Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gosford Park


Gosford Park; Drama, UK/ USA/ Germany/ Italy, 2001; D: Robert Altman, S: Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Camilla Rutherford, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Ryan Phillippe, Clive Owen, Richard E. Grant, Emily Watson

England, 1930's. Sir William McCordle and his wife Sylvia arrange a hunting party in their mansion. Among numerous guests are also William's sister Constance, who is dependent of his money, and Sylvia's sister Louise. There's also Mr. Novelle and movie producer Weissman, womanizing Denton and butlers and maids. One evening William gets poisned and subsuqently stabbed with a knife. Inspector Thompson suspects everyone, but fails to find the perpetrator. William was stabbed by butler Robert because he discovered that he was his father who left him in an orphanage. He was also poisned by Jane, Robert's mother.

"Gosford Park" marked the third comeback of Robert Altman, once again brining back his talent, this time mixing motives from Agatha Christie's 'who-dun-it' crime novels and Renoir's "Rules of the Game", especially obvious from the sequence of hunting in nature. As a whole, it's a very good film, slightly overhyped, without energy or enthusiasm, but still a one that everyone involved can be proud off - Altman finally won a Golden Globe as best director, but surprisingly once again lost the Oscar, this time to - believe it or not - Ron Howard! The best situations are humorous: producer Weissman is played by Bob Balaban, the real producer of "Gosford Park"; everyone is trying to suck-up to the rich Sylvia which causes one guest to comment with: "Even Sylvia's fart is more interesting than a heart attack of some unknown mother"; one butler gets surprised he won't have to take care for the clothes of Mr. Novelle which causes one colleague to add: "Now you're surely dissappointed you won't see him in his underpants". The finale cleverly completes the crime tangle and is elegantly directed, even though the dispersion of the characters is noticeable.

Grade:+++

Cookie's Fortune


Cookie's Fortune; Tragicomedy, USA, 1999; D: Robert Altman, S: Liv Tyler, Charles S. Dutton, Ned Beatty, Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Chris O'Donnell, Patricia Neal

The inhabitants of the small city Holly Springs live peacefully and are preparing themselves for the theater play of Salome. But during Easter the beloved old Cookie suddenly becomes sad from thinking about her dead husband and thus commits suicide with a gun. When her corpse is found by her niece Camille and Cora they react immidetaly - they break the window, hide the gun and report the accident as a murder as not to embarras their honor. But the guilt falls on Cookie's best friend Willis which angers Emma, Cora's daughter. Still, Camilla's blood gets found on the floor and thus she lands in prison, while it is discovered that Willis is actually a family member of Cookie and thus inherits a fortune.

"Cookie's Fortune" is another routine film from understated, objective and neutral master Robert Altman, which appear in between his phases of inspiration, but it has a sneaky, deeply satirical story about people who disguise an accident as a crime in order to promote their agenda, in this case when an old lady, Cookie, commits suicide and her egocentric niece Camilla decides to mask it as murder in order to "avoid the embarassment", which has dreadful consequences when innocent people have to pay for something they never did. The intruiging premise is here handled rather arbitarly, and Altman directed it rather indifirently and drowsy, hence it is surprising why some critics praised it so much who seem to see extraodrinary in the ordinary. The only great scene is the one with the tame, innocent prisoner in the "open prison" while the rest is watered down and mild, whereas some charachters are very thin and sparse.

Grade:++

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Prêt-à-Porter


Prêt-à-Porter; Satire, USA, 1994; D: Robert Altman, S: Marcello Mastroianni, Kim Basinger, Julia Roberts, Sophia Loren, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Stephen Rea, Anouk Aimée, Rupert Everett, Rupert Everett, Rossy de Palma, Lili Taylor, Forest Whitaker, Richard E. Grant, Tim Robbins, Lauren Bacall, Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, Danny Aiello, Teri Garr, Cher, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer

Paris. Everyone is expecting the new fashion creations and among them is the news reporter Kitty Potter who is conducting an interview with the designer Olivier. But Olivier gets visited by Sergio from Moscow and thus suffocates from a sandwich. In fear they won't accuse him, Sergio runs to the widow Isabella, with whom he had a relationship with 40 years ago. But he falls asleep during her striptease so she leaves him... Two Americans meet in a hotel room - Joe and Anne - who start a relationship...The famous fashion photographer takes photos of women who take their clothes off in his bed, so they sue him...In the end, the models present the new fashion - to be nude.

In the opening shot we find Marcello Mastroianni in Moscow, and thus in accordance to that the opening credits stating "Miramax presents: a Robert Altman film" are spelled in Cyrillic alphabet, but then the plot continues in Paris and the rest of the credits are spelled with normal Latin alphabet, while everything in the background is spinning. That neat stylish trick is probably the best ingredient in Robert Altman's worn out, listless "Pret-a-Porter", one of his weaker films because the story is a complete mess. It goes something like this: Julia Robert's character suddenly shows up and tells how she forgot her luggage in the US; the people inform Sophia Loren's character that her husband is dead and she is happy; someone says: "Sydney Poitier will play a Black man in the new film..." Altman has the right to use his same old formula of numerous parallel stories as long as he wants to, but after a certain number of films one gets the idea and the thing becomes tiresome and calculated. A whole bunch of unconnected episodes starts to irritate quickly because it has too many throw away characters, but despite the great Sophia Loren and Anouk Aimee, none of them has enough room for himself or herself. Altman once again describes the vanity of high society, this time set in the fashion industry, but without enough critique or satire, thus it wasn't clear what he was trying to say. Still, it was nominated for a Golden Globe as best motion picture - musical or comedy and supporting actress Sophia Loren.

Grade:+

Short Cuts


Short Cuts; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Robert Altman, S: Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, Frances McDormand, Andie MacDowell, Fred Ward, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Matthew Modine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Waits, Peter Gallagher, Huey Lewis, Jane Alden

Numerous stories around the Los Angeles area: the 8-year old boy Casey is preparing himself for a birthday party. But on his way to the school, he is accidentally hit by a car driven by the waitress Doreen. He returns home where his parents, Annie and Howard, take him to a hospital where he dies...Doreen doesn't have a clue about that and has her own problems, with Earl, who leaves her but then returns back...Police officer Gene cheats on his wife with whom he has three children with. His dog is annoying him, so he leaves him on the middle of the road, but changes his mind and returns him home...A young mother excites men with phone sex in order to feed her poor family...Casey's doctor discovers his wife cheated on him, but decides to continue their relationship...The daughter of a singer commits suicide...an earthquake hits the town.

"Short Cuts" is an wildly ambitious film, a critically acclaimed and quality made anthology drama consisting of numerous episodes which are slightly colloid, but it became very influential and inspired numerous similar films, like "Magnolia" and "21 Grams". For the application of the film, the old master Robert Altman gathered a whole bunch of stars, all of which did a very good job, and some episodes are excellent, but some are pointless and seem as if they fell off some soap opera. Probably the most famous scene is the one where Peter Gallagher's character takes a chainsaw and goes on to slice the house of his wife in half, and some and daring like the one where a young mother excites men on phone sex while at the same time changing the diapers of her baby or when some men are fishing in a lake with a corpse in it. Julianne Moore even has a gutsy scene where she argues with her husband while totally naked down bellow. Especially good and surreal is the earthquake at the end that almost seems as if it's a supernatural message implying how all those people are preoccupied with their trivial problems while the real world is outside and somehow eludes them. All in all, it's a good film, but the dreadfully overlong 3 hours of running time make it seem overstretched, anecdotal, ephemera and not as powerful as the authors originally wanted it to be.

Grade:++

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Bride Wore Black


La Mariée était en noir; Thriller, France/ Italy, 1968, D: François Truffaut, S: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Bouquet, Jean-Claude Brialy, Charles Denner, Claude Rich, Michael Lonsdale, Daniel Boulanger

Julie Kohler leaves her mother's home and takes a long trip. She enters a hotel and asks for Mr. Bliss. After meeting him at a party, she kills him by pushing him down from the tall balcony. She meets a second man in an opera, Corey, and poisons him. She then enters the house of the politician Coral and shuts him in a trap door, where he suffocates. She then tells her motivations: a year ago, all these men, and Fergus and Rene, accidentally killed her husband on the day of their wedding when they were playing with a gun, and now she swore revenge. She finds the painter Fergus and kills him, admits everything to the police and then lands in jail, where she tracks down the last man and kills him too.

Francois Truffaut tried to imitate his big idol Hitchcock and thus directed the, for him untypical, flamboyant thriller drama "The Bride Wore Black", later admitting he wasn't satisfied with the result, together with the French critics. But looking at it today, it's an interesting result since Truffaut showed that he can make a completely un-Truffaut like film that can be enjoyed on many levels, especially since some directors later imitated him when directing their own revenge stories about a bride who goes on a killing spree to revenge her dead husband, like Tarantino and Fujita. Of course, despite all the efforts, the movie isn't that suspenseful and seems amusingly "naughty" at best - the great threatening music by Bernard Herrmann, a collaborator on many Hitchcock's films, simply somehow can't get through to the French mentality of the '60s, and thus the "threatening" sequence at the start where the bride in black leaves her mother's home and enters a train, seems rather charmingly corny than actually terrifying. Still, the ways she eliminates her 5 opponents are intriguing and gritty, like when she uses a hypodermic needle to penetrate through a bottle cork and input poison into the drink, and Jeanne Moreau is very good in her tragic role. The film is definitely overlong, but still seems more sincere about movie making than some modern day pseudo films. It was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film.

Grade:+++

Banana Joe


Banana Joe; Comedy, Italy/ Germany, 1981; D: Steno, S: Bud Spencer, Mario Scarpetta, Gianfranco Barra, Marina Langner, Enzo Garinei, Gunther Philipp, Giorgio Bracardi

Friendly Banana Joe is a backward banana worker living in some village somewhere in Latin America. He showers with his clothes on, can't read and wonders how many bananas it takes to finance a school. His only income is transporting bananas to the town Puertogrande with his boat, but one day the mobster Torquillo decides to exclude him from the market by putting the police on his neck who demand for his trade permit. In order to get it, Joe goes to the city, becomes a bouncer in a club where he falls in love with the singer Dorianne. Since the only way to get his birth certificate is to serve the military, Joe complies, but looses his temper and gets arrested. In the end, he beats up Torquillo's men in his village.

"Banana Joe" is, just like most films from the legendary Italian comedian Bud Spencer, just a neat, sympathetic and harmless childish fun that didn't leave any impression in the history of cinema. Spencer, who also took the role of the screenwriter, plays the charmingly backward title hero with neat charisma that makes the episodic story seem more accessible and not as thin and silly as it is, while the music and the exotic shooting locations also have their virtues. The more ambitious goals set by the authors, namely the one of a satirical critique of numerous 'banana republics' and their bureaucracy, like in the scenes where Joe can't get his birth certificate in the state run center and must serve the military if he wants it, didn't achieve much, but at least they tried to make something out of them. The best gags are actually ones that are borderline cartoonish, like when the mobster Torquillo sends his 4 bodyguards to beat up Joe and numerous 'fist fighting' sounds can be heard behind the cabin, but when the bodyguards return they just fall one by one on the floor and Joe nonchalantly emerges as the winner, and the caricature tone completes it.

Grade:+

Monday, January 28, 2008

Nashville


Nashville; Drama, USA, 1975; D: Robert Altman, S: Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, David Arkin, Shelley Duvall, Barbara Baxley, Karen Black, Geraldine Chaplin, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Harris, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie

Nashville during the Country festival. Haven Hamilton is a famous Country singer who is recording his new song in a studio and prepares himself for the festival. Barbara Jean is also a singer, but unstable, just recovering after a treatment, and thus when she starts performing on stage, she collapses and lands in a hospital. Tom is a musician who wants to seperate from colleagues Bill and Mary. Sueleen Gay sings terribly and thus can't become a star. Linnea, mother of two deaf boys, gets phone calls from Tom who wants to meet her. During the festival, Kenny shoots at Hamilton and Barbara Jean.

"Politics has to be everyone's issue. When an American citizen pays his car more than Columbus did his voyage to America, then that's politics!" Says one intrusive politician somewhere near the start of the episodic drama "Nashville" who is just one of 24 charachters displayed in the story. Although ecclectic, "Nashville" is an surprisingly strong and succesful example of mosaic drama in which multiple episodes where connected into a harmonical composition that subtly mocks and ridicules Country singers. A certain minus oscilates from occasionally too long musical sequences and the cold approach, typical for Altman's objective and distanced way of film making, but he has some sharp observations wrapped up in elegant style: singer Sueleen Gay stuffs her bra with a bunch of handkerchiefs before her performance; the mentally sick Barbara Jean shows up on stage but instead of singing starts randomly talking about her farm. The film, director, screenplay and brilliant actress Lily Tomlin were all nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe, while the music won the awards. Also, Altman won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best director. "Nashville" is an excellent film, but it still somehow lacks something to become a pure and all comprehensive classic, like Fellini's "The Road" or Kalatozishvili's "The Cranes Are Flying".

Grade:+++

McCabe & Mrs. Miller


McCabe & Mrs. Miller; western drama, USA, 1971; D: Robert Altman, S: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Corey Fischer, Bert Remsen, Shelley Duvall, Keith Carradine
Northern US, early 20th Century. The mysterious John McCabe arrives in a small town and wins some money in a poker game in a nearby saloon. With it, he buys three ugly prostitutes and hires workers to build him a brothel. Since the business needs some improvement, John summons the experienced prostitute Constance Miller who helps him out and becomes his business partner. But one day two capitalists offer John over 6.000 $ for his land property, but since he refuses they hire three assassins. In self-defence, John kills them, but eventually dies himself from the wounds they gave to him and fall in the snow.

Unusual cult western grotesque "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" has a whole bunch of irregularity - the first half of the story is composed completely arbitrarily, the characters are too enigmatic and vague, many episodic events fall into the category of larpurlartism - but saying it isn't excellent would be a complete lie. Is it better and more coherent than Altman's other films like "Short Cuts" and "Nashville"? Indeed, it is, mostly due to surprising, though "invisible" emotions and brave realism that puts the old western cliches upside down - even Ford's "The Searchers" had bitter moments, but none ever similar to "McCabe" where the heroine, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, nominated for an Oscar) asks McCabe if he ever thought how he is going to protect his prostitutes from venereal disease or some dark scenes like the one where some prostitute wounds a man in a tent with a knife. The final, 20-minute long duel between McCabe and three assassins in a landscape cowered entirely with snow, shot almost entirely in complete silence, is probably the best thing Altman ever did: a special poetry was achieved through the exchange of the scenes between the wounded McCabe and Mrs. Miller who waits for him in her warm bed. Rarely was even Altman that unpretentiously, artistically aligned.

Grade:+++

Sunday, January 27, 2008

M.A.S.H.


M.A.S.H.; war/ comedy, USA, 1970; D: Robert Altman, S: Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Elliott Gould, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort

Korean war. MASH is an acronym for "mobile army surgical hospital". Doctors Hawkeye and Duke enter one military camp barely 3 miles away from the battle front with the assignment to treat the wounded, but they rather prefer having fun. Hawkeye steals a jeep right at the start and meets the religious fanatic Major Frank, whom he puts a microphone under his bed while he has intercourse with a female Major, Margaret. Hawkeye also quickly befriends Doctor Trapper John in whom he finds a soul mate, even going with him on a special mission in Tokyo to operate an important wounded man. They even organize a football game. Hawkeye and Duke get dismissed and return home.

Antiwar grotesque "MASH" is a real antipod of its genre, but it became the most commercial film in Robert Altman's career, gained cult status and inspired a popular TV show with the same title. The story is episodic, shaky, unfocused and not outstandingly funny, but excellent actors, among them Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, satirical mockery and a small addition of meta-reference at the end where an announcer is speaking through the loud speaker about the cast and crew ("You've been watching "MASH", a film starring Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt...") give it a high reputation. The whole style and set of gags are entirely relaxed and surprisingly wacky for an ambitions movie like this: when Hawkeye and Duke meet the religious fanatic, Major Frank, praying, they jokingly ask him how long he "has been suffering from these symptoms". The movie does not hesitate to make fun of him even later on - when Frank says to Major Margaret that "God brought them together", she unzips her shirt and says: "Your will be done", upon which he embraces her. It's not an accident the film influenced a bunch of mainstream comedies about mischievous heroes fighting the establishment like "Police Academy". There are a lot of deeply serious elements throughout the film, but Altman always keeps up the cheerful tone of his characters trying to create escapism in order to run away from the bitter war reality: by fishing, playing golf, even during the operation when a nurse scratches a doctor who complained his nose was itching. To make everything even more daring, Altman had almost every reference to the Korean war erased, deliberately trying to confuse it with the Vietnam war which was going on back in those days. "MASH" won an Oscar for best screenplay, the Golden Palm in Cannes, was nominated for 5 BAFTAs and won a Golden Globe as best motion picture - Musical/Comedy.

Grade:+++

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days


4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile; Drama, Romania, 2007; D: Cristian Mungiu, S: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean, Ion Sapdaru, Teodor Corban, Tania Popa

Romania, 1980's. Student girl Otilia wants to help her friend, the 22 year old Gabita, get an abortion during the Ceauşescu regime, when it was forbidden. But a lot of complications occur: Gabita failed to make a reservation at the hotel so Otilia has to spontaneously find a new one, the self practiced doctor Bebe is angered because Gabita didn't show up in person and on top of all, they don't have enough money so Otilia decides to sleep with him to pay of the debt. Gabita stays in the room with the instrument inside her. After the abortion is done, Otilia throws the fetus away in a trash can.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes and nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign language film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2, Days" is an excellent example of grim 'slice-of-life' stories that feature realism: it's nothing extraordinary, every trick in it has already been tried out in cinema and thus it doesn't contribute nothing new to the genre, but it's so unbelievably gripping that it holds the viewer's attention up until the end. It's so simple, and yet so good at the same time. By insisting on long takes and even adding a slight criticism of the Ceausescu regime, the director Cristian Mungiu crafted an intriguing drama about abortion, resisting the temptation to put himself on either one's side, and also giving a neat little commentary about human incompetence that just turns a difficult situation into something even worse, embodied in the slightly dumb Gabita who makes too many mistakes. The story is filled with small details (in one scene, Otilia is caught off guard when a conductor asks for the passengers' ticket in the bus. She moves more and more forward in the bus, until some guy takes pity on her and quickly gives her his ticket, thus saving her) and surprising plot twists for such a one-note concept (Otilia voluntarily decides to sleep with the abortion specialist in order to pay for Gabita's abortion; Otilia at the birthday of her boyfriend's mother, all nervously waiting for Gabita's phone call) and 'dilemma' situations that will leave very few cold.

Grade:+++

Saturday, January 26, 2008

L.A. Story


L.A. Story; Romantic comedy, USA, 1991; D: Mick Jackson, S: Steve Matin, Victoria Tennant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Richard E. Grant, Marilu Henner, Susan Forristal, Kevin Pollak, Patrick Stewart, Frances Fisher, Rick Moranis, Woody Harrelson, Chevy Chase, Iman

Los Angeles. Harris Telemacher is middle aged weatherman who is slowly getting fed up with his superficial and boring life, embodied in the relationship with Trudi, even though they both don't love each other. One day he meets Sara, a journalist from London, and falls in love with her. At the same time, a freeway sign gives him advice in his life. He starts a lousy relationship with the young SanDaE and looses his job, while Sara has a small fling with her ex husband Roland. Just as she is about to leave the town, a strong storm shuts down the airport and leads her back to Harris.

Of all the movies I gave "only" a 'good' grade, "L. A. Story" was among the ones that gave me the biggest feeling of bad conscience because I felt that I underrated it. That's mostly due to two absolutely fantastic scenes featuring Enya songs "On Your Shore", "Exile" and "Epona" that give you the goosebumps. But after re-watching and revaluing "L. A. Story" again, I had to again conclude that the whole story seemed rather bothersome and that I was only eager to see those two scenes again. Steve Martin gave probably one of his 2-3 best performances in his career as the neurotic weatherman Harris, but his screenplay is deeply unorganized and uneven, featuring too many goofy low-brow humor gags that wreck the romantic mood built around them. Truly, what was the purpose of, let's say, Harris and Sara visiting a museum where they spot a jar containing "Beethoven's balls", except to indulge the low tastes of wider audience? Such kind of silly additions and Sarah Jessica Parker's rather misguided role of the hip SanDaE lower the film's quality, but thanks to the esoteric touch this sympathetic comedy seems actually better than it is. That was achieved through the already mentioned Enya's songs which are the absolute highlight: in one scene, Harris and Sara enter a building and suddenly get transformed into kids again, surrounded by magical doves and two lion statues that come to life. In the other, the forces of nature prevent Sara's plain from taking off and she returns back to Harris in the rain. Both of them cause a short circuit in the mind because they seem as if a masterwork accidentally got lost in a mainstream comedy - they are that beautiful.

Grade:++

The Tin Drum


Die Blechtrommel; Drama/ Grotesque, Germany/ France/ Poland, 1979; D: Volker Schlöndorff, S: David Bennent, Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf, Katharina Thalbach, Daniel Olbrychski, Tina Engel, Berta Drews

The little Oskar tells how his grandmother saved his grandfather by hiding him under her skirt. He was born in Danzig in the 1920's. Oskar hates all adults and throws himself down the stairs at the age of 3, gaining an injury that stops his growth. He gets a tin drum from which he doesn't separate anymore and meets a dwarf entertainer in the circus. When he turns 14, his mother commits suicide and leaves him with the lovers Jan and Alfred. In '39 the Nazis kill Jan because he is a Pole while Oskar has intercourse with a girl. He joins the Nazis but after the war ends, Alfred gets killed. Oskar throws away the drum and leaves in a train.

After the premiere of the anti-war drama "The Tin Drum" in 1979, an adaptation of the novel with the same name by Günter Grass, a large part of the audience was left in a shock: even though the film won an Oscar as best foreign language film and the Golden Palm in Cannes, it's a disturbingly black grotesque with heavy symbolism that has a lot of virtues, but also a lot of flaws. The main protagonist Oskar is shown at birth as an embryo in the womb of his mother, and since he stopped growing as a kid he looks like an 10-year old even at the age of 20, thus, among many radical things the director Volker Schlöndorff did to actually make this film possible, was to cast David Bennent who also had problems with growth. That also caused one very controversial sequence in which Oskar, as a 16-year old, has intercourse with a much taller girl, but since he looks like he is only 10 the whole thing is awkward and seems like pedophilia. As a character, Oskar is very confusing - without reservation or critique does he join the Nazi party, while his tin drum he always carries with him serves as some sort of a symbol for his immature views. The whole film is made on the verge of madness, without pathos or emotions, but what's the point of such disgusting scenes like the one where one of the protagonists pulls out a head of a cow from the sea in which numerous eels were caught? The point probably was to portray the dark period of German history as a nightmare, but measure must always be exercised. If at least there was more of such clear poetry like in the scene where Oskar uses his high pitch voice to make a crack of the glass cup in the shape of a heart.

Grade:++

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Daria


Daria; animated comedy / drama series, USA, 1997; D: Karen Disher, Guy Moore, Tony Kluck, Eric Fogel, Patrick Smith, Sue Perrotto, S: Tracy Grandstaff, Wendy Hoopes, Julian Rebolledo, Alvaro J. Gonzalez, Janie Mertz, Marc Thompson, Russell Hankin, Sarah Drew

"You're too cynical." - "Really?" - "I meant that sarcastically." Lawndale. She is intelligent, sharp-witted, secluded, honest, non-conforming, stiff, grotesque and devastating: Daria (16) is an "anti-teenager", how Val, a materialistically oriented editor of a magazine, would call her, because everything she says and does is deprived of the influence of the perception of youth. Daria lives in a normal family - her mom Helen is an ambitious lawyer, her dad Jake is employed in a consulting business while her sister Quinn is the most popular girl in school. Daria on the other hand isn't popular at all, the kids barely speak with her while she is on "war conditions" with her teachers. Still, she found one friend, Jane. With time she even gets a boyfriend, Tom.

Too good to be true? There's in the first 5 minutes of acquaintance with the title heroine some kind of a special feeling that wakes up all by itself and gives the will to watch further episodes of this show even when one gets use to it. Daria, an unpopular teenage girl with glasses who hates her teenagehood, is one of the best female characters that ever graced the screen, full of extraordinary personality quirks and spirit: she is intelligent and funny, but a complete outsider since she does not really like any of the company that surrounds her, in probably one of the most unusual shows, a one that breaks the cliche that being a teenager is "the best time of your life". It perfectly identified the archetypes of high school "hierarchy". "Daria" is one of those 1 % of shining achievements that reach the highest frequency and level of sophistication through the most casual, relaxed way, the simple 'slice-of-life' manner. Excellent are all the layers of the individual heroine who tries to live in the world she criticizes, while except for complicated protagonists, the subversive screenplay by Glenn Eichler also stands out and even gives the story a melancholic touch. In any case, an unusually anti-populist product for MTV program: Daria is, despite her cynicism, always serious, but when she smiles like Mona Lisa, it's like a miracle.

The story is full of social satire and mockery of the superficial side of the world: in episode "Marts of darkness" a "Sick Sad World" commentator announces the next theme: "Jesus Christ appearing in a candy bar". In "This years model" Jane makes a caricature of the two model "hunters" by portraying them as vultures. "The Road Worrior" is an amazing display of road movie and nostalgia - in it, Daria decides to go along with the "adventure" and go with Jesse, Jane and her brother Trent in a van to drive to a concert in some province. That episode brought all the potentials to the maximum: for the first time, the cold and rational Daria "softened" up in a 'romantic' interaction with the "rebellious" Trent, sealed away in a van. She even put make up for the trip, but no use: she gets stung by a bee, breaks her glasses, gets a stain from a sandwich on her pants and - worse of all - has to urinate in the bushes near the road! The inspired script by Anne D. Bernstein created a melancholic feeling that gave the experience of youth to those who missed it. That is because when a story has inspiration, even its "lesser" scenes are superior.

In "Too Cute" there's a brilliant scene where the computer of Dr. Shar, a beauty surgeon, simulates various versions of Quinn's and Daria's faces, in which Quinn ends up as Dr. Shar and Daria as Quinn! Surprisingly cute "Ill" has one of the greatest melancholic endings of all times; "Speedtrapped" is overrated but contains a fantastic fake "commercial bumper" in the scene where Daria and Quinn are in the car; whereas it is cool to point out how "guest writer" Dan Webber came, wrote the best "Daria" episode, "I Loathe a Parade", and then just simply disappeared. "Parade" offers flawless writing: numerous cameo appearances of old characters from previous episodes, among them even Ted who takes a photo of Daria and Tom for his love article; the scene of the sad heroine staying all alone on the street covered with paint. Also, the series features some of the best soundtrack collections of all time (Juliana Hatfield's "Live on Tomorrow"; Letters to Cleo's "I See"; The Posies "Will You Ever Ease Your Mind"; Pet Shop Boys' "Too Many People"...) and a special bonus are the closing credits with a split screen showing "alter egos" of the characters on the left side of the screen that settle the score straight, featuring a staggering level of outburst of creativity rarely seen anywhere (Brittany as Kevin's executioner, Sandi as a falling skydiver without a parachute, Mrs. Li as a prostitute, the three J's as three monkey fools, Jane as Emma Peel or Vishnu...) whereas even Daria's shaky romance with Tom in the final two seasons has a point, which is why this small masterpiece of animated shows can be shown and analysed from any perspective.

Grade:++++

Big Business


Big Business; Comedy, USA, 1988; D: Jim Abrahams, S: Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Fred Ward, Edward Herrmann, Michele Placido, Daniel Gerroll, Seth Green

The rich Shelton family got lost in a village and gave birth to twin daughters who accidentally get mixed up with the poor Ratliffs. In 1988, in New York, the spoiled Sadie Shelton lives with her not so similar "twin" sister Rosie, while back in the poor village, the equally spoiled Rosie Ratliff lives with her "twin" sister Sadie, who actually belongs to the Sheltons. Complications occur when the poor Rosie and Sadie come to New York to save their business in the village from getting closed down by the rich Rosie and Sadie. Still, they meet and become friends, deciding to save the village.

The encounter of the two main heroines, the rich "fake" sisters, with their own poor twin sisters and their own alternative version of their lives is an interesting, double layered, but here only thinly exploited idea. Already the exposition of "Big Business" is unfunny, obviously forced, and that's already the first flaw of the film: the rich family comes to a village, gives birth to twins, and accidentally switches one of them with a poor child. It's neat, but nothing more, thus the first good gags ignites only some 11 minutes into the film, while the concept of comedy of misunderstanding of the two grown up twins can be considered the funniest when they finally meet, but sadly that happens only some 10 minutes before the end, leaving a lots of missed opportunities open. Sadly, not even Jim Abrahams, the director of the hilarious comedy "Airplane!", didn't manage to infuse the film with enough absurdity, yet somebody still managed to shine in the story: the excellent Lily Tomlin, who in her movements and stature has some special charm that is expected to amaze. All in all, the film can be summed with: two for the price of half.

Grade:+

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Thriller-drama, USA, 1962; D: Robert Aldrich, S: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Wesley Addy, Julie Allred, Anne Barton, Marjorie Bennett

When she was a little girl, Jane Hudson was known as Baby Jane and was a famous child star, while her sister Blanche was unknown. Some 20 years later, the tables have turned and Blanche is a famous movie star, while Jane is despised by movie producers for her ugly look. In an accident, Blanche was left crippled from the waste down, and the official version was that Jane tried to kill her with her car. In the present, Blanche is in a wheelchair while Jane takes care for her in a giant mansion. But Jane is becoming increasingly aggressive towards her, locking her up, torturing and isolating her. She even kills their maid. When Edwin, a music composer hired by Jane, discovers Blanche tied up in bed, he contacts the police. Jane runs away with Blanche to a beach. There Blanche tells her the secret: she was the one who tried to kill her with a car, but missed and injured her back from a crash with the fence, while Jane was too drunk to remember anything.

Excellent psychological horror drama is an extremely intense experience since it reaches almost Hitchcock's caliber by leaving the viewers with a feeling as if they are walking on needles, and it doesn't come as a surprise for a film directed by Robert Aldrich, a cynical and deeply pessimistic author who always shows the dark side of human nature, a one that wasn't explored back in those days. Back in 1962 a large part of the audience felt the story is simply too much for them to handle, but even today "Baby Jane" seems like one of the most shocking films of all time because it shows that some of the most horrifying evils can be hidden behind an innocent looking person who acts all nice on the outside, while committing evil on the inside. Bette Davis is cast perfectly as the disgusting, monstrous Baby Jane, mirroring the cynical take on the consequence of many child celebrities, while Joan Crawford is also fantastic as the victim, her sister Blanche bound to a wheelchair. Many of the aggressions done towards Blanche from Jane are very subtle, like when she locks her in her room or fries her pet bird to serve it for lunch, and the maniacal feeling of helplessness is, despite some campy elements and overstretched running time, virtually impeccable. To make things even more multi layered, the plot twist at the end gives the story a whole new perspective and asks just who is the victim, and who the aggressor.

Grade:+++

Planes, Trains & Automobiles


Planes, Trains & Automobiles; comedy, USA, 1987; D: John Hughes, S: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Dylan Baker, Carol Bruce, Kevin Bacon, Olivia Burnette

Happily married family man Neal Page is looking forward seeing his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. He boards a plane in New York where he meets the overweight Del, but due to a blizzard their flight is diverted to Kansas. Since they are going into the same direction, they team up: they travel in a bus, then a train, in the end hiring a car to continue their journey, but they are constantly followed by bad luck. Even though Neal blames Del for a lot of troubles they get into, they eventually become friends. When they finally arrive in Chicago, Neal finally figures Del doesn't have a family since his wife passed away some time ago. Thus, he invites him to his home for the holidays.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a simple mainstream road movie, but a one that easily surpasses a whole mass of overhyped comedies made today both with its humor and charm, that leans heavily on the chemistry between the brilliant comedian John Candy and Steve Martin. Even though it is a one-note story that seems to be inspired by the old slapstick Laurel & Hardy comedies about misadventures, director John Hughes crafts a neat achievement out of it and must be congratulated for making a super amusing, fun and vibrant picture book, even adding a little unintentional nostalgic 80s flair. Disregarding a couple of crude or cheap atempts at humor, this is a gentle, pleasant and sweet family film, that compensates the 'thinness' of virtuosity through an array of great gags and, at the end, even some wise messages about friendship without turning preachy. It is definitely a holiday film with at least one joke that is spectacularly hilarious: the throrough sequence where Del is driving the car at night on the wrong side of the highway, while Neal is asleep, and which culminates with a grand encounter with two trucks and a quick insert of a skeleton.

Grade:++

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Full Monty


The Full Monty; Tragicomedy, UK, 1997; D: Peter Cattaneo, S: Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, Tom Wilkinson, Steve Huison, William Snape, Paul Barber, Hugo Speer

Sheffield, UK. The high unemployment rate hasn't spared Gaz and Dave who lost their job in the steel industry. That's a big problem for Gaz since his ex-wife wants to take his son away from him. The two of them accidentally spot how male strippers, the Chippendales, attract a mass of women who even pay 10 Pounds for an entrance, so they decide to organize something like that themselves. With friend Gerald, who will choreograph their dance, they hire three more candidates, all not especially attractive, and decide to strip "to the end". At their first show they get arrested by the police, but their second performance becomes a big hit.

Optimistic and bittersweet social tragicomedy "The Full Monty" creatively mixed the themes of unemployment and stripping, winning 3 BAFTA awards, including best film. Actually, at moments it seems as if it's a reaction to all those movies and commercials where female nudity is used to attract the audience, since it turns the concept upside down and shows male nudity to attract the audience for a change, which it did with smashing success. Of course, the director Peter Cattaneo decided not to show too much but just to announce the 'highlight' all the time, causing the protagonist only to strip twice during the whole film, but as a whole the story is fun and vibrant, showing how one can escape from a bleak reality. Some important questions were handled rather bluntly, like when Dave and Gerald ask themselves if their reputation will crash in town after the striptease night, but the movie doesn't offer any easy answers and some details were rather bizarre (the short homoerotic moment between Guy and Lomper that is never elaborated; a woman trying to urinate standing up to make her friend laugh). Still, it's a fresh and energetic little film with a few very good gags (Gaz comes to a queue of women waiting to enter the Chippendales and says: "Waiting for me?").

Grade:++

Men in Black


Men in Black; Science-Fiction comedy, USA, 1997; D: Barry Sonnenfeld, S: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub, Siobhan Fallon

The aliens are among us: they live peacefully as immigrants and try to 'blend in', but when they go wild or loose control somebody has to stop them and keep their existence a secret. And that's the job for Men in Black, who keep people safe from those kind of monsters, among them agents K and the new recruit J. When a giant bug alien steals a small Galaxy hidden in an ornament, an other alien race threatens to destroy Earth. Luckily, K and J stop him and save the day. K has his memory erased so he can retire.

"Men in Black" obviously copied a lot from both "Ghostbusters" and "The Blues Bros.", but didn't manage to leave as strong as an impression in the 1990's as much those hits did back in the 1980's. That satire of both the UFO conspiracy theory and immigrants trying to blend in failed to deliver something extraordinary, but Barry Sonnenfeld's solid direction and unusual screenplay contain enough style and fun to entertain beyond the superficial level. It's a story of accessible, sometimes even excellent gags, where the main emphasis was set on the fantastic design of the aliens that sometimes even went on to look too gruesome for comfort, but one also has to admit that the actors are great, especially the classy Tommy Lee Jones who is at the same time serious and hilarious. The best gag is definitely a quick scene that shows how even Lucas and Spielberg are aliens hiding among us.

Grade:++

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pola X


Pola X; Drama, France/ Switzerland/ Germany/ Japan, 1999; D: Leos Carax, S: Guillaume Depardieu, Yekaterina Golubeva, Delphine Chuillot, Catherine Deneuve, Laurent Lucas, Patachou

Pierre is a young lad who often drives with his motorcycle through town and lives in a giant, luxurious mansion with his mother and girlfriend Lucie. One day he discovers a girl spying on him and confronts her: she tells him her name is Isabelle and that she is his sister who lived in a different country abandoned by her father. Angered, Pierre leaves his whole life behind just to be with the poor Isabelle: they find a shabby apartment in Paris and he gets obsessed with writing a novel about the truth of life. The two of them even have intercourse, and Lucie joins them. Crushed by poverty and the rejection of his novel, Pierre kills his cousin, while Isabelle jumps in front of a car.

"Pola X" may be a unique experience that can only be understood through abstract thinking and not through conventions, but sometimes even conventions have their reason. It's not a coincidence that the audience was in turmoil after the film was screened at the Cannes film festival where it was nominated for the Golden Palm, since director Leos Carax deliberately tried to merge story and expression into one, both revolving around madness and wild desperation, not making it easy for a viewer to digest it: some have dismissed it as pure junk while some have embraced it as a great work. The story is really daring and has poetry, yet at the same time it also shows art movies in their worst edition due to banality, hermetic narration, heavy pretentiousness and increasingly pessimistic tone where some situations seem fake and too unreal: just take the scene where a taxi driver suddenly starts insulting Pierre's sister Isabelle for no reason at all, which results in a huge clash between them and commotion which even involves police, but the whole situation is written rather unconvincing, as if they are just arguing because they have to, and not because there is any reason to it, except for the director to constantly bring up his message about the difficulties of life. Or the one where a little girl from Eastern Europe randomly spots some older man, tells him: "You stink!" and then he slaps her, upon which she becomes sick and dies, which turns into a banally pathetic melodrama junk. Even the 'erotic' part doesn't hold water since the first intercourse scene starts some 80 minutes into the film, and proves to be the last one. And since it is depicted in dark, not much can be seen anyway. The same goes for the whole film, since it only gains more value through the abstract suggestion.

Grade:+

Private Parts


Private Parts; Comedy, USA, 1997; D: Betty Thomas, S: Howard Stern, Mary McCormack, Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Paul Giamatti, Gary Dell'Abate, Jackie Martling, Carol Alt, Jenna Jameson

Howard Stern was fascinated by radio shows ever since he was a kid back in the 1950's. In the Roosevelt high school he attended almost every student was Black thus he couldn't find a girlfriend. On the Boston university he got a degree in communication, an award for a short film and found a girlfriend Alison, who got married to him. His first job as a radio host brings him 96 $ every week, but after he gets fired he finds a new job in Washington. Thanks to his cynical and nihilistic approach he pushes the envelope and boosts a great rating, thus landing a job at NBC in New York, becoming the most listened radio host.

Biographical comedy "Private Parts" describes the life of controversial shock jock Howard Stern, who plays himself (!), but a movie about real life can often be a movie about boredom. The story starts with Stern's appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards in which he had a costume of a superhero called "Fartman" equipped with a hole on his pants - who ever saw that immediately concluded he must be dealing with an extroverted maniac, but surprisingly he leaves a very different, introverted, almost calm impression behind the stage, thinking about how everyone misunderstands him and regards him as an idiot. Director Betty Thomas lifelessly queues short-sparse episodes from Stern's life, like the one where he met his future wife Alison in the home of her friend Elyse (Wendy Hoopes, the voice behind Jane from the cult TV show "Daria"). Most of the gags are sardonic in accordance to the hero's cynical attitude on the radio, like the one where he planned to send a photo of a dead fetus to his parents and present it like their "grandchild" or brought a woman to orgasm through a loud speaker, but as a whole the schematic story doesn't bring much surprises and ends up somehow ephemera, anemic and tiresome.

Grade:+

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery


Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery; Comedy, USA/ Germany, 1997; D: Jay Roach, S: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York, Mimi Rogers, Robert Wagner, Seth Green, Fabiana Udenio, Will Ferrell

In the 60s, Austin Powers is a secret agent disguised as a fashion photographer fighting against Dr. Evil. One day, Dr. Evil places himself into a cryogenic freezing chamber, and so does Austin. 30 years later, in 1997, they both refreeze and continue with their fight, even though they have a hard time adjusting to the 1990's. Dr. Evil threatens to destroy the world if he is not payed 1 million $, but Austin and his assistant Vanessa manage to infiltrate his layer and stop him.

Often superficial comedy "Austin Powers" can be compared to a broken car that constantly suddenly stops just when it starts, causing a convulsive feeling. Truly, the story is mediocre and looks dated and deeply immature by today's standards while many gags are tasteless, vulgar, revolving too much around genital mockery, and stupid, some of which, like Austin's yellow teeth and a giant wig on his chest that mocks the fact that every James Bond actor has to have chest hair, are a catastrophe. Mike Myers, in a double role of both the secret womanizing agent and the bad guy, unfortunately there for made a much better and sympathetic role as Dr. Evil, who frankly has the best best gags: one of the most hilarious ones is, after he has been frozen back in the 60s and re-activated in 1997, uninformed about inflation, when he threatens to destroy the whole world if the government doesn't pay him - 1 million $ of ransom! Even funnier is one genius, absolutely fantastic joke where Austin kills some henchmen working for Dr. Evil because they are evil - in every James Bond film, nobody would even look pass beyond their corpses, but here we have a sly insight into their private lives and the aftermath when their families are informed about their deaths: the wife of one of the killed answers the phone ("Yes, my husband is a henchman in Dr. Evil's private army. What?! Oh no!") and is informed that her husband died. In another scene, a couple of pals are in a bar drinking and waiting for their friend to finally show up when they are also informed that he died in a "tragic accident working for Dr. Evil". Such spark of inspiration partially justifies that this trashy, uneven film was actually made.

Grade:++

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Zodiac


Zodiac; Crime drama, USA, 2007; D: David Fincher, S: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, John Getz, Elias Koteas, Dermoth Mulroney

On the fourth of July '69 a couple is found murdered in a car in Vallejo. The San Francisco Chronicle editorial soon gets a letter from a man called 'Zodiac' who claims to have killed them, demanding to be placed on the main page. Cartoonist Robert Graysmith is immediately hooked by the case. The murders continue, but the police in unable to track or arrest Zodiac. They suspect Arthur Leigh Allen, but the lack of evidence sets him free. Zodiac claims to have done numerous murders even though they could be done by someone else. Another suspect, Rick Marshall, is freed of charge due to lack of evidence. 9 years later Robert tells detective Dave Toschi that he suspects Allen really is the killer. But due to evidence, the identity of Zodiac was never determined.

Anyone who ever saw "Dirty Harry" and knew that the bad guy in there, Scorpio, is based on the real elusive killer Zodiac who acted around San Francisco area in the 70s, wondered how an original movie revolving around him would look like. Director David Fincher showed it. And even included a small scene showing inserts from "Dirty Harry" that perfectly mirror the frustration of the detectives who can never catch him. "Zodiac" is an excellent crime film, but since it is known that the real killer was never caught, it disappointed a part of the audience because of its ending, even though it's pure investigation story that has a lot of surprises and is incredibly addictive. Even though a similar "Waiting for Godot" concept was already used earlier in Korea's thriller "Memories of Murder", this is an equally good achievement that never drags despite its long running time of 155 minutes due to its passionate enthusiasm that constantly brings new details in the investigation and enriches the 'one-note' thesis, while Fincher luckily abandoned his heavy, dark, grey, spot like style and directed it with wonderful simplicity - the only questionable ingredient are depictions of two murders by the Zodiac, on the 4th of July and on the lake, since they are merely speculative recreations of what could have happened without any means of finding out. Jake Gyllenhall is excellent as the cartoonist Robert Graysmith who is obsessed with discovering the killer, while the story wears chilling, creepy motive: in some situations, man is simply helpless. Even more chilling, the enemy has no face and no motive, he is invisible, which is why whole murders are presented more like a natural catastrophe than as something that can be influenced. That's precisely why the film works so subtly - in it, evil is always hidden and nobody knows what to do or how to stop it.

Grade:+++

Amadeus


Amadues; Drama, USA, 1984; D: Miloš Forman, S: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole

Vienna, 18th Century. A priest enters a mental institution in order to take a confession from the old composer Salieri who tells him about his life: as a young lad, he was a music composer for Austrian Emperor Joseph II., but he was always jealous of the cheerful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) whose superior musical genius was simply outstanding. Mozart was unusual and loved women and alcohol, thus his operas were rather controversial since they played out in a brothel or mentioned the forbidden Figaro, but the Emperor and the people admired his music. Due to stress, Mozart died in front of Salieri in bed.

Winner of 8 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes and 4 BAFTAs, biographical drama "Amadues" is with it's 160 minutes of running time undoubtedly too long and lethargic at times, but at the same time it's undoubtedly rich with absolutely brilliant moments. The bravest move of director Miloš Forman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer was to show the legendary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart not as a serious, noble, idealised gentleman, but as a realistic, cheerful madman who talks such stupidities like these: "Everything here is done backwards! People walk backwards and even fart backwards". The whole story gains a distinctive edge thanks to the fascinating 'side character' Salieri, a mediocre music composer who begged for God to make him famous and in return he will practice sexual abstinence! But when he realizes that the best music he ever heard was composed precisely by the hedonistic womanizer Mozart, he declares his 'rebellion' against God and places the crucifix into the flame! The best scene is his horror due to admitting that Mozart still managed to achieve a great opera, but then thinks: "A miracle happened!" Namely, the Emperor yawned. "Amadeus" is a surprisingly funny, unusual and quirky history lesson which shows how competition and jealousy are timeless human 'virtues', and also displaying how some people can be talented without being noble - the biggest flaw is the mild epilogue, but as a whole it's an elite example of it's genre.

Grade:+++

Battlefield Earth


Battlefield Earth; Science-Fiction action, USA, 2000; D: Roger Christian, S: Barry Pepper, John Travolta, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsenti, Michael Byrne, Christian Tessier

In the year 3000, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler lives in a cave with surviving people without technology. They are convinced that they were abandoned by gods because they became selfish and thus demons appeared and destroyed Earth's civilisation. Tyler runs away on a horse in order to see what happened but gets arrested in a spaceship and brought to prison. There he figures aliens from planet Psychlo captured the human species in order to exploit gold from Earth. Alien Terl educates Jonnie and his people with a special machine in order to send them to mountains to get gold which he would then take for himself. But Jonnie destroys planet Psychlo with an atomic bomb and in an uprising captures Terl in a prison.

73 million $ was the cost of this fiasco "Battlefield Earth", a movie adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard's novel with the same title, after which one has to pose the question: how can Scientology be the right religion if it's making such bad films? Without magic or mystic, the authors profanely display the trashy Sci-Fi story about 9 foot tall aliens, one of which is named Terl and played by John Travolta with silly dreadlocks, who enslaved the humans who sometimes even eat living rats. There are occasionally a few good scenes, many of which are unintentionally funny, like a laser that hits a running man in slow motion or when Terl hates that he has to stay on Earth upon which one of his colleagues adds to him: "Don't worry, one day you'll die and land in hell and then that will be an improvement!" But as a whole the film is a strange kind of nonsense with illogical plot (why wouldn't Terl leave humans alone with an educating machine that can give them vital informations?), pointless situations and weak execution.

Grade:-

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bee Movie


Bee Movie; CGI animated fantasy comedy, USA, 2007; D: Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith, S: Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Larry King, Ray Liotta, Sting, Oprah Winfrey, Megan Mullally

Barry is an average bee living in a bee hive. After 3 days of elementary school, high school and college, he and his friend Adam are asked to decide which job they will do for the rest of their lives. But Barry decides to explore the world and meets Vanessa Bloom, who saves him from getting squashed in her apartment in New York, and he falls in love with her. He talks to her and finds out people have been taking honey from bees for centuries without paying any compensation. So he and Vanessa start and win a court battle, but since the bees now have too much honey, the stop pollinating flowers which could cause mass extinction. So Barry decides to reverse his decision and return everything back to normal.

"My friend told me he took his girlfriend out to see this "Bee Movie" in the theatres. During the whole time, they didn't even kiss once because they were so preoccupied with the events on the screen. I think that says it all", told me one of my acquaintances, which really says it all. Even though it was received lukewarm by many, "Bee Movie" is a surprisingly good, fresh, sweet and charming little CGI film that at first starts off as a typical "individual questioning his perfect society" concept seen already in "Antz", but already some 20 minutes into the film it takes a completely different turn and becomes something rather original. Even though the decision that the main protagonist, bee Barry, starts talking with the human Vanessa seems like an odd step at first, it actually works and proves as a polygon for a whole bunch of gags - even though many are childish, they ares still great - many of which are surprisingly subversive: from Barry getting stuck on a tennis ball during a match, through his trial against people for "stealing bee's honey", his questioning of the witness Ray Liotta and congratulating him for winning an Emmy two years ago up to the fact that there was even a "bee Jesus", the whole film is filled with satisfying satirical jabs that are at the same time interesting for the adults and gentle enough to entertain kids, and of course, Jerry Seinfeld's charismatic voice is great and suits the mischievous hero. There are some exaggerations and cliches seen already in other CGI films, and some have criticized the surprising 'totalitarian turn' on the (overstretched) ending, yet all in all this is definitely not a B-film, but an A-film.

Grade:++

The French Connection


The French Connection; Crime, USA, 1971; D: William Friedkin, S: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Ann Rebbot

Marseilles. A policeman gets shot. New York. Cops Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle and Buddy Russo catch a drug dealer, but fail to discover his superior. They are honest, but slightly tough cops, accidentally discovering new dealers during their break at the bar and follow them to the store of Mr. Boca. Since they suspect that a new narcotic shipment will arrive there, they start to surveil them. Even French actor Devereaux is involved in the deal and plans to earn a lot of money in New York. Boca dies in a car accident, while some hitman tries to assassinate Doyle, but he actually catches and shoots him. Doyle discovers heroin in Devereaux's car, but decides not to say anything and create a trap for him with the police. Some criminals get away, but most get arrested by the police.

Excellent crime thriller "The French Connection" doesn't stick to idealised portrait of policemen like a lot of films did before it and simply, calmly, but elaborately displays it's story, while the director William Friedkin actually made a similar movie to this one 14 years later with the equally good "To Live and Die in L. A." Gene Hackman, then a virtually unknown actor, leaves behind a top notch performance as the main protagonist, tough cop Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle: in his first scene, he is chasing after a runaway criminal dressed as a Santa Claus (!) with his partner Buddy Russo, while in another scene he is in his normal clothes and acts in front of the crowd as if he is having an argument with a drug dealer who is actually his spy in disguise. In some other scene, during a raid, everyone drops their drug on the floor. The film is full with such juicy written details and passionate cineaste flair, but Roy Scheider is equally as good as Hackman in playing his partner Buddy, even though he is just an episodic character, while many who are disappointed at the cold, surgical story will be compensated by an abundance of intelligent situations, some of which became classics that set new standards of crime genre, like the legendary car chase scene after a elevated train. The movie won 5 Oscars, 3 Golden Globes and 2 BAFTAs.

Grade:+++

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pennies from Heaven


Pennies from Heaven; Drama/ Musical, USA, 1981; D: Herbert Ross, S: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Christopher Walken, Vernel Bagneris, John McMartin, John Karlen, Jay Garner

Chicago, 1930's. Arthur Parker lives in a poor apartment with his cold wife Joan. His work is selling sheet-music for 10 cents and when he tries to get a loan worth 1.000 $ in order to open his own store, he gets turned down. When he meets teacher Eileen he falls in love with her and fantasizes about her in his musical dreams. He quickly starts a relationship with her claiming his wife died. During his ride, he picks up a poor musician and pays him diner. Eileen gets fired and becomes pregnant but meet Tom who pays for her abortion and turns her into a prostitute. The musician kills a woman and the police wrongly arrest Arthur and sentence him to be hanged, while he just keeps dreaming about dancing with Eileen.

"Pennies From Heaven" is an unjustifiably forgotten film that offers comedian Steve Martin in an unusually demanding and serious role of poor Arthur, a symbol for every depressed person during the Great Depression in the 1930's. As a whole, the film is a peculiar drama in which the protagonist dreams in the form of musical scenes (but when he sings, he only sings in playback) which creates a few unusual solutions, like in the scene where a banker refuses to give him a loan but in the next scene he starts dancing with him and gives it to him anyway or when the wall in the bar 'moves away' causing the musician to stand up from his chair and dance in the rain. Director Herbert Ross inventively choreographs them (the bird perspective of dancers in a circle while a line on the screen 'wipes them away' to a next scene) but has problems in the unbalanced junction between innocent 1930's musicals and slightly vulgar, raw and bitter drama, even though it works as a nice shift between perception and reality, while some characters stay unclear, even confusing. Still, as a whole, it's an impressive, slightly even brave film that was nominated for an Oscar for best costume design, sound and adapted screenplay. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture - musical or comedy and best actor Steve Martin, while the vibrant Bernadette Peters even won the award for best actress in a motion picture - musical or comedy.

Grade:++

The Syrian Bride


The Syrian Bride; Tragicomedy, Syria/ Israel/ Germany, 2004; D: Eran Riklis, S: Clara Khoury, Hiam Abbas, Makram Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyn Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth

Mona is a young Druze woman living on the Golan Heights, former Syrian territory now under Israeli control. On her wedding day, she is sad instead of happy, because she is about to enter an arranged marriage with a TV actor from Syria whom she never met, and on top of everything when she leaves Golan and crosses into Syria, she will never be able to return to her family. Her family unites: besides her father Hammed, there is also her brother Hattem who married a Jewish girl, sister Amal, and second brother Marwan. Once gathered at the no man's land, on the border, the Syrian officials refuse Mona to enter Syria because of her Israeli passport. Still, the bride spontaneously starts walking towards Syrian border.

"The Syrian Bride" is another contribution to the long list of films that tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict and avoid becoming a political propaganda by giving it a human face, in this instance through the perspective of a wedding on the Golan Heights divided between Israel and Syria. Light and elegant, but also subtly ambitious, with good characters and portrail of their mentality (the scene where the Arabs protest on the Golan demanding it must reunite with Syria), nice nuances between it's humane messages and amusing humor, "Bride" is an easily accessible achievement that never drags without a purpose, while the director Eran Riklis has a fine rhythm and a steady director's hand that avoids pretentiousness. Clara Khoury is great as the bride in turmoil and her wedding turns into a tragicomic spectacle: instead of happiness, she is sad, while the cameraman records how she and her family have to pass the bureaucratic border control to get to the 'no man's land', from which she has to go to Syria alone to meet her future husband. It's a one note concept, but it sends a clear tragic message that refuses to be placed on either side, portraying politics as an absurd farce that only makes people's lives more difficult than they are. The movie isn't anything spectacular, but under it's given plans and limitations, it works to the fullest.

Grade:++

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Nights are More Beautiful Than your Days


Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours; Drama, France, 1989; D: Andrzej Zulawski, S: Jacques Dutronc, Sophie Marceau, Valérie Lagrange, Myriam Mézières, Laure Killing, Sady Rebbot

Lucas is a computer expert who just invented a new computer language, but is surprised when his doctor tells him he has a rare brain disease which will attack his speech center and slowly kill him. In a cafe, he meets the young Blanche and persuades her to have diner together. She leaves with her mother to a sea resort and he follows her, renting an expensive room in the hotel. There Blanche performs in a show as a prophet of some sort, surprising the audience by guessing every detail about them. Lucas starts a relationship with her and she guesses his parents drowned in a lake. They give up on everything and go into the sea.

"My Nights are More Beautiful Than your Days" is a strange experience. Director Andrzej Zulawski is obviously a very depressed and neurotic person who likes to craft heavy, demanding dramas about chaos, madness, anger, existentialism and nihilism, yet his worldviews are crushing because his drama, emotions and characters all seem too artificial to be taken for real, while their pointless philosophical monologues can really get annoying. Yet, behind all that chaos, one somehow seems to subconsciously sense there is something more in the story about a couple who can't learn how to love or live, some deeper message. The film is filled with surreal images - Lucas sits on the middle of the street; a bellboy has a marten in his pocket; Lucas enters into a full bathtub with his clothes on; as a little kid he saw his parents swimming in the lake with naked women - many of which are completely without a head or a tail, while some actually hit the right tone, like the one where Blanche (great Sophie Marceau, in a surprising 180 degree turn on her 'innocent' child image) strips naked on the beach an starts a mental trip rolling on the sand, saying: "...love me!...teach me!" The director is obviously on a similar mental trip and very few can understand him, but he has a inspiring visual style and his subconscious thread will probably enchant some art lovers.

Grade:++

Black Cat, White Cat


Crna mačka, beli mačor; Grotesque/ Comedy, France/ Serbia/ Germany, 1998; D: Emir Kusturica, S: Bajram Severdžan, Srđan Todorović, Florijan Ajdini, Branka Katić, Ljubica Adžović, Zabit Memedov, Sabri Sulejman, Miki Manojlović

Matko is a poor Gypsy conman who lives in a old house near the Danube river with his son Zare. He earn some money by merchandising with Russians who were sailing on the river, but instead of gas they sell him water. Matko gets money for a huge deal from his uncle Grga and his son, the mobster Dadan, but a Bulgarian police officer tricks and seals him off in a train wagon. The deal is off, the policemen is found dead thus Marko figures Dadan double crossed him in order to force his Zare to marry his ugly sister Aphrodite. The couple gets forcefully married but she runs away, meets Grga's driver and marries him, while Zare marries his girlfriend. Grga and Matko's father die but get summoned back to life by two cats.

"Black Cat, White Cat" is a very good tame grotesque even though it sometimes enters the manneristic territory. Leaving his dubious political views aside, Emir Kusturica is a talented director no matter how much some people try to undermine him, and one of the reasons for that is this simple anecdotal story crafted in a very energetic way, where in accordance with the title one black and one white cat pop up here and there almost throughout the film as a running gag, while there are also plenty of quirky scenes present: at the beginning of the film, the Gypsy hero Matko is playing poker with himself; his uncle is in a wheelchair on motor drive; in order for a phone to work it's pole must be suffused; a drunk priest who burps during the wedding. Shrill, twisted and original film about the "lower layer" of society that gets avoided in most films with rich and handsome heroes, heavily leaned on Felliniesque style, with a few irritating characters and an overstretched ending, but as a whole it's an bizarrely poetic experience.

Grade:+++

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Reservoir Dogs


Reservoir Dogs; Crime drama, USA, 1992; D: Quentin Tarantino, S: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Randy Brooks, Kirk Baltz

Gangster Joe Cabot and his son Eddie plan a 2 minute jewel robbery. For that task, they hire six unknown criminals and give them aliases Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown. That way nobody knows anyone other's name and betrayal isn't possible. The robbery was well planned, but someone among them was a snitch since the police came up in just a few seconds: Mr. Brown and Blue were killed, while Mr. White brings the wounded Mr. Orange to their secret warehouse. When Mr. Blonde kidnaps a cop and tortures him in order to find out who is the rat, Mr. Orange shoots him because he is actually an undercover cop, Freddy. Then Joe and Eddie want to kill Orange but White defends him and they shoot each other. The police shows up and White kills Orange.

Quentin Tarantino's feature length movie debut is an impressive little crime film that revolutionized independent cinema and gave it a dose of class rarely seen before. Even today, "Reservoir Dogs" seem shocking and powerful, despite the fact that the story is rather partial and overstretched towards the end, and that's mostly due to the fact that Tarantino took some brave steps in showing the conventional robbery concept in an unconventional way: in the first scenes, one might wonder if the whole film is a comedy since the six main protagonist are in a bar and discussing about - believe it or not - Madonna's song "Like a Virgin", wondering if it's all about "a girl who loves big dicks" or "about a girl who finds a sensitive guy"! He hit the nail on the head with such original dialogues since real people really talk a lot of trivial small talk all the time. The next sequence contains a lousy slow motion scene of the six guys exiting and walking on the street, until the story cuts right to the moment after the robbery: basically, almost 80 % of the story is set around just one location, the warehouse the surviving criminals return to, while the sole robbery is never shown.

The rest of the film consists just out of little flashbacks that are there to give insight into some of the characters, and some work, while some, like the "Mr. Blond" segment, seem pointless. Considering Tarantino was previously just an 'ordinary' video store clerk, it's always nice to see how a 'nobody' somehow managed to make it and create 'something' important, but he wouldn't have done it without Harvey Keitel who was so amazed by the screenplay he even helped finance it and raise it's budget to 1.2 million $. It's obvious he avoided some spectacular solutions due to budget constrains, but the film is still very creative and enthusiastic the way it is, maybe just because some scenes were not shown and were left to the imagination of the viewers. The masochistic violence is, like in most of such films, not for everyone's taste - the sole infamous scene where Mr. Blonde tortures a cop and cuts his ear off is enough to turn some people away - but it's there to show that crime is a dirty job and that the tragic ending in many cases is unavoidable. The only thing to do is to conclude that Tarantino made better films in the 1990's than in the 2000's.

Grade:+++

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame


Lepa sela lepo gore; War/ Drama, Serbia, 1996; D: Srđan Dragojević, S: Dragan Bjelogrlić, Nikola Kojo, Dragan Maksimović, Zoran Cvijanović, Milorad Mandić, Dragan Petrović, Lisa Moncure

Bosnia, 1950's: a new tunnel of brotherhood and unity is about to get introduced, but one man cuts his thumb when he tries to cut the ribbon. 1980's: Tito died while two boys, Serb Milan and Muslim Halil, are afraid to go into the tunnel. 1990's: Halil and Milan are still good friends, but when the war between Serbs and Muslims breaks out, their relationship gets shaken. Milan is drafted into the Serbian army that robs and kills, but when he spots three Serbs putting a cafe bar on fire, he shoots them. Together with 7 soldiers he hides in the infamous tunnel and meets the American journalist Liza. The Muslim army starts a siege of the tunnel so they have to drink urine to not die from thirst. During an explosion many die while Milan lands in a hospital, dragging himself to kill his friend with a fork, but dies from exhaustion.

Originally directed, fresh but controversial black humored war drama "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" gets numerous compliments for bravely showing the theme of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a nihilistic and quizzical way, even going so far to bravely imply that the Serbs had a big involvement in starting the whole thing, while the skillful editing gives it a neat touch. The whole movie is rich with darkly hilarious scenes, like the Christmas tree with a Serbian five-star instead of a real star on top; a patient in the hospital who shouts: "Recover! Recover!"; the hero who trips on a pig; a student who hits himself with a fist...Yet in the end, the strong and depressive atmosphere of war prevails, especially since it cynically plays with the "tunnel of brotherhood" and the notion that every Serb character in the story actually had a nice life in Bosnia before the war started, some of which even had best friends in the Muslim population. Excellently intervened, undoubtedly quality made film, but with it's running time of 130 minutes it's overlong considering a majority of the story plays out in the tunnel, while it's tendentiousness and roughness bothers occasionally.

Grade:++

Monday, January 14, 2008

Flatfoot in Egypt


Piedone d'Egitto; crime comedy, Italy, 1979; D: Steno, S: Bud Spencer, Enzo Cannavale, Baldwyn Dakile, Angelo Infanti, Cinizia Monreale, Karl-Otto Alberty, Adel Adham, Robert Loggia

Naples. Inspector Rizzo and his colleague, police officer Caputo, have trouble persuading Rizzo's Black adoptive little boy Bodo to go to school. When Rezzo does some police work, he discovers the kidnapped Connie, the 17-year old daughter of the oil millionaire Lee Barns, and brings her back home. Barns offers him to works for him because professor Cerullo, an eccentric bug scientist, was kidnapped in Cairo. Rizzo accepts and flies off to Cairo with Caputo and Bodo to investigate the case. After surviving a few assassination attempts, he discovers the professor was kidnapped by an evil sultan because he discovered a bug who can detect oil. Rizzo frees him and returns to Naples, where it seems the professor's bug isn't fool proof when he discovers an old pipeline.

The last sequel to the popular list of Italian crime comedy films involving Inspector Rizzo, from "Flatfoot", "Flatfoot in Hong Kong" and "Flatfoot in Africa", Steno's "Flatfoot in Egypt" is a moderately amusing, solid film shot at exotic locations that is easily forgettable but won't disappoint the lovers of childish humor of the legendary comedian Bud Spencer. As it is expected, it's a casually made investigation story revolving around some vague kidnapping of a professor, with not enough real laughs and too much shaky gags - for instance, the "fight" between the giant Rizzo and the dwarf rug salesman seems at moments like a clash between Austin Powers and Mini-Me - and his little adoptive kid Bodo is sometimes annoying, while the standard direction doesn't have much to offer in order to intrigue the audience. Still, one gag at the beginning is actually pretty clever: gangsters try to shot Rizzo in their hideout, but since he hides behind a bunch of firecrackers they miss him and hit them, accidentally starting a real firework in the building. Of course, everything is set up for the classic Spencer fist fight finale - when one looks at the large hero slapping and hitting the bad guys with his fists, one realizes why so many people couldn't but enjoy the trivial spectacle: it's a "guilty pleasure" that brings out the kid in the adult and enjoys in wild fun without any point.

Grade:+

The Island


The Island; Science-Fiction action, USA, 2005; D: Michael Bay, S: Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan

In 2019 Lincoln 6-Echo lives inside a small colony of people who are told that the Earth was destroyed by a toxic catastrophe and that participating at the lottery they can move one by one to the perfect tropical "island". Yet he soon discovers that there is no island and they are all clones from real people who are sick and who just kill the clones and take their organs when they need them. He persuades the blond Jordan 2-Delta to escape the community and land on the surface of the Earth somewhere in the desert in Arizona. The colony's chief, Dr. Merrick, orders his crew to catch them because he lied to the sponsors he is only harvesting organs, not real people. Lincoln finds his original, Tom Lincoln, who tries to betray him, but dies. Lincoln goes to the community and frees everyone.

Director Michael Bay never seizes to amaze us - in a negative way. Just when the first few images of "The Island" - the sea, a boat, the sky - make you think you're watching a shampoo commercial, the movie starts and the images turn out to be a dream. The movie then goes on to describe us it's hermetic world: the main protagonist, Lincoln, wakes up and urinates, which automatically causes the computer to analyze his urine and determine what he lacks. There are neat ideas all around the story, which seems to be copying "Parts: The Clonus Horror" and include variations of Huxley's novel "A Brave New World" and Orwell's "1984", yet all those things were already seen and the same formula repeated again here seems lifeless, listless and anemic. When in the second third, revolving around the two protagonists Lincoln and Detla (Scarlett Johansson, who seems eerie like a Barbie doll) running away from the colony hunting them down, the movie turns into an action spectacle, it's not hard to conclude the main problem of "The Island" is that it had too much action and too little philosophical pondering. One of the rare examples of isnpiration is the scene where the engineer James McCord (Steve Buscemi) goes on to explain Lincoln and Jordan they are just clones, adding sarcastically: "Why do I have to be the one to tell you there is no Santa Claus?" It's also not quite clear why Lincoln gets to persuade Jordan so easily to escape from the colony, or why only he gets to meet his 'original', and she doesn't, nor why the drama was so trivialized. It's interesting to note that the movie is at the same time conservative (human life, no matter in what form, demands for dignity) and reactionary (question the authority and strange traditions), while the technical aspect is top notch and the finale is surprisingly touching. Still, it's nothing more than a solid film: it didn't make anything extraordinary wrong, but neither extraordinary right or poignant.

Grade:+

The Ladykillers


The Ladykillers; Black comedy, UK, 1955; D: Alexander Mackendrick, S: Katie Johnson, Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner, Philip Stainton

London. Mrs. Wilberforce is an old lady who constantly goes to the police station for trivial reasons, even sometimes just to apologize because her friend didn't see a UFO, but just had a bad dream. Since she lives alone in her home with her parrots, she gladly takes the mysterious Professor Marcus as a tenant: he introduces himself as a musician, but in reality he is a criminal. Together with his 4 friends; Claude, Louis, Harry and One-Round, he robs 60.000 pounds from a bank truck, puts the money into a baggage and sends Mrs. Wilberforce to get it. But just as they are about to escape, their money falls on the street and she figures everything. They decide to kill her, but because of their greed they all kill each other. Mrs. Wilberforce goes to report everything to the police, but they don't believe her.

Macabre black comedy "Ladykillers" is in deprivation of charm, laughs and tenderness, but offers occasionally a hilarious fun because the director Alexander Mackendrick creates a wonderfully unsweet, wicked atmosphere for the tame 1950's revolving around an innocent old lady who doesn't know her tenants are actually criminals, which creates a few twisted situations: for instance, the sole surreal scene where the shadow of the sinister Professor Marcus, played unusually by Alec Guinness, shows up on Mrs. Wilberforce's door and rings, upon her parrot gets "goosebumps" by lifting it's feathers up, is great. When the old lady asks one of the 'musicians' where he studied music, he replies with: "I didn't study. It just came to me". When she asks Harry (Peter Sellers) to hold her naughty parrot while she gives him his medicine, the bird flies away through the window so she wants to call the police, which causes real panic among the criminals. The whole story is built upon contrast between various situations, it's slightly anecdotal and not consequent enough, yet it's inspiringly cynical and especially naughty in the surprising end. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, actress Katie Johnson and the screenplay won a BAFTA.

Grade:+++