Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Band's Visit

Biku Ha-Tizmoret; Tragicomedy, Israel/ France, 2007; D: Eran Kolirin, S: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri

The Alexandria Police Orchestra, consisting of eight uniformed men, visit Israel to perform at some Arab cultural center in Petah Tiqva. Unfortunately, when their bus doesn't show up, they mistakenly take a bus to Bet Hatikva and get lost. Still, a nice restaurant owner, Dina, helps them find accommodation and makes friends with the Orchestra leader Tawfiq. The next day, they part and go to perform at the center.

"The Band's Visit" is a gentle comedy on mutual understanding between two cultures equipped with a minimalistic style reminiscent of Kaurismaki or Jarmusch. Director Eran Kolirin focused more on his thematic intention in the movie - that Arabs and Jews can communicate and cooperate hand in hand just like ordinary people, without any problem - than on artistic enrichment of the rather thin and light story, which is why "Band" is hardly unforgettable, yet he simply has charm. The sparse mood is the strongest when the actors have an opportunity to show their skills, like when Dina (very good Ronit Elkabetz) mischievously places her hair curve over her lip, as if she has a moustache, or when she mimics the hand moves of Tawfiq who shows her how he conducts the orchestra. These are the moments "Band" works the best, since its constitution seems to be more inclined towards humor than those dramatic moments which seem underdeveloped.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Distinguished Gentleman

The Distinguished Gentleman; comedy / satire, USA, 1992; D: Jonathan Lynn, S: Eddie Murphy, Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, James Garner

Florida. Thomas Jefferson Johnson is a local con artist who earns money with his colleagues thanks to tricks and deceits. However, one day he overhears a conversation between two politicians and realizes that politics is where the money is. Using the name of a deceased Congressman, he wins the local election and travels to Washington. There, slimy Dick Dodge takes him under his wing, in the Committee for Power and Industry - thus, the money of the lobbyists dictates Johnson's votes in Congress. However, when he finds out that a high tension line caused cancer in a nearby school, his conscience catches up with him and he exposes Dodge's corrupt nature in Congress.

One of the more decent Eddie Murphy comedies, political satire "The Distinguished Gentleman" is flawed and clumsy in the first half, but it can be sensed that writers Marty Kaplan and Jonathan Reynolds at least put some effort into the story, which is built on the intelligent premise that a crook wants to enter the world of politics because this is where 'crime pays out', which paraphrases Sturges' similar satire "The Great McGinty". In one of the most subtly humorous sequences that expose the Congressman-lobbyist system, protagonist Johnson listens how one senior politician is presenting him laws for which he can either vote for or against, yet in the same sentence he immediately gives him a list of lobbyists for both sides, implying that he can vote for those that pay him more. The movie could have been sharper and better, yet, just like Murphy's "Trading Places", despite some cheap jokes, "Gentleman" actually contains a highly intelligent and complicated showdown that requires from the viewers to pay twice as much attention in order not to miss something, which is both gripping, intriguing, sophisticated and funny (especially when the lobbyist is arguing with Dodge after Johnson's speech, revealing numerous 'money washing' schemes, such as that he bought 10,000 copies of his autobiography, financed his kids in college and invested a fortune in his non-existing foundation).


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Passion Fish

Passion Fish; Drama, USA, 1992; D: John Sayles, S: Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Angela Bassett

After a car accident, TV soap opera star May-Alice is left bound to a wheelchair and returns to her hometown in Louisiana where numerous nurses just raise her blood pressure. However, an agency hires a new caregiver for her, Chantalle, who is not shy of stopping her from drinking alcohol and persuading her to exercise. Slowly, they become friends. Likewise, May-Alice meets her old school friend again, Rennie, who constructs a ramp at her home. When the TV producer asks May-Alice to return to the show, she refuses.

Except for maybe two or three moments, intelligent director John Sayles didn't allow this story to turn into a sappy-pathetic melodrama, but a quiet and nuanced little 'slice-of-life' movie, earning him his first Oscar nod in the category of best screenplay. However, capturing that mood of 'slice-of-life' is not that simple, since "Passion Fish" feels generally unexciting and bland, choosing too much episodic vignettes of people visiting the wheelchair bound heroine May-Alice (excellent Mary MacDonnell) that don't feel as if they contribute to anything or go anywhere. The best episodes are humorous ones, like the sequence where May-Alice is "squeezed" by her TV colleagues Precious and Ti-Marie who visit and bore her with gossip, so she secretly writes a note to her nurse Chantalle: "Help! Get me out of here!" or when she enjoys being called "a witch on wheels". "Passion Fish" has good moments and subtle writing, yet with a running time of over 130 minutes it is definitely overstretched and too slow, which reduces the engaging power of this "Driving Miss Daisy" version with young people. A small jewel here is actor David Strathairn as kind handyman Rennie, who brings back memories of Sayles' excellent movie "The Brother from Another Planet".


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Flatfoot in Hong Kong

Piedone a Hong Kong; crime comedy, Italy, 1975; D: Steno, S: Bud Spencer, Al Lettieri, Enzo Cannavale

Naples. Commissioner Rizzo is convinced that mobster Pastrone is behind an epidemic of heroin in town, but has no evidence. When Pastrone is found dead, some suspect that Rizzo is the perpetrator, so he decides to go to the root of the problem and travels to Bankgkok, where drugs are shipped to Italy. A local gangster, Frank, follows him. Introducing himself as Pastrone's successor, Rizzo get information that drugs are actually originating from Hong Kong. There, he meets Frank again. One Japanese woman, who was a part of the organization, is killed so Rizzo has to take care of her little boy Yoko. In the end, he finally solves the case and finds the corrupt police senior.

The 2nd movie of the four part "Flatfoot" series, "Hong Kong" is a moderately entertaining flick that suffers from a key ingredient: the balance between light comedy and hard crime. Some skillful directors managed to perfectly blend in genres of comedy and suspense, like Landis did in "American Werewolf in London" and managed to make it look as if humor and fear work in perfect harmony and don't seem like bizarre opposites, but in majority balancing those two turns out disjointed more often than not, just like here. "Flatfoot" works the best in the first 30 minutes while it plays out in Naples and features some good jokes - in the opening sequence, for instance, two criminals, on the run from the police, hide in a barber shop in order to "have an alibi". But the curtain opens and reveals a large man holding the barber's kit in his hands, who turns out to be none other than commissioner Rizzo (Bud Spencer) himself; Rizzo scorns his friend, a small-time crook, for just having to steal a purse from a tourist in front of the police station! - but when it moves to exotic locations in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Macao, it slowly turns into an overstretched, routine crime investigation, with clues so far out that not even "The Da Vinci Code" would be ashamed off, with especially problematic inclusion of a Japanese kid in the last third of the story. Spencer is again charismatic, yet humorous approaches suit him more than those of Steven Segal.


Monday, May 16, 2011

A Night at the Opera

A Night at the Opera; Comedy, USA, 1935; D: Sam Wood, S: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Margaret Dumont

Wacky manager Driftwood doesn't really care for his client, the snobby Mrs. Claypool. He meets Fiorello and Tomaso, who work at a opera for the arrogant singing star Rodolfo, who wants to steal the affection of Rose, while her beloved Ricardo is stuck singing at the choir even though he has talent, but no reputation. Driftwood and Fiorello and Tomaso start a mess at a ship voyage. In New York, they decide to help out the 'outsider' couple Ricardo and Rosa: by sabotaging the opera Il Trovatore, they replace Rodolfo with Ricardo and Rosa who gain a standing ovation.

The first Marx brothers movie for MGM, "A Night at the Opera" is an uneven, but fun comedy of their recognizable anarchic-absurdist-dadaism humor. Once again, the comedians impress the most with some virtuoso dialogues, the best being delivered right at the start when Mrs. Claypool is waiting for Driftwood (Groucho Marx) at the table in a restaurant, and he surprisingly shows up sitting at the table right behind her back, upon which she protests ("I've been sitting right here since seven o'clock". - "Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner I expect her to look at my face. That's the price she has to pay!") When Mrs. Claypool protests more because he has been sitting with another woman, he gives another wiseguy remark: "That woman? Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you." Like in most of their movies, the storyline meanders again, with the ship voyage being particularly out of place, whereas the dramatic subplot involving hard luck singers Rosa and Ricardo is rather bland and serves its purpose only in the final commotion at the opera. Still, whenever the Marx brothers are on the screen, the movie runs almost with full speed, whether it features insane dialogues between Groucho and Chico ("Do you know America is waiting to hear him sing?" - "Well, he can sing loud, but he can't sing *that* loud". - "Well, I think I can get Ameri to meet him halfway".) or simply slapstick in the scene where Henderson is searching for Chico and Harpo in Groucho's room. Even though it does not reach the grasp of their best comedy, the phenomenal "Duck Soup", "Opera" still has a lot of satisfying jokes.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th; Horror, USA, 1980; D: Sean S. Cunningham, S: Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Betsy Palmer, Laurie Bartram, Kevin Bacon

Two teenagers are killed by an unknown murderer at Camp Crystal Lake. Some 20 years later, the camp is re-opened and attracts teenagers again. One of them, Annie, is warned by the locals that the camp is cursed. Later, somebody kills her in the forest. During one rainy night, the murderer kills several teenagers there, leaving only the deputy supervisor Alice. She finds out that the killer is actually Mrs. Pamela Voorhees because she wants to take revenge for her son Jason who drowned over 20 years ago in the lake. Still, Alice kills her and survives.

Already in the opening sequence, where the camera takes on the killer's POV while he is climbing up the stairs and stabs two teenagers in a cottage, does "Friday the 13th" show that is steals too much from Carpenter's "Halloween", indicating rightfully that it was and still is just a primitive 'slasher horror' copycat designed to please viewers bored with their lives and eager for some suspense. There is suspense to be found here, however the director uses it only in a cheap and banal way. The characters are so underwritten and bland that it is actually difficult to distinguish them (even Kevin Bacon barely 'stands out') whereas the only two memorable moments in an otherwise grey story are the strip monopoly and the surprising revelation of the killer's identity. On the DVD extras, the director at least openly admitted that his only motivation for this film was to make a commercial film in order to feed his family. "Friday the 13th" was indeed successful and spanned 9 sequels, a crossover and a reboot, yet by all other criteria it seems it was really 'branded' by that unlucky number 13.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen; Action, USA, 1967; D: Robert Aldrich, S: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Jim Brown, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine, George Kenendy

England, World War II. Unwillingly, Major Reisman is given a secret military assignment of choosing 12 inmates from a military prison whose sentences range from 20 years up to life in prison, and train them in order to infiltrate a castle in Brittany and assassinate numerous high ranking Nazi officials, which in turn would disrupt their chain of command for the upcoming D-Day. Among the "dirty dozen" are Wladislaw, Jefferson, crazy Franko, religious fanatic Maggot, Pinkley and others. Eventually, they succeed in killing them, but only three of them survive.

A small cult classic, "The Dirty Dozen" is still a fun and exciting action war movie which became one of the most popular achievements of the nihilist director Robert Aldrich, an undated extravaganza that plains attention thanks to its engaging story despite being basically a "mac flick": it is a dynamic, brutal and cynical action adventure. Lee Marvin is again in top-notch shape as the 'hard-boiled' Major Reisman who has to train the twelve convicts with unconventional means - in one sequence, for instance, one of the trainees has climbed up the rope but stopped just 3 feet away from actually reaching the platform at the top, lamenting that he can not do it. So Reisman just takes a machine-gun and fires just bellow his shoes, cutting off the lower part of the rope, upon which the scared trainee climbs up the platform in a second. Maybe 5 out of 12 trainees really are just extras, but the movie is surprisingly fluid and exciting, showing sense for 'raw' storytelling (which was imitated through numerous movies, even in "Inglorious Basterds"), whereas Aldrich again spoofs militarism and pretty much the whole human race. However, "Dozen's" big setback is the ending where the dozen traps numerous Nazi officials with women in a bunker, and slaughters them both: this failure to distinguish Nazis from Germans and even soldiers from civilians significantly decreases sympathy for the dozen and seems repulsive and distasteful. Maybe Aldrich wanted to say how the war is an ugly experience, but since the whole story up to it was fun and light, this misstep seems entirely out of place and convulsive.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Lucky Break

Lucky Break; Comedy, Australia, 1994; D: Ben Lewin, S: Gia Carides, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney

Sophie writes erotic and kitschy romance novels which mostly play out on some coast or a famous city. While speaking out her imagination in a library, she draws attention of Eddie who falls in love with her, but she rejects him and leaves. The reason is that she has a partially paralyzed leg from polio. But after she breaks her leg, she has a perfect excuse to hide her deficiency and seduce Eddie. But her cast accidentally hurts his tongue and then she even meets his fiance Gloria. Eddie breaks his engagement and lands in bed with Sophie, but then the police arrest him because he smuggled jewels. After he is released, they become a couple.

This light and average romantic comedy, somewhere also titled as "Paperback Romance", did not manage to gather acclaim or hype neither in its country of origin nor outside. The exposition is somewhat solid and coherent, but after the demented scene where Eddie's tongue gets wounded, the movie slowly transforms into a boring and slightly iritating entertainment where the ending turns out unsatisfying and too "neat". In this jungle of uneven scenes and ideas, the only bright spot is the excellent Gia Carides in the role of the heroine with a slightly paralyzed leg. Unfortunately, the whole story seems rather paralyzed. A few genuinely inspiring and comic moments can be found here and there, yet this twisted-sweet comedy generally lacks spark and wit.


Monday, May 9, 2011

The Show Must Go On

The Show Must Go On; science-fiction drama, Croatia, 2010; D: Nevio Marasović, S: Sven Medvešek, Nataša Dorčić, Ivana Roščić, Filip Juričić, Amak Bukvić

Zagreb in the future. TV stations are celebrating the 7th anniversary since Croatia entered the EU. Filip is the creator of a "Big Brother" type TV show, "Housed", while his private life is turbulent since his ex-wife Helena works as a host in a rival TV show, "Argument", which is why they don't have much time to spend with their son Patrik. However, one day NATO and the EU get involved in a war with a "Coalition" from the Middle East, and thus drag Croatia into it. In order to preserve their blissful ignorance, Filip transports "Housed" inmates into an identical house, but underground where they cannot hear air raid sirens. When the US uses nuclear weapons in an attack, the Coalition retaliates by sending missiles to EU countries. One of them destroys Zagreb. At that point, Filip's video is played and the "Housed" inmates find out that they are the last survivors there.

Considering it is only the 4th or 5th feature length science-fiction film in the entire history of Croatian cinema (they can even be listed here: "Guests from the Galaxy", "Atomic War Bride", "The Rat Savior" and maybe "Celestial Body"), the low budget drama "The Show Must Go On" is quite a rare experience, but a surprisingly good one, where the "Big Brother" show in the plot is just a minor allegory for the main double theme, the one where such an isolated TV show actually becomes the last oasis of bliss and escapism for people outside whose normal lives were wrecked by a deadly war - and for our society where we don't know what is going on at the top since only a handful of politicians hold our destiny in their hands. Not only is this feature length debut film by Nevio Marasovic a bold enterprise, but it holds an incredible, subversive and bold anti-globalist message: it presents large groupations of countries as a "chain letters" phenomenon - once one country gets involved in a mess, it drags all others with it.

In presenting this future, years after Croatia joined the EU, Marasovic crafted quite a realistic world using inventive ideas in a lack of a bigger budget (for instance, in one scene the main protagonist Filip has a telephone conversation on a touchscreen that looks like a giant iPhone - since the movie was written in 2007, it almost predicted the latter), but did not quite evade the EU-phobia cliches. Just like in "The Day After", the author shows a sense for a slow intensification of boiling atmosphere based just on how little information is given, mostly through an occasional dialogue by some character (Filip says: "I know it is not the right time to celebrate, considering what is going on in the world..."). It also has solid special effects, featuring even the Cibona tower in flames during the war. Complaints could be raised towards somewhat standard dialogues and dramaturgy, especially among the "Housed" inmates where almost no character is three-dimensional of sufficiently developed. However, the movie is bitter and powerful, especially when it offers a sly commentary on politics, and through it human nature in general.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Horror comedy, USA, 1992; D: Fran Rubel Kuzui, S: Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens, Hilary Swank

South California. Buffy is a popular high school girl with a lot of empty friends who often go shopping with her. Her boyfriend Jeffrey is just a "decoration". Her routine tilts when she meets the enigmatic Merrick who explains her that she was born to fight against vampires. He demonstrates that when two vampires emerge from a grave. Her main enemy is Lothos, while her main ally is rebellious Pike, who becomes her new boyfriend. Lothos kills Merrick and attack students at prom night, but Buffy manages to finish him off.

Few people believed that screenwriter Joss Whedon, after failure of his movie "Buffy - The Vampire Slayer", would subsequently triumph with the later TV show with the same title and identical concept, which became a global success. The "Buffy" show had a few genius episodes, like the one shaped like a musical or the one where due to a "curse" the unpopular Xavier turns into the most popular person in the city, yet this movie is not that bad either. True, the story lacks dynamics, Donald Sutherland seems incredibly absent from the story whereas there are too many confusing-illogical situations (bad guy Lothos has at least four opportunities to finish off the main heroine, but always let's her escape), but occasionally a touch of inspirational flair can be sensed: the choreography of cheerleaders is excellent, the scene where Merrick and Buffy wait for hours until a vampire rises from a grave is amusing, Luke Perry is fun while some "hidden" jokes are wonderful (the principle distributes detention papers to dead vampire students).


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Criminal Lovers

Les Amants criminels; Thriller, France/ Japan, 1999; D: François Ozon, S: Natacha Régnier, Jérémie Renier, Salim Kechiouche, Miki Manojlović

Teenage girl Alice strips her boyfriend Luc, puts a blindfold on him and then makes photos of his genitals. She makes out with him until she requests that he must kill the sports star of her high school: Said. Luc is at first unwilling to do any harm until she tells him that Said raped her. Alice seduces Said who is killed by Luc. They put his corpse in a car and rob a store, but get lost on their trip through the forest. They stumble upon a house and find food, but are then captured by a bearded psychopath who locks them out in his basement. The stranger nurtures Luc, baths him and hunts rabbits with him, in the end even sleeping with him. He also read their diary and knows about their crime. When Luc and Alice escape, they have intercourse in the forest. But then the police arrests Luc and the stranger, while Alice gets killed.

Bizarre-phantasmagorical thriller-drama "Criminal Lovers" is by far the strangest adaptation of the Grimm brothers fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel" - at first, the movie starts off as a pure 'femme fatale' crime story where an attractive girl manages to persuade her lover to kill a man, but in a twist of conventions, the criminal lovers get lost in a forest, find a house but are captured there by a mysterious stranger (Miki Manjolovic) who forces them to eat a lot. Stylistically and thematically, Francois Ozon's films differs a lot from the tale (after all, there are five erotic sequences to be found - one memorable plays out even in the forest), adding a crime subtext whereas the directing was done in a very suggestive manner, almost without music (in one great little scene, the camera observes the trees illuminated by the car lights), yet the film is still far away from an excellent grade. Natacha Regnier doesn't seem that attractive to truly believe she could manipulate someone into killing Said, though her acting is good, whereas the bigger flaws are a thin script, a weird ending, weak psychology and mild emotions.


The Story of Us

The Story of Us; comedy, USA, 1999; D: Rob Reiner, S: Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rita Wilson, Colleen Rennison, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Betty White, Red Buttons

Ben and Katie are making an assessment of their 15-year marriage. Even though they have two kids and good friends, they constantly have arguments and feel frustrated. Ben is a writer of novels whereas his agent Stan is telling him that arguments are normal. Katie is accusing him of publicly revealing their private problems and that she doesn't have any time for their kids. Just as they are about to get divorced, they change their minds and make up.

It's a pity that interesting director Rob Reiner lost his spark and sharpness, falling to the low branches of crafting "delivery" projects for Hollywood such as "The Story of Us" which imitates his own classic "When Harry Met Sally...". However, the Reiner who directed "Harry and Sally" did a much better job than the Reiner who directed "The Story of Us". It is difficult to call this a "love story" since it has a too strong anti-romantic charge whereas only the two main actors Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer manage to "smuggle" in small examples of charm and talent in an otherwise completely mild, bland and lost story which turns almost hysterical towards the end. Still, a few good jokes can be found here and there, like one marriage counselor who has a birthmark shaped like California which confuses the couple. An overstretched flick that somehow manages to survive despite banality.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; crime thriller, USA, 1986; D: John McNaughton, S: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold, Mary Demas

After serving the sentence for killing his abusive mother, a prostitute who forced him to watch how she had sex with men, Henry finds a place to stay at Otis, who is also on parole. However, working as an exterminator, Henry has access to numerous homes and thus starts killing again. Becky, Otis' sister who was also abused by her father, actually has feelings for Henry. The two men kill, steal and record the murders on tape. When Otis tries to rape Becky, Henry kills him. Henry and Becky run away, but he kills her too.

John McNaughton's feature length debut film, based on a real life murderer, "Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer" is one of the most disturbing movies of the 80s, yet its unglamourous depiction of human violence, similarly like "A Clockwork Orange", assured it cult status. What it lacks in budget, this independent movie compensates with a gripping and shocking story as well as the enthusiasm of the young authors, equipped with a depressive message: at first, Henry killed his abusive mother, a prostitute, to protect himself from further abuse. Then he killed ordinary prostitutes, because they just reminded him of his object of disgust. Then he killed for pure convenience, namely to steal a TV or get money. Finally, he started killing out of pure boredom. Obviously, the point is that once people get infected with evil, even if it was in self-defence, they can not stop anymore. Even though Becky shows empathy towards him, since she was also abused by her parent, love is unable to change the antagonist, which just exacerbates the message. In arguably the most shocking scene, which borders on being unbearable, a video camera on the ground records how accomplice Otis and Henry torture and kill a family in their home. With a running time of only 80 minutes, "Henry" does feel somehow incomplete, yet it is a bitter vision of lost humanity.