Saturday, November 29, 2008

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Shin Seiki Evangelion; animated science-fiction series, Japan, 1995; D: Hideaki Anno, S: Megumi Ogata, Kotono Mitsuishi, Yuko Miyamura, Megumi Hayashibara, Fumiko Tachiki

Tokyo 3, 2015. A bird is resting on a tank. Suddenly, a mysterious 100 feet tall robotic monster shows up, called 'The Angel', against which all human weapons are powerless. At the same time, the shy 14-year old Shinji is picked up by Commander Misato and brought to the NERV headquarters - headed by his elusive father Gendo - to pilot a similar giant robot, Eve 1. Reluctantly, he agrees and wins in the fight against the Angel. He settles in Misato's apartment and 14-year old girls, German Asuka and Rei, are also summoned to pilot Evas and fight against the Angels. It is eventually discovered that scientists discovered the first Angel, Adam, on the South Pole 15 years ago that triggered a huge explosion that wiped out half of humanity, known as 'Second Impact'. Yet Adam's body was used to assemble Eva. At the end, Gendo starts the Instrumentality project that would advance the human kind and bring it to a new level of existence. In that dream state, Shinji finally grows up without fear of life.

A shining anime, the most popular Japanese animated show of the 90s, "Neon Genesis Evangelion" is one of the heaviest examples of deep genius in that genre, a series that rightfully enjoys the reputation of one of the most imaginative pieces of anime of that decade, even though it's story is at times so hermetic, multi-layered and symbolical that it can fly right over some viewers heads. Though it's based on the standard 'mecha genre' - aka kids piloting giant robots - it audaciously mixes Judeo-Christian mythology and psychology in something never seen before that, yet some of the crucial things needed for the explanation of the story were never spelled out. As a consequence, many have difficulties understanding it: but whether the Angels represent a race born out of the "Tree of Life" which makes them invincible for the human weapons, and humans a race born out of Lillith and "Tree of Knowledge" which is why they are weak but have technology, or not, whether the Human Instrumentality Project actually represents eugenics that would remove all the bad things from life and make humans the more dominant race in the Universe than Angels or not, whether Angels and humans were created by God or not, the story is actually not about them, but about something on a far more smaller scale, an intimate 'coming-of-age' story about the adolescence of the 14-year old Shinji and his acceptance of his life and the role in the world. Looking at it that way, and having in mind that Eva could be Id, Shinji super-ego and both ego, than this becomes a psychological character study and an unlikely masterpiece.

And that was very clever from Anno who lured audience into this anime by making at the beginning a sci-fi action comedy, but then slowly turning it into an existential drama. The first 10 episodes were quite funny; we learned how Shinji was ashamed when Misato picked him up in her car wearing a short skirt. Then, after she heard that he must stay alone in some sort of a motel, she talked him into staying at her place. Sharing an apartment with her made Shinji even more embarrassed when he saw a dozen of her bra's hanging in the bathroom. And when he met Misato's penguin, Pen-Pen, he ran out of the bathroom naked (an amusing scene in which his intimate part is cowered by a can of Misato's beer). Shinji has almost no friends in school and feels worthless in this world. He thinks that every person around him is more important than him and that's why he is often passive. That's why the Angels have no other function than to be a symbol of Shinji's combat with low self-esteem. Because they represent a problem only he can solve, which is why suddenly the world needs him. That's why the more of Angels he beats, the more self confidence he gets.

"Evangelion" is nothing more than a symbolic drama about growing up. That's why the appearance of "Angels" is almost like a Divine intervention in his life (loosely based on Enoch's apocryphal scripts), making him - important, the only person on Earth that can save human kind. For the first time in his life, Shinji realized that he is worthy of living in the society. Anno once said he put everything he knows about life into this story and that is really visible. Almost every scene, no matter if its epic (giant chalked outlines of "Angels" on the "scene of the crime" that cower the whole hill), dramatic (the episode where Shinji and Rei defeat Angel Ramiel, shaped like a giant Octahedron, firing a laser beam that consumes the whole energy source of Japan, is bravura directed) or humorous (Toji accidentally looks under Asuka's skirt and she slaps him. He asks why, she says because of a pervert tax. He puts his pants down in front of her and she slaps him again) are brilliant. And the ending is genius, simply genius: by replacing the whole real world with a dream state where Shinji is at one point even drawn just by black lines in front of a white background, floating in a universe without rules and boundaries, it expands the frontiers of our mind by showing how problems that burden the human kind can be "restructured" in a world without them, a world where the human mind molds the rules, not vice-verca. In the end, "Evangelion" is not the Gospel of religion, but a new Gospel of normal, everyday life and self-improvement.



Casper; Fantasy comedy, USA, 1995; D: Brad Silbering, S: Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, Malachi Pearson (voice), Cathy Moriarty, Eric Idle, Jessica Wesson, Dan Aykroyd

The spoiled Carrigan is angry because her deceased rich father left her only with the old Whipstaff Manor, yet when her assistant Dibs discovers a treasure is hidden in the old house, they quickly rush to search for it. Yet, there they find a new obstacle: the house is haunted by four ghosts; the friendly Casper and his three mean uncles Stretch, Stinky and Fatso. To get rid of them, Carrigan hires a psychiatrist for the ghosts, Dr. Harvey and his teenage daughter Kat. They settle in the old house and Harvey hopelessly tries to conduct psychoanalysis on the three mean ghosts. Carrigan and Dobs kill each other, while Casper uses the Lazarus machine to revive Harvey who accidentally died. At the party, Casper becomes a human for a short time and kisses Kat while Harvey's dead wife Amelia visits him as an angel.

Family film "Casper" achieved it's goal as a huge commercial success, but unfortunately, as a movie, it's a disappointment: the story quickly falls apart and takes on so many bizarre ideas and turns that every new questionable subplot (like the Lazarus machine) that could go wrong, does, while the mechanical emotions and the themes of death seem very heavy handed. The beginning is actually good and has potentials, especially when the friendly ghost Casper is watching television where Dr. Harvey is on, a psychiatrist for ghosts who doesn't like to call them ghosts but "living disabled", while Christina Ricci stands out with ease as his independent teenage daughter Kat throughout the film. The finale is also honestly touching and has to be given credit, but the whole middle part of the film involving the misguided Carrigan and the annoying 'ghostly trio' Stretch, Stinky and Fatso is a disaster: the rubbish the authors try to pass as "gags" is terrible, and the mean-spirited humor kills every spirit is some scenes. Considering it was based on a cartoon for kids, "Casper" is awfully stiff and inappropriate. All in all, it's just another deformed comic book adaptation. Still, one joke at the beginning is simply too genius to not get mentioned: Carrigan unsuccessfully hires a few ghost exterminators to get rid of the pesky ghosts in the old house, and one of them is a small cameo by Dan Aykroyd who reprises his role as Ray Stantz carrying his proton pack, saying, before he runs away: "Who you gonna call? Someone else!"


Friday, November 28, 2008


Rushmore; drama / comedy, USA, 1999; D: Wes Anderson, S: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Brian Cox, Mason Gamble, Sara Tanaka, Luke Wilson, Connie Nielsen

Max Fischer is an intelligent, but problematic 15-year old kid who spent all his energy into extracurricular activities at his "Rushmore" school; he is president of Yankee Review newspaper, French club, Rushmore beekeepers, Lacrosse team, fencing team, astronomy team, calligraphy group, drama club...Yet, despite being very gifted, his grades are very weak. One day he falls in love with the older Rosemary Cross, a teacher from another class, and tries to impress her by making an aquarium for the school. He also makes friends with the middle aged Blume, a local millionaire and a former "Rushmore" student. But once Blume and Mrs Cross start an affair, Max gets very angry at him and disables his car brakes, after which he gets arrested. By changing school and staying with his father, Max starts to see things in different light. He renews his friendship with Blume, who has been left by Mrs Cross. At the end, Max writes a play about Vietnam war and invites all of his friends to see it, later organizing a party and starting a relationship with a girl his age, Margaret Yang.

This coming of age film is definitely not for everyone's taste because it contains a hermetic style, but it is so rich with small details that the viewer has to pay twice as more attention than usual in order not to miss something. The main protagonist is a rather unusual teenager; Max, who can react pretty harsh, yet is still a very intelligent person. The over a minute long marathon montage near the beginning of the film, which literally shows a hundred of his extracurricular activities using subtitles - Yankee review publisher, Lacrosse manager, astronomy club, fencing club, French club, stamp and coin collection club, beekeepers club, debate club... - is absolutely virtuoso crafted and looks as if it was directed by Godard. But except for being inventive, director Wes Anderson is also amazing in small touches that are easily forgotten, but say a lot about the characters and their feelings.

For instance, in one scene Max shows his weak math test result to his father; he only scored 37 points. But what does the father do? Instead of shouting or getting angry, he shows unprecedented understanding and care by taking a pencil and "turning" the 37 points into 87, amusingly adding; "You almost got an A". Such small interactions are real jewels in the film and can not be found everywhere, not even in other Anderson's films. A hidden theme in the story is how Max tries to be "too grown up" and thus aims for a teacher who is too old for him, until he realizes that he should not rush but live his life one step at a time, figuring that he entirely ignored a girl his own age who had a crush on him, Margaret Yang, played irresistibly cute by Sara Tanaka. The fine shot composition is also surprising. The flaws in "Rushmore" mostly turn out in the last third of the story; Max turns out to be too aggressive at one point and the mood too depressive and black compared to the start, and some scenes seem to drag. Still, the ending, the enchanting songs ("Here Comes My Baby" by Cat Stevens) and Bill Murray's understated and unorthodox performance (he was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe and actually won the New York Film Critics Circle Award) regain the films quality. Although it's very eccentric and contains samples of 'autistic direction', humorous independent drama "Rushmore" is an excellent achievement.


Cradle Will Rock

Cradle Will Rock; Drama, USA, 1999; D: Tim Robbins, S: Hank Azaria, Emily Watson, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Ruben Blades, Bill Murray, Joan Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, Vanessa Redgrave

New York, '36. The government is financing the Federal Theater Project (FTP) that would employ a mass of actors in small plays. The young Marc Blitzstein presents a leftist musical, "The Cradle Will Rock", in which he criticizes the rich who exploit the poor, and makes a big impression on Orson Welles and producer Houseman. The poor Olive gets the main role of the prostitute. But the House Committee on Un-American Activities bans the play because it considers it "too Communist", yet the actors still take all they courage and perform on premiere...Ventriloquist Tommy is teaching to young interns some tricks while trying to seduce secretary Hazel. In the end, he throws away his puppet...Mussolini's mistress Margherita sells Italian paintings to finance the Fascists...The rich Rockefeller hires the painter Diego Riviera to make a mural for him. But he doesn't like the picture of Lenin, so he destroys it all and throws Riviera out.

The 3rd directorial work by actor Tim Robbins ("Bob Roberts"), in which he didn't star in, is the drama "Cradle Will Rock" that's filled with big ambitions, but still mildly disappoints. The 5 minute opening shot that follows the actress Olive (Watson) who listens to the newsreel on the big screen, exits the theater and goes on the street is fabulously directed, so simple and yet so effective, yet the rest of the story is quite the opposite: rather overstuffed and too complicated. The plot about the leftist play "The Cradle Will Rock" that was banned in '36 is so detailed and complete that it could work for a whole film, and thus it's not quite clear why Robbins added a bunch of other, unconnected parallel stories revolving around Mussollini's mistress Margharita, a ventriloquist and the argument between Rockefeller and Riviera. Each of those 4 stories would have been enough for a whole film, but all together they make the film seem forced and crammed with too much stuff, failing to concentrate on what it really wanted to say. It's a quality, demanding political film about the opinion on socialism in 1930's US, but since it simply has too many characters (over 20 of them!), nobody of them has more than 4 minutes of screen time: there are simply too many strong themes to get adequately explored. Still, Bill Murray is wonderful as the ventriloquist Tommy who simply leaves his puppet on the stage and leaves while the audience is still waiting, Emily Watson is again great in her small role, while Orson Welles was for some reason portrayed like some maniac who is jokingly pretending to be struggling actors and shouting on a couple for kissing and not working. The movie was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mad Dog and Glory

Mad Dog and Glory; crime romance drama, USA, 1993; D: John McNaughton, S: Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Bill Murray, David Caruso, Mike Starr, Kathy Baker

Chicago. Police photographer Wayne is nicknamed "Mad Dog" because he is terribly shy and secluded. One night, while investigating a crime scene with the police, he drops at a local store and persuades a killer to release a hostage - who turns out to be Frank Milo, a mobster. After some conversation, Frank realizes Wayne is very lonely, so he sends him his employee, the blond Glory, to be his 'personal company' for a week. Wayne is at first startled and keeps her at distance, but they slowly fall in love. When Frank demands her back, Wayne fights with him and thus gives Glory her freedom.

"Mad Dog and Glory" is one of the most unusual films of the 90s. Essentially, objectively speaking, the movie has got it all - the screenplay by Richard Price ("Sea of Love") is wonderful and rich with juicy crime details, from the exposition where a criminal is dragging the corpse of a drug dealer at night to put him in the trunk of the car and then picks up his shoe that accidentally fell off up to the later sequence where the hero Wayne is observing that scene of the crime and concludes that the blood burst about 2 feet away from the shooting. The main tangle, where precisely the introverted and shy police photographer Wayne finds himself in situation in which he gets the girl Glory in his apartment at "his service" for a whole week (with rather vague and unclear prostitute connotations) is brilliant, subtly emotional, touching and grown up while some scenes are almost masterful (for instance, the 2 minute shot in which Wayne and Glory are sitting on a couch watching television and slowly getting closer). Bill Murray is unusual in his serious role as the mobster, Robert De Niro is refreshing as the shy and lonely Wayne while the direction by John McNaughton is smooth and stylish. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, the movie as a whole seems somehow unfinished. And leaves a slightly indifferent impression. Why? As if there is no reason, not even in the rather miscast Uma Thurman or in the uneven ending without a clear point. It's as if you eat your favorite food and yet can't exactly taste it fully.


Stanley and Iris

Stanley and Iris; Romantic drama, USA, 1990; D: Martin Ritt, S: Jane Fonda, Robert De Niro, Swoosie Kurtz, Martha Plimpton

Even after 8 months, the hard working Iris is still mourning after her deceased husband. When a burglar steals her purse, she meets the quiet Stanley who tried to help her. Stanley is a cook who serves the workers in the large bakery Iris works in. Her sister lives with her because they are poor while her daughter is pregnant. When Stanley gets fired because he is illiterate, he turns to Iris who learns him how to read and write. And they fall in love.

The last film by director Martin Ritt was the admirable romance "Stanley and Iris": it's a matter of a quality film that never for a moment stops to be interesting or opposed to kitsch and pathetic cliches, except maybe in the sequence where Stanley's father dies or in the ending that fails to reach the level of the movie as a whole. It's a tad too conventional, but refreshingly old fashioned, calm and quiet movie where Ritt showed his collective knowledge, and it shows: every event is developed to the smallest detail so that the viewers get the feeling they actually live in that town and know the characters for a long time. Namely, the characters, though simple and "ordinary", ended up three dimensional and really well developed, while Ritt limns every character with a special mentality. Jane Fonda appeared in her last role before she took a 15 year old break from acting while Robert De Niro once again achieved a masterful role as the restrained Stanley.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle

The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle; Live action-animated comedy, USA, 2000; D: Des McAnuff, S: Piper Perabo, Robert De Niro, June Foray (voice), Keith Scott (voice), Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, Randy Quaid, John Goodman, Janeane Garofalo

In '64, the animated TV show "Rocky and Bullwinkle" was canceled. Their animated town went bankrupt while forest was cut down. But their evil animated rivals, Fearless Leader, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, find a way to Hollywood and become real characters. They buy a TV station and start to broadcast bad and dumbing down shows that will hypnotize the viewers and make them choose the Leader and their new leader. Agent Karen Sympathy brings Rocky and Bullwinkle to stop them. After a long road trip, where Bullwinkle drops by at a university, they get to New York and cast the bad trio to their animated world.

This confusing movie adaptation of the cult animated TV show "Rocky and Bullwinkle" has almost no connection with the original or it's nostalgia (even the title heroes, a squirrel and an annoyingly stupid moose, seem more episodic and colloid than they should have been) and despite the fact that it was inspired by "Roger Rabbit" and had a budget of 90 million $, it grossed only 18 million $ at the US box office. It's a pity for the distorted story and even Robert De Niro (in the role of the Fearless Leader) seems stiff in this. The movie is sufficient, but it's enjoyably sufficient. Among the original scenes is also the one where the narrator of the show goes to live at his mom after the cancellation of the show (but still follows Rocky and Bullwinkle into the real world) or the one where a producer throws movie scripts away because they are "too intelligent". The authors also make an amusing satirical commentary at mindless media in the plot where the bad guys start running RBTV that airs dumb shows that "zombifiy" the audience, while Piper Perabo is sweet in the leading human role.


Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog; Satire, USA, 1997; D: Barry Levinson, S: Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, Kirsten Dunst, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, James Belushi, Andrea Martin

Two weeks before the US elections, a scandal shocks the nation: the president is accused of sexual harassment of a teenage girl, so specialists Brean and Ames hire the movie producer Stanley to stage a fake war between the US and Albania that would distract the attention of the public. That way the president becomes a hero who fights for freedom and his popularity is growing. When the CIA finds out there is no war and pulls out the US troops home, Stanley thinks of another "catalyst": he claims how Sargent Schoester was left behind on the battle front, "like on old shoe". To find an actor who would play Schoester, they engage a rapist and a psychopath from prison who dies. But the president wins the election. Stanley realizes this is the project of his life, so Brean has him assassinated.

In this deliciously wicked and twisted satire on election manipulation and staged events that control the public opinion, in the finest manner of some conspiracy theories, director Barry Levinson created a vision that actually came true when president Bill Clinton had an affair with Monica Levinsky and quickly started to bombard Iraq, which some saw as a distraction attempt. Except for the great performances by the genius Dustin Hoffman, who based his character on Robert Evans, and Robert De Niro, the movie is also crammed with numerous and vivid small performances by actors such as William H. Macy and Kirsten Dunst. Such a cynical denunciation of politics was not seen in a long time, even though "Wag the Dog" isn't as funny as it's grotesque and lacks style, but somehow works in the strangest way and takes it's free interpretation of some events to a high degree. The best joke is probably the president's election TV commercial that says: "Why change horses in midstream?" "Wag the Dog" was nominated for a BAFTA (best screenplay), 2 Oscars (David Mamet and Hilary Hankin for their insane screenplay and Dustin Hoffman as best actor) and 3 Golden Globes (best motion picture - musical or comedy, actor Dustin Hoffman, screenplay).


Sunday, November 23, 2008


Jacknife; Drama, USA, 1989; D: David Jones, S: Robert De Niro, Ed Harris, Kathy Baker, Sloane Shelton

Joseph Megessey, called Megs and "Jacknife", a car mechanic from Connecticut, arrives with car to visit his old friend from the Vietnam war, Dave, who is addicted to alcohol. They are connected by a memory of a murdered friend, Bobby, who died in Vietnam. Dave is cold towards Megs but accepts to go fishing with him. Dave's sister, biology teacher Martha, falls in love with Megs even though Dave is against that relationship.

Filmed in visibly humble production circumstances, "Jacknife" didn't succeed to get rid of the weak overall impression not even in directing standards. It's biggest virtue is the performance by Robert De Niro who is, just like in his better films, very interesting and while the viewers watch him on the big screen, they patiently await for something to finally appear that's worth of their attention, but just then does the movie end: the story revolving around Vietnam war veterans is honest but empty, deprived of a plot, humor or emotions, ending up boring and conventional, while the characters are bleak. Even though it should have been richer with events or at least some punchline on any kind of level, "Jacknife" is still a solid drama and lives also thanks to the performances by Kathy Baker and Ed Harris as the torn and lost veteran Dave, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor.


This Boy's Life

This Boy's Life; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Michael Caton-Jones, S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, Jonah Blechman, Eliza Dushku, Chris Cooper, Tobey Maguire

In '57, Caroline has a small amount money but big plans. so she travels with her problematic teenage son Toby through the US, until they don't settle in Seattle. There she meets the conservative Dwight. In him, she sees an excellent opportunity for her son to get a new father and support. But Dwight also has kids from his previous marriage and starts acting increasingly aggressive towards Toby after marriage with Caroline. Their feud escalates when Toby starts a fist fight with Dwight, which results in Caroline leaving Seattle with him.

"This Boy's Life" is a proportionately well done, decent and energetically simple adaptation of the memoir of the same name that at first shows the aimless rebellion, and then calmness and honesty of the author and the main character, Toby Wolf, after he realizes what violence is when he gets an abusive stepfather, Dwight. Director Michael Caton-Jones decided to adapt the story with a cold approach, while the real emotions and galvanizing tension arise only in the finale, in the fierce fist fight between Toby and Dwight (that reminds a lot of a similar raw fight in Huston's drama "Sierra Madre"), coincidentally paralleling also another Robert De Niro film that ends in a physical confrontation released that same year, "Mad Dog and Glory". DiCaprio and De Niro rightfully gained the biggest praise for the film, but the real flaw still prevails, namely the feeling that the story is somehow sterile and that we saw too little in the end, despite a lot of details. Still, it's a quality made drama with a sense for problematic teenagers.


Saturday, November 22, 2008


Novocento; drama, Italy / France / Germany, 1976; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: Gérard Depardieu, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Dominique Sanda, Burt Lancester, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Sterling Hayden

Italy at the end of World War II. A lost Fascist kills a shepherd while the peasants start to attack the estate of the former Fascist Attila and the influential owner Alfredo...In 1900, Alfredo, the grandchild of the rich estate owner, and Olmo, the grandchild of an ordinary peasant who works on the estate, are born on the same day. Alfredo and Olmo grow up together as friends, even though the class difference separates them more and more. The peasants are fed up working for a measly salary so they start a strike. When Olmo returns from World War I, he decides to enter the Socialist club, hoping to help the poor peasants get a decent salary. But the rich Attila hates them. Alfredo marries Ada and leads an empty relationship while Olmo marries Anita who truly loves him. After the war, Alfredo is trialed for collaborating with the fascists.

Filmed in international production, epic history drama "1900" has an intriguing story that symbolically contemplates about the antagonism between the Bourgeoisie (Capitalism) and the Proletariat (Socialism), but the anamorphic direction by Bernardo Bertolucci will repulse many. Basically, as a Marxist, it's his dream project that represents his political views: the Bourgeoisie exploits the naive and uneducated Proletariat and presents that state of things as normal, but when the poor peasants discover Socialism the rich Bourgeoisie members panic and resort to Fascism to keep them under control and keep the status quo. Therein, "1900" represents Bertolucci's view that the next Century should belong to the Socialism. Some of his methods are quite brave, like the erotic scenes (a prostitute uses her both hands to masturbate the penises of Alfredo and Olmo who are lying next to her), yet one scene in particular is quite unpleasant since it crosses into pedophilia (when the two protagonists as young boys pull down the foreskin of their penises), which not only causes controversies and made the film get banned in some countries, but also ruined the atmosphere of the film.

The thing that indicates that Bertolucci really went overboard with this and lost every sense for measure is also the unbelievable running time - 5 hours (!), which is why "1900" is today mostly shown in 2 parts. Still, he showed he is an author without compromise who roughly shows life: in the exposition, women attack the former Fascist Attila so he runs away while pitchforks are still stabbed into his leg and chest; the owner tells the poor peasant that he doesn't listen to him, so he cuts off his ear and puts it in his arms. Despite the overstretched 300 minutes, the actors achieved impressive performances, especially Gerared Depardieu and Robert De Niro, which is why the tragic relationship of the friendship between the poor Olmo and the rich Alfredo, is even more impressive while some scenes are wonderfully directed, but as a whole the movie is a mess. It collides with various political ideas and statements, but doesn't know when to stop, which results in a megalomaniac, epic mess, to be precise.



Heat; crime, USA, 1995; D: Michael Mann, S: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmore, Jon Voight, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson

Los Angeles. Gangster Neil uses a truck to smash an armoured vehicle and rob the money, but one of his associates, Waingro, kills all three police officers, so he expels him from his team for disobedience. Lieutenant Vincent, whose private life is consumed by his job, is passionately seeking to arrest Neil. Neil also helps his associate Chris to make up with his wife and son. When they try to rob a bank, they give up when they spot Vincent, but they attack another bank and two of them dies there. The wounded Chris escapes while Neil is bringing his girlfriend to the airport. There Vincent finds him while he is chasing after Waingro and kills him in chase.

Legendary actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro already starred together in one memorable film, "The Godfather II", but didn't share a single scene together, and their second collaboration, crime film "Heat", is holding on to that same principle, except in the moment where the camera in the car shows their faces as they watch the road, as if to emphasize how they are "too big" for the screen together. Pacino and De Niro are, of course, as always top notch in their roles as a cop and a gangster and the movie was hailed by critics, yet the story doesn't seize with particular freshness in the standard heist genre. The 158 minutes of running time seems to long at moments so the concentration can get lost, mostly due to the overstretched scene of empty walk and conventional dramaturgy. But the film, like almost every Michael Mann picture, has it's moments, like the suspenseful duel between the gangsters and the police officers on the street or when Pacino's character is mocking a criminal who fell into the police trap by taking the bait, a woman.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Read or Die

Read or Die; Animated fantasy action series, Japan, 2001; D: Kouji Masunari, S: Rieko Miura, Michiko Neya, Hozumi Goda, Chieko Otsuda

Yomiko Readman has black hair, wears glasses, has a job of a substitute teacher - and is crazy about books. She bought so many love novels that her whole apartment is full of them. One day, a madman - the clone of Jean Henri Fabre - riding a giant grasshopper, steals her book, but since she has the special power of controlling the molecules of paper, she uses a ribbon to defeat him. Mr. Joker shows up, an officer working for the secret service, and it is revealed that Yomiko's codename is "The Paper" and that she is an secret agent. Together with the spy "Deep", who can pass through solid objects, and Drake, they fight against the bad guy Ikkyu who clones famous history personalities in order to destroy the world with Beethoven's symphony. Deep kills him in a rocket, but also dies, while Yomiko is comforting her sister.

"R. O. D." is one of the most bizarre and shrill examples of anime in the 2000's, even for that genre that is an axiom and a symbol for shrillness for itself. The director Kouji Masunari originally spoofs the James Bond cliches by giving the leading role to a woman and inserting all sorts of wacky jokes left and right, obvious already in the exposition: in the first sequence, a mythical samurai, Gennai Hiroga, destroys the White house with an explosion. The American president pees himself in the pants, but the samurai asks him: "Is this the city library?" When the president answers him that it isn't, the samurai leaves with a confused look on his face. Quickly, the story introduces the main heroine, the introverted Yomiko Readman, who is obsessed with books: her apartment is so full with books they peak the roof, so some book stores already have her photo where it states: "Greet at sight". The main tangle of this spy 3 part OVA combines science-fiction, spy adventure and comedy since it is revealed she has special powers since she can control molecules of paper (using paper, she assembles a paper airplane or a solid paper sword), yet that kind of an imagination works only in the beginning. Namely, with time, the story becomes more and more banal, confusing, brutal and weird. It's too bad the final result is only accessible fun since "R. O. D" is refreshing and Yomiko is an fascinating character, incredibly sweet and sincere, yet the story is too shallow and straight-forward in the long run, even though the action sequences with agent "Deep" who can pass through solid objects is virtuoso directed. "R. O. D." is one of those animes that we would love to love more than we do.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Duck Soup

Duck Soup; comedy, USA, 1933; D: Leo McCarey, S: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres

In a country called Freedonia the ruler is replaced due to his bad results. The new ruler is the popular and comical Rufus T. Firefly. The neighboring country, Sylvania, ruled by Trentino, is their arch rival and plans to declare war against Freedonia. Trentino hires some Chicolino to spy on Firefly, but he eventually joins him. After Firefly and Trentino start a public argument, the two states declare war on each other. Chicolino and Pinky defend Firefly's house that is surrounded. A few soldiers storm it, among them also Trentino who is captured and declares capitulation, making them heroes.

Excellent hilarious comedy classic "Duck Soup" is situated somewhere between genius and madness - the Marx brothers don't care if they break absolutely every norm and pull all possible measures against the establishment just as long as they make their audience laugh. This howlingly funny comedy is crammed with jokes that don't "fit" into the story since their basis is just spontaneous, unleashed fun. One could complain towards the boring 5 minute opening that contains unnecessary musical scenes and the short running time (only 65 minutes), but when the result is so much fun, it is hard not to enjoy it: the viewers don't even finish laughing at the first joke and the Marx brothers are already beginning with the second and the third.

The insane dialogues are sparkling ("Have we seen each other before?" - "I'm not sure if I see you right now!" or "The workers demand a shorter working time!" - "Good, we will cut their lunch break") but the director McCarey also manages with an easy hand to insert a subtle little anti-war subtext in the film by spoofing patriotism, militarism and short-tempered rulers: among the hilarious things is also the finale in which grenades are flying through the window of the house, so Groucho just pulls down the curtain or the scene where Harpo is trapped in a room full of dynamite on fire and thus hits the door to get out but everyone thinks that the enemy army is trying to storm in so they block the door even more. Bravo, only a few movies manage to top this film with their humor. Also, the slightly overhyped, but legendary sequence where Harpo pretends to be Groucho's reflection in a non-existing mirror by mimicking all his moves was declared "the best thing the Marx brothers ever did" by some critics.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Horse Feathers

Horse Feathers; Comedy, USA, 1932; D: Norman Z. McLeod, S: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd

The Huxtley college is becoming increasingly unpopular. Thus professor Wagstaff has been elected as the new dean to improve the situation. His son Frank is already attending the college for 12 years and has an relationship with a beauty. Wagstaff decides to modernize the football game and hires a madman and his Italian friend as team players. A mobster wants to sabotage the game because he placed a bet on the rival college, but he doesn't succeed and Wagstaff wins.

The Marx brothers made together only 15 films, but they still managed to get into movie history. In their anarchic humor, there's a hidden theater of the absurd, the critique of serious people and the silliness of life, which even caused some critics to compare them with the Dada writer Samuel Beckett. In their 4th film, "Horse Feathers", they chose the college as their target, but it seems it's somehow never a good terrain for comedians. It wasn't for Laurel & Hardy either in their weak comedy "A Chump at Oxford". "Feathers" has too much arbitrarily nonsense and too little genius jokes with a punchline. Still, it has it's funny moments: the professors chose Wagstaff as their new dean, who is just then shown shaving. He arrives and immediately starts an argument with a professor ("Now that you stepped into my shoes..." - "So that's what I stepped in! I was already beginning to wonder...You should clean them up once in a while."). In another great comic moment, the mobster lover returns into the apartment of his girlfriend and spots Chico there, who immediately thinks of an excuse and says: "Your wife is learning how to sing." - "Since when?" - "Since you came in!" And there's the ontological joke where Groucho tries to make Chico sign a contract ("Sign here!" - "But the paper is empty!" - "You sign it, and I'll type the words later!"), but the tiresome musical sequences are a small minus.


Monkey Business

Monkey Business; Comedy, USA, 1931; D: Norman Z. McLeod, S: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Thelma Todd

The Marx brothers are traveling as blind passengers on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean. They are constantly chased by the captain. Two of them get hired as assistants to mobster Alky, while the other two as bodyguards for the rich Joe. They barely manage to get off the ship because the passengers have to show their passports, so they all introduce themselves as the same singer. In New York, they get summoned to Joe's party. But the evil Alky kidnapped Joe's daughter and wants a ransom money for her, so the Marx brothers beat him up and save her.

All Marx brothers movies, including "Monkey Business", just use any given story as an excuse for a whole bunch of jokes. Unfortunately, this film is still a step behind their excellent satire "Duck Soup": too much nonsense, too little humor. The exposition in which the sailor are chasing after the Marx brothers is untypically mild and finally gets interrupted by a genius dialog between Groucho and Chico ("I'm starving! I haven't eaten for 3 days!" - "But you've been on this ship for only 2 days!"). There are also further amusing moments: Chico tries to steal a passport from a passenger's pocket, but he spots him and says: "You'll have to wake up early to trick me!", causing Groucho immediately to add: "But he did wake up early, but you weren't there!" The biggest problem here are the hamming supporting actors and uneven moments, which prevent it to become a sheer anarchic fun. But a movie can't be bad with a scene like this: the cab driver tells Groucho he owns him 1.10 $ for the ride, and he replies to him: "Here's a dollar, and keep the change!"


Sunday, November 16, 2008


Stakeout; Crime comedy, USA, 1987; D: John Badham, S: Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez, Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, Forest Whitaker

Criminal Richard Montgomery escapes from prison with the help of his friend who drives a truck. The police suspects the fugitive could visit his girlfriend Maria, so the clumsy detectives Chris and Bill and sent to surveil her house from a house in the neighborhood. They have the night shift and are replaced by day by colleagues. But eventually Chris falls in love with Maria - and goes into her house to meet her. That way he confuses the police chief even further, while the younger Bill doesn't want to put his career on stake. When Richard finally arrives, he is caught in a long chase, while Maria forgives Chris for not telling her he is actually a cop.

"Stakeout" is different kind of crime film that combines thriller, comedy and romance in an unusual mix that rightfully ceased attention from the critics and the audience. That the combination is often clumsy can be seen already in the exposition in which the getaway from the prison is shown in a too messy and violent way, while the final chase is also quite ordinary and bleak. The romance between Maria (Stowe) and Chris (Dreyfuss), the cop who is secretly surveilling her house at night from the neighboring house, is the best part of the story creating a lot of funny problems and double relationships between them, even though he just brags to his colleague Bill that he is just "surveilling the house from inside". That unusual relationship, where the secret observer wants to interact with the observed person but keeps his disguise on, is almost esoteric at moments and works as a comical and more active variation of Hitchcock's film "The Rear Window". The sole concept of surveillance wasn't especially cleverly exploited in the film, but it offers an atmospheric mood while the director John Badham is in better shape and avoids cliches.


Another Stakeout

Another Stakeout; Comedy, USA, 1993; D: John Badham, S: Richard Dreyfuss, Emilio Estevez, Rosie O'Donnell, Cathy Moriarty, Madeleine Stowe

Lu Delano is the crown witness in a trial led against a notorious mobster, but a bomb detonated in her residence. 3 police officers died, but she disappeared. Detectives Bill and Chris again get a surveillance assignment, but this time they have to monitor the O'Hara family where Delano could have decided to hide. Chris has problems because Maria decided to leave him since he doesn't want to marry her. In order to not make the O'Haras suspicious, agent Gina is brought in to present herself as Chris' wife, while Bill has to play their son. Gina calls O'Haras over for a diner, and when Bill has the chance to inspect their apartment, he finds Delano. She attacks them and the mobsters show up as well, but Chris and Bill shoot them.

6 years after the good original "Stakeout", a sequel was made, "Another Stakeout", that rounded up the whole team again. The story is goofier and more turned towards comedy, yet it's still weaker than "Stakeout", grossing only 20 million $ at the US box office. Madeleine Stowe, the heroine of the first film, got almost a minimal role here that doesn't even resemble the original self, appearing only for a few minutes. The "special guest star" who replaced here was Rosie O'Donnell who doesn't have much gags to operate with while the lousy screenplay shows her in an irritating light and lousy events, but she is fun when she acts as a family member of Dreyfuss' and Estevez's characters. One of the best jokes is the whole sequence where the detectives call their neighbors for diner, but many silly one-liners, like "We should arrest him just for his clothes", obviously shows how the screenplay is in service of slavery of all the cliches found in so many sequels.


Friday, November 14, 2008


Amélie; romantic comedy, France, 2001; D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, S: Audrey Tautou, Yolande Moreau, Mathieu Kassovitz, Dominique Pinon, Rufus, Jamel Debbouze, Isabelle Nanty

In '73, Amelie was born in Paris. Her father is a cold doctor and her mother dies when a woman committing suicide falls on her. With 23 years, Amelie finds a job as a waitress in a small cafe and dreams about love. In her apartment, she finds a small box full of memories which she returns to her owner and, experiencing satisfaction, decides to do good deeds from there on. She matches the jealous Joseph with a friend, makes company to an old painter with fragile bones and makes a fake love letter of a husband who died in and sends it to his widow. She returns a lost photo album to Nino, an employee in a porn shop, and falls in love with him, but is afraid to talk to him. But they still end up as a couple.

Brilliant director Jean-Pierre Jeunet used his creative style to cower up the banal-sugary elements and the trivial opening of the story and craft a shining romantic grotesque, his dream project and his best film, which was nominated for a Golden Globe (best foreign language film), 5 Oscars and actually won 2 BAFTA awards (best screenplay, production design). Undeniably, some moments are kitschy and pathetic, but many directors would love to make such highlights that Jeunet gathered here: a fish tries to commit suicide by jumping out of the water; a photo of a cloud that looks like a rabbit; Amelie literally "melts" away from her feelings into water; or the especially irresistibly cute moment where she tries to shyly seduce Nino by leading him to a bunch of photos showing her where she wrote "Do - you - want - to -meet - me?" on her stomach. If one also ads all the humorous clips from television, like when a man is performing a salto while a dog is climbing around his body, then it becomes clear how funny, alive, fresh, unusual and stimulative such small slices of life can be, while Audrey Tatou is simply irresistibly cute and contagiously fun as the mischievous title heroine. It's unbelievable how such a "foreign language" film can be so popular and effectual to a world wide audience. It's even more unbelievable how Jeunet managed to pull off such a film - "Amelie" is the sweetest thing.


Alien Resurrection

Alien Resurrection; science-fiction action, USA / France, 1997; D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, S: Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, Dominique Pinon, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, Brad Dourif

In a space station, scientists manage to clone Ripley using her dead tissue 200 years after her death, and with her the monstrous Alien too, placing it in a laboratory for experimentation. A group of space bums enters the station, among them the female android Call and some man in a wheelchair. But the Aliens kill one of their members and use its acid blood to make a hole in the laboratory and escape. Ripley also escapes and runs with people through the corridors. Many die and she falls in a chamber where the parent Alien doesn't touch her. The Alien gives birth to a half-white Alien who kills her, while Ripley finishes it off with the space vacuum. The station burns out in orbit while Ripley and Call save themselves.

The "Alien" franchise, whose best contribution is Cameron's excellent 2nd part from '86, went through a crisis in "Alien 3" because the heroine Ripley died there so the screenwriters had to come up with a new idea, the one about her clone, to revive it. When Hollywood also managed to persuade the genius director Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") to take over the direction, many expected miracles. Yet, in the end, "Alien 4" didn't sparkle: it is a good sci-fi, full of strange set designs, camera angles and an impressive underwater action sequence - and has one fresh twist that the previous "Alien" films don't have, humor - but unforgivably falls into trash at times. Too much slime, too little style. The best parts are when scientists say to Ripley that they will train the Alien, upon which she replies with: "Like: sit, lay down?"; Dominique Pinon in the role of a man in a wheelchair and a scientist who makes grimaces on the glass to the captured Alien. Still, Jeunet's visual style is appeased, the massacres are stupid while the bizarre scene where Ripley is "cuddling" with the body of the parent Alien (intercourse with the Alien?) is completely confusing, though Winona Ryder is once again sweet in the small role of android Call.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

The City of Lost Children

La Cité des enfants perdus; fantasy, France, 1995; D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, S: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Daniel Emilfork, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

A mad scientist, Krank, lives in an oil rig somewhere is the sea, creating six identical cloned sons, a small woman, a brain in an aquarium and machines with which he steals children's dreams because he doesn't have any himself. His henchmen called "Cyclops" kidnap children for him, but when one day the boy Denree is found among the abducted, his older friend One goes to rescue him with the girl Miette. A group of children thieves show him the way and he saves the kids while the platforms collapses in an explosion.

The unleashed smashing visual style of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is in his 2nd film "The City of Lost Children" really impressive, but it's still considered one step away from his future films and paler than his debut film - even though his inspiration here is much larger and more sure than before. "Delicatessen" are good, but sometimes seem worn out and overstretched, while "The City" is truly filled with surreal ideas and details that blow the viewers mind. Already in the first scene, the dreamy sequence with multiple Santa Clauses, in which the walls start moving in waves, does the author's touch become recognizable, crafting a dark fairy tale that deliberately crosses all measures, while other highlights are the imaginative set design, a whole world for itself, and a "microscopic" shot of a flee climbing on a man. Many things stay mysterious and esoteric, but in it the story never diminishes the will of the viewer, but actually amplifies it. Jeunet and Caro once said they wanted to make "every scene special and stimulative", and thus this is one rare example of a cult film where the initiator is not logic, but longing for creativity.



Delicatessen; Black comedy, France, 1991; D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, S: Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Karin Viard

A devastated world after some apocalypse. There is a shortage of food so an egoistical butcher is feeding the inhabitants with human meat, mostly assistants in his butcher's shop. The new "assistant" who searches for a job is Louison who is rather thin. He meets strange tenants in his building: Aurora, who unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide; a father of two children; a man whose mother in law is killed by the butcher because she passed her age limit...In order to save Louison, Julie, the butcher's daughter, hires a secret group to save him from the building. The butcher throws a boomerang-knife at Louison, but it flies back killing him instead.

"Delicatessen" gained global cult status after it's premiere. Unjustifiably. Fans of the genius director Jean-Pierre Jeunet will conclude with shock that his smashing visual style is in this film - practically absent. Everything is shot with normal, conventional camera angles so the caricature story with a forced sense of humor works only moderately well. "Amelie" and "The City of Lost Children", Jeunet's later films, contained 4 times more visual style than here. Still, looking at other aspects of this feature length debut film, "Delicatessen" have enough virtues on their own to stand out from the usual French cinema, mostly thanks to their solid ideas: the protagonist Louison takes a cigarette and puts smoke into the a bubble of soap. The postman breaks the glass by spitting on a framed photo. And the Aurora part is a small jewel: she wants to be absolutely sure that she will commit suicide so she places a gun, a hanging rope, deadly pills with a glass of water and gas with a smudge mop...But just then it all comes out beautifully different, namely the gun hits the rope so she falls and accidentally extinguishes the fire with the spilled water. It was nominated for a BAFTA as best foreign language film.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Party

The Party; comedy, USA, 1968; D: Blake Edwards, S: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Marge Champion, Natalia Borisova, Al Checco

Hindu Hrundi V. Bakshi came all the way from Asia to star in a movie in the US. But during the filming he accidentally activates the explosion too early which destroys the castle on the set and thus ruins the scene, so the director promises him he will never find work on film again. But Bakshi accidentally gets an invitation to a party in the mansion of the producer Cutterbucks. He attends it and, clumsy as he is, creates utter chaos: he ruins the toilet, loses a shoe, ruins a dinner and fills the mansion with foam while trying to wash an elephant. But he meets and makes friends with the unsuccessful actress, Michele.

With movies like "The Party" everything is simple: if you loved "Mr. Bean", you will love this film as well. If you didn't love "Mr. Bean", you won't love this film either. The improvised story based on a thin 50-page screenplay resulted in a overstretched, but fun physical slapstick comedy that doesn't offer more than a few hilarious and a few of forced gags. Blake Edwards knew how to make excellent comedies, like "Victor/Victoria" or "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?", but also real hassles of a film, yet luckily "The Party" is closer to the first, though not much. Peter Sellers is great in the leading role and tries his best in this, his only collaboration with Edwards outside the "Pink Panther" series, and thus some of the situations are irresistibly hilarious - like the one where his character Bakshi fiddles with some buttons, not knowing they are remote controls for some parts of the mansion, causing an exotic oven to wildly ignite and burn some man's butt, or when he has to urinate but suddenly enters the room where Michele is playing on her guitar, so he politely just stays there, smiling, leaning on the wall, while his legs are nervously moving up-and-down trying to imitate that he isn't in a hurry, in probably the funniest sequence of the film - and the rhythm is good, yet as a whole the movie seems arbitrarily, especially in the second half. Still, as a whole, it's a pleasant surprise, a nice, little and unassuming little comedy that can lift the good mood.


South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; Animated black comedy, USA, 1999; D: Trey Parker, S: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes, George Clooney, Eric Idle, Mike Judge

The oddball kids from South Park; Kenny, Stan, Cartman and Kyle, go to the cinemas to watch the Canadian film "Asses of Fire" starring Terrance and Phillip, which is evidently filled with swearing. 3 hours later, the four of them start swearing non-stop in school, so they end up in the counselor's office. Their mothers start a protest, and then even a war against Canada, during which many American actor die. Kenny dies also, while Kyle, Stan and Cartman release Terrance and Phillip, but they die anyway thanks to one of the angry mothers, releasing Satan and Saddam Hussein with their blood. Cartman though manages to kill Saddam while the Kenny's ghost wishes for everything to go back to normal.

The "South Park" movie ended up surprisingly pale and indifferent, so much in fact that even the original series from which it originated could have made a mockery out of it. The authors Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it seems, didn't save much good jokes for the movie so they anguish themselves by forcefully filling in the feature running time with too much boring musical scenes. What's so funny when one character suddenly starts singing as in a musical? That's just it - nothing. It's too bad that the authors only used the liberation from TV censorship to fill the movie with swearing every minute. What's so funny when one character swears? That's just it - nothing. Do they think it's something terribly original, we don't know. But movies also have one universal taboo word: "boredom". If the characters said a funny joke every minute instead of curses and lyrics, the movie could have been really as good as some claim it is. They can be controversial and all, yet at least they could have made up a few more of such funny subversive gags like when Mr. Garrison says: "...I'm Sorry Wendy, but I don't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die" or when Brooke Shields randomly admits: "I once farted on the set of 'Blue Lagoon'". Sadly, most of the novelty of the story is just reduced to Kenny showing his face for the first time and adjusting the paper-cut animation. The "South Park" show was uneven, but it was still 10 times funnier than this.


Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter; war / drama, USA, 1978; D: Michael Cimino, S: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, John Savage, George Dzundza

Pennsylvania. Friends Mike, Nick and Steven are Russian-American steel worker. They are cheerful drunks who often go deer hunting with Stosh and Axel. Mick and Nick are in love with Linda, but don't talk about it. Steve marries Angela, despite the objections of his mother who thinks she is ugly, and everyone celebrates on the wedding...Vietnam War. Mick, Steven and Nick become war prisoners of the Viet Cong who force them to play Russian roulette with a pistol with one bullet. But Mike manages to kill the soldiers and escape together with Nick and Steven in the jungle...Pennsylvania. Mike returns home as a changed person and starts a relationship with Linda. Steven lost his legs. Mike returns to Vietnam to get Nick who plays roulette and kills himself.

3 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Hollywood started contributing its share of views on the subject and many of them were obviously not an easy piece of cake. One of them, "The Deer Hunter" is a controversial, black and shocking war film without any compromise that works on many levels, from the change and maturing of characters up to an antiwar film, yet during it's premiere many critics bashed it for it's vicious tone. The 3 hours of running time are divided into 3 segments: in the first, Mike (Robert De Niro) is described as a nonchalant happy man: he looks at the Sun behind the clouds and claims it's a sign to hunt, so one of his friends tells him: "Mike, sometimes I think only a doctor can understand you!" Mike also advises everyone to carry only 1 bullet during the hunt because it's fair towards the deer. Director Michael Cimino elegantly leads that part of the story and copes well with the characters, especially in the almost an hour long (!) wedding sequence. Then follows a smashing cut to the middle of the Vietnam War, where the Viet Cong forces the protagonists to play the deadly Russian roulette with only - 1 bullet. After Mike underwent all that horror and returns to his peaceful home, it seems as if he found his more gentle, introverted side. The War was awful, but it taught him to avoid the killing and the guns. Among all the actors, Christopher Walken shines in the small role of Nick who succumbs to all the madness and loses his sanity. The movie won several awards for such a gritty portrait.


Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America; crime drama, Italy / USA, 1984; D: Sergio Leone, S: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, James Hayden, Joe Pesci, Larry Rapp, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, Jennifer Connelly

The mafia kills the wife of the Jewish gangster Noodles. He is wounded, but kills one of them and hides in a Chinese theatre. Then he remembers his life: in the 20s of the 20th Century, Max and Noodles photographed a cop having intercourse with a minor and successfully blackmailed him to pay them for the prostitute Peggy and to not interfere with their smuggling business. They entered the mafia by giving them the idea how to push the goods to the surface of the water with salt. Noodles killed Bugsy and spent 12 years in prison. Then he smuggled alcohol with Max, but his beloved Deborah left him after he raped her. After the end of Prohibition era, Max decided to rob an extremely well guarded bank, so Noodles turned him in to the police to save his life. Max later called him for a dinner and offered him to kill him, but he refused.

Even though the epic, 4 hour long crime drama "Once Upon a Time in America" abounds with brilliant scenes and was critically acclaimed, it is an overrated and overlong film, a film that is "brilliant in a wrong way", and does not have that special control that is needed from a director that shoots his dream project and is thus in love with every scene to the point of excess, thus the whole movie ultimately gets crushed by its tedious tone and starts going on one nerves after a while. The exposition is excellent and filled with great details: a woman finds numerous bullet holes on the bed, shaped like a silhouette of a man; Noodles' (De Niro) hallucination that the telephone is ringing even after he picks up the earphone...They all form a very good starting point for a story and manage to absorb the viewer into their world.

But despite his talent, Sergio Leone here loses the focus and point of the gangster story after a while, turning the whole film into a chaotic mess filled with disturbing scenes, like when Noodles rapes a woman on her agreement so that his gang could convincingly steal the diamonds, and later on they take out their penises so that she can recognize the perpetrator, and misogyny (the gangsters pressure Danny Aiello's cop character by swaping of his baby boy for a baby girl), in just some of the infamous scenes, not to mention that it is sickening that the director tried to give a sentimentalised depiction of the gangster hero (the song "Yesterday"; the cheap attempt that he actually loves his girlfriend after he raped her...). It is an wildly ambitious, sharp and clever film about the empty lives of gangsters, filled with great ideas here and there (an amusing joke with a coffin that has the word "Prohibition" written on it) - but it would have been better if the director could have made it without vague, unclear characters and events, heavily overstretched running time (too many scenes of characters just staring at each other that go on and on) and irritating pretentiousness. It was nominated for 2 Golden Globes (best director, Ennio Morricone for his great score) while it won 2 BAFTA awards (costumes, score) out of 5 nominations (best director, cinematography, supporting actress Tuesday Weld).


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West

C'Era una Volta il West; western, Italy / USA, 1968; D: Sergio Leone, S: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards, Gabriele Ferzetti

The Wild West. Three bandits await a Harmonica man at a railway station. He arrives and shoots them. On the Sweetwater farm the evil Frank kills the whole McBain family in order for his boss, the rich Morton, to build a railway station on that part of land. McBain's wife, prostitute Jill, returns home to find the farm empty. Harmonica and criminal Cheyenne join their forces against Frank. After Frank kills Morton, they organize the railway construction so that Jill will become the owner of the precious land. Harmonica then kills Frank because he once killed his father.

Those who love dashing beaus and mannequin actors should better avoid cult western "Once Upon a Time in the West" because in that naturalistic film by Sergio Leone almost every character is unglamorous, dirty and ugly in order to achieve a special charge about the dark world. The 15 minute opening sequence, realized almost without any dialogues, is bravura directed and is rightfully considered one of the highlights of 'anticipation cinema': three gangsters enter an isolated railway station and just mutely stand there while the old train conductor does not know what they want. They settle at the station and wait to ambush someone. One of them is bothered by a fly that constantly walks around his face so he captures the insect in the pipe of his pistol. Finally, Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives via the train, exits and asks them where his horse is. The 3 gangsters, obviously enemies set to ambush him, jokingly tell him: "We have one too little." - "No, you have two too many!", replies Harmonica and then shoots them in a gun duel.

In almost every scene Leone crafted a homage to either "Shane" or "The Searchers" and crafted slow-burning, absorbing takes or hypnotically huge close up shots of faces (the director's trademark: they can be best appreciated in cinemas, not on small TV sets, because the viewer is in awe and feels insignificant when he or she watches a head 10 times bigger than a normal human on the big screen) which have weight, but unlike his previous films which were cold, "West" actually has a more emotional story, especially initiated through the prostitute with the heart of gold, Jill (Cardinale), as well as Ennio Morricone's untypical enchantingly-gentle-melancholic score, which is one of the reasons why the director managed to create his best film. Some scenes today seem like cliches, but only because they were so influential they were copied a hundred times in numerous films and thus even placed dust on the original. The whole story is passionately directed, but among the best moments is also the finale, where it finally dawns to the bad guy Frank that he once killed Harmonica's father and thus caused an angry backlash that came back to him, in a two-decade delay.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Il Buono, il Brutto, Il Cattivo; western, Italy / Spain, 1966; D: Sergio Leone, S: Eli Wallach, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Aldo Giuffre, Luigi Pistilli, Rada Rassimov

The Bad is a hired hitman, Setenza, who is searching for Bill Carson. Two bandits hire him to kill the other, but he kills them both. The Good is "Blondie", while Tuco is the Ugly. Both of them work as a team: "Blondie" "hands over" the wanted Tuco to a Sheriff in a town and gets a 1,000 $ bounty, but shoots at the rope that was supposed to hang Tuco and helps his escape. Repeat the scharade again and again. But one day "Blondie" is fed up and leaves Tuco in the desert, so Tuco seeks revenge and later forces "Blonde" to walk across the desert without water. Just then a stagecoach with Carson appears: before he dies, Carson tells "Blondie" the location of the graveyard where he hid his secret treasure. Now Tuco needs "Blondie" again, but they are arrested by the Union soldiers. Sentenza goes after them to find the treasure. Tuco escapes, "Blondie" joins him again and they kill Sentenza's people. The name of the grave is just "unknown". They find a trove filled with gold, kill Sentenza and split the money. But before he leaves, "Blondie" ties up Tuco's hands and leaves him hanging on a noose. Later, "Blondie" shoots at the rope from a distance, thereby releasing Tuco.

With this very good western, director Sergio Leone completed his "Dollars" trilogy and achieved a great success, getting praised for managing to actually make art out of pulp, the so called 'Spaghetti western': "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" went on to become a legend that is even mentioned today, Clint Eastwood became a star and patron of cynical good guys, while the direction is powerful and absorbing, filled with black humor (the way Tuco enters a gun store and shoots at three targets: two tops fall off, but then Tuco jumps at the ground and the last top of the cardboard falls as well), though cold. The heavily ambitious "Good" lasts for almost 3 hours and it is interesting to see how Leone used a lot of neat tricks to enrich it, like the titles in the exposition placed for every of the three title protagonists: "Good" for Eastwood, "Bad" for Wallach and "Ugly" for Cleef, or the gigantic camera close ups of their faces which already started to establish themselves as the director's trademark: they can be the best appreciated in cinemas, not on small TV sets, because the viewer is in awe and feels insignificant when he or she watches a head 10 times bigger than a normal human on the big screen. The theme of greed and its structure are tight, but still some of the protagonists seem antipathetic, a few deus ex machina moments are obvious, whereas some torture and depiction of violence irritating. Also, the civil war battle sequence slows the movie down in the last third. A slow burning and hypnotic exercise of the western genre, which works as a cynical dismantling of some of its American cliches: instead of showing idealistic heroes, "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" depicts antiheroes, showing the Wild West as it was, namely full of vile, selfish people who are hardcore capitalists, thinking only of gaining money, even through theft and swindle. Not for everyone's taste, Leone's highlight is nonetheless a quality film with cynical humor ("When you can shoot, shoot. Don't talk!", says Tuco to a babbling rival whom he just shot from a bathtub).


Friday, November 7, 2008

For a Few Dollars More

Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu; western, Italy / Spain / Germany, 1965; D: Sergio Leone, S: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volontè, Mara Krupp, Luigi Pistilli, Klaus Kinski

Dressed in black, Colonel Douglas Mortimer is a bounty hunter. He exits from a train, kills a bandit and gets 1,000 $ for him. The blond cowboy without a name is also a bounty hunter and collects a 2,000 $ award for a dead bandit. Both of them are attracted by gangster Indio who escaped from prison and whose bounty is set at record 10,000 $. In order to get him, the cowboy joins his gang, freeing his friend from prison. The gang storms a bank and takes the safe with them. When Douglas introduces himself as a safe cracker, they see through him and tie him up together with the cowboy. But they escape and kills them all. Indio raped Douglas' sister. Thus Douglas leaves all the corpses to the cowboy.

After he made a big hit with "A Fistful of Dollars", director Sergio Leone decided that his his 3rd feature film should be it's sequel. "For a Few Dollars More" seems like a stupid western in a trash production equipped with a brilliant director. And indeed it is. Leone chooses primitive despots and irritating characters as his protagonists to create a "rough" and ugly feel, yet he cleverly rounds them up in a harmonic whole, thus breaking a lot of disapproval of critics from his first film. "For a Few Dollars More" is even better than the following "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and has a very confident and often comical style. Among the bad guys is also the excellent Klaus Kinski: he doesn't have a lot of dialogs, but is hilarious in the tense scene where Douglas enters the saloon with a pipe in his mouth and lights his match on his back - but Kinski's character then turns around and daringly extinguishes it. What happens next is something that has to be seen. There's also a neat scene where a revolver shoots and starts the wheel with the first shot and stops it with his second one. Leone's ideas and icons were obviously so influential that Eastwood spent the next 30 years of his career imitating him in westerns where he would direct himself, but rarely with such grace as here. Great rhythm and editing that give it class, even though the dramatic moments of Douglas' killed sister are unsuccessfully cold.


A Fistful of Dollars

Per un Pugno di Dollari; Western, Italy/ Spain/ Germany, 1964; D: Sergio Leone, S: Clint Eastwood, Joseph Egger, Marianne Koch, Gian Maria Volontè, Wolfgang Lukschy

USA, 19th Century. An unknown cowboy arrives in town San Miguel and witnesses how a gang picks upon a boy. Later on, that same gang scares his mule away with their shooting, so he kills all four of them. But they belonged to the influential Baxter who has a feud against Rojo and his gang. The cowboy decides to sell himself for both sides: since Ramon Rojo killed soldiers, he placed their corpses on the graveyard so that it seems as if they have survived and sells the information that they are alive to both for 500 $. Rojo's gang storms to "kill" the soldiers and Baxter's to question them. The cowboy also has pity with Marisol, the woman who was abducted by Rojo, so he frees her. Ramon beats him up for that act and kills Baxter's gang. But the cowboy recovers and shoots Ramon.

"A Fistful of Dollars" is the first film of Sergio Leone's unofficial "Dollar" trilogy - the others are "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" - and a wonderful western remake of Kurosawa's film "Yojimbo". In this film, Leone is somehow unsure and rather incoherent, whereas his camera is not so confident as in his next projects, which is the reason why "Fistful" is probably the weakest film of the trilogy, but also by far the funniest due to it's fine sense for humor: when the Cowboy (Clint Eastwood in his breakthrough role) enters the town on his mule, he spots the undertaker already making a coffin for him, whereas when the four bandits scare away his mule with their wild shooting, he just cynically tells them: "My mule doesn't want to be insulted" and shoots them all. It's also fun how he places the corpses of dead soldiers so that it seems as if they are still alive to trick both of the gangs, yet the finale is somehow unconvincing and vague. Marianne Koch also brings a refreshing dose of female touch in the story.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fahrenheit 9/11

Fahrenheit 9/11; Documentary, USA, 2004; D: Michael Moore, S: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Moore, Al Gore, Robert De Niro, Britney Spears

For a movie of such a hyped and disputed reputation, "Fahrenheit 9/11" is actually surprisingly good. It's quality was mostly overshadowed by the bad rumors about the fact that it won the Golden Palm in Cannes for sheer political reasons, but also due to the fact that the government, or better said the main protagonist of the film, George W. Bush, tried to stop it's distribution in the cinemas across the US. The "unwished" star of the film, Bush, is truly mercilessly criticized, but this time director Michael Moore presents the story in a more subtle and restrained way than "Bowling for Columbine" and doesn't even show up for the majority of the film, except in the role of the narrator, yet he seems somehow worn out. The exposition shows how Bush won the election in Florida just because his brother Jeb was the Governor of that state, thus some people threw eggs at his car during the presidential Inauguration Day. The sole 9/11 terror attack, which is derived in the title, is not shown (besides a black screen, only the sounds of the events are played out), yet Moore jumps from one event to another in a rather unorganized way.

Still, some of his scenes are very suggestive, like when Bush giggles during his make up before he turns to the camera and announces his war in Iraq or the cynical parody scene of the show "Bonanza" - the map of Afghanistan burns out and cowboys come riding in, with digitally inserted faces of Bush and Tony Blair, his "assistant from Britain" - yet once again, the focus of the film is vague, since the thin subplot that Bin Laden was never properly persecuted in Afghanistan is rather dry. Here Moore reduced his clowning to a minimum and went overboard with emotional scenes. Due to truly terrifying scenes of victims in Iraq he didn't decide to take a more satirical detachment from the subject, that spangled his earlier work "The Big One". As a movie that was made just before the election 2004, to stop Bush from getting elected for a second term, it failed, since he did win. But at least Moore succeeded in one ironic thing: for this movie, George W. Bush "won" a Razzie award as worst actor. Condoleezza Rice "won" a Razzie for worst pet goat. Donald Rumsfeld "won" a Razzie for worst supporting actor. Thus making it the only administration of worst Razzie winning actors to get elected for a government.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Capricorn One

Capricorn One; Science-fiction drama/ Satire, USA, 1978; D: Peter Hyams, S: James Brolin, Elliott Gould, Sam Waterston, O. J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Black, Telly Savalas

The whole nation is glued to the TV screens when the first manned mission to Mars is about to take place. But unknown to all, the three astronauts - Brubaker, Willis, Walker - are in the last minute evacuated from the rocket and transported to an isolated studio. To their surprise, the NASA official Kelloway tells them the trip to Mars is too risky, so they will have to fake the landing in the studio with fake sets and cameras. As months pass, the astronauts act as if they are on Mars, even though they feel ashamed. But when the real rocket returns from Mars and explodes in Earth's atmosphere, the astronauts run away from the studio. Two die in the desert, but Brubaker is saved by a cynical reporter, Caulfield, who brings him back home.

In the long list of 'political paranoia' films of the 1970's, "Capricorn One" deliberately pulls along with it's unbelievably cynical story about a fake Mars landing all kinds of 'collateral' conspiracy theory connotations directly linked with the Moon landing hoax allegations. To director and writer Peter Hyams, the message of the film is that even if some great events in history were a lie, we wouldn't know about it if they looked real. He does cope well at some points of the story, especially in the first half that contains a juicy zoom-out shot of an astronaut's helmet surrounded by red dust, just to reveal it's not Mars but just a studio set on Earth with numerous cameras, yet it's shot in elliptical order and thus it seems some big chunks of the story are missing, like what the astronauts were doing the whole 8 months hiding in the studio. Hyams scratches some big issues like they were uninteresting, while numerous events are illogical and implausible, yet the author always keeps up his restless spirit, the sequence with the speeding car without breaks driving through town shown from the point-of-view of the vehicle is virtuoso directed while the main subplot about the cynical reporter Caulfied (great Elliott Gould) who uncovers the story is admittedly shaky, but gives a connection with the "outside world" that is needed as a counterpoint to the astronaut story. The story is better than the final result, but even that result deserves a cult status for it's crazy enthusiasm.