Saturday, February 28, 2009

Boogie Nights


Boogie Nights; erotic drama, USA, 1997; D: Paul Thomas Anderson, S: Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Thomas Jane, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina, Nina Hartley
San Fernando Valley, '77. The 17-year old Eddie works as a dish washer in a night club until porn director Jack Horner discovers his large penis and lets him star in his movies. Eddie finds a new name as Dirk Diggler and makes a stunning career as a porn actor, together with Rollergirl, divorced Amber, Rotchild, Buck and others from Jack's group. But then the 80s start and signal their downfall: Dirk becomes a nervous drug addict, the video shows up and destroys the screening of porn films in theaters, Jack experiments with films while many crew memebers have financial troubles. In the end, Dirk returns to Jack and begs him to forgive him.

You really have to admire Paul Thomas Anderson: for his only 2nd film, at a tender age, he placed his hand in the hornet's nest when he chose to daringly make a film about pornographic industry. "Boogie Nights" is an incredibly brave and ambitious film, a one that 99 % of all respectable directors would avoid in fear that its "low subject" could contaminate the film itself, but Anderson has such an absolute author's vision that he can even show explicit intercourse scenes and make it look as if he is floating above it in superior observation. Maybe the film would have worked differently, even better if he didn't show those erotic scenes from imaginary porn movies at all, but even in this version it seems brilliant, albeit not for conservative viewers, thanks to Anderson's virtuoso direction: in one of those extraordinary moments, a 3 minute long scene shot in one take, William H. Macy's character Little Bill enters Jack's mansion just 3 minutes before New Year, accidentally hits his head on to "Goodbye 70s" sign, goes to the party, and then to a room where he spots his wife once again sleeping with another man for the 100th time, and then looses his patience, exits the building, gets his gun, returns, shots them both and then himself, exactly in tune to the crowd chanting: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1..." to greet the New Year.

It's an amazing scene, but also from the symbolic perspective, since his death also marks the death of the 70s spirit and the start of a new, dark era of 80s where all the characters will experience a tragic faith. The film observes how the 80s marked the return of increasing conservatism and intolerance that caused the decay of the system the protagonists were working in, and yet how they are branded as porn actors and thus can't do any other job. It is unbelievable how the tricky theme was handled with ease and how the long running time just melts away thanks to the energetic execution: thanks to Anderson's passionate obsession with his material and style, "Boogie Nights" are charged from start to finish, and even banal scenes like the one where Buck is picking doughnuts at a store seem fascinating. Still, even though the lost focus towards the rather chaotic end is not a problem, the viewers sense that it should have been, and the screenplay is at times rather and repetitive. All the actors were well picked, from Mark Wahlberg as the main actor up to real porn actress Nina Hartley, but the best job was delivered by Burt Reynolds (who won the Golden Globe and New York Film Critics Circle Award as best supporting actor) as porn director Jack Horner who just wanted to make an artistic porn film that would intrigue the audience more with its story than its nudity. He maybe did not achieve it, but Anderson did.

Grade:+++

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sayonara


Sayonara; Drama, USA/ Japan, 1957; D: Joshua Logan, S: Marlon Brando, Patricia Owens, Miiko Taka, James Garner, Red Buttons, Martha Scott, Miyoshi Umeki, Ricardo Montalban

Lloyd Gruver is a US Air Force pilot during the Korean War. He takes a vacation to Kobe, Japan, where he meets his fiance again, Eileen. He also participates at the wedding of his friend Joe Kelly who marries a Japanese girl, Katsumi. Lloyd doesn't support such a mixed marriage, but tolerates it. When Eileen persuades him to watch a play in a Kabuki-theater, he gets fascinated by performer Hana-Ogi. He meets her „accidentally“ numerous times, until she gives in and goes out with him. They start a relationship. But the military is against interracial marriages and doesn't allow US citizens to bring their Japanese wives to the US. Because of a decree that orders him to return back to the US alone, Kelly commits suicide. Lloyd decides to marry Hana-Ogi and says „Sayonara“ to the military.

The calm and smooth drama „Sayonara“ is even by today's perspective hardly a classic, but its deeply honest and ambitious tone that handles the taboo subject of an inter-racial love relationship and racism still gives it a spark of intrigue. Precisely because of such a serious theme, the movie was very well received by the critics: Marlon Brando and Red Buttons became – until „Lost in Translation“ – the only American actors that were nominated for an Oscar for a film that is entirely set on the territory of Japan, while Buttons and actress Miyoshi Umeki even went on to win the award for best supporting actor and actress. „Sayonara“ leads its story in a refreshingly measured way, whereas all the character developments were handled in a convincing manner, except for the too easy way Hana-Ogi falls in love with Lloyd, which comes more all out of blue than something that seems natural. Joshua Logan's direction is very good, yet today the film still seems dated in some aspects. When compared to another Brando film, „A Streetcar Named Desire“, where Kazan directed almost every scene in an explosive way, „Sayonara“ seems lukewarm at moments. Still, the way the story makes an analysis about one injustice is surprisingly even, the Japanese mentality is handled with adequate care, some details are marvelous (two rocks in the sea connected by a rope are declared to be in „marriage“) while Brando gives one of his most forgotten, touching speeches – when Hana-Ogi, troubled by all the problems that could happen if they get married, asks how their kids will look like, Brando's Lloyd replies with a wonderfully sincere answer that says everything: „They are going to be half Japanese and half American. Half Yellow and half White…They are going to be half you and half me.

Grade:++

The Greatest Show on Earth


The Greatest Show on Earth; Drama, USA, 1952; D: Cecil B. DeMille, S: Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, James Stewart

Brad is the owner of a circus show that travels from town to town. He is secretly in love with Holly who works as a trapeze artist, yet hires star Sebastian who is much better than her and who becomes the new main attraction. Besides that, Brad constantly has to repel con-artists from the circus territory. After Sebastian falls and breaks his arm, he loses confidence in himself so Holly directs all his attention to him. When some people try to rob the train that transports the circus, there is a crash and Brad gets hurt, yet clown Buttons heals him. Buttons gets arrested by the police who suspect him of killing his wife.

In '06, the American film magazine "Premiere" placed "The Greatest Show on Earth" on its list of the 10 worst Oscar winners of all time while the critics site Rotten-tomatoes.com gave it an average grade of only 5.2 out of 10. Indeed, after winning 3 Golden Globes (best picture - drama, director, cinematography) and 2 Oscars (best picture, screenplay), this film, Cecil B. DeMille's forelast achievement, started becoming pretty disputed by critics worldwide who preferred other classics released that same year. Still, even though it's running time is 150 minutes, "Show" is interesting almost every minute because it abounds with wacky details of Fellini's calibre (a giraffe with a soar throat; a surprised manager drops a pipe from his mouth; a fat man with a high-pitch voice; a priest that is blessing the train...) and mostly doesn't pretend to be something more than it is. In essence, "Show" is like a circus - it doesn't contain any answers or deep insights from life, but it's fun, humorous, vibrant and accessible. The time forgot this film, but it's still sympathetic in it's simple analysis of bitter-sweet lives of entertainers, while James Stewart has a small role as clown Buttons, a man who is constantly hiding his face behind make up.

Grade:++

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quick Change


Quick Change; crime comedy, USA, 1990; D: Howard Franklin, Bill Murray, S: Bill Murray, Geena Davis, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards, Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, Stanley Tucci
New York. A man disguised as a clown enters a bank in order to rob it and takes all the people as hostages. The police starts a siege of the bank, but the clown turns out to be the clever Grimm who disguises himself with his two associates, Loomis and Phyllis, as hostages and thus manages to successfully get out with the money. But when the 3 robbers want to escape from the city, they encounter numerous problems: there are no traffic signs, they loose their car, a Taxi driver doesn't speak their language, the bus driver is obsessed with rules...Still, they manage to get pass Commissioner Rotzinger and escape in the plane.

Excellent comedy, filled with wonderfully simple ideas that work on all levels, "Quick Change" is a remarkable remake of the '85 film "Hold-Up" that keeps unravelling marvellously until the end. Overwhelmed by Howard Franklin's idea to adapt Jay Cronley's novel, actor Bill Murray decided to direct it himself, which is why this film marked his debut as a director. But, unlike some first-time directors who have troubles crafting their film, Murray impresses both as a director and main star: his every move, line and gesture all tightly display his spot-on comedic talent, from the scene where he spots and reacts to a TV reporter commenting about the clown bank robber ("The clown at whom nobody laughs...") up to the one where he and Phyllis exchange a line because they are irritated by two construction workers who tore down all traffic signs, cant give them any directions and one of them has a beard ("Honey, why don't you shoot them?" - "I can't. They are fur-bearing. I'd need some kind of permit, wouldn't I?"). A highlight is the sequence where Grimm has 1 minute and 40 seconds to get coins with the exact change for a bus trip, while the pressure amounts since the police and a mafia thug all arrive at the scene, culminating in a sequence that reaches both 'Hitchcockian' intensity of suspense and pure comic hilarity. Murray's style is superior comedy, but he also gives room to supporting roles: nobody is just a 'face-in-the-crowd', every little character has a special 'frequency of humor', which overall gives a wide depiction of characters of New York and their mentality. The film is brilliantly complete and crafted, a very solid blend between crime and comedy, equipped with a top-notch rhythm - the message that it is easier to rob a bank than to get out of New York in time is hilarious, whereas it is especially good to spot all the highly energetic performances by the crew. A fantastic fun. And thanks to its intelligence and "honest" humor, it is even slightly better than the similar "A Fish Called Wanda".

Grade:+++

Cutthroat Island


Cutthroat Island; Adventure, USA/ France/ Italy/ Germany, 1995; D: Renny Harlin, S: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella, Harris Yulin

Jamaica, 1668. The place is full of deceit and greed. Before his death, Captain Black Harry tells his daughter Morgan that a map is tattooed on his skull which shows the location of a legendary island with hidden treasure. By scalping her father, Morgan discovers it's just one third of the map so she heads off to find the rest. In that intent, a slave is helping her and falls in love with her, but pirate Dawg wants to stop them. After a bunch of adventures, they in the end battle with ships on the sea. Dawg has a treasure on the ship, but gets defeated together with his gang. The ship sinks but the gold swims on the surface and Morgan takes it.

Whatever film Geena Davis made with her ex-husband Renny Harlin, it marked a step back in her career. This big budget pirate adventure has a 100 million $ budget, impressive set-design, ships and explosions, but average story. Still, "Cutthroat island" is better than it's negative reputation because it doesn't make big mistakes whereas some scenes are pretty good. That lifts it somewhat above the mediocre tangles and old fashioned action, but not enough to completely distinguish itself from them or too keep the viewers concentration until the end. Who of the pirates will find the treasure is something that's not interesting at all, which is why the film stops just at being watchable. Again, the best performance of the cast was delivered by charming Davis as the heroine Morgan who sometimes even steals the show of the stiffly written roles of Matthew Modine's and Frank Langella's characters.

Grade:+

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Fantasy drama, USA, 2008; D: David Fincher, S: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Spencer Daniels, Jason Flemyng, Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas

Daughter Caroline reads an unusual diary to her old mother Daisy, who is lying in hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina: after the end of World War I, Benjamin Button is born and rejected by his father because he is born old. Queenie adopts the unusual baby and it grows up in the nursing home. It quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is aging backwards and becoming younger. He goes to work on a tugboat for Captain Mike. When he returns home after World War II, physically younger, he falls in love with Daisy, a ballet dancer. They have a normal daughter, but he abandons them because he doesn't want to be younger than her. Daisy finally finds him in the 90s as a little kid, until he dies as a baby.

Fantasy film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" picked up praise from the critics and earned 5 nominations for a Golden Globe, 11 nominations for a BAFTA and 13 nominations for an Oscar. It's story underwent through numerous interpretations, and critic Damir Radić actually went so far to claim that the child/old man Benjamin is actually a masked allegory about pedophilia, yet it's more directly a story about transience and an ode to becoming old. But to the overall surprise, such a magical and special story became sadly unmagical and ordinary in this film. "Benjamin" is really unbelievably average, sloppy and rushed at moments and thus it's not quite clear why it gained such acclaim. Precisely because of for the imagination stimulative concept, director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth didn't sufficiently exploit all the rich possibilities of the original idea about aging backwards. It's not quite clear why nobody pays much attention to the hero's state - when he returns home, turned physically from a weak 60-year old to a rather dashing 45-year old, Daisy just says: "Benjamin...? Of course it's you!" as if it's a normal thing that doesn't need to be explained. When the ship Captain asks him: "Am I drinking too much or have you become younger?" he just replies with: "You drink too much", and that's enough to resolve the issue. And wouldn't the neighbors of the nursing home also notice his aging backwards and report it to the media? It's somehow hard to accept that in modern times such a phenomenon would pass unnoticed.

In comparison to "Groundhog Day", "Invisible Man" and other excellent fantasy films that use fantasy elements to say something about the human state and society in general, this film is without any context, crammed with unnecessary scenes that don't have anything to do with anything (the surreal sequence about a clock worker who made a clock go backwards so that it "would bring back the fallen people in the war", which then cuts to the battlefield scene going in reverse where explosions go under and soldiers run backwards) and don't have any function in the story which seems lost. True, some scenes have spark, like when Benjamin - in his 60s by his physical appearance, but in his teenage state by his psychological appearance - goes on to sleep with a woman, a prostitute, for the first time, who gets surprised by the vitality of the "grandpa" in bed, yet most of them is just thrown in there to seem pseudo philosophical, like the trivial scenes of the hero in Ganges and Tibet. But, just like the hero's aging backward, here the quality is also going backwards: the beginning of the film is terrible, yet after 20 minutes it's already all right, then it becomes solid and towards the end it becomes really good. If anything, one must see the excellent ending - truly, the way the hero ends, is one of the most moving and touching endings of the decade, and that's why it redeems the film for the omissions.

Grade:++

The End of Violence


The End of Violence; Drama, France/ USA/ Germany, 1997; D: Wim Wenders, S: Bill Pullman, Gabriel Byrne, Loren Dean, Andie MacDowell

Mike Max is a famous Hollywood producer who constantly makes violent action movies. His wife Page is bored, and when a stunt woman gets injured on the set of his new film, Mike visits her in the hospital so that she won't sue him. One evening, two criminals kidnap Mike and contemplate if they should kill him and steal his Mercedes or not. While they argue, their victim gets loose and kills them. Technician Ray spots the whole event on his camera, one of many he placed across the town to tackle violence. Mike wakes up at some Mexicans and learns that violence is not the only solution from them. FBI also infiltrates his life and kills Ray, while Page is happy that Mike has ran away. He arrives at the Pacific Ocean and contemplates about his change.

This thin and average story is sometimes a real hassle. It's not at all clear what the director Wim Wenders intended to make here: for an essay about anti-violence, it doesn't at all have any connection dots with the characters, whereas the film is too conventional for some metaphysical experience. It's true that a story that remains a mystery isn't a flaw. But it doesn't help "The End of Violence" because all other ingredients are underdeveloped and empty anyway. There are sufficient films who have excellent scenes, yet here the main problem is that almost all moments are lukewarm, pale, without humor or energy. Considering that he plays a rather vague character, producer Mike Max who was afraid of violence in his childhood, actor Bill Pullman is surprisingly good. Wenders tried to make a story about him when he changes and rejects violence, but he went off to linger in everything and reject any kind of linear narration, which is why in the end very few will manage to understand the film.

Grade:+

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Paris, Texas


Paris, Texas; Drama, Germany/ France/ USA, 1984; D: Wim Wenders, S: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski

An exhausted man, Travis, walks through the Texas desert and falls unconscious from exhaustion. A local doctor takes care of him and calls his brother Walt from Los Angeles to pick him up. Walt shows up, but Travis is already gone, and when he finds him with his car he doesn't want to say a word. Then he finally speaks up - about Paris, a small place in Texas where his parents met and about his search for wife Jane who left him for his violent nature. Travis' son is in Walt's home and forgives him for leaving him. He and Travis go to Houston to find Jane. They find her how she works in a Peepshow. He begs her to forgive him and leaves, while she finally sees her son again.

One of the most famous films by peculiar director Wim Wenders, based on a story by Sam Shepard, winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, "Paris, Texas" is a minimalistic drama about small people and unnoticed nuances between human relationships. Subtle direction and even tone make this film undeniably a work of quality, but one has to warn about the lack of highlights and, especially, Wender's tendency to drag until it becomes boring. Without humor or dynamic, "Paris, Texas" still copes well but it seems stripped, whereas it wasn't quite the best choice to make the crucial character, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), appear only at the end of the film. Because of it's suggestive tone, many critics could see a lot more in some empty scenes that there really is, because it wouldn't have been so bad if the film was more inventive and multi-layered, while the characters are ordinary and don't reveal anything new at frequent viewings. It is a classic, but, like most of Wenders' films, it has too much empty walk.

Grade:++

Wings of Desire


Der Himmel über Berlin; Fantasy drama, Germany/ France, 1987; D: Wim Wenders, S: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Curt Bois, Peter Falk

Black and white cinematography: the clouds over Berlin pass equally fast as it's busy citizens. They are observes by angels Damiel and Cassiel and are able to hear the people's thoughts, but are forbidden to intervene in their fate. Cassiel is fine with that state, but Damiel would gladly want to feel something, eat, breathe the air or take a bath. In circus, he falls in love with Marion who works on the trapeze, while he meets an actor on the set of some World War II film: he admits him he was once an angel too, but decided to quit. As soon as Damiel wishes for that, he becomes a human and starts to see colors. The actor gives him money to manage, while Marion falls in love with him. He writes in his diary: "Now I know what no angel knows".

Deep spiritual film making and contemplative messages about life are attributes of very good "Wings of Desire", a film that, just like almost every Wim Wenders film, is minimalistic and static, whereas the US made a remake of it 11 years later, "The City of Angels", but with a more emphasized romance. Wenders here patiently crafts a quiet story with symbolical questions about two kinds of people: the cold ones who play it safe, superior, never dare something and keep everything at distance and control (the angels) and those who are inferior, crushed by problems of life, but at least daringly try to live life the way they want, and actually feel something (the humans), alas developing a fluctuation from one branch into another. He cleverly emphasized the emotions of the hero Damiel by the fact that the cinematography is black and white while he is an angel and full of colors as soon as he becomes a human, while the scenes are poetic (for instance, the one with the "soul" of an object that separates from the real object when an transcendent angel picks it up). Peter Falk is excellent almost experimentally playing himself, while the weakness of the film is manifested in one-dimensional character of Marion, empty or boring situations, a few too slow moments or occasional tedious-art approaches. It's also interesting when Damiel writes how he "now knows what no angels doesn't", namely how it is to feel something, while there is even a statement "To be continued" at the end, which all add up to the philosophical touches of this melancholically slow film.

Grade:+++

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dog Day Afternoon


Dog Day Afternoon; crime drama, USA, 1975; D: Sidney Lumet, S: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, Carol Kane, James Broderick, Lance Henriksen

New York, '72. Clumsy Sonny Wortzik and his friend Sal storm into a bank in order to rob it. They planned to do their heist quickly, but it all goes wrong: they find only 1,000 $, one of their associates gives up and runs away and all of a sudden the police surrounds the building. Sonny takes bank employees as hostages and starts negotiating with police officer Moretti. They quickly discover the reason for their planned robbery: Sonny wanted to pay his gay friend a gender change operation. After a lot staling, it all ends bloody: the police shoots Sal and arrests Sonny.

Nominated for numerous awards, a classic of the 70s cinema, hyped "Dog Day Afternoon" is an unusual, brave, restless and derisory comical, and along with that it is really good. The reason for why some viewers tend to not understand it and react in a puzzled way is that, despite the fact that it was based on real events revolving around the failed bank robber John Wojtowitcz, "Afternoon" is such an untypical bank robber film that it needs adjusting to its style, and one of its unusual elements is the fact that it is so filled with humor that it seems like a comedy at times: in the exposition, Sonny, Sal and their friend enter a bank in order to rob it; but their friend suddenly changes his mind and leaves (!), the clumsy Sonny trips numerous times while they only find 1,000 $ in the safe. The bizarrities continues further (Sonny wanted to use the money to pay a transgender change operation for his gay friend) but they do not damage the believability of the story or the sophisticated sense for direction by Sidney Lumet while the characters all seem like real people which they were inspired by. The real Wojtowitcz complained how the film is only "30 % accurate of the events", yet due to the famous line "Attica" and Al Pacino's great performance, the virtues are simply hard to shake off: this bank robbery was simply the most unusual "coming out" story of its time.

Grade:+++

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alligator


Alligator; Horror grotesque, USA, 1980; D: Lewis Teague, S: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael Gazzo, Dean Jagger

Family Kendall buys their 12-year old daughter Marisa a small pet alligator. But, the animal quickly starts getting on their nerves, so dad flushes it down the toilette. Arriving in the sewer, the reptile comes in contact with growth hormones and in 12 years grows 30 feet long. Already the first victims start to fall, among them the friend of police officer Madison, who starts searching for the beast beneath the city. Even though he is slightly clumsy, he turns to Marisa who in the meantime became a reptile expert. Madison uses dynamite to eliminate the alligator and becomes a hero.

"Alligator" is an unusual experience. On one hand, it seems very amateurish, almost trashy and in the service of seemingly simple horror. But on the other hand, while the main characters are humans, it turns into a comedy that ironizes and spoofs their mentality with ease, which is mostly daft and shrill. The bodyguard of a rich man who shoots at the alligator; identification of dog corpses; souvenirs of the reptile - the motives of the screenplay by John Sayles are very bizarre and fun, but it's obvious that the director enjoyed his work the most, since he handled the cheap budget with enthusiasm, which is why "Alligator" seems a level above other B-horror films like "Piranha". The alligator puppet, it's live counterpart (placed in a miniature town to make it look larger) and some of it's killing were crafted stupid, yet at the same time the film is simply perspicacious and has style whereas Robert Forster is great in the leading role. Despite the film not being famous, "Alligator" is an enviable cult.

Grade:++

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rear Window



Rear Window; thriller-drama, USA, 1954; D: Alfred Hitchcock, S: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Photographer L.B. Jefferies broke his left leg and from there on spends the days in a wheelchair, bored and alone in his apartment. But the next week his orthopedic cast is finally going to get removed and his girlfriend Lisa visits him. One night he wakes up because he heard a scream and spots his neighbor Torwald through the window, having an argument with his wife. The next day, the wife is gone while Torwald is chopping something with an axe. He hires a detective, but he doesn't discover anything. Jefferies realizes that he killed her, but needs evidence. By luring Torwald outside, Jefferies' nurse examines the soil and Lisa his apartment. Torwald captures her and goes on to attack Jefferies, who flashes him with his flashbulbs. The police arrests Torwald, while Jefferies falls out of the window. Case solved, but now he has two broken legs.

"Rear Window" is one of the reason why Alfred Hitchcock is remembered even today, and why he should be more considered as the 'master of experiment' than the 'master of suspense', whereas he even announced how he considers it one of his favorite films. "Window" is quite frankly a subtle ode to voyeurism, a story set around the hero, Jefferies (very good James Stewart), who never leaves his room throughout the entire film (!) - except for a few scenes towards the end - from which he observes his neighbors through the window, which is why his perspective becomes the movie's only perspective, and in some other director's hands this could have turned out boring, even monotone, but in Hitchcock's hands it was transformed into a simple murder mystery that intrigues. He has sense for subtle details in the exposition in which he shows the orthopedic cast of the hero that has a signature stating: "Here lie the broken bones" or even the photo of the formula in the sole moment of the crash. Hitchcock again toys with the audience because he doesn't explicitly show the murder, but just how Jefferies saw something through the window at night, and the camera doesn't even leave the apartment when Lisa goes on to sneak in into the apartment of the suspicious neighbor, who is shown on the other window, right next to her. Because of such distanced approach, the story brings the viewers to want to engage in it more. It's a occasionally stiff and not that suspenseful, but well developed thriller. It was nominated for an Oscar (best director, screenplay, sound and cinematography), for a BAFTA (best film) while it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award (best actress Grace Kelly).

Grade:+++

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jackie Brown


Jackie Brown; Crime, USA, 1997; D: Quentin Tarantino, S: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker

Los Angeles. The 44-year old stewardess Jackie Brown is practically sentenced to a monotone life, working for a measly salary of 16.000 $ a year for an airline. So she is smuggling money to the US for Ordell, up until ATF agent Ray catches her and forces her to bring her boss into a trap so that he can arrest him. Also, bail bondsman Max bails Jackie out of prison and becomes fond of her. In the end, she tricks them both: she tells Ray she will hand over Ordell, and at the same time she tells Ordell she is cheating Ray. She steals half a million $, Ordell kills Louis while Ray kills him. And she gets away, kissing Max before she leaves.

When Quentin Tarantino took 3 years to make his 3rd film, assembled an all star cast - both stars like Robert De Niro and stars of long forgotten blaxploitation films like Pam Grier - and adapted Elmore Leonard's crime novel "Rum Punch", the expectations were high and many thought he will top the success and hype of his first two films, but in the end the audience didn't find the film that "cool" and it subsequently grossed only 39 million $ at the US box office. Still, "Jackie Brown" is excellent, one of those classic, juicy crime films that lean more on details and directorial interventions than on cheap action. Tarantino here introduces long camera shots and in the finale shows the money exchange three times, each time from a perspective of a different character, which is effective despite the fact that it's a trick that has been done already in numerous films. It really seems Tarantino became more mature here: he is able to show such scenes like the one where Ordell and Louis are watching TV clips of women in bikinis promoting guns and make them look original even though they were stolen from "Beverly Hills Cop 3", whereas the mood is contagiously calm - despite violence, the story is much gentler than Tarantino's first two films because this time the main protagonist is a female being. Maybe it's a pity that actors like Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda are slightly underused, but the story is very smooth while the excellent Robert Forster, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor, became the most sympathetic character of the year as Max.

Grade:+++

Monday, February 16, 2009

Out of Sight


Out of Sight; Crime, USA, 1998; D: Steven Soderbergh, S: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Steve Zahn, Isaiah Washington, Albert Brooks, Catherine Keener, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson

Robber Jack Foley goes to a bank and asks a cashier to give him money or otherwise his friend behind him will apparently shoot the boss - but it's a lie because that "friend" is some man who doesn't even know him and carries no gun. The police arrests Jack and puts him in jail, but he escapes through a tunnel where he and his friend Buddy take police officer Karen Sisco as a hostage. But she persuades their colleague Glen to run away with her. Occasionally, Jack and Karen stumble upon each other, but don't do anything because they fell in love. Jack plans a robbery of a mansion of the rich Ripley with Buddy and three other criminals who intend to rape a housemaid, so he kills them after he find diamonds. Karen shoots Jack in the leg and arrests him.

From Elmore Leonard's novel "Out of Sight" came this unconventional crime film full of wonderfully polished mood and neat ideas, among others the fact that actor Michael Keaton appears some 42 minutes into the film and reprises his role as police agent Ray, who already appeared a year earlier in "Jackie Brown", another adaptation of Leonard's opus. "Out of Sight" was nominated for 2 Oscars (best adapted screenplay, editing) and is convergent to the movie opus of talented director Steven Soderbergh, who will direct the acclaimed drama "Traffic" two years later, but it's still slightly unfinished, occasionally lukewarm and towards the end rather worn out. But the film simply has so many highlights that it would be a sin to dismiss it, from top-notch dialogues ("He has to pay me money or else I'll kill him!" - "But if he's dead he can't give you money." - "Well, then I'll wound him." - "But then he will be transported to another prison." - "...Why don't you go outside and smoke?" - "I don't smoke.") or humorous moments (a thief trips on the stairs and accidentally shoots himself dead), yet the most thorough virtue that shines through the film is the sole inspirational-refreshing idea of having an attractive, beautiful woman, Karen Sisco, play a tough police officer and interact with the charming robber Jack - that came from Leonard when he saw a picture a female federal marshal in Detroit News - which creates such an elegant energy that it's easily one of 2-3 best performances of Jennifer Lopez's entire career.

Grade:++

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Paper


The Paper; Satire, USA, 1994; D: Ron Howard, S: Michael Keaton, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei, Randy Quaid, Jason Robards

The story follows 24 hours in life of Henry Hackett, editor of the unsuccessful newspaper "New York Sun". His biggest assignment is to discover details that would prove two Black people, convicted of murder, are actually innocent. There are also unnecessary arguments with his boss Bernie, stubborn Alicia and wife Martha who is expecting to give birth any moment. The publishes a sensational news, but everything just remains the same as always.

Mild "The Paper" definitely doesn't have that satirical edge and sharpness that would be expected at such stories, which is why compared to the excellent "Parenthoood" it seems that the ambitions of director Ron Howard deflated, but compared to some of his mediocre mainstream films, this is still a good result. There is not enough humor here to ignite the story - except in some notable exceptions, like when editor Henry (good Michael Keaton) observes the map of Florida and cynically comments how it looks like a "hanging penis" - yet the story is so madly obsessed and focused on details that it's sometimes a real treat to watch all those small events in a newspaper office revolving more around politics than objective journalism. One has to praise the authors for managing to make the film look simple and keep it's oversight, while an additional relationship with quality was made with a choice of great actors who made their roles better than they were written, especially Marisa Tomei as the pregnant Martha.

Grade:++

Multiplicity


Multiplicity; Fantasy comedy, USA, 1996; D: Harold Ramis, S: Michael Keaton, Andie MacDowell, Zack Duhame, Katie Schlossberg, Harris Yulin, Eugene Levy, Brian Doyle-Murray

Doug Kinney is a stressed construction engineer who always complains of having too much work and too little time for his wife Laura and children Zack and Jennifer. So he meets up with a scientists who developed the method of cloning humans and asks him to make a clone of himself to help him share his work. The cloning is a success, and the clone, called "Two", is helpful, but also an annoying macho. "Two" makes a clone of himself, "Three", who is feminine, and "Four", who is half-retarded. When the original Doug becomes annoyed, among others because they sleep with his wife, they agree to leave and open their own Pizza shop.

Harold Ramis, after directing one of the best comedies of the 90's, "Groundhog Day", still has sufficient taste for the lesser Sci-Fi comedy "Multiplicity". Even though that film is quite weaker due to the rather heavy handed comic approach towards the cloning and too mainstream setting, it's still a very imaginative achievement: some observations and ideas are intelligent (the opening credits appear multiplied on the screen), many scenes are funny while the charm is simply indisputable in such scenes like when Doug is beating one of his clones with a bouquet of flowers or when he cooperates with "himself". The idea of having clone "Four" turn out dumb was wrong, but Michael Keaton enjoys his performance as four Dougs, especially as the amusing clone "Two" and "Three", who are surprisingly opposite as a macho wise guy and a gentle feminine man. Some of the banal gags are cheap, yet Ramis has just enough style and sharpness to carry the film even at weaker moments. Still, that idyllic result is rather ruined by a strange ending and Ramis' influence on the marionette Andie MacDowell's character and emotions.

Grade:++

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Rhythm of Crime


Ritam zločina; Fantasy drama, Croatia/ Serbia, 1981; D: Zoran Tadić, S: Ivica Vidović, Fabijan Šovagović, Božidarka Frajt, Dragutin Klobučar, Zdenka Trach

Teacher Ivica lives alone in his house in Trnje in Zagreb. In a few weeks his home will be torn down because the government plans to build an apartment building there, so he is surprised when an unknown statistics expert, Fabijan, begs him to be his tenant. Ivica takes him in and they become friends. Fabijan tells him about his unusual hobby: statistical predictions of crime. According to him, intellectuals commit crimes during winter and underground members during summer, so he predicts that in the house of Zdenka, Ivica's ex girlfriend, a burglary will occur. And that really happens. Fabijan also predicts the evasion of a secretary and his own death on the river. Ivica continues with his work.

In '97, Aronofsky shot the unusual Sci-Fi drama "Pi" that had a concept about a young genius who discovered a number that could explain and predict the events in the whole Universe, but, unfortunately, he didn't exploit the rich potentials of the story. Little is known that a similar story appeared already in 1981 in the unknown cult drama "The Rhythm of Crime" that used the premise somewhat more active: in it, expert Fabijan (very good Fabijan Šovagović) uses statistical data to calculate when and how some crime will happen in the town, by which the story poses a few thought provoking questions about human free will, fate and destiny. In one amusing scene, Fabijan wins in a chess game and Ivica asks him jokingly: "Do you even use your statistics to win at chess?", while he replies with: "Yes. We just have to imagine that white pieces represent good, progress, and the black evil!" The best sequence, however, is when he calculates that a fight will break loose in a bar, so he sits there and waits with a bedazzled Ivica for it. After a few hours, they are ready to leave, but just then some guy really loses his temper and hits some other guy, which causes Fabijan to say: "There! See?" Director Zoran Tadic crafts the film in a competent and wonderfully calm way, but in the end one has got to admit that a lot more could have been made out of the tantalizing concept, while there is no suspense in the story, despite it being very enjoyable.

Grade:+++

Hero


Ying xiong; Drama/ Action, China, 2002; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Chen Daoming

Ancient China. Nameless warrior enters a castle to get praise from the Emperor because he killed three dangerous assassins in the Qin province. Nameless tells his story: in a temple, he killed a dangerous fighter called Sky. The other two, Flying Snow and Broken Sword, were lovers. When Broken Sword had an affair, Flying Snow killed him, and then Nameless killed her. But then the Emperor realizes that the whole story was a lie and Nameless admits he struck a deal with the assassins in order to kill him from revenge. But Nameless spares the Emperor's life and the guards kill him. Broken Sword and Flying Snow commit suicide.

Nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best foreign language film, "Hero" is an opulent martial arts history epic that contains fine details, but also banal cliches about honor. Zhang Yimou, who before exclusively directed almost dramas, invested the 40 million $ budget really well, but his parallels with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in action are obvious: that's most obvious in the scene where drops of rain "freeze" in the air while warriors Nameless and Sky pass through them or when Nameless and Broken Sword are fighting by jumping and gliding on the surface of a lake. Lot of things are unintentionally comical (Emperor's soldiers lie down on their backs and start shooting arrows from a bow on their legs while the students in the school just continue writing while the arrows are hitting them), no matter how well they are directed and how some critics try to justify them, actually some are so absurd that they seem as if they fell out from Oedekerk's parody "Kung Pow", but on the other hand some moments are real equivalent of poetry (servant Moon dies while the yellow leaves from the forest turn red). Also, the film gathered quite a substantial amount of attention for it's controversial political subtext: unlike numerous Western films that praise love and democracy, Yimou here takes a completely different approach and praises authoritarian government as something superior to liberty and human rights. If the sole hero wasn't so one dimensional, this ambitious film would have been better. And much more realistic!

Grade:++

Friday, February 13, 2009

Not One Less


Yi ge dou bu neng shao; Drama, China, 1999; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Wei Minzhi. Zhang Huike, Tian Zhenda, Gao Enman, Sun Zhimei

The suburbs of Beijing. A teacher of an old school entrusts the 13-year old girl Wei Minzhi to take over his place for a month because he went to visit his sick mother. Wei also gets the promise from the mayor that she will get paid for her job as a substitute teacher. She is only a few years older than her students so she has troubles with authority while some man takes one of her students to place her in another school. One pupil is ditching school in order to work in town so Wei tries to buy a bus ticket to find him. She doesn't have enough money so she leaves by foot. He shows up on television so she finds him, while the school gets financial help.

Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou in gentle social drama "Not One Less" made a critique of the Chinese government and their management of peoples lives in the province, but in a very subtle, almost inappreciable way. The story about the 13-year old girl Wei Minzhi (played by herself) who takes over the role of the teacher even though she is only a few years older than the pupils in the class is crafted like a Chinese neorealist drama filled with amateur actors, made in a cheerful and optimistic way, but the poverty of their environment that suffocates them creates a bitter charge in the background. The most difficult scenes are surprisingly the ones that revolve around normal, everyday situations from life and create and emotional empathy with the viewers, like when Wei begs the pupils to lend her money for a bus ticket, when she shares 2 Coca-Cola cans among the class with 20 children or when the little boy announces how one can survive in the big city only through begging. A convincing tone, but without highlights - one shouldn't expect movie miracles from this film while many grown up actors end up as cliches. It's not that Yimou made something terribly wrong, but he didn't manage to make the story more intense than it is.

Grade:++

Shanghai Triad


Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao; Drama, China/ France, 1995; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Wang Xiao Xiao, Gong Li, Li Baotian, Li Xuejian

Shanghai, 1930's. The 14-year old boy Shui Sheng Tang arrives in town from a village and waits. His uncle picks him up in a truck and he quickly witnesses opium smuggling and murder in a warehouse. But his uncle gets him a job as a servant of singer Jinbao: she is arrogant and cold, but also mistress of a powerful gangster boss, which is why she enjoys numerous privileges. After an assassination, the gangster and his assistants leave to an unknown island and bring Jinbao and Tang with them. She softens up with time towards the kid and also makes friends with a girl of a widow on the island. When Tang overhears a conspiracy on the field, the gangster finds the traitor and kills him together with Jinbao, suspecting her of treason. Tang tries to save her, but fails and is left hanging upside down tied to a ship.

Good and quiet tragic drama "Shanghai Triad" shows the exotic world of gangsters seen from the perspective of the 14-year old boy Tang, limited in a time frame of 7 days, by which it shows their eerie life full of luxury but also danger and constant fear for ones life. Many consider it a parable for the fight for power, but also for friendship between the kid and the attractive singer Jinbao who seems to develop motherly feeling for him towards the end, though while the viewers at the beginning cherish some hopes that they will experience an event, towards the finale it becomes obvious they won't see any miracles here. In this quality film the most original part is the final scene where the camera is placed upside down while even the closing credits are thus rolled backwards, but acclaimed director Zhang Yimou uses the wonderful cinematography only for the beautiful landscapes and almost never to enchant with dialogues, the relationships of the characters or the neat story. The sole tangle really doesn't have that much sparks even though the relationship between the servant kid and singer Jinbao could have been much more interesting since they were wonderfully embodied by Wang Xiao Xiao and Gong Li, Yimou's reoccurring actress. "Triad" was nominated for a Golden Globe (as best foreign language film), the Golden Palm in Cannes and for an Oscar (best cinematography).

Grade:++

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Story of Qiu Ju


Qiu Ju a guan si; Tragicomedy, China, 1992; D: Zhang Yimou, S: Gong Li, Lei Lao Sheng, Ge Zhi Jun, Liu Pei Qi

The pregnant Qiu Ju is transporting her husband in a cart together with his sister. He was namely kicked between the legs by the head of the community because he wanted to plant chili on a land reserved for a farmer. Qiu demands justice and calls the police officer Lee to force the head of the community to apologize. The police forces him to pay 200 Juan, but he throws the money to the ground so that Qiu would duck to pick it up, but she refuses. After that she leaves the village in order to sue him to his superiors and even goes to court, but loses the case. At birth, Qiu bleeds too much so the head of the community helps her. But he gets arrested and she feels a little sorry for him.

Gruelling drama "The Story of Qiu Ju" is a proportionally weak film despite numerous praise, but it has a sarcastic plot that isn't seen too often in Chinese cinema: in the exposition, heroine Qiu Ju is transporting her husband in a cart who later on stands up, limps and enters a hospital, and she then tells how the head of the community kicked him between the legs and that now she will sue him to the supreme court! Out of that concept, someone could have made a funny-satirical film about society, but director Zhang Yimou killed the rhythm with unbearable empty walk. Qiu wins every time in her dispute and gets the money from the head of the community, but because of her stubbornness she also demands an apology so she goes to the court 5 times (!), up until the viewers get tired of the whole thing - except that it's the only thing in the film. Even the dialogues get repeated unnecessary ("Where were you? I've been looking for you! Did something happen to you? Where were you? I've been looking for you!"). It's an ambitious film, but it's pure redundancy.

Grade:+

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie


Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie; Fantasy action, USA, 1995; D: Bryan Spicer, S: Steven Cardenas, Paul Freeman, Karan Ashley, Jason David Frank, Amy Jo Johnson, David Yost

One day, some competent workers accidentally dig out a giant egg and free the mighty demon Ivan Ooze, who wants to rule the world. He unleashes his giant machines and thus destroys the fortress of the Power Rangers - White Ranger, Pink Ranger, Blue Ranger, Red Ranger, Black Ranger and Yellow Ranger. The six of them now has to find their enegry back. They do and return to Earth, deafeating Ivan.

The only real virtue of this practically senseless fantasy action, is Paul Freeman in the excellent role as the cynical and evil Ivan Ooze, but in the end he did his job so well that the audience went on to feel contempt and hate towards the Power Rangers, since they are too good and one dimensional characters. "Power Rangers - The Movie" is otherwise a big budget adaptation of the campy TV show with the same title, and quite frankly it's hard to say which one is better and which one is worse. Again, the critics were predictably annoyed. Rightfully so. Then, what was the director thinking when he placed them so that, while they are fighting, they are flying across the air like Myers in comedy "Wayne's World 2"? Too dumb and naive. It's a film that's stiff, mechanic and completely uninspired, an flick that tolerable but doesn't deserve the adjective "cool", but "headache".

Grade:-

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chariots of Fire


Chariots of Fire; Drama, UK, 1981; D: Hugh Hudson, S: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Nicholas Farrell, Ian Holm, Cheryl Campbell, Alice Krige, John Gielgud

UK, 1919. Harold Abrahams enters the Cambridge University, but his father is a Lithuanian Jew so he feels many despise him for his Jewish religion and heritage. Eric Liddell, a Protestant Christian missionary from Scotland, also goes to Cambridge to participate in the 100 metre race. Abrahams runs in order to break antisemitic prejudice, Liddell in order to praise God. At a test race, Liddell wins but the trainer chooses Abrahams to improve his capacity. Abrahams meets a singer in the opera and starts a relationship with her. 5 years later, they participate at the Summer Olympics, but problems occur when Liddell refuses to run on Sunday. Abrahams wins the gold, while Liddell also wins.

"Chariots of Fire", an eloquent sports film about running and the feature length directorial debut of Hugh Hudson, were awarded, surprisingly, with 4 Oscars (for best picture, screenplay, costumes and score), 3 BAFTA awards (best film, costumes, supporting actor Ian Holm) and one Golden Globe (best foreign film - even though that category is a direct contradiction compared to the Oscars). Yet looking at it today, the only category that truly passed the test of time and deserved it's award was Vangelis for his truly legendary score, one of the finest musical achievements of the 1980's, a synthesizer music that is often used in numerous films and TV shows during triumphant winning situations. On the other hand, the true story about two heroes who run in order to break prejudice is emotional, but as a whole slightly partial and monotone. Namely, the direction is passive and "too safe", except in marvelous slow-motion scenes of running, the events marginalized and the characters without color. Still, it has a lot of quality, like when Abrahams says: "I'm not running to lose!" or when he enlists to the Cambridge University and responds to two gentlemen not to call him "boy". Today, "Chariots" are not quite a classic, but one has to give praise to the authors for showing the hero how he is sad, even after he won.

Grade:++

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Fantasy tragicomedy, USA, 2004; D: Michel Gondry, S: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo

"Valentine's Day was invented so that people would feel like crap". The lonely Joel decides one day to spontaneously not go to work but to enter a train heading towards a beach in Montauk, where he accidentally meets the cheerful Clementine. They become a couple but then discover they already were a couple but that they erased their memory of each other at Dr. Howard's new clinic when they entered an argument. Still, they decide to give it another try.

Imaginative screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has a gift for coming up with a perfect idea for a story, but often leaves the impression as if he didn't know where to go with it half way through. Unlike pretentious Jonze, director Michel Gondry decided to form his story more subtly in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - that got it's title from the poem "Eloisa to Abelard" by Alexander Pope - a romance fantasy which shines with cheerful performance by Kate Winslet as Clementine, but even with a refreshingly sustained Jim Carrey who is otherwise a questionable actor. The film consists out of 3 chapters. The first and the third one are fascinating. In the first, a quiet mood prevails throughout while it follows Joel how he meets Clementine on the beach on Valentine's Day. She is so full of energy she invites him into her apartment and jokingly says: "I'm definitely going to marry you!"

The scene where the two of them are lying on ice and inventing bogus names for stars in the sky is also wonderful and emotional. The third chapter just shortly repeats their encounter and brings a happy ending. Yet, unfortunately, the second, center chapter, in which Joel is erasing his memory of her, is heavily going on one's nerves. Instead of trimming it to a minimum, the authors overstretched Joel's hallucinations to agonizing 50 minutes - the most stupid scene is the one where he "hides" his (memory of) Clementine in his childhood (hoping to "save her" from the machine that erases all traces of her), so a dwarf Carrey is standing next to a giant Winslet. Utter garbage. And a pity, since it wrecks the otherwise really interesting concept where absolutely every scene in the film could just be someone's memory. "Sunshine" is a quality film, but it still make too many mistakes to remain in ideal memory. Kaufman won a BAFTA and an Oscar for best screenplay.

Grade:+++

Monday, February 9, 2009

Adaptation


Adaptation; Grotesque, USA, 2002; D: Spike Jonze, S: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Brian Cox, Ron Livingston, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gets an assignment from Valerie to write a screenplay of reporter Susan Orlean's non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief". The book chronicles how Susan met John Laroche, a fanatic flower fan who is looking for a mysterious orchid. John had a car crash in which he lost a part of his teeth, his aunt and uncle. Charlie quickly realizes his bizarre imagination can't start anything with the gentle story about flowers while his twin brother Donald writes a script for thriller "Three" with ease. Charlie and Donald meet John and Susan and thus discover that they are killers. Donald dies, John is killed by a crocodile, while Charlie writes his screenplay about his adventure.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrote in "Adaptation" a half-true story about himself as the main character (!) writing a screenplay in order to adapt the book "The orchid Thief", which offered a whole bunch of self-references and ironic toying with reality: the film has many genius, but also many irritating-pretentious scenes. In the opening shots, Kaufman (not the real Kaufman, but played by Nicolas Cage) is touring the set of his first film "Being John Malkovich" (!) and contemplates about his life and it's meaning - there's a cut that shows scenes of lava coming from a volcano (with subtitles stating it's Hollywood in Precambrian), the appearance of microorganisms, fishes, dinosaurs and in the end, humans. Equally brilliant is the scene where Kaufman is in his thoughts "narrating", but when his mentor for writing screenplays, Mr. McKee, warns his students: "And don't let me catch you using a narrator in your scripts!", his inner voice instantly shuts up.

But the 2 Golden Globes, for best supporting actor Chris Cooper and supporting actress Meryl Streep, and Oscar for Cooper, were given completely desultory since their characters are rather useless: yes, it's clear that Kaufman was making an ironic jab at "selling out" when writing a screenplay for big budget movies when he promised how he won't write cliches about "characters who change or grow" in the first half, just to do exactly that in the second half of the film when John and Susan turn out to be killers (!) so John gets killed by a crocodile while Susan starts pathetically speaking: "I want to be a baby again!" It was meant to be funny, but alas, director Jonze completely missed the point and directed that whole finale as a deadly serious B action flick that seems banal and arbitrarily. The real Kaufman lost himself in the context - despite the ironic metamovie references and his creativity, here he simply lacks humor, while the grotesque touch is tedious.

Grade:++

Being John Malkovich


Being John Malkovich; Fantasy satire, USA, 1999; D: Spike Jonze, S: John Cusack, John Malkovich, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, Orson Bean, Mary Kay Place, Charlie Sheen

Craig is a downfallen puppeteer who lives with his wife Lotty, a pet shop owner. One day he finds a job in a building, on floor 7 1/2: there, everyone is weird, the boss is Mr. Lester while the ceiling is only 5 feet tall. When he drops his papers behind a cabinet, Craig finds a tunnel that leads him to a strange experience - his body disappears and he sees everything through the eyes of actor John Malkovich, but after 15 minutes he gets "expelled" and returns back to normal. He quickly starts selling tickets for the curious people and tries to seduce colleague Maxine, but she hates him. Thus Craig enters Malkovich's mind for permanent and marries Maxine. But Lester expels him since he used the portal as a host to prolong his life. Craig and some older people enter his mind again and become part of the mind of Malkovich's daughter, Emily.

This bizarre mix between satire and fantasy gathered screenwriter Charlie Kaufman instant attention for his, then rarely seen, audacious wild imagination that pushed the envelope and played with the reality (for starters, if John Malkovich refused to star in the film, would he have changed the title?) in this simple hypothetical idea in which people can take on the persona of the title actor and experience his life for 15 minutes. Through it, Kaufman presents a hidden critique of people without a real personality, identity, media, manipulation and absence of real life, yet it's somehow hard to shake off the impression that the story is just a different variation of the film "Truman's Show". It has a few amusing and funny moment, like the wacky video that explains how an Irish man built the short ceiling on floor 7 1/2 because he met a dwarf woman ("Can I ask you something?" - "Be gone, demon!" - "I just want to tell you how hard it is for us dwarfs..." - "Marry me!") or the sequence where Malkovich himself enters the portal to his mind and comes to a world full of his clones, which clearly shows how Kaufman uses no "gloves" when he writes his strange ideas on the screenplay. It's a symbolic film that causes awe, but it's also cold and slightly unfinished since the characters are all puppets, while precisely because of the for the imagination stimulative story, he and director Jonze didn't exploit all it's possibilities to the fullest.

Grade:++

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Day After Tomorrow


The Day After Tomorrow; Science-fiction adventure, USA, 2004; D: Roland Emmerich, S: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum, Arjay Smith, Sela Ward

Climatologist Jack Hall warns the US president and vice president about global warming, but they don't listen. When the measurements show that the melting of the polar ice disrupted the North Atlantic current, Dr. Rapson tells Jack how his prediction for the weather model will happen faster then he expects. After a tornado passes through Los Angeles and the sea floods New York, Jack realizes three giant storm will put the whole world in a new ice age in 7-10 days, so the president orders all Americans to run to the south. Jack's son Sam stayed with his friends in New York, just when the extremely cold ice storm showed up. Jack is able to find them alive. In the end, the US president vows to take more care of the environment in the future.

Roland Emmerich chose global warming and climate change as the topic for his science-fiction disaster movie "The Day After Tomorrow", giving it thus a higher dose of clear social commentary and political subtext than his simpler, action packed "Godzilla" - though even that film could be seen as a sly commentary of the clumsy nuclear testings across the world. As a master of special effects, Emmerich was always much more inspired when he directed spectacular sequences of destruction than quiet human drama, and that's why whenever there are special effects in the film, it is engaging: the sequence of a tornado rampaging across Los Angeles, destroying the Hollywood sign, is amazing, and the moment where a tsunami floods New York is a small legend. Emmerich, as a German director working for Hollywood, seems to have an unusual caprice of loving to destroy American monuments in his films, but when there's a point to this like here when he brings his message across, it's somewhat understandable. Yet, whenever Denis Quaid, Jake Gylenhaal, Emmy Rossaum or any other character is in the center of the story, the film seems boring, stiff and bothersome since the authors didn't know how to make them look like interesting. More or less, they are just there to keep the film going. From the scientific standpoint, the events revolving around a new ice age are almost laughable, but when the whole thing is so packed with thrills and suspense, it works anyway.

Grade:++

Paper Moon


Paper Moon; tragicomedy, USA, 1973; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, P.J. Johnson, Jesse Lee Fulton, Randy Quaid
USA during the economic crisis of the 1930's. Moses Pray is a poor loser who knows how to manage in life: he goes from house to house and sells expensive Bibles to widows, claiming they were ordered by their husbands before they died. On the funeral of a former girlfriend, he meets girl Addie (10) who is supposedly his daughter. Due to circumstances, he promises he will bring her to her aunt. But, he quickly discovers that Addie causes sympathy from people who are willing to pay more for their Bible. On their way, Moses picks up easy girl Dixie who exploits him so Addie gets rid of her. New problems appear with aggressive Sheriff who catches them smuggling alcohol. They manage to escape. In the end, she doesn't want to stay at her aunt and remains with Moses.

Bitter-sweet melancholic comedy "Paper Moon" again displays how little it takes to make an interesting film: it is arguably Peter Bogdanovich's finest hour as a director, since he got so much out of so little. It starts in a twisted-comical way: the main protagonist Moses shows up late with his car on the funeral of his ex girlfriend. While he is walking to her coffin, he realizes he came with empty hands - so he just takes flowers from some other grave. The exposition where he unwillingly takes the little girl Addie, reminds a little bit of Fellini's "The Road", and even later on do the parallels show up: the whole story is constructed in the format of a simple road movie where only the two main protagonists are important, while all others are just supporting characters who just enrich the friendship between them.

Despite too much babble at times, Bogdanovich directs the film in a sovereign and confident way, never allowing to turn little Addie into a too sugary character: even though she is only 10, she already smokes (!) and helps cheat people to get their money, like in the scene where she claims she payed 20 $ even though she gave only 5. Tatum O'Neal won an Oscar as best supporting actress for that role, becoming the youngest actress ever to win that award - whether it was a right decision to give the Oscar to her at such a young age and not the screenplay or the director who were much more responsible for the overall quality of the film is a matter of debate, even more so that she won it for supporting actress category when she was clearly the leading actress, yet it is undeniably that she performed her part wonderfully. Bogdanovich's opus oscillates too much, but in the 70s he was a really talented director.

Grade:+++

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Thing Called Love


The Thing Called Love; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix, Dermot Mulroney, Sandra Bullock

The young Miranda has ambitions of becoming a Country singer and writer so she moves from New York to Nashville in order to participate in an audition, but she gets there late so she is forced to wait one week until a new one is organized. She meets a chaotic young guy, James, who is also a Country fan, and Kyle. She finds a place to stay in a nearby motel but cancels it to save her money and moves at her friend Linda. Miranda falls out at a competition so she takes a job as a waitress. James takes her to Graceland where they get married, but as they return they enter into arguments more and more. Miranda leaves him and decides to return to New York, but changes her mind and wins at the competition, while James returns to her.

Peter Bogdanovich overwhelmed the critics with his 2nd film "The Last Picture Show", but in this superficial Country music drama he is in critical lack of inspiration, which is why "The Thing Called Love" talks about Country music but it is featured very scarcely throughout the film, and even the soundtrack is quite thin. Bogdanovich knows how to occasionally fill a situation really good, but his genius from the 70s was obviously left behind in the 90s, whereas the biggest blames go to the empty story filled with overlong and ordinary dialogues, while the running time was painfully overstretched to 110 minutes, even though could have objectively speaking ended in only 40. Besides the fact that this is one of the last films starring River Phoenix before his death, Samantha Mathis is the only real virtue here, but sadly, 1993 wasn't such a good year for her, which is why "Love" grossed only 1.1 million $ at the US box office.

Grade:+

King of the Hill


King of the Hill; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Steven Soderbergh, S: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbé, Lisa Eichhorn, Karen Allen, Elizabeth McGovern, Spalding Grey, Katherine Heigl, Adrien Brody

USA in the 1930's is struck by economic crisis. The young Aaron is reading essays full of lies in the school and always wins in a marble game, but also lives in deep poverty: father Eric has difficulties selling candles, the mother is suffering from tuberculosis in the hospital while they live in a hotel with so much debts that they might land on the street any moment. Eric sends his younger child Sullivan to his uncle, which leaves Aaron very lonely. His only friend is a young lad, Lester. When Eric leaves for a business trip, Aaron stays all by himself. He tries to earn as a porter, a caddy or a canary seller, until Eric comes home and tells him he got a great job so they move to their own house.

Steven Soderbergh, before his great comeback with "Traffic" in 2000's, was crossed out by Hollywood in the 90s when he made mostly unnoticed films, one of which stands out with ease, the excellent drama "King of the Hill" with a sharp social critique. Though, one shouldn't mix it up with Mike Judge's TV comedy show with the same title. In this film, every character is poor, but the main protagonist Aaron, in impressive performance by the then 14-year old Jesse Bradford, is optimistic and wonderfully intelligent kid who manages in almost every situation, and even goes to work despite the fact that he is a minor. Among the great sequences is also the one where he steals the confiscated goods and returns them to their owners together with Lester, equipped with smalltalk ("Don't even mention it. No really, don't mention it at all!") or when he writes a letter for his father whose words can be heard reading it in the background. Soderbergh directs the film in an astoundingly simple and effective way, and one can only wonder why it was forgotten with time.

Grade:+++

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Very Long Engagement


Un long dimanche de fiançailles; Drama, France/ USA, 2004; D: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, S: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Chantal Neuwirth, André Dussollier, Ticky Holdago, Marion Cotillard, Jodie Foster, Tchéky Karyo

World War I. Five soldiers, convicted of self-mutilation in order to escape from the battlefield, are sentenced to death between the French and German trench lines. It seems all of them were killed, but Mathilde, the 20-year old girlfriend of one of the soldiers, Manech, believes he is still alive. Mathilde limps and lives with her adoptive parents peacefully, until she goes to Paris to hire a private detective to discover if Manech is alive or not. She also looks for documents and people connected with the event, like prostitute Tina Lombardi. Just as she loses every hope, the detective informs her that he found Manech alive and that he had amnesia when he was shot in the war, which is why he never informed anyone.

Even though "A Very Long Engagement", an adaptation of Sébastien Japrisot's novel with the same title, is filled with dazzling moments, it's somehow not as engaging as expected. Namely, it's definitely a very ambitious film with a complicated investigation story that cleverly flip-flops between Mathilde's segment and her fiance Manech whose story is uncertain, but the film is so crammed with everything that it's dozen subplots and endless wanderings become tiresome after a while, among others maybe because it lacks heart and real emotions. Among the film's virtues was definitely the pick of charming Audrey Tautou to play Mathilde, who managed to give her spark during her stiff situations, and especially during a few shrill moments (in one scene, Mathilde wakes up in her bed at night and spots her cat sitting in front of a crashed lamp which caused a small fire on the floor. She quickly pours water and extinguishes the fire, angrily looking at the cat, saying: "I knew you were a crook, but a pyroman too?!"). The film's second trump card was inspiring director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who knows how to make wonderful shot compositions: his visual style is so refined that he even makes a small spectacle out of the wind stroking the meadow or camera flying around the light tower. The authors went through great detail to relive that time period and even casted Jodie Foster in a small role, yet as a whole the film didn't manage to capture the right tone and sparkle in full light. Still, for all of it's enthusiasm, it should be appreciated more.

Grade:++

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?


What's Eating Gilbert Grape?; Drama, USA, 1993; D: Lasse Hallström, S: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Darlene Cates, Laura Harrington, John C. Reilly

Iowa. The young Gilbert Grape is carrying a big responsibility on his shoulders. His father died, he works in a store and takes care of his mentally handicapped brother Arnie (18) and their obese, 500 pound other Bonnie. He also has an affair with the older and married woman called Betty, a mother of two children. After he falls in love with teenager Becky he starts thinking about getting away from his life. Betty's husband dies while a new supermarket opens in the area. Then Becky leaves and Gilbert's mother dies. He burns down his house, cashes in on the insurance and runs away with his brother.

Unbelievably smooth and proper melodrama carries the intrinsic handwriting by director Lasse Hallstrom: he avoids any kind of commercialization in his films and his unusual-gentle characters are very important to him. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" truly has a few unusual, almost bizarre characters that seem like some grotesque at first look, like the 500 pound mother or the hero without a will, but a closer look reveals their feelings and let's the viewers know them, which is why they become understandable and seem serious. It's a pity there is no real plot, but the atmosphere is honest and free of kitsch. Maybe some moments could have been handled better, but they way it is, "Gilbert" is a truly fine film, and Hallstrom even avoided the cliche of the mentally handicapped people in movies with Arnie, since Leonardo DiCaprio plays him refreshingly simple and sympathetic, even in scenes where he is screaming from happiness, which is why he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as best supporting actor.

Grade:+++

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Freaked


Freaked; Fantasy comedy, USA, 1993; D: Tom Stern, Alex Winter, S: Alex Winter, Megan Ward, Randy Quaid, Michael Stoyanov, Mr. T, Bobcat Goldthwait, Derek McGrath, William Sadler, Brooke Shields, Morgan Fairchild, Keanu Reeves

In some show, famous actor Ricky Coogan tells his story hidden behind a shadow: the E.E.S. company hired him to be their promoter for a toxic fertilizer "Zygrot-24", and he accepted for a 5 million $ salary even though one employee transformed himself into a child with a moustache in front of his eyes. After he threw a fanboy from a flying airplane, Ricky and his friend Ernie came to South America, where he followed environmentalist Julie to one amusement park, "Freaked", and saw a fat man with a frog tongue. His creator was the bearded Skuggs, who used "Zygrot" to make a half-man half-monster from Ricky, while he merged Julie and Ernie into a two-headed creature and closed them into a toilette. There they also met man-sock, man-cow, man-woman, man-worm, man-fart, man-dog. They entertained the audience until they dug out a tunnel out and ran away.

Complicated fantasy comedy by director/actor Alex Winter, "Freaked" are an unusual but also funny film, that isn't too "hard" for viewers younger than 12 because Winter was still a person more inclined towards humor, than horror. Their potential fear is somehow close to "Gremlins 2", but the humor reminds a lot towards some black "Simpson" episode: it has an equal amount of wild (throwing up; Winter decapitates the head of the bad guy and throws it into the eyefield of the camera which goes red; fast-forward scenes) and tame jokes (man-woman; parody moments), combining silly and sharp, childish and adult. It has style, but it's truly filled with everything which is why despite it's short running time of 80 minutes it seems too long, the ending is happy but contains too much weirdness, yet despite that or maybe precisely because of that tone that separates it from "normal" movies, "Freaked" rightfully enjoys cult status. Among the unbelievable jokes is the fast-forward scene where the hero Ricky pushes his fanboy and a table from a flying airplane.

Grade:++

The Sheltering Sky


The Sheltering Sky; Drama, UK/ Italy/ Algeria, 1990; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: Debra Winger, John Malkovich, Campbell Scott, Jill Bennett, Timothy Spall

Porter and his wife Kit leave New York in order to take a trip across North Africa, hoping to refresh their marriage. The slimy Tunner, who is secretly in love with Kit, came with them. One night, Porter leaves the city and finds a prostitute in a nearby tent, but gets attacked by thieves. He manages to save himself and continues his journey with Kit and Tunner across the Sahara. After an affair with Kit, Tunner leaves early for the town Mossad. Porter is contaminated with typhus and dies. Kit joins a few Beduins and lands in Nigeria. There she is found by an ambassador.

Considering it's low reputation, forgotten drama "The Sheltering Sky" is a surprisingly skilfull, ambitious and qualitative achievement, whereas she even won a few awards (Golden Globe for best score and a nomination for best director Bernardo Bertolucci; a BAFTA for best cinematography). Bertolucci is an arguably rather overrated director who is often tedious, and not even this film is an exception (the last half an hour an intolerably overstretched), but it is adorned with minuteness of details (Kit and Porter have intercourse on the desert; a desert storm brings sand in the room through the door) while the neat visual style of suggestive landscapes reminds a little bit of classic epic "Lawrence". Also, the sole context is interesting, in which a couple travels through exotic places is search for their idenitity, but gets assimilated by them.

Grade:++

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Last Tango in Paris


Ultimo Tango a Parigi; Erotic drama, France/ Italy, 1972; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Maria Michi, Catherine Breillat, Massimo Girotti

Paris. American Paul angrily walks through the streets. The young French girl Jeanne is searching for an apartment and finds it, passing by a wacky receptionist. Paul and Jeanne meet in the apartment and suddenly, without any shame, start a passionate erotic relationship. From that day the two of them meet there regularly, not even knowing each other's names, and occasionally speak about their sad childhood. When she is not in the apartment, she talks with her fiance Tom who is a making a documentary about her while Paul is arguing with his mother because his wife Rosa committed suicide. Paul can't have kids so Jeanne leaves him. He follows her so she shoots him.

"Last Tango in Paris" is the most famous film by director Bernardo Bertolucci, much better than his overrated "The Last Emperor": here he analyses the relationship between a pessimistic couple who don't care about norms or limitations whereas the story is constantly traversing from demanding to boring, and back. Calling the film erotically provocative is maybe a bit of a stretch since the first intercourse starts some 12 minutes into the film, while there are only 5 erotic sequences in the entire 126 minutes of running time (thus with an average 25 minutes of "dramatic pause" between them), while they are also show in a rather scarce way for today's standards. Much more attention was given to psychology and existential themes, though the point of the story still remains vague even to this day. It's interesting that both English and French are spoken in the film, and some moments were really well done, but the characters are too empty, lax and confusing. But the joke that gives an erotic interpretation to the Little Red Riding Hood ("Why do you have such big hands?") is quite amusing. "Tango" was nominated for 2 Oscars (best director, actor Marlon Brando), 2 Golden Globes (best motion picture - drama, director) and one BAFTA (best actor M. Brando).

Grade:++

The Dreamers


The Dreamers; Erotic drama, France/ Italy/ UK, 2003; D: Bernardo Bertolucci, S: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel, Anna Chancellor, Robin Renucci

Paris, '68. The times are in turmoil, but the 20-year old American student Matthew is only interested in movies and cinema. One day he meets two filmophilles in front of the theaters: the young Isabelle and her twin brother Theo, who become his friends. They invite him to live in their apartment while their parents are on some trip, and he accepts. But he soon realizes they are not ashamed to show their naked bodies to each other, which shocks him. After a lost bet, Matthew is "punished" by having intercourse with Isabelle while Theo observes: at first he refuses but later on does it anyway and discovers she was still a virgin. Their relationship complicates. One morning she wakes up, realizes her parents saw her naked with her brother and decides to kill herself. But she is stopped by the student rebellions.

"The Dreamers" combine the typical calligraphy for director Bernardo Bertolucci: erotic, Marxist philosophy and existentialism, but with a big exception - unlike most of his films, this is completely unpretentious and wonderfully natural. Actually, "The Dreamers" are one of his better films. The first half is the best with the highlight of characters debating about films: Isabelle (excellent Eva Green in her film debut) is hugging a room impersonating a scene from "Queen Kristina" while Theo and Matthew are arguing about who is better: Keaton or Chaplin (which culminates in a memorable quote: "Keaton is better! He even looks like Godard!"). The numerous movie references are wonderfully refreshing while Bertolucci directs the film with an easy hand. Some would say that the second half contains only erotic and nude scenes, but the confusement during growing up and fine poetry are combined together with sufficient harmony.

Grade:++