Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Good premise, wasted opportunities (minor spoilers)
This movies starts out as an interesting social satire that tries to explore the stereotypes Finns have of Sweden, and vice versa. However, after the first act it becomes more like a typical romantic comedy, mixed with some comedy of errors. Sadly, this means that the plot beats become easy to guess, and the freshness of original satirical approach is kind of lost.
I guess Hallonbåtsflyktingen could still be a interesting romantic comedy, but the chemistry between Mikko, the protagonist, and the other characters simply doesn't work. Mikko is a Finnish man trying to pretend to be a Swedish man, and the way this is played out makes him look like he is, frankly put, a developmentally challenged man-child. It is hard to understand why any woman would fall or him. The movie tries to sell its romantic plot by making Mikko's chief romantic rival even a bigger buffoon than he is, so that we would understand why someone would choose Mikko over this other guy. But this just makes the whole thing feel forced, because we're expected to believe that the female protagonist, a self-assured and attractive woman, has no other romantic options in her life than an egotist jerk and a naive idiot.
I wish the movie-makers would've figured out what exactly they're attempting to do: a satire on national stereotypes, or a romantic comedy with eccentric characters. As it is, Hallonbåtsflyktingen feels like a half-baked compromise, where neither of these aspects fully works.
Touching but wildly uneven
Like his previous movie, Frozen Land ("Paha maa"), Aku Louhimies's Vuosaari is a film with a large cast and several parallel story lines, which he tries to tie together with an unifying theme. Like with Frozen Land, Louhimies pretty much fails in that task. In Frozen Land the grand theme seemed to be "bad things happen to people", whereas in this one it's even more vague, namely "love". Other than that, the only factor uniting the stories is the suburb of Vuosaari in Helsinki, but even this is mainly used as a mere backdrop. Real-life Vuosaari is a largely working-class area with a big immigrant population, and while Louhimies does shortly address the situation of immigrants in a few scenes, the movie doesn't really have any grand societal vision. Like Frozen Land, Vuosaari is mostly concerned with personal issues, not social ones. These same stories could have taken place in pretty much any suburb of Helsinki, or any other First World city.
For all his flaws Louhimies is still a masterful storyteller, able to distill most of his subplots into short, elegant scenes that are full emotion yet rarely syrupy. A few of the individual story lines in Vuosaari are very good in themselves. A subplot involving a single father concerned about his son and his weight, as well as another one dealing with a family man cheating his wife with their Estonian cleaner, offer an effective mixture of drama and comedy. A third subplot about with a kid who gets bullied in school, partly because of his Eastern European roots, is done with such empathy that it's almost impossible not to cry. However, the climax of this story again proves why Louhimies's lack of a wider focus is problematic. Racism/xenophobia and bullying are social problems, yet Vuosaari's solution to them is oh-so-individualist: the all-conquering love.
Some of the other subplots in Vuosaari feel much more out of place. The American actor Sean Pertwee seems to have been cast only to provide the opening narration with his deep, gravelly voice. Pertwee's actual scenes are few, and they could've easily been cut without the movie suffering a bit. Another subplot involves a kid with a negligent single mother, whose only friend is his dog. This story has no proper solution or catharsis, and it appears to be in the movie only to function as a maximum tear-jerker. Who wouldn't be touched by an emotionally abused kid and his loving dog? Another tear-jerker is the story of a single mother suffering from cancer, and of her small daughter's reaction to her illness. While this subplot is genuinely touching for the most part, as it's about to reach its climax, Louhimies for some reason decides to add a scene that intentionally misleads the viewers in order to extract a few more tears from them. Personally I find this kind of cinematic cheating pointless and cheap.
It's also worth noting that while Louhimies tries to understand and empathize with each of the male protagonists in Vuosaari, the same does not apply to all the women in it. Three of the female protagonists (the wife of the cheating husband, the young woman who's constantly high, the mother who neglects his son) are depicted as rather awful people, with little attempt to explain why they are that way. This is particularly evident in the cheater subplot. The cheating husband is portrayed as a sympathetic character, and his affair with the Estonian woman is justified by his wife being cold and bitchy, but we never really get to see her side of the story. What made her so cold and bitchy?
All in all, Vuosaari might have been a good movie if Louhimies had left out the weaker subplots, expanded on the remaining ones, and tried to make their thematic connections stronger. As such, the film is merely a collection of short stories, some better than others, but definitely less than the sum of its parts.
Sound of Noise (2010)
Slight but highly entertaining
Give credit to Sound of Noise: despite dealing with such lofty themes such as the nature of music and its performance, it never becomes unnecessarily arty or academic. Instead, the movie has loads of quirky humour and an energetic plot, driven by a group of drummers-become-art-terrorists and their plan of turning everyday urban soundscapes into avant-garde percussion pieces. Bengt Nilsson does a nice performance as Amadeus Warnebring, a manic, tone-deaf and music-hating offspring of a family of classical pianists and conductors. The drummers are presented pretty much as caricatures of progressive musicians, but as such they're spot-on and funny. Even though the film-makers' sympathies are clearly on the side of the drummers, they're not above making gentle fun of avant-garde's excesses, and they're also surprisingly understanding of Warnebring's desire to live in a world of silence, with no music. The plot of the movie is slight, with some key elements left unexplained, but its fast-paced and constantly entertaining execution makes up for that. At the heart of Sound of Noise are the percussion pieces performed by the drummers, and they do not disappoint. The four performances seen in the film are awe-inspiring in their mise-en-scène, sound design and editing. For those scenes alone, Sound of Noise would be worth a view; as a whole, it's a quirky but easily-digested piece of pop art.
As good as possible.
Being a big fan of Hugo Pratt's comic, I was pleased with this animated adaptation of Corto Maltese. The plot was most faithful to the original graphic novel, the dialogue being used almost verbatim. This must've been somewhat risky, since the story isn't exactly easy to follow. Animated features cost more than comics, so they also need bigger audiences, and the film-makers must've been tempted to tighten the pace and cut some of the historical references. Luckily, they haven't done so.
The drawing style is also truthful to Pratt, and the animation is as good as it can be without a Disney budget. Regarding this, one could even say that the faithfulness of the adaptation is a limiting factor. Pratt's contemplative and somewhat static form of storytelling is perhaps unfitting for an animated film, since animation has a different set of dynamics than comics.
The biggest flaw with the film is something that couldn't have been helped: the original comic is a long series of stories, of which the film can offer only a slice. Pratt's world isn't the easiest to enter, and seeing one film (or reading one comic, to that matter) probably isn't enough to make one see what's so special about Corto Maltese. The friendship between Corto and Rasputin, one of the most interesting aspects of the comic, is well conveyed in this particular story. But to wholly understand this relationship one needs to know their past - which the film can only refer to. The film-makers' choice of not starting from the beginning is understandable, since the first Corto Maltese story isn't the best or the most filmable of the bunch.
To sum it up: while I liked the film very much, someone not familiar with the comic probably doesn't get as much out of it. The best thing this film can do is to acquaint such people with Pratt's masterful work.
Le pacte des loups (2001)
Werewolf-hunting kung fu Indians in 18th century France kick ass! (spoilers)
After seeing Le Pacte des loups I had just just one question in mind: how the heck could anyone grant such a budget for such an ludicrous script? At first the story appears quite ordinary; a supernatural monster film in a historical setting. But then enter the heroes: a scientist knight and his Indian sidekick, who also happens to a kung fu master! Apparently oriental fighting skills had already spreaded wide in the eighteenth century, since they were known not just by Indians, but by French peasants as well.
After a while the viewer realizes that this isn't a monster film after all: the killer wolf is just a pawn in the silliest conspiracy known to history. But since the audience has waited one and a half hours of this 150 minute epic to see the friggin' wolf, it needs to be shown. And what a beast it is! Not only did 18th century Frenchmen know how to kung fu, they were also highly skilled in cybernetics. I guess both of these arts were lost in the Revolution, never to reappear...
Add in some Indian mystique and talking to animals, a Papal counter-intelligence operation, the conflict between religion and secularity, an obligatory love story, a touch of incest, plus the French Revolution, and what do you have? A surprisingly boring film, not to mention overlong. There is quite a lot of unnecessary footage added for panoramic or symbolic effect, with bad results. Even the fight scenes are unimpressive, considering how action flicks have been saturated with such stuff ever since Matrix.
To sum it up: Le Pacte des loups is a messy effort to mix genres that shouldn't be mixed: horror film vs. conspiracy story vs. kung fu flick vs. historical melodrama... If all this had been done tongue-in-cheek, there could've at least been some campy fun. But for a film which features a kung fu Indian, an 18th century cyborg wolf and a killer hooker sent by the Pope, Le Pacte des loups takes itself way too seriously. Cristophe Gans, the director, tries to give us the impression of depth and importance, while the script could've actually been good source material for Monty Python.
In the end I guess even Gans noticed how incomprehensible the film is, since it's mystery plot is never fully explained. Had the narrator or some other character offered a standard explanatory monologue, the silliness of the whole story would've probably caused a lot of unintended laughter among the audience. Now all we get are occasional chuckles.
Gorgeous but shallow.
First the compliments: Metropolis is one of the most beautiful anime films I have ever seen. It's setting, a retro-futuristic megalopolis (inspired by Fritz Lang's original Metropolis) is put up with such craft and attention to detail, that the only points of comparison are such dystopian classics as Blade Runner and Brazil. The film's first half an hour goes by just marveling at the amazing imagery.
Sadly, the film soon falls victim to it's own visual gorgeousness. Too many scenes in Metropolis have no other function than to portrait the namesake city. In a movie of this magnitude the story and the characters are secondary to the scenery. Sure, the plot is more complex and the characters more interesting than in your run-of-the-mill anime. The script actually touches many topics explored by earlier dystopian sci-fi, but it hasn't got anything new or particularly interesting to say. The film tries to be deeper than it actually is, so when the hyper-dramatic finale is over, the viewer can only respect the creators visual imagination, not their intellect.
Another flaw in the script, based on an original comic by Osamu Tezaki and penned by manga and anime legend Katsuhiro Otomo, is that it borrows too much from other science fiction. The setting is straight from the original Metropolis, the basic concept pays a strong resemblance to Blade Runner, and the ending echos Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita, Otomo's own Akira, as well as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. There's nothing wrong in paying homage to one's sources of inspiration, but enough is enough.
Still, I can't deny liking the film. Metropolis is a feast for the eyes, not for the brains, but who needs brains anyway?
Clever, but lacks some depth.
The most memorable, remarkable thing in Memento is obviously its structure. The story of the film is told backwards, scene by scene. This unorthodox choice of narrative form has two purposes: firstly, it creates unique twists by showing an character act, and only afterwards revealing the (usually ambiguous) motives behind the action. Secondly, the narration helps us to identify with the main character, Leonard Shelby; Shelby's brain is damaged, and he therefore loses his short-memory several times a day. Like Leonard, the audience doesn't know what happened to him before his latest fit of amnesia. Also, like Leonard, the audience does know what happened to him before the assault that caused the injury. So we know that his wife was killed, and that revenge is the only thing that keeps him going.
As a structural exercise, Memento works perfectly. The backward narrative may at first seem like a gimmick, but soon one can see what a great way of telling a thriller story this is. What happens on the screen can never be taken in face value, since we never know the history behind the latest occurence. Because we know the ending we think we know the whole story, but the story reveals itself to be far more complicated than we thought. Every new revelation puts the things we previously saw into new light, right up until the very clever ending (which chronologically begins the story). Like many recent thrillers, the film ends with a surprise twist, but unlike in most of these thrillers, Memento's surprise ending doesn't render the rest of the plot illogical (à la Fight Club). The director Christopher Nolan made this exact mistake in his previous film, so it's good to see he has learned something.
Sadly, exceptional story structure and an unique main character are not enough to bring true depth to the film. The basic story, if told chronologically, is intriguing, but not in any way exceptional. Guy Pearce does a great job portraying Leonard Shelby; still, his character faces such an extraordinary situation, that the audience can hardly sympathize or understand him. The overall feeling of the film is cold. Also, Mementos script touches some interesting issues concerning the nature of memory, but the inertia of the plot itself soon wipes over these larger themes.
Despite the criticism, I think Memento still is an original and mind-boggling puzzle, well worth tackling. Great brain food, but not much else.
Wo hu cang long (2000)
Entertaining, but quite shallow.
Although Ang Lee is known to be unpredictable, a year ago I would never have guessed his next film would be a kung fu one. Being an admirer of Mr. Lee's work, I had high hopes for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Perhaps Lee could bring new life into a weary genre. The positive critique kept my hopes up, and I couldn't wait to see the film. Now I have, and I must admit I was disappointed.
Not to sound too negative, I'll begin by telling what I did like in Crouching Tiger etc. The visuals are, of course, magnificent. The fight scenes tread the fine line between beauty and silliness, but never fall into the latter category. The cinematography is both elegant and dynamic, and the film excels in production and costume design as well. The actors do a decent job, and yes, for a kung fu flick Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has unusual depth. Neverthless, all the above can't hide the fact that this is Ang Lee's worst film.
There are serious themes in the film, but they never become interesting enough. There are four essential subjects in the film: Li Mu Bai's and Yu Hsui Lien's suppressed love, Jen's and Lo's impossible romance, Jen's desire to exceed Mu Bai and Hsui Lien in fighting skills, and the daughter/apprentice relationship Jade Fox has with Jen. Sadly, none of these dramatic archs has time develop properly between the fight scenes and the other three stories. The lessons taught in the end sound banal, partly because one hasn't rooted enough with the characters. The final scene is both predictable and unnecessary; one suspects it was added for visual effect only.
Paradoxically, had Crouching Tiger... been merely an entertaining kung fu flick, I probably would've liked it more. Now it tries to be both entertainment and deep drama, and succeeds only on the former department. One is compelled to compare the drama with Lee's former films, and on that comparison Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon reveals it's shallowness. Also, though better than this one, Ang Lee's previous film Ride with the Devil had the same tendency to prefer surface over substance. I hope winning all the Oscars doesn't give Ang Lee the impression that this is the direction he should be heading for. I, for once, would like to see more Ice Storms and less Crouching Tigers.
Everybody needs somebody.
"It's better to eat porridge together than to eat steak alone." That is the tag line of Tillsammans, uttered by the film's most tragic character, Birger. That is also the main point of the film: now matter how eccentric, introvert or angry people may be, they always need another people to support them. It's rare too see film like Tillsammans, where such a basic theme is handled with such simplicity and delicacy. Yet Tillsammans never rings a false note, never falls victim to overt sentimentality or patronizing.
Set in 1975, tells the story of a leftist-environmentalist commune, and the housewife who moves there with her two children, after being hit by her husband. Although some of the commune's occupants are perhaps too much caricatures, the director Moodysson takes great effort in understanding their humanity, if not always their political stance. Even the simplest of the characters, the communist Stefan, proves the overall point of Moodysson. Although his preaching and agitating is used to fish cheap laughs (which, to my opinion, is the films most serious flaw), he too is a human being who desires contact with someone who understands him. When the members of the commune can't fulfill this need, he ends up joining Baader-Meinhoff. While the scene where this is announced is funny, it is also perhaps the most tragic in the film, considering what it implies.
The political nostalgia may be the cue to see Tillsammans, but as I already said, it isn't about politics, it's about ordinary people dealing with ordinary emotions. The husband who seeks redemption, the mother who wants to broaden his perspectives, the daughter who lacks for love, these are the characters who lie at the center of the film. Although I'll have to admit that part of the film's charm for me was the familiarity of the characters, their politics and their discussions and debates. Should they eat meat? Should they buy a television? These kind of issues ring a familiar bell for anyone whose known or lived with these kind of people. Also, though the film is set in the past, many of those topics still sound quite relevant. I guess the leftist/alternative lifestyle hasn't changed as much as one would think in the past 25 years.
Gojô reisenki: Gojoe (2000)
A moral story (possible spoilers).
As incredible as it may seem, Gojoe is an anime- and Hong Kong-inspired samurai action flick with a pacifistic message. This ankle of the film is effectively portrayed through the protagonist (a great acting job done by Daisuke Ryu), a killer-turned-to-boddhist-monk Benkei. Benkei has sworn never to kill again, but he still takes up the sword to fight what he thinks is a demon invasion...
Gojoe is a film difficult to rate. It's visual imagery is stunningly crafted and beautiful, but it uses too much trickery (circling camera and high speed drives, expressionistic shots, leeched colors, digital effects etc.), so the end result is somewhat tiring. That said, the beginning and the ending of the film are nevertheless both elegant and powerful. If only the director Sogo Ishii would have been wise enough not to overuse his bag of tricks.
Other problem with Gojoe is the amount of violence. For a film with such an anti-violent message Gojoe wastes way too much energy and screen time to depict the endless battle scenes. Also, the way the violence is shown is always on the edge of being self-indulgent; in fact, a blood shower against the night sky seems to be one of the films signature images. Luckily, Ishii is wise enough to show the ugly, tragic side of violence as well. Still, it seems that Ishii is not sure whether he's making a traditional action film or a deeply moral allegory. The audience can't be sure of this, either, until the very end of the film. The powerful (albeit cynical) ending is what saves Gojoe; it clearly emphasizes that this film is something more than a mere gore-fest.
Sé quién eres (2000)
During the last couple of years Spain has produced such an amount of quality films, that it is almost inevitable for a film like Sé quién eres to hit the screens. Still, it is sad to see that a film doesn't have to be made in the USA for it to feature every possible Hollywood cliché. Sé quién eres is a thriller in which a female doctor examines a man who has lost his memory due to some horrible experience he had in the seventies. Sound familiar? Well, after the typical premise Sé quién eres follows the conventions of the genre so faithfully, that the audience can at any time guess what is going to happen next. The only original and interesting aspect of the film are the references to the past of Spain, and to the terrorism during the Franco dictatorship. Sadly, this theme is left undeveloped, while it might have been made into a interesting political thriller - something Sé quién eres is not.
To sum it up: if the language of Sé quién eres would be changed from Spanish to American English, nobody would notice the difference.
The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (2000)
During my cinematic explorations I've seen a lot of of far out movies, but The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz has got to be one of the strangest. It's a paranoid yet hilarious film, mixing post-modern end-of-the-world visions with biblical ones. It's one heck of a ride, and though the budget has obviously been quite small, the creators of the film have not let the finances bind their imagination.
In The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz the fair city of London stands on a brink; a solar eclipse is going to darken the skies, and madness begins to emerge. Arcanely dressed Thomas Katz rises from the sewer, and it soon becomes obvious that he is the harbinger (or even the cause) of the chaos to come. The only hope lies in a blind police commander, who is deeply connected with the spirit world. Can he save the white astral child who represents life before Thomas Katz goes through his weird series of metamorphosis, thus sealing the fate of London. And what is Dave going to do about it? What, don't you know who Dave is? Well, he knows who you are, and after you've seen the film you understand why.
When I saw the film the director, Ben Hopkins, was there to present it; he told that much of the dialogue was done by improvisation, and many of the scenes were invented right before they were shot. It's not hard to believe those claims. The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz is not thematical whole; instead it is a series of funny, eerie and surreal scenes portraying the chaos that inhabits our world. While some of these scenes may not work, most of them are, in all their absurdness, scaringly accurate. This clarity of vision covers for the lack of coherence, and makes The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz a worthwhile watch. In it's depiction of irrationality and chaos the film owes much to Luis Buñuel (a debt it openly admits), and it could be even said that this is Buñuel for the post-modern age. Still, the film is highly original in it's own right, and such comparisons should not be taken as claims of plagiarism. Ben Hopkins is not the new Buñuel, but The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz is a film Buñuel would've been proud of.
Sheidî gurôvu (1999)
Naive, yet delightful.
If put into words, the story of this Japanese romance film sounds like nothing out of the ordinary: Ono, a young businessman, leaves his girlfriend, Rika, who takes it heavily, and tries to win him back. Meanwhile, she is comforted by another young man, Kono, who is secretly in love with him. Doesn't sound like much, but because of the unique way the director Aoyama handles the characters and the story, Shady Grove is actually quite wonderful and even insightful modern fable. However naive the basic story might seem, Shady Grove manages to touch important issues concerning the nature of post-modern human existence. And, although all three main characters are egoistic, silly creatures full of self-pity, they are also instantly likable and humane, refusing to turn into those paper-thick stereotypes American romantic films are full of.
One of the most important themes Shady Grove explores are the forms of communication and self-expression of today's youth. Ono is tired of the way Rika expresses herself through her possessions, so he dumps her; yet, in a revealing plot twist, Ono proves to be none less materialistic than Rika. Rika, unable to comprehend Ono's reasoning, tries to win him back with the help of a relationship guide book. Kono, who has left his job in a production company, tries to find some sprituality in a world oversaturated by money and corporate politics. Strangely enough, he seems to find what he's looking for in Rika, when she shows him photographs of a grove she used to play in when she was a child. But what does Rika want? Will Ono take her back? And will Kono ever discover his inner peace? To get the answers, you should see the film.
What Aoyama appears to be saying, is that you should always be true to yourself. However misguided the characters of Shady Grove may seem, they are only fooling each other as well themselves when trying to be something that their not. They are not happy with their current situations, but they get nowhere by manipulation, and can redeem themselves only by accepting each other as they are. This is a message suited especially for the Japanese youth, who are caught between the traditional uniformity and the new-found individuality, but it is a valuable lesson for westerners just as well.
Of course there's nothing that special in any of the subjects Shady Grove displays, but the way the movie handles them is both unique and satisfying. There are imaginary sequences taking place in Rika's childhood grove; there are some hilariously satiric sequences revealing the raw core of corporate culture; there also is a narrator who couldn't possibly know all the things he's telling us. All these little touches, together with Shady Grove's sympathetically naive overtone, make it into a delightful and witty piece of romantic cinema.
Beau travail (1999)
An effective study on what military life does to human expression.
Claire Denis' Beau travail, alongside Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité, is a French film I wouldn't suggest to those who get easily bored in a movie theater. But if one is willing to forget the conventions of narrative cinema and accept the sometimes documentarian, sometimes corporeally poetic way Beau travail approaches it's subject, this should be a true treat for both the eyes and the mind.
The story of the movie is thin as paper: Galoup, a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, has to deal with his jealousy when a new recruit called Sentain becomes a hero in the eyes of his men. Alongside Galoup's soldiers, the only other important player in this bizarre drama is Forestier, Galoup's superior, who he obviously admires, but who doesn't share his resentment for Sentain. Gradually, Galoup's envy for Sentain becomes too much for him to take, and his downward spiral begins.
Denis depicts, with great sense for details, how the military routines dominate every aspect of the legionnaires' (and especially Galoup's) life. This is portrayed effectively in the beginning of the film, when the soldiers' crude attempts to dance in a disco are compared to their beautiful, elegant movements during physical training. To Galoup, military discipline has become the only form of self-expression, and for this reason he hates Sentain, who tries to bring a little more humanity to the camp. Or does he? A curious aspect of the film is that we never see any of the things Galoup, in his narrative, accuses Sentain of. Only in the end Sentain acts against Galoup's strict orders, and this could be seen as counterreaction to Galoup's obvious hatred and unreasonable forms of punishment; the humane deed Sentain commits is something any soldier who isn't thoroughly programmed would do. So, since the story is told from Galoup's point of view, it could be argued that he has become paranoid, that as soldier without a war or an enemy he is only looking for an object to his emotional output (which the military life has distorted into hatred and envy), and Sentain, because of his one act of heroism, happens to be an apt target.
The above, however, isn't the only way to interpret the story. It is quite possible that Sentain acts the way Galoup says he does, and this turns the movie into a triangle (or a rectangle) drama between Galoup, Sentain and his men, possibly even his superior. The only thing Galoup's seems to (or is able to) care about is the military, and disciplining the legionnaires is his way of showing his affection. But this balance is broken by Sentain, whom the men admire, and who's actions are approved by Forestier. Since Galoup fears he is about to lose the very substance of his life, he reacts the only way is familiar with: by tightening his rule. Galoup's behaviour is, of course, bound to have repercussions, but there is no other option he can possibly think of.
Besides the way military life takes control of the men, Denis' other obvious point is to show how absurd and pointless the army routines seem in the eyes of an outsider. During the film we see countless training numbers and war excercises and witness the soldiers dull everyday life, but never do we see them doing anything useful. At one time the legionnaires build a camp in the desert, but the only reason for this seems to be Galoup's desire to get some action to the bored men. Beau travail's antimilitaristic theme becomes even more obvious, when the legionnaires' life is shown in contrast of the Africans who neighbour them. These people shepherd their herd, weave mats, sell things, make food, and watch with astonishment as the soldiers dig a hole in the middle of nowhere. The personal drama in the film becomes even more tragic, when Denis shows just how meaningless is the system that produces these kind of human beings. In the terrific final scene of the film we see the whole scale of Galoup's desperation as it becomes obvious, that he could never be anything else than a sad, retired army officer with no chance of fitting into the civilian world.
Bure baruta (1998)
Nobody's guilty, nobody's innocent (spoilers).
Guilt is probably the major theme in this great Yugoslavian film, which is a mixture of interrelating stories taking place in Belgrad during one eventful night. The film ends with one of the main characters being stoned while he's yelling "I'm innocent". Whether he did actually try to steal gasoline from cars, the deed he was accused of, is irrelevant (besides, if he did, the gasoline was meant for his family, which had none); and thankfully the director Paskaljevic leaves this question unanswered. More important is the fact that right before the hypothetic theft he was taking part in the torturing of a young couple, so his claim of innocence doesn't really correspond to the truth. On the other hand, a mob which tries to kill a young man for stealing gas doesn't have a much higher position on the moral scale.
What Bure Baruta shows is a post-war country where the ethics of people are so dimmed, that none of them can really call himself innocent. These people commit horrible acts in the name of love, hate, or both. Even the film's most sympathetic character, an old bus driver, ends up killing the man who tried to hijack the bus. But none of these people are thoroughly guilty, either, because what they are is what the war has done to them. The bus driver kills not because he likes to, but because he's tired of the chaos his country has descended into. The irony lies in that the hijacker probably felt the same way, he only expressed himself differently. It is the film's strength that even the worst of it's characters are not monsters, and in the end we can't really condemn single one of them. Otherwise we would be in that mob stoning that young man.
Although I've given examples of the stories contained in Bure Baruta, they are only facets of the full spectrum the film paints before us. Bure Baruta is one of the greatest European films of the last decade, and quite possibly the best post-war depiction ever made for the big screen.
Dark City (1998)
Good film, bad ending (major spoilers).
When I went to see Dark City I didn't really have such high hopes for it. The trailer had been excellent, but remembering the directors previous effort, the highly overrated Crow, I expected Dark City to be nothing more than a violent and silly gothic fantasy. So you can guess that I was positively surprised, when the film turned out to be an intriguing science fiction mystery with a touch of film noir. The actors were mostly good and Dark City even payed homage to many of my favorite movies and comics (the basic idea may even have been borrowed from one of Mézières' and Christin's classic Valerian comic books "Sur les Terres Truquées"), so I was beginning to change my opinion about Alex Proyas as a director. Dark City was just as stylish as Crow, but it had much more content. Unfortunately, during the final scenes, the script showed the same weakness Crow suffered from; Dark City is unable to come up with a satisfactory ending, so it resorts to clichés. I guess it really wasn't that big a surprise, since this problem has been far too evident with most sci-fi films of the nineties, including Strange Days and Matrix.
In fact Dark City shared the exact same problem with The Matrix: the intellectual premise didn't quite match up with the stupid FX ending. Admittedly, The Matrix didn't pretend to be more than an action flick with some interesting-but-overused sci-fi themes, so it's ending (with the kung fu fights and "kiss to awaken the dead" scene) was not as disappointing as is the ending of Dark City. Dark City at least had some originality and intellect, which is why I find it hard to understand why it had to end with an FX-enhanced good-guy-versus-bad-guy fight. When the hero threw the bad guy through the water tank, remembering that the aliens can't stand water (for reasons unexplained), it really made me want to cry out loud. If that wasn't a major cliché (and a stupid one too), what is?
Also, although the final scene in Dark City did a bit to redeem the film, it's quite hard to believe that the guy could live in his world knowing what it truly is. He should at least have had his memories erased, in the same manner the traitor in The Matrix wanted his knowledge of The Matrix to be deleted.
Not to sound too critical, I must say that, the ending excluded, I think Dark City is a clever and beautifully visualized film. Still, as a science fiction fan, I find it sad that there have been three recent films toying with the old sci-fi idea of fake reality (Dark City, The Truman Show, The Matrix), and the best one of these three is The Truman Show which isn't even a sci-fi flick.
Strange Days (1995)
A mixed bag.
I first saw Strange Days in theater when it came out, and liked it a lot. The film is superb both visually and aurally, so when seen on the big screen, the visceral effect it has is tremendous. Until a couple of months ago I had good memories of the film, but then I saw it again on video, and had to revise some of my opinions.
First of all, the plot, the dialogue and the characters in the movie are somewhat clichéd. At times Strange Days feels genuinely fresh and innovative, but the basic suspense film setup, used in thousands of movies, makes some of the scenes appear pretty awkward. The actors are a mixed bag as well; Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset do a fine job, but Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Michael Wincott pull off with their usual mannerisms, so I felt like watching Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Michael Wincott instead of their characters.
The film's worst flaw, however, is the conclusion of the murder mystery; I didn't like it when I first saw Strange Days, and on the second viewing it felt even more blatant. Without giving away the ending I can say it is the most basic kind of solution a thriller could ever offer. Worst of all, it comes straight out of the blue, making it quite hard to swallow. Also, the resolution of the cop conspiracy plot was a bit too easy; this is a dystopy, so the explanation given felt somewhat too optimistic. I would've liked a stronger anti-police message.
I think the movie would've probably been better without the whole whodunit angle. Strange Days has a great cyberpunkish feel to it, so it could've just been an atmospheric mixture of politics, science fiction and romance. Now it is just a good-looking sci-fi flick with some originality and far too much conventionality.
More style than content.
As a big Jim Jarmusch fan I am quite sad to say, that Ghost Dog is the worst Jarmusch movie since his debut, Permanent Vacation (which, out of all his movies, pays most resemblance to Ghost Dog). Stylistically there's nothing wrong with the film; the cinematography is beautiful and The RZA's hip hop score fits the movie perfectly. The usual Jarmusch themes of alienation and chance encounters are explored, although in somewhat flat and uninspired way. But even that does not fully explain, why I have such mixed feelings towards the film.
Although the characters portrayed in Jarmusch's films are usually more than a little eccentric, there still is certain universality to them, making the viewer able to relate with these strange people. This is not the case with Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog, the main character, is so far off this plane, that his actions and words left me cold, and I didn't care what happened to him (as I cared about the main characters of Down By Law and Dead Man, for example). This is by no means Forest Whitaker's fault; he carries out his role perfectly, but this role was written so that there's no way to relate to his character (the only exceptions are his scenes with the French-speaking ice-cream salesman). One can argue that this is a deliberate choice made by Jarmusch, but that doesn't make the film any better. Jarmusch's goal seems to have been to make a stylish crossbreed of a samurai film and a gangster film. In this he succeeds perfectly, but by making the protagonist a stone-cold hitman who follows the samurai ethos, he makes it impossible to understand him or to have any sympathy for him (unless the viewer himself is a samurai hitman). So in the end of the film I was left feeling just as uncaring as the character of Ghost Dog felt.
Perhaps one of the reasons for my disappointment is that I'm beginning to grow tired of these lonely outsiders Jarmusch constantly displays (although he's great at doing it). I think his next film shouldn't be less like Ghost Dog and Permanent Vacation, and more like Down by Law and Night on Earth. In those two films he explored the full scale of emotions, from alienation and loneliness to friendship and love. In Ghost Dog we have only the former two.
Cutting Moments (1997)
Disgusting but good
I saw this short film in 1998 at a film festival in Helsinki. The director was there to present it, so everybody knew what would be coming. Still, about one third of the audience ran out of the theater when the cutting scenes begun. Too bad for them.
The film was not extraordinarily gory, but because the splatter effects were used in a realistic depiction of suburban, middle-classed boredom, they were quite disgusting. The ending is as grim as it can be, yet somehow cathartic. Despite it's shock values Cutting Moments has a point, and it's well worth viewing. Provided, of course, that you have the stomach to watch it trough.
The Matrix (1999)
Doesn't quite fulfill it's promises (spoilers)
The first two thirds of The Matrix are simply stunning. The visuals are unlike any movie, the Wachowski brothers have created a roller coaster ride with only a few stops (although those stops are just as beautiful as the rest of the movie - I especially liked the sensitive display of Neo's healing process after he had woken to the real world). The premise of the movie - that the world might be nothing more than an illusion fed to our heads - is a bit of a science fiction cliché, but it can still be used to make an excellent sci-fi film (and most of the time The Matrix does just that). The acting is good, even Keanu Reeves manages to be credible, by acting as little as possible. Carrie-Anne Moss is also good, though her screen time could have been longer. The one who really steals the show, though, is Laurence Fishburne. His portrayal of Morpheus is excellent, I especially like the little touches that separate his Matrix persona from the Morpheus of the real world. To sum it up: technically speaking The Matrix is nearly perfect.
So, the set is excellent, the actors are good, and the speed is breathtaking - what is there to complain about? The problem, as in so many other big budget science fiction movies, is the ending. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the last third as well, but only on a physical level, not intellectually. The shoot-out in the lobby is one of the greatest action scenes cinema has ever produced, but that's all it is - a great action scene. The deeper elements of the plot (such as the agony agent Smith feels having to live in a world populated by humans) are left unexplored when the rumble begins. Scenes like Keanu Reeves yelling "My name is NEO!", or Carrie-Anne Moss reviving Neo with a kiss make my cliché-o-meter bounce up to ten. And why, oh why does a film with such potential have to end in a kung-fu fight? Having already seen Bound, the Wachowski brothers' previous film, I had high expectations for The Matrix, but in the end it was clear that the low-budget Bound would still remain the better one of these two. Big money doesn't always equal conventionality, but in this case, sadly, it does.
Let's just hope that the success of The Matrix gives the Wachowski brothers the courage to make movies which are satisfying both visually AND intellectually. They certainly are capable of doing so.
Difficult, but ultimately rewarding (possible spoilers)
Of the hundreds of movies I've seen, L'Humanité was perhaps the most difficult to watch, and certainly most difficult to review. On the surface level the film is tiresome as hell. The story revolves around the murder of a young girl, and the main character, Pharaon De Winter, is a policeman investigating the killing, but L'Humanité is no murder mystery. There isn't much happening in this film; it consists mainly of shots where the three main characters do boring things in a boring little French town. There is a triangle drama between Pharaon, his friend Domino and her husband Joseph, but since L'Humanité isn't a love story either, the relationships between these three are displayed in a dull, almost overtly mundane way. On the surface level L'Humanité is about real life, and not only that; it's about real life taken to it's most boring extreme.
What makes L'Humanité such an extraordinary film is not what's on the surface, but what's beneath it. A major theme in the film is hidden emotions, the inability to express one's feelings. This is displayed with the help of three excellent actors and an outstanding cinematography. Almost every scene is filled with unsurfaced tensions, conveyed both through the acting and through the visual imagery. Yet, although the visuals are an important part of the movie, L'Humanité is not a metaphoric film. When, for example, Pharaon watches a dark forest holding a bouquet of flowers in his hand, it's not important what the flowers and the forest symbolize, but what Pharaon is thinking in a situation like that. This is the true strength of the film: it's ability to show us the feelings and emotions hiding beneath the most mundane of situations.
Another strength of L'Humanité is the character of Pharaon. He talks little, and usually just stares blandly into the void. Yet he is in a strange way almost a messianic figure, carrying the pain and hurt of everyone else on his shoulders. This all-absorbing empathy is Pharaon's only outlet for his own feelings, just as sexuality is for Domino and anger for Joseph. Pharaon is present in almost every scene of the film, and although this makes us get quite bored of him, when the movie ends we still kind of miss him because we have grown so used to his persona and his mannerisms. Only a few films have the courage to display such an omnipresent character.
Though most of the scenes in L'Humanité are perfectly made, there are also a few which seem completely meaningless, and this makes the film feel somewhat too long. Also, although I liked the film's ending, I was disappointed when the murderer was revealed. The identity of the killer worked well as a story vehicle, but no true motivation for the murder was ever given. Considering that L'Humanité is totally character-driven, this is a disappointing shortcoming.
Despite it's few flaws L´Humanité is still a compelling cinematic experience, a movie which is unlike anything else ever seen on the screen. If you have the courage to try something altogether new, this is a film to see.
Fight Club (1999)
Excellent film, flawed ending (spoilers).
When I had watched Fight Club two-thirds through, I thought it could quite possibly be the best film of the nineties. The social commentary was smart and forceful, yet subtle enough not to be preachy. To explore a subject of such importance (the post-modern society and what it does to man) with such clarity of vision was a bold deed, something rarely seen in a big budget Hollywood flick. Added to that, Fight Club had a great visual look, a set of powerful actors (Edward Norton is as good as ever, and Brad Pitt shows acting capability I would never have expected of him) and some of the most brilliant dialogue ever seen in cinema. To sum it up: this far everything seemed perfect.
But then came the so called surprise twist, and for a while it felt like a punch on the face. Although I had anticipated a solution like this (I noticed immediately that the character played by Norton had no name), I never expected it to be this crude and over-emphasizing. There's nothing wrong with the idea the twist presents; it has in fact been evident throughout the film. But the way the film exposes it is so straightforward that it makes the viewer re-examine every scene of the movie in the light of this new revelation, and on that level the script simply doesn't work. I could give you numerous examples, but that would give away the surprise (and I've already stretched the IMDB guidelines far enough), so I'll leave that job up to you.
As I said before, there's nothing wrong with the surprise twist itself, only the way it is presented. Had I written the script, I would have made it far more subtle and ambiguous, so that the audience would not be told the truth, and they would have to figure it out themselves. By choosing the road it does Fight Club crudely underestimates the viewers' intelligence, which is strange considered how intelligent the overall script is.
The other thing I would have changed was the way Fight Club ended. Although the ending was not as disappointing as the surprise revelation, it was still somewhat lame. The film had already wondered so far off the beaten path, that it should have had the courage to go even further. Now all we get is "love is all you need", and while it may be the truth, this should not be the film to tell us that.
Excellent mixture of style and content.
While I'm particularly fond of Japanese films, I must admit quite a few of them are enjoyable only because of their unique style, not because of their actual content. Films like Shark Skin Man And Peach Hip Girl are fun to watch, but that's all there is to them. Yentown (Swallowtail's original title), on the other hand, is a prime example of Japanese cinema at it's finest. Combining music and politics, drama and action, social commentary and humor, art film and popular film, Yentown is a true post-modern experience, rich both in style and in content.
The film takes place in the Tokyo of near future, in a ghetto inhabited by immigrants from all over Asia. The status of immigrants is a touchy subject in Japan, and it has been widely covered in many of the recent Japanese films. What separates Yentown from them is that it uses the ghetto only as a starting point, and although the hardships of the immigrants (and outsiders in general) are a major theme, it is only one of the numerous subjects the film explores.
Basically, Yentown is about dreams. The story revolves around a group of poverty-stricken immigrants, to whom a sudden twist of fate gives the opportunity to literally make money and thus realize their dreams. Unfortunately, their luck is not without it's consequences, and even if they get what they've always dreamed of, they may realize they've chasen the wrong dream. This may not be the most original of ideas, but the story is told with such energy and originality, and with such sympathetic characters, that the viewer soon forgets the familiriaty of the basic plot.
Yentown is a type of film that gets even better on multiple viewings. The story is told in a non-linear way which can make the film seem a bit confusing, at least when seen for the first time. There are elements (and even characters) in Yentown used mainly as metaphors, and to careless viewer it may appear that the film doesn't quite properly tie up it's threads. But if the viewer has the courage and patience to watch a film quite different from our Western tradition, Yentown will reward him/her with an unique blend of emotion, wit and beauty.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
A sympathetic murderer.
The first thing that came into my mind after seeing The Talented Mr. Ripley was Alfred Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock's Rope and Dial M For Murder (among others), this is a murder story where the audience doesn't want the murderer to be caught. But, whereas in those Hitchcock films the viewer simply wants to see how the murderers' succeed in their complex plans, in Mr. Ripley there is also genuine sympathy for the main character, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon). The murders he commits are done in an awkward way, and there is no pleasure in watching these scenes build up (as in M) nor in seeing how the trails are covered (as in Rope).
The sympathetic nature of Tom Ripley brings him closer to Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho. Like Bates, Ripley does not murder for fun or profit, but because he is forced to. Only the first killing, the murder of Ripley's best friend Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) is a crime of passion, and because of Greenleaf's behaviour the deed seems almost justified. The difference between Ripley and Bates is that, regardless of his motives, Ripley (unlike Bates) is still conscious of his actions. Surprisingly enough, this does not lessen our sympathy for Ripley. On the contrary: we accept Ripley's crimes because we understand why he commits them. I guess we all would choose the evil we can relate to over the one we can't, and that's why we're less afraid of the unconfident Tom Ripley than the schizophrenic Norman Bates.
One of the main reasons why The Talented Mr. Ripley succeeds in portraying a likable murderer is Matt Damon. He looks just like the everyman Tom Ripley is, and his acting hits the right notes throughout the film. His nyanced performance perfectly displays the mannerisms of a man with low self-esteem and fragile personality. So good is Damon, that we have no problems in understanding why the poor and average-looking Ripley both loves and envies the rich and beautiful Dickie Greenleaf, played by the angel-like Jude Law. In my books Matt Damon was the best male lead of 1999, no matter what the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says.
The best movie of 1999.
Forget American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut. Magnolia is definitely the best movie of 1999, and one of the best American movies ever made.
Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson's previous effort was already a promising effort, but it was a bit too long. Magnolia is even longer, but it's filled with such a spectrum of touching stories and such a quantity of wonderful characters, that I didn't even notice the three hour length. Magnolia is a mosaic of intertwining and intercepting stories, dealing with such issues as forgiveness, hurt, redemption, sin and the role of chance in our lives. And though the film offers a deep emotional catharsis, it never loses it delicate, humane tone. The people Magnolia displays are not the best of men, but none of them are beyond forgiveness. That, to my opinion, is the most important message the film conveys.
As many have already said, Magnolia is an ensemble piece. Acting is superb throughout the film, and though Magnolia has approximately ten lead role and a bunch of supporting characters, there isn't a single member of the cast who is misplaced. My personal favorites are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sensitive nurse (compare this role to the sleazy characters he played in Boogie Nights, Happiness and The Talented Mr Ripley and you'll notice what a great actor he is), Tom Cruise as the self-made seduction guru (his best performance ever) and William H. Macy as the former child prodigy who never grew up (his role resembles the one he did in Fargo, but in Magnolia he is redeemed of his sins).
No film is perfect and even Magnolia has it's flaws, but I'm still so stunned by this masterpiece that I haven't even started to think what they could be. That, I think, says it all about the quality of this film.
Rating: **** (of ****)