different protagonists, and this peculiar direction may puzzle some viewers: different and 'discreetly eccentric', it is still a successful drama the way it is, where the cinematography has a lot of aesthetics, but the characters are the main highlight, and that is its principal virtue. While the 1st story has its merits, the 2nd story is the "real deal", featuring a romantic "proxy poke" concept so sweet that not even "Amelie" would be ashamed off, the one in which a girl, Faye, accidentally obtains the apartment keys to the guy she is in love with, and thus secretly enters his apartment while he is away, trying to leave clues to him. The characters are wonderfully shrill: police officer #223, for instance, was born on 1 May, so he buys cans with an expiration date of 1 May, whereas police officer #663 tells a vet mop, which leaks water, not to cry. Superb song "California Dreamin'" is featured six times (!) throughout the film, whereas the final song, "Dreams", is sung by actress Faye Wong, assembling an unusual cavalcade of emotions, and circling out its unique melancholic mood.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Days of Being Wild

Ah fei zing zyun; drama / romance, Hong Kong / China, 1990; D: Wong Kar-wai, S: Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Andy Lau, Rebecca Pan, Jacky Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Hong Kong. A lad, Yuddy, seduces Li-zhen, a saleswoman working at the sports arena desk, and they start a relationship. However, Yuddy gets bored and disappears from her life without any explanation. Walking alone at night, Li-zhen is comforted by a police patrol man, Tide, but refuses to end up with him. Yuddy manages that another woman falls for him, dancer Mimi, but then dumps her as well. An angry Mimi confronts Li-zhen, but the latter tells her that Yuddy just dumps all the women like that. Yuddy confronts his adoptive mother and leaves for Philippines in order to find his biological mother. He is robbed by a girl but meets and befriends Tide, who became a sailor. Yuddy ends up in a fight in a hotel. While traveling in a train with Tide, one of the criminals tracks down Yuddy and shoots him in the wagon.

"Days of Being Wild" pretty much sums up all the frustrating aspects about director Wong Kar-wai: overwhelming aesthetics, underwhelming writing. While the cinematography is exquisite, filled with several wonderful, lush, beautiful shots and images, his storyline is strangely thin, with several 'empty walks', especially in the banal writing of dialogues, since some of the lines almost sound as if they came from a soap opera ("I told you not to love me! You got his car, and now you want even me!"). The final 20 minutes, where the main protagonist, Yuddy, suddenly decides to go to Philippines to search for his biological mother, are misguided and lead nowhere. Still, even in this 'raw' approach, Kar-wai has moments of magic, featuring nostalgia and a humanistic sympathy for his imperfect characters, especially in the puzzling protagonist who is a restless and aimless individual, a man who finds love (with two women), but leaves them because he hasn't found happiness with them, so he goes to search for love for his biological mother in the (illusory) search for some comfort, some peace of mind.

The most was achieved out of excellent actors: as great as Maggie Cheung is, she is overshadowed by the high calibre, genuine and irresistible performance by the fantastic Carina Lau as dancer Mimi, whose character is a joy to watch. One of the most charming sequences is the one where Yuddy returns to his apartment, angry that Mimi has not cleaned the floor. Mimi meets him sitting on a chair in a fancy, short dress, by saying: "Am I pretty?" - "Did you wipe the floor?" - "I did! It's just dry because of the heat. Don't believe me? Do you want me to swear?" - "Swear by cursing yourself!" - "I won't do that! OK, I'll clean it when I go out, alright?!" Another interesting leitmotiv is the one of time (in the opening, Yuddy tells Li-zhen that he will always remember that one minute before 3 PM, on 16 April 1 9 6 0, because he spent it with her) and the search for some permanent value in life. As cryptic and peculiar this movie is, and its strange directions, it is difficult not to be just a little bit enchanted with it in the opening encounter in which Yuddy tells Li-zhen that she will dream of him tonight, and the next morning, he shows up to spot her all tired, leading to a magical dialogue ("I haven't dreamt of you last night." - "That's because you haven't slept at all. But you see me now, anyway").

Grade:++

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

My Man Godfrey

My Man Godfrey; comedy, USA, 1936; D: Gregory La Cava, S: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, Mischa Auer

Godfrey is a homeless, unemployed man living near a dumpster. One night, a rich and spoiled woman, Cornelia Bullock, offers to give him 5 $ so that she can win in a game in which millionaires contest in who will find a scavenger first. Godfrey refuses, but his protest gains the admiration of Cornelia's sister, Irene, who hires him as the butler in her mansion. A Harvard student, Godfrey feels humiliated, but accepts the job of a butler. The parents, Alexander and Angelica Bullock, also look fondly on him. When Alexander announces they are broke due to a stock crash, Godfrey informs them that he took Cornelia's necklace to invest and save their fortune, and then quits to run a diner where he employed 50 homeless people from the dumpster. Irene then marries Godfrey.

A gentle "screwball" comedy on the effects of the Great Depression, as well as a consoling commentary on the relations between the upper and the lower class, as well as the people poor with money yet rich with integrity, and people rich with money and poor with wisdom, "My Man Godfrey" is a well made film, yet still failed to achieve that desired status of a timeless classic, even though it was released during the 'golden-age of Hollywood'. Too many of its solutions are simplistic, especially in the too neat, optimistic happy ending which advocated that people should not be judged by their status, whereas the writing is not always on full capacity mode, obvious in several moments of 'empty walk', yet it still has some endearing virtues that give it freshness.

The character of Godfrey, a former Harvard student who now has to accept a job "beneath his standard", the one of a butler, is engaging and easy to identify with, whereas some of his pearls of wisdom are great: in one sequence near the beginning, when he is homeless, he has a funny exchange with a waiter ("Address?" - "City Dump 32."), he later talks to his friend ("It's surprising how fast you can go downhill when you start to feel sorry for yourself."; "The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.") while in another he gives a speech that sums up the arrogance of Cornelia with such a smashing elegance that it deserves an ovation (he calls her a "spoiled brat" whose "misdirected energies are so childish that they hardly deserve a comment even of a butler on a Thursday off"). The love subplot between Godfrey and Irene is a weak link, though, because they do not share enough chemistry, while she is a rather underdeveloped character. The genius performance by excellent Euegene Pallette as father Alexander Bullock with a "rocky" voice stands out the most, since his stoic yet sympathetic stance steals the show, forming a highlight of the film in the most hilarious moment of the story: the one when he loses his temper, escorts the pretentious piano player Carlo outside the room and then a sound of breaking glass is heard. When Alexander returns, he has this golden exchange with his puzzled wife: "What happened? What did you say to Carlo?" - "I said 'goodbye'!" - "Well did he go?" - "Yes, he left very hurriedly through the side window."

Grade:++

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Cría Cuervos

Cria Cuervos; drama, Spain, 1976; D: Carlos Saura, S: Ana Torrent, Conchi Perez, Maite Sanchez, Monica Randall, Geraldine Chaplin, Florinda Chico

Madrid. Ana (9) is a girl obsessed with death. Unlike her two sisters, Irene and Maite, she is an unhappy and pessimistic child. Their mother died from an illness, while their father died from a heart attack while having sex with another woman. The three girls are thus now raised by their mother's aunt, Paulina, and maid Rosa. Ana observes the negative things in the world around her, from her grandmother bound to a wheelchair up to the additional death of her hamster. Ana still prevails and returns back to school.

"I can't understand people who say that childhood is the happiest time of one's life. It certainly wasn't for me. Maybe that's why I don't believe in a childlike paradise or that children are innocent or good by nature. I remember my childhood as an interminably long and sad time filled with fear, fear of the unknown." This quote of the (grown) up heroine Ana perfectly sumps up the theme of this unusual "anti-kids film" by director and screenwriter Carlos Saura, who decided to make a movie about kids for grown ups, breaking the often presented cliche that childhood is idealistic, instead showing how life's problems can befall even the young ones, here embodied in the 9-year old heroine who is obsessed with death. Saura presents this unusual clash of innocence and harsh reality with very simple means (Ana walking up to the bed of her dead father and just looking at him; Ana burying her dead hamster in a box) with the only metafilm jump being the camera pan from a 9-year old Ana to a grown up Ana (Geraldine Chaplin) in the same scene, who looks directly into the camera and confesses her "fed up" feelings to the viewers. A quiet, intimate, rather measured little film, emotional and sad, a sober deconstruction of cultural myths of a happy life, yet with huge sympathy for the unlikely "Goth girl" who already gets some things about life right from the start. A very good, though still a little bit overrated film, "Raise Ravens" suffers from a rather vague meandering of the storyline, and ends on a incomplete note, without a clear, satisfying conclusion, yet still says a few pearls of wisdom while presenting its actual theme of a clash between what people would want to be true and what really is true in the dark reality in this "existentialist kids film".

Grade:+++

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bitter Harvest

Bitter Harvest; war drama, Canada, 2017; D: George Mendeluk, S: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Tamer Hassan, Barry Pepper, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard

Ukraine during the Bolshevik occupation. Yuri is a farm boy living in the countryside, in love with a girl called Natalka. Upon Bolshevik troops, led by fundamentalist Sergei, molesting a farmer and demanding his land due to collectivization, Yuri's father intervenes, but is hanged by the Bolsheviks. Yuri goes to Kiev to study painting, but feels suffocated by the Soviet directives that ban any individuality. In order to subjugate the rebellious Ukraine to Goreshist Russia, genocidaire Joseph Stalin orders a confiscation of all food from the farms, causing mass hunger that ends in Holodomor. Upon entering a bar fight, Yuri is sent to prison, but manages to escape and return to his village. In a raid by the Ukraine patriots, the Bolshevik dungeon is torched and Sergei killed. Yuri, Natalka and an orphaned boy escape from the Soviet dictatorship and flee West by jumping into a river.

A systematic policy of extermination of at least 2,700,000 people in Ukraine, Holodomor was at the time the worst genocide perpetrated in human history, taking a toll larger than some of the bloodiest wars ever seen and decimating the local populace. Despite such catastrophic plight, it was only rarely the topic in cinema, and one of the films that talked about it was George Mendeluk's "Bitter Harvest" that delivered a rather well made story. The storyline could have been better developed, with more inspiration or points prepared beforehand, yet it works thanks to great cinematography that looks very modern and great actors: excellent Tamer Hassan stands out the most as the sadistic Bolshevik villain, Sergei. Some insights into the relations of people at that time are a rare find, such as the scenes depicting Ukrainians rebelling, even organizing armed resistance to the Soviet yoke, though the scale of the mass deaths still does not to seem all-encompassing, except for a few exceptions (the Bolshevik soldiers taunting Ukrainians in a pub, stating that the starvation is "saving Soviet ammunition"; the Bolshevik raiding the farmers' homes, even stealing food from their cellars; Natalka suffering a miscarriage due to food shortage, etc). Mendeluk sometimes gives more weight to patriotism than to cinematic style, whereas there is not enough pathos, though "Harvest" is still a good film about integrity and the small people fighting against the oppression, that managed to avoid some bigger cliches when such topics are handled.

Grade:++

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; fantasy / grotesque; USA, 1988; D: Terry Gilliam, S: John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Purvis, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Robin Williams, Sting

18th century. During a siege of a coastal city on the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire, a group of theatre actors is performing a play of the adventures of Baron Munchausen. Their play is interrupted when Munchausen, now an old man, appears on stage himself and tells the audience about his adventures: he won a bet against the Turkish sultan because his friend, superfast Berthold, managed to run a 1,000 miles to Vienna and back and get a bottle of great vine, and thus Munchausen's crew, which included Gustavus, Adolphus and superstrong Albrecht, took all the gold from the treasury. An 8-year old girl, Sally, believes Munchausen and goes an a trip from the Moon up, a Volcano up to the stomach of a giant fish to find all of Munchausen's crew and bring them back to the city where they stop and banish the Ottoman army. Back in reality, Munchausen demands the gates to be opened, and the Ottoman army is indeed gone. He then rides with his horse and disappears on the horizon.

One of the most expensive movies from the 80s with a budget of around 40 million $, this fantasy extravaganza is at the same time one of the most bizarre movies of the said decade, achieving a mixed result—some moments are playful and creative, some are just plain indecipherable or 'autistic'—yet all identify Terry Gilliam's instant trademark 'Felliniesque' style as an auteur. A loose remake (or reboot) adaptation of von Baky's '43 classic "Munchhausen" and K. Zeman's '62 version "The Fabulous Baron Munchausen", Gilliam's film gives a more bitter and dark edition of the stories, completing his informal "Trilogy of Imagination" in which the people try to find a way out from the cruel, damaging world through escapist fables (the first two films being "Time Bandits", which showed this theme from a child's perspective, and "Brazil", which showed it from a grown-up man's perspective) by displaying the title hero at an old age, who finds a new esprit, a rejuvenation of some sort, to live in these therapuetic fairy tales in which he undergoes a transition from a useless man at deathbed (the leitmotive of a skeleton with wings, a personification of Death, appears several times in the story) to a hero who matters in society.

The middle part of this cult film strays too often into pointless episodes (as refreshing as Robin Williams' cameo is as the floating head of the Moon King, his segment is superfluous to the narrative), some of which really are too bizarre and may strain the efforts of the viewers to understand them, yet the opening and the closing act rise to the ocassion and offer a few comical moments. Eric Idle almost steals the show as the superfast Berthold, who ignites the most laughs: one of the highlights is the finale in which a Turkish soldier shoots at Munchhausen, yet Berthold starts running at such a speed that he is at the same pace as the bullet, then tries to grab it with his bare hands, but it rotates too fast, so he runs to a piece of armor and intercepts the bullet by bouncing it off the metal object. The special effects of dust left behind after his running are also amusing, especially in the scene in which Berthold trips and falls off a hill. Another great moment involves Gustavus, who puffs and blows out dozens of Ottoman soldiers in the wind, whereas superstrong Albrecht swings and catapults three ships at the said army. The sequence in which Munchausen flies on a cannon fired from the city, flies over the Ottoman soldiers, and then jumps on to a Ottoman cannon to fly back behind the city walls, is also exquisite, and more of such moments with a punchline would have been welcome, yet it still brings across its message about the triumph of imagination over the powers of grey routine, in its own weird way.

Grade:++