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REVIEW: Agape (2017) December 12, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2017

There are countries where Catholic Church has huge influence on almost every aspect of life, there are countries where that influence is really huge, and there is Croatia. In 1990s this reflected in Antonia Bird’s Priest being strangely absent from Croatian cinemas, video stores or television. Times are, however, changing, although it has less to do with Croatia itself and more to do with global trends, namely the years of widely reported sex abuse scandals that Hollywood couldn’t afford to ignore any more, paving the way for other cinema industries to follow its example. Croatian filmmakers began to deal with the issue, with 2013 dark comedy The Priest’s Children using it as a part of its subplot. Four years later, sex abuse in Catholic Church is the main subject of Agape, drama directed by Branko Schmidt.

Protagonist of the film, played by Goran Bogdan, is Miran, priest who runs a parish in impoverished blue-collar suburb of Zagreb. From the outside he appears to be a good priest and a good man; he takes genuine interest in well-being of his parishioners, teaches catechism in local high school with great deal of understanding for his teenage pupils and tries his best to take care of boys from local orphanage. He also appears “hip” by spending his free time working in gym, riding motorbike and playing video games, the latter often in company of orphanage boys he regularly invites to his house. Among them is young Goran (played by Denis Murić) who appears to be very fond of Miran. Everything changes with an arrival of Gabrijel (played by Pavle Čemerikić), physically attractive boy who brings more than palpable attention from the priest, but fails to respond in kind. Jealousy, alcohol abuse, homophobia and conformism produce turn of events that would shatter Miran’s life.

In 1990s Branko Schmidt, due to his conformist “patriotic” films, was perceived as a filmmaker typical for everything wrong with Croatian cinema. With Agape he continues transformation into one of the best and most interesting Croatian filmmakers, a process that started with 2009 Metastases and continued with 2012 Vegetarian Cannibal. Just like in those two films, written by novelist Ivo Balenović, he gives uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of Croatian society’s dark underbelly and does so with a great skill. The script, which apparently took some time to be finished, is relatively simple and this reflects in short running time of 77 minutes. Everything in the film looks natural, even the acting – one of the blackest spots of Croatian cinema – is good. Goran Bogdan, known to international audience for appearing in one season of Fargo, plays his role very well. He is helped by young colleagues from Serbia – Čemerikić (with whom he appeared in The Last Panthers miniseries) and Murić. Another interesting casting choice is for the role of Miran’s wealthy and bigoted parishioner who complains about his daughter dating dark-skinned Muslim; he is played by Bosnian Muslim actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović.

Schmidt’s direction in this film is simple, but subtle. Although it deals with sex abuse, there isn’t any explicit sexual content in the film. Agape very slowly but convincingly builds the case that the priest has some disturbing urges towards the boys in his care, but leaves much of interpretation of his actions and motives to the audience.Violence is, on the other hand, quite graphic (and it caused certain controversy by being used in the pre-release marketing). Schmidt puts authentic Zagreb locations to good use, and that even includes somewhat “artsy” scene at the railway junction where two characters symbolically part ways. There are some interesting details that point to Schimdt’s sources of inspiration – the most obvious is Gabrijel looking like Tadzio in Visconti’s Death in Venice. Schmidt’s film also doesn’t shy away from putting Church sex abuse into the broader context of Croatian social pathology, which includes scenes that portray rampant and sometimes violent bigotry (more explicit among younger than older generations of Croatians) and widespread corruption, which includes Church officials involved in shady real estate deals and more than willing to deal with sex abuse allegations by burying them under the carpet. Some of the elements in the film, however, don’t work; subplot dealing with Miran’s long suffering older sister (played by Darija Lorenci) seems unfinished. The ending of Agape is open and it would look natural, but is few minutes overlong. Despite these minor flaws, Agape deserves praise, not only for the authors’ bravery in dealing with difficult and unpleasant subject, but also because it dealt with it with great skill.

RATING: 8/10

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REVIEW: Get Me Roger Stone (2017) November 23, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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GET ME ROGER STONE

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2017

Old adage about history being written by winners is one that, ironically, doesn’t bear much historical scrutiny. Perspective on many historical events is often shaped by the losers, mainly because losers, unburdened by the fruits of victory, have more time to write books and also tend to have more incentive to explain what went wrong. It is rather easy to predict that the very same phenomenon will be applied to 2016 US presidential election, with books and documentaries being almost exclusively written by supporters of Hilary Clinton. One of the rare examples that tries to portray those events from the winning side is Get Me Roger Stone, 2017 documentary by Dylan Bank, Daniel Di Mauro and Morgan Pehme.

Donald Trump, however, isn’t the protagonist of the documentary. The filmmakers intead opted to portray Trump’s campaign from the perspective of one of its arguably ephemeral participants. Yet Roger Stone, portrayed in this film, is anything but ephemeral figure. 64-year old veteran Republican political operative is to those better acquainted to US politics well-known name, who also happens to be among the most controversial and most flamboyant players in political arena. The film is structured as combination Stone’s conventional biography and day-to-day chronicle of his activities during the campaign. The Stone’s early years, as presented in the film, happen to be as fascinating as present. The film depicts passionate partisan whose tendency to engage in devastating dirty tricks is matched both by great talent in executing those tricks and even greater tendency to revel in a reputation of arch-villain.

In two hours of running time, Get Me Roger Stone works as a history lesson, chronicling Stone’s career under Nixon, Reagan and G. W. Bush and reminding the audience of the most important political scandals in those years, some of which looking shocking even after few decades. In all of them Stone played certain part, which is something he actually likes to remind everyone. The film is also valuable source for future historians, because it features interviews with some of Stone’s, often better known associates, which include Donald Trump and Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Get Me Roger Stone is less successful when dealing with Stone’s present than with Stone’s past. The filmmakers try to make a case that Donald Trump was actually Roger Stone’s life’s project, and that he had worked since 1980s to bring flamboyant real estate tycoon into White House. More skeptical viewers could argue that the filmmakers themselves came under Stone’s sway and gave the old political operative more importance than he objectively deserved. Nevertheless, the film is, just like the Stone himself, fascinating and entertaining. It stops being so at the very end, when the actual fruit of Stone’s (or Stone’s less known colleagues and comrades’) labour is presented in the brief montage of election clips with emphasis on leftists’ and Hillary supporters’ meltdown. Such abrupt ending, regardless of the audience’s partisan affiliation, leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, due to relations between quanity and quality, histories written by losers are more likely to be better than histories written by winners.

RATING: 6/10

 

REVIEW: Gomorrah (Gomorra – La serie, Season 1, 2014) August 6, 2017

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The Wire is among few shows that ares supposed to serve as a gold standards of television in early 21st Century. There are many other shows that might try to repeat its formula, success and accolades, but few such attempts are as authentic as Italian TV series Gomorrah. It is inspired by book by Roberto Saviano, journalist whose “street cred” would put David Simon to shame. Saviano’s 2006 bestseller, that would later serve as a basis for 2008 feature film, exposed the activities of Camorra, criminal organisation of Naples in such way that their leaders had Saviano sentenced to death and forced to live under police protection to this day. Success of film version led to creation of television series popular enough to warrant second season.

The first season, like the film, has plot inspired by real events, namely the bloody war between two rival Camorra gangs that raged on the streets of Naples between 2004 and 2005. The series, unlike the film, has much tighter narrative structure. It begins when Camorra clan led by don Pietro Savastano (played by Fortunato Cerlino) gets into conflict with rival clan led by Salvatore Conte (played by Marco Pavletti). Savastano’s clan is the most powerful in Naples and the killings seemingly end with Conte being forced to exile in Spain. Although victorious, Savastano’s clan is weakened by bloodshed and had brought unwanted attention of authorities on itself. The middle-aged patriarch plans to hand over control of the organisation to his son Gennaro (played by Salvatore Esposito). Young man is, however, spoiled and inexperienced and someone would have to be his guide and mentor. Ciro di Marzio (played by Marco D’Amore), experienced street soldier and one of clan’s most capable members, happens not only to fit this description but also happens to be Gennaro’s close friend. Unfortunately for Ciro, he is distrusted and despised by Gennaro’s mother Imma (played by Maria Pia Calzone), who takes over the organisation after her husband’s arrest.

Gomorrah has relatively simple general plot whose authors don’t try to reinvent the wheel and keep things simple and, to a degree, even predictable, right to the season finale that ends with bloody and spectacular cliffhanger. The audience cares less about what would happen and more how would it happen. Its authors show great skill in making all of those 12 episodes into coherent units, often with shifting perspectives and using opportunities to show various aspects of Camorra activities. That includes episodes dedicated to life in prison, every-day street drug trade that fuels Camorra’s coffers, the way people with “proper” backgrounds launder its money and, last but least, way it manipulates votes and keeps local and national politicians in its pockets.

Gomorrah, like The Wire, is also very good in captivating the audience despite almost complete lack of characters with positive moral alignment. The closest thing the season has for hero is Catholic priest who in one brief scene uses young man’s funeral for anti-Camorra sermon. All “normal” people have either learned not to have any business with Camorra or are too young, naive and inexperienced to know any better. And the characters who the audience is supposed to root for prove capable of some extremely vile acts. The series is full of scenes depicting killings, but some of the more disturbing are alluded off-screen. The most disturbing among them is portrayed indirectly – through the physical and moral transformation of a major character who was forced to witness it. Gomorrah, nevertheless, looks and sounds authentic. It might lack the epic scope and structural ambitions of The Wire, but it shows that, just like some unpleasant realities of modern urban crime, good talents in depicting them aren’t limited to US.

RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 3, 2009) May 20, 2017

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The author of this review lives in a country where politics revolves around what apocalyptic year things began to turn for the worse – 1990, when Communism collapsed paving the way for chauvinism and cleptocracy under the banner of democratic capitalism; or 1945 when Yugoslav Communists took over under the banner of anti-fascism. For American babyboomers the answer to that question is simple and, thanks to their dominance over global popular culture, quite familiar to the rest of the world. It is 1963 or, more precisely, one Friday in November when earth-shattering news from Dallas brought the end of an era retroactively named “Camelot”. Mad Men, the show made in order to present 1960s changes, showed the last gasps of that era in its third season.

The assassination had occurred at the year’s end. That proved beneficial for the creators of the show, allowing them to copy the narrative structure from past two seasons and build plot in the months preceding it. The season begins in Spring, when the things seem normal, and actually better than when the previous season ended. Cuban Missile Crisis is long over, the apocalypse didn’t happen, and previously troubled marriage of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to his glamorous wife Betty (January Jones) is supposed to be rescued with an arrival of a third child. Draper continues to thrive professionally, yet not everything is rosy among his colleagues at Sterling Cooper advertising agency. New British owners were brutal in reducing staff, and those remaining are increasingly aware of precariousness of their position. That includes some seemingly irreplaceable characters like art department head Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt), who experiences professional disaster despite and not because of his hidden and self-suppressed homosexuality. Those expected to stay might find the price too high, just like young accounts executive Pete Campbell (Vince Kartheiser) who finally began to accept that he would match Don Draper nor receive his treatment. Those who leave of their own find another forms of disappointments, like former head secretary Joan Harris (Christine Hendricks), whose life of perfect housewife crashes with the reality of her handsome and much younger husband lacking professional skills of a perfect provider. At the same time Draper continues to his old philandering ways, this time risking his adultery too close to home in a form of his children’s teacher. While this happens, after years of innocent and not so innovent fantasies, Betty indulges in adulterous affair of her own.

1963 represented a challenge for Matthew Weiner and the rest of Mad Men creative team. Apart from its end, it was relatively uneventful year with relatively few pivotal moments or pop culture references. So, in order to season to play in “real time” the plots and character development had to continue, but it had to be natural, without interference of grand historical events or soap opera narrative tricks. At the same time, Season 3 had to be clearly different from Season 2. First step in that direction was introduction of the first true historical character in the show – famous hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton (played by Chelcie Ross). His presence, started by a chance encounter with Don Draper in country club bar and continued through business relationship and something resembling friendship, was good opportunity for Don Draper to find surrogate “proper” father he never had and the reflection of his own future as confident and successful self-made man. Screenwriters used this opportunity with mixed success – it allowed Drapers to spend vacation in Hilton Hotel in Rome and the audience to experience Betty as early 1960s fashion icon; on the other hand, old tycoon was eccentric enough to pester Don with late night meetings and provide Don an excellent excuse for late night adultery. The relationship between Hilton and Don conventiently ended before the season’s end, but not without providing catalyst for a plot twist in the final episode.

Season 3 is more successful in using Dallas events as the elephant in the room – something that the audience is aware of, but characters aren’t. All their grand plans and strategies, and all their problems, seem delightfully petty compared with the event that would force them to reevaluate their world; and the approach of dreded November 22nd creates suspense in seemingly banal events. Some other hints of the future might appear – like word “Vietnam” that begins to creep into casual conversations – but few are as ironic as the unfortunate date Roger Sterling (John Slattey) has set for his daughter’s wedding, when he thinks that the bad blood between his current and ex-wife is going to be the most serious issue. The most brilliant way Mad Men plays with history, however, happens in episode Guy Walks into Advertising Agency, which brings the most shocking event of the show until that point. The incident in Sterling Cooper offices provides not only the most explicit, but also the most effective use of black humour, but also serves as some sort of comical foreboding of similar, although more serious event that is about to happen in Dallas.

Mad Men was window in the past, but in Season 3 it became also reflection of the present. In 2009 America and the world entered, or was supposed to enter, new era under the leadership of Barack Obama, young, charismatic first African American in White House as the embodiment of everything 1960s American progressives in 1960s dreamed of – world peace, social justice, equality between races, genders and sexual orientations. The great change and hope of 2009 found its version in surprisingly optimistic finale of Season 3. In the last episodes characters – until that time separated by their genders, backgrounds and age – found not only reason but effective ways to work together and face brand new world of 1964 . Real life might be very different; 1963 might not be the year when things began to get worse just like 2009 might not be the year when things began to get better. But in the universe of Mad Men and for its viewers the end of 1963 looked like a very good beginning.

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 2, 2008) May 7, 2017

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Last year plenty of people interpreted slogan “Make America great again” as a return to a mythical better past that never existed or was better only for tiny minority of Americans. Most of such interpretations have set on 1962 as the last identifiable year of such “greatness”. This is hardly surprising, because even Hollywood leftists tend to watch selective chapters and periods of history through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. In case of 1962, it was a year when many Baby Boomers, generation that shapes today’s perception of 20th Century, lived the last years of their childhood, unburdened by some unpleasant challenges and responsibilities that come with maturity. In some strange way, 1962 was the last “good” year both for conservatives who didn’t know how dramatically the world would change in next few years and for idealistic progressives who didn’t know that some of those changes would be for the worse. It is also a very good year for shows like Mad Men if their creators want to show that those dramatic changes slowly began in a subtle way.

Matthew Weiner and the rest of creative team were very wise to avoid having Season 1 – which had described the “old” and “established” world of Mad Men in 1960 – followed by a season set in 1961. The new episodes begin more than a year after the end of Season 1. It is February 1962 and the America is still strong, confident and optimistic, and this confidence is embodied in JFK as new, attractive and youthful president, more suitable to the role of the leader in a brave new world where astronauts in Earth’s orbit and amazing new technology turn yesterday’s science fiction into reality. Even Bert Cooper (played by Robert Morse), old patriarch at the helm of Sterling Cooper ad agency, is aware that the change is inevitable, and the rest of his partners are trying their best to adapt to new generations by hiring new and younger creative talents. The main protagonist and his subordinate, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) is also faced with changes, both in his professional and private life; while in the office he too tries to connect to brave new world of 1960s youth, his marriage to Betty (playey by January Jones) is in deep crisis, marred by his own reckless infidelity and Betty’s own psychological issues. Don’s former secretary Peggy Olson (played by Elisabeth Moss) continues her transformation from lowly office help into highly regarded and respected advertising talent, while trying to reconcile her professional triumphs with private life revolving around unwanted single motherhood, embarrassed family and sympathies towards young Catholic priest (played by Jonathan Hanks). Not all changes are for the better, and Don’s former office rival Pete Campbell (played by Vince Karthesier) experiences family disasters that could ruin both his career and marriage.

The idea to push another season one extra year forward was wise, because it allowed clearer picture of changes, both in lives of show’s characters and in the wider world they inhabited. Again, Mad Men takes subtle approach, trying its best to avoid spelling out the obvious; the show doesn’t show the history and instead it shows how that history reflects on some private and seemingly ordinary lives. There are many scenes in which characters won’t say or do much; instead of that, modern audience is left to connect the dots and thus paint the picture of 1962 being very different in attitudes towards issues of race, gender or sexual orientation. One of such examples could be found in scene that deals with homosexuality – again, this is a taboo subject which is not only deeply uncomfortable, but in many ways also incomprehensible to early 1960s characters. When someone finally not only says those dreaded words but actually clearly identifies with them, Mad Men clearly points that times have indeed changed.

Yet, Season 2 is inferior to the Season 1. This has little to do with general quality of writing or acting, which is superb. For example, the episode titled The Jet Set is one of the best-written, best-directed and best-acted in recent television history. The main problem is in 1962 being more eventful year than 1960, and the history revolves too much around iconic images, words and events that define that era in today’s popular culture. Perhaps the most problematic is Cuban Missile Crisis, which just happens to occur at the same time as protagonists face some serious business and professional issues; the season finale occurs while the crisis is not yet resolved and thus brings rather disappointing cliffhanger. Even those viewers unfamiliar with history probably know how such event ended, because our world obviously looks different than the world of Fallout video games.

At the same time, Season 2 is something of refreshment compared Season 1. Just like Don Draper, the show takes long vacation in California, and uses it as an opportunity to give some hints of both protagonist’s future and present. There are actually fewer flashbacks compared with Season 1; with the mystery of Don Draper’s origin resolved, viewers would probably be less interested in otherwise prosaic portrayal of his early career. More interesting is the future set in sunny and “hip” California, so far away from the suffocating corporate offices of “square” New York and its suburbia. In couple of episodes set there Don experiences shape of the things to come during the brief but seductive encounter with a group of rich world travelers that enjoy nomadic free love lifestyle not very different from hippies. Yet, this new seductive utopia might be an illusion just like those Don sells his clients, and Cold War threats to end is just as violently as Don Draper’s new identity was created. By again reminding Don and the modern audience of all those uncomfortable truths, Season 2 more than justified its existence. Some may argue that America might have never been great. Mad Men has.

REVIEW: Prisoners of War (Hatufim, Season 1, 2010) April 28, 2017

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Israel is young and small country, which, until recently wasn’t much of a player in international television business arena. Recently, Israel joined the ranks of United Kingdom and Nordic countries among major non-American contributors to the Golden Age of Television. The most successful and best known title of them all was BeTipul, drama about professional and private life of a psychotherapist, remade in USA as In Therapy, and later under different titles in many other countries. The other, similarly successful show is Prisoners of War (“Hatufim” in original Hebrew, meaning “captives”), which was remade in three different countries (Russia, India, USA), best known as Homeland in American version.

The show had relatively few remakes, because it deals with a subject which is thankfully rare among other countries – long, drawn-out low intensity conflict that provide opportunity for its basic premise. In case of Israel there are plenty of situations for the fate that have befallen its three protagonists. In 1991 Nimrod Klein (played by Yoram Toledano), Uri Zach (played by Ishai Golan) and Amiel Ben-Horin (played by Assi Cohen) were three Israel Defence Force reservists captured during the botched raid against militants in Lebanon. The show begins 17 years later, after long and painful negotiations resulting in prisoner exchange. However, only two of three prisoners return; the third had died long time ago. The plot shows how Nimrod and Uri try to adapt to their new life and reconnect with their friends and loved ones while dealing with unimaginable traumas that have suffered during captivity. They soon realise that their families have been captives too and dealt with such captivity in different ways – Nimrod’s wife Talia (played by Yael Abelcassis) remained dutiful and faithful, while Uri’s fiancée Nurit (played by Mili Avital) gave up the waiting and sought comfort in marriage to Uri’s brother Yaki (played by Mickey Leon); Amiel’s sister Yael (played by Adi Ezroni) simply refuses to believe that her brother is dead and clings to the visions of him inhabiting her house. While all that happens, IDF psychologist Haim Cohen (played by Gal Zaid) sees certain discrepancies and similar disturbing details in Nimrod’s and Uri’s testimonies and becomes convinced that two of them hide something and that they might even endanger national security.

The show was created by Gideon Raff, who would later create Homeland. He found inspiration in his own experience of living in two countries – Israel and USA – and  discovered that after each long absence Israel looked increasingly foreign to him. The inevitable comparisons between those two shows indicate strikingly different approach. Unlike its American counterpart, which is firmly set in the realm of espionage thriller genre, the Israeli original functions as “pure” drama. And this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the traumatic past and the complicated present in that part of the world. Unlike USA, where 9-11 and Iraq War slowly fade from memory, Israel is still burdened with bloody past and often reminded of a precariousness of its geopolitical, demographic and military situation. One of such reminders is a concept of obligatory universal military service, today quite alien to American (and most of the Western) audience; in Israel it is a fact of life and it actually plays part of the plot dealing with Nimrod’s grown children – his rebellious daughter Dana (played by Yael Eitan) is serving, while her younger brother Hatsav (played by Guy Selnik) is increasingly uncomfortable with a prospect of being drafted and risk of repeating father’s predicament. Prisoners of War is best when it deals with those unpleasant but understandable dilemmas.

Both shows, at least in their first season, use plot of over-zealous intelligence/security officials doubting the returned captives’ loyalty and drop hints and red herrings about former captives turned into moles. In Homeland that was the basis of the plot, and the show explored it as high-concept spy thriller would. In Prisoners of War it is a mere subplot, and works as almost apocryphal distraction from Uri’s and Nimrod’s quests to deal with their new and strange present and their unpleasant past.

The Israeli show couldn’t expect big budget of its American counterpart, but is ascetic simplicity – use of interiors and rather banal and unattractive locations – works in its favour. Its main asset is in fascinating characters and skillful actors (among whom Mili Avital is arguably the best known among non-Israeli audience) that easily help the show in crossing linguistic and cultural barriers. The only thing that deflates otherwise excellent impression of this show is annoyingly predictable cliffhanger at the very end, indicating Season 2 much closer to Hollywood than real life.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Mad Men (Season 1, 2007) April 22, 2017

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So many critics agree that we are all living in the Golden Age of Television. Just like with most of other great historical eras, there is a disagreement over when such Golden Age began. The author of this review likes to think that a precise moment could be found in Summer of 2007. That was the time when AMC began to bust HBO monopoly over quality cable television with Mad Men. Seemingly unattractive period drama covering 1960s New York advertising industry slowly built reputation not only as one of the best US television shows of its age, but also became a popular icon of its own and its title became quick reference for one of the most fascinating periods of American history.

The first season of Mad Men is set in year 1960. This is point of time where Mad Men as a universe is presented in its youngest and purest form, which is frighteningly familiar and fascinatingly alien to contemporary audience. Sterling Cooper, fictional ad agency where protagonist, creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) works for a living, does exactly the same thing ad agencies do today. Yet, what goes on in its offices and homes of their employees seem very different; the only people who enjoy wealth, power and respect are rich heterosexual white men; everybody smokes and drinks; racist and sexist attitudes are rampant, even with some antisemitism thrown for good measure. Women fare especially bad in that world; they are usually reduced to secretaries who occasionally provide sexual services to their bosses, like new employee Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), with their only hope of social advancement through marriage, after which they end like Draper’s spouse Betty (January Jones), trapped and unhappy in a role of perfect housewife and parent.

Although Matthew Weiner had written the script for pilot episode years before, only in mid 2000s show like Mad Men became truly possible. Until that time 1960s were portrayed either by Dan Draper’s generation or by Baby Boomers, alternating between rose-coloured nostalgia of American Graffiti and smug progressive triumphalism of Pleasantville. Weiner, by belonging to Generation X, was separate from his subjects and this separation armed him with extra layers of objectivity. Unlike most other period dramas that recreate the past merely through bits of soundtracks, sets, costumes and props, Mad Men was a product of long, through and painstaking research. The audience was introduced not only to the fashion of the past, but the social mores and general worldviews. And it is done in a subtle yet effective ways; the show works best when audience discovers seemingly banal but very telling ways in which America in 1960 differs from America at the beginning of 21st Century.

This subtlety and the need to introduce characters and the world they inhabit are the reasons why Season 1 uses very slow tempo. There is actually very little plot and it mostly serves as an excuse for fascinating character studies and opportunities for previously unknown actors to shine. One such opportunity was provided to Jon Hamm in the role of a complex and multilayered protagonist. Don Draper is introduced as an apotheosis of America at the height of its power, which is, naturally, quite masculine. Draper is, just like James Bond, someone every woman wants and every other wants man to be; an attractive alpha male able both to charm cynical clients and bring women to bed; successful self-made man who reached upper rungs of corporate ladder out of nothing while completing American Dream with a luxurious home at the suburbs, glamourous perfect wife and adorable children. The show, however, quickly portrays all that as an illusion. Draper is far from perfect husband, with infidelities in form of “crazy” beatnik girlfriend Midge (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and rare female client Rachel Menken (played by Maggie Siff) being the most obvious and most expected; his entire career is based on a lie, and Draper is actually a coward, unable and unwilling to face the ghosts of his traumatic past, while his cowardice and willingness to escape responsibility create devastating havoc around people around him. The genius of Mad Men is in such antihero actually being the perfect protagonist for the show about 1960s ad industry; just as Draper’s new life is based on lies, so is the industry in which he works. The first season uses this theme near its end in one of the most brilliant plot twists in the history of television.

Another brilliant aspect of Mad Men is its villain, or, to be more precise, the best equivalent of villain this show might have. Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Karthesier, is not evil per se; moral parameters of his behaviour are, more or less, the same as any other character. His greatest flaw is in desire to become Don Draper, a desire that is bound to be unfulfilled because of the obvious lack of talent. Campbell throughout the season is becoming aware of this, while the audience has opportunity to find parallels between Campbell and Draper. They are both frauds in their own way, but, Campbell is unsuccessful fraud who only managed to delude himself; his position within company is based on family connections instead of a talent; his wife Trudy (played by Alison Brie) and her rich parents dominate the household and of the entire potential harem of office secretaries he is able to bed only the least attractive. When Campbell slowly realises that he would never match his idol, his anger reflects in petty and childish office intrigues.

World of Mad Men, despite being male-dominated, has more than fair share of strong and impressive female characters. There are three women, each dealing with it in their own way. Joan Holloway (played by Christina Hendricks), an experienced secretary who seems to be both most aware and most comfortable with moral and professional confines of Steling Cooper, as well as most adept in exploiting it through office romances. Betty Draper is, on the other hand, increasingly frustrated with confines of her Stepford-like existence and that reflects in subconscious and seemingly irrational acts of rebellion, mistaken by her husband for neurosis that could be cured through fruitless and ultimately counterproductive psychoanalysis sessions. Finally, Peggy Olson is there as woman who has both of those avenues blocked due to her lack of physical appeal; she is forced to fulfill her dreams the hard way, by challenging expectations and actually pursuing career of a copywriter.

While the show portrays one of the most “interesting” periods of American history, marked by deep cultural and political transformations, the first season, by its nature, doesn’t show such transformations. It only drops hints of future events and leaves blanks to fill by viewers more familiar with history. Some of those hints could be found in scenes where Draper encounters first seeds of counterculture among beatniks or in a scene where The Exodus by Leon Uris is described as “America’s love affair with Israel” (thus reminding audience that the American descent into Middle Eastern quicksand had origins many decades ago). But the most interesting is way the show sets his historical benchmark around the most important event of 1960 – presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, two persons that symbolised the struggle between Old and New that is supposed to be the major issue in future episodes. Weiner, belonging to new generations, less affected by JFK mythology is among those authors that presents history closer to actual facts. The race was actually quite close and, furthermore, many people, including protagonists until the last minute believed (and had good reasons to believe) that Nixon would ultimately prevail. The episode near the end of season, where the election is watched during office all-night party, is brilliant, and even more so in 2017 than 2007. When we watch dedicated and experienced professionals being genuinely surprised and completely baffled by actual result it is very easy to imagine similar scenes in New York offices during 2016 election. Perhaps the world haven’t changed that much. If it didn’t, we should hope that what comes next is less “interesting” that some of the events that come in later seasons of Mad Men.

REVIEW: The Constitution (Ustav Republike Hrvatske, 2016) November 2, 2016

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THE CONSTITUTION

(USTAV REPUBLIKE HRVATSKE)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

There are some films that are supposed to be liked and praised regardless of whether they display excellence of film-making talent or provide entertainment to the audience. They can expect accolades merely for their authors “having a heart in the right place” or expressing views “on the proper side of history”. More often than not, such films sacrifice subtlety with predictably poor results and, despite being predictably cheered by certain segments of cultural establishment, quickly sink into oblivion. It takes a very special sort of talent for film to avoid such fate. One of them is Rajko Grlić, veteran Croatian film-maker whose latest film Ustav Republike Hrvatske (“Constitution of Republic of Croatia”), or The Constitution (in international distribution) deals with some important and socially relevant subjects.

The plot is set in contemporary Zagreb, in a residential building where the group of characters is afflicted both by personal issues and by historical events that have transpired decades ago. Vjekoslav Kralj (played by Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac) is a relatively affluent high school teacher who spends nights walking the streets dressed as a woman. Maja Samardžić (played by Ksenija Marinković) is his neighbour, a middle-aged nurse sharing a small apartment with her husband, policeman Ante Samardžić (played by Dejan Aćimović). One night Kralj is ambushed and badly beaten on the street by group of young homophobic thugs, so Maja Kralj volunteers to help him recover and take care of his elderly, senile and disabled father (played by Božidar Smiljanić). In exchange, Kralj volunteers to help his dyslexic husband prepare for the exam necessary for keeping his job, during which the most difficult subject is a knowledge of Croatian Constitution. The scheme doesn’t go as well as planned because both men discover something they don’t like about each other. Kralj, despite being openly gay, shares extreme right wing views with his father, former member of pro-Nazi Ustashas in WW2, and expresses utter disdain and hatred for Serbs, regardless of their community being almost non-existent in Croatia quarter of century after violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ante, however, happens to be an ethnic Serb and he is revolted and personally offended by his tutor’s bigotry. In order to teach him a lesson, he starts to personally investigate attack on Kralj and tries to bring his attackers to justice.

Rajko Grlić enjoyed reputation as one of the more modern film-makers of former Yugoslavia, and one of the more willing to explore darker shades of its history. In The Constitution he explores how such dark and traumatic past continues to haunt the present in contemporary and independent Croatia. Croatian politics is still revolving around ideological divisions created in WW2 when parts of Croatia supported Ustashas while other supported Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans. Screenwriter Ante Tomić is usually associated with the left hemisphere of Croatian politics and few years ago he experienced street physical assault, albeit not as severe as his character in the film. While the film was being made, Croatia itself had new government with some members who expressed radical views not that very different from Vjekoslav Kralj, most notably in case of controversial culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegović (whose actual physical appearance resembles Vjekoslav Kralj). All that happened after Croatia joined European Union, thus supposedly adopting noble and high standards of democracy, freedom of speech and tolerance that associated with modern Western civilisation. Of course, like in many such countries, especially in post-Communist East, those high ideals were challenged by the economic realities of global recession, now mirrored in increasing tide of radical populism and nationalism, some even reminiscent of 1930s. In such circumstances, noble declarations, like those in Croatian Constiution, mean very little and are ignored or, at best, misunderstood by large segments of public. Grlić and Tomić made this film attempting to explain what Constitution and the state built on it actually meant.

The script very ingeniously tries to bring this message through limited settings and very limited number of characters, each with his or her own frustration. The most ingenious decision is to have Kralj frustrated both by his past inability to conform to the realities of Communist Yugoslavia (when his family was persecuted and abused by authorities) and his present inability to conform to ideal of “proper” Croat being masculine and purely heterosexual. Even more ingenious idea was to give this role to Glogovac, whose seemingly sympathetic portrayal of Serb Chetnik WW2 leader Draža Mihajlović in Serbian television miniseries Ravna gora created some controversy in section of Croatian public. On paper, idea of having Glogovac playing bigot Ustashas-loving Croat looked like a cheap provocation. In practice, Glogovac did a splendid job, giving humanity to a character whose views many in the audience would find irredeemably offensive.

Ante is played by Dejan Aćimović, one of Croatia’s most prolific and skilled character actors. This character have interesting details and could be seen as some sort of Kralj’s anti-thesis because he lacks education and often behaves erratically and sometimes violently, in deep contrast to “refined” intellectual Kralj. Script introduced interesting idea of Ante, portrayed as a victim of implicit anti-Serb bigotry, having some bigotry of his own, expressed through homophobic remarks at his effete tutor. This route, however, wasn’t properly explored. The script dealt more with the idea of tying those characters into some sort of peaceful co-existence. This task was performed well by Marinković who portrays Maja as tough, no-nonsense and practical character, whose daily exposure to various human misfortunes equipped her well to deal with contradictions and frustrations of those two men.

Characters are nevertheless well-written and well-played. The main problem of The Constitution is relatively thin plot that resolves itself predictably, in a series of clichés reminiscent of Hollywood feel-good comedies. Many of small details, especially in dialogues, will be lost to non-Croatian viewers, especially some sarcastic remarks directed at certain personalities and institutions of the cultural establishment in contemporary Croatia. There is, however, one interesting detail that makes The Constitution something beyond typical “message” film – a recurring sub-plot about local psychopath poisoning dogs whose presence at the very end deprives it of cheap and clichéd happy end. The Constitution is far from perfect and far from being seen as classic, but it serves its purpose – reminding audience of some important but forgotten values – in a strangely explicit but, at the same time, incredibly ingenious way.

RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Listen to Me Marlon (2015) October 8, 2016

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Hollywood screen biographies often cause a lot of complaints, especially among certain audiences that value authenticity among everything else. Such noble ideal is more likely to be reached in documentaries. Yet, even this medium seems unsuitable when the general idea is to view someone’s life from the very perspective of such person. The task is even more difficult when such person is dead. Thankfully, Listen to Me Marlon, 2015 documentary about Marlon Brando, overcame such obstacle.

British filmmaker Stevan Riley achieved this mostly thanks to Brando himself. Great actor apparently spent a lot of time and energy expressing his most intimate thoughts to a tape recorder. Thus he created a treasure trove of material which could be edited into feature-length biographical documentary and serve as its narration. Riley has collected some of those monologues and tried to create something that would look as Brando’s posthumous self-portrait. Actor’s words are accompanied by the images of the very same tapes and the his home when they were supposedly made, as well as archival footage of his best known films, television interviews, other documentaries and his own home films.

Riley tried very hard to give some structure to the film and he mostly succeeded in doing so. The flawless editing tries to give clear and linear narrative, and the audience through Brando’s comments and images smoothly goes through various clearly identifiable points of his life and career – his unhappy and traumatic childhood in Omaha, arrival in New York and beginning of acting careers, triumph as Stan Kowalski both on stage and on screen, 1950s successes culminating with Oscar for On the Waterfront, 1960s career slump, civil rights activism, spectacular and triumphant comeback with The Godfather and The Last Tango in Paris, decline in the latter part of 1970s, problems with weight and family tragedies. Through the film the audience might hear Brando’s thoughts about his life, Tahiti and nature of acting. The film also includes some of the more salacious materials, like the conversation between the actor and his anonymous lady friend.

Yet, despite all such great effort and occasional moments that could be fascinating, Listen to Me Marlon is hardly a classic. The main problem is incoherence of the source material, apparently made through the decades during which Brando’s general mood and views had shifted. Without information when Brando made such recordings and in which context, the audience is left with the task to make something coherent out of them. In many cases, some previous knowledge of Brando and his work is required – for all those who don’t know any Brando’s film other than The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, this film will be mostly meaningless. Yet, those who appreciate Brando will probably appreciate this rare opportunity to hear his voice saying something new.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW:A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) October 2, 2016

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A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

If you watched an average Hollywood crime film in last couple of decades, you are most likely to encounter either War on Drugs or serial killers as major plot points. Films that try to combine those two motives are, however, rare. Even rarer are films that use once popular sort of protagonists in the form of hard-boiled street-smart and generally tough private investigators. One such film appeared in the form of A Walk Among the Tombstones, directed by Scott Frank in 2014.

The plot is based on 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, part of the series about unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder. The same character appeared on screen in 1986 in Eight Million Ways to Die, played by Jeff Bridges. In its new incarnation, Matthew Scudder is played by Liam Neeson. The opening, set in 1991 New York, introduces him as alcoholic policeman who is nevertheless more than capable to take out gang of street thugs. A stray bullet during the incident took the life of an innocent child and forced the end of Scudder’s career. Eight years later, Scudder is trying to stay sober, attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and makes his living by performing various services to usually shady characters. One of such is Kenny Kristo (played by Dan Stevens), a drug dealer whose wife was kidnapped and, despite payment of hefty ransom, chopped to little pieces after vicious torture. He asks Scudder to find the kidnappers and former detective agrees, putting his old skills to good use. He quickly discovers that the kidnappers did this before, that their main motive is sadistic gratification instead of greed, and that they deliberately target wives and girlfriends of major drug dealers, knowing that their crimes won’t be reported to authorities or properly investigated.

Liam Neeson in recent years made quite a career playing tough action heroes and he doesn’t nor does he need to bring anything particularly new to the table when playing Scudder. The most of the work is actually done by Frank, better known for his screenwriting efforts. A Walk Among the Tombstones is well-directed, with almost two hours of plot going smoothly despite occasional slip into clichés. This is mostly due to Frank’s screenwriting and ability to add few minor but precious details that make this film refreshingly different from the others. The most important is 1999 setting, making one A Walk one of the first films to treat it in the form of period film. This is best seen protagonist’s inability to use computers and complete lack of and disdain for cellphones, as well as Y2K references. Frank also adds a character of T.J. , 14-year old African American boy (played by rapper Brian “Astro” Bradley) who, despite being homeless, possesses enough modern technological knowledge to assist the detective in his quest and serve as some sort of comic relief in otherwise very dark and “heavy” film. A Walk Among the Tombstones is also helped by some relatively unknown actors creating memorable moments in side roles. One of such is Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in the role of a suspicious cemetery grounds-keeper, as well as David Harbour (nowadays best known for his role in Stranger Things) who gives chillingly effective portrayal of a irredeemably depraved villain. Scott Frank’s film begins to show major flaws only near the very end, when the author’s skill can’t hide some clichés borrowed from cheap horror films. Yet, at the actual end, the audience will have plenty of reason to be satisfied. Even some things that have been used in many other films are good when used with a steady and capable hand.

RATING: 7/10