Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The American (2010): A Boring and Unconvincing Movie

The American
The American is a considerably slow paced drama starring women's favorite George Clooney. It's considered by some critics (including Roger Ebert) to be a very well made movie but I do not share their opinion. In fact, I think it has a number of flaws. It is definitely not a movie for everyone's taste but this is not what makes are film bad or good. The American failed to convince me its main character was really what he was supposed to be according to the major part of the film. It also failed to get my genuine involvement from the beginning. Finally, I felt the filmmakers had tried to replace the movie's lack of qualitative content with beautiful scenery shots and excessive nudity but somehow this mix didn't work for me.

The American, Jack or Edward (George Clooney), is a skillful assassin who is also good at making high-grade weapons. When an assignment in Sweden goes wrong and he loses the woman he is involved with, Jack meets Pavel (Johan Leysen), the man he works for, in Italy. Pavel sends Jack in a small countryside village and further assigns him a job specified by Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). The job is to construct a weapon and Jack wants this to be his final assignment from Pavel. Meanwhile Jack under the name of Edward becomes a friend of local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and begins a relationship with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido). At the same time someone wants Jack dead.

It's obvious that the film tries to represent the American as an expert and impenetrable assassin. The problem is (possible spoilers ahead) we see Jack making a professional mistake in Sweden. Whether it is his first we do not know. Instead of trying to correct it, we see Jack making several new relationships immediately after he arrives in Italy. And these do not involve only women but also other locals. Furthermore, it's hard to believe that a skilled killer is going to walk alone across empty streets leaving his back fully uncovered while expecting something bad to happen.

Another thing not working for me was The American's slow pace. Especially in its first third the movie was extremely slow and unpromising. I've been wondering whether anything will occur at all.

I've read Roger Ebert pays a huge attention to two words, "Mr. Butterfly", in his review of The American. He says they are spoken by the wrong person only once and that this detail of the movie is crafted very well leading him to exaltation. Well, it could be I've missed that great scene but I think it's more likely people are looking for something splendid yet not existing in this film. If we take Ebert's example, only two women in the movie articulate the phrase “Mr. Butterfly”. First, neither of them uses these words only once. Second, both of these women have very good reasons to pronounce the words at every single occasion they do it. Sometimes, we can even assume they have more than one feasible reason. It's easy to consider Clara or Mathilde to be the wrong person but it's hard to put any huge significance in their use of "Mr. Butterfly".

Indisputably, the movie has its good moments. It shows beautiful Italian places and villages. It's nice to see Michele Placido's daughter, Violante, in the role of Clara. George Clooney is cool as usual and makes a decent restrained performance. The final shot of the film is great and symbolic. And it has a butterfly in it. But these moments were not enough for a captivating movie. For me, The American was not convincing and its second half was not strong enough to override the boring beginning.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012): A Great Cinematic Experience If You Do Not Expect the Meaning of Life

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is the latest film which Lana and Andy Wachowski (the creators of The Matrix) have been involved in. Cloud Atlas is considered by many (especially among its fan base) a revolutionary movie in regard to storytelling. It is also considered to deliver six different but well-connected stories, which have a profound philosophical meaning when seen as a whole. I do not agree with either of these arguments. I still think the movie is good though; only my reasoning behind it is not going to be the same.

Cloud Atlas tells six stories that takes place between 19th century and the distant future in parallel. The directors use the same actors for various roles and in a given space of time the character a particular actor play could be with a different gender or race. There are so many various impersonations that at times it is difficult to recognize the actor behind the character. This could seem like a mess but in fact, it's not bothersome at all. The change between the stories is not chronological and it's harder to follow it in the beginning. But once you become relatively familiar with each story and more importantly when (and if) you understand that there is not actually anything invisible, which you're missing, connecting the stories, the task of following them gets easier. I won't even try to describe the stories. They are about freedom, rebellion, seeking for a hidden truth and this is all you need to know.

The cast of the movie (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, etc.) has coped with the heavy task to render up to seven characters per actor very well. What I do not find to be quite successful is the actual connection between the stories. It relies mainly on the same characters and a few objects or events artificially tying the stories together. Thus I neither think the storytelling is really revolutionary nor there is such a huge meaning behind the movie. But this is actually a problem you could think thoroughly of only after the ending of Cloud Atlas.

And this is what makes the film working. When you are in the cinema, Cloud Atlas is really absorbing. You do care for the characters (well, at least for some of them). You want to see what is going to happen next in each of the stories despite realizing they are not so masterfully interconnected. The visuals are stunning. The music is good. The overall cinematic experience is great and you can hardly get bored during the long continuance of the film.

So, despite my opinion that the stories are not very well connected or revealing the meaning of life I can only admire the brave decision of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis to make this beautiful and tricky film. Cloud Atlas might not be really groundbreaking or making a perfect sense but it is superior to many movies which are easier to follow and undoubtedly reasonable. See it once and you may want to see it again.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jackie Brown (1997): A Conventional but Well Told Story

Jackie Brown
There are many of Quentin Tarantino's fans that think Jackie Brown is his poorest film. I would actually vote for Death Proof in such a competition but I can understand to a degree where their underappreciation of Jackie Brown comes from. First, it is the first Tarantino's full feature movie released after Pulp Fiction and since the latter is really great people's expectations for its successor should have been quite too high. Second, Jackie Brown is just not as "extreme" as other of Tarantino's films. Despite demonstrating many of his filmmaking trademarks, it is probably his most mainstream effort to date. But these two observations do not make the movie bad. It's fairly good and it's satisfying on many levels.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant using the airline she works for to smuggle the money of arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When the FBI and the police, in the face of Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen), decide to catch the arms dealer they try to force Jackie to cooperate with them. She has a choice between jail and giving Robbie up but the latter could be more unpleasant than the jail cause Ordell Robbie does not leave people talking about him alive for too long. In this situation Jackie succeeds to enchant her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and with his help she prepares a plan to get her out of the mess relieving herself of both the Feds and her boss.

As Tarantino's film, Jackie Brown delivers many of the goods or techniques one would expect. There is enough talking, partially irrelevant to the plot, of course. There are memorable characters and as usual the most colorful ones are amongst the supporting cast. We should mention Robert De Niro in the role of somehow dysfunctional ex-con Louis Gara and Bridget Fonda who plays one of the many Ordell's girlfriends, Melanie Ralston. Unsurprisingly, Quentin Tarantino offers a non-linear narrative. There are plenty of deaths too. The ending is not a huge surprise but endings have never been excessively surprising in Tarantino's movies anyway. As crucial as the plot might be the most important thing about his films has always been the way he tells a story.

Compared to the director's previous (and next) movies this one is probably his most conventional. Yes, it is not up to the standard of Pulp Fiction, which is a hard to match film, and this may be considered disappointing by certain people. The use of superfluous talking is not comparable to some of Tarantino's other movies and in this regard Jackie is closer to the broader audience although not being so Tarantino-ish is likely not to the taste of the director's core fan base. A piece of criticism could be mentioned against the screenplay too for not being very original.

But the lack of timeless greatness aside, when you add the cool performances of Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster to the almost expendable but funny supporting characters of Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda plus the fine soundtrack you get an entertaining movie. Jackie Brown may not be as innovative as Quentin Tarantino's previous efforts but it is still an amusing thriller and if approached without prejudice it can ensure a few hours of good time.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Skyfall (2012): Memorable Story and Characters

Our hope that 2012's Skyfall could make a good change in the James Bond series once more came true. Every Bond movie with Daniel Craig's participation brought a big alteration to the previously established course of the franchise. 2006's Casino Royale was the first big surprise, which rebooted the famous secret agent's story timeline and offered a non-conventional treatment of the character who was not capable anymore of saving the world effortlessly. 2008's Quantum of Solace was almost a U-turn again reinstating Bond as an omnipotent hero and lacking a good story. Finally, Skyfall accomplished another drastic reversal bringing the competent characterization and the good storytelling of Casino Royale back at the expense of Bond's invincibility.

After an unsuccessful mission to secure an important computer drive containing the names of British secret agents back from a man who has stolen it, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is considered to be dead, incidentally shot by his partner Eve (Naomie Harris). Months later the British government's upset with MI6 and particularly with M (Judi Dench) has reached the point to offer her a retirement due to the inability of MI6 to recover the drive. M prefers to stay until the issue is resolved. But it appears the government is not the only one wanting M's head as there is an explosion in MI6's headquarters. After the explosion Bond decides to return despite his unstable condition and possibly woolly attitude after being shot by his own colleague in consequence of M's instruction. Once he becomes a secret agent anew it appears the man having the drive (Javier Bardem) is not so unknown. His name is Silva and he has his own agenda for dealing with M.

As it becomes clear since the very beginning of Skyfall this time James Bond is not a powerful and invulnerable hero. This leads to a more interesting story, which the characters of Javier Bardem and Judi Dench also contribute a lot to. Javier Bardem is easily acceptable as a villain and he has already demonstrated in former movies he is quite capable of portraying bad guys. Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney also have memorable roles and they show good acting skills as usual. Having seen them in two previous Bond films, Judi Dench and Daniel Craig are what you would expect from them (which means good). And Ben Whishaw makes a decent appearance as Q. As a whole, the introduction of more personal sides of the characters furthers Skyfall's quality.

The cinematography is left in the hands of Roger Deakins and this makes Skyfall one of the most beautifully shot films in the James Bond franchise. There are plenty of lovely places presented in the movie (Istanbul, Macau, Shanghai, the Scottish Highlands and of course, London), which give you enough opportunities to appreciate Deakin's mastery more than once. The soundtrack is better than Quantum of Solace's score and this includes Adele's opening song. The direction of Sam Mendes is also great, which is of course easier when a good script is on hand.

To conclude, Skyfall is definitely a huge improvement over the former James Bond installment. It is probably not so surprisingly strong and pleasantly different as Casino Royale but it is a solid effort and deserves attention.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Looper (2012): A Good Sci-Fi Movie with Familiar Time Travel Flaws

Looper offers an interesting and fairly unpredictable narrative, good acting and some unavoidable for a time travel sci-fi movie flaws. Independently of the flaws though Looper is one of the better sci-fi films of 2012.

Looper's action is set in 2 different years, both in the not so distant future. In 2074, when the mob wants to kill someone and get rid of the body, the best possible way is to send the victim into the past. In 2044 a group of assassins called "Loopers" waits for the victims sent from the future and eliminates them the very moment they "land" on a specific place. Sometimes the older self of a particular killer is sent back from the future to be killed by his younger self. This is called "closing of the loop". If the man from the future escapes for whatever reason problems arise for the unsuccessful killer. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of the 2044's assassins, which gets into real danger when Old Joe (Bruce Willis) "arrives" in the past with more than a simple view of defenceless dying.

Looper is a well directed movie based on potent ideas. Except for the younger-older self connection there a few other themes incorporated into the movie like a love story, preventing the loss of a cherished person or a complicated mother and son relationship. The story is competently constructed and there aren't almost any redundant episodes. The film rarely feels boring and you do not know until the very end how Looper is going to wind up although a few possibilities may have crossed your mind.

The cast has done a fine job too. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are good in their impersonations of a same character. Actually this is probably the best movie starring Bruce Willis in recent years. Emily Blunt and Paul Dano have also notable performances in Looper. And Jeff Daniels has a few episodic but memorable appearances as the mob's representative in the "past".

Despite all of the praises above Looper has also a few flaws, some of which inevitable. As with every other time travel film each transfer of a man into the past (or into the future) immediately brings forth common problems related to the existence of more than a single timeline and its manipulation. This is very similar to the chicken-or-egg problem and of course, Looper is not a movie that avoids it. The film reveals some other less excusable issues too, e.g., the impossibility of the mob in 2074 to get rid of people in their own time seems ridiculous especially when simultaneously men are so advanced they can use time machines. Another not so clear point is why a looper should kill his own older self instead of assigning this tricky task to a colleague.

Regardless of the few issues, Looper tells a sound science fiction story. The plot is solid, entertaining and keeps you involved throughout the whole movie. The film is mandatory for lovers of the sci-fi genre but most casual moviegoers will also have a good time watching it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Quantum of Solace (2008): Old-Fashioned and Predictable

Quantum of Solace
It does not happen often a James Bond movie to rely heavily on its predecessor and this is exactly the case with 2008's Quantum of Solace. The previous installment in the series, 2006's Casino Royale, was the first Bond film starring Daniel Craig and it was a big success among both critics and broad audience. Probably this has been the reason inciting Quantum of Solace's filmmakers to include so many references in the movie to the former one but unfortunately, the end result is not even close to the quality of Casino Royale.

In Quantum of Solace secret agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) has to stop a famous environmentalist (Mathieu Amalric) from gaining control of a sterile land in South America in exchange of helping a local military leader to take the rule of the country. Simultaneously, Bond is hoping to inflict vengeance upon the people involved in the death of his love interest from Casino Royale Vesper Lynd. Of course, there is a new girl here, Camille (Olga Kurylenko), who is also seeking revenge for past events. The CIA is completely lost in this film and Bond's most powerful weapon is his strong will to avenge for Vesper's death.

Quantum of Solace is interesting in its contradictions. It is the first Bond Movie referring so heavily on a previous installment and in the same time it is very different from Casino Royale. The character development and the absorbing story of the first film with Daniel Craig are missing and the movie is closer to the usual stereotype of the franchise offering an invincible and almighty James Bond. Naturally, this does not make the film really memorable but the worse is the movie lacks a good plot and interesting twists. The aforementioned references to Casino Royale are also more obstructive to the story perception instead of being helpful in any way.

As a good old-fashioned James Bond movie Quantum offers lots of intense action, special effects and unscrupulous villains. Its biggest problem is that many of the previous films in the Bond series are just better. We've seen better plots, more efficient villains and we've listened to better scores. Even the opening song here is quite weak and in my opinion unsuitable. At the same time many of the franchise's past opening songs have become huge hits. Finally, the movie does not surprise with anything and is completely predictable.

So, if you want to see a traditional James Bond film you have plenty of options among the vast collection of pre-Daniel Craig Bond episodes. If you want to see something different Casino Royale is the obvious choice. These make the second Daniel Craig's reincarnation as James Bond actually expendable. If you are a fan of the James Bond franchise, you can see Quantum once for completeness but except for this purpose there are not many reasons to choose it. There is still hope though that the upcoming release of Skyfall is going to change the notion of a Bond movie for good once more and we will have the chance to experience a high-grade entertainment with Daniel Craig in the cinema again.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Brave (2012): Not Up to Former Pixar's Classics

After their heavy domination in the realm of animation, Pixar finally lost the lead last year. The 2012 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature went to Rango and if Pixar rely on Brave to win another Oscar or at least to restore their image, I don't think they will succeed. Brave is neither very good nor brave. It's a decent movie but it leaves more a taste of mediocrity when you know it's made by Pixar.

Brave is about young Princess Merida whose least desirable wish is to be a princess. She's good in archery and horse riding. She does not like to wear tight good-looking dresses. And she does not want to marry somebody her mother or a competition chooses. Merida's rebelliousness is about to start a war in her father's kingdom. So when she incidentally meets a witch she does not hesitate to ask for sorcery in order to change her life and her mother. But the magic does not work the way Merida expects so now she has to act fast and break the spell or its unpleasant effect will remain permanent.

The story is nothing original. A child opposes her parents' will and some complications appear, eventually helping them to resolve the issues. The theme is recycled many times and the main feature of Brave is it's animated. But the story itself is not told in a very interesting way. The plot is kept alive by some illogical actions (who needs to bring a bear in a castle while simultaneously trying to hide it just to take a tapestry from a wall). There are references to ancient events that are pretty much redundant. And Merida has a father who is probably supposed to be a funny character but he's actually acting just plain stupid and is completely uninterested in his family doings. Well, it's not that his daughter is acting smarter most of the time but Ok, she's still a child and it is an animated movie after all.

The visuals are well crafted yet this is naturally expected when Pixar are involved. Some of the landscapes in Brave look almost like real ones. Of course, water scenes are not among these and people are not even supposed to look authentic. The mandatory songs for an animated feature are not omitted. And they as well as everything else sound Scottish, which could be good or bad, or even distracting depending on your preference.

Unfortunately, Pixar are not "brave" this time and they do not take any risks with Brave. This furthers the movie's mediocrity. Brave has a standard story and everything happens the way you would expect from a Disney film. Indeed, it shouldn't be an obstacle for everybody and especially kids will probably find the movie and its characters entertaining. As for recapturing older audience, I think Pixar have to work harder. It seems they are running out of fresh ideas but if they want to be hugely successful again producing just gorgeous animations won't be enough. We need more than a simplistic story and a witty dialogue to begin praising their movies anew.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

North by Northwest (1959): An Accessible Hitchcock's Classic

North by Northwest
North by Northwest is probably one of Alfred Hitchcock's most accessible films. It is full of color. It has Cary Grant. It covers a lot of open and closed spaces. There is more adventure and action than in Hitchcock's other movies. There is mystery and romance. It's hard to enumerate all of the twists that happen throughout the film. There is a legendary scene with a crop duster and decent action around Mount Rushmore. There are a lot of funny moments too. What more a casual moviegoer could want from a movie?

In North by Northwest Cary Grant is in the role of Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising expert, who is unluckily mistaken for a government agent by foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Thornhill's life is in serious danger and he has to find a way to survive as he is kidnapped, forced to drink a full bottle of liquor, accused of murder and this is just the beginning of his troubles. He meets a beautiful woman, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who seems to be trying to help him but soon it appears she is not so innocent as she looks. As a result, Thornhill is once again pursued, shot at and dusted with poisonous pesticide in a cornfield. And he still doesn't have a clue what is really going on...

Unlike many other Hitchcock's films (Rope, Rear Window, etc.) in which the entire action takes place in closed spaces or even in just one room, North by Northwest covers a variety of interesting locations. Mt. Rushmore is a good example to mention. The famous crop duster scene is another highlight. Hitchcock manages to use a wide-open space during broad daylight to create an unexpected but real threat for the protagonist. The scene is masterfully shot and it has become one of Hitchcock's classic moments since the film's release in 1959. Some people still wonder why the antagonist would choose such a complicated plan to eliminate somebody. I do not have problems with such a choice and I can consider it an artistic device. But if you think about the scene deeper there is not a single good reason why Roger Thornhill is sent to that cornfield in the first place. Anyway, this is one of the things that could be reasonably excused with "it's just a movie".

The film is full of adventurous situations and Cary Grant is a very good choice for the role of the light-hearted Thornhill. There are also plenty of jokes like when Thornhill rushes into a lady's bedroom and her initial fright and indignation are turned into a sudden hope to hold Cary Grant in her room longer.

The twists in North by Northwest starts from the very beginning and it's hard to complain there are not enough of them. Almost constantly the situation changes, independently of whether you expect it or not.

The movie is closer to the mainstream (in terms of romantic relationship, color, etc.) compared to other Alfred Hitchcock's films but this does not make it weaker by any means. What it helps for though is that the movie is appreciable by a broader audience and more people can enjoy Hitchcock's craftsmanship.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Dictator (2012): Finally a Funny Film Starring Sacha Baron Cohen

The Dictator
Back in 2006, when I saw the trailer of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan I thought it would be a great comedy. Unfortunately, despite all the critical acclaim that movie got, Borat was nothing more than a mediocre film and almost everything funny it had to offer was already present in the trailer. The movie itself was full of bad taste humor which probably only people who have not any actual idea about the world could find entertaining. For the record I didn't like also Sacha Baron Cohen's 2002 film Ali G Indahouse.

So, the above were the reasons why I delayed watching the latest film featuring Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator. The trailer was not so promising as the one for Borat and the reviews were not nearly as favorable as the ones concerning the 2006's movie. Having in mind my dissatisfaction with Borat I disregarded The Dictator initially. When I finally saw it a few weeks after its release, I was pleasantly surprised. The film was not a masterpiece or even remotely close to greatness but it was quite better than Borat and capable of raising more laughter than Borat without being so nasty.

The Dictator is about oppressive and queer North African leader Admiral General Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen). Protecting his beloved country Wadiya from democracy is among the despot's highest priorities. Aladeen is in a process of developing nuclear weapons so he has to visit New York in order to address International concerns about his country's nuclear program. But everything goes wrong after it becomes clear he is not the only one wanting to rule Wadiya (watch out for Ben Kingsley).

The Dictator shares a lot of similarities with its predecessor Borat, yet not being the first doesn't make it the worse movie. Sacha Baron Cohen's character is coming from a completely different culture again but this time I would guess he has offended less people than in the case with Kazakhstan. In both of the films his character visits America unprepared for the western world and has to deal with numerous complications. But in The Dictator the visit is actually funny while in Borat it's mostly nasty and annoying although this doesn't mean The Dictator is void of a good portion of vulgarity.

The story is nothing impressive and it is just a device for the endless string of comical situations. The plot is nearly ridiculous and you will hardly find anything serious in the narrative (even though there is an attempt at a more serious speech towards the end of the film). A few pieces of political satire are thrown in the mix but political correctness is something you won't find in this movie. Nevertheless, the main intention of a comedy is fulfilled cause the fun never stops throughout the whole film. If you are not afraid of R rated humor it is really easy to enjoy The Dictator.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bernie (2011): Disappointing Attempt at Dark Comedy

I like some of Richard Linklater's movies. And I also like Jack Black's acting in many of his films and even in the rock video game titled Brütal Legend. I also think Black has done a very good job portraying the main character in Bernie. But in spite of this and contrary to other reviewers I do not consider Bernie a good movie. And even the presence of Shirley MacLaine or Matthew McConaughey cannot save it.

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is an undertaker in a small Texas town. He constantly smiles, has a lot of talents and is always ready to help people. Everybody likes Bernie and he loves everybody. Bernie is great in his work as he is in everything else. He begins a friendship with a wealthy sour widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and both of them become almost inseparable. Bernie accompanies Marjorie in her daily routines as well as in her vacations. Marjorie shifts from a bad tempered widow to a happy old lady and in the process she assumes Bernie is her possession. One day he accidentally kills her. And then the big question is: Will the skilful Bernie be able to make dead Marjorie looking alive and outwit the townsfolk including unsympathetic district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey)?

The movie tells the story of Bernie through lots of interviews and the narration has kind of a documentary feel mixed with folklore flavor. To a certain point this actually looks interesting and it is acceptable as an artistic device. The problem is it turns less and less attractive towards the end and the film becomes pretty boring. Nothing new and surprising happens and the movie lacks a real climax. There is not a single character having to overcome any serious obstacle. The events just take place in this movie.

It seems the American audience is in general more favorable to Bernie, probably because the film is based on a true story that has happened in the USA. The movie is supposed to be a dark comedy but it is not quite funny. Many of the jokes are artificial. The same is valid for the whole narrative in fact. Bernie could be a mockery but somehow the entertaining element is lost and after the ending I was more disappointed than satisfied.

The acting is Ok. Jack Black fits well in the role of the chubby and sweet Bernie. Shirley MacLaine does not have a lot to say but nevertheless she easily creates the image of a pretty annoying old lady. Despite being a law representative Matthew McConaughey succeeds to be less adorable than universal favorite turned criminal Bernie. What dooms this movie most is its script and direction. Richard Linklater has been quite good in the making of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset but his re-creation of the story in Bernie won't find place on the list of my favorite films.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Total Recall (2012): Not Offering Anything Better than the Original

Total Recall
If you haven't expected too much from the recent remake of Total Recall, you won't be "disappointed". As usual, it's (not so) debatable whether or not Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film with Arnold Schwarzenegger has needed a remake at all but the 2012 movie actually begins well and is decent till the middle of the narrative. But it looks like shortly after that point the filmmakers have decided it's time to spoil the film and they have achieved it perfectly.

The story of the new Total Recall is expectedly not original. The plot is pretty much similar to that of the 1990 movie and the setting is the main difference between the two. In a future post apocalyptic world the only two inhabitable areas on Earth are a federation over today's British isles and a colony in Australia. The colony provides "cheap" labor for the federation and here is the main issue with the first part of the movie: to make it "faster" the workers travel through the center of the Earth. Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is one of the factory workers who do this exercise every day. His beautiful wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is not enough to make him happy and he has permanent nightmarish dream involving another woman (Jessica Biel). One day Quaid decides to visit Rekall, a company implanting fake memories. But the visit goes wrong and Quaid is forced to run from the authorities and believing more and more he has been previously a spy.

Total Recall is a movie that will hardly surprise you if you've seen its ancestor. It is not set on Mars but this doesn't make the film really different in terms of plot. There is still a resistance movement against the totalitarian federation regime and Quaid is not sure where to look for his origin. The two surviving areas on Earth are well crafted and one of the few highlights of the movie. Quaid and the rest of the factory workers produce robot soldiers whose purpose seems to be to protect the federation against the colony resistance, which is not very smart. If the only benefit of using colony workers were to produce soldiers fighting against the oppressed colony why would you need to master the colony in the first place.

But if there has been any chance to like the movie after its decent but not so convincing beginning this chance is being completely devastated along Total Recall's accession to conclusion. For example, we are surprised by the fact the federation has not thought to search for the resistance in the most probable location. But the "best" is when Douglas Quaid decides to take a walk in his bare skin outside of a "vehicle" running with 20000 miles per hour at temperatures of several thousands degrees. Colin Farrell might be a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger but even Schwarzenegger rarely does such stupid things in his movies.

The only other bonus making this movie watchable in addition to some good visuals is the presence of Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel but on the other hand if your purpose is just to watch beautiful women Total Recall is hardly the most appropriate film to choose.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Intouchables (2011): A Very Enjoyable French Film

The Intouchables
You may read Intouchables is not original, that it is a spin-off of Driving Miss Daisy or it is not plausible. And while there is some truth in the first and the latter, Intouchables is still a very enjoyable movie and it's hard to dislike it despite its minor issues. The movie is funny, touching and hardly boring. It has been a huge box-office success in France and other countries around the world (in fact, it is one of the greatest box-office hits not produced in Hollywood and the highest-grossing non-English language movie of all time). And it deserves to be successful if only because of the good cast it sports. In spite of the numerous not so favorable critical reviews Intouchables got, the average moviegoer would most likely love it.

Intouchables is about a rich man who was almost entirely paralyzed after a paragliding accident. Because of his difficult condition Philippe (François Cluzet) needs permanent cares so he is looking for a caretaker. Driss (Omar Sy) is a young black man who applies for the job only because he needs a signature on his application for social benefits. Surprisingly (for him), Driss is hired and challenged to succeed under circumstances he has never lived and worked before. And naturally, a strong relationship develops between the two men.

What makes this movie so enjoyable to watch is not its premise or exceptional verisimilitude but its cast and acting. Francois Cluzet is very impressive in the role of Philippe. He uses just his head and voice, yet they are enough for making a great impact. It is easy to like his character because he is quite brave in his misfortune. Cluzet is very similar in his look and mannerism to Dustin Hoffman, in some scenes even strikingly similar. This is actually not bad since it somehow helps to relate to his character even better. Driss is intended to be in many ways a contrast to Philippe and Omar Sy fits well in this skin. He is colorful, easy-going and irresponsible at times. Omar Sy actually received the Best Actor César Award for his performance of Driss in 2012 defeating Jean Dujardin who won the Best Actor Oscar for The Artist. The supporting actors in Intouchables are also good, especially the ladies surrounding Philippe.

Something that differs Intouchables from other similar movies, or Driving Miss Daisy in particular, is that Philippe likes Driss since the very beginning. Their relationship improves over time but it is apparent the young man appeals to Philippe immediately upon their acquaintance. It seems the both men do not need a lot of preparation in order to begin enjoying their time together. Philippe is almost constantly having fun and he does not need to absorb Driss' rhythm and soul to become "happier" as other reviewers suggest. It could be argued who is the "happier", the "wiser" or the more influential man and this makes the movie more entertaining regardless of its lack of an original story. The details in a movie often makes a mediocre story good as well as the opposite, a great story is easily spoilt by a weak realization.

In addition to not being very original, Intouchables is also not the most plausible film. It is inspired by a true story but I am not aware of the exact degree of this inspiration. There is a certain sense of incredibility surrounding the movie yet it would be a bit strained to call it a fantasy.

Intouchables sports decent gags, it is not overly sentimental and fills you with affection for the leading characters. If you are not prejudiced against French cinema, you should not need further convincing to see this movie.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): An Epic... Fail and a Lesson on Lame Filmmaking

The Dark Knight Rises
Most human beings share an interesting characteristic. They are able to easily misjudge pretty much everything based on their expectations, possessions and own yearnings. If one has been longing to buy a particular car and finally gets it, it will take a lot of time to admit it's garbage even when it really is. I read on an Internet board a statement in the vein of "After half an year everybody will only care about the first two Batman movies because now people are refusing to be let down". It looks like this is really the case with The Dark Knight Rises. Most people, including most critics, are favorable to the movie despite its numerous flaws. This is understandable because of their expectations but it does not change my observation that The Dark Knight Rises is artistically an epic fail (pun intended) regardless of its inevitable commercial success.

I am not a fan of Batman, comic movies or any other particular genre of films or even art. I'm not their "hater" either. I've seen thousands of movies and listened to thousands of music albums. And I think there are good and bad works in every genre and form of art. This is to show I am not prejudiced in any way in regard to the third Christopher Nolan's Batman film. Even more, similar to everyone else I prefer to like a movie when I am paying to see it. But it is really hard to like The Dark Knight Rises. And I'm not talking about inessential or artificial reasons to dislike the film pointed by other people (e.g. how Fox is researching a vehicle that exploded, how Bruce Wayne is walking on ice or returning to Gotham, or how a young policeman is able to guess Batman's identity). These do not bother me and most of them are not actual issues. I could also live with Bane's false statement that he didn't see the light until he was already a man. I can think of it as a figure of speech. I am talking about real flaws to an extent that even Nolan has tangled himself in the mess he has created.

Possible spoilers below!

Christopher Nolan based his Batman trilogy on realism. It's amazing how people simultaneously praise Nolan for this and at the same time they excuse every improbability issue with "Hey, it's a super-hero movie". And there are a lot of improbabilities in The Dark Knight Rises. To mention just a few, healing a vertebra protruding from your back with a punch or having a child making a jump adults cannot make is not what I would call realism.

Many of the faults decorating this film are related to the villains in one way or another. It's ridiculous how a villain who used to hate his father stops hating him after his death. Even more, the hate is changed by a determination to fulfil the father's wrongly understood destiny by destroying a city with 12 million people including the villains themselves. This is absurd on its own but more preposterous is the fact that at least a few of the mercenaries helping the antagonist are aware of the suicidal plan, yet they are also not bothered to die. So the number of mad people in this Batman installment is not limited to just one or two.

It is also impertinent to try to convince Gotham's citizens you want to help, liberate or save them by destroying a stadium and killing a scientist in front of them. Only an idiot would buy this. Maybe Nolan's intent has been to present a city of 12 million idiots, who knows... Actually, the only occasion when Bane looks somehow inspirational as a revolutionary leader is one of the initial sequences when a plane accident is imitated. Throughout the rest of the movie he is more menacing than inspiring (even to his own crew). This is a kind of inconsistency on its own. And the decision of the insane criminals not to destroy the city immediately when they have a chance instead of waiting for 6 months and risk everything does not make any sense. The annihilation of the city is poorly motivated in the first place but the reason for the delay is not better motivated either.

To bind Batman's suffering with Gotham's destruction is stupid. To delay the latter while simultaneously being constantly afraid someone might spoil your plans is more stupid. It looks like the villains are afraid to pull the trigger of self-destruction cause this does not happen even when Batman is back in the city. It is also unclear when and how the antagonist would enlighten Batman with the final revelation if Bruce Wayne weren't able to escape. Maybe with a personal TV announcement in the last minute. And who would take care to finish Batman if the villains had committed suicide? Batman has never seemed a suicidal type despite his moments of desperation. That he has Bane's "permission" to die after Gotham's end does not seem enough.

Why nobody would cancel huge financial operations, which have apparently happened in result of armed intervention, is beyond my imagination. The usage of Bruce Wayne's fingerprints does not make a transaction more likely, especially when he has not been doing anything on the financial markets for at least 8 years. The very idea that a physical presence is required in order to initiate a transaction (hence the need of the attack on the stock exchange) while at the same time only a man's stolen fingerprints are enough to perform it is contradictory in its basis.

Furthermore, it's a movie about a high-tech protagonist, yet instead of using some technologic advantage in a battle against time, Batman decides to confront his powerful enemy with bare hands as if he has months to waste.

There are redundant characters. I suppose nobody has an idea what the purpose of Selina's girlfriend in this movie is. Or why Daggett should be there? Maybe to show there is at least one bad person in Gotham or to delay the revelation of the real villains. The situation is not very different in regard to Foley (Deputy commissioner of Gotham City). He is probably there to demonstrate the incapability of the police but he's not really needed and in an effort to justify his presence there are a few unnecessary scenes between him and Commissioner Gordon.

The excessive use of infodumps is another evidence of a weak screenplay and direction. Every second character with more than an episodic appearance in The Dark Knight Rises is explaining something. Alfred, Miranda, young Gotham cop Blake and a couple of prisoners are a few good examples.

Now, there are people who will justify everything in order to remain convinced about the movie greatness. This includes the incredibly lame motivation of the villains, the redundant characters, the weak script, the infodumps, the inconsistencies. All these could be excused with "it's just a movie" or "this is the director's point of view". These are poor justifications, yet people often use them. But here is something else one wouldn't expect from a professional movie.

This is a thing I unintentionally noticed on my single viewing of the film, yet I haven't read about it anywhere. It's not likely I'm the only one who has spotted it although I am not surprised the majority of people miss this ridiculous moment because of the patchwork the film is. There is a point in The Dark Knight Rises, where Fox is captured by the villains. Additionally Commissioner Gordon and Miranda are captured too. The commissioner is sentenced by the self-proclaimed court and subsequently Miranda is taken away by Bane. Next we see a new captive brought to the place where Miranda and Fox are kept. This is Batman. He talks with Miranda and Fox and after that Batman and Fox are released by Selena. A few scenes later Batman saves Commissioner Gordon at the time of his execution. And now a very strange question follows. Batman asks the commissioner "Where is Miranda Tate?" and Gordon says, "Bane took her." Why would Batman ask a question when he knows its answer better than Gordon? Maybe he has again too much time and just feels in a mood for chatting.

I'm sure there will be people who will be able to justify even this nonsense. But the truth is quite simple. The filmmakers (incl. Christopher Nolan) have lost themselves in the glorious mess they've created so this detail has been apparently overlooked. The mess of "seriousness", epicness and pretentious moviemaking is so huge in this film that it's not strange the audience and the filmmakers have not noticed this issue. It's towards the end of the movie and at that point the audience is already so exhausted of the onscreen chaos that it's easy to overlook this moment. It's harder to excuse the filmmakers though. It's a movie costing quarter of a billion dollars made by one of the most acclaimed directors in recent years and faults like that, which even an amateur director wouldn't make, are hardly excusable. It's a perfect example how Nolan and the rest of the crew have been entangled in what they've been doing.

One of the few good things about this movie is that it is not in 3D. But this can hardly compensate the overall weak filmmaking. The Dark Knight was overhyped, partly due to Heath Ledger's untimely death, partially because of other reasons. But even not perfect, it was quite a good movie. The attempt of serious filmmaking in a super-hero world was not so disastrous and the movie was balanced without huge misconceptions and lack of ideas. This is not the case with The Dark Knight Rises. With a weak script, villains lacking even basically plausible motivation, an excess of characters, inconsistencies, a surplus of infodumps and poor editing, the movie is deeply flawed and an expensive lesson on lame filmmaking.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): Good Western Storytelling

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been released in the same year as the epic How the West Was Won. Both movies share also director John Ford and several of their stars, most notably James Stewart and John Wayne. But unlike the beautiful to watch and colorful Western epic about the westward expansion, the former film has quite a good story despite not looking nearly as good as the latter and the story is what makes it the better movie. It's a fine example how a black and white film could be superior to a color movie of the same time and genre with (partially) equal actors and director.

The story of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who became a legend for killing the famous outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). The senator returns to Shinbone, the town where he met his wife (Vera Miles) and which made him famous, for the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Apparently, Doniphon has not been very popular lately so the senator is challenged to tell more about Tom. Ransom Stoddard's narrative begins with his arrival at Shinbone many years ago and recounts his dealings with Liberty Valance, Tom Doniphon and Ransom's future wife Hallie. It appears Stoddard arrives in Shinbone after graduating a law school only to find there are different laws in this territory. With a hope of a better and lawful future, the territory strives for Statehood but this is not to everyone's taste. Ransom Stoddard has to confront with Liberty Valance one more time.

Since we are presented with Senator Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie in the very beginning of the movie, the narrative is not full of unexpected twists. You can actually predict where the movie is going although at one point the initial forecast seems to be erroneous. So, huge surprise is not the main instrument of the story. What makes it interesting is the way it is told. It is not until near the end of the film that your expectations are fulfilled. But what is even more charming is how the people prefer the legend to the truth and the way they respect a man because of his fair yet legally illegitimate deed instead of his numerous lifetime achievements.

Of course, the movie benefits from its cast as well. James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin all have worthy performances. John Wayne and Lee Marvin are probably more notable as portraying energetic characters that despite being enemies have a lot in common. Stewart and Miles are also good although playing more restrained parts. The supporting actors Edmond O'Brien and Andy Devine are vigorous in the roles of the local newspaper editor Dutton Peabody and the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard.

The movie commences a bit static including a few almost still scenes, which may put some spectators off if they are not patient enough to wait for the real goods. Once the actual story begins though the audience is quickly involved in the film. It's one of John Ford's nostalgic tales about the good Old West that has been changed irrevocably. The movie is a must for Western lovers but it is also a good choice for any fans of intelligent storytelling.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kelly's Heroes (1970): Solid Entertainment with Memorable Characters

Kelly's Heroes
What is good about Kelly's Heroes is its creators are fully aware they are making comedy. They do not pretend that this is a serious film about war or try to convey any message. The movie is intended to entertain and it does in a very vital way. Similar to Where Eagles Dare, which was also directed by Brian G. Hutton and starring Clint Eastwood, Kelly's Heroes does not have the most plausible war story. But since the latter film is a parody anyway, nobody needs complete plausibility. The main purpose of a comedy is to be funny and this movie achieves it effortlessly.

Kelly's Heroes begins with Private (Ex-Lieutenant) Kelly (Clint Eastwood) capturing a German Colonel during World War II. Kelly notices a golden bar in the bag of the colonel so he makes him drunk in order to find out the amount and the location of the gold. After discovering that the gold in the colonel's bag is just a small piece of a huge treasure, Kelly plans to assemble a team of soldiers determined to go behind enemy lines and steal the Nazi treasure. A lot of colorful characters plus a few tanks join the team and the squad makes the impossible in order to put their hands on the bullion.

The cast of this film is probably its greatest virtue. Clint Eastwood presents his usual restrained and solid acting. He is the leader of the team but there are far more picturesque characters that eclipse his performance. Despite being a private Kelly gets the support of several sergeants and these are arguably the most vivid figures in the film. MSgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas) is Kelly's direct superior who is initially hesitant about the venture but since everyone else under his command wants to participate in the initiative of making money, Big Joe has no other option unless to agree. Big Joe is almost constantly pissed off even if worried about his boys.

Another notable character in Kelly's Heroes is SSgt. Crapgame (Don Rickles). Rickles gives a very good performance of the get-rich-quick enthusiast who can supply anything in the army. He isn't brave but if a deal can be made somewhere Crapgame is the man to spot it. He is the one suggesting to Big Joe in regard with a German tank commander: "Then make a DEAL! A DEAL, deal! Maybe the guy's a Republican. Business is business, right?" The most remarkable character though is Sgt. Oddball (Donald Sutherland) who is completely out of place and time with his hippie attitude. Donald Sutherland is wonderful in this role and contributes a lot to make the movie genuinely funny. "Don't hit me with them negative waves so early in the morning."

There are other characters like Major General Colt (Carroll O'Connor), Oddball's technician Moriarty (Gavin MacLeod) and the chief of the artillery 1st Sgt. Mulligan (George Savalas) that also help a lot for the great entertainment Kelly's Heroes offers but in addition to the great cast and characters, we should allude a few more things. The story and the writing are strong. The movie is almost permanently funny without using unnecessary violence or too rough language. The director has done a great job as well. I mentioned about the out-of-time psychedelic attitude of Sergeant Oddball but there are also various references to other genres and films. A Western scene referring to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is among the highlights.

Kelly's Heroes is a good example of a comedy based on a balanced story with solid characters and without many of today's brainless techniques and tricks often used to compensate the lack of enough quality laughter. This movie possesses the power to appeal just because it does what comedies should do. It entertains and it makes you laugh.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why does Windows not support Blu-ray playback?

I see many people are still asking on the Internet why doesn't Windows support Blu-ray playback. Some of them not just ask but also directly accuse Microsoft of being stupid or "bad" because of not making their Windows Media Center capable of playing Blu-ray discs. Of course, Microsoft is not a charity organization and they have a good reason to omit BD playback. In fact, it was reported a few months ago that Microsoft did not plan to support also DVD playback in Windows 8 in addition to not supporting Blu-rays.

The reason why Windows 7, XP and Vista do not support playback of Blu-ray discs is quite simple though. And it is very rational. The companies behind the Blu-ray technology (mainly Sony, Panasonic and Philips) require payment of license fees for everything related to the technology. This includes discs, and every piece of hardware or software. Now, let's assume that about 10% of all Windows users will need Blu-ray playback software on their computer. It would be absolutely unnecessary and a misplaced expense if Microsoft pays license fees for the rest of the Windows copies they sell. And having in mind that 10% was probably an overestimation, there is really not a sensible reason for Microsoft to enable BD playback in Windows. Of course, they could do it but then somebody should pay the license fees for this pleasure and naturally, the end users would be the ones to pay. Well, I don't think most of the users want to pay for something they are not going to use. So despite all constant accusations Microsoft get for whatnot, I think they've made a wise decision on this issue.

But Windows is not the only operating system that doesn't offer playback of Blu-ray discs. In fact, all other competitors do not offer it. And if we go further, there is not also any Blu-ray player software that is free. There are a lot of programs that pretend to be capable of playing BDs for free but actually I haven't heard of even one free software that is able to play commercial discs with all features without ripping, hacking or something else. There have been rumors for months that VLC media player is going to support BD playback but in fact, most people report they are not able to play commercial discs although VLC is a good video player otherwise.

And to stress Microsoft's "innocence" furthermore, even the number of commercial Blu-ray software players is limited to four at the moment. It looks like even companies offering commercial software are not very willing to pay license fees to the holders of the patent rights.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on the future development of the technology and any related software or hardware. But unless Sony, Philips and Panasonic do not stop requiring fees I think they are impeding their own invention and its popularity. Thus it is not so strange there are many people that still do not have an idea about the rather superior quality BDs offer compared to DVDs. In any case we cannot blame Microsoft for this.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Is Wrong with Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson?

Alex Ferguson
Photo by Austin Osuide
I am not so much into football, especially in the recent 15 years, but I can write a football related piece if something gets my attention similarly to this article. I've been stumbling across numerous articles discussing Dimitar Berbatov's future in Manchester United for more than a year. They've been contradictory, confusing and often ridiculous. What is more preposterous though is that often Sir Alex Ferguson has contributed to the "chaos" surrounding Berbatov himself.

Today I read another couple of ridiculous statements claimed to be said by Alex Ferguson in regard to Dimitar Berbatov: "The boy has a future, but if he wants to leave it is a different matter." and "I am easy about it if he stays. I would be happy with that." These wouldn't be so shocking if they were said about a young 21-year-old player who had played 25 games with the team since the last summer. But this is not the case.

To say "The boy has a future" about a 31-year-old footballer is not appropriate if nothing more. But it is far more startling when it is said about a player who has been in your team for years and you have used him in about 5 matches for a whole season. What future does Dimitar have in Manchester United? He's not 21 years old. His contract with the team expires in a year. And obviously the manager does not need him. The statement about Berbatov's future is even funnier combined with another of Sir Alex Ferguson's quotes "He (Berbatov) had Rooney, Welbeck and Hernandez in front of him, and they are all young men." Maybe Ferguson expects that Berbatov will age in an opposite direction and next year he'll become 3 years younger...

But this is not all. "I would be happy if he stays" Alex Ferguson said. What could make him happy if Berbatov stays? I don't think there is any happiness in having a £30.75 million record deal footballer on your bench. I don't think there is happiness in losing another £10-15 millions for a year by keeping Dimitar in the team. The only "happy" thing coming to my mind is a move like that will show Manchester United is extremely wealthy club. Why's that?

If Sir Alex Ferguson keeps Dimitar Berbatov in his team this will apparently costs him a lot of money. The club will lose about £5-10 millions if they do not sell him this summer because next year Manchester United won't get anything since the contract of Berbatov will expire. At the same time the club should pay Dimitar his huge salary and it will be about another £5 millions. If Ferguson uses Berbatov in 5 games during the next season this will result in a cost of a player per match equal to about £2-3 millions - probably another record, for the most expensive player per game.

Of course, there is a theoretical possibility that Sir Alex Ferguson gives Dimitar Berbatov a lot of playing time during the first half of the next season, Dimitar shows some awesome football and his price goes higher during the winter. But this is just imagination. We are talking about reality here and in this reality, statements like the ones Ferguson makes are hard to be understood. I know there is always politics and nice talking. But in the case with Berbatov a lot of money are involved and the saga with him continues quite too long already. Talking like this is just annoying and laughable if not ludicrous. So what is wrong with Sir Alex?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012): An Unexpectedly Good Reboot

The Amazing Spider-Man
Movies about comic book heroes proved to be very popular in the last decade. Franchises were even rebooted in order to be exploited again and again. After the recent enormous success of The Avengers now comes the time of The Amazing Spider-Man. It will be unrealistic to expect that this movie is going to repeat The Avengers' success, neither that it will perform as well as it is anticipated from the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. But the latest Spidey film is a good one and actually it is way better than 2007's Spider-Man 3 so the newest comic book reboot on the big screen deserves a few words.

In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker (this time played by Andrew Garfield) is expectedly bitten by a spider and subsequently turns into a superhuman who becomes famous as Spider-Man. Up to then, Parker is a shy guy who is not among the coolest boys in his school and secretly loves Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Gwen is assistant to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) who appears to have worked with Peter Parker's dad in the past on projects trying to enhance human abilities and resistance. After a hasty experiment Dr. Connors mutates into a powerful reptile-like creature known as The Lizard. Now Parker has the task to save himself, his love and the city from the menacing doctor.

What is good about this movie is that it has abandoned some of the annoying treatments in the previous versions of the Spider-Man franchise. For example (eventual spoilers ahead), now, we are not constantly tormented why Peter has to hide his superhero self from the girl he loves (Mary Jane in the past) cause it is not long before he elegantly uncovers his secret side in front of Gwen. He makes a promise later that he will stay away from her in the future but again his human side reveals he probably won't obey the pledge. I find this kind of behavior preferable compared to the excessive dramatization of the former three Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. This time the story is touching without being overly melodramatic.

Another good difference is that Gwen has a bigger part in the events that happen than being just a love interest like Mary Jane. The special effects are also good and the script is decent for a movie based on comics. I've read various complaints against the script and/or the director but I think the direction is satisfactory too. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans fit very well the roles they play. Sally Field and Martin Sheen skilfully perform the supporting characters of Peter's aunt and uncle. The same is valid for Denis Leary as Gwen's dad Captain Stacy.

There are some weak spots (e.g., Dr. Connors "evil" motivation is a bit underdeveloped, his relationship with Peter Parker's father is somehow not fully disclosed) but as a whole the story is interesting enough to keep your attention and there are not distracting or boring parts. What I find to be distracting and unnecessary though is the use of 3D in the movie but apparently the 3D technology is something we have to bear more and more often in the films that are coming.

Whether a reboot of the series has been needed is disputable but at least the new film has brought some changes (especially concerning the main female character) that are welcome. So if you are in the right mood for comic book movies the new Spidey is a good choice. I'll even take the liberty to say that without being exceptional in anything, The Amazing Spider-Man is at least a better film than the box-office smash The Avengers.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ran (1985): A Great Achievement by a Great Director

Ran is an easy recommendation even if you've seen many of Akira Kurosawa's masterpieces in black and white. For Ran is arguably his greatest achievement in color. And although his black and white movies are among the best films ever made, seeing a Kurosawa work in color is a significant experience on its own. Ran is not only shot in color, it is colorful. It's long and exhausting but memorable and beautiful. It offers expert direction and cinematography. It's rich of splendid costumes and it's visually gorgeous. Ran is not the lightest movie for watching. Despite its occasional funny moments, the film is sad and painful but like any creation of a true master, every second is worthy of your attention.

Ran is Akira Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's King Lear. Yet there are many differences between the film and William Shakespeare's play, especially in the details. The setting is Japanese and the specific language style of Shakespeare is missing. The story is about the elderly Lord Hidetora Ichimonji who decides to abdicate and make room for his sons. He wants to give a castle to each three of them while only keeping the title of the Great Lord for himself. But the youngest son Saburo warns the Lord about the threat he should expect of his older brothers Taro and Jiro. The father neglects the warning and banishes Saburo. Soon, it appears that the youngest son has been right.

Ran depicts the often happening in reality drama of envy, revenge and kinship rivalry. The brothers are not the only plotters here. The movie also involves a vindictive woman, Lady Kaede, the spouse of the oldest son, whose family and possessions have been destroyed by the Great Lord. Contrary to her, Lady Sue, the wife of the second brother is peaceful and not hostile despite having the same (if not worse) fate as Lady Kaede. Surprisingly, Lord Hidetora has a hard time through both of his daughters-in-law. The first brings him havoc, the second remorse.

Lord Hidetora Ichimonji has a court fool who is of course funny but simultaneously possesses his own wisdom and often suffers not less than his master. Ran is discouraging movie. The hope and the good deeds although not entirely missing are almost lost in the web of factitious human relationships, guilt, retribution, punishment, betrayal, humility and suffering. The freshest air is coming from the magnificent scenery and the exuberant use of colors. The colors are not only eye-catching but also utilized to make the characters and factions more distinguishable.

There are a few very minor issues with the movie that could be easily omitted. Instead I prefer to mention two other subjects. I don't know if presence of jesters has been common in Japanese courts so it is possible that Kyoami (Hidetora's fool) is a bit out of place in the Japanese setting of Ran. Nevertheless, Kyoami adds a very distinct flavour to the movie and he is one of the characters that stick to your mind. On the other hand, the youngest son's language in the initial scenes with his father is a bit harsh but I suppose this is not so unnatural in Japan where even the normal Japanese talking often sounds like coming from people who are in the middle of a quarrel.

The movie demonstrates ones again that those who speak the truth are not welcome and people prefer listening to lies and flattering. The masterful presentation of this and other sides of life makes Ran a classic film. It is a great achievement by a great director and everyone who is serious about movies should see it at least once.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Get the Gringo aka How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012)

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Mel Gibson has been recently treated as a very bad guy by many people in real life. Probably this is the main reason why a decent movie like Get the Gringo has been directly released on DVD and Blu-ray discs without paying a visit to the cinema theaters (at least in the USA) first. Gibson has been labelled racist thus some see racism even in the title of Get the Gringo, which is a bit of a forced assertion. In unison with the accusations and similar to his past movie Payback, Mel Gibson plays a bad guy in the also known as How I Spent My Summer Vacation film. But the movie is actually good and it deserves a review despite Gibson's personal life.

In Get the Gringo, Mel Gibson performs the role of a criminal who is arrested by the Mexican police after stealing a lot of money and put in a hard to survive prison. The place is even tougher for outsiders but he is helped by a 10-year-old boy who stays in the jail with his mother. The boy has a secret, which makes him valuable for the local crime boss factually running the prison. Everyone else is against the gringo and he has not much time to save himself and the boy. The only other advantage he can rely on is his creativity.

As in Payback, Gibson's character is a criminal but along the course of the film we begin to care for him more and more. There is a bit of a character development so we can see there's also good in him although you should not expect really much in that direction from a movie like this. The gringo constantly uses smart tricks to ably outwit his adversaries, which easily appeals to the audience and since he does not kill innocent people it's not hard for him to get our sympathy despite his professional occupation.

The boy (Kevin Hernandez) is not annoying as sometimes happens with kids in such roles. The boy's acting is natural and he is not involved in any highly improbable stuff. The latter is reserved for Gibson, of course. Speaking of improbability, in the vein of Payback, Mel Gibson undertakes several fearless initiatives, which would be lethally dangerous in real life but fit perfectly well in the narrative of the movie.

There is a good portion of Spanish dialogue in the movie, which may bother some people. For me, it just makes the film more authentic. There is also a good deal of violence so the content is not suitable for everybody. The movie does not offer any general surprises and except for the details (which are the major virtues of the film anyway) it is easy to predict how everything will develop and end.

Get the Gringo does not sport the epic proportions of Braveheart or Apocalypto. Its actual continuance is less than 90 minutes but this just makes the movie well paced and reduces the superfluous content to minimum. The film is in no way a masterpiece or mandatory for seeing but it offers a high-grade entertainment if nothing more.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Good Acting in a Usual Woody Allen Film

Hannah and Her Sisters
Woody Allen's movies have a character of their own. And this is simultaneously good and bad. It is good because you can hardly encounter a film of Allen's that is of low quality. And it's bad since you are rarely surprised by his films. Hannah and Her Sisters is not bad by any means. But it is also quite overrated. The movie is neither as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan nor it is as refreshing as Midnight in Paris. It is a must for Woody Allen's fans but at the same time you can find better Allen's films if you just want to taste his works. The movie sports some really good acting though, which you may like in either case.

Hannah and Her Sisters revolves around Hannah (Mia Farrow), her husbands, her 2 sisters and the mess in their relationships. Hannah's present husband Elliot (Michael Caine) falls in love with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) while Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) shows interest in her other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest). These are only a few of the complications though, because Mickey thinks he has a brain cancer, Holly has a friend (Carrie Fisher) who steals her projected boyfriends, Lee has a romance with a misanthrope painter (Max von Sydow) and Elliot is obviously restricted by his marriage to Hannah. The 3 sisters' parents are also not an ordinary couple so this big family has a lot of problems to have fun with.

The problems the audience has are not so complicated and they are mainly related to the nature of the film. It's a movie completely in the vein of the majority of Woody Allen's works. There is a little surprise. The dialogue is not so witty as in Allen's previous masterpieces. The narrative is boring at times. A spectator gets exactly what one would expect from Woody Allen, only not so original or captivating. The mess in the beginning, which fortunately unravels fast, is so huge that initially I used to think Carrie Fisher's character is one of Hannah's sisters. Well, she's not. Which also means she does not have much screen presence so if you are a Star Wars fan do not count on seeing Princess Leia in this movie too often.

Nevertheless, the film has a good side. The strong performances some of the actors demonstrate make the movie worth seeing despite its flaws. Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Oscars for their roles and they are really great: Caine is calm, confused and ordinary looking; Wiest is irritating, chaotic, constantly fighting for her chances in love and life while at the same time she's easily vulnerable. Without winning Academy Awards the rest of the cast is also superb. The other two sisters are fairly interesting due to the competent work of Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey while Max von Sydow would have fitted well in a bigger role.

Woody Allen won his second Oscar in the category of Best Writing for Hannah and Her Sisters but I do not find the screenplay so award-worthy as the acting performances. It contributes to the film's predictability and lack of originality: we've already seen "this movie" and we've seen it better. Yet, for cinema and acting buffs, it could be a pleasant and rewarding experience to explore the variety of characters skilfully portrayed in the film.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is There Any Sport Involving More Stupidity than Football (Soccer)?

Football Stupidity
This article is written on the occasion of the recent football (soccer) match between England and Ukraine from the group stage of Euro 2012. We won't discuss here whether Ukraine should have won or not and which team was better. We won't discuss so much the problematic goal in this game as well. In brief, there was a goal for Ukraine that was not allowed because the referees were not good enough to see the ball passing the goal line. It was a critical mistake resulting from the imperfections of the human body. Some people claim there has been an offside before the goal. Well, even if we agree with this, it does not revoke the goal. An overlooked offside could only show that the human referees are even more imperfect. UEFA refereeing chief Pierluigi Collina said that 95.7% of the close decisions made by the referees on Euro 2012 were correct and according to him this is a huge result. In fact, 95.7% could be a good percentage in many other cases but when it refers to judgements affecting somebody else it is rather weak.

I think it is out of the question that human referees must be aided by technologies. It's 21st century after all. This has been admitted even by Sepp Blatter (FIFA president) who has previously claimed that a referee's judgement must be seen as final and that mistakes are part of the game (in regard to players undeservedly receiving red cards). But... This change will probably take time. Because changes in football happen quite slow. What time is needed for is actually debatable cause such a technology has already been a necessity for decades. It is mainly related to the unwillingness of the football administration (incl. the president of the UEFA Michel Platini) to introduce changes despite the glaring need for them. Of course, the lack of unanimity among the football society does not help either (e.g., the English players and fans are not mad at all after their match with Ukraine in contrast to their attitude two years ago during 2010's World Championship in South Africa when they were the injured side).

Football (soccer) specifics
Unlike other games, in football only a few points (goals) are scored during a match. Overlooking one of them could be (and had been a lot of times) crucial for the outcome of a game. Note, that the so-called Hawk-Eye system is used in sports like tennis where one "wrong" point is actually not so critical (although always unpleasant). Furthermore, similar to the cycle of the Olympic games, football's World and European Championships are rare (once per 4 years). There are only a few big competitions in the carrier of a footballer and sometimes it could be even one (especially if the player is from a country that is not a constant major force in the sport). So imagine what should be the frustration a football player gets after he is dishonestly eliminated from one of the most important events in his not so long carrier. It's a mockery with his continued efforts to achieve something.

Stupidity surrounding football
And now comes the main issue? How is it possible the most popular sport in the world to be surrounded by such a degree of stupidity? And I'm not talking only about the contemporary footballers, which are often accused of being quite unintelligent. I'm not talking about the fans who often do stupid things. I'm mostly wondering why all involved in this sport do nothing about the situation with the human referees injuring their interests and endeavours. Yes, it is true there a lot of conservative people in FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), probably there are even some idiots. But this is not a reason to suffer for so many years. If all football players, managers, trainers, club owners, etc. decide to boycott FIFA and UEFA the problem will be solved in less than a week. UEFA and FIFA are nothing without the men producing the billions of dollars in this sport. Football has become an enormous money making machine. And it is even more inexplicable why the guys that actually make the money do not take any action against the spoilt system.

Making referee decisions in football more accurate is easy. We are not talking about rhythmic gymnastics, for example, where any estimation is inevitably subjective. Introducing some electronic devices will not be so expensive and it will lead to considerably lower amount of wrong referee calls. It is clear that such electronic systems won't be equally necessary in all football competitions. Yes, it is always nasty to be harmed by a referee and lose a game unfairly but if there are not Hawk Eye devices or similar installed for the games in 5th division it will be comprehensible. It's true that if you've lost a game you cannot blame only the referees. Yet, it is a shame that such absurd mistakes happen at football competitions of the highest level.

A revolution in the international football affairs could be achieved in no time. People won't blame a revolution like this because apparently decades have not been enough for achieving better judgement in evolutionary way. The question is why nobody really cares about it. Is it because the best players in the world make huge amounts of money anyway and they are not so concerned about (dishonestly) losing a match or there is more to it?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Miller's Crossing (1990): One of the Coen Brothers' Best Films

Miller's Crossing
I am not a huge fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's work. I find the majority of their films start out really great and intriguing. But what most often happens is at some point after the middle of the movie, they begin to lose momentum and magnificence. It could be they raise the audience's expectations so high that towards the end they are not able to fulfil them. The feeling I usually get after seeing a film of the Coens is of somehow wasted potential. What I like about Miller's Crossing is that it almost does not suffer from the aforementioned problem. It is not perfect but it is a good movie and I would recommend it as one of the better experiences the Coen brothers' have offered until now.

As many other gangster films, Miller's Crossing is set in the Prohibition Era in the beginning of the 20th century. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) tries to keep the peace between his Irish boss Leo (Albert Finney) and another gang of Italian mobsters. Leo insists on protecting Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) after the latter cheats the Italians' boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) cause he is in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). Tom knows this is wrong and will lead to a lot of trouble for the Irishman but Leo does not listen to him. To make the relationships even more complicated Tom and Verna have an affair too. Reagan has to make some important choices and there are other characters in the mix whose "ethics" is questionable.

Miller's Crossing offers an interesting and rather intricate story. The relationships between the characters are quite complicated as well and most of the time it's hard to understand what is the actual motivation behind their actions (especially in regard to Tom Reagan). The movie features plenty of double-crossing and divided loyalties. There is a lot of outwitting and the exact outcome is not obvious. In a way Miller's Crossing slightly resembles Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (and it is also influenced by Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest) but Tom Reagan is in pursuit of completely different goals compared to the protagonist in Yojimbo.

The movie is about criminal "ethics" and loyalty. The former is not amongst the virtues of the main character but there are a few ironic (and iconic) speeches about ethics delivered by Johnny Caspar who is skilfully played by Jon Polito. The police in the city is practically bought and controlled by the dominating gang independently which one it is. Episodes of violence and black humour are to be expected (it's the Coen brothers' movie after all). And as usual the presence of symbols is not overlooked either, e.g., look about for a hat.

The acting in Miller's Crossing is very good and the casting has been quite successful. Gabriel Byrne does a wonderful job portraying the smart, restrained, laconic and amoral Tom Reagan. He has his own agenda and we are wondering throughout the whole film whether he has a heart or not. Albert Finney is behind the scene most of the time but when he's in frame, he makes are memorable appearances. John Turturro is really annoying as Bernie and it is not difficult to see why somebody would want him dead. Marcia Gay Harden is decent in her performance of Verna in an otherwise entirely masculine movie.

While the ending of Miller's Crossing could not be to the taste of everyone, I think the film is of an almost steady quality in its whole continuity. The Coens have done a better job than usual and the camera work is at the elevated level one would expect from their movies. The film lacks the grandeur of The Godfather but it is a very solid gangster movie and a good choice if you are an admirer of the crime genre.