Friday, January 30, 2015

School of the Holy Beast

Seiju gakuen; action/ thriller/ crime, Japan, 1974; D: Norifumi Suzuki, S: Yumi Takigawa, Emiko Yamauchi, Yayoi Watanabe, Yoko Mihara

A young woman, Maya, enters a Christian convent to become a nun. However, that is only a cover, since she only went there to find out what happened to her mother in that institution, who disappeared. Rebellious as she is, Maya has trouble yielding to strict rules including forbidden sex, parties or alcohol, but finds a friend in the nun Matsuko Ishida. Regular punishment includes whipping and torture. With time, Maya finds out her mother was a nun as well, but became pregnant with the priest and was thus killed by the headmistress to hush it up. Maya takes revenge by killing the headmistress and the priest.

Even though his favorite actresses R. Ike and M. Sugimoto left the film business, that did not stop director Norifumi Suzuki from continuing in the "Pinky film" subgenre with this follow-up film, a bizarre feminist revenge exploitation flick set in a Christian convent. Compared to this, "Charlie Hebdo" is a walk in the park. "School of the Holy Beast" is so untrammelled towards religion that it is almost unheard off, and its scenes are so unbelievable and weird that you do not know if you should be puzzled or simply laugh at the absurdity of its exaggeration, and thus scenes of a nun drinking alcohol or fighting with another nun are almost benign: for instance, in order to punish two girls, the nuns order them to whip each other topless. There is also a moment where Maya wants to take a revenge on the headmistress and thus smuggles a man inside the convent to have sex with the latter, in order to steal her virginity, which culminates with "tremors" that shake even the statue of the Holy Mary in the room; a nun holds a lecture how sex is forbidden and bad, but then one girl from the class points out that nobody of them would be here without it; the headmistress hangs a pregnant (!) nun on Christmas (!!)... However, since the film has no pretensions, it can simply be perceived as a one giant joke and relaxed fun, since if the viewers are willing to watch with an open mind, they will find it to be a grand 'guilty pleasure'. The only deeper, truly serious messages are about certain Totalitarian tendencies in (extremist) religion, but Suzuki clearly shows his intent was just to entertain and not to attack, whereas the main actress Yumi Takagawa is great. A slight problem sometimes, though, is that the actresses are indistinguishable from one another when wearing the identical nun's wardrobe which only reveals their face, but the narrative is rather clear.

Grade;++

Friday, January 23, 2015

Operation Thunderbolt

Mivtsa Yonatan; drama/ thriller, Israel, 1977; D: Menahem Golan, S: Yehoram Gaon, Gila Almagor, Assi Dayan, Klaus Kinski, Sybil Danning

On 27 June '76, the Air France passenger plane from Tel Aviv stops in Athens to board more passengers. But as it continues to Paris, four hijackers - two Palestinians and two members of the German extreme left, Wilfried and Brigitte - take over the plane and take it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. While the foreign passengers were released, over 100 Israeli or Jewish passengers became hostages at the airport, with the consent of Idi Amin. The hijackers demanded that Israel release 46 convicted Palestinians, or else they will start shooting the hostages. After a lot of hesitation, the Israeli government authorized a secret rescue mission led by Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu. The Israeli army arrives at Entebbe at night and manages to free the hostages in a swift raid - 102 out of 106 of them were saved alive.

One of Menahem Golan's most famous films, "Operation Thunderbolt" is an appropriately well made and suspenseful film revolving around the eponymous rescue mission. Despite a few black and white solutions (for instance, Idi Amin is almost presented as a caricature), the film avoids bias or propaganda, instead focusing on trying to objectively tell the events as they happened, and even the hijackers Wilfried and Brigitte (cult actor Klaus Kinski and very good Sybil Danning) are not shown as typical bad guys. The unpleasant situation of hijackers taking over a flight full of passengers is strong, bitter and effective, especially contributing from the reaction of the passengers who find themselves in a plane converted into a flying concentration camp, without any fault of their own: one woman stabs herself and bleeds, in order to pretend that she is pregnant so that the hijackers would let her go, whereas one elderly Israeli man lifts his hand up to ask Brigitte is he can go to the toilet, thereby accidentally showing his Holocaust tattoo, making it awkward for both of them, which is done subtly. The second act, where the hostages are kept at the Entebbe airport, drags a bit and features too many empty walk, despite a few exceptions (Wilfried going berserk after he hears that hostages were given knives to use it for their lunch), leaving to wait for long until the finale sets in, the rescue mission, but it is great and worth the wait, giving a worthy conclusion to the film which is done just right to ignite the viewers' attention, without too much politicizing.

Grade;++

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Psycho-Pass 2

Psycho-Pass 2; animated science-fiction crime series, Japan, 2013; D: Kiyotaka Suzuki, S: Kana Hanazawa, Kenji Nojima, Ryohei Kimura

After she grudgingly accepted the Sibyl system as at least some sort of order in the society, Inspector Akane Tsumenori is now in charge of a new unit, but still works with Ginoza. However, a new threat shows up - Kamui, a lad who cannot even be registered and is thus "invisible" to the automatic crime system. Kamui manipulates people into committing crimes in order to highlight the flaws of the Sibyl system, bring it down and thus liberate the society. It turns out he cannot be registered because he is assembled out of 184 body parts from children who died in a plane crash over a decade ago. He is also sought by Togane, an artificially created human who obeys all the orders by his mother Misako. Kamui and Togane kill each other, while Akane warns Sibyl that "future is not decided by the society, but by the people".

After a high impression achieved with "Psycho-Pass", the authors made a disappointing two step backward march with the 2nd season. Comparing "Psycho-Pass" and "Psycho-Pass 2" is like comparing "RoboCop" and "RoboCop 2" - they tried to forcefully imitate the first story, but only all wrong things, which resulted in a story that is part banal, part overcomplicated and muddled without a point, as well as full of cheap splatter violence. Unlike the intelligent storyline of the 1st season, that unravelled slowly, layer upon layer, here the story is simple, but without that philosophical touch, whereas main villain Kamui seems like a pale copy of the first bad guy Makashima, and a lot of things about him were left unexplained, which makes this confusing (for instance, why would they experiment by implanting 184 body parts into him? Just saying that they liked to do "strange experiments" is not enough of an explanation, nor how he managed to escape from them as a kid). The supporting character of Togane is pointless - again, why would they create an artificial human who is just there to slaughter little puppies as a kid? Unfortunately, even the main heroine Akane seems lifeless in this edition, just like pretty much every character who either an extra or a shooting target. Several moments reach almost disturbing levels of cruelty and violence (the police shooting randomly at hostages emerging from a store, causing dozens and dozens of exploding bodies, or the fire in episode 9). Even more grey and humorless than "Ghost in the Shell", this is a mess of a season and an unworthy anime sequel, proving that a lot more care should have been given to the story, though at least Akane scores once again in her last monologue of the last episode, which proves that even in this "wrong" edition "Psycho-Pass" had its small crumbs of pleasure.

Grade;+

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Psycho-Pass

Psycho-Pass; animated science-fiction crime series, Japan, 2012; D: Katsuyuki Motohiro, Naoyoshi Shiotani, S: Kana Hanazawa, Tomokazu Seki, Akira Ishida, Kenji Nojima

In the 22nd century, the crime in society became extinct thanks to the Sibyl system, a programme that scans the brains of citizens and measures their Psycho-Pass, i.e. the level of their aggressive mood at a certain time point. If a person has a score of over 130, he or she is traquillized by police officers and brought to a correction facility. If the Psyco-Pass is over 300, the person is killed. That way, most crimes don't even happen. The new inspector, Akane, and her partner, Kogami, are assigned to capture a serial killer, Makashima, whose Psycho-Pass, as it turns out, is registered as normal even though he is seen killing Akane's friend in front of her. Akane finds out Sibyl is hiding the information that there are criminally asymptomatic persons in the world. Makashima plans to bring down the Sibyl system in order to free people from it. Akane finds out Sibyl is also composed out of brains from asymptomatic persons combined to a hardware. Kogami manages to stop and kill Makashima.

Even though it may not seem like it at first, at a better look "Psycho-Pass" is one of the more intelligent and philosophical Sci-Fi anime series of the 21st century, an achievement that could have been even more philosophical, but its authors probably actually intended to make the viewers think more for themselves. Set in a futuristic world that seems to be a restructuring of "Minority Report", it is a story in which the crime is prevented from even happening by having the central computer programme, the Sibyl, scan the brains of citizens in order to determine if their aggressive moods reach criminal levels, upon which the cops react and arrest - or kill - them. However, the fundamental contradiction of such a system is revealed to the new inspector Akane already in the first episode, in which the cops kill a man who was torturing and raping a woman - but then also scan the brain of the woman, and conclude her Psycho-Pass is "too high" and she needs to be enforced as well, even though she is a victim! Akane serves as the voice of reason in the storyline, as opposed to police officers who always obey Sibyl's judgements regardless that they actually feel someone is innocent or not. The story unravels finely and offers three "plot twists", and even though there is some harsh violence (criminals are killed by being hit with the laser gun which causes their bodies to explode) it is proportionally done with a measure, as to leave enough room for characters and dramaturgy. The main tangle is the discovery of the master-mind behind all the crimes, Makashima, whose Psycho-Pass is always - paradoxically - registered as normal, even when he kills a girl in front of Akane. This poses some serious questions about free will: if your government or any other kind of authority tells you that something is wrong or right, even though you disagree completely, would you agree anyway?

Makashima is a truly fascinating villain. At first, it is easy to hate him for his evil plans, yet as the viewers get the bigger picture, that he wants to fight the Sibyl system which he considers Totalitarian, the impression is suddenly far more complex and it is never quite sure if the right choice would be for Akane to arrest him or to join his fight. Makashima is also surprisingly literate and quotes from a wide range of sources, from "Blade Runner" through Blaise Pascal ("Justice is subject to dispute, might is easily recognized and not disputed. So we cannot give might to justice", which - in a follow up even more staggering - causes cop Kogami to reply with Jose Ortega y Gasset's quote: "I have long since learned, as a measure of elementary hygiene, to be on guard when anyone quotes Pascal") to Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" ("A doctor in Balnibarbi comes up with a way to get politicians with bipartisan, conflicting opinions to reconcile with one another. It was a surgery in which they'd cut each of their brains in half and then have the two half brains put together. That way, they could produce that moderation as well as regularity of thinking"), which is a real treat. The final plot twist, as to the true secret of the Sibyl system, is great and causes a great contradiction to dwell on: even at the highest level of mechanized cyberpunk, where humans became machines, it all still cannot work without humans. A few complaints should be aimed at a couple of "dead" CGI scenes, several "grey" scenes, a lack of character development of some of the cops and the impression that the authors "shot out" all they had by episode 20, which makes the finale in the last two episodes "flat" and standard. Overall, though, a very interesting thriller anime.

Grade;+++

Monday, January 19, 2015

Buddy Buddy

Buddy Buddy; comedy, USA, 1981; D: Billy Wilder, S: Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Paula Prentiss, Klaus Kinski

Assassin Trabucco gets the assignment to kill a witness who is about to testify at the court, which would put a lot of criminals behind bars. Trabucco rents a hotel room from which he has a clear view on the street in front of the court, but to his misfortune the annoying TV censor Victor Clooney wants to commit suicide in the room next door because his wife, Celia, left him for sexual therapist Dr. Zuckerbrot. Trabucco leaves Victor at Zucketbrot's clinic, but he returns shortly before the witness is about to appear. In the commotion, Victor volunteers to shot instead of Trabucco, and actually hits the witness, disgused as one of the cops. Trabucco flees to a desolate island, but is shocked when a ship strands there, carrying Victor.

Billy Wilder's last film, "Buddy Buddy" caught the old master on wrong foot. A remake of Molinaro's excellent French black comedy "A Pain in the Ass", "Buddy Buddy" gives an interesting comparison at how two identical stories can be done the right and wrong way with only slight deviations in tone, structure, pace and jokes. Naturally, since the French original was there first, it seems fresher and more original, but that would not matter so much if Wilder and his often collaborator I.A.L. Diamond had actually given a new, further take on that concept, but alas, there were practically none. The movie starts out fine, but as time goes on, it is evident the story is one long empty walk with few jokes and a thin inspiration. Jack Lemmon never seems so annoying and clingy as was Brel's Pignon, which makes his constant hassle of assassin Trabucco, who has to unwillingly play his babysitter, far less of a good combination for a hysterical laugh and a clash of two opposites. Wilder's style was always 'good old shool' fashioned, with simple takes, but his emotions, humanity and character interaction gave his stories freshness and magical style of its own. Without them, this film just seems old fashioned. However, cult actor Klaus Kinski is golden as the hilarious sexologist Dr. Zuckerbrot (two funny scenes of his character holding a lecture about how to avoid premature ejaculation - by thinking of the seven dwarves from Snow White - and the "bedwetter" moment) whereas there are still some small remnants of the genius that was Wilder, which makes the viewers automatically think of how the film could have looked like with the director in his prime in the final scene.

Grade;+

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Girl Boss Guerilla

Sukeban gerira; action/ crime/ erotic, Japan, 1972; D: Norifumi Suzuki, S: Miki Sugimoto, Reiko Ike, Ryoko Ema, Emi Jo

Sachiko, the leader of an all-female motorbike gang Red Helmets, arrives in Kyoto and decides to take over all other gangs there. Little by little, she takes over. During a fight with a rival gang leader, Nami, they become friends. They use numerous tricks to extract money from people, such as ordering one girl to have sex with a respectable man, then secretly taking photos of them and blackmailing him into paying a million Yen not to publish them. However, they thereby interfere with the "big fish", the all-male Yakuza, led by Nami's brother Nakahara. When the Yakuza kill Sachiko's boyfriend, boxer Ichiro, because he did not want to cooperate, Sachiko goes on a revenge spree: she plants a time bomb and thus kills the Yakuza members driving in a car.

"Girl Boss Guerilla" is a prime example of the popular "Pinky movies" subgenre in Japan of the 60s and 70s, when the exploitation films ever so often danced on the verge of allowed rules of the censors and indulged into the erotic, crime and adult themes which were suppressed and prohibited just a decade ago. Precisely because they so openly showed so much, the viewers perceived them as liberating and "wild", yet they rarely offered a certain quality blend of these elements. Director Norifumi Suzuki shows truly all kinds of bizarre and comical situations of the misadventures of an all-female gang: for instance, already in the opening, a girl on a motorbike unzips her jacket and shows her right breast, which has a red rose tattoo on it signalling her allegiance to the Red Helmet gang; a bald girl, Okei, goes to a doctor, who observes her genitalia and comments how she is "hairier down there than on her head"; another girl goes to a priest for a confession, only to seduce him and have sex with him, but when he later admits he has clap, she makes the best of it and sleeps with four Yakuza members in order to infect them as well... A lot of this is indeed stupid, silly, banal and juvenile, but at the same time, one cannot shake the impression of how pure and honest it is, showing, just like S. Imamura, a so often ignored world of the lower class and raw, elementary human emotions. Also, Suzuki gives a sly allegory of feminism (an all-female gang against the all-male Yakuza) and never pretends to be anything more pretentious than a simple example of relaxed pulp, a 'guilty pleasure', whereas the cult actress Miki Sugimoto is excellent as the feisty gang leader.

Grade;++

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Pain in the Ass

L'emmerdeur; black comedy, France/ Italy, 1973; D: Edouard Molinaro, S: Lino Ventura, Jacques Brel, Caroline Cellier

Milan, a professional assassin, gets the assignment to eliminate Louis, a valuable witness who is about to testify in a crime trial at 2 PM. For that occasion, Milan hires a hotel room from which he has a clear view of the street where Louis will arrive. However, his plan are disrupted by the events in the next room, where the annoying shirt salesman Pignon tries to hang himself on the waterpipe, yet just causes them to break and flood the flat. Since Pignon is shaken by his wife cheating on him with Dr. Fuchs, Milan agrees to drive him to his wife's stable, but just gets into more and more misadventures, including having to drive a pregnant woman to a hospital and being tranquilized by Dr. Fuchs, who thought he was Pignon. Back in his room, at 2 PM, Milan spots Pignon has discovered his gun. Pignon accidentally shoots from it, wounds Milan and causes the police to arrest them both.

Excellent "A Pain in the Ass" is a grand black comedy that uses its simple premise and exploits it to the maximum, delivering a fantastic fun which is a sly blend of "Le Samourai" and "What About Bob?" Director Edouard Molinaro starts the film as a straight forward assassin crime flick, only to add it a comic dimension once the annoying shirt salesman Pignon enters the scene and causes chaos in the hotel: it is remarkable how many creative ways there are for him to disrupt the assassination attempts of Milan with his antics. The jokes arrive swiftly and are so deliciously pure, good 'old school' - and are, of course, downright hilarious considering dry humor - from the opening joke where Pignon wants to hang himself on a waterpipe, only for the pipe to break and flood the hotel rooms; through the moment where Milan does not want to call the police and thus promises to talk with Pignon and calm him, upon which the concierge tells him that he "placed a huge burden on his shoulder"; the sequence where Milan has a car crash with a car carrying a pregnant woman and thus has to drive her and Pignon to the hospital; Pignon wants to talk to his wife, who is riding on a horse, but she just replies: "You are annoying my horse"... Without any muddle or overcomplications of the narrative, without any excess, finely balancing between two extremes, this is a deliciously pure film. 8 years later B. Wilder made the less famed remake "Buddy Buddy".

Grade;+++

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Weird Science

Weird Science; science-fiction comedy, USA, 1985; D: John Hughes, S: Anthony Michael Hall, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Kelly LeBrock, Bill Paxton, Robert Downey, Jr.

Two unpopular teenage geeks, Wyatt and Gary, decide to try to create their own perfect woman thanks to their computer. However, as a lightning strikes their house, the experiments actually works and brings their doll to life: Lisa. Not only beautiful, but also very smart and protective to them, Lisa helps Wyatt and Gary loosen up by bringing them out into night clubs and organizing a party in Wyatt's house. She stages a couple of wild bikers to crash into the party in order for Wyatt and Gary to confront and banish them, which makes two girls fall in love with them. Lisa also helps Wyatt get rid from his oppressive bully brother Chet. After her deed is done, Lisa disappears.

Bizarre and crazy, daft and totally silly, "Weird Science" is not among John Hughes best films, but its surprisingly noble messages and sincere themes make it a cult film even today and a 'guily pleasure'. In a way, this is some sort of a teenage version of "Mary Poppins" in which the perfectly created woman, Lisa, is not there to please the two horny teenagers Wyatt and Gary, but to actually help them grow up, mature and gain self-esteem, thereby enabling them to find their own girlfriends and stand up to themselves. The whole film is so damn weird that you never now if it is meant to be a parody of others or a parody of itself, because some situations are so incredible you don't know what to say (a giant missile emerging from the floor in Wyatt's room), but, just like in every Hughes film, Lisa's motherly care for the small Wyatt and Gary is so beautiful you almost get the impression there is something sincere going on here, and Kelly LeBrock is irresistibly charming in the leading role of Lisa. Two sequences are undeniably great, though, and come as a very pleasant surprise - the one is where Lisa has a fierce argument with Gary's father, angry because he is always so negative to his child, which is sweet and humble at the same time; the other is the hilarious, insane moment where some wild bikers, who look so scary that even some tough, 6'5 tall guy falls unconscious from fear, crash into the party, and Wyatt and Gary are the only ones who stand up to them in a moment to cherish. A madness of a film, but there is a method in it.

Grade;+

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Stagecoach

Stagecoach; western, USA, 1939; D: John Ford, S: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Andy debine, John Carradine

The Wild West, 19th century. Several passengers - prostitute Dallas, an alcoholic doctor, pregnant Lucy, salesman Samuel, Hatfield, banker Henry - board a stagecoach to travel to Lordsburg, but are immediately informed by drivers Buck and Curly that the long trip is dangerous because it traverses through the Apache territory where Geronimo reigns. On their trip, the cavalry follows them only until the nearest town, after which they are on their own. The stagecoach continues and picks up Ringo Kid, who is wanted by the authorities. In a town, they stop for Lucy to deliver a baby. On their trip again, they are attacked by the Apache, but saved by the new cavalry. In Lordburg, the Kid takes revenge on outlaw Luke and his two brothers. In the end, Curly allows the Kid to escape with Dallas, who fell in love with him.

Even though he made a lot of films before 1939, John Ford definitely found his "true calling" with the western "Stagecoach", where he for the first time teamed up with his favorite actor, John Wayne. Even though "Stagecoach" is not on the same level as the most magical Ford-Wayne films ("The Searchers", "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") it still deserves the status of a classic: following the stiff opening, it takes a lot until it gets going, but once it does, it's like a good engine that keeps going until its final destination. A lot of credit has to be given to a wonderfully simple, pure concept that engages some universal human themes: the viewers can identify with the passengers of the stagecoach after the cavalry only protects them until the nearest station, after which they have to continue their way alone, and are informed that Indians might try to attack them. This gives their journey empathy and solidarity, whereas Ford uses the travel for a slow "mosaic" characterization of these protagonists, who unobtrusively say a lot about themselves.

The stand out protagonist is the always drunk doctor, played brilliantly by Thomas Mitchell: when nothing is expected from him, he is a slob, but when people are relaying on him, he turns by 180 degrees (when he has to deliver a baby, he drinks a lot of black coffee to throw up the alcohol in order to quickly sober up; when the outlaw Luke wants to take on Ringo Kid, the doc bravely orders Luke to leave the shotgun in the bar. This act of bravery actually works, and Luke and his two brothers leave the bar without the shotgun. Afterwards, the doc says to the bartender: "Don't ever let me do that again.") A lot of humor helps elevate the film, too (when the duel between the "unbeatable" Luke and Ringo Kid is announced, a newspaper editor tells his employee to write a story: "Ringo Kid was killed on Main Street in Lordsburh tonight. And among additional dead were... Leave that blank for a spell."). The storyline is stuck here and there due to a few schematic or unnecessary subplots (the 15-minute finale between Ringo Kid and Luke does not add up into the previously established structure), but otherwise, it flows smoothly, and shows Ford with a few neat camera shots, from the famous panorama of the Monument Valley up to the POV scene of the driver while the horses pull the stagecoach through the river (even though it is an "error" shot, since the shadow of the camera can be seen, it is still a great shot to look at).

Grade;+++

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist; drama, UK, 1948; D: David Lean, S: John Howard Davies, Robert Newton, Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh

England, 19th Century. Oliver Twist is an orphan whose mother died after birth. He lives in an orphanage led by beadle Mr. Bumble, who uses the kids as cheap labor in a workhouse. He sells Oliver for five pounds to be an apprentice for undertaker Sowerberry. After another apprentice makes fun of his mother, Oliver attacks him and is punished. Oliver thus flees to London where he is taken by Fagin, a professional pickpocket who trains kids like Dodger to steal from people on the street. Oliver is caught and arrested, but the man whom he tried to rob, Mr. Bownlow, takes pity on him and adopts him. It turns out Oliver is actually his lost grandchild. He is kidnapped by Fagin's accomplice Sikes, but the police storm their hideout and free him.

After a great success with his film adaptation "Great Expectations", director David Lean was assigned to adapt another Charles Dickens' classic novel, "Oliver Twist", and this 7th film adaptation is often mentioned as being among the best ones, if not the best. While not on the same level as Lean's best films, such as "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Doctor Zhivago", "Oliver Twist" is a thoroughbred example of good 'old school' filmmaking where the focus is entirely on a clear narrative and characters, without too much meddling with special effects or cheap attention grabbers. While some sequences could have been directed better - for instance, the crucial scene in the novel, where Oliver asks the supervisor of the orphan workhouse to have another bowl of soup, is very scarce and seems almost 'abridged' in the film - the movie is overall handled with exquisite care for details (malnourished orphan children fascinatingly observing the adult supervisors having a real feast on the table; Sikes' hallucination after the murder...), finely balancing between the two poles: shortening the huge novel for the film medium and yet staying faithful to its core. Lean simply knows how to make a film, and a subtle shift towards the epic is felt, which will culminate with his already mentioned classics from the 60s. The cast completes the impression, and Lean's favorite collaborator Alec Guinness is once again brilliant, this time in the role of the villainous Fagin, almost unrecognizable behind that make-up that mirrors the poverty of street children and their shady mentors.

Grade;+++

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Woodstock

Woodstock; documentary, USA, 1970; D: Michael Wadleigh, S: Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, David Crosby, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix

From 15-18 August 1969, the Woodstock music festival was held near Bethel, New York, featuring several music artists - Crosby, Stills & Nash, Canned Heat, Joan Baez, The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others - who played music and preached peace for three days. The amassed audience broke every expectation of the organizers, and various estimates placed the number of people attending the festival from 250,000 to 500,000. Despite various problems - rain, lack of food and toilets, mud, locals complaining... - the festival was a success and went into history as one of the legends of that era.

In the documentary genre, sometimes all it needs is for the filmmaker to be at the right time at the right place. Michael Wadleigh and his crew went on to film the Woodstock music festival, without any expectations, and made with their 4-hour documentary "Woodstock" the ultimate document - and feeling - of that event, one of the legends of the 20th century where the pleas for peace and harmony almost made this a better world than we have today. The movie is long, but since it was such a large event, its scale is justified, since already in the opening someone correctly describes it as: "This thing was too big for the world. Nobody has ever seen a thing like this. And when they see this picture, they'll really see something". Thus, cutting corners to make a shorter film would have been inherently unfaithful and unfair to the event they were presenting.

The film does not just show artists singing and performing on stage, but also the various problems in sustaining the audience consisting out of at least a quarter million people for three days: lack of food caused people to open public kitchens to distribute food; some people are forced to wash themselves in the lake; a certain Mr. McGee is called to go backstage because "his wife is having a baby"; when the rain disrupts the concert, some teenagers are jokingly sliding in the mud; people stand in line to make at least one phone call in limited phone booths to their parents; a teenage girl gives an interview how her mother thinks she will "go to hell" for her liberal behavior; some enthusiasts are practicing yoga. There is simply so much material here that split screens are presented regularly to fit "two for the price of one" in the film. This all portraits a wide, three-dimensional picture so that the viewers who were never there get the impression as if they were. The only startling thing is that the actual music in the film is surprisingly unmemorable at times - numerous performances just don't stand out and are bland - though there are, of course, exceptions thanks to a few great gigs, such as The Who's "Summertime Blues", Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends" or Jimi Hendrix's closing improvisation. Overall, anyone interested in the Hippie culture must see this monument to it.

Grade;+++

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Lady and the Tramp

Lady and the Tramp; animated comedy, USA, 1955; D: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, S: Barbara Luddy, Larry Roberts, Bill Thompson

During winter, a husband gives a present to his wife: a cocker spaniel puppy called Lady. She grows up into a faithful dog and all is well for some time, until the husband and wife have a baby, which denotes Lady to a second place. When the couple leaves for a vacation and the baby in the house is guarded by aunt Sarah, she puts a muzzle on Lady. This causes Lady to run away and encounter stray dog Tramp, who helps her lose the muzzle. He shows her where to find food and enjoys the free life. The two fall in love. When the Tramp helps save the baby from a rat that entered its room through the window, the couple decides to adopt it to let him live with Lady.

The 15th animated film from the Walt Disney studios, "Lady and the Tramp" is one of the studios lesser, weaker achievements, but it still has enough charm to "survive" the test of time. After reviewing the film, one quickly realizes that it only has two things goes for it - the beautiful, crispy-clear classic animation and a great romantic moment when the Tramp and Lady eat the same spaghetti pasta string and thus inevitably kiss in the middle of it - but overall it did not manage to make a lot out of the thin, one-note storyline and offer a more versatile stratification of events that will dazzle. The majority of the film relies too much on silly jokes and childish ideas, whereas it presents the life of a stray dog almost as some sort of a holiday, where there is always enough food and no hunger or cold in winter in sight, whereas the only more realistic counterbalance to such a simplified view is the sequence in the dog pound. Several forced plot ploys bother as well, the most obvious being the "evil" rat entering precisely the room of the baby, in order to eulogize the Tramp. Still, due to its refreshingly classical narrative and good natured mood, as well as a few good jokes here and there, "Lady and the Tramp" is still a good edition of a 'dog's life'.

Grade;++

Dead Ringers

Dead Ringers; drama, Canada/ USA, 1988; D: David Cronenberg, S: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske

Twins Elliot and Beverly were very intimate since kids. As grown ups, they are now gynaecologists in a prestigious clinic in Toronto. Elliot starts an affair with a patient who cannot have children, actress Claire, and then "passes" her over to Beverly to have sex with her as well. However, the sensitive Beverly falls in love with Claire and is devastated when she leaves him after finding out that the two of them shared her in bed. Beverly manages to return to Claire and gives her prescription drugs she asked him for. Beverly becomes a drug addict, which makes his work in the clinic suffer. Elliot takes the same drugs as well to "synchronize" himself with him. In order to "separate the Siamese twins", Beverly kills Elliot. Later, Beverly dies from grief as well.

It is interesting that in the same year as Reitman took a comical approach at the topic of twins with "Twins", director David Cronenberg took a more psychological  - and disturbing - approach with "Dead Ringers", a very bizarre drama. Jeremy Irons is great in the double role of twins, successfully displaying subtle differences between the sensitive Beverly and the cold, rational Elliot, but except for a for inventive tricks (such as when the camera pans from left to right to switch between Irons 1 and Irons 2 or as the one where a camera is driving backwards while Irons 1 and Irons 2 are walking in the same shoot) the sole concept of two twins who are so intimate that they act almost as one personality divided between two people and thus enter a deep crisis when they have to replace that intimacy with a love partner, a different person, is interesting but does not have much else to offer and is never truly thoroughly engaging, stimulative or equipped with some sort of a brilliant point. Likewise, Cronenberg sometimes inserts a few horror moments, which is entirely out of place for such a drama (the dream where Claire "bites off" the tissue connecting Beverly and Elliot who are lying connected in bed; Beverly ordering unknown, bizarre instruments for the operation room). Even though the film is overall overlong, it has its moments (the dialogue "Pain creates character distortion. It is simply unnecessary.") and leaves the viewers guessing who of the twins did exactly what in the end.

Grade;++

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man; crime/ mystery/ horror, UK, 1973; D: Robin Hardy, S: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt

Police officer Howie - a very religious Christian who is still a virgin because he wants to save it for the marriage - arrives to a desolate Scottish island to investigate claims of an antonymous letters that speaks of an alleged disappearance of a girl, Rowan. The only thing he has is the girl's photo, but none of the locals claims to know her. He stays at a pub and is surprised by the pagan rituals of the locals. The island chief, Lord Summerisle, explains him that the locals believe their crops are assured when someone is sacrificed on 1 May. Howie suspects they want to kill Rowan that day, but in reality, the locals capture him at the coast instead, lock him inside a giant wicker man statue and burn him for the sacrifice of a virgin.

"The Wicker Man" is considered one of the cult classics of British mystery-horror films, and despite flaws offers a rather well conceived structure that speaks about a culture clash between two forms of religious fanaticism - the Christian one, embodied in police officer Howie, and the pagan one, embodied in the locals, since the film poses the question as to what is the fundamental difference between the belief that a sacrifice will assure a harvest reward from the divine and the belief that virginity before marriage will assure a reward from the divine. The way the mystery slowly unravels is the highlight of the film, since the locals on the desolate island truly seem as people who have been isolated from the rest of the world and the viewers root and identify with the conservative Howie (for instance, in one scene, a woman "cures" a sick girl by having her put a living frog in her mouth and then let it out so that her soar throat can be "transferred" to the frog. When the woman asks the bewildered Howie if he needs any help as well, he just responds: "Certainly not from you!"), but director Robin Hardy disrupts the subtle touch on several occasions with the lack of balance, which makes the film very 'rough', sloppy and uneven at times (for instance, the scene where Britt Ekland's character is dancing and singing naked in her bedroom and tapping the walls to tease Howie in the next room, is almost unintentionally comical). The "plot twist" is probably the most disputed: on one hand, it fits perfectly in the already set up crime storyline, but on the other, is leads to the infamous, mean-spirited ending which is not for everyone's taste.

Grade;++