Friday, December 28, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1; fantasy, UK/ USA, 2010; D: David Yates, S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Warwick Davis, Ralph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Nighy, David Thewlis, Toby Jones, John Hurt

Lord Voldemort wants to kill Harry Potter, but since their two magic wands are "twins", he could theoretically only hurt him. Since Harry is not safe anymore, he and his friends Ron and Hermine are hidden in an isolated cottage on the countryside. The three then disguise, enter the Ministry of Magic, obtain the Hocrux and flee into a forest. They find out that Voldemort wants to find the three Deathly Hallows: a wand, a stone and cloak of invisibility. They are abducted and taken to Malfoy's premises, but manage to flee.

In the long list of the overrated, overhyped and overblown Harry Potter film series, the 7th film and the penultimate contribution to the franchise, "Deathly Hallows - Part 1" is surprisingly well done, a concise and straight-forward fantasy quest flick, better than the previous movies that already started to get irritating with their cliche repertoire (cheap "boo" scares; the constant grey-dark cinematography after which one yearns to watch a film with normal colors; unnecessary dark moments used just to keep the viewers' attention...). Some of those cliches can be found even in this film, but luckily in far lesser amount, since director Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves did a good job in the 'raw' storyline: in this edition, the story took a dramatic 'Trotsky turn' since Harry is constantly fleeing and hiding on the countryside, fearing he might be assassinated by Voldemort any moment, which circled out some more mature moments - mature as the tension between the Harry-Ron-Hermine love triangle, and not those wannabe "mature" scenes that are just darkly lit dramatic rubbish. The sneak infiltration into the Ministry of Magic, where the three protagonists are disguised, is wonderfully done, the chase through the forest is effective-suspenseful, yet "Hollows - Part 1" still suffer from some obvious flaws, from the overlong running time up to the too complicated story that is all over the place with too many subplots. Overall, a solid sequel that allowed the story to grow together with their teenage protagonists.

Grade;++

Thursday, December 27, 2012

TMNT

TMNT; CGI animated fantasy action, USA, 2007; D: Kevin Munroe, S: James Arnold Taylor, Nolan North, Mikey Kelley, Mitchell Whitfeld, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Patrick Stewart, Mako, Zhang Ziyi

New York. After Shredder's death, the four mutant ninja turtles seem to have fallen into a crisis: Splinter sent Leonardo to a train in a jungle in order to become a better leader; Donatello provides user assistance for computers over the phone; Michelangelo dresses up as a turtle to entertain kids while Raphael dresses up in a costume to fight crime at night as a vigilante. They are all reunited, however, when they find out that a rich tycoon, Winters, sent mercenaries to capture 13 monsters that escaped three thousand years ago from an interdimensional portal in order to send them back, but his four generals, made out of stone, refuse and want to bring even more monsters in order to rule the Earth. The turtles stop the generals and send the monsters back to their dimension.

14 years after the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle live action film, writer and director Kevin Munroe bravely decided to revive the franchise by giving it a new cloth of a CGI animated film, but except for the four heroes jumping higher than in the live action, they are not much of an improvement following the long absence. Even though some critics harshly called "TMNT" just an advertisement for the new series of turtle toys and games, the movie still actually has some things going for it. Leaving the bizarre intro aside, the opening act is surprisingly good, showing how the four protagonists lost their reason d'etre after Shredder's death and are now scattered throughout the city, but April O'Neill and Casey, though underused, practically steal the show with their charming humor here and there (i.e., when April talks to the rich Winters in his office, Casey can be seen accidentally tipping the tycoon's pillar in the background, but quickly returns it back to its original state before the fall).

Munroe decided to show turtles in a darker edition, which is a double-edged sword: on one hand, the subplot where Raphael drifted away and alieneted himself from the team is strong, but on the other, he unfortunately came across as a jerk. Still, in the first act, the four title protagonists still have an occasional outburst of humor here and there (the exchange between Michelangelo and Donatello: "Did anyone get the license plate of that thing that hit us last night? It looked like your mom, dude!" - "Yeah, that would make her your mom too, doofus."). Unfortunately, the prelude works the best, because once the main tangle hits in - revolving around interdimensional portal and 13 monsters - it turns out to be nonsense, whereas the finale sinks into generic over-the-top action. Overall, "TMNT" is better than "Turtles" II and III, but still weaker than the best "Turtles" film, Barron's simple and charming "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

Grade;+

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center to the Earth; fantasy, USA, 2008; D: Eric Brevig, S: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem

Volcanologist Trevor and his 13-year old nephew Sean decide to take an expedition to find an entrance to the center of the Earth, based on the notes of Trevor's late brother who considered Jules Verne's novel "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" a work of non-fiction. Together with their guide, Hannah, they enter an Icelandic cave, but rocks fall and leave them trapped. Travelling ever deeper inside, they reach a layer very close to the center of the Earth, filled with underground animals and plants. Using a geyser, they manage to get catapulted back to the surface, exiting from Mount Vesuvius.

Despite its exciting adventure flair, Jules Verne's novel "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" is from today's scientific perspective poorly dated, since its entire concept has been disproved. Several movie adaptations of the novel turned into trash, while this modern 2008 adaptation is of no better result, a sufficient fantasy flick that leans more towards the 'guilty pleasure' territory. The story about three explorers finding a way to the underground layer bellow the Earth's surface is conventionally structured, filled with over-the-top video game effects and moves, not that fun and with at least a dozen plot holes, from the sheer fact that the pressure and temperatures so deep bellow the surface should be unbearable up to floating rocks (!) that still somehow drop smaller rocks into a pit. Dinosaur fans will probably at least enjoy the presence of a T. Rex towards the end of the movie and Anita Briem, who is the only true source of charm and appeal as the refreshingly tough guide Hannah. Others will just hope that as the next thing they won't make a movie about Flat Earth.

Grade;+

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Trading Places

Trading Places; comedy, USA, 1983; D: John Landis, S: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott, Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, Paul Gleason, James Belushi

New York. Two millionaires, Randolph and Mortimer Duke, make a bet as to what is crucial in life and destiny of an individual: wealth-environment or just character? In that respect, they make their wealthy and cultured employee Louis poor and a certain homeless, vulgar Billy rich. After a certain time, their characters change entirely: Billy starts to become more sophisticated while Louis becomes aggressive and criminal, getting only saved thanks to a kind prostitute, Ophelia. However, when Billy finds out about the bet, he teams up with Louis and they conjure up a scheme in the trading commodities market involving orange juice, managing to make the Dukes poor.

Once an excellent comedy, "Trading Places" is today a less impressive achievement since time corroded a part of its freshness. The jokes exhaust themselves in the second half when the movie starts to become an empty ode to revenge, the dramatic elements were not that subtly integrated into the storyline whereas some jokes are indeed too crude and vulgar, like the infamous gorilla costume sequence. However, even though its execution is 'rough', the sole concept, loosely based on Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper", is fascinatingly revealing and wise, showing a philosophical analysis of society and the nurture vs. nature argument, i.e. are "savage" people "savage" just because they have adapted themselves to the "savage" environment, and would theoretically be "classy" if they were living in a wealthy environment, or are they like that biologically. The satirical jabs aimed at capitalism are surprisingly brave, since the story shows the middle and lower class teaming up against the upper class, the bourgeois Dukes, played by brilliant Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy who are cast perfectly, yet every other role was also wonderfully cast, from Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of a kind prostitute, for which she won a BAFTA, up to the top-notch Eddie Murphy, who was even nominated for a Golden Globe. The finale in the commodities trading market is two notches more intelligent than your average 'revenge flick', and was so stimulating that several websites dedicated in-depth analysis of it whereas it was even the inspiration for a new regulation of the financial market 17 years later.

Grade;++

Monday, December 24, 2012

Speedy


Speedy; silent comedy, USA, 1928; D: Ted Wilde, S: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Brooks Benedict, Babe Ruth

New York. Speedy is a rather careless lad who loses a job as soon as he finds one because he is more preoccupied with baseball than his chores. His girlfriend is Jane, whose dad, Mr. Dillon, is the last driver of a horse streetcar in the modern city. When a rich businessman wants to sabotage Mr. Dillon's streetcar in order to buy it off for the railroad, Speedy for the first time takes responsibility and saves him by finding the stolen streetcar, thereby forcing the businessman to pay Mr. Dillon his full price.

Even though it was nominated for an Oscar in the now defunct category of best director in a comedy (Ted Wilde), "Speedy" is not among Harold Lloyd's top achievements, but his style of comedy still manages to show what an underrated comedian he was, here in the rather untypical edition where he plays a rather unlikeable character at first, a one who does not care if he loses his job or not, until he passes through a test of maturity when he saves his girlfriend's dad's business from a greedy corporation. The jokes do not ignite all of the time, or with the same intensity, especially in the rather shaky Coney Island sequence, or the forced sequence where the hero cannot find a customer as a taxi driver, yet some of the best ones are truly charming (Harold subtly displaying the result of a baseball game - 0:1 - to his friends by placing one doughnut as a "zero" and another sideways, so that it looks like "one") and sometimes even downright hilarious (Harold rubbing soap on his dog's snout and then scaring away three thugs by saying it is a mad dog). A small jewel here is the brilliant Ann Christy, who gave an irresistibly sweet performance as wonderfully cheerful Jane before she unfortunately abandoned her career as an actress four years later. Among the curiosities is one of the first "cameo" appearances in cinema because baseball legend Babe Ruth has a small role as himself in a delicious little sequence where he is worried since Speedy is more preoccupied with talking to him than at driving the taxi cab while cars are dodging him on the streets ("Mr. Ruth, even when you miss, you miss it very close." - "I don't *miss* them by that close as you!").

Grade;++

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Safety Last!

Safety Last!; silent comedy, USA, 1923; D: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, S: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother

Harold leaves his girlfriend and small town for a while to find a good job in a big city. However, the urban life is tougher than expected so he sends exaggerated letters to her about his business success, while hoping to find a real job eventually. He finds a position of a clerk in a department store and pretends he is the general manager when his girlfriend visits him. In order to win a 1.000 $ promised for a publicity stunt that will attract a large crowd to the store, Harold persuades his friend to climb a 12-story building. But when the friend is chased by a police officer, Harold climbs it up all by himself.

With the flow of time, it seems the mainstream historians decided to remember only one film for each prolific comedian from the early cinema, whether it is Keaton ("The General") or the Marx brothers ("Duck Soup"), and of similar fate was the often neglected, but brilliant Harold Lloyd, whose "Safety Last" is his only comedy frequently mentioned in film lexicons. "Safety Last" is even by today's standards an excellent comedy, wonderfully simple and sincere as well as full of good-natured spirit often found in those 'good old school' storylines, that seizes attention thanks to its great, fresh jokes (Harold and his friend "disguising" themselves as two hanging coats, hiding their legs under them so that the landlord will not find them in the apartment; Harold combing his hair in the reflection of a man's bald head) which would seem even fresher if modern comedies would not copy them, and often meticulously choreographed stunts. Some situations and ideas may seem forced at times, yet not to such a degree that it would take a toll on the whole film. The final 20 minute sequence where Lloyd is climbing up a 12-story building gained the most attention, not only in the film but with the critics, too, with the scene of him hanging from a half-tipped clock turning into one of the icons of cinema that was often cited in other films (Doc Brown's stunt finale in "Back to the Future", for instance), even though the scene where a pigeon is "disrupting" him while eating seeds on his shoulders is even funnier, all contributing to a simple classic.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dennou Coil

Dennou Coil; animated science-fiction series, Japan, 2007; D: Mitsuo Iso, S: Fumiko Orikasa, Houko Kuwashima, Aiko Hini, Akiko Yajima

In the future, people wear special cyber glasses that enable them to receive Internet access where ever they go and interact with virtual things that are scattered throughout the city. Yuko moves to the city of Daikoku, attends an elementary school and joins her grandmother's cyber investigation agency. She meets a friend, Fumie, but also a girl who despises her, Isako Amisawa. However, among normal virtual infrastructure, there is still some "obsolete space" left where "Illegals", a form of modern Internet viruses, roam free. It is revealed that Isako was chasing after "Illegals" because she thought she could bring her brother back, who lost his soul in the "obsolete space", but she was just tricked because her brother died years ago in a traffic accident and existed only as a hologram to heal her while she was in shock. The trick was orchestrated by Nekome who wants to sabotage Megamass' cyber glasses in revenge because the company forgot about his father's inventions. Yuko's soul goes to the "obsolete space" and brings back Isako, who finally accepts that her brother passed away.

"Dennou Coil" is a quiet warning on the people's internet addiction that might lead to a self-emerged, self-absorbed state in a virtual world, while forgetting how it is to live in their world. The futuristic setting is interesting, showing how people using special cyber glasses can see that virtual "layer" added around the real world (virtual pets, popped up screens...), which is so realistic that sometimes they can not even distinguish a virtual, fake wall from a real one, yet this anime series is exhaustingly slow, dry and tiresome, which aggravates its viewing. The characters go on and on about "illegals", "kirabugs", "metabugs", "metatags", "obsolete space", "Null" and others for so long until this whole excessive glossary -  necessary to follow the storyline (and sometimes not, because the status of illegals is never clearly explained in the end) - starts to become an overkill. It reminded me of biographer Darko Hudelist who commented on the late president Tuđman's writing: "He wrote difficult, hermetic, often not clear enough, and yet without a real point because his overlong and ponderous sentences in most cases did not lead to some especially deep thoughts".

Even though it had a silly premise, episode 12 is one of the few ones that actually connected to the story at any level, by showing a humorous illegal virus settling on one boy's chin, in the form of an virtual beard ("His beard is an illegal"), but the majority of the storyline wonders off into "filler" territory, while episode 13 is shamelessly sentimental and sends a questionable message that kids should spend more time saving a virtual animal than a real one. Characters come and go (one of the better ones was Akira in episode 14, who made secret video recording as proof of his "sister's cruel treatment" at home) and it takes all until episode 16 until a plot finally starts to kick in, which is problematic for a show with only 26 episodes. Even though the finale is easily the best part of "Dennou", even its last seven episodes are not equally as engaging. For instance, episodes 18 and 19 are wonderfully suspenseful when the eerie illegals, shaped as black humanoids, start entering a shop during night, when the three scared girls are inside. But later episodes are again less interesting, dragging on with techno babble. Neither is it clear why the kids would not simply turn off their cyber glasses when they feel threatened by virtual beings - every person would simply turn off the TV if he or she would feel something on is too much to handle, so why not here? Unfortunately, the reason is never given, nor even tried to be given. However, the plot twist in the final two episodes is admirably touching and satisfying while Yuko's monologue about what's real or not in episode 24 is pleasantly philosophical, concluding that "everything that causes pain is real."

Grade;+

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sugarland Express

The Sugarland Express; road movie, USA, 1974; D: Steven Spielberg, S: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson

Texas. The unemployed cosmetician Lou Jean travels to a secluded prison to visit her husband Clovis Michael and persuade him to break out four months before his release, in order to get back their baby which was given to foster parents. When a police officer, Maxwell, just wants to warn the people who were driving too slow on a highway, Lou Jean and Clovis panic and kidnap him. Traveling in his police car, they attract the attention of the media and other police officers. In the end, just when Clovis wanted to take his baby back, he and Lou Jean were shot in an ambush.

From today's perspective, it is safe to say that "Sugarland Express" is not among Spielberg's best achievements, yet he still showed to have more spark and style than many would admit. Based on a true story about an insane decision of a young couple kidnapping a police officer to drive to the city where their baby is living with foster parents, "Express" is obviously a road movie, except that between the sole tangle where the clumsy couple kidnaps the police officer and the finale there is not much of a stratification of events or interesting moments, which makes it seem slightly grey at times. Spielberg still managed to craft a few clever scenes (the image of Wile E. Coyote falling from a cliff in a cartoon reflected on the glass while Clovis has a worried, troublesome expression on his face, which is a subtle foreshadowing) whereas Goldie Hawn and William Atherton are well cast as the well meaning, but sloppy couple, while some even saw a subversive message in the story aimed at showing how the law separates a family and thus makes them turn into outlaws just to get back together. It won the best screenplay award at the Cannes film festival.

Grade;++

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Metropolis

Metropolis; animated science-fiction drama, Japan, 2001; D: Rintaro, S: Kei Kobayashi, Yuka Imoto, Kohki Okada, Kosei Tomita

In the huge city of Metropolis, the rich Duke Red presents his newly built tower with whom he secretly plans to rule the world. He plans to leave the throne to Tima, an android that is an exact replica of his daughter, built in Laughton's laboratory. But Rock, Duke's adopted son, destroys the laboratory because of jealousy. Tima is found by Kenichi, the nephew of detective Shinsaku from Japan. Kenichi falls in love with Kima. But she is regained by Duke who fires Rock. Once on the throne, Tima has a short circuit and destroys the tower and herself.

There are movies that are easily dismissed for their misplaced or misguided over-ambitiousness, but how can you do that with the anime movie "Metropolis", which is patchwork? The legendary Osamu Tezuka wrote a manga in '49 based only on his fascination with the robot from Lang's "Metropolis", while the anime movie adaptation was directed by Rintaro 53 years later, wherein he decided to take Tezuka's original naive-simplified art design of the characters and combine them with the modern, detailed art design of the 21st century: the result was a "Frankenstein" like blend that is even more uneven than some of Leiji Matsumoto's achievements, that seems as if cartoon characters from the 50s got lost in a modern animated movie (the detective has eyes drawn just like two black dots whereas Duke Red has a nose as huge as half of head), aggravated further by sometimes unfitting music. Still, if the viewers can get use to it, the sole story is intriguing, filled with allegories on racism (robots vs. humans) and cold war, but also the search for family and a place you belong to, embodied in the graceful android heroine Tima. The storyline is not entirely sure all the time, yet it shines the most in inspired details and situations, like when it is revealed that robots are not allowed to have names because it is considered an insult to humans or the sequence where Rock wants to harm Tima with a laser, but does not succeed because the detective turns off the electricity. Overall, an exciting futuristic adventure with a few aesthetic images.

Grade;++

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Flesh + Blood

Flesh + Blood; black adventure grotesque; USA/ Netherlands/ Spain, 1985; D: Paul Verhoeven, S: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Jack Thompson, Fernardo Hilbeck, Susan Tyrell, Bruno Kirby, Nancy Cartwright

Western Europe, 1501. In order to re-conquer his city-fortress, the wealthy Arnolfini promises his mercenaries that they will get to plunder for 24 hours if they win it back. The mercenaries, led by the shady Martin, prevail, but they pillaging and raping is so shocking that Arnolfini has them thrown out. In order to take revenge, Martin and his gang kidnap Arnolfini's carriage with gold, as well as his son's, Steven, bride, Agnes, who they rape and then hide in a desolated fortress. Steven tries to free Agnes, but is only captured himself in the fortress. However, Arnolfini's soldiers manage to free Agnes and Steven, setting the fortress on fire.

Paul Verhoeven's first movie in a joint American-Dutch production did not have as much of an impact as his 2nd one, the cult film "RoboCop". It is not really surprising because "Flesh and Blood" is a dark sword and knights anti-epic, dirty, vile, full of gore and disgust, showing sexuality only in a negative way, in which gang rape and torture of a protagonist by shooting an arrow into his arm are among the "normal" events that unfold on the big screen, yet it is questionable how the viewers can decipher quality from all of that. Maybe one can regard it as some sort of a faithful depiction of the Middle Ages, that portraits a society in a period of pre-spirituality and pre-humanity, where people acted selfishly and you could not find a single noble person, which makes the main protagonists led by Martin very unlikable, and his relationship with his slave-girl Agnes awkward and the movie's running time overlong. Only the last 30 minutes crystallized a direction of the storyline, showing a refreshingly suspenseful and clever cat and mouse play between Martin and his gang hiding inside the fortified castle while Arnolfini's soldiers are plotting ways to "crack" them (in one brilliant sequence, an "armored" vehicle made out of solid wood is used to stretch out a bridge over the castle's walls in order to reach inside, while in another a soldier who survived the plague uses a catapult to throw chunks of meat of a dead dog infested with the plague randomly all over the castle, hoping to cause panic among the inhabitants). But, overall, in order to get to those last good 30 minutes, one has to endure all those layers of a mess of a story leading to it.

Grade;+

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rabbits Without Ears

Keinohrhasen; comedy, Germany, 2007; D: Til Schweiger, S: Til Schweiger, Nora Tschirner, Matthias Schweighöfer, Alwara Höfels

Ludo is a yellow press reporter who, after disrupting Wladimir Klitschko's marriage proposal in search for a scoop, is sentenced to 300 hours of community service at a day care. There he meets Anna, the head manager, who is still angry at him because the teased her when they were kids. However, despite her uptight attitude, they land in bed one night in a moment of carelessness. Anna falls in love with him, but is disgusted when she finds out he forgot their date and instead had sex with another woman. Realizing his mistake, Ludo appologizes and they end up as a couple.

Despite its huge and unexpected box office success - it attracted 6,3 million moviegoers in German cinemas, ranking it among the top 10 most popular German films till 2007 - "Rabbits Without Ears" is a stale comedy that relies too much on cheap, rough and blatant jokes and too little on those more sophisticated ones and a palely ignored love story that could have been much more engaging on its own. The cameos, which the yellow press hero stalks and interviews, are a quiet delight - the bald actor Jürgen Vogel is hilarious in the opening scene where he plays himself after a phase of "enlightenment", with fake long blond hair and butt implants (!), whereas Wladimir Klitschko appears as himself while proposing to Yvonne Catterfeld (!) - but those two-three guest appearances are too little to compensate for the rest of the story which appeals to the wide audience in often too low ways (children at a day care mimicking the teacher and all collectively showing their middle fingers; hair removal...) and is overstretched to carry the plot. The sole title, derived from the hero's poorly made rabbit puppet without ears, is rubbish. However, Til Schweiger and Nora Tschirner have chemistry as the two (uneven) protagonists, and their interaction manages to ignite a few more precious, elevated examples of storytelling that hit the right note far stronger than all those heavy handed jokes.

Grade;+