Sunday, January 26, 2014

Big Time Rush

Big Time Rush; comedy series, USA, 2009-2013; D: Savage Steve Holland, Jonathan Judge, Stewart Schill, S: Kendall Schmidt, Logan Henderson, James Maslow, Carlos Pena, Jr., Ciara Bravo, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Tanya Chisholm, Challen Cates, Erin Sanders, David Anthony Higgins

Four guys from Minnesota - Kendall, Logan, James and Carlos - get discovered at an audition by the music producer Gustavo and his assistant Kelly and get a chance to try to become a popular boy band in Palm Woods, Los Angeles. However, they have numerous obstacles before achieving their dream, from the annoying hotel manager Bitters up to eccentric CEO Griffin, and meet numerous people in the process, from the three Jennifers up to struggling actress Camille.

When the Beatles were introduced to the audience in the 60s, their managers had the idea to make a couple of films that could show their talent, like "A Hard Day's Night". Producer Scott Fellows had a more unusual idea: to introduce the new band Big Time Rush by making a children's TV comedy show about them. The notion is truly unorthodox at first, yet, surprisingly, it worked almost down to the T, which made "Big Time Rush" one of the best shows on Nickleodeon back in its time. When you have a sitcom that refuses to use the audience laugh track, you know it is just confident enough to show that it has something to offer. And indeed, this is a surprisingly fun, fresh and energetic show, featuring numerous irresistible jokes and fine performances by the four band members, especially Logan Henderson who stands out as the intelligent, but relaxed and cool member of the group. Remarkably, all the supporting characters are also equally as fun as the four protagonists: nobody is a 'face in the crowd', every little character has a specific "frequency" of humor and wit, from Camille (brilliant Erin Sanders) through Buddha Bob up to simply irresistible Bitters (brilliant David Anthony Higgins) and Kendall's little sister Katie (brilliant Ciara Bravo). Bitters and Katie always have their moments on their own, but when they team up, they are downright hilarious.

Naturally, not all episodes are equally as strong and one can sense the decline of level in the later seasons. However, at least four episodes are small jewels of comedy: "Big Time Sparks" has a hilarious and childish little subplot where Gustavo wants to get rid of a skunk in his studio by using a remote controlled toy car with a female skunk to attract it; "Big Time Live" is a 'tour-de-force' of inspiration by having the band try to shorten TV segments for a L.A. morning show in order to extract 4 minutes at the end and to perform on TV. This one really takes the cake by the staggering number of jokes, from the scene where they speed up the teleprompter and make the anchorman talk impossibly fast up to the moment where they remove the cook and replace his slow dish by a fast one; "Big Time Reality" is a great little spoof on reality shows; finally, "Big Time Pranks" is probably the best episode of all time, revolving around guys and girls in a "prank war" until the last one. There is a scene where Kendall and Jo are in a 'Mexican standoff' like scene, taking aim with water guns filled with milk, until the elevator door behind them opens and Bitters exits like a king, throwing randomly jam at them with a spoon in order to eliminate them both: this sequence is to kneel down from laughter. Wonderful jokes appear in other episodes as well (Bitters sleeps together with Big Time Rush. Suddenly a farting noise is heard. Bitters stand up and says: "Did you hear that? That was the ghost!"), but rarely reach the comic heights of these four. Despite a simplified presentation of young people trying to make it in show business, this is a more than a good of a show where the writers did not save their best jokes for some other film or series.

Grade;++ 

Back to School

Back to School; comedy, USA, 1986; D: David Metter, S: Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Robert Downey, Jr., Ned Beatty, M. Emmet Walsh

Thornton Melon, the rich owner of a store of clothes for large people, visits his son Jason at the campus. Upon hearing that Jason wants to quit the University, Melon, who never finished high school, decides to motivate him and show that it is not such an impossible task - by enlisting to the University himself! As the oldest freshman there, Melon is attracted to English teacher Diane, and hires professionals to write his dissertations for him. However, dean Phillip wants Melon to give an oral examination. Melon thus spends weeks studying for real, but manages to graduate.

Comedian Rodney Dangerfield appeared in only a handful of films - his performance on the screen, for instance, was restricted to only four films in the 80s - and thus it can be claimed that "Back to School" is his finest film by default. It is a light, yet accessible comedy that builds its appeal on the charming idea that the main protagonist, Melon, in his 50s, decides to share his son's burden of going to University by enlisting there himself, which has enough good moments to carry the film. The jokes are on the hit-or-miss level, yet the best ones manage to ignite sufficient chuckles, where the assistance of co-writer Harold Ramis and Dangerfield's fast wisecracking monologues come to full expression ("You have poor taste!" - "I know, I married you!"; "Your friend, Lou, looks strange." - "Lou? He's an animal! He is only the second generation in his family that walks upstraight!"; the Kurt Vonnegut cameo). Dean Phillip is a one-dimensional bad guy, Robert Downey, Jr.'s role is underused and the love subplot involving Jason and Vanessa is bland, yet thanks to the rather positive tone of the storyline and the tendency to avoid vulgar or cheap jokes resulted in a an overall amusing little film.

Grade;++

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Nicklelodeon

Nickleodeon; comedy, USA, 1976; D: Peter Bogdanovich, S: Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds, Jane Hitchcock, Tatum O'Neal, John Ritter, Brian Keith

During the silent film era at the beginning of the 20th century, Leo Harrigan is an unsuccessful lawyer who accidentally stumbles into the office of H.H. Cobb, an independent film producer who is struggling with major film companies who want to crush independent films shown for a nickle in small cinemas, called "nickleodeon". Harrigan is sent to California to oversee the production of a film, but is promoted to replace the runaway director. He finds a new main actor, Buck Greenaway, but they are both in love with the same girl, Kathleen. Cobb recuts their films and fires them, they find a new job in a new studio, but return to Cobb after the premiere of "The Birth of a Nation".

American cineast Peter Bogdanovich used W.D. Richter's script about the silent film era to craft a loving homage to the period, and add some modern parallels with the elements involving the ever lasting rivalry between the big budget-mainstream and independent film productions, imitating even a few stylistic decisions and slapstick scenes typical for those old movies, yet it seems Bogdanovich and Richter simply did not find a common language, since "Nickleodeon" is strangely uneven and uninspired at times, especially in the overlong running time and a vague ending. Some jokes work (the major film studios hire goons to use a gun and literally shoot and "assassinate" a camera of the independent production; Greenaway is paid 10$ to ride a horse for a show as a last minute stand-in, but doesn't what to do in front of the audience, so the producers simply hastily put him on a horse and say: "Don't worry, the horse knows what to do!"), while others seem dated, like the forced, long sequence of Harrigan (O'Neal) and Greenaway (Reynolds) fighting with their fists at the farm, which is surprisingly stiff and sluggish despite the fact that they break numerous stuff, two notches bellow Bogdanovich's better sense of physical comedy in "What's Up, Doc?" A small jewel here is the 13-year old Tatum O'Neal who proves that her excellent performance in "Paper Moon" wasn't an accident, and in fact seems almost like a continuation of the character, since her Alice in this film is equally of a snappy girl who drives a car and throws a bottle of booze from the table to distract a studio guard.

Grade;++

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Super 8

Super 8; science-fiction, USA, 2011; D: J. J. Abrams, S: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Riley Griffiths

A rural town in Ohio during the 70s. A bunch of kids from school decide to make a small zombie horror movie using their 8-mm camera. Among them is the director, Charles, as well as Joe, Preston, Cary and Alice. While rehearsing a scene one night, Charles spots a train passing by so he decides to film it in the background while the actors are delivering their lines. However, the train derails and causes a disaster. The army shows up while Joe's dad, the local Sheriff, Jack, investigates strange disappearances of locals and car engines. After their film is developed, Joe and Charles realize they accidentally filmed an alien exiting the cargo of the train. The army evacuates the town, but Charles and his friends return, save the kidnapped Alice and meet the alien who reassembles his spaceship and leaves Earth.

"E.T." meets "Blow-Out": this teen Sci-Fi with a few scary elements is not as inventive in depicting the monster on film as J.J. Abrams' own previous monster film "Cloverfield", but has enough good moments and well thought out ideas to carry the story. The alien does not show up until the last third of the "Super 8", but the tension and interesting events keep the viewers engaged, whereas it was quite clever to have them waiting until they show the alien, exiting the train cargo, accidentally caught on grainy film by the kid protagonists, which gives it a certain flair and taste. The best performance was delivered by Riley Griffiths as Charles, the kid who has the ambition to rally all his classmates from school and prepares them for his amateur horror film. "Super 8" borrows storylines and plot elements from superior Sci-Fi films - for instance, the supblot where the army feigns a disaster to have an excuse to evacuate people from town in order to search for the alien was taken from Spielberg's classic "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" - some plot elements have plot holes (why would the alien kidnap people?), the ending is half-bred and vague whereas one could pose the question if it was probably more appropriate to have grown ups take the center stage, and not kids, considering some harsher scenes. Still, this is a neat viewing experience that holds attention and offers a proportionally well set-up adventure.

Grade;++

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Day for Night

La Nuit americaine; drama, France, 1973; D: François Truffaut, S: Jacqueline Bisset, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese, Dani, Nathalie Baye

French director Ferrand is trying to direct a film, drama "Meet Pamela". Actor Alphonse plays a young man who falls in love with Pamela, played by British actress Julie Baker, but Pamela in the story leaves him when she falls in love with his father, played by ageing actor Alexandre. Julie is ironically married to an older doctor in real life. The production has to overcome several difficulties, but the major one occurs when the script-girl dumps Alphonse for a stuntman. The actors is thus depressed, and Julie lands in bed with him. Her relationship with the doctor is strained, and actor Alexandre dies in a car crash, but Ferrand manages to complete the film.

The only film for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best director, winner of an Oscar for best foreign language film and a BAFTA for best film, director and supporting actress Valentina Cortese, "Day for Night" is a loving homage to filmmaking and alongside "Jules and Jim", "The Bride Wore Black" and "Fahrenheit 451" one of Fracois Truffaut's three best films. Constructed as a film-within-a-film, "Day for Night" is a clever, yet simple and elegant metafilm story where Truffaut himself plays the director Ferrand, and his frequent actor Jean-Pierre Leaud the actor in the film, Alphonse. The film is filled with gentle comical situations involving obstacles that the film crew has to overcome (a cat is too scared of the boom microphone to run towards the plate and drink milk for a take; two peasants escorting two donkeys pass by the film set and joke: "Making a movie? If you need stars, we are available!") but the most enduring feature of the film is the analogue links between the film story and the lives of the actors: in the fictional film "Meet Pamela", Julie plays the heroine who leaves her younger lad, played by Alphonse, for the older man, his father, but in real life, Julie is married to a doctor 20 years her senior, yet abandons him to land in bed with Alphonse! Truffaut's light hearted approach is occasionally indeed too light - the "juicy" twist of Julie's affair with Alphonse is underdeveloped and never has the sheer emotional kick it could have had - yet the movie is an unassuming and honest "behind-the-scenes" peak that will make the viewers appreciate films even more since so much effort of the crew is invested into many of them.

Grade;+++

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Fantastic Planet

La Planete sauvage; animated science-fiction, France/ Czech Republic, 1973; D: Rene Laloux, S: Jean Valmont, Eric Baugin, Jennifer Drake

On the planet Ygam, humans originating from Terra, live either as pets or pest among the blue giants, the Traags, who dominate the planet thanks to their size and superior technology. Two Traag children play with a woman and accidentally kill her, but Traag girl Tiva adopts the baby, Terr. As a grown up, Terr manages to escape and steal the Traags education machine, which he uses to educate a human tribe. They gain knowledge and technology to build rockets. Traags start exterminating humans, but they land on the nearby planet where the Traags land in bubbles on naked statues to multiply. As the humans start destroying the statues, they thus cause mass extinction of Traags as well. Realizing they both do not want to destroy each other, the humans and Traags decide to live side by side, peacefully.

The first animated film that won the Grand Prix in Cannes, "Fantastic Planet" is Rene Laloux's first feature length film and one of the strangest animated films for grown ups. The movie looks as if the director spent a long time observing how people hold various wild, exotic animals caged - parrots, turtles, fish, hamsters - and then decided to show them how they would feel on their place instead in this allegorical story where humans are actually treated as pets or pest (deomization=deratization) who depend on the mercy of the blue giants. Ultra bizarre, grotesque and unpleasant, this is one of the few Sci-fi films that show an alien planet just the way it is - alien, and not like another Earth version of it - with the most unusual designs that border more on some paintings of Salvador Dali (a cube that traps a man as soon as someone touches it; a thin, black palm like tree moving left and right) and stiff animation, yet it has a point if one has the above mentioned theme in mind. The ending is pure surrealism, but together with the point manages to retroactively justify such a story and execution. A hermetic, but bold cry for tolerance and coexistence, and inherently one of the greatest movies raizing awareness about animal rights.

Grade;+++

Monday, January 6, 2014

Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass; action, USA, 2010; D: Matthew Vaughn, S: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Mark Strong, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicolas Cage, Lyndsy Fonseca

Staten Island. Teenager Dave Lizewski is tired of getting bullied around by punks and small-time crooks, so he orders a green costume, dresses up as Kick-Ass and decides to be the first real-life superhero. His first attempt of protecting justice fails, though, as he is badly wounded by two punks and hit by a car. However, he continues and a Youtube video of him fighting criminals on the street gains him fame. At the same time, a framed ex-cop, Damon, and his 11-year old daughter Mindy, disguise themselves as Big Daddy and Hit-Girl in order to take revenge on mafia boss Frank. After Frank's men kill Damon, Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass storm his hideout and kill him and his men.

One of the most overrated films of 2010, "Kick-Ass" sounds like a good idea - but it is only fun the first 10 minutes, while the rest is just mindless action that is at least 70 % a glorification of violence which cannot be camouflaged not matter the hype. When you have a scene of a father shooting at his daughter in order to "show" her the feeling of getting shot while wearing a bulletproof vest, you already sense this is questionable. But once the splatter violence gets unleashed (a man exploding in a microwave), you can be positive this was a misguided execution of a neat concept. The most disturbing feature here is the notion of a 11-year old girl (!) killing about fifty people throughout the film, aggravated even further by the producers trying to make it look "fun" and "cheerful" by adding hip music - Joan Jett must be shocked of having her fantastic song "Bad Reputation" getting trashed by using it in a scene of massacre near the end. Yes, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl are the good guys who fight the bad guys - but their methods are all the same and one can only wonder how fascism can be so subtly transmitted as something positive. The best part of the film is Dave's love story with Katie and a few comical scenes in the first half, which are the only redeeming features in an otherwise sad film. Overall, despite some good scenes, watching "Kick-Ass" is about as fun as a comedy about Anders Breivik.

Grade;+

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Welcome to the Sticks

Bienvenue chez le Ch'tis; comedy, France, 2008; D: Dany Boon, S: Kad Merad, Dany Boon, Zoe Felix, Anne Marivin

Philippe Abrams, manager of a postal office in the French south, is constantly harassed by his wife Julie who wants to move to a lovely city at the Mediterranean coast. For trying to fake his application by pretending to be disabled, Philippe is punished by getting transferred to the French far north, to the cold Bergues. Philippe goes there all by himself and meets the locals who speak in the "ch'ti" dialect. Philippe needs time to adjust to their mentality, but soon finds to like the place. He even helps a postman, Antoine, to propose a girl, Annabelle. When Julie goes to visit him, Philippe instructs the locals to act primitive, because his marriage works the best when she has pity on him. Julie finds out the place is not that bad either, and gets to like the place, as well.

Sometimes the greatest box office hits in certain countries are not also the greatest films of that cinema, but rather just "lucky breaks" for authors who somehow managed to hit the nerve of the audience. Such is the case with Dany Boon's "Welcome to the Sticks", a politically correct, nice, but bland and standard comedy that is little more than a gentle jab at the cultural difference between France's north and south. Still, it managed to sell over 20 million tickets at the French box office, a new record in 2008. As with most comedy films or TV shows that rely exclusively or mostly only on play with words, "Sticks" is also thus entrenched only in the language it originated from, while abroad other countries hesitated to screen it, since it is almost impossible to adapt all those dialect differences that get "lost in translation". For instance, in one sequence, Philippe arrives at the northern city and goes to his apartment, without any furniture. He talks to the local Antoine, who speaks the 'ch'tis' dialect that pronounces the letter "S" as "Sh" or "Ch". Antoine and Philippe thus spend three minutes arguing over the words "Sien" (=His) that sounds here like "Chien" (=Dog). Unfortunately, since these kind of jokes only work in French, its punchlines are only restricted to people who know that language, but otherwise its appeal is lost. The film is only moderately funny, with an unnecessary subplot that starts very late, just 20 minutes before the end, revolving around Philippe trying to persuade his wife Julie that people in the north are really stereotypical "savages". The most was achieved in the subplot where the protagonist helps Antoine propose a girl he likes, in a brief, but romantic moment. "Sticks" is an easily watchable 'light' comedy, but the only truly hilarious bits work around Antoine's mother, who is precisely so funny because you cannot believe how such a dignified older lady would talk such "off" words.

Grade;+

The Priest's Children

Svećenikova djeca; black comedy/ satire/ drama, Croatia, 2013; D: Vinko Brešan, S: Krešimir Mikić, Nikša Butijer, Dražen Kuhn, Marija Škaričić, Zdenko Botić, Jadranka Đokić, Lazar Ristovski

For the catholic church, using condoms is a sin. A young priest, Don Fabijan, and two very religious people, clerk Petar and pharmacist Marin, join therefor forces and decide to burst small holes on condoms and sell these to the locals of a small Dalmatian island in order to "nullify" that "sin" and also get more "catholic Croat babies". However, the side effects are staggering: unwanted pregnancies lead to two tragedies, the biggest one being the suicide of an underage girl who was left pregnant after getting sexually abused by a local bishop. Fabijan thus quits his profession and confesses to a priest.

With over 155,000 sold tickets at the box office, Vinko Bresan once again managed to hit the nerve of the public and achieve one of the biggest hits of the Croatian cinema of the 21st century. It is a rare example of a satire on some absurd rules of the catholic church and its role in the society of Croatia, whereas the timing was indeed spot on, since the church played a big role the 2013 marriage referendum in that country. The movie starts as a biting satire, with a few clever touches (the protagonist, Don Fabijan, is also the narrator, and in some scenes, we can even see him both acting in an event and narrating it while talking directly to the camera) and (black) humorous jokes, such as the scene where the clerk Petar is confessing to Fabijan that he must sell condoms, even though his wife considers that a sin ("I am killing people before they were born!"). However, Bresan once again did not resist not to insert a few cheap shots that appeal to the low tastes (unnecessary visualization of Fabijan imagining locals having sex) and allowing for his instructive side to take over, adding a few heavy elements of drama and social engagement in the weaker second half of the film, that are not always harmonious. The paedophilia subplot at the end is especially tricky and split the critics, but it enables Bresan to add a point how the Croatian church is just using condoms as a distraction effort from the real sins of some priests that sexually abuse children, yet they are rarely talked about in such loud way.

Grade;++

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Napoleon

Napoleon; silent drama/ adventure, France, 1927; D: Abel Gance, S: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daele, Gina Manes, Alexandre Koubitzky

During winter of 1779, the 10-year old Napoleon Bonaparte learns how to fight back while participating in a snow ball fight in the Brienne college. The boys tease him there and release Napoleon's hawk from the cage, but the bird returns to him...A decade later, during the French Revolution, Napoleon travels to Corsica to persuade the people that not the British or the Italian, but France is their homeland. He gains his first victory as a young military commander during the 1793 siege of Toulon, where he defeats the English soldiers. The Republic is still in crisis: Robespierre and Saint-Just start a Reign of Terror to suppress Royalists and counter-revolutionaries, and thus become unpopular. Napoleon marries Josephine, meets general Murat and leads a victorious campaign against Italy, in order to spread the Revolution and stabilize the divided France.

One of the most famous and critically acclaimed silent film of the 20s, Abel Gance's "Napoleon" is a quality biopic, but still a little bit overrated. All the virtues mentioned in the film indeed stand the test of time, with ease: Gance's visual style is brilliant in the first third, using movable camera and inventive tricks and ideas (a camera placed on a horse to get the POV of riding; the grown up Napoleon is first introduced from profile, and when someone asks his name, the subtitles say: "Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)"; double exposure...) as well as clever storyline ideas (during the victory at the Toulon, the drummers are absent, but the drums are still "making noise" since a hail is tapping on top of them; Napoleon escapes from Corsica by attaching the flag of France to a pole of a boat to use it as a sail). The first half of the film is excellent, but the second one is so overstretched that the overlong 4-hours of running time simply take a toll on the film and exhaust the viewers' enthusiasm.

It is noticeable that Gance is patriotic about his topic, but he has the tendency of getting carried away way too much, of unstoppable fascination of *everything* about Napoleon - whether interesting or boring - and cramming even the most trivial moments from his life to the screen - the movie definitely needed a better editor who would restrain this "inflation" of events. It is a very strange feeling when, after the intermission, you just cannot wait for the next 90 minutes to finally pass in order to skip to the good part, the highlight, the triple, so called 'triptych' sequence that "enlarges" the screen on the left and right. It is indeed fascinating to see the conquest of Italy from that perspective, yet it cannot fully compensate for so much empty walk up to it. Likewise, the focus seems to be on the wrong place: how can you make a movie about Napoleon but not show almost nothing about his strategy or military brilliance? The whole film has only two sequences of that (the battle of Toulon and the ending campaign against Italy) whereas too much of the story is wasted on Napoleon's less interesting moments in life. For all of its genius, you cannot shake away the feeling that this was just the beginning, the 1st of six planned films about Napoleon, and that these later films - which were sadly never made - would have offered far more suspense and substance in the story.

Grade;++