Saturday, July 20, 2019
London. Pongo is a Dalmatian dog living with his owner, songwriter Roger. In a park, Pongo manages to charm Anita, the owner of another Dalmatian female dog, Perdita. Roger falls in love with Anita, Pongo with Perdita. 15 Dalmatian puppies are bred. However, Anita's schoolmate, Cruella De Vil, intends to make fur coats out of the puppies, and thus sends her henchmen, Jasper and Horace, to kidnap them. With the help of a cat, the puppies, together with another 83 other Dalmatian puppies who were kidnapped previously, escape from Jasper's and Horace's house and flee with Pongo and Perdita. Cruella tries to capture them again, but her car crashes with Jasper's and Horace's. Back in London, Roger and Anita embrace all of the 101 Dalmatians.
By selling over 99,000,000 tickets at the American box office during its premiere and four subsequent re-issues, "101 Dalmatians" is the 2nd most popular Walt Disney animated feature film of the 20th century, though not among their finest achievements. In spite of its charming, lovable characters, its biggest impact was left by the villainess, Cruella De Vil, who was ingrained in collective cinema memory as one of the sleaziest and nastiest antagonists in animation. The start of the film is inspired: the intro is wonderfully creative (dots are used, among other things, as music notes) whereas the opening line has style, with the camera descending from a panorama shot of an apartment building while the protagonist narrates his introduction ("My story begins in London... At that time, I lived with my pet in a flat...") and we see Roger through the window, composing music while his dog lays next to him, only for the viewers to quickly find out that the narrator is not Roger, but actually the dog, Pongo ("Oh, that's my pet, Roger, I'm the one with the spots").
The way Pongo manages to "initiate" contact for his owner, Roger, in the park, is irresistible: the dog uses the leash to "laso" both Roger's and Anita's leg, thereby pushing them closer to each other, in a neat romantic move. The rest of the story is somehow rushed and hasty, never managing to simply slow down for the viewers to enjoy its narrative and absorb what is going on. Out of the 15 Dalmatian puppies, none is that well developed as a character (except for one who is fat, and thus his only personality is that he loves eating), and thus the sympathy for them is restrained, which is really problematic in the finale, when the viewers are suppose to root for them. The last third of the film is just one giant escape and chase sequence, without much ingenuity, leaving a rather standard, though still solid impression. A little more imagination or versatility in the story, revolving around the 15 Dalmatian puppies, would have improved the film, whereas a few sugary Disney moments happen here and there. However, there are still moments that ignite a good chuckle (in one great 'throw away' joke, Roger listens to his song on a radio, revolving around the evil nature of Cruella), which makes "101 Dalmatians" a fun film.
Friday, July 19, 2019
Suffolk. After a traffic accident, Jack Malik, an aspiring songwriter who makes ends meet by working in a store, wakes up in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed. He uses this opportunity to simply copy every Beatles song he remembers and present it as his own. His best friend / manager, Ellie, helps him make an album, and little by little, the word of mouth spreads. Musician Ed Sheeran invites him for a concert and is amazed by the songs Jack plays. Quickly, a new, American manager steps in, Debra, and soon Jack becomes an international star. He meets two other people who remember the Beatles. During a concert, Jack finally admits the songs were composed by the Beatles and ends up with Ellie.
This charming comic take on the 'Mandela Effect', in this case presenting a man in an alternate reality where the Beatles never existed, is an amusing, light and heartwarming little film, though the the range of possibilities of its concept could have been exploited more. "Yesterday" starts off nicely, presenting the hero Jack as a would-be musician who gives up on his dream, admitting to his best friend Ellie: "I think my music is something special, you think it is something special, but nobody else does". It is an effective scene, both bitter, somber and charming. It is topped by the best sequence in the film, the one where Jack manically googles the word "Beatles" on his laptop, but only gets ridiculously absurd results, such as the image of a beetle insect, or when he types in "John Paul McCartney" but only gets the image of "Pope John Paul", which is a riot. Sadly, nothing after that manages to be equally as great. The rest of the film is good, but somehow strangely ordinary, calculative and normal for such a fresh and unique concept, never leading to some especially relevant point congruent to it. The actors are all great, especially Lily James who steals almost every scene as Jack's love interest, Ellie, whereas it is a treat to simply listen a whole array of The Beatles' songs, sung here by Jack, from "Love is All You Need", through "The Long and Winding Road" up to "Help!", performed with gusto.
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
New York. Gabe, a literature professor, and his wife, Judy, are shocked upon finding out that their friends, Jack and Sally, are filing for divorce. Jack finds a younger new lover, Sam, and thinks she is great in bed, but soon has to conclude that she very immature and incompatible, so he reconciles with Sally. In the meantime, Gabe starts talking with his student, Rain, who is a great admirer of his. During a rainy night, they kiss, but Gabe decides to not pursue this any further. However, Gabe's wife Judy leaves him to be with another man, Michael.
Unjustifiably overshadowed by Woody Allen's infamous break-up with Mia Farrow, who here ironically plays his wife leaving him, excellent "Husbands and Wives" offers far more than many other movies exploring the theme of human relationships, managing to be both realistically intimate and artistically satisfying. Already the opening scene manages to set up an engaging intro, staying true to Allen's typical comic taste: on TV, a man mentions Einstein's quote: "God doesn't play dice with the Universe!", upon which Allen's character Gabe changes the channel and comments: "No, he plays hide-and-seek with the Universe!" Unlike his previous, static films, this is one untypical for Allen: he uses hand-held cameras with sudden, shaky pans, even jump cuts that interrupt Gabe in the middle of a sentence, making one wonder if he was the first to use this documentary-like style, before Dogme 95. However, he always forces the viewers to engage more with the characters than with his style. The bitter story sums up a harsh, sad truth, namely that people can either find someone who is sexually compatible with them, or spiritually compatible, but that they cannot find a person who is both, which causes a disappointing "martial dichotomy". Following this disillusionment that destroys the idealism of a perfect love, Allen managed to tap onto some deeper truths in life, yet he still has more than enough inspired jokes, all of which stem from his writing, from "Art doesn't imitate life, it imitates bad Television", up to Gabe's very sympathetic quote in which he compares Turgenev to a fine "dessert" but Dostoevsky to a "real meal with Vitamins". Even though he was disputed by some critics, Allen really had an incredibly proliferate creative phase spanning over three decades, from the 70s up to the 90s, when he made one great film after another, and always had new ideas.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
During a raid, LAPD Detective Vic tries to arrest criminal Teijo, but the latter kills his partner, Morris. Six months later, Vic has underwent a laser eye surgery, but then gets a tip that Teijo is going to have a smuggling operation this evening. Since he cannot see that well from the surgery, Vic hires Uber driver Stu to drive him from house to house, in order to arrest Teijo's henchman. This overlong crime chase is very inconvenient for Stu, since he planned to try to woo a girl he always liked. In the showdown, it turns out Vic's boss, Captain Angie, is the police mole who is on Teijo's payroll, but thanks to Stu's help, Vic manages to arrest Teijo. Stu starts a relationship with Vic's daughter, Nicole.
It is a pity when a movie has such potentials to be more, yet in the end settles to be just the most generic, the most routine version of itself, as it is the case with "Stuber". It has two great actors, Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, who show chemistry by playing the two opposites in this 'buddy' film, a tough cop and a sensitive, intelligent Uber driver, and the opening act starts off well (equipped with a genius action sequence where the bad guy Teijo tries to escape from the upper floor of a building by jumping from balcony to balcony, and clinging on to it, but Vic then simply takes a table and throws it from the top on him, causing the villain to fall on the floor immediately). However, the film stubbornly refuses to pursue these good moments, and instead just pursues the dumbest, the most primitive and the most populist inane situations, never showing faith that it can engage the broad viewers by being simply smart. The whole setting that Vic has to spend the entire film half-blind after his eye laser surgery is misguided, whereas too many dumb supporting characters wreck the mood, such as the one of Richie, the vulgar owner of a store who constantly humiliates Stu, and whose subplot leads nowhere. A rare moment of inspiration shows up here and there, though: in one delicious sequence, Vic beats the teenage gangster, trying to force him to give him information about Teijo's whereabouts, but then Stu has a better idea. Stu simply takes the gangster's mobile phone, logs in to his social media web page, and writes that the gangster is in love with Ryan Gosling, citing "The Notebook" as the latter's favorite film, until the gangster confesses everything to stop this Internet embarrassment. A lot of moments in the story make no sense (the low point is the stupid fight between Vic and Stu in the warehouse), ending on a confusing note, since its good ideas are too sparse.
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Jack Lambert is an ethics professor who just found a new girlfriend, Gale. However, he finds out that his neighbor, Max, may be an ex-Nazi commander of an concentration camp, Karl Luger, but the news is still unsure of this rumor. Upon finding out that Max intends to move to South America, Jack poisons him, unwilling to let him get away unpunished for his crimes. However, the news reveals that Max was just a cook during World War II, and that the reports just misidentified him for Luger. Out of remorse, Jack breaks up with Gale and marries Max's daughter, single mother Inga. During their voyage to Düsseldorf, Inga confesses that her father was indeed Luger, and that he just forged the fake identity of Max to hide. Jack confesses of killing him, and lands in jail. However, due to a lack of evidence, Jack is freed and he makes up with Gale again.
Harvey Miller's final film, this strange black comedy is a rather uninspired and confusing thought experiment on the ethics of a vigilante taking justice into his own hand, without a trial, yet has too little to offer to carry this premise through. "Getting Away with Murder" has a noble theme, a one about justice being served even if the suspected war criminal in question is now an old, frail man, yet it does so in too many preachy or didactic moments, which are ultimately too dry for a functioning narrative. Dan Aykroyd is good as the ethics professor Jack torn between his dilemma, yet has little to do in the thin screenplay. One bad joke is there, though, the one where the camera, for whatever reason, lingers terribly on the scene of a white dog licking the crotch of Jack, in a moment that just screams "deleted scene". However, one has to hand it to Jack for his way of eliminating the suspected war criminal Max, which has ingenuity: knowing that Max enjoys eating apples from his garden, Jack simply enters the latter's back yard and uses a needle to inject cyanide into the apples on the tree. Another good moment is when Jack finds out that Gale wants to establish contact after his drumming session, and thus narrates: "It makes it a lot easier when someone likes you first. That way they have to come up with an opening line." Unfortunately, after the murder, the film loses all its steam, and just ends up stranded there, not knowing what to do next, and thus the last 40 minutes are just one long empty walk which just goes around in circles of the twist of whether or not Max was a criminal or just someone with a mistaken identity, until the abrupt ending. A small crumb of pleasure is the supporting role of Lily Tomlin, an always competent comedienne who here manages to somewhat salvage her one-note role.
Saturday, July 13, 2019
Teenager Kate eagerly wants to become an upper class member by joining the prestigious Bushwood golf club, and thus her rich (and obnoxious) father Jack goes with her. In the club, Jack makes a lot of enemies with senior member Chandler. Their arguments escalate, so Jack persuades member Ty to sell him the majority rights for the club, which Jack then turns into an amusement park. Jack's misbehavior also causes a falling out with Kate. When Chandler gets a restriction notice forbidding Jack to build estate in the city, the two make a bet: whoever wins a golf tournament, wins the club rights. Even though Chandler hired an assassin to eliminate Jack, the latter manages to win the game.
By title, setting and an occasional actor, this sequel to the golf comedy "Caddyshack" is a tiresome and uninspired follow-up which ultimately destroyed the franchize. While weaker than the 1st film, which was a "broad" populist comedy itself, there are still some traces of that good old comedy writing by Harold Ramis who penned the 1st draft of the script, and one can practically pin down the point at which he left the film which was then taken over by far less talented writers: this is obvious in the last 30 minutes of the film, where "Caddyshack 2" completely exhausts itself and spends the rest of the running time on an empty walk with zero successful jokes. However, the opening act has a few chuckles. A movie can't be that bad featuring these dialogues: "What is your background?" - "My father was Armenian. My mother was half Jewish, half English, half Spanish". - "That's three halves". - "Oh, she was a big woman!" In another moment, when Jack in arguing with a woman over whether an old shack is a cultural heritage, and thus no estate can be built on it, they have this argument: "That was a brook". - "That's not a brook, lady. It's a sewer." - "Originally it was a brook." - "And originally your family comes from monkeys. What does that have to do with it?" In another moment, Jack mentions: "She was an ugly girl. She had a coming-out party, and they made her go back!" In these better moments, it seems as if R. Dangerfield's spirit is somehow with Jackie Mason's character. Unfortunately, in lesser moments, there are a lot of failed gags. Chevy Chase is wasted and delivers a lesser version of Ty Webb than in the 1st film. He has one good moment, though: when a random club member taps his shoulder, Ty taps the latter's as well, and leaves his ham on the guy's shoulder. Dan Aykroyd and Randy Quaid leave disastrously unfunny performances behind, unworthy of their talents. And each scene featuring the gopher is vulgar and misguided. As the old saying goes, even in weak films, one can find a moment of greatness. This is true in "Caddyshack 2", which features a fantastic song, Kenny Loggins' "Nobody's Fool", which proves that sometimes a soundtrack ends up being better than the movie.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
A seemingly normal literature club run by Madam Yankelova hides a dark secret: its purpose is actually for its female members to lure attractive men there, who will then be killed and their meat used as hot dogs. Sophie has already won 99 awards for bringing the best man to the slaughter, but she is aging, and thus cannot seduce them anymore without the help of her friend Hannah. One member tells Sophie that either she will win her next 100th award and be promoted or lose and be demoted to the sanitation department. As a librarian, Sophie meets Yosef and falls in love with him, since they both enjoy novels. Sophie wants to leave the club and save Yosef, a detective, but he goes there anyway, eager to find out what happened to his father who also disappeared. Sophie and Yosef run away from the castle, which gets blow up in an explosion caused by a barrel filled with gasoline.
This peculiar film is a strange feminist hybrid of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Dangerous Liaisons": the first association is warranted because of an organization that kills men and uses their meat for hot dogs, but the second one is warranted for a surprisingly subtle and measured love story in which one person who initially just feigned love actually falls in love. "Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club" is not for everyone's taste: the initial black comedy is deliberately suppressed for the development of the love story in which Sophie falls for her prey, Yosef, yet it has a certain twisted logic. The bizarrely allegorical story actually shows Sophie's maturing from only a physical relation with men to a spiritual bond—she is aging, and thus cannot rely on her good looks to lure men to the club, but for the first time actually finds something deeper, something cathartic, a soulmate in Yosef who enjoys literature. There is a neat joke in which Sophie only managed to get an old, bald man to the club, and is thus threatened by her superior to either bring a man who scores at least 8.8 out of 10 for the next time or she will be demoted to sanitation. Therefore, when she meets Yosef, she tranquilizes him on the couch temporarily and measures his skull and nose, calculating a score of 9.75, jumping up and down from joy. Some of the plot points were left unexplored: the reasons for the macabre ritual "menocide" by the all female club in never satisfactory explained, with only a hint that they represent angry women disappointed in love or toxic feminism. In the end, Sophie has to choose: either promotion in the club or exile for love. The ending is somewhat forced and too neat, yet there are enough twists in the characters to keep the interest going, whereas the director Guilhad Schenker has an elegant mood that flows smoothly throughout.
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
A long time ago, a meteor struck Africa. It contained vibranium, an unusual metal which helped five local tribes to slowly create a technologically advanced society, Wakanda. In the present, Wakanda uses that technology to uphold a hologram of a forest around it, in order to be kept safe and unknown from the rest of the world. The new king becomes T'Challa, who together with warriors Okoye and Nakie goes to Busan to arrest Ulysses who wants to sell stolen vibranium on the black market. In the chaos, they bring an injured CIA agent, Ross, to Wakanda for treatment. Ulysses is killed and brought by Erik, who challenges T'Challa to trial by combat, wins and becomes the new king. Erik wants to give Wakandan technology to Black people around the world, in order for them to start a war and become the new rulers of the world. T'Challa stops and kills Erik, but decides to end isolationism and announce Wakandan technology to the world.
There is a reason why "Black Panther" stirred up such a hype during its premiere: while there were other African-American superhero films preceding it, rarely has an American film done so much to give a feeling of restoring pride and honor to the African community. Through its story of an African nation that is a hundred years technologically more advanced than the rest of the world, it turns the geopolitics and the world order upside down: Africans are not a symbol for third world or poverty anymore, but for progress and prosperity. Wakanda is a dream of an African superpower. Leaving these politics and good intentions aside, "Black Panther" is still one of the better Marvel films, though still with several flaws in it. Some scenes showing Wakandan technology are fascinating: in one example, Shuri places two soles on the ground, T'Challa steps on them and they lace up into shoes, forming a perfect fit, even with sound isolation during walking. Another is Black Panther's suit, which is programmed to absorb any hit and use its energy as a counter-shield, which becomes useful in the neat scene where villains throw a hand grenade into a building with people, but Panther simply jumps on it, "absorbing" the explosion. The action sequences in the first half are incredibly creative, never before seen, the highlight being the bald female warrior Okoye, who in one scene even uses a spear to stop a car.
One of the problems in the story is the underdeveloped notion of certain aspects of the Wakandan society. For instance, why would a highly developed country use a trial by combat to determine its leader? By that logic, wrestlers would always rule over the country, and not people with intelligence or innovation. It is also unusual that Black Panther is the king: why would a king go to foreign countries, practically all by himself, to fight and hunt for Ulysses? Wouldn't his guards do that for him? What were his ancestors, the previous Black Panthers, doing in the country during peace? The second half of the film is a little bit of a letdown: instead of a more philosophical approach and character development, it is just the typical "let's search for and revive the wounded hero" (with too much flimsy deus ex machina solutions) and then followed by the typical action finale—equipped with the ridiculous idea of rhinoceros in armor. Likewise, it is a pity that the biggest reveal in the film, the one where T'Challa is about to announce Wakandan technology in front of the UN, is interrupted, ending in an anticlimax. However, despite them being underdeveloped, there are still some deeper, more complex themes in the film. One is the re-questioning of isolationism when the world around them needs help. Another is the clash between T'Challa and Erik, which, as Andreas Busche observed, parallels the clash of ideas between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: should Africans improve their status through merit, peace and intelligence, or through violence? Masking such subversive themes as a popcorn movie certainly was brave and refreshing by director Ryan Coogler, who should thus be given a little extra credit.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
The five Spice Girls—Mel C, Mel B, Emma, Victoria, Geri—are under stress because their manager Clifford is pushing them to constantly perform, without any break to relax. They have a huge concert planned at the Royal Albert Hall. A tabloid editor is bored of only good news from the Spice Girls and thus hires a paparazzi to find "dirt" on the girls in order to sell bad news about them in his newspaper. The girls get into an argument with Clifford and disappear. They help their friend, Nicola, deliver a baby and rush in a bus to their concert at Albert Hall. Two film producers pitch a movie idea about Spice Girls to Clifford.
During the 'peak' Spice Girls era, when the band already became one of the icons of the 90s, a decision was delivered to make this movie as some sort of a vehicle to promote them even more, in the vein of "A Hard Days Night" or "ABBA: The Movie". However, unlike the said two movies, "Spice World" is not that fun, or creative or as inspired as it could have been, though it is still a solid fun. The movie works the best in the first 30 minutes, when the five girls manage to conjure up some charm, but it loses its steam later on, when it gets lost in the sea of random, unconnected episodes chaotically scattered throughout (a drill Sargent; aliens demanding an autograph; Roger Moore feeding a little pig with a milk bottle). The five girls act too often like a collective, and thus, sadly, we do not find out much about their individual characters on their own, which makes them less than the "sum of their parts", yet there are still a few good jokes in the film. In one charming moment, the five girls wake up in the middle of the night in a castle, and recount their nightmares—and when it is Victoria's turn, she goes: "I had the exactly same dream, but mine was much, much worse. You see, I had a head... but there was no make up on it". In another good joke, an associate informs the villain, the slimy tabloid editor who wants to find bad news about the Spice Girls, that the girls may not perform at their biggest scheduled concert. The bad guy then stands up from his chair in a strange expression and has this exchange: "Something strange is happening... What is it? Something is happening to my face!" - "You're smiling." There are also some traces of magic, of joie du vivre in the sequence where the girls perform "Wannabe" from start to finish in an empty pub, just for the owner who is their only audience member. "Spice World" is a 'guilty pleasure': it could have been better, but has some inexplicable charm to it. It is actually a pity there was never a second Spice Girls film, since one gets the impression there is more to this girls than just what was shown here.
Friday, June 21, 2019
A French city, 1184. Balian of Ibelin mourns his wife who committed suicide after the death of their child. Balian's father, Godfrey, shows up and invites him to sail to Jerusalem to fight in the Crusades. Godfrey succumbs to his wounds after a fight defending Balian, who travels to Jerusalem by himself. Balian joins the ranks of the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but its king, Baldwin IV, dies from leprosy, while the new king becomes Guy of Lusignan, a Christian fundamentalist who persecutes Muslims. Saladin of Ayyubid Sultanate attacks the city. Seeing they are outnumbered, and disillusioned by religion, Balian agrees to surrender Jerusalem to Saladin in exchange for the safe evacuation of all inhabitants. Back in Europe, Balian starts a new life with Princess Sybilla.
The three hour director's cut of Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" is better than the abridged cinematic version, elaborating the characters and giving them more room to develop, and thus helping the viewers to understand their motivation, though this was still not enough to give the story more inspiration. As film critic Dean Jovovic observed, Scott is the director who "explores the human senselessness", and thus this Crusade epic is a very bitter deconstruction of any ideology and the people tricked to die for it, which ultimately leads to fundamentalism, showing in this case the protagonist's disillusionment with religion. Several quotes are thus remarkably sharp and poignant: in Jerusalem, during the Christian rule, one priest is the loudest, fanatically imposing the dogmatic rule. However, near the end, when Saladin's army is threatening, the priest is the first to suggest: "Convert to Islam. Repent later!", causing the protagonist Balian to reply: "You've taught me a lot about religion". Other lines are also cynical during the siege of Jerusalem: "I've traveled a lot to die for nothing". Another one goes like this: "I thought we were fighting for God. But then I realized we were fighting for wealth and land. And I was ashamed".
When Balian and Saladin finally meet, they have a wonderful exchange ("What is Jerusalem worth?" - "Nothing... And everything"), which hints how all the interests are vague and subjective, how they can be perceived to be worth a lot during one era, and then nothing after the passage of time. Scott's other theme is also the origin of the Christian-Islam conflict, which dates much further in history than just the 9/11 event, yet he did not explore this so much. The middle part of the film drags, failing to be anything more than a neat picture book—once he gets to Jerusalem, Balian plays no role until the finale involving the siege—whereas some moments end up in splatter violence, though Scott completes Balian's journey in a remarkable circle, hinting at how he lost a wife at the start, but found a new wife at the end. A few ponderous, dry or grey moments show some typical flaws of the pompous monumental epic genre, yet the historical reconstruction of the era is well done, showing why some people would travel from Europe all the way to the Middle East. While this could have been a greater film, it still has enough food for thought.