Monday, February 28, 2011

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother; Comedy series, USA, 2005-2014; D: Pamela Fryman, S: Josh Radnor, Alyson Hannigan, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Bob Saget (voice), Sarah Chalke

In 2030, the middle aged Ted Mosby tells his two kids how he met their mother: in 2005, he was 27 and lived in New York as an architect. His best friends were Marshall, Lily, Robin and womanizing Barney. They went through numerous misadventures, especially when he had a relationship with Robin, but then they both agreed they should just be friends. With years, he lost his job and started working as a teacher.

The best comedy of the 2000s wasn't a was a TV show, "How I Met You Mother", which is as engaging and appealing as much as its title is uninteresting. Writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas delivered such marvelous scripts for episodes that it was almost impossible to ruin them - even if they were directed in the most conventional way, they would still be good because such fresh ideas just cried to be put on screen. Cleverly setting our present time as a "retrospect" framed by the story told by the future Ted in 2030, the writers and director Pamela Fryman created a fun, inspiring, easily accessible and stylistically perfect little story that was enriched with numerous inventive jokes, intelligent observations and a playful mood centering around human relationships. For example, episode "Swarley" is brilliant among others because of a great romantic detail where waitress Chloe draws a heart sign on Marshall's cup in the coffee shop, seizing his attention. "Spoiler Alert" has the ingenious concept that you can lose respect for your idol when someone "spoils" you his/her flaw, as it was when Ted was completely charmed by his "perfect" girlfriend Cathy until Marshall revealed her flaw - "Cathy...talks...too much" - which suddenly becomes unbearably annoying for him. The made up "Let's Go to the Mall" music video is a blast.

"The Bracket" has a very humorous concept of an unknown woman sabotaging Barney's dates by constantly telling the women incredibly negative remarks about him, whereas Robin also has a wonderful little moment when she pretends to be his date in order to capture the perpetrator - some guy approaches her at the bar, so she goes: "Beat it..! But come back later!" "The Naked Man", where Ted and Barney decide to try out a man's ploy of stripping naked at a date in order to "charm" women to have sex with them, is an instant classic, a pure example of simple comedy gold. Plus, slap bet is the best running gag of the decade. However, "How I Met..." also has some surprising words of wisdom - in "Arrivederci, Fiero", the future Ted goes: "Life sometimes forces us to be someone we didn't want to be. When that happens we often try to hold on to a little piece of who we were" - which is one of the most poignant observations ever to be found in a sitcom. Naturally, as with many other shows, from season 5 onwards the series started to lose its power and dropped in creativity, whereas it really takes too long for the sole moment when Ted finally meets his wife. By the time his future wife appears, in the last few episodes of the last season 9, the audience already had more emotional investment towards any previous supporting character, established ages ago, than her. This 'undue weight' damages the show. Though, as a whole, it is still in very positive field. Rarely do you get a chance to see a series that immediately gives five lifetime performances to its five main actors, including a sixth by Bob Saget (who never shows up but just acts as a narrator!): all of them are great, but Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris arguably stand out the most. Despite a quality erosion in the last seasons, "How I Met..." surprised by showing that special charm, spirit and wit that was thought to be extinct a long time ago.



Milk; drama, USA, 2008; D: Gus Van Sant, S: Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, James Franco

On his 40th birthday, Harvey Milk considers his job and his life empty, a notion which is only exacerbated by the fact that he is a gay man living in a not so gay friendly society. However, he meets Scott and they become lovers, eventually moving to San Francisco where they open the Castro Camera store. Annoyed by intolerance, Milk decides to stand up for gay rights by running for the city supervisor. After two failures, he finally wins a seat the third time. He finds a new boyfriend, too, Jack. After his colleague Dan White resigns, he changes his mind, but the mayor doesn't want to give him his old job back, upon which he assassinates him and Milk.

Gus Van Sant's biopic about Harvey Milk, the first elected gay public official in US history, is an honest, emotional, simple but standard film where the only non-mainstream element is found in the gay topic. Sean Penn plays the title hero with some stereotype, though he delivered a good and gripping performance. His life and the whole feel of the 70s could have been handled a lot better than here, where that overall vision and pure inspiration is missing - basically, we could have found out a lot more from his character than only that he is a nice gay man - so the story really starts "cooking" only in the final act, especially in his energetic clash with politician John Briggs who was advocating that gay teachers should be banned from school because they might "teach kids to become gay" (upon which Milk asked him in a debate: "So how do you teach homosexuality? Is it like French?"). Such true stories about intolerance and gay civil rights were rarely talked about in the media or taught in history books back then, which is why at least some merit should be given to the hype that surrounded "Milk", though more in its message than in its artistic merit.


The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker; war drama, USA, 2008; D: Kathryn Bigelow, S: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes

Iraq War. After Staff Seargent Thompson dies while trying to deactivate a bomb, William James is brought to the US Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He is a true professional who already deactivated over 800 bombs and this jobs gives him the excitement he wants. He deactivates bombs in cars or buried in the sand, yet his "hot-shot" behavior draws criticism from his colleagues. James witnesses an Iraqi boy getting killed. He returns to his wife and their child in the US, but then goes right back to Iraq because this is the thing he loves.

Three great sequences in a row that appear right from the start, all involving deactivating a bomb - Thompson trying to deactivate an explosive device; James finding seven explosive devices buried in sand by pulling the wire connected to both of them; James ripping seats apart in order to find the bomb in a car while the soldiers are nervously looking at people observing the event from the buildings, fearing one of them might just trigger it any moment with his cell phone - are virtuoso directed and have a great sense of intensity which slowly reaches almost Hitchcock's calibre. Somewhere towards the end, there is also a very good detail where a soldier walks 100 yards away from a burning truck that went off in flames, stops when he spots undamaged leaves on a tree and says: "This is the edge of the blast radius". The remainder of "The Hurt Locker" is also good, but, especially in the second half, somehow too grey, sterile and without any emotional attachment since only the main hero is sufficiently developed, while all other characters are either one-dimensional or unmemorable. This story didn't represent any political agenda because director Kathryn Bigelow basically delivered a well directed action movie, except maybe in the ending where it suggests that the war gives that excitement that people like James need.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Police Academy 3: Back in Training

Police Academy 3: Back in Training; Comedy, USA, 1986; D: Jerry Paris, S: Tim Kazurinsky, Bobcat Goldthwait, Steve Guttenberg, Art Metrano, Bubba Smith, Michael Winslow, Lance Kinsey, George Gaynes, Leslie Esterbrook, Marion Ramsey

The city plans to close one of the two Police Academies due to budget constraints, so an evaluation committee is appointed to check those two. Commandant Mauser and his assistant Proctor plan to sabotage their rival Academy led by Commandant Lassard through two saboteurs. At the same time, Mahoney, Hightower, Tackleberry, Callahan and the others train the new recruits, among them two unlikely partners, Zed and Sweetchuck. Despite the fact that the committee at first ranks them low, they redeem themselves when they manage to save the governor and other hostages from robbers on a yacht, thus winning the competition.

As the critics incisively observed, each subsequent "Police Academy" sequel turned out weaker than the previous film, and the trend continued with this instalment - while part 2 was at least semi-good, part 3 is entirely average, a mild comedy that seems as if the writer saved his better jokes for some other film, yet at least two actors managed to deliver even better performances than in the previous film, Tim Kazurinsky's Sweetchuck and Bobcat Goldthwait's Zed, who are sympathetic as unlikely new police recruits. Roughly patched from patterns of the previous two films, clumsily stumbling over the concept of too many new characters which dilute the story and for the first time push Guttenberg's character Mahoney into the background, "Police Academy 3" is a sparse, though still easily watchable 'guilty pleasure' that returned one essential character to the series, Leslie Easterbrook's Callahan, whereas a few funny jokes can be found here and there, like when Sweetchuck is hiding behind a tree and raises his gun high in order to seem taller than he is in front of a burglar or when the robbers storm a yacht and a lady hides her jewellery under her husband's wig.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Way Back

The Way Back; Drama/ Roadmovie, USA, 2010; D: Peter Weir, S: Jim Sturges, Ed Harris, Dragoş Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgård, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan

When his wife gives an extorted "political confession", Janusz, a Polish prisoner of war, is sent to a Siberian gulag during Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union. However, he and seven other convicts manage to escape during a snow storm and start their journey towards south. They meet a Polish girl, Irena, near the Baikal lake, and continue going south to Mongolia. When they realize that pseudo-communists rule even there, they continue walking through the Gobi desert. At Lhasa, American Mister Smith decides to stay in order to contact the US Embassy, while the other three - Janusz, Zoran and Voss - pass the Himalayas and arrive at India. 50 years later, Janusz returns to his wife.

After a 7 year pause, "Down Under's" master Peter Weir returned to the director's seat to make a movie about a rarely talked about topic in the cinema, Stalin's gulags, yet not quite achieving another quality film with "The Way Back". The incredible story about fugitives from the gulag who traveled a destination of 6400 km from Siberia to India by foot is interesting, but unfortunately fake - the book it is based on, "The Long Walk" by Sławomir Rawicz, is easily identified as senseless and imaginary when comparing the fact that the protagonists aimlessly traveled so far south (you do not have to get so "carried away" and walk a quarter of the planet in order to get away from a country) with Fritz Umgelter's similar '59 film "As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me" where a German fugitive travels from eastern Siberia towards west in order to go back to his homeland, which actually makes sense. The first half an hour of the film is great, displaying excellent details in actor Khabarov who was sent to a gulag just because he "played an aristocrat in a film" or in the masterful shot of the camera panning from a chopped tree down to a whole "trail" of manufacturing labour of the convicts in the forest, whereas Ed Harris is brilliant as the American convict Mr. Smith. However, the second half of the movie turns increasingly void and boring since the endless walk of the protagonists through the Gobi desert is directed without any passion, untypically bland for Weir, slowly turning into a "stranded whale", even in the schematic-preachy history lesson at the end. The locations and cinematography is marvelous, though.


Monday, February 21, 2011

When Harry Met Sally...

When Harry Met Sally...; romantic comedy, USA, 1989; D: Rob Reiner, S: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Harry and Sally first meet at the University of Chicago when they share a long drive to New York after graduation. He annoys her by telling that "men and women can never be friends because sex always gets in their way" so they quickly part...5 years later, she is in a relationship with Joey and meets Harry again in a flight, but again quickly parts...5 years later, Harry is divorced and meets her again. This time, since he is more mature, they become friends. They manage to match their best friends Marie and Jess, who is about to get married. Saddened that her Joey is getting married, Sally sleeps with Harry. Despite numerous arguments, they fall in love on New Year's Eve.

This woodyallenesque romantic comedy turned into one of Rob Reiner's most famous films which, despite flaws, still has some wise messages about human relationships even today: a lot of credit goes to the honest screenplay by Nora Ephron that won a BAFTA and gives those observations from the female perspective. Meg Ryan's fake orgasm sequence in the restaurant is already an instantly recognizable classic, a one that marked her whole career, yet the movie has many more "unknown" little humorous moments that all constitute a quality story. Maybe roughly 1/4 of Billy Crystal's performance really is too self-righteous and talkative, yet 3/4 of it are brilliantly funny and refreshing throughout (while in a museum, he suddenly puts on a Hungarian accent and says to Sally: "I have decided that we are going to talk like this the whole day!"; when he spots hieroglyphs he comments: "I have a theory that hieroglyphs are just an ancient comic-book featuring the character Sphyngy"). Likewise, Reiner manages to insert a few inventive directorial ideas, especially in the split-screen scene where Harry and Sally are both in their beds and watching "Casablanca" on TV, featuring double scenes of that film at the same time. A complaint must be aimed at the last third of the film, though, which loses its energy and turns increasingly stale and schematic, equipped with a typical happy end. "When Harry Met Sally..." is an successful film, yet there is still something missing to be considered a true classic.


The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride; fantasy, USA, 1987; D: Rob Reiner, S: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Billy Crystal

A grandfather reads a book to his grandson, called "the Princess Bride": Buttercup fell in love with servant Westley, but he was kidnapped by pirates. She thus decided to get engaged to prince Humperdinck who plans to kill her and put the blame on the neighboring kingdom. But then Westley shows up, alive and well, just disguised by a mask. Together with Fezzik and Inigo, they go through numerous adventures and save Buttercup.

Fairytale "The Princess Bride" has been declared both a "timeless classic" and a "enchanting fantasy". Neither one of these assertions don't quite suit the film in question. Namely, it is an endlessly sympathetic and at times very funny little film, but also frequently very problematic, mostly on the field of stubbornly (too) childish resolutions of many tangles in the story. The best part is the excellent first third that abounds with intelligent humor and spirit. For instance, Buttercup and Westley start kissing, but the scene is suddenly "interrupted" by the grandson who complains to his grandfather that "the book has too much romance". In another great little moment, the evil Vizzini kidnaps princess Buttercup in order to put the blame on the neighboring kingdom and start a war, adding how that is a "respectable job with a long tradition", and when someone is following them in a boat on the sea, he tells his servants that it's "probably just a fisherman", upon which he replies with: "But there are only eels in these waters!" Billy Crystal also has a neat humorous cameo. Unfortunately, the rest of the story is standard, convulsive and unfunny, whereas it tends to get especially annoying in the naive ways with which the main hero manages to get out of dangerous situations (the one where he can't move but still manages to scare away the bad guy by threatening to "stand up" almost seems like an insult to intelligence). William Goldman wrote a good script, but not a great one.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Goal of My Life

Aşk Tutulmasi; Romantic comedy, Turkey, 2008; D: Murat Şeker, S: Tolgahan Sayışman, Fahriye Evcen, Tim Seyfi, Ali Erkazan, Suzan Aksoy

Pharmaceutical salesman Ugur is a completely devoted fan of the Fenerbahçe football team, so superstitious that he is often performing unusual rituals in order not to "jinx" them into losing a football match. After he has a minor car accident, he meets the attractive Pinar, who works in a insurance company. However, their mothers want to marry them, so they arrange a meeting between them. Despite their initial reluctance, Pinar and Ugur fall in love. Unfortunately, when Ugur proposes Pinar, her father objects because of his supersticiuous nature. Pinar suffers an asthmatic attack and lands in a hospital. Ugur organizes a final ritual - all fans avoid the Fenerbahçe match in order for Pinar to restore her health. And it works.

This fun football romantic comedy evokes the tone of 'good old school' Turkish films from the 60s and 70s, gaining much momentum thanks to the two main actors Tolgahan Sayisman and Fahriye Evcen. The down point to "The Goal of My Life" is that it simply doesn't have such strong density of jokes, filling too much empty spaces with either backward macho cliches which are unnecessary for such a light story (Pinar's ex-boss) or melodrama (especially towards the end), which reduces the viewers' pleasure. At times the story seems like a TV-movie, yet it gains elan thanks to those jokes it has - the biggest delight is watching how the superstitious Ugur is performing various rituals hoping he will somehow not 'jinx' his Fenerbahce football team from losing a match. For instance, he childishly clings to Panir's feet during a TV broadcast of the match, thinking this will somehow have a "Butterfly effect" in Fenerbahce winning, or goes to the cinema during a match because last time he did so "Fenerbahce won". The small supporting role by Panir's father is also a small delight because he acts like Ugur's older counterpart when he says to his wife that he will just go out for a walk because his doctor forbid him to watch football due to his weak heart, but in the next scene he is seen on TV in a full stadium, cheering like a lunatic.


Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment

Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment; comedy, USA, 1985; D: Jerry Paris, S: Steve Guttenberg, Michael Winslow, Art Metrano, Bubba Smith, David Graf, Bobcat Goldthwait, Tim Kazurinsky

When a crime wave hits the city, captain Pete Lassard calls the recruits from the Police Academy to his precinct to help. However, Mauser does everything to sabotage the work of the recruits in order to topple him and take the position of the captain. Mahoney, Jones and Hightower have a tough time, whereas Tackleberry falls in love with police woman Kirkland. After Mauser takes over, Mahoney gets expelled because he made a prank on him. However, Mahoney is able to disguise himself as a punk and infiltrate the location of the gang led by Zed. The police storm the place and arrest the gang.

After the first "Police Academy" film became a smash hit, the producers expressly assembled a sequel which isn't even that half-bad since writers Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield actually worked creatively with the new director, Jerry Paris, achieving an easily watchable and funny comedy. The storyline rehashes old stereotypes from the first film, clumsily stumbling over dumb jokes or silly pranks (the infamous sequence where Mahoney switches Mauser's hair shampoo with glue during his shower) whereas the second half quickly becomes stale. However, Paris has a surprisingly sure hand as a director at times, which is visible in such hilarious sequences like the one where Tackleberry "persuades" a spoiled kid to go out of the car and go to school by throwing tear gas in the vehicle (!) or when Jones creates a 'hyena chewing' noise while a snobbish couple was eating near his table. Also, Zed and Sweetchuck were welcome additions to the cast. Part 2 distanced itself from the original both in style and substance, though still not so much as other sequels.


Friday, February 18, 2011

The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland; drama, UK, 2006; D: Kevin Macdonald, S: James McAvoy, Forest Whitaker, Kerry Washington, Simon Mcburney, Gillian Anderson

In '71, the young and adventurous doctor Nicholas decides to leave Scotland and go to Uganda. There he witnesses a coup d'etat which tumbles president Obote and places general Idi Amin as the new head of state. After nursing his wound, Nicholas is chosen by Amin to be his personal doctor. However, he slowly realizes that Amin's rule is getting increasingly aggressive and intolerable. After Nicholas slept with one of Amin's many wives, Kay, she is found dead. Nicholas is tortured, but is able to board a plane at Entebbe, hijacked by Palestinian extremists, and fly out of the country.

Which dictator wouldn't make for an interesting biopic, at least formally? Idi Amin, who killed at least 80,000 people during his rule, was one of the strangest and most eccentric "iron-fist" rulers of the 20th century, yet Kevin Macdonald's "The Last King of Scotland" covers him both superficially and sparsely, stubbornly refusing to go deeper into the subject matter and Ugandan history during that era, while at the same time wasting its time on fabricated dangerous situations in which Dr. Nicholas finds himself in, who never even existed. Drawing attention away from Amin's real victims to put the spotlight on an imaginary victim, a character who was made up just for the film, really is an odd choice, yet all in all, "King" is a interesting, fluent and adequately crafted film, which works best in the first half, before it starts to stale. It would have helped if it wasn't so clumsy at times, yet overall it is a good history lesson. Forest Whitaker won several awards for his role as the dictator in question, since he delivered a powerful performance, though a one that has too much obvious elements of "showing off" and the advantage of a 'look-a-like celebrity', while James McAvoy's performance is almost better due to its understated and true nature.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Fantasia; animated fantasy musical, USA, 1940; D: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Norman Ferguson, Jim Handley, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen, S: Leopold Stokowski
The Philadelphia Orchestra performs classic music for animated segments: clouds and lines float in the sky...Fairies and fishes dance in the water...After a sorcerer goes to sleep, Mickey Mouse takes his hat to try out some magic tricks. He orders a broom to use buckets to bring water to the local fountain, but eventually it can't stop and soon the whole palace is flooded. The sorcerer wakes up and nullifies the mess...A short history of life on Earth, starting from the microorganisms and ending with the extinction of dinosaurs...Olympus. The idyllic world of centaurs, fauns, Pegasus, Bacchus and others is disrupted when Zeus suddenly starts a storm and throws lightning bolts at them...Ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators dance a ballet...A demon gathers evil spirits from the underground, but they are banished by church bells and a line of monks carrying lighted torches.

"Fantasia" is a phenomenal little anthology film assembled out of seven episodes, definitely the most abstract of all animated achievements by the Walt Disney studio, without its typical formulaic plot or cliches, that at some moments (especially in the first story featuring only illuminated lines and clouds in the sky) almost swims like a 'free spirit' through the spheres of the subconscious. If the opening live action introductions by the orchestral conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra of the upcoming segments are excluded, each animated story is without any dialogue, serving as a giant experiment of conjuring up visual music, with the plots ranging from dinosaurs up to the idyllic ancient Greek creatures on Olympus, which is arguably the best episode - even better than the iconic Mickey Mouse vs. a walking broom segment - full of harmony and dreamy mood, with such enchanting sights as the one where Zeus cowers himself with a cloud and falls asleep or the Pegasus horses walking along the meadow. One could argue that the whole movie is just one giant excuse to promote classic music, from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" to Beethoven's "Symphony No. 6", yet each story is shaped and presented completely, just so much to work without any problem. Only the last two episodes are arguably a letdown, yet by that time the movie already left an enchanting impression which cannot be forgotten that easily.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The Last Emperor

L'ultimo imperatore; drama, Italy / UK / France / China, 1987; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: John Lone, Joan Chen, Ying Ruocheng, Peter O'Toole

In 1 9 0 8, in the Forbidden City, the 3-year old Puyi has been chosen as the last Chinese emperor. He spent his whole childhood in that palace, isolated, surrounded by servants, without a possibility to exit into the outside world. In 1 9 1 1, he learned that China became a Republic and that he is an emperor only in the walls of the Forbidden City. As a teenager, he was fascinated by his Scottish teacher R.J. Johnston. In 1 9 2 4, Kuomintang troops performed the last (symbolic) coup d'etat by invading his palace, upon which Puyi and his wife Wan Jung finally had the chance to exit outside. However, he had difficulties living as an ordinary citizen, and accepted the offer to be an emperor again in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. After the end of World War II, he was arrested and spent 10 years in prison. He died as a gardener.

Sometimes, there is no need to invent events when history already has some really good stories at everyone's disposal, like Puyi in this case, the last Chinese emperor. Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" is the darnedest thing: it has impressive themes to display, but presented in such a subconscious-hermetic way that viewers will have to see the film twice in order to 'decrypt' it as something more than a bland 3-hour epic with just fancy colors. He takes a rather objective, distant approach, yet some moments are simply touching anyway, like the magnificent sequence where the 3-year old Puyi goes outside the palace and walks down the stairs into a monumental sight of thousands of servants and soldiers all kneeling before him in the courtyard - yet, what else can be expected, the child is only interested in a small cricket he hears between them. The excellent performance by Peter O'Toole as his caring teacher also gives it a human side.

One of the unassuming little aspects of the film, that some viewers may not register the first time, is how Bertolucci captured that history era and all the madness of the systems with it. How is it possible that an emperor is not allowed to go outside the walls of his own palace? The theme is repeated when Puyi becomes a pseudo-emperor in the puppet state Manchukuo during World War II, where the Japanese are basically dictating everything to him. Bertolucci was obviously engaged by the irony of such an existence, where a ruler has no control over some basic things in life or some basic freedoms, unlike "ordinary" people have when they simply go out of their house. The mouse scene is terrible, yet it shows his feelings of a trapped man. The fascinating, and true (!) turning point was when Kuomintang abolished his reign and forced him to go outside for the first time - but as an ordinary citizen, the guy was lost, it was as if he was on Mars. By depicting this transition from a monarchy into a Republic, Bertolucci gave a wide ranging portrait of all these systems, from an empire up to pseudo-communist China under Mao Zedong, unmasking them as flawed systems, but also about transience. It is a heavy film, yet it has a point if you try to put yourself in the protagonist's shoes. The idealized ending where the old Puyi visits the empty Forbidden City as a tourist and finds his old cricket still there is completely fabricated, yet it is enchanting because the authors wanted at least to add some magic into Puyi's life, when it was so dark all along.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Smokey and the Bandit

Smokey and the Bandit; action comedy, USA, 1977; D: Hal Needham, S: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed

Skillful truck driver "Bandit" Darville is approached by the Texas tycoon Big Enos and his son Little Enos who make him an offer: if he manages to pick up 400 packages of beer from Texas and transport it safely back to the rodeo in Georgia in 28 hours, bypassing the police since it is forbidden to ship alcohol east of Mississippi, he will get 80,000 $. Accepting the challenge, Bandit drives with his fast car in front of the slow truck driven by his partner Snowman, acting as a scout who will detect any obstacle and divert the attention away. Bandit picks up Carrie, the runaway bride of the son of the harsh Sheriff Buford T. Justice, who chases after him. Despite obstacles, Bandit and Snowman arrive in time and win the bet.

The 10th highest grossing film of the 70s, "Smokey and the Bandit" by former stuntman Hal Needham is even today simply a fun adventure action comedy with a devotion for chases and cars, of whom so many were destroyed in crashes that they almost rival the car smash marathon in "The Blues Brothers". The film works as some sort of a harmless, uplifting comedy version of "The Wages of Fear", except that the 'prohibited liquid' transported in the truck here is not nitroglycerin, but beer, and that a neat addition was found in the fast car driven by Bandit, who is there to divert the attention of the police from the truck, which results is a few great little comic moments of mischief. Sally Field's character is underwritten, as well as other elements in the films, yet this little spontaneous comedy flick engages with ease and is refreshingly accessible, offering a lot of positive energy, whereas Burt Reynolds is charmingly casual as the main hero who always outsmarts everyone, but Jackie Gleason almost steals the show as the cynical-sleazy Sheriff Buford T. Justice who chases after Bandit's car on the highway - but doesn't even recognize him sitting right besides him when he enters a bar for a lunch break.


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Tour

Turneja; Satire/ War/ Drama, Serbia/ BiH/ Croatia/ Slovenia, 2008; D: Goran Marković, S: Tihomir Stanić, Jelena Đokić, Mira Furlan, Josif Tatić, Dragan Nikolić, Slavko Štimac

Belgrade, '93. Six theatre actors - Stanislav, Jadranka, Sonja, Zaki, Lale and Đuro - accept an invitation to perform in Srbobran, a city in the Serb held territory of Bosnia. Their bus driver is Miško. Once there, they get a close experience with the Bosnian War: Colonel Gavro forces them to give all their profit from ticket sales to a Serb humanitarian organization and they have to give a second performance, for the soldiers. The actors get lost and stumble upon the Croatian Defence Council. When they get captured by the Bosniak Army, the leader releases them after they recite a play.

Maybe it is unjust to compare every Serbian humorous film where a couple of opposite characters are traveling by a bus with that all time classic "Ko to tamo peva", yet such parallels are difficult to avoid in the case of "The Tour", except that 5 minutes of Šijan's film are funnier, more imaginative and more alive than the whole of Marković's. "The Tour" envisaged to present a satirical story about the elite society in Belgrade 'detached' from the Yugoslav Wars by putting them in the middle of it, juggling with a few wise observations about the relationship of art with society (while performing a play on stage, the actors bore the Serb army, but by quoting some plays in front of the Croatian and Bosniak army, it saves their lives), but as a whole the film has, unfortunately, only 2-3 good jokes, while the rest is an overstretched, bland piece of film-making, whereas some of the six main protagonists are so underwritten that part of the viewers will only remember that they were consisting out of "two women and four men". Though, the film has some sharp moments, like when the six actors are surprised that they will not be paid for their play in front of the soldiers because it "could be considered that they are war profiteers" or when Stanislav addresses the ultra nationalist Ljubić by telling him that he maintains the 'Serbs are a heavenly nation' rhetoric only "to earn money".


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Matchstick Men

Matchstick Men; Crime/ Drama/ Comedy, USA, 2003; D: Ridley Scott, S: Nicolas Cage, Alison Lohman, Sam Rockwell

Roy Waller and his colleague Frank are two con artists who have been double crossing people for years due to their fake lottery puppet agency. Roy, though extremely clever, is deeply fragile due to his constant phobias and anxieties, which he suppresses with pills. After Frank suggests him a psychiatrist, Dr. Klein, Roy suddenly gets the urge to see his ex girlfriend whom he hasn't seen for 14 years. One 14-year old girl approaches him and introduces herself as Angela, his daughter. He enjoys her company and his phobias disappear. After he involves her in his latest con, the double crossed tycoon Frechette finds her in Roy's home. She shoots Frechette while Roy gets knocked out unconscious. He wakes up and gives Dr. Klein his safe code, only to later find out that Frank actually double crossed him and that Angela was just an actress. A year later, he actually meets her again as a carpet salesman and enjoys with his former girlfriend, who is now pregnant.

"Matchstick Men" - a story where "As Good as It Gets" meets "Paper Moon" meets "Ocean's 11" - is an unassuming and simply clever little film, the best Ridley Scott has directed in 20 years. A lot of credit goes to the impressive novel by Eric Garcia and the tight screenplay by Ted and Nicholas Griffin, who show a con artist from a humane perspective which gains most of its intensity thanks to the touching central plot revolving around a father-daughter relationship, but also from the central theme of the film that echoes "Being There": your own life is only what you think it is because no one has the grasp of true reality. Yet that also means that it is in your power to change your emotions. This is clearly visible in the unusual, but emotional ending where the main protagonist Roy (an understated performance by Nicolas Cage) was hit by a negative event, but managed to absorb it, make something positive out of it and continue with his life - the twist ending causes great uproar from the viewers, yet the authors decided to take that chance. Some of the great little humorous 'slice-of-life' moments are when Roy meets the 14-year old Angela for the first time and she knows he is a con-artist, mentioning the word "police" in a restaurant, upon which two police officers stand up from their table or when Roy wants to stand in a long line in a store on purpose, because he has a small crush on a cashier there. Also, how often do you get an opportunity to see a Hollywood film where the main hero simply admits that he hasn't been in a relationship for over a decade? Some moments could have been elaborated, as to not turn into ellipses as they did, yet as a whole this is a refreshing film.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Police Academy

Police Academy; comedy, USA, 1984; D: Hugh Wilson, S: Steve Guttenberg, Michael Winslow, G. W. Bailey, David Graf, Bubba Smith, Donovan Scott, Marion Ramsey, George Gaynes, Leslie Easterbrook, Kim Cattrall

The newly elected mayor abolishes every criteria for the local Police Academy, which means that the institution now accepts everyone as a recruit. Numerous wackos thus gather at the Academy, but Lieutenant Harris wants to eliminate most of them by drilling them out of the police education. Among the cadets is the goofy Mahoney who only applied to avoid going to jail, but with time actually gets fond of the idea as a police officer, making friends with other cadets like Karen, giant Hightower, sound effects mimic Jones and others. After riots erupt in the city, Mahoney and Hightower save Harris from a criminal and get a medal.

Originator of one of the most popular and longest running movie series of the 80s, the first "Police Academy" film isn't a great comedy, but has funny moments and is definitely the best of the seven films. With only one sophisticated joke in the entire film delivered through a line ("I thought at least Hightower would make it as a police officer. If all policemen looked like him, there would be no crime."), Hugh Wilson's hit is no 'high level' comedy, suffering too much from cheap writing and crude jokes, some of which are even slightly mean-spirited, whereas the story crammed too many characters, many of whom turn out more as extras (i.e. Kim Cattrall's character Karen is so underwritten that she doesn't even get the chance to show her talent), which is visible in the fact that half of them didn't survive in the sequel(s). However, there is some charm in the simple story of "human", imperfect men and women in uniform which carries it even today, and those characters which were written with care really turned out memorable and gained cult status, like the gentle giant Hightower, strict blond police woman Callahan and Jones, the man with thousand sound effects. He even delivers one of the best jokes in the film: after Harris collided with a horse's rear, he gets a new 'make over' ("Your new hat, sir") and inspects a police row later on, while all the cadets are trying not to laugh, containing it as long as possible, all until Jones makes a horse sound.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Magic Sword

Čudotvorni mač; Fantasy adventure, Serbia, 1950; D: Vojislav Nanović, S: Rade Marković, Vera Ilić-Đukić, Milivoje Živanović, Marko Ivanović, Mihajlo Bata Paskaljević, Pavle Vujisić

Middle Ages. Little boy Nebojša gets lost in the snowy forest while hunting with his grandfather Ivan. After entering a deserted castle, he gives water to a barrel after hearing a voice coming from it, and unwillingly unleashes the evil, invincible Baš Čelik from it. Over a decade later, Nebojša, now a young lad, marries his beloved Vida, but Baš Čelik shows up with his army, takes his bride away and puts him in the dungeon. After getting out, he goes on a quest to find a miraculous sword that can defeat the tyrant. Getting a horse from a witch, he wins the sword in a contest in some kingdom, returns back to his home, gathers an army, storms and kills Baš Čelik and frees Vida.

A Serbian version of "Excalibur", Vojislav Nanovic's sword and sorcery film "The Magic Sword" is one of those obscure movies that where lost in the sands of time, yet its competent tone and the fact that it is one of the rare examples of fantasy genre in the Yugoslav cinema, secured it cult status. Similarly like "Münchhausen", "Sword" uses a naive touch and manages to compensate its small budget through some neat tricks and improvisations (when a carp jumps out of the lake into Nebojša's hands, it is actually a reverse shot; a talking horse; the eponymous sword that can cut an anvil in half) but also relies on classic storytelling, achieved through inspiring acting, writing, 'good old school' directing and an occasional impressive camera take, like the opening sequence in the forest cowered by snow or the abandoned castle of the tyrant Bas Celik. One of the great little moments that engage the viewers is the one where Nebojsa is sitting with his girlfriend Vida on the meadow and she tells him about the tradition in her family - that when a girl turns 18, after the rooster crows three times, a wooer can ask the father for her daughter's hand in marriage - and then smiles and tells him: "I'm turning 18 tomorrow...Be at my place." All these little touches circle out a noble, elevated story about honor, love and courage.


Reality Bites

Reality Bites; drama, USA, 1994; D: Ben Stiller, S: Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Swoosie Kurtz, Renée Zellweger

After graduation, Lelaina and her friends - Vickie, musician Troy and gay Sammy - face the challenge that every person in their 20s has to: the difficult process of living independently. Troy wants to be a musician and not "sell out to big corporations", Vickie is happy when she finds out she is not HIV positive after an unprotected one night stand whereas Lelaina can't seem to find a job anywhere. She films their home in some sort of documentary called "Reality Bites" and attracts the attention of TV executive Michael, who falls in love with her. Still, she decides to be with Troy.

Once labeled as "pretentious", Ben Stiller's directorial debut "Reality Bites" today seems almost sober and equally as relevant for modern generations due to its sharp, true, sad and unglamourous portrait of growing up. Frankly, "Reality Bites" is a 'horror movie' for people in their 20s, showing how tough it is to find a job and live in a world where achieving your dream is met with fierce opposition, yet luckily the melodramatic elements are downplayed to a minimum whereas the rather standard story flow doesn't seem to bother. The two stand-out performances by Winona Ryder and Janeane Garofalo are amazing, the cinematography is crisp and clear, some 'slice-of-life' details are inspirational whereas the film even accidentally predicted the rise of reality shows with the documentary of the heroine that was suppose to be sold at a MTV-like TV station. Though "Reality Bites" could have used more examples of brilliance and used stronger tone, it remains an interesting little film that captured the 'vibe of its time'.