Monday, February 27, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey

In the Land of Blood and Honey; war drama, USA, 2011; D: Angelina Jolie, S: Zana Marjanović, Goran Kostić, Rade Šerbedžija, Vanesa Glođo, Nikola Đuričko, Branko Đurić

Sarajevo. A young Bosniak painter, Ajla, meets a Serb police officer, Danijel, in a night bar. Their potential relationship is interrupted, however, when the Bosnian War erupts. Ajla is deported to a camp run by the Army of Republika Srpska, but she meets Danijel there, who - as son of Nebojša, general of the Army of Republika Srpska - tries to make her stay there more comfortable and thinks they can continue their relationship. After she betrays him, he kills her, but regrets it instantly. He then quits the army and turns himself in to the international authorities.

Nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign language film, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut "In the Land of Blood and Honey" - possibly deriving its title from the eponymous series of photos of the Yugoslav Wars by photojournalist Ron Haviv - became an infamous example of smear campaign when a part of public from Republika Srpska crashed its rating on IMDb through organized low voting. Others complained at the story for not adding a "balance" in the conflict, for showing Sebs in general in a negative light. The first part of the complaint does not stand - can you, for instance, imagine "adding a balance" in "The Killing Fields" and "Come and See" by showing the Khmer Rouge and the SS as misunderstood guys who just wanted to do something good? - yet the second part of the complaint does have a point since Jolie unfortunately fell into the trap of (occasional) black and white portrait of Serbs, not just the Army of Republika Srpska. She manages to outweigh it at some occasions, though (for instance, in one scene a Bosniak woman says that she does not like Serbs, but a Bosniak man intervenes by saying they are "not all the same", even adding that his own mother is a Serb), and even the seemingly one-dimensional bad guy, general Nebjoša (Rade Serbedzija), has a scene where he reveals to be a far more complex character (when he gives a long rant about how his mother was executed in World War II by the Axis-allied Muslim forces, which is the reason why he thinks he is fighting for the right cause).

The movie is, overall, surprisingly good, equipped with short but effective moments of shocking-haunting war images (the sequence where the Republika Srpska paramilitary separates the women from men in front of their apartment complex and then executes men is devastating; the image of a dead body lying in the river, possibly of someone who just wanted to get some water...) and good cinematography. A lot of misunderstanding came when the movie was marketed as a "love story", since this is not the case (evident in the dark "twist ending"), and the best way to see it is to not even have that in mind - it is more an essay about where the relationship between Ajla and Danijel could have gone had it not been interrupted by the war. Jolie probably wanted to deliberately leave Danijel as an ambiguous character, torn between his affection and politics, yet her biggest lack is the indecisive nature between Ajla and him - one moment he is kind to her, almost in love, the other he just treats her as a slave and does not even try to help her escape for years from the camp - which leaves it inconsistent. Still, despite a rather thin story development, Jolie demonstrated a sure hand in directing, whereas the bleak finale shows all the consequences of reducing people not just to their ethnicity and religion, but even further reducing them to the mistakes of their forefathers.

Grade:++

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Django

Django; western-thriller, Italy/ Spain, 1966; D: Sergio Corbucci, S: Franco Nero, Loredana Nusciak, Eduardo Fajardo

The Wild West. A strange man, Django, walks through the desert dragging a coffin. In a small town, he saves a prostitute, Maria, from evil men of Major Jackson, who basically turned into the local bully there since every inhabitant has to pay "survival tax" to him. Django opens his coffin, takes a machine gun from it and kills over thirty of Jackson's men. However, Jackson's enemy, rebel bandit Hugo, is equally as bad of an option for the town. Hugo's bandits crush Django's hands after a clash, yet get killed by Jackson's men. In a graveyard, Django bites the trigger-guard of his pistol and thus still manages to shoot Jackson.

Sergio Corbucci's most famous film - to such an extent that even Tarantino quoted it probably twice, with the ear cutting scene in "Reservoir Dogs" and by paraphrasing its title in "Django Unchained" - dark and cruel western "Django" still holds up pretty well thanks to a story with sense and good ideas, unlike dozen of its plagiarisers and fake sequels that tried to imitate it the wrong way, just cheaply competing with who will insert more senseless violence. The first third of the movie is easily the best, an excellent sublimation of Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" and the archetypal original notion about a mysterious stranger who arrives in a small town torn by gangsters and brings justice: Django (very good Franco Nero) is pure good, a guy who cannot stand watching injustice and only targets purely evil people, with the iconic image of dragging a coffin through the desert reaching cult status and some of his lines still instilling awe (for instance, Django already has the chance to kill the bad guy, Major Jackson, some 30 minutes into the film, but let's him go. When the barman asks him why he didn't eliminate him, the hero mysteriously answers with: "His time has not yet come.") The second and third part of the film, though, roughly fall a notch by presenting the rather annoying character of rebel leader Hugo who not only causes a disbalance of the hero, but the whole storyline: having Django lose his perfection somehow does not suit the mood. Despite a cold approach, crude violence and (deliberately) underdeveloped, minimalist characters, "Django" still has sharpness (the authority and the rebels fighting against it are equally bad options; is the bad guy's "protection tax" a cynical jab at government taxes and mortgages?), especially in the ironic graveyard showdown.

Grade:++

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Party 2

La Boum 2, comedy, France, 1982; D: Claude Pinoteau, S: Sophie Marceau, Claude Brasseur, Brigitte Fossey, Pierre Cosso, Denise Grey, Alexandra Gonin

Two years after the last events, Vic is 15 and is an exchange student in Salzburg. On her way back home to Paris, her passport gets accidentally switched with the one of teenager Philippe in the train. When she finds out, she contacts him and starts going out with him. Vic talks with her grandmother about her new relationship, but still hesitates to lose her virginity with Philippe. In the meantime, her dad decides to move to Lyon to work in a laboratory, while mom stays in order to work on an animated film. Vic and Philippe break up, but just when he is at the train station, they make up.

Both "La Boum" and "La Boum 2" are one of those movies that are perceived and remembered more fondly than they actually are, because their simple charm compensates even for their shortcomings. In this almost equally good sequel, director Claude Pinoteau again shows a sense for teenagers, their emotions and problems, and thankfully he again does it with taste, refusing to turn it into a vulgar comedy. A French forerunner and sublimation of all Hughes teen movies, "La Boum" duology is still a fine piece of nostalgia - and one of those better examples of kitsch - where the young Sophie Marceau carries 90 % of the story thanks to her charm whereas the authors again tried to avoid rehashing old steoreotypes from the original.

The joke where Vic has to walk dressed as a prostitute for 3 minutes on the street in a teenage bet was done far more even than it could have ended in some lesser director's hands, whereas the finale is a classic example of one of those "interrupted endings" that end just right, leaving some things open to tickle the imagination yet still giving just enough info to circle out the bigger picture. One must also commend them for re-introducing Vic's ex-boyfriend from the 1st film, where many other movies would have just forgotten him. "La Boum 2" lacks on some areas - for instance, the moment where Vic and Philippe could have been alone in his apartment, but didn't, is not even half as romantic and exciting as let's say the 3 minute interaction between Usagi and Seiya in a similar situation from episode 184 of "Sailor Stars" - yet it is still a quiet delight. Too bad there was never part 3 of their adventures, but director Pinoteau, screenwriter Danielle Thompson and actress Marceau still covertly crafted an alternate history sequel 6 years later with "L'etudiante".

Grade:++

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Watchmen

Watchmen; fantasy/ thriller/ drama, USA, 2009; D: Zack Snyder, S: Patrick Wilson, Malin Åkerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino

The Watchmen - among them "The Comedian", Sally Jupiter and the blue Dr. Manhattan who actually has true superpowers after an accident in a power plant - are a group of superheroes who helped the US win the Vietnam War, causing such changes in the 80s like Richard Nixon being re-elected for president five times and Soviet Union constantly trying to match its force with the US. Still, the government makes masked heroism illegal so they have to adapt to living a normal life. After one of them, "The Comedian", gets assassinated, ex-Watchmen Daniel, Rorschach, Laurie and Dr. Manhattan discover that their colleague Adrien initiates a huge explosion that wipes out New York in order to put the blame on Dr. Manhattan so that the US and the Soviet Union would stop their rivalry and unite against a common "new enemy". Dr. Manhattan accepts such a fate when he finds out it brought peace to the World.

Definitely not for Spiderman fans: despite some heavy handed moments, "Watchmen" is a grand adaptation of Alan Moore's comic-book with the same title - that was even included in TIME's list of 100 greatest novels - which surprises through its unbelievable twist of superhero cliches, including an untypically mature dramatic presentation. Moore practically gave a lesson to Marvel Comics - if you ever wondered how Batman or Superman would have reacted to Vietnam War, you can find the answer in this alternative history flick: in one sequence, Watchmen superhero Dr. Manhattan uses his superpowers to kill the Viet Cong, thus assuring US a victory in the aforementioned war! This isn't the only realistic perspective of superhero life, and the movie queues abundantly ideas which can only be rarely found in such a genre ("superhero" sex; retired "superheroes"; family secrets...). The already legendary opening sequence is the best of its kind of the decade, brilliantly clever both summing up the alternative history of the US - instead of creating Marilyn Diptych, Andy Warhol presents a Diptych of one of the Watchmen, Night Owl; Neil Armstrong's landing on the Moon is filmed by Dr. Manhattan; Bernie Boston's Flower power photograph shows hippies putting a flower into the army's gun, but they fire nonetheless... - and featuring a perfect song, Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changing", that captures the zeitgeist of change, resulting in synergy last time seen in Anderson's "Rushmore" that showed a whole list of Max's extracurricular activities in one minute.

The first half of the movie is excellent precisely because of such refreshing dose of subversive originality, but the second one is by far not that harmonious, evidently falling itself into superhero cliches it avoided at the start (invincible good guy, explosions, "casual" violence...). The explicit violence in the infamous jail sequence is almost cheap (and unnecessary, since it was not as brutal as in the comic-book), the storyline is visibly too condensed to fit the running time of the film, some scenes are simply pulled off in a bad way (the pointless dream of a nuclear explosion; the odd choice of song "Hallelujah"...) or rushed whereas a couple of ideas were pretentious. However, it is still better to have a Mercedes with a dent than a perfect Trabant. If you think the Joker from "The Dark Knight" was a complex character, observe Rorschach, "The Comedian" or Daniel - their dialogues wonder far away into the spheres of philosophy ("Since the beginning of its existence, humanity has worked on its own destruction"). Only towards the end does the movie return back to its right tracks and allows for a bigger picture, a giant essay about manipulation, integrity, principle, idealism vs. reality, left vs. ritgh wing, free will and sacrifice.

Grade:+++

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey; fantasy comedy, USA, 1991; D: Peter Hewitt, S: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler

In the perfect future, there are some people who rebel against constant peace and rock music, so they want to destroy its origins: a song written centuries ago by teenagers Bill and Ted in the 20th century. The rebels send two androids in the past that look exactly like Bill and Ted, who kill the above mentioned rockers, take their place and covertly start composing bad songs. In the meantime, the souls of real Bill and Ted enter Hell, then Heaven, and then go back to Earth after they swayed Death, joining forces with some alien monster than can split into half in order to create two new androids that will eliminate their impostors.

Since the very fun comedy "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure", assembled like a fantasy forerunner to "Wayne's World", became a box office hit, it spanned a TV animated show and, unfortunately, this sequel that seems to have left almost all virtues and simplicity of the original in the 1st film, which is why it was declared as a worse successor by the critics. It turned into a too complicated mess of a film and as a whole minimally fun, where humor and that fine 'hangout' mood were replaced with disgust just to keep viewers from feeling bored. Only Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter still have that charm as the title youngsters and their effort is the only reason to see the story which is as far from the 1st film as one could have thought. Underdeveloped and chaotic, blowzy and careless, entirerly insane and empty, where only a couple of jokes save the thing, this is an uninspired-avarage flick that displays an interesting trend of the series: when the title has the word "excellent" in it, it is excellent, when the title has the word "bogus" in it, it is bogus.

Grade:+

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Truth; romantic comedy, USA, 2009; D: Robert Luketic, S: Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter

Sacramento, California. TV producer Abby is appalled when her channel hires Mike to star in "The Ugly Truth", a show where he gives very unpleasant observations about male-female relationships. She finds his attitude sexist, but decides to have a bet with him: if his advice helps her land in bed with the attractive neighbor Colin, she will stop opposing the show, but if he fails, he will quit the station. Mike's advice helps Abby to "sexualize" a lot, but in the end she choses him over Colin.

If it weren't for the disasterous "vibrating undies" sequence, romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth" would have probably faired better with critics than it did because it is one of those romantic comedies that avoid idealism and have a rather "down to Earth" attitude: there is no romance without good looks. Such a subversive jab at human species could have been elaborated in a lot more satirical way than it ended up here, yet thanks to the charm of its two main actors, Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, the movie still has some credit even in the second half which lost its inspiration from the start. Too bad the screenplay (written by women, actually) did not stick with its initiall premise - the clash between idealistic-elevated (Abby) and erotic-seductive (Mike) views at romance - since it is obvious both of them inevitably stumble into each other's territory, instead of wondering off into the predictable happy ending, yet it has its fair share of fine jokes, such as when, just after they met and may go out on a date, Colin escorts Abby outside his home and shuts the door, but then figures he still has to return her cat, so he opens the door again just to "interrupt" her in the middle of a "triumphant" happy dance.

Grade:++

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard; romantic thriller, USA, 1992; D: Mick Jackson, S: Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston, Gary Kemp, Bill Cobbs

Famous singer Rachel Marron is this year even nominated for an Oscar as best actress in her film. But, due to anonymous death threats, she gets a tough bodyguard, Farmer. At first, she finds him unnecessary, but with time they fall in love. Eventually, when she wins the award, he stops the assassin from taking her life.

The screenplay for "The Bodyguard" was for a long time held in a bunker, and when it was finally green lit and adapted for the big screens, it did not receive praise from the critics. Truly, that blend of thriller and romance is kitschy, sometimes unconvincing, executed with a lack of quality and awe. However, it is still far from a routine film since it has a lot of touching, good and interesting moments equipped with humor in order to avoid turning too serious, which secured it popularity among the movie goers. The story is able to engage the viewers, the main plot revolving around the bodyguard caring so much for the person he protects that he even falls in love with her is irresistible, whereas despite some 'rough' edges the ending skillfully ties up all the loose ends, awakens emotions and respect, whereas Whitney Houston is surprisingly good and natural in the leading role - one of only five movie roles in her entire career - especially when she is in her element, singing that enchanting song "I Will Always Love You" which is simply perfect.

Grade:++

Friday, February 17, 2012

Rain Man

Rain Man; drama, USA, 1988; D: Barry Levinson, S: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino

Los Angeles. Car salesman Charlie Babbitt travels to Cincinnati, Ohio when he hears the news that his father died, with whom he lost every contact. Charlie finds out his father left 3 million $ to a man in a mental asylum - it turns out that man is Raymond, his autistic, older brother. Charlie is angry because nobody ever told him he had a brother, so he takes him on his way back home in order to get a part of the inheritance. Due to Raymond's photographic memory, Charlie manages to earn enough money in Las Vegas at cards for his business. Finding out Raymond is actually Rain Man, his "imaginary" friend from childhood, Charlie bonds with him. The asylum takes Raymond back, but Charlie promises to visit him.

If you ever wondered how a mediocre "Being There" or "Forrest Gump" would have looked like, "Rain Man" is the answer: sandwiched between those two giants about handicapped individuals that also used them as a subtle tool to place satirical observations about the society, this sentimental melodrama uses too many obvious cliches in presenting such human state and is today one of those best picture Oscar winners nobody really likes to watch. It is also bizarre that one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, Dustin Hoffman, won his second Oscar for such an obvious, easy and blatant Oscar bait role (basically, his Raymond is written in such a way that he only has two sides: either he is annoying or has a mathematical memory. There is nothing else to him), while so many of his far more complex performances were ignored - as an interesting footnote, from 1988 to '98, six out of ten Academy Award winners for best actor in a leading role were for handicapped roles, which says a lot about their imposing preferences. "The Mask" is far more somber considering that theme because it never shows any benefit of handicapped people, such as the Las Vegas sequence here. However, Barry Levinson is still a fine director which is why "Rain Man" is a good road movie, almost reduced to the core - the relationship just between the two protagonists. The best moment shows up when Charlie finds out Raymond was actually his "imaginary friend" Rain Man who comforted him during childhood, which gives a few clever and harmonious observations about "fallen heroes" and the clash between idealism and reality. Charlie's sudden fondness of Raymond does not seem natural, yet that does blend in with the overall duality of the story.

Grade:++

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When the Party's Over

When the Party's Over; drama, USA, 1992; D: Matthew Irmas, S: Rae Dawn Chong, Sandra Bullock, Elizabeth Berridge, Kris Kamm, Brian McNamara, Fisher Stevens

African-American M.J. shares her L.A. apartment with friends Frankie and Amanada. They don't take life too seriously, unlike her who wants to achieve a good career, but has a car accident on her 25th birthday. Amanda, who sells paintings, meets a waiter at a party who falls in love with her and quits his job, eventually taking her to twisted plays. Lawyer Taylor leaves M.J. and starts a relationship with Frankie. M.J. tries to find a new partner - hopelessly. Disappointed, she tries to flirt with Taylor, but just at midnight they are caught by Frankie. She and Amanda leave the apartment, while M.J. stays alone.

Independent drama "When the Party's Over", that talks about the problems of young people, is not a particularly original nor magical, yet decently crafted product. The exposition is excellent when M.J. and Amanda (Sandra Bullock in her early role) are talking in complete dark, illuminated only on their outlines, yet the remaining part of the story annoys slightly with its conventional story flow, lacking some stand-out style in the visual, dramaturgical, metaphysical or any other sense. Bullock is indeed the best among the ensemble cast and convinces with her natural charm. Another interesting moment, that "wakes up" the grey mood, is the one where a change happens to the characters exactly at midnight during New Year's Day, when a protagonist finds out that her partner is cheating on her, almost coincidentally to a similar scene in "Boogie's Nights". Being shrill is overrated, yet this is one example that really shows how a lack of shrillness can be even worse, even though it is a good film overall.

Grade:++

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Apostle

The Apostle; drama, USA, 1997; D: Robert Duvall, S: Robert Duvall, Miranda Richardson, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton

Sonny is a lively Pentecostal preacher who does everything to attract the crowd into the church: he is singing, dancing and holding strong speeches. He is married and has two kids, and does not miss out the opportunity to bless injured people after a car crash. When he finds out that his wife cheats on him with Horace, Sonny hits him with a bat. Horace falls into a coma and dies. Sad, Sonny leaves his city and wonders across the country until he meets priest Charles and introduces himself as apostle E.F., begging him to build a church. After doing so, he attracts a lot of religious people and even converts a bully who wanted to destroy the building, but then the police finds and arrests him.

This strong and lively drama energetically covers the theme of religion and the Pentecostal culture, and the biggest kudos goes to the fact that it shows it as something that makes people happy and cheerful, avoiding to be dogmatic or rigid. Such an approach resulted in a few brilliant moments channeled through the inventive ways with which preacher Sonny attracts a wide audience in order to reach them: "Make way, stars, Mars, Jupiter, I am going to Heaven!"; while holding a speech a translator simultaneously translates his words in Spanish; he has the "ABC of sin"; fights for the church...Sonny is truly a fascinating character, precisely because he is not always right and sometimes has to correct his own mistakes first before moving on in life. Robert Duvall produced "The Apostle" himself inspired by similar preachers throughout America, and for his performance he was nominated for an Oscar as best actor: Nicholson took away the award for "As Good as it Gets" even though Duvall was better, yet "As Good as it Gets" was a better film so the Academy probably went with that. A few melodramatic solutions and roughly patched events reduce the enjoyment value, yet "The Apostle" manages to intrigue even non-religious viewers.

Grade:++

Chicken Run

Chicken Run; animated comedy, UK, 2000; Nick Park, Peter Lord, S: Julia Sawalha, Mel Gibson, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall

Ginger is one of the many chickens in a caged coop run by an egocentric old lady and her assistant. Since those two cook every chicken that does not lay eggs, Ginger already tried X-times to escape from the farm. When a circus rooster, Rocky, falls into their property after he was shot from a cannon, Ginger erroneously concludes he can fly and tries to persuade him to teach chickens the same. Rocky pretends he has a broken wing, but in the end tells the truth. Still, they build an airplane and escape anyway.

The first feature length animated movie by Nick Park, distributed even by DreamWorks, turned out paler than expected. Warm, childish characters brought to life via claymation lean obviously towards Park's previous short film from the legendary "Wallace and Gromit" series, the excellent "Wrong Trousers", except that this time his sharpness was left out. "Chicken Run" is an ordinary kids film. Compared to "Wrong Trousers", where every scene mattered, it seems as if it was directed by Park in his sleep. One cannot say that the box office gross and the critical acclaim (nominated for a Golden Globe as best picture - musical or comedy) were unjustified since Park's continuity and shrillness of the story are still palpable, yet there is simply a lack of highlights. The best parts of this compromised fun that spoofs prison outbreaks are occasional outbursts of charm of the chicken characters, whose higher quantity would have been welcomed.

Grade:++

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Man on the Moon

Man on the Moon; drama, USA, 1999; D: Miloš Forman, S: Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti, Vincent Schiavelli

Any Kaufman was born in a small provincial town and already as a child pretended to run a TV-show. As a grown up, he worked as entertainer in clubs, until his imitation of Elvis Presely caught the attention of George Shapiro who hired him to star on "Saturday Night Live" and sitcom "Taxi". Andy hated the show, but it assured him fame. His eccentric behaviour became more and more hermetic, like when he would disguise himself as the overweight Clifton or simply read "The Great Gatsby" from start to finish on the show. During wrestling, he met Lynn and started a relationship with her. After getting thrown out from the show, he died from cancer. A year later, Clifton performed again, though.

The movie has a genius opening (similar like the one from "And Now for Something Completely Different"): in a black and white cinematography, Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) looks directly into the camera and addresses the audience: "Hallo. I am Andy Kaufman. Thank you for coming to watch my film. But this is the end of the film", upon which music starts and the closing credits truly start rolling (!) - until it turns out it is all just a joke true to the oddball humor of the eccentric comedian. A wonderfully unusual start compared to Milos Forman's previous and rather standard achievement, "The People vs. Larry Flynt", whereas Carrey even won a Golden Globe as best actor in a musical or comedy, his second one in a row after "The Truman Show" (ironically, also starring Paul Giamatti), yet that is the only truly inspired highlight of "Man on the Moon" whose level keeps constantly dropping whereas the director unfortunately allows that he main protagonist turns sligthly annoying. All in all a good movie, though hardly something new in the biopic genre. It reminds a little bit of "Lenny": Kaufman is an artist, but he is not always interesting due to his empty provocations, whereas Lenny Bruce was truly a genius comedian of controversies that slyly also told a lot about the society.

Grade:++

Sling Blade

Sling Blade; drama, USA, 1996; D: Billy Bob Thornton, S: Billy Bob Thornton, Lucas Black, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter, Natalie Canerday, Robert Duvall, Jim Jarmusch

Karl Childres, a mentally disabled man, killed his mother and her lover when he was 12 and thus spent 25 years in a mental asylum. When he gets released, he finds a job in a repair shop and makes friends with the little boy Frank who invites him to live in his house. Frank and his mother Linda suffer and are terrorized by Frank's stepfather Doyle who is constantly drunk. Linda's friend is the gay owner of a bar, Vaughan. After observing the situation, Karl says goodbye to Frank and kills Doyle, after which he calmly calls the police. He thus ends back in the asylum.

Despite critical acclaim, average 'disability' drama "Sling Blade" revolves somewhere between good and boring moments, it is empty and often seems to be making deliberate mistakes. Billy Bob Thornton, in the role of the mentally disabled protagonist Karl, speaks with such an accent as if Otto Waalkes is making a parody on those Edgar Wallace movies, the point being that this is suppose to be a serious drama. Practically all characters are stripped from anything that could make them special or unique, especially the one-dimensional bad guy Doyle: someone disagrees with him, he starts swearing; someone criticizes him, he beats that guy up...There are indeed such characters like Doyle in real life, whose only purpose on this planet it seems is to make life a living hell to other people, but here the director's intentions are so obvious and so transparent that Doyle turns up as a ridiculous caricature, a blatant and cheap villain without any subtle directorial disguise of the issue, which makes this too close to a soap opera, the main tangle is based on a incredible plot hole (whose mother would allow an ex-convict to live with her child?), whereas the story just "vegetates" which makes this hopelessly lost and overlong. The screenplay won an Oscar, which is another embarassing choice in the Academy's history. The only reedeming point is the thought-provoking, original and complicated ending, something that Karl does in order to spare Frank's childhood from turning the way his did, as well as his somber reaction when he calls the police himself, but even that was already seen in the TV-thriller "The Only Way Out", coincidentally also starring John Ritter.

Grade:+

Monday, February 13, 2012

It Started in Naples

It Started in Naples; romantic comedy, USA/ Italy, 1960; D: Melville Shavelson, S: Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Marietto, Vittorio De Sica

Philadelphia lawyer Mike arrives to Naples, Italy in order to settle his brother's estate following the death of the latter. He also plans to take custody of his brother's son, the 9-year old Nando, and bring him to live in the US, thinking that Naples "does not suit him". However, the attractive Lucia wants to take custody of Nando, too, and have him stay in Italy. Mike's lawyer Mario suggests him to seduce Lucia, but they both fall for each other naturally. In the end, Mike decides to stay with Nando and Lucia in Naples.

If it was not the penultimate film starring Clark Gable, humorous drama "It Started in Naples" would not have been remembered for anything much memorable since it is a mild and schematic, but easily watchable harmless fun that manages to ignite charm here and there. Long before "Paper Moon", this movie showed a little kid, the 9-year old Marietto, smoking, yet without the sophistication of the aforementioned classic, the kid here just ended up as a juvenile delinquent and a "third wheel" in the relationship between Mike and Lucia (excellent Sophia Loren). Just like in Gable's best film, "It Happened One Night", in this romantic comedy a man and a woman also argue most of the time until they fall for each other, except that their arguments do not radiate even half as much of spark or charm as those 20 minutes in the last third of the story, when the Italian lawyer humorously suggests to both to seduce each other to "settle the matter out of court": too bad the whole movie was not as untrammelled as those 20 minutes, especially in the bar sequence where Lucia speaks to Mike in English, but secretly refers to the waiter in Italian and orders a strong alcoholic drink for Mike, in a moment where Loren showed all of her magic with just one giggling. The locations are also opulent while Gable is equally indestructible in a few inspired dialogues, such as when Lucia teases him that she just "seduced him as a game", upon which he replies: "And it may replace water polo, except that it is a little bit rough".

Grade:+

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Man Who Knew too Little

The Man Who Knew too Little; comedy, USA/ UK/ Germany, 1997; D: Jon Amiel, S: Bill Murray, Joanne Whalley, Peter Gallagher, Alfred Molina

On his own birthday, American Wallace Ritchie decides to visit his brother James in London, but since the latter is preoccupied with an important business dinner, he decides to get rid of him for a couple of hours by sending him to the experimental "Theatre of Life" where participants have to take an active part in an improvisational crime play. However, Wallace accidentally takes on the identity of a real spy when he meets Lori and plays on thinking it is all part of the show, thus by chance foiling a plot to assassinate two ambassadors which would have led to a new Cold War between London and Moscow.

Taking Shakespeare's remark that the "whole world is a stage" to an insane level, Jon Amiel's comedy "The Man Who Knew Too Little" had potentials, but only the first and the last 20 minutes are fun, while the whole middle part is a mess: the movie is, unfortunately, heavy handed, disproportional and - worst of all - forced at several occasions, which is a pity since the legendary Bill Murray is equally as good in trying to mimic the tone of Clouseau in "The Pink Panther" and even better than Myers in "Austin Powers". Still, playing dumb roles somehow does not suit him as well as playing strong and intelligent cynics (his Wallace must really be stupid when he does not realize that he is firing with a real gun when he makes a hole in the wall with a bullet), even though this is one of his rare 'happy' characters.

Only the finale where he accidentally dances holding a babushka with a bomb in it works fine because it shows him in a superior role by chance, as opposed to the rest of the story where Murray is just a klotz, and basically has to improvise himself to ignite the empty-cheap middle part of the script. The old couple in SM clothes is the low point of the movie, the character of Lori is pointless whereas some plot holes (does Wallace really think that the whole London is part of the show?) were not disguised adequately, which is a pity since the story had several plus points going for it: Alfred Molina almost steals the show as the bad guy Boris (in one brilliant joke, he stands in front of a waiter, measures him with his hand, concluding they are both equally tall, so he just karate knocks him unconscious in order to take his clothes and enter the dinner party); the main plot is deliciously subversive (former secret services from both London and Moscow try to stage a "false flag" attack in order to start a new conflict between their two states, so that they can again get more funding!) and some small details were quite clever, such as the opening credits where two "unreadable" hieroglyphs are merged to form a message.

Grade:+

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Westworld

Westworld; science-fiction western, USA, 1973; D: Michael Crichton, S: Richard Benjamin, James Brolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Oppenheimer

In the future, Peter and John visit Westworld in "Delos", an amusement park that recreated the Wild West using androids who "play" cowboys. For 1000 $ a day, guests can sleep over in a saloon with android prostitutes or, in Peter's case, shoot a Gunslinger. However, after a malfunction in the main control room, Gunslinger goes berserk and shoots John for real. He also starts persecuting Peter who runs away on a horse. Hiding in the control halls, Peter manages to destroy Gunslinger using a torch.

Michael Crichton must really hate amusement parks - not only does he feature a negative jab aimed at them in his "Jurassic Park", but also a thematically similar one in his previous achievement, "Westworld", except that here androids attack the visitors, and not the Dinos. The story stands out all by herself thanks to its unusual blend between science-fiction and western, posing some thought-provoking questions, sharp observations about decadence and simulated reality as well as an untypical role of Yul Brynner in one of his last performances as the cold, bizarre android Gunslinger, who seems like his Cowboy from "The Magnificent Seven" on acid, but some naive solutions and heavy handed plot holes diminish the enjoyment value a little bit (for instance, how dumb must have the architect been when he designed the control room in such a way that once when the electricity is off, nobody of the scientists can get out or simply manually open the door? Or why in the world would they give androids real bullets and thus put guests in real danger?). The final third of the movie is the best: it offers that raw suspense when Peter is running away from the robot Gunslinger, almost as some sort of a forerunner to "The Terminator", though not as intense or as perfect as the latter.

Grade:++

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The American President

The American President; romantic comedy, USA, 1995; D: Rob Reiner, S: Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfuss, Samantha Mathis

Washington. Andrew Shepherd is a popular US president, a Democrat, preparing himself for re-election against the rival candidate Bob Rumson. Shepherd's wife died three years ago and he takes care of their daughter. However, things get complicated when he falls in love with Sydney, an environmental lobbyist who wants to pass a bill that will reduce the CO2 emissions by 20%. Rumson immediately uses that as his trump card, trying to present to the voters that a lobbyist is manipulating the president. After numerous complications, Sydney and Shepherd make up and explain their love to the public.

After "The West Wing", Aaron Sorkin's similar story "The American President" retroactively awakened new interest of the audience, and indeed, not without a reason: despite the 'over-patriotic' title that did not 'suit' some countries in the world, this movie, that showed that not even the life of a US president is a piece of cake, is charming, elegant and flows smoothly, gaining most of its charm thanks to fine performances by Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, both nominated for a Golden Globe as best actor/actress in a musical or comedy. Even though some solutions or depictions were too simplistic (the president's order to strike a Libyan target as a revenge makes him far less "sweet" than it was initially established, but maybe that was the intention) whereas by avoiding a "showdown" between Shepherd and his rival Rumson the movie missed out on a golden opportunity, yet on the other hand, some story subplots were indeed more complicated, whereas the final speech of the protagonist, who balances his private with his official life, is inspired ("America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can't just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the "land of the free".").

Grade:++

The Woman in the Dunes

Suna no onna; drama, Japan, 1964; D: Hiroshi Teshigahara; S: Eiji Okada, Kyoko Kishida, Koji Mitsui

An entomologist is observing insects living in sand dunes near a Japanese beach. Since he missed his last bus, he takes the invitation of a local man and descends into a huge sand pit where a woman lives inside a house. The next morning, the latter is gone and the man figures he is stuck in the pit with the woman who is actually comfortable living that way, shovelling sand into baskets that are then exchanged from the villagers for food and water. The man manages to escape using a grappling hook, but is caught and brought back to the house. Months pass. When the villagers take the woman away to the doctor because she has complications during her pregnancy, the man climbs up out of the pit - but then returns to perfect a water sucking device.

Taoism teaches that "people should find harmony in the nature, i.e. that they should yield to it without resistance, accept the state of things, by which they will gain freedom of desire in this world". It is difficult to overlook the parallels with Hiroshi Teshigahara's art-film "The Woman in the Dunes", that repulsed a large part of the western audience with its unusual ending that was perceived as conformism. Winner of the Grand prix in Cannes, nominated for 2 Oscars (best foreign language film, director), "Dunes" is an overrated and overhyped, but still strong expressionistic piece of metaphor cinema since the only way you can interpret it is to look at it as a giant allegory - there's simply nothing else in the movie except symbolism (the story is deliberately unrealistic and can hardly be regarded as a commentary on the "Stockholm syndrome"; only the main hero is a fully developed character, a strong rebel, while the woman is practically without personality, a passive puppet, again establishing an interesting yin and yang counterbalance).

Similarly like Bunuel's "Angel of Extermination", here the hero finds himself trapped in a sand pit together with a woman almost by some supernatural force, forced to shovel sand indefinitely, mirroring Sisyphus. Bitter and disturbing, the movie flows as some sort of avantgarde-shock cinema, equipped with a few aesthetic images of dunes that almost "mimic" the shape of human body (emphasized in the two erotic scenes) or awe (the 'landslide' of a wall of sand), even though "Dunes" would work far better if it was 50 minutes shorter, instead of forcing the overstretched story that seems diluted after a while. The movie was subsequently analyzed from various perspectives, including religious ones (i.e. that the villagers are gods who forced the man to live with the woman in the pit), yet the universal unease of it radiates from the common human fear of fatalistic destiny from which there is no escape - whether someone is sick, ugly, has to do a job she/he doesn't like or live a life he/she didn't choose, the viewers can identify with the story about how life puts people in a situation they never really wanted.

Grade:+++

Monday, February 6, 2012

Thunderheart

Thunderheart; thriller-drama, USA, 1992; D: Michael Apted, S: Val Kilmer, Graham Greene, Sam Shepard, Sheila Tousey, Ted Thin Elk, Fred Ward

FBI agent Ray, himself of Sioux descendant, is sent to a South Dakota Indian reservation together with partner Frank in order to investigate the murder of Leo Fast Elk. The area is practically in the middle of a civil war waging between Indians loyal to the US and Indians who are members of ARM - Aboriginal Rights Movement - that aims to establish an Indian state encompassing North and South America. Frank arrests ARM member Jimmy for the murder, but Ray and Native Walter discover a conspiracy to mine for uranium in the reservation that pollutes the river, all set-up by Frank in order to achieve profit.

Towards the end of the 20th century, several films showed up that moved far away from the typical 'Cowboy and Indians' scheme and awakened the Indian emancipation by showing the recent US history from the long suppressed Native American perspective, led overwhelmingly by "Dances With Wolves". One such contribution was "Thunderheart", an interesting ethno-crime drama loosly based on the Wounded Knee incident that flows smoothly thanks to sharp cinematography, clear narrative and a sensibility for Native American culture in the story of an "official" FBI agent, Ray (Kilmer, himself of Indian descendant), who loosens up and slowly returns back to his roots when the magic of his ancestors makes his blood boil. Graham Greene shines again in the supporting role of police officer Walter - the defining moment for his character shows up when he says that even he played Cowboys and Indians as a kid, but always played G. Cooper because he was taught to suppress his heritage - whereas the mood is fine, even avoiding the 'love story' cliche that could have emerged between Ray and Maggie, yet the story is a tad overlong, standard and occasionally takes too much time to fully ignite. It's a fine and thought-provoking film, especially thanks to the twist ending, yet only here and there does it truly make a leap from a 'good' to a 'great' film, such as the refreshingly esoteric sequence where Ray participates in the Indian seance at night and sees vision himself.

Grade:++

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Common Law Cabin

Common Law Cabin/ How Much Lovin' Does a Normal Couple Need?; adventure, USA, 1967; D: Russ Meyer, S: Jack Moran, Babette Bardot, Adele Rein, Alaina Capri, Ken Swofford

Dewey's tourist trap on an island in the Colorado River is so washed up that he has to pay an old man to incite lost tourists to go there. Dewey lives there with his wife Babette and teenage daughter Coral. When the old man brings a troubled married couple, Dr. Ross and his bored but busty wife Sheila, a corrupt ex-detective tags along, Rickert, who stole jewelry and wants to buy off the ranch from Dewey. Rickert seduces all the women and tries to rape Coral, but a young lad, Laurence, saves her and kills the detective.

In 1967, the year where so many directors made their most inspirational movies, cult director Russ Meyer unfortunately delivered one of his weakest achievements, the sloppily conceived and filmed "Common-Law Cabin" that is far bellow his opus. One of the rare filmmakers who openly admitted (and showed in their films) that they are fascinated with large breasts, Meyer's stories became a sanctuary for extraordinary busty women and thus attracted a cult following, with this film collecting three women of that kind (but never showing them naked). Sadly, the writing was entirely mechanical: too wacky to be a drama, but too unintentionally comical to be a true comedy, "Cabin" is a strange hybrid of several genres, with the crime subplot revolving around a corrupt ex-detective ending up as the biggest burden due to its annoying antagonist and plot holes (why doesn't Babette never say she was raped by the bad guy?), heavy handed editing, over-the-top transitions involving the camera hastily moving through the landscape back and forth, bland dialoges and an insane showdown, all resulting in a mess of a film, yet here and there a couple of charming ideas emerge, such as when Coral passes by the opening credits spelled on a blackboard.

Grade:+

Friday, February 3, 2012

Space Firebird 2772

Hi no Tori 2772: Ai no Kosumozon; animated science-fiction, Japan, 1980; D: Suguru Sugiyama, S: Kaneto Shiozawa, Katsue Miwa, Hiroshi Ohtake

Earth in 2772. As a baby, Godo is raised by computers in order to suit the demands of the society and make him a future candidate for a space pilot. As a little boy, he is given a female android, Olga, who helps to educate him. As a grown up, Godo rebels when he refuses so kill living creatures during his training and when he falls in love with Lena, the fiance of his brother, Rock. Godo is sent to a labour camp that exploits the energy of the Earth's core, but escapes together with Dr. Saruta in order to find the mysterious space bird, the Phoenix, that could heal Earth. In the process, Olga is destroyed, which causes Godo to realise he loved her all the time. In order to save the decaying Earth, Godo sacrifices his life in order for Phoenix to rejuvenate the planet.

Just like "Metropolis", Osamu Tezuka's earlier cult anime "Space Firebird 2772", based on his own manga, is an unusual experience: the opening science-fiction act still gathers universal critical acclaim for its audacity and sharpness, but the second part, which suddenly switches to a fantasy fairytale, is far less harmonious and at times almost seems like patchwork. The first part amazes due to its clever depiction of "A Brave New World" kind of society: in a grandiose 10 minute montage, without any dialogue (!), it encompasses the whole childhood of hero Godo who is bred in test tubes and raised without parents, by computers, whereas inside this sequence there is another grandiose scene, a groundbreaking animation stunt where Godo is driving in his car, but then the camera "flies" up for a hundred yards in order to show him and the whole city from the "bird perspective" and then, in the same take, "falls" down on the road again in order be at the same height with his moving car. Some bitter observations about that doomed future where human greed exploited Earth to the brink of collapse have weight, neatly incorporating ecological themes and the loss of emotions. The second part, though, makes, just like "Up", an uneven leap towards infantile that does not seem natural: while Crack, a pink mole like creature in a dice (!), and Pincho are cute, they often seem just like silly attempts at humor, similar like R2D2 and C3PO - more so, the scene where they sing using a flute in order to cheer up Olga seems as if it fell from some kind of Disney cartoon. The whole Phoenix chase sequence is uneven and bipolar, yet the finale does indeed offer some thought-provoking, genuinely contemplative ideas about life, karma and Buddhism.

Grade:++