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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

REVIEW: Lone Survivor (2013) September 21, 2016

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LONE SURVIVOR

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Wars are exciting because they are unpredictable. For many of its participants such unpredictability often manifests itself in best-laid plans not surviving first contact with reality, sometimes with catastrophic and tragic results. This might happen even to the technologically most advanced militaries and best trained units. One such example could be found in an incident that happened in 2005, during the latest (and still ongoing) war in Afghanistan. US military operation against local insurgents ended in a way that provided Marcus Luttrell, one of its participants, rather telling title for his non-fiction book. It also provided title for its film adaptation, Lone Survivor, directed in 2013 by Peter Berg.

The film depicts Operation Red Wings, attempt of US military to kill or capture Ahmad Shah (played by Yousuf Azami), leader of insurgents in mountainous Kunar Province who was responsible for the deaths of dozens of Marines. Task of locating Shah is given to the four-men US Navy Seals team led by Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch). Murphy and his three men – snipers Matthew “Axe” Axelson (played by Ben Foster), Lutttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg) and communications expert Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch) – are inserted on the mountains and things soon begin to go wrong. Local geography conspires to make their radio communications unreliable and, to make things worse, they are discovered by group of villagers who soon notify Ahmad Shah and his men about small American unit, now forced to battle numerically superior enemy without any help and realistic prospect of extraction.

Berg (who also wrote screenplay) gained some important experience with military-themed films due to his directing of ill-fated blockbuster Battleship. Adaptation of real-life events proved to be more suitable for his artistic temperament. The films is directed energetically, with New Mexico mountain locations convincingly standing for Afghanistan and group of four very talented actors developing strong characters. This is especially the case with Kitsch, whose character of an ill-fated officer brings back memories of equally tragic character in ill-fated second season of True Detective. The action, which takes part in the second part of the film is, however, more interesting than the first part which is nothing more than routine exposition. Berg, who appears to have positive attitude towards US military and its activities in Afghanistan, for the most part stays away from politics and Lone Survivor doesn’t succumb to cheap jingoistic propaganda.

Lone Survivor, however, disappoints at its very ending. The script, at least in broader terms, tends to stick with the facts and shows how Luttrell was ultimately saved by Afghan villagers. The reasons why (which had something to do with local customs and politics) are never properly explained, and the way Luttrell is protected from Ahmad Shah and his men descends into rather unconvincing (and unhistorical) gun battle. This was missed opportunity and because of it Lone Survivor looks unfinished. It looks even worse after unavoidable comparisons with Black Hawk Down, film that many years ago portrayed similar incident. It would be too harsh to call Lone Survivor a failure, but it is only marginally better than many other Hollywood films that actually deserve to be called as such.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: Kill the Messenger (2014) July 15, 2016

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KILL THE MESSENGER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Watergate scandal, as years and decades go by, begins to look as one of the most overrated events in history. When it happened, many believed that it ushered a new era – a brave new world when things like illegal surveillance, corruption and starting bloody and protracted wars under questionable reasons would never happen again. Nowadays most of us know better. That, however, didn’t prevent some brave souls from attempting to repeat the grand achievement of Woodward and Bernstein. Most of such attempts failed, sometimes with tragic results. Protagonist of 2014 film Kill the Messenger provides one of such examples.

The plot is based on the book by Nick Shou, describing a true story of Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner), reporter for San Jose Mercury News. In 1996 Webb was covering War on Drugs and, after receiving tip, saw federal trial against one of the major cocaine smugglers quickly and inexplicably collapsing. Webb sees that the federal authorities didn’t want public to pay much attention to its star witness, Nicaraguan drug smuggler Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez) who had turned against his American associates. His investigation into Blandon’s past discovers his role in 1980s Central American conflict, namely attempts of CIA-sponsored Contras rebels to topple pro-Soviet Sandinista regime. Webb begins to connect the dots and concludes that Contras used to finance their war by smuggling drugs into USA and that CIA knew that and chose to look other way, thus becoming responsible for all the misery created by crack cocaine epidemic in American inner cities. The result of his investigation is “Dark Alliance”, series of articles that instantly turns him into journalistic star. His moment of glory is, however, brief; other media outlets begin to question not only his findings, but also his journalistic integrity. Webb, convinced that CIA wants to silence him, is suddenly faced with increasing pressure from his editors and colleagues and, in the end, loses his family and job.

Gary Webb’s story is relatively unknown, but potentially fascinating and its film adaptation could have resulted with another classic like All the President’s Men. It shows not only some dark and unpleasant secrets from America’s recent past, but also the disturbing things that happen to those who expose such secrets. Webb’s story was in many ways not so different from the story of more recent and more whistle-blowers like Manning, Assange and Snowden. Unfortunately, it happened in the wrong time, when the American public, still in self-congratulatory mood after the victory in Cold War and expecting decades of utopian Pax Americana, didn’t have much enthusiasm for digging skeletons from Cold War closets. So, the message was ignored and the messenger was, at least figuratively, killed.

In some ways the same thing happened with this film. Michael Cuesta, director known for his work on successful and often intriguing TV shows, handles the plot with great skill, finding the proper balance between suspense, drama and presentation of the facts. Jeremy Renner, who co-produced the film, is also quite effective in lead role. Unfortunately, the script by Peter Landseman, journalist known for covering stories very much like Webb’s, is less successful. It starts well, by explaining schizophrenic priorities of Reagan’s America, torn between War on Drugs and Cold War; it is less successful in showing why would “Dark Alliance” continue in Clinton’s era and it completely fails to connect the scandal and Webb’s ordeal with the present day. Subject even more intriguing than government’s persecution of Webb is mainstream’s media complicity in it. That was the “dark alliance”, even more dangerous than the temporary relationship between intelligence services and few Third World criminals. Kill the Messenger failed to properly explore this potentially explosive subject. The depressive ending of the film, therefore, leaves the audience with disappointing lack of closure. Kill the Messenger nevertheless serves some of its purpose by making audience think about some unpleasant truths, but Gary Webb deserved something much better.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: The Connection (2014) July 5, 2016

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THE CONNECTION

(LA FRENCH)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Many films are inspired by real events. Few films tend to inspire events in real life. Even fewer are films inspired by real events which were inspired by a film based on true events. One of such examples could be found thanks to French Connection, William Friedkin’s famous Oscar-winning 1971 crime thriller. Originally based on a book that described investigation of a complex international drug-smuggling operation, it led to “French connection” and various other “connections” entering vocabularies in order to describe other criminal enterprises with global scope. Some of them were, just like in the original film, based in French port city of Marseille where the local gangs in 1970s adopted the name “French connection”, or, simply, “La French”. Four decades later their activities are described in The Connection, 2014 Franco-Belgian film directed by Cédric Jimenez.

Protagonist of the film, played by Jean Dujardin, is Pierre Michel, new investigative judge appointed with the task of eliminating organised crime in Marseille. His task seems difficult not only because of traditionally blurred lines between business, crime and politics in that Mediterranean port, but also because the local underworld is dominated by Gaetano “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), ruthless but efficient mobster who has created links with American Mafia and made fortune in lucrative heroin trade. Michel is, however, determined to bring Zampa down, partly because he had worked with juvenile offenders and became familiar with the ways heroin can destroy young people and their families. His efforts are thwarted by Zampa’s men within the police force and connections to political establishment. Michel nevertheless continues collecting evidence and witnesses against Zampa which would lead to spectacular conflict between the mobster and crime fighter.

Partly due to the name, and partly due to subject matter, The Connection is destined to be compared to Friedkin’s film. Two films are however, set apart not only by different times and places, but also by different approaches. Friedkin’s film was almost revolutionary in its gritty realism and portrayal of early 1970s urban decay; Jimenez’s film is more faithful to the historical facts (although some names are changed, like in case of a Zampa’s rival played by Benoît Magimel, the very same character played by Jean Reno in 22 Bullets) but, like many gangster films set in distant periods, tends to wash them in period details like fashion and music that sometimes unintentionally creates feelings of nostalgia. Jimenez, on the other hand, tries to pay something of a homage to Friedkin and does so in not so necessary and rather artificial montage that shows how Zampa’s product comes to New York and what it does to its citizens. The other obvious homage is paid to Michael Mann’s Heat, in a scene that portrays accidental encounter between Michel and Zampa and the following discussion of their relationship. The scene looks somewhat “artsy” because both characters at times (mostly due to 1970s haircut and fashion) look almost identical. Script by Jimenez and Audrey Diwan also tries very hard to explore similarities between the two, mostly by portraying their private lives and establishing them as loving husbands and dedicated fathers.

The Connection, despite its somewhat grim subject matter and predictably grim ending is pleasant film to look. Jimenez have some issues with pacing, and the film is in the first part somewhat boring. In second half, when the protagonist solves the problem of corrupt policemen and sets proper trap for the antagonist, there are even opportunities for some interesting action scenes. The Connection probably won’t teach the audience anything new about 1970s crime or international drug trade but its debt to Friedkin’s classic is paid much more efficiently than in many other films with similar theme.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn (2012) June 30, 2016

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HALO 4: FORWARD UNTO DAWN

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Among television enthusiasts our times are often called the “Golden Age of Television”. Gamers could also talk about “Golden Age of Video Games”. Both media have, in the past decade or so, experienced dramatic increase in quality, and that increase becomes even more spectacular compared to the general state of feature film industry. Video games have especially matured in a way that allow gamers to enjoy not just spectacular action, but also intriguing plots and characters. That might explain why all attempts to exploit popularity of certain video games through their feature film adoptions are almost always doomed to fail. High expectations accumulated through the days of immersive game-play simply can’t be met by standard ninety minutes of conventional film-making. Non-gamer viewers, on the other hand, might avoid being disappointed simply by judging video game adaptations on their own merit. One of such opportunities was presented by Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, 2012 feature film produced in 2012 by Microsoft in order to promote Halo 4, next instalment in its series of Halo sci-fi first person shooter games.

The plot of the film begins in the same moment as the plot of the game. In year 2527 wrecked United Nations Space Command vessel Forward Unto Dawn sends distress signal, which is picked by UNSC Infinity and its captain Tom Lasky who begins to remember the events from his youth three decades earlier. Young Lasky (played by Thom Green) is on Corbulo Military Academy, training facility for children of high-ranking UNSC officers on planet Circinius-IV. He is not happy there, partly because intense training have negative effects on his physical health and partly because he believes that the war against insurgents, in which his older brother died, should stop. Soon he and his comrades are embroiled in even bigger and more devastating conflict when the planet and facility are attacked by mysterious, deadly and seemingly unstoppable race of aliens. Lasky must use all of his abilities to survive and is aided by equally mysterious super-soldier known simply as Master Chief.

Forward Unto Dawn originally appeared as five-part web series and the episodic nature of the plot is quite apparent. Script by Aaron and Todd Helbing tries very hard to portray futuristic society through diverse set of characters; however, they and their stories are often nothing more than a distraction. The only depth is given to Lasky and, to a lesser degree, to character of female cadet Chyler Silva (played by Anna Popplewell) who, predictably, becomes protagonist’s love interest and has even more predictable fate later in the film. The actors try their best with rather limited material but their efforts can’t overcome clichés and slow pace. The film becomes interesting only in its second half when the drama turns into more conventional action. Relative lack of budget is apparent with woods of British Columbia again doubling for alien planet and all of the action taking place at night, which makes CGI more convincing. Director Stewart Handler is, however, capable enough to advance this section quickly and provide intriguing live action versions of Covenant aliens, Warthog vehicle and other fan favourite details of the original game. While Forward Unto Dawn is functional and quite successful as product promotion, it is less successful as live action film by itself. For those who aren’t fans it looks nothing more than an average failed television pilot.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: The Master (2012) March 18, 2016

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THE MASTER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Hollywood is often described as “dream factory” and, therefore, it is understood that its main business is selling fiction instead of truth. So, when Hollywood filmmakers have to choose between telling history and telling fiction, they often opt for the latter, mostly because facts tend to be too boring and not attractive enough for audience. In some rare instances, however, fiction wins over history not because of filmmakers’ artistic or commercial consideration, but because facts, when properly presented, might step on the toes of some vengeful and powerful individuals or organisations. Even some of the greatest filmmakers had to take those things into account. Citizen Kane, the world’s most famous film à clef,  is the best know example of such practice. In more recent years, such films are rarity, mostly because Hollywood filmmakers these days tend not to pick unnecessary fights and when they actually do, they are very careful not to admit it openly. One of such examples could be found in The Master, 2012 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Plot begins at the end of World War, when US Navy sailor Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has to face serious adjusting to civilian life. Psychological traumas suffered during the war and before it, however, make such adjustment very difficult and Freddie often indulges in self-destructive behaviour and alcohol, the latter provided by moonshine made by his own personal recipe. After losing a job and causing the death of a man who tasted his product Freddie runs to San Francisco and finds a shelter on yacht. When he wakes up, it turns out that the yacht is owned by Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann), eccentric self-proclaimed philosopher and founder a movement called “Cause”. Dodd is thrilled with Freddie’s moonshine, but even more fascinated by his character and sees him as a perfect guinea pig to test his bold theories and bizarre psychological procedures called “Processing”. Quell joins the “Cause” and becomes Dodd’s most enthusiastic supporter. Dodd’s other followers, most notably his wife Peggy (played by Amy Adams), are increasingly troubled by his presence, mostly because his continuing driking and propensity for unnecessary violence compromises the movement and their founder’s teaching.

Before and during the production a lot of free publicity for The Master was created by speculations that the film was a biopic dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of controversial Church of Scientology. A Hollywood film was, however, unlikely to deal with that subject directly, mainly because many of important Hollywood personalities (including some of Anderson’s close friends) were Scientologists, and the Church of Scientology was not known for not taking criticism kindly. So, Anderson was forced to deal with such hot potato indirectly; first by creating fictious versions of Hubbard and Scientology under different names and then by portraying the early years of Scientology from the perspective of an outsider.

Another set of speculations dealt with this film being a potential favourite for Academy Awards, especially in acting categories. The Master featured two very strong roles played by two very talented artists. Phoenix, who built his reputaion by playing troubled and often unlikeable characters is working very hard with Freddie, creating a very convincing and at times disturbing portrayal of alcoholic and sex-obsessed sociopath whose wartime traumas might be just a convenient cover for some much deeper issues. Hoffmann is, however, much more sympathetic but also very impressive as a person whose intellectual and other achievements don’t much his claims but who nevertheless compensates such gap with great deal of charm and charisma.

Two great acting performances, however, can’t compensate for the serious script deficiencies and Anderson’s apparent loss of focus. The plot is simply too slow and loses much of its focus in the second half when Freddie’s presence in the organisation leads to inevitable conflict which is resolved in a way which is both banal and confusing. Even more confusing is the actual ending in which Freddie has to finally face the fact that he and Dodd would have to go separate ways. Anderson wrote and directed those scenes in such a way that it is unclear whether they are actual events or Freddie’s dream. By that time anyone, apart from Anderson’s most die hard fans would stop caring and would probably appreciate film being over. The Master in the end didn’t need damaging controversies or some behind-the-scene Scientologist conspiracy to fail in getting awards and become a big disappointment.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: The Iceman (2012) March 7, 2016

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THE ICEMAN

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

True crime can provide filmmakers with fascinating stories and characters yet it can also create some difficult challenges. All too often criminals and their deeds look so banal or ordinary that scriptwriters often feel the need to spice them up and make them more “Hollywood”. In other instances real life crime might look worse than the most perverted and least plausible fiction, so filmmakers go in the opposite direction and try to make it more “normal”. One such example could be found in The Iceman, 2012 true crime biopic directed by Ariel Vromen.

While America had its more than fair share of notorious killers, in terms of quantity few matched Richard Kuklinski (1935 – 2006). In a span of few decades, accoridng to his own testimony, he murdered between 100 and 250 people, most of them as an assassin working for Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. What made Kuklinski’s story extraordinary was his double life of a dedicated family man, with wife and daughters blissfully unaware of his murderous career until the last moments. After a brief prologue in which Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon) gives interview in prison (recreating 1993 HBO documentary Conversation with a Killer) plot begins in 1961 with Kuklinski as quiet young man on a date with his future wife Deborah (played by Winona Ryder). He tells that he works in Disney studios, while in reality, he deals in illegal pornography. This kind of activity brings unwanted attention of local mob boss Roy De Meo (played by Ray Liotta) who is nevertheless impressed by Kuklinski’s calmness during intimidation. Kuklinski passes a test during which he kills a homeless man, gets hired as a hitman and thus begins long and lucrative career during which he would partner with another killer Robert Pronge (played by Chris Evans). Two of them develop a new methods of disposing bodies, including freezing victims designed to prevent police from establishing proper time of death.

The Iceman is made with relatively small budget, but it doesn’t show on screen. Vromen was very skillfull in recreating past decades with limited resources, although most of the plot is set at night, in seedy poll halls and bars and decayed urban landscape. The general tone of the film is very grim and lightens up only in scenes featuring Kuklinski’s family, although only until his professional life starts to affect his family life with predictably destructive and frightening results. The acting is very good, especially with otherwise well-known or leading actors in short but impressive roles. That incldues Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother who ended in jail because of his own vicious crime, James Franco as sleazy photographer and almost unrecognisable Evans as long-haired, bespectacled and utterly cynical killer. Shannon delivers his acting goods, but it could be argued that he wasn’t the best choice for the role of Kuklinski. He has already built reputation by playing sinister, disturbed and murderous characters and another disturbed killer, even with such impressive bodycount as Kuklinski’s, doesn’t bring anything new.

The way Vromen portrays the kiler’s decades-long career also leaves something to be desired. Script often fails to establish why certain characters get killed and due to dark cinematography it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart. The character of Kuklinski is too complex for filmmakers and they fail to explore its different dimensions, so there are at least three various protagonists Shannon plays – cold professional, loving family man and dangerous paranoid. The Iceman often fails to make the connection between the three, and some of the details – like Kuklinski’s self-established rule of never killing women and children – are never properly explored. Perhaps this is the story not well-fit for a medium of feature film. A documentary (which were already made) of television miniseries could have been much better.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: Nightcrawler (2014) March 2, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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NIGHTCRAWLER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Even before Spotlight got its Academy Award, it was hailed as one of the rare truly great films about great journalism. One of the reasons why such films are rare could be found in the fact that great journalism is rare. Like in many other activities, journalism seldom ascends to fit noble professional ideals. So, instead of informing public and making the world a better place, it is more common for modern media to distort the public perception of reality. Therefore, media is more often part of the problem instead of being part of solution. The discrepancy between journalism as it should be and journalism as it is sometimes may become frightening. Probably the most explicit and one of the more disturbing portrayals of such discrepancy might be found in Nightcrawler, thriller directed by Dan Gilroy.

Protagonist of the film is Louis “Lou” Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), ambitious but unemployed young man who makes a living on the streets of Los Angeles through petty crime. His attempts to find permanent and legitimate employment fail until he becomes a witness to a spectacular traffic accident. At the scene he meets Joe Loder (played by Bill Paxton), freelance videographer who sells dramatic footage of accidents and crimes to local television stations. That gives idea to Bloom and he buys a camcorder and police scanner and starts stalking the streets at night in search of graphic images of violence and destruction. Bloom’s lack of experience is quickly compensated by his perseverance, dedication and complete lack of scruples. He starts partnership with Nina Romina (played by Rene Russo), middle-aged news director of a struggling television station and  provides her with spectacular and graphic footage that raise the ratings. Bloom obtains new equipment, an assistant (played by Riz Ahmed) and something resembling a career, but his endless search for new and even more sensationalist footage leads him to cross the thin line between being a witness and being a participant of urban mayhem.

Nightcrawler represents something of a true rarity in contemporary Hollywood. Dan Gilroy’s script actually tells a truth that looks like a heresy compared to what almost all other American films and TV shows present. The crime in America is actually in decline. Yet, based on what news industry (just like Hollywood) tell, it is an apocalyptic crisis and it is covered at the expense of more pressing matters like pollution, political corruption or bad economy. The old adage “If it bleeds, it leads” is not only mentioned in the film, it is even more explicitly expressed when Nina’sets priorities for her new partner. Nightcrawler also deals with other social aspects of such phenomenon, also by explicitly explaining that the crime stories get more attention when the victims are white or middle/upper class instead belonging to the poor or/and minorities.

However, deeper issues in Nightcrawler are in many ways overshadowed by its conventional genre structure. Gilroy as a director proves very capable in his directorial debut. Almost entire plot is set during the night and Los Angeles is portrayed both as an visually attractive city of dreams and neo-noirish urban jungle. This is especially evident in a gruesome and disturbing crime scene set in an house belonging to affluent neighbourhood. Even more impressive is Jake Gyllenhal in a role that amounts to the most frightening and despicable character of his career. Bloom is portrayed as a sociopath, a man lacking any sort of compassion, scruples and moral, yet endowed with intelligence, perseverance and something that could be described as professionalism. His quest for fame and fortune through other people’s misery is presented as a more extreme form of an American dream, and the unconventional (although not exactly unpredictable) ending serves as an ironic illustration of an idea that in America literally everyone has a chance to succeed.

Gyllenhaal’s character, on the other hand, also represents a major flaw of Nightcrawler. Gilroy’s script tells a sad tale of contemporary media and society from a perspective of rather unusual character. Bloom is presented as a young man lacking formal education and who starts at the fringes of society. The film would have been more effective with Bloom being or, at last, starting like a “normal” character very much like Walter White in Breaking Bad. It could have been much more effective with protagonist beginning its path as someone with journalism degree and with unemployment in modern media industry adding another layer to the plot. However, even with such opportunity squandered, Nightcrawler still represents one of rare Hollywood film that tells some disturbing truths about world and its general perception.

RATING: 7/10