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REVIEW: Magic City (Season 2, 2013) September 25, 2013

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Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan at The Losers film p...

Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan at The Losers film panel at WonderCon 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MAGIC CITY

SEASON 2 (2013)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2013

When Starz announced cancellation of MAGIC CITY after its second season, few people were surprised, author of this text included. Making of Season 2 was actually announced even before airing of the very first episode of the entire show. Such decisions might reflect either great confidence among the creators or cheap attempt to create extra publicity. Based on what I saw in first season, I tended to believe the latter explanation. Second season did few things to clear such impression.

First sign that Season 2 wouldn’t be an improvement is in the opening titles, which used different and less impressive music that in Season 1. After that almost any change in the show was change for the worse. This could be explained with apparent loss of creative energy by showrunner Mitch Glazer. In first season he used fascinating setting and fascinating character; in second season he didn’t know what to do with them.

Both seasons – with eight episodes – were relatively short, but the second looked much longer. The main plot – conflict between hotel owner Isaac “Ike” Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his bloodthirsty gangster partner Ben “The Butcher” Diamond (played by Danny Huston) – was resolved through not very convincing deus ex machina. Entry of James Caan as Diamond’s mentor and boss only reminded audience about THE GODFATHER, a film much better than a TV show MAGIC CITY could ever aspire to be. Those two main characters didn’t have much of development in next eight episodes; Ike is still a dedicated family man trying to do the right thing despite unsavory business and social connections; Butcher Diamond is just as evil and depraved as he was in Season 1.

The most interesting character of all was Ike’s new wife Vera, which nevertheless proved to be rather thankless role for Olga Kurylenko. Her character was badly served by dancing subplot which didn’t go anywhere. Other women fared only marginally better. Jessica Marais in the role of Diamond’s femme fatale wife was provided with some space to explore her past and make her character more interesting. This opportunity was squashed in predictably violent plot development. Yet the worst happened to character of Judi Silver (played by Elena Satine) an elite prostitute turned state’s star witness, who, for some not particularly convincing reasons, decided to stay in Miami only to provide Season 2 with new batch of scenes of sex and nudity.

It would be unfair to say that the show creators didn’t try to make at least some things in second season better. Character of Ike’s nemesis – crusading state attorney Jack Klein – was made more complex by adding  genuine care about daughter (and presumably about community’s wellbeing) as further and more convincing motives than mere political ambition. Even more interesting was an idea to have Ike play mobsters against Castro in an attempt to secure business empire in post-revolutionary Cuba. Although audience, at least those viewers familiar with Cold War history, could have known that such scheme ultimately wouldn’t work, this was a subplot that had some potential; transitional periods in history are known to provide best dramas. This subplot was even more promising with character of Ike’s father (played by GODFATHER veteran Alex Rocco) being implicitly  portrayed as socialist; it would have been even more interesting to see his reactions towards business alliance between Cuban leftists and his capitalist son.  Sadly, this opportunity was lost in the cancellation.

In the end, failure of MAGIC CITY is going to be as irrelevant as the show itself. It was interesting attempt to re-create the magic of a bygone era and success of other period shows, The concept was put on the screen half-heartedly and without much inspiration. MAD MEN or BOARDWALK EMPIRE showed that period drama require something more than “cool” setting.

RATING: 4/10

TELEVISION REVIEW: Parade’s End (2012) November 22, 2012

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PARADE’S END

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2012

British television is usually considered superior to American and most other world’s televisions. This could be explained by greater flexibility in television formats. Some of the best examples could be found in the realms of television drama. Regular television series in UK is usually made out of much shorter seasons than in USA, without need to create sub-par episodes to fill 20+ quotas. British mini-series, on the other hand, could be longer than usual 3 hours and thus allow more complex and elaborate plots and character developments. This feature is quite promising for literary adaptations and this might explain why great novels of British literature tend to be adapted in good or even great British television. Such great expectations, however, weren’t met in Parade’s End, five-part mini-series based on the eponymous series of novels written by Ford Maddox Ford.

The plot takes places in 1910s Britain, setting made quite popular due to success of Downtown Abbey. The protagonist, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is Christopher Tietjens, son a wealthy Yorkshire aristocrat who works for the government as a statistician. Despite his wealth and seemingly successful political career, Tietjens is deeply unhappy man. This is partly due to his conservative beliefs that are at odds with all-encroaching modernity and partly because of the disastrous marriage with constantly unfaithful wife Sylvia (played by Rebecca Hall). Tietjens himself becomes infatuated with Valentine Wannop (played by Adelaide Clemens), outspoken suffragette that seemingly embodies everything he is against; their mutual attraction will not end in affair because due to Tietjens’ moral convictions and due to outside events. One of such events is the global European war he had predicted based on his statistics and in which he would, like many of his generation, take active part.

Parade’s End on paper contains all the proper ingredients for successful literary adaptations. It is produced by BBC, written by renowned dramatist Tom Stoppard, and the cast features reliable set of top British actors. Among them the best is Cumberbatch, who looks ideal for the role of seemingly cold and cynical embodiment of “stiff-upper-lip” British aristocrat. His portrayal, in which he shows the warmer side of the very troubled and complex characters, would, unfortunately, be overshadowed by unavoidable comparisons with somewhat similar role in Sherlock. Casting was also well-done by pitting two very different actresses for the roles of women who fight over protagonist. Rebecca Hall is very effective as manipulative “vampish” seductress, while relatively unknown Australian actress Adelaide Clemens provides good contrast as short-haired “good girl”.

The rest of cast is, on the other hand, despite great talent, fails to make an impact mostly due to failure of Stoppard and director Susanna White to compress the content of four novels into five hours of television. There are some good scenes, especially those featuring Stephen Graham (best known as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire) in the role of Tietjens’ socially climbing friend; almost unrecognisable Rufus Sewell is quite memorable as insane vicar. All those scenes provide humour, but not as much as the fourth episode of the series, set behind the WW1 front and in which bureaucratic and logistical problems conspire with family crisis to create nightmare almost as bad as the horrors of trench warfare. Those brilliant flashes, however, only point to the series not function as a whole. Some important historic events in the background (beginnings of women’s franchise, Irish question, rise of social activism and socialism, the slow collapse of former anti-Catholic prejudice) are given token treatment. The series quite abruptly with the end of war, leaving the audience to wonder what would happen to the protagonist in strange and new world. Failure to answer this question makes audience rather unsatisfied and quite disappointed.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Magic City (Season 1, 2012) June 6, 2012

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English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka...

English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka presentation in Paris – cropped version Polski: Olga Kurylenko na prezentacji nowego Forda Ka – wersja wykadrowana Français : Olga Kurylenko pendant la présentation du nouveau modèle Ford à Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MAGIC CITY

SEASON 1 (2012)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2012

Thanks to expansion of cable, television series has replaced feature film as the prime form of screen drama. Cable companies, unburdened by most commercial or censorship considerations of network television, have created titles that allow much better storytelling and complex characters than those shown in theatres. Some of them reflect ambition of competing with great film sagas of the past. One of such examples is MAGIC CITY, period drama aired by Starz. Although usually compared with today’s TV shows like MAD MEN and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, its style and setting owes much more to Coppolaa’s THE GODFATHER.

The plot is set in 1959 Miami, place which is experiencing great tourism boom. Protagonist is Isaac “Ike” Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), owner and founder of Miramar Playa, the most elite and glamorous of all Miami hotels. On surface, Ike’s empire looks like the perfect incarnation of American Dream; he is, however, more than aware of its fragility and dark origins, embodied in his former partner, violent Miami crime boss Ben Diamond (played by Danny Huston). Ike, as a relatively recent widower, also has to deal with family issues – new wife in form of Cuban showgirl Vera (played by Olga Kurylenko) and two grown but very different sons – reckless Stevie (played by Steven Strait) and serious and idealistic Danny (played by Christian Cooke). Evans must protect his empire by navigating through political and business intrigues in a city beset by ethnic and racial prejudice and threatened by emerging Cold War crisis from neighbouring Cuba.

Based on the first eight episodes, it could be argued that MAGIC CITY fails to reach the standards set by MAD MEN. The characters look terribly clichéd, and some of them, like ultra-violent gang boss played by over-the-top Huston, look like caricatures. Two of Evans’ boys only gradually transcend the simplicity of division between “good” and “bad” son. Plot develops in rather familiar trajectory, offering few surprises to any but the least experienced viewers. Violence, nudity and sex n MAGIC CITY looks less like an attempt to portray dark underbelly of shining and prosperous 1950s America and more like an obligatory content of today’s cable television.

Yet, despite those flaws, MAGIC CITY has plenty of charms. Morgan is very good in the role of imperfect and vulnerable protagonist who desperately tries to do the good thing. Great effort is invested in costumes, scenery and other period details; absence of “cool” and iconic soundtrack (probably caused by budget considerations) actually works very well, making the scenes more realistic and natural.  One of the best, or probably the best, part of the show is provided by the opening titles, which wouldn’t look out of place in best James Bond film. Although the season ends with obligatory and rather predictable cliffhanger, it also leaves much room for improvement.  It is less likely that the second season of MAGIC CITY could be as great disappointment as in the case of BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

RATING: 6/10

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) December 26, 2009

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Michael Moore in his latest documentary CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY claims that many previously unimaginable things can happen in mere two years. It is hard not to agree with this claim, especially when illustrated with the sight of ecstatic black supporters of Barack Obama during 2008 election night. However, that very same passage of time is one of the reasons why Michael Moore’s documentaries, including this one, tend to lose much of their power when viewed outside proper historic context.

In case of this film, that effect was helped by its broad subject and very specific circumstances that served as Moore’s inspiration – great financial crisis of 2008. When Moore started his film, he had good reasons to believe that those dramatic events would serve as perfect background for another strong indictment of American economic and political establishment. Current crisis, like few before it, exposed many previously hidden cracks in seemingly perfect structure of American Dream and gave plenty of arguments to all those who viewed it as nothing more than great illusion. Collapse of real estate markets through subprime mortgages and toxic assets made tens of millions lose their jobs and home, while the very people responsible for it – Wall Street bankers – actually became even richer through bailouts made by the taxes collected from their helpless victims.

This created huge, almost palpable, anger among American public, which Moore tries to use and channel towards the criticism of the system itself. For him, the great crisis of 2008 only proved what he had been telling for decades. American capitalism, instead of creating prosperity, destroys it; it makes the rich getting richer, the poor getting the poorer and the middle class – the basis of healthy society – is quickly disappearing. Just like in his previous documentaries, Moore tries to underline his message by segments showing real-life excesses of capitalist greed and its destructive aftermath; all that is brought in general context by combination of historic documentary footage, horror movie soundtrack, suggestive editing and Moore’s own narration.

Moore, to a certain degree, succeeds in describing the symptoms of American socio-economic ailment, but he utterly fails when he tries to make some kind of coherent narrative out of it. Both attempts to present causes and provide eventual solution to the problem reveal the usual limits of any populism, mainly in the attempts to give simplistic and unconvincing answers to serious and complex question. Apart from using his reliable muse – George W. Bush – as a symbol of everything rotten in USA, Moore points to his ideological predecessor Ronald Reagan and his presidency as the very moment when things started to go bad. Before that, Moore argues, America wasn’t so bad and through  his childhood recollection of 1950s and 1960s Michigan he paints near idyllic picture of affluent blue collar Catholics that produce quality cars, strong unions that protect their middle class status and high taxes that keep rich capitalists in check, channeling their wealth towards useful things instead of their excesses. How that utopian idyll – during which, Moore, to his credit, acknowledges that things weren’t that great for blacks or in Vietnam – allowed itself to degenerate into present sad state of affairs, is not convincingly explained.

Moore seems even less coherent and honest when he tries to point towards the eventual way out of this economic mess. For him capitalism is evil and he even recruits Catholic priests to express such views. So, some kind of alternative must be found. At times he suggest that the anger created by crisis won’t be controlled, and that the people would start fighting back against rich capitalists until they establish new system. What kind of system, Moore isn’t so sure. At one time, he points to young Americans embracing socialism, which, due to overuse by right-wing propaganda, ceased to be four letter word in American political discourse. However, when the time comes for him to say what is alternative to capitalism, he goes for the safer and easier option and says “democracy”.

And this option is embodied in the main political consequences of America’s economic calamities – election of Barack Obama. Moore, despite attacking some Democratic politicans in this film, tries very hard to absolve the new president of any eventual wrongdoing, and apparently refuses to consider any notion of Obama’s charismatic presence not being matched by his actual aims or abilities. American system is unjust, rotten and evil; yet, at the same time it is not because it allowed someone good like Obama to become its essential part. Moore apparently can’t make his mind which of two competing visions of America is the right one. Because of that, viewers are left with anger and without any hope for change. Even the sense of humour appears to failed Moore. CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, instead of being important document of our times, looks like series of  unconvincing sermons and some old tricks (like ambushing corporate officials for impromptu interviews and “citizen’s arrests”) that look more pathetic with each new film.

Film looks even more disappointing at the end of 2009, with political realities contradicting Moore’s predictions – like the the populist anger taking right-wing instead of left-wing forms. Perhaps Moore can create satisfactory films only in very specific set of circumstances that aren’t likely to be repeated – like Bush presidency, for example. Then again, a lot can happen in two years.  Moore can find another muse, resulting in films much better than this one.

RATING: 3/10

District 9 (2009) November 29, 2009

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

The author of this review had misfortune of having to live in time and place characterised by wanton display of man’s inhumanity to man. Needless to say, much of that inhumanity was fuelled by differences in culture, religion, political persuasion and ethnicity – usually not noticeable or understood by outside observers. To make things even more tragic, all that occurred in place previously deemed immunised by the decades of “benevolent”, “civilised” and “enlightened” rule, and perpetrators, rather than uneducated primitive troglodytes,  having “refined” and “humanitarian” upbringing. Those experiences helped me to appreciate political, social and other allegories in DISTRICT 9, 2009 South African science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp.

The plot of the film, based on Blompkamp’s 2005 short ALIVE IN JOBURG, is set in alternate fictious universe where Earth received an alien visit in 1980s. The visit occurred in form of huge spaceship which ended “parked” in sky above Johannesburg. Government expedition didn’t discover any crew, and the only cargo was in form of million apparently malnourished crustacean-like aliens, physical labourers. Those aliens, nicknamed Prawns, were brought to the ground and settled into specially designed part of Johannesburg known as District 9. The interaction between newcomers and old inhabitants of the city wasn’t very fortunate – few violent incidents led to Prawns being segregated, forced to live in ghetto and, like any other underprivileged minority, indulging in vicious cycle of poverty, violence, petty crime and all kinds of social pathology.

Twenty years after arrival, multinational corporation MNU – which runs District 9 – is going to relocate Prawns to another, “safer” and more convenient location far away from the city. MNU’s official Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is brought from desk duty to field in order to supervise the operation. His inexperience and incompetence leads to his infection with mysterious alien fluid which apparently begins to alter his DNA. Wikus suddenly becomes very valuable to his employers who would like to use him in guinea pig in some sinister experiments. Wikus, who is rapidly turning into alien, escapes from secret laboratory and the only shelter happens to be District 9. There he discovers that one of his alien “clients” Christopher (voice by Jason Cope) spent twenty years trying to extract fluid that would restart the spaceship and rescue his brethren from captivity. Wikus and Christopher forge an alliance, having to evade not only MNU’s mercenary thugs, but also about Nigerian gangsters who built their own underworld empire in District 9.

Genre connoisseurs would probably notice similarity of this film’s main premise with the main premise of 1988 Hollywood film ALIEN NATION. Those two films are, however, very different. Unlike the previous film – made in smug, self-satisfied Reagan’s America at the eve of Cold War triumph – DISTRICT 9 is clearly influenced not only by South Africa’s troubled apartheid past, but also shows author’s displeasure with the chasm between noble multi-cultural ideals of post-apartheid country and prosaic, unpleasant realities of continuing racial prejudice and ethnic strife. World today is much scarier and much more cynical place, and what might begin as noble and humanitarian endeavour, like “helping oppressed people” or “bringing democracy”, might end as brutal orgy of violence and exploitation. Blomkamp sees what a man can do to his own kind and logically concludes that aliens won’t fare any better.

This message of DISTRICT 9 is so effective because of Blomkamp’s realistic approach. Realism is not only in superb special effects, but also in a way he combines them with real life shanty towns of Johannesburg. Another addition to realism is clever use of fake documentary, which not only serves as an excellent plot framing device but also helps audience to suspend their disbelief. The script also – at least for the most part – avoids the usual stereotypes. Aliens, despite their insect-like appearances, aren’t monsters, but they aren’t celestial angelic beings either. Even Christopher and his son – the most human-like and most sympathetic alien characters – aren’t without flaws. Same multi-dimensional characterisation could be found in its human protagonist, who discovers his inner humanity only when he is deprived of its outward characteristics. South African actor Sharlto Copley proves his talent by tying the audience’s sympathies towards entire course of his character’s transformation.

Blomkamp’s filmmaking talent, interesting basic idea, pessimistic and unflattering portrayal of humanity – all that makes DISTRICT 9 one of the more interesting and thought-provoking science fiction films of our time. However, it is far from being a genre classic. Blomkamp probably got overwhelmed with the desire to make film as “big” as its idea; that “bigness” is actually capitulation to genre conventions. In the second half DISTRICT 9 loses much of its edge; what began as dark comedy turns in full-blown “serious” science fiction film with clichés like escape from secret labs and bloody combat including robots. By the time film ends, most of the audience could feel unpleasant not only because they saw negative portrayal of humanity, but also because DISTRICT 9 became unsatisfactory combination of “brainless” genre film and clever political allegory. However, despite this minor disappointment, DISTRICT 9 deserves recommendation as one of the most interesting films of our times.

RATING: 7/10

Public Enemies (2009) November 29, 2009

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A Movie Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Filmmakers can be aware that certain circumstances beyond their control can conspire in a way that affects the general perception of their work. One of such irresistible forces manifested itself last year when global markets collapsed and everyone started talking about greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. That period of history suddenly became one of the most talked about and films with plots set in it were bound to receive additional publicity, as well as increased scrutiny by those who like to compare cold historic data with its contemporary artistic interpretation. PUBLIC ENEMIES, 2009 crime biopic directed by Michael Mann, was the best example of those phenomena.

The film, written by Mann, Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman, is based on Bryan Burough’s non-fiction book PUBLIC ENEMIES: AMERICA’S GREATEST CRIME WAVE AND THE BIRTH OF FBI, 1933-34. The book dealt with series of dramatic events that gripped imagination of American public during the first two years of Roosevelt’s administration, namely the exploits of the few professional criminals who would later become staple of a popular culture, as well as lawmen who tried to put violent end to their careers. This short episode of American history proved to be treasure chest for Hollywood filmmakers; almost every major character in that drama received an homage in the form of a separate biopic. Michael Mann’s film, however, concentrated almost exclusively on the best known of them all – John Dillinger.

Plot begins in 1933 when Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), already hardened and experienced criminal, liberates his friends from prison in a daring and violent raid. His newly created gang then begins series of spectacular bank robberies, with local and state authorities unable to stop them because of gang’s clever use of fast automobiles and escapes across state lines. This crime spree is seen as an opportunity by J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup), young and ambitious director of US Bureau of Investigation who dreams about turning his underfunded and insignificant federal agency into America’s true national police force. His favourite and equally ambitious agent Melvyn Purvis (played by Christian Bale) is to lead the manhunt whose prime target happens to be Dillinger. Purvis and his men, mostly young and inexperienced college graduates, are at first outmatched, outwitted and outgunned by street-smart gangsters. While Dillinger enjoys luxurious lifestyle, romance with Chicago hat check girl Billie Frechete (played by Marion Cotillard) and reputation of a folk hero among impoverished Depression-era masses, Purvis must abandon his “scientific” methods of law enforcement. Instead he relies on old-fashioned methods like physical torture and informants from criminal underworld, as well as more experienced lawmen like former Texas Ranger Charles Winstead (played by Stephen Lang).

On paper, Michael Mann looked like ideal choice to cover Dillinger saga. He had built his reputation on manneristic combinations of intense drama and even more intense action and used to portray almost epic-like struggles between strong characters on the both sides of law. Therefore, PUBLIC ENEMIES looked like a film tailor-made for Mann, with plenty of opportunity to make great or, at least, a very good film.

Sadly, most of those opportunities were missed, although Mann did his homework in strictly technical sense. Action scenes are directed very competently, and great effort was invested in portraying fascinating saga of Dillinger as realistically as possible. Mann used digital video, clothes, weapons, vehicles and other props and details clearly belong to 1930s. Even the locations used to portray some of the most legendary shootouts are authentic. However, despite all this, PUBLIC ENEMIES is looking false and the viewer is having impression of watching routine low-budget television biopic instead of genuine Hollywood epic.

History buffs would probably point out that Mann’s realistic style only underlines his liberal – to put it mildly – and so Hollywood-like attitude towards historic accuracy. Chronology of the events of Dillinger saga and Hoover’s anti-crime campaign is completely wrong, and many of the characters are either composites or significantly different from their real-life equivalents. Defenders of Mann could use the usual argument of accurate portrayal real life – even in case of such larger-than-life characters like Dillinger – not being attractive for the audience. Furthermore, Burroughs’ book with its epic scope simply couldn’t be realistically adapted in feature film format. Mann was, therefore, forced to cut corners.

However, even those viewers who couldn’t care less about historical accuracy might notice some major flaws in PUBLIC ENEMIES. The most obvious is casting. Johnny Depp was great as larger-than-life outlaw in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series. That flair and panache is visibly absent in his portrayal of Dillinger. For most of the film he is cold and efficient criminal with almost unnatural abilities to escape law enforcement; he looks more like a vampire or similar gothic character rather than ordinary average American with whom so many impoverished inhabitants of Depression-era America could sympathise. Another bad casting decision is Marion Cotillard, whose presence could be explained only by her latest Oscar and not too justified requirement to have actress who speaks English with thick French accent. There is hardly any chemistry between Depp and Cotillard and their characters’ tragic romance looks only like a lame attempt to give some kind of emotional content to otherwise cold and soulless portrayal of history.

There doesn’t seem to be any purpose for PUBLIC ENEMIES apart from giving “new” and “realistic” treatment to the story already told by Hollywood. There are, however, some hints of this film being allegory of our times. Hoover’s “War on Crime” is hard to disassociate with Bush’s “War on Terror”; scenes of citizens being wiretapped or criminal suspects being brutally tortured could be viewed 1930s equivalent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, just as Dillinger and his gangsters could be viewed as 1930s equivalent of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda – convenient boogeymen that justified suspension of civil liberties and all-powerful government Leviathan. Mann, on the other hand, missed the opportunity to portray the political background behind Hoover’s campaign, as well as the increasing rivalry and rift between director of FBI and its top agent. There are very few scenes with Crudup who – by portraying politician – appears to be more alive and realistic than Bale as robot-like Purvis. Michael Mann’s veteran Stephen Lang, on the other hand, is much more effective as quiet but efficient FBI agent with Wild West experience.

On the other hand, Mann missed opportunity to make parallels between Great Depression and its contemporary equivalent. World of 1930s is, on the surface, portrayed accurately, yet its main feature – poverty and hopelessness created by Depression – is nowhere to be seen. The audience is left wondering where is “public” that was supposed to be thrilled and scared by Dillinger, and why he was its “enemy” in the first place. More than three decades ago John Milius answered some of those questions in DILLINGER, less ambitious but more effective and memorable Hollywood tale about greatest Depression-era criminal. Michael Mann, just like in ALI, again showed that he doesn’t handle biopics that well.

RATING: 4/10

 

Fighting (2009) November 20, 2009

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Hard economic times have struck today’s world, and even the Hollywood is forced to acknowledge those realities. At least, this is one of the impressions given by the opening scenes of FIGHTING, 2009 drama directed by Dito Montiel.

Young protagonist Shawn MacArthur (played by Channing Tatum), who came to New York in order to pursue American dream, is forced to make ends meet by selling cheap counterfeit merchadise on the street. This kind of activity brings many risks and in one of such incidents MacArthur is forced to display his fighting abilities. This leaves good impression on Harvey Borden (played by Terrence Howard), quiet street hustler who tries to make a name as a street fight promoter. He approaches young man and becomes his manager, trying to use his talents in the sleazy world of professional bare-knuckles street fighting. MacArthur gradually make his name and some money, but soon he has to confront some ghosts of his own pre-New York past.

While the opening scenes of the film suggest something like an honest portrayal of social realities of contemporary New York, FIGHTING soon reveals itself to be nothing more than formulaic and not particularly formulaic sports drama. Dito Montiel, former punk rocker with a troubled street past, was supposed to give this film, which purports to expose “dark underbelly” of New York and its illegal fighting scene, some “street credibility”. His talents, however, couldn’t hide the series of cliches, including the bet scheme subplot and romance that appear to be obligatory for many films of the same genre. Audience also might have some trouble suspending their disbelief, since the protagonist happens to be played by an actor who looks more like a fashion model than tough street fighter.

Ironically, casting appears to be the only thing that makes this film watchable. Terrence Howard, one of the best character actors of contemporary Hollywood, again shows great skill by making his character of soft-spoken, quiet and dignified street hustler much more impressive than the rest of film.  Another hidden gem is Altagracia Guzman who gives great does of humanity to the role of overprotective grandmother of protagonist’s love interest Zulay (played by Colombian actress Zulay Henao). Their efforts, however, can’t compensate for the increasingly annoying defficiens of overcliched and utterly predictable script which makes FIGHTING look much longer than its 93 minutes of running time. Although watchable, this film has already lost its fight against descent into cinema oblivion.

RATING: 3/10

The Recollection Thief (2007) November 10, 2009

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(KRADLJIVAC USPOMENA)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Croatian cinema in 2000s – due to various political and economic reasons – is generally in better shape than in 1990s. “Generally”, unfortunately, doesn’t mean that Croatian audience won’t be spared from the cinematic monstrosities that gave national film industry such a bad name in previous decade. One of such examples is THE RECOLLECTION THIEF, 2007 spy thriller directed by Vicko Ruić.

Plot of the film is based on 2003 novel by Dino Milinović, former Croatian diplomat who also co-wrote the script with Vicko Ruić. It begins in Autumn of 1999, in a time when Croatia had to deal with fatal illness and imminent death of its first president Franjo Tudjman. Protagonist is Gawain Skok (played by Nikša Kušelj), war veteran deeply traumatised by his experiences during the Battle of Vukovar and forced to earn his living as an agent in one of many intelligence services of Tudjman’s Croatia. He is given the task of investigating mysterious disappearance of Juraj Fran Krsto Križanić (played by Sven Medvešek), Croatian diplomat in Paris. During his investigation, Skok uncovers many dirty secrets of Croatian intelligence community and also tries to exorcise his own personal demons.

THE RECOLLECTION THIEF was supposed to be one of the more interesting and intriguing films made in contemporary Croatia. Although not the first one to deal with 1990s war – almost all Croatian films made in past two decades dealt, directly or indirectly, with that subject – it was the first one to explicitly portray some of its shady political background. That included the use of certain real – and rather controversial – historical characters which are unnamed yet quite recognisable in the best tradition of roman a clef. Another broken taboo is portrayal of factional struggles within Tudjman’s party – hardline nationalists and former extremist political emigres on one and former Communists and Yugoslav loyalists on the other side – which found its reflection in inter-service rivalries within intelligence community.

Unfortunately, the intriguing subject was ruined by director Vicko Ruić, filmmaker who showed that he hadn’t learned a thing after fiasco of his 1996 debut NAUSIKAJA. Just like in that film, Ruić in THE RECOLLECTION THIEF showed utter lack of sense for pacing or talent to tell any meaningful story. Most of the film is made of flashbacks that are nearly always incomprehensible, despite Ruić’s attempts to navigate viewers with the use of titles that indicate different year. Some of those flashbacks – like the one set in 1971, during the crushing of Croatian Spring – don’t serve any purpose, apart from reminding Croatian audience of national traumas. Incoherent flashbacks, bad editing and weak pacing destroy any sense of suspense and mystery, and even some scenes that are supposed to be thriller-like look cheap. The acting – apart from few honourable exceptions, like Ivo Gregurević in the role of late defence minister – is mostly bad, making audience care very little about characters.

Viewers, who might have been attracted to this film because of its ground-breaking subject, would soon regret their curiosity. Even Croatian audience, which has some previous knowledge about certain events, characters and situations portrayed in this film, will have problems in connecting the dots. Foreign audience, which doesn’t know or care about finer details of post-Communist history of Southeastern Europe, will be at complete loss. Because of that, THE RECOLLECTION THIEF, despite its relatively short 100 minutes and despite relatively short budget, looks very much like the embodiment of a popular phrase “epic failure”.

RATING: 2/10

Thick as Thieves (2009) November 2, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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(THE CODE)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Feature films fail when they incite emotional responses different from those intended. Sometimes this shouldn’t be a bad thing – serious film, if it is bad enough, can provide audience with unexpected entertainment. More often than not, though, films that are supposed to be entertaining are anything but. THICK AS THIEVES, 2009 crime thriller directed by Mimi Leder and distributed under title THE CODE in USA, is one of such examples.

Protagonist of the film is Gabriel Martin (played by Antonio Banderas), criminal from Miami who tries to make a living on the streets of New York. His dashing robbery in the moving subway train catches attention of Keith Ripley (played by Morgan Freeman), old, experienced criminal who needs a younger partner for another big job. That job includes stealing precious Faberge eggs from a New York museum owned by Russian “businessmen”. Their scheme is complicated by two things. One is Ripley’s old nemesis in the form of NYPD lieutenant Weber (played by Robert Forster) who is determined to bring behind bars. Another is Alexandra (played by Radha Mitchell), Ripley’s goddaughter to whom Martin becomes attracted.

Based on Mimi Leder’s reputation of an action-oriented director, THICK AS THIEVES was supposed to be exciting heist film. In reality, audience will hardly experience any thrills, except in the subway scene which introduces outrageously bold protagonist. The scenes depicting heist, despite great care to make them look “spectacular” (mostly through the use of various gadgets), leave much to be desired and actually draw comparisons with much better films of the same genre.

Much more visible (and irritating) flaw of the film is bad casting. The otherwise dependable actors like Morgan Freeman sleepwalk through the role, while Banderas simply looks too old to be convincing as young criminal. His character’s obligatory romance with Alexandra falls victim to complete lack of chemistry between him and Mitchell. Furthermore, Banderas’ efforts are also burdened by Ted Humphrey’s uninspired script which brings plenty of “unexpected” yet completely nonsensical plot twists at the end. Seeing great Spanish actor in his unsuccessful attempts to act his way out of this mess gives more sadness than thrills among the audiences.

People in this part of the world will have additional reason to feel sad when they see this film. Rade Šerbedžija, once among the most popular and charismatic actors of former Yugoslavia, is again reduced to one-dimensional and stereotypical role of a Russian mobster. The sadness created by this film could be cured only by its quick descent in well-deserved oblivion.

RATING: 3/10

Coco Before Chanel (2009) October 26, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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(COCO AVANT CHANEL)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

The author of this review was never a particularly big fan of fashion. Main purpose of clothing is protection from the elements; there are rather few occasions or examples when someone can appreciate its aesthetic qualities. Despite being overrated element of modern culture, fashion nevertheless can be good source of fascinating stories for a feature film. At least, that was the idea behind COCO BEFORE CHANEL, 2009 French biopic directed by Anne Fontaine.

In it Audrey Tatou plays titular character – Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883 – 1971), famous French fashion designer, founder of a business empire and one of the most influential persons of 20th Century. The film deal with her humble roots and depicts rags-to-riches story. After a prologue set in 1890s orphanage that depicts little Gabrielle desperately waiting for a father that would never come, plot advances few decades to Belle Epoque France. Gabrielle and her sister Emilienne (played by Marie Gillan) are poor seamstresses that try to make ends meet by performing in music halls frequented by wealthy men. One of those men is Etienne Balsan (played by Benoit Poelvoorde), heir to the business empire, who would try to sponsor Gabrielle’s show business career. Those attempts end in fiasco, and desperate Gabrielle takes residence at Etienne’s chateau. There she is revolted by Etienne’s paternalistic attitude towards her and her rebellion manifests in designing and wearing “unwomanly” clothes. This attitude, however, intrigues Etienne’s English friend Arthur “Boy” Capel (played by Alessandro Nivola) who falls in love in Gabrielle and helps her set up hat shop in Paris.

At first glance, there are plenty things to like about COCO BEFORE CHANEL. The most noticeable is cast. Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde (best known for his role in cult film MAN BITES DOG) brings a lot of roguish charm to the otherwise thankless role of heroine’s sugar daddy. Emanuelle Davos is also very effective in the role of Coco’s courtesan mentor. On the other hand, Audrey Tatou – who tries very hard to make her portrayal of Coco as faithful as possible – lacks certain chemistry with Alessandro Nivola. However, the other elements of film, notably the period detail and wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat, make this flaw less visible.

The other flaw of COCO BEFORE CHANEL – bad script – is somewhat harder to hide. Feature film is not always the best medium to present someone’s biographies, especially in case of long and eventful lives like Coco’s. Her early life was supposed to provide more drama. However, script by Anne and Camille Fontaine concentrated solely on her love life, while ignoring certain important historical events that shaped her life, most importantly First World War. It was the absence of men, drafted into cannon fodder, that forced industries to take women to men’s job and forced women to wear practical yet “unwomanly” clothes that would make Coco empress of world’s fashion. The film mostly ignores this important aspect of Coco’s life. The last “fantasy” TITANIC-like scene, in which Chanel supervises modern-day fashion show, comes less like proper way to finish film and more like a desperate attempt to tell audience why they had to watch it in the first place. That scene only reinforces impression that there were better ways to portray fascinating life of Coco Chanel.

RATING: 4/10

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