Monday, May 27, 2013

Blackie the Pirate

Il corsaro nero; adventure, Italy, 1971; D: Enzo Gicca, S: Terence Hill, Silvia Monti, Bud Spencer, George Martin

Pirate leader Blackie hears the news of an upcoming shipment of Spanish gold from Don Pedro and decides to steal it. In a pirate settlement, he discovers that among the captured people is Isabel, the wife of his nemesis viceroy from the Spanish colonies. Blackie buys her to have a bargaining chip against viceroy, but the two of them develop feelings for each other. Three other pirate gangs, among them one led by Skull, want to beat Blackie to the punch and steal the gold before him. Skull and viceroy die in the fight, while Blackie gains the upper hand.

After their breakthrough film, "They Call Me Trinity", established that they work the best in humorous stories, it still comes as a surprise that director Enzo Gicca right afterwards decided to again cast Bud Spencer and Terence Hill in another 'dramatic' film, the pirate adventure extravaganza "Blackie the Pirate", their last serious film together. While Colizzi's "Boot Hill" showed that Hill and Spencer can be convincing in more mature, bleak stories, "Pirate" is a solid, but unexciting and standard achievement where the chemistry between the two of them really seems to be leaning towards another genre, since the situations did not get the best from them, nor extracted sharpness from their interactions, whereas the fencing and sea battle sequences started to get sligthly tiresome towards the ending.  The story is a dime a dozen in the genre, with few memorable moments (throwing a cannon from the ship), though the set designs of the ships and the sea locations are opulent. A few twists, unusual decisions or examples of humor would have been much more welcomed, though.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mind Game

Mind Game; animated fantasy tragicomedy, Japan, 2004; D: Masaaki Yuasa, S: Koji Imada, Sayaka Maeda, Takashi Fujii

Unsuccessful manga artist Nishi considers his life dormant and pointless. He loves a girl, Myon, but she openly tells him that she is considering marrying someone else. When she brings her potential suitor for a dinner at a restaurant, two Yakuzas show up and kill Nishi - who goes to an afterlife, meets God, but then refuses to stay dead and returns back to his body. There he takes the Yakuza's gun and shoots him, instead. Nishi, Myon and her sister Yan flee from the gangsters, but their car is swallowed - by a giant whale. They meet an old man there and try to make the best of their situation. Finally, they manage to escape from the whale and return home.

When a movie contains so many WTF moments like "Mind Game", it should better have either a great payoff or a great storyline. Masaaki Yuasa's anime film, unfortunately, does not have such a strong storyline to compensate for all the surreal patchwork it displayed, even though it has a quiet point which is so subtly mentioned only once near the end that it almost gets lost on the viewers. The "Romanesque" art design of the characters may not be for everyone's taste, yet the viewers will quickly get use to it. "Mind Game" shocks with the sequence where a gangster shoots and kills the crouching hero, Nishi, through his butt, thereby triggering a short fantasy subplot where the latter ends up in an afterlife and meets God (in the most expressionistic sequence of the entire film, since God changes his shape every two seconds). The twist is that through this experience, where he has nothing more to lose, Nishi suddenly decides to live with "his head high", gains courage, returns to his body - and then uses his butt cheeks to capture the gangster's gun, take it and then shoot the surprised Yakuza instead. Thanks to this "live life to the fullest" second subplot, the movie gains momentum - which it then loses when the three protagonists get stranded inside a whale - and stay there for the remaining 60 % of the film! One could argue that the philosophy of the author is mirrored there, namely to live life to the fullest even in the bleakest situations, to find something good in every situation, obvious in Nishi's pivotal monologue about leaving the whale: "I want to get out because there are so many things out there. So many different people, living different lives! Incredibly good guys, bad guys, folks completely different from us! One giant melting pot. See, it's not about success, dying in the streets, who's better, who's not. I just want to be a part of it!" This supports the film, but alas, the whale segment is still a huge waste fo time, which makes at least part of "Mind Game" appear like a stranded whale.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Deja Vu

Već viđeno; drama/ thriller, Serbia, 1987; D: Goran Marković, S: Mustafa Nadarević, Anica Dobra, Milorad Mandić, Petar Božović, Bogdan Diklić

In '71, the unsightly Mihailo works as a piano instructor in a education centre. He was once a gifted pianist, but was left traumatised after he saw his father having an affair with another woman in bed. Also, his father was convicted by the Yugoslav authorities for performing during the Axis occupation, while his mother died from a sickness. In present, a new girl joins the centre to teach ballet, Olgica. To Mihailo's surprise, she decides to have sex with him, but he finds out she only does that to forget about her alcoholic father and little brother who cannot afford eye surgery. The boy enters her bedroom and sees them having sex, which awakens Mihailo's memories from childhood. When the centre is suppose to host a Relay of Youth, Mihailo causes shock when he refuses to play the piano in front of the cameras. Realizing that Olgica found a new lover, he kills them both and her father in their home.

Even though it won the Golden Arena for best film, Goran Markovic's film "Deja Vu" is a highly bipolar, uneven achievement: it works while it is a tragic psychological drama, but when it switches into a thriller in the finale, it turns into an excess that extracts all the worst Yugoslav cliches. Markovic has a good sense for creating an eerie mood (the very good opening 4 minute shot, filmed in one take, that follows the POV of a man who observes a piano player in a theatre; the scene of a dog jumping in the room filmed through the fish eye lens) and contemplates about the parallels of the hero's past and his actions in the present, posing the question about some cyclical events in life and history in general. It is also noteworthy to observe how Markovic uses some moments to often "accidentally" give a critique of the Yugoslav society and its party system - for instance, Mihailo and Olgica never have peace while having sex because they are both subtenants in crowded apartments (accommodation planning); her brother wants to have eye surgery in the West (inadequate health service); Olgica mentions how the only way to secure yourself a comfortable life is to become a party member, etc. However, at least one such political jab is grotesquely misguided and forced, the infamous sequence where a young Mihailo is informed that the party gave half of his apartment to others and thus has to help move a huge cupboard, just to get stuck in a corner of a room at the exact moment when his mother dies, which is an embarrassing piece of melodrama. The syrupy music did not help either. The worst part is the 15 minute ending, though, that suddenly became an (unconvincing) thriller with unintentionally comical moments (the dog goes after Mihailo in a room, the door closes, and then opens to show Mihailo carrying the dead dog on his shoulder), which in the end do not manage to bring whatever point the director had to the audience.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Omega Man

The Omega Man; science-fiction/ disaster movie, USA, 1971; D: Boris Sagal, S: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash

After a global war involving biological warfare, all the people are either dead or became albino mutants. Neville, who took a vaccine and survived, presumes to be the last man on Earth. Roaming through the empty L.A. streets, he fights the mutants and is in search for human survivors. One day, the finally finds a group of normal people on a hill and falls in love with one of them, Lisa. However, she becomes a mutant herself and falls under the influence of its leader, Matthias. In the end, Matthias kills Neville with a spear, but the surviving people manage to take a bottle of his blood, which contains the vaccine in it.

A true great fan of science-fiction, Charlton Heston often accepted roles even in inferior movies of that genre, just to enjoy in its environment, and among them was the second adaptation of Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel "I Am Legend", here re-titled into "The Omega Man". The sole concept of Heston as the only surviving man on Earth, driving through the empty streets of L.A., is exciting and ignites a spark in the opening 20 minutes of the film, and one sequence stands out there particularly, the one where he starts a screening in an empty cinema in order to watch a Woodstock documentary, just to hear people talking, and comments ironically to himself: "They sure don't make pictures like that anymore." Unfortunately, the "The Omega Man" overstretched its story to such an extent that it did not manage to consolidate that momentum from the opening act, ultimately becoming dull, boring and monotone in the exhausting last third. Also, there is a big inconsistency here: even though the movie at first establishes that Neville is the last man on Earth, watches movies and talks to a puppet during dinner just to have someone to talk to, all of a sudden it turns out that albino mutants can talk in perfect, articulate English, and one has to wonder: why are they so inhuman? They look just and act like ordinary people, just in albino color, not like mindless zombies. Not enough was done to justify Neville's action to exterminate them all, which might be the reason why the story showed the first interracial kiss in Hollywood, in order to appease the clumsy racism connotations. A bizarre and uneven disaster movie, though not without a certain 70s charm.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Death Note

Death Note; animated fantasy crime thriller series, Japan, 2006; D: Tetsuro Araki, S: Mamoru Miyano, Kappei Yamaguchi, Shido Nakamura, Naoya Uchida, Noriko Hidaka
High school student Light Yagami finds a 'Death Note', a notebook that was dropped by Shinigami, the gods of death. As soon as someone's name is written in the notebook, that person will die in 40 seconds. Light uses it in order to kill hundreds of criminals, hoping to clean the world of evil. When his intentions are revealed under the pseudonym Kira, the Japanese police decides to stop him, because extrajudicial killing are illegal. One brave teenage detective, known just as L, quickly suspects Light might be Kira. After a lot of ploys, Light is able to outsmart and kill L. Years later, L's successor, Near, continues the investigation and, using a trick, manages to capture Light.

One of the most hyped anime series from the 00s, "Death Note" is one of those rare achievements that justify its reputation. It is the best Agatha Christie crime story ever made. Even though the concept may appear immoral at first (righteous teenager Light writing names of criminals in the notebook in order to kill them), the fantasy segment is just there to be a polygon for the subsequent 'cat-and-mouse' crime thriller, where Light and detective L, who is after him, try to outsmart each other. L is truly one of the greatest anime characters ever created, a seemingly ordinary, albeit eccentric teenager without any superpowers that Light has, who almost seems to have found himself in god's war, but precisely because of that it is even more unbelievable how much he can achieve to counter Light thanks only to his intelligence, which gives the anime spark and unpredictability, since you never know what kind of a clever trick L might use next. One good example is near the beginning: Light sees a man, Lind L. Tailor, presenting himself to be L on TV, who announces that he will stop Kira. Angered, Light takes the Death Note, writes Tailor's name in it and kills him live on TV. However, the viewers quickly find out this was just a bait, because Tailor was the fake L - and the voice of real L is then heard on TV, explaining that thanks to that action, he now knows that Light lives in only one particular neighborhood, because the transmission was broadcast in only that area.

The flaws are rather minimal (the bizarre sado-mazo outfits of the two Shinigami, though they are luckily only marginal characters that are replaced for real human characters; the useless character of Misa, who has a role in the story only once and is then completely unnecessary for the next 20 episodes). However, even when the story takes a questionable turn in episodes 15-16, and you just think to give up on it because the concept seems to have become far fetched (losing memory and all), even that turns out to be a colossal manoeuvre by Light that goes full circle in episodes 23-24 and returns to a purposeful whole. The story also begs some philosophical questions about the death penalty and how absolute power corrupts, i.e. how Light is a semi-antihero: on one hand, by killing criminals, he is seemingly cleansing the world of evil (a few years after Kira's actions, it is mentioned how there are no more wars in the world, and no offences because everyone is afraid to be punished, whereas even nerds warn school bullies to be nice or they will post their names on the Internet and ask Kira to punish them!), but on the other, he does not address the causes of criminal behavior, and by taking the lives of people on such a massive scale, even those of the police who were just doing their job and tried to arrest him, he inevitably became evil himself, creating a world where he would eventually kill everyone because nobody would be good enough for his criteria. Some have complained about the additional detective character of Near, but those complaints hardly take roots since he is almost equally as fascinating with his deductions as L. You can watch "Detective Conan" and similar 'who-dunnit' detective stories, but will probably never find such a juicy example of thoroughbred strategic planning, not even in "Legend of the Galactic Heroes". Unlike many other thrillers that are just a duel of two violences, "Death Note" is a duel of two intelligent minds. This is a masterful thriller, truly unique, with a finale that reaches Hitchcockian intensity of suspense and amends all previous flaws, a storyline assembled like a giant Arukone puzzle which at first seems overcomplicated, but in the end gives an overall virtuoso picture where everything is connected and has its why and because. Just like every masterpiece, it is so absorbing that once it ends, it leaves the viewers back in the "ordinary" world that seems like an empty vacuum after it.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Princess Diaries

The Princess Diaries; comedy, USA, 2001; D: Gary Marshall, S: Anne Hathaway, Julie Andrews, Hector Elizondo, Heather Matarazzo, Mandy Moore

Mia Thermopolis is a normal teenage girl who lives with her mother, but is unpopular in school and has only two friends: Lily and Michael. However, one day she is surprised to find out that her father was the Prince of kingdom Genovia, and that she is expected to become the next princess. Her grandmother, Clarrisa, manages to persuade her to undergo a 'princess education' and accept her role. She is also supported by driver Joseph. Unfortunately, Mia discovers all the disadvantages of royalties: the reporters are there where ever she goes while a guy, Josh, just wants to be with her to exploit her fame. However, in the end, Mia decides to accept the post of the princess.

With her first film, Anne Hathaway already demonstrated why she is one of the best actresses of her generation: her role in "The Princess Diaries" is completely naturally charming, without any traces of trying to impose on the viewers, and all the good parts in the film are either thanks to her, through her or about her, with rarely something memorable happening outside of her presence (one rare instance is the joke where the Genovian kingdom serves a soup with a cream shaped in the form of a letter "G"), though that is not necessarily something bad. Gary Marshall manages to show an elegant sense for showing teenage mentality on film, though the discrapancies are there (why would Mia's classmates make fun of her after finding out she is a royalty? Wouldn't it make far more sense for them trying to appeal to her?) and the storyline is rather bland and vague, especially towards the increasingly stale finale and predictable messages about real and fake friends. Still, overall this is a fun and accessible 'coming-of-age' movie, mostly thanks to the already mentioned performance by Hathaway (even physical jokes manage to work thanks to her, like the one where she amusingly tries to cross her legs just to fall off the chair) who gives it playfulness, though other actors are also good, from Andrews, through Elizondo up to Matarazzo.


Knocked Up

Knocked Up; comedy, USA, 2007; D: Judd Apatow, S: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Harold Ramis

Los Angeles. In order to celebrate her promotion, reporter Alison gets drunk and has an untypical one-night stand with Ben, an unemployed, marijuana smoking slob. Unfortunately, Alison learns that she became pregnant. Even though she never wanted to see him again, Alison meets with Ben and they decide to try to become a couple. However, Alison notices that marriage is not that easy, even with her sister Debbie who is married to Pete. Alison breaks up with Ben after an argument, but they make up after she gives birth.

If you ever wondered how it would look like if Reitman would get drunk and then stupify, bastardize and nullify all the efforts of "Juno", a sophisticated comedy, then check out "Knocked Up", a vulgar version of the theme of a young couple that copes with an unwanted pregnancy. Judd Apatow again appeals towards the cheaper tastes too often, from jokes about humping up to various sexist jokes, throwing numerous attempts at gags of which only about 10 % manage to get a hold of the viewers. Strangely, thought, the movie is overall well meant, especially towards the dramatic ending, yet overlong, dreadfully banal and lax, in which the main couple, Ben and Alison, is bland and one-dimensional, overshadowed by the charming couple in the background, Alison and Pete, who practically steal the show - you can't quite put your finger on it, but Leslie Mann's and Paul Rudd's charisma managed to get unleashed much more easily in this edition. Simply too much of the film feels like a set of throw away jokes (especially the useless Las Vegas subplot), i.e. as if anyone could have thought of it without half of effort. Here and there a few good jokes do manage to show up, though: the club doorman sequence shows that Appatow can make a richer example of humor if he puts some effort into it; a few lines are quietly hilarious ("Are you now angry at your baby? You know, because it steals all the food you eat.") whereas a small gem is the little role played by ex-Egon Spengler, the legendary Harold Ramis as Ben's dad ("You are the best thing that ever happened to me." - "Me? Wow, now I feel sorry for you").