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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

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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

REVIEW: Foxcatcher (2014) February 29, 2016

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FOXCATCHER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Wrestling is one of the most ancient, and, arguably, one of the the most basic sports. Its simplicity might explain why it doesn’t seem to be well-suited for modern concept of sports entertainment and why its eventual success can’t be imagined without some sort of artificial spectacle like North American pro wrestling. Wrestling in its basic and “pure” form, which could be found among serious Olympic athletes, seldom attracts Hollywood filmmakers. When it does, it is usually due to connections to some bizarre true life stories, like the one that inspired creators of Foxcatcher, 2014 drama directed by Bennett Miller.

Plot begins in 1987 when the viewers are introduced to Mark Schultz (played by Channing Tatum), talented wrestler who three years ago won gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. Despite that and despite the support of his older and equally successful brother Dave (played by Mark Ruffalo), Mark experiences difficulties in training and doesn’t prepare well enough for eventual appearance at next year’s Seoul Olympics. Unexpected solution for those issues comes in the form of John E. du Pont (played by Steve Carell), heir of du Ponts, one of the oldest, richest and most influential families in America. He invites Mark to his Foxcatcher estate in Pennsylvania where he would train together with other wrestlers. Mark is at first impressed with John’s generosity and gradually develops friendship with his benefactor; Dave, on the other hand, declines invitation to Foxcacther, prefering to spend time with his wife and children. As the deadline for Olympics draw near, Mark begins to see some disturbing details in John’s behaviour, including incidents of unprovoked verbal and physical violence and cocaine use. While Mark begins to distance from John and contemplate leaving, Dave finally relents and comes to Foxcatcher, thus paving the way for unexpected tragedy.

Foxcather, at least on first glance, looks very much like many of those end-of-the-year films designed to impress AMPAS voters with great acting performances. The most impressive of such performances is given by Carrell, an actor who became star by playing comedic roles. His portrayal of John du Pont is something quite different; helped by impressive make-up and prosthetic nose that make him almost unrecognisable, he delivers a chilling and menacing portrait of a character made out of hypocrisy, arrogance and bullishness. Carell plays probably the least likeable, but also one of the greatest characters of his career. Tatum, who often has to deal with thankless, is here given a material more suitable for his talent. Mark Schultz is quiet, emotionless and, at the beginning, rather naive young man who seems almost destined to become a victim; when he begins to notice that everything is not all right and that he should actually do something about it, the change is portrayed gradually and convincingly. Ruffalo is also very good as his older, more experienced and sincerelly well-intentioned brother.

Script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman should be praised for developing plot slowly and allowing viewers to make their own conclusions about characters. This subtle approach prevented them from offering simplest, but dramatically unsatisfying explanation of John’s actions in form of repressed homosexuality. Foxcatcher doesn’t go that route (that would burden the film with unnecessary cliches) and instead leaves the nature of John’s true feelings towards wrestlers both ambiguous, painting the picture of much more complex causes of psychopathy. Part of it is in the glorious past of John’s family and high standards he could never hope to achieve, and part is the troubled relationship with old mother (played by Vanessa Redgrave) who appeared to love her horses more than her son.

Foxcatcher, on the other hand, fails to put its plot and character in broader socio-political context. There are some hints of Reagan’s 1980s America being a bleak place dominated by greed, corruption and hypocrisy of those who would later be known as “1%”. Motive of Cold War as patriotic justification for morally or otherwise questionable practices is not properly used. And, finally, the shocking, violent ending actually happens year after the other events portrayed in the film; the connection between such finale and actual plot is almost non-existent. Foxcatcher might feature some impressive acting, but it nevertheless looks unfinished.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: You Carry Me (2015) January 26, 2016

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YOU CARRY ME

(TI MENE NOSIŠ)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

 

Critics didn’t like Narodni heroj Ljiljan Vidić, comedy that is supposed to be something of a hit in Croatian cinemas. I guess that Croatian filmmakers don’t like either. The main reason, however, would have less to do film’s quality and more with its genre, making it a one among few Croatian films you could enjoy watching together with late-night pizza, beer and non-cinephile friends. Those kinds of films, regardless of their quality, are among the least likely to get funding from Croatian Audiovisual Center, govermnent agency whose officials tend to prefer films that are supposed to do well at festivals and the arthouse circuit – menacingly serious heavy dramas about characters or situations you are lucky to watch on screen instead in real life. Most of such films are ignored by Croatian public, with humiliatingly low box-officers numbers often justified by generally poor quality of filmmaking. From time to time, however, some of those titles employ enough talent to justify every bit of taxpayers’ money invested and in some, even rarer, cases, a film might turn out to be something quite remarkable. You Carry Me, feature debut of Ivona Juka, is one of such films.

Plot is made out of three stories about three women in contemporary Zagreb. The youngest of them is Dora (played by Helena Beljan), young androgynous girl who dreams about becoming soccer manager when she grows up and takes Zdravko Mamić, controversial manager of Dinamo Zagreb club, as her role model. Her father (played by Goran Hajduković) is Vedran, small-time drug dealer who spent previous few years away from his children and wife Lidija (played by Nataša Janjić) and now tries to make a new start by being good parent and honest citizen, with predictably unsuccessful results. Lidija works as a makeup artist for the television soap opera which is directed by Ives (Lana Barić), dedicated professional who fights a losing battle for sanity while trying to take care of her loving but increasingly demented old father (played by Voja Brajović). Nataša (played by Nataša Dorčić) is a middle-aged producer of the soap opera whose career brought material success, but who nevertheless has to deal with some unpleasant issues like pregnancy, husband’s infidelity, serious illness and traumas from distant past.

Some of the reviewers compared Juka’s film with Alejandro Iñárritu’s films like Amores perros and 21 Grams or Paul Haggis’ Crash. The most obvious reason for that is structure. The similarities between You Carry Me and those films, however, end there. Juka’s film is not only original work, but it is confidently and uncompromisingly set in Croatian present. Unlike many of her colleagues she simply refuses to deal with Croatian past, whether she sees it idyllic or traumatic. Although all three stories are personal, she doesn’t shy away from bigger picture, which is far from flattering – impoverished citizens at the mercy of all-powerful banks run by heartless managers, inability of an average person to have a decent life with average salaries, petty and sometimes not even petty crime as the only way to get ahead and ever-present corruption that touches every aspect of society, including national politics. The general picture might be bleak, but it is nevertheless impressive, due to talents of cinematographer Mario Oljača, who perfectly captured snow-covered streets of Zagreb. Italian composer Teho Teardo also provides an important and effective ingredient to the general atmosphere.

Juka’s greatest asset could be found in actors. She had some experienced people at her disposal, namely Nataša Dorčić who bravely deals with potentially thankless role of a pregnant middle-aged woman. Some of the talents she found outside of Croatia, namely in great Serbian actor Voja Brajović and Slovenian actor Sebastian Cavazza who is very good in role of Nataša’s husband. Some of the actors are pure revelation. Helena Beljan is effective as a little girl who is both fascinating and also, at times, frightening and who wouldn’t have to worry about acting career if Croatian cinema industry hadn’t got bias against horror genre. Another acting revelation is Gordan “Čupko” Hajduković, former leader of Dinamo Zagreb fans who used to end up behind bars for various violent offences. He apparently lacks of acting experiences, but he compensating that by adding great deal of authenticity to the character and some of the scenes where he appears are the most powerful.

Some of that authenticity, however, might hurt the film, at least among the more squeamish segments of the audience. Juka doesn’t shy away from portraying graphic or disturbing scenes, whether it is violence, drug use (some of which involve little Dora) or sex. The bigger problem, however, seems to be the lack of tempo. With more than two and half hours, You Carry Me is a little bit overlong and sometimes it gives away an author too fond of her work to give it a proper editing. Ivona Juka, however, even then shows a great talent and when those two and half hours pass, the audience is left with a powerful film with impact that dwarves commercially successful yet easily forgettable Croatian films.

RATING: 8/10

 

REVIEW: Narodni heroj Ljiljan Vidić (2015) January 20, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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NARODNI HEROJ LJILJAN VIDIĆ

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

If British author L.P. Hartley had lived in today’s Croatia he wouldn’t have said that the past was a foreign country. Instead he would describe the past as the colonial overlord. While there are various parts of the world where the past, often very distant, has a commanding hold over peoples’ presents and futures, in Croatia such past tends to revolve around relatively brief four years of World War Two. Like in many other East European countries, this historical event was a nasty affair, marked by unprecedented destruction and wholesale butchery, most of it committed by Croatians at the expense of other Croatians. While many in present Croatia, including official political and cultural establishment, claim that this tragic episode is buried in pages of national history, it regularly rears its ugly head during elections when two major parties mobilise their voters not on the basis of ideology or policy differences but almost exclusively on the basis whether their ancestors fought on the side of fascist Ustashas or Communist-dominated Yugoslav Partisans.

This frustrating state of affairs haven’t been properly addressed by Croatian filmmakers, at least in post-independence Croatia (unlike Yugoslav days, when, even under the ideological and genre limitation of so-called “Partisan films”, there used to be something of a more critical approach towards WW2). One of the rare filmmakers brave enough to tackle this taboo was Ivan Goran Vitez, whose latest film Narodni heroj Ljiljan Vidić (“People’s hero Ljiljan Vidić” in English) deals with those issues in the form of a comedy.

The protagonist, played by Kristian Jaić, is a young man who lives in small Croatian village during WW2, being frustrated by poverty, small-mindedness of his fellow inhabitants and Nazi-backed regime of Independent State of Croatia (NDH). He finds solace in writing poetry and dreams of following the example of Vladimir Nazor and Ivan Goran Kovačić, great Croatian poets who joined the Partisans. Before he joins them, he is captured by Serb Chetniks, but the rescue comes in the form of small Partisan group led by Struja (played by Stojan Matavulj). He joins them and takes part in raid against radio-station which goes terribly wrong, resulting in Struja’s death and few survivors, including Ljiljan, having to hide in Zagreb. There they stumble into unique opportunity to end the war by taking part in talent show whose winners will have the honour of performing in front of Ante Pavelić (played by Dražen Čuček), Poglavnik (“the leader”) of NDH, and whose “surprise” guest at this event might be his main ally Adolf Hitler (played by Dražen Kühn).

Narodni heroj Ljiljan Vidić had something that could be described as success at Croatian box-office. Among the critics, not so much. This is hardly surprising, because it is far from the films Croatian critics tend to like. In other words, it is unlikely to score success at “serious” festivals being in the wrong genre (comedy) and dealing with the wrong war (WW2 instead of those that followed dissolution of Yugoslavia). Some of the criticism had somewhat better foundation. Ljiljan Vidić isn’t very good film. Director Ivan-Goran Vitez is relatively inexperienced and this shows, just like in the case of his previous film Šuma summarum (aka Forest Creatures), a not very coherent genre mix of serious thriller, sureal comedy and satire of dog-eat-dog capitalism in post-communist countries. Vitez mostly relies on the skills of his screenwriter Zoran Lazić, with whom he worked on Zakon!, short-lived television comedy show nowadays best known for being censored due to its acidic humour being too inappropriate for gentle tastes of public television viewers. Lazić provided film with relatively coherent plot structure, inspired by classic Bildungsromans and divided into chapters. Some of the more hostile critics accused Lazić and Vitez of borrowing too much from Quentin Tarantino and his Inglorious Basterds. The film actually leans more on the works of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, using their style of often absurd and sureal humour and replaying the technique of bombarding viewers with series of short gags of which some work and some don’t.

For the audience in Croatia (and most of ex-Yugoslavia) gags in Ljiljan Vidić might work, but for viewers unfamiliar with this region’s troubled history most of them would be incomprehensible. Vitez and Lazić not only mock some of the famous and infamous historic personalities from the past; they also try to deal with Croatian present with some of scenes trying to imagine how would modern day shopping malls, ATMs or reality television shows would look under fascist regime and with 1940s levels of technology. Some of the critics might attack some of the gags as politically incorrect, too crude and insensitive, especially among those who don’t look kindly towards comparisons between European Union and Hitler’s New Order. Neither would modern-day Croatian hipsters like the way their 1940s equivalent are portrayed in this film. At times, Lazić and Vitez lose inspiration and crude humour is replaced with unnecessarily graphic violence. Some of the jokes overstay their welcome, and one of the example is reimagining Yugoslav Communist leader Tito (played by Dragan Despot) as some sort of self-help guru.The director himself tried to justify some of those shortcomings in one of the interviews. He claimed that he had waited for a chance for new feature film so much that, once he got it, he used opportunity to fill into it as much content as possible.

Despite varying levels of humour and style, Narodni heroj Ljiljan Vidić nevertheless works. This is partly due to relatively unknown but very good cast. Jaić, whose looks resemble young Peter Sellers, is playing naive but well-meaning young man is such way to provides some sort of moral anchor for viewers who would otherwise detest his violent comrades. Tena Jeić Gajski, who looks very much like Hayley Atwell in Agent Carter, is also very effective as comical version of Partisan femme fatale. The film ends somewhat abruptly, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In it, unlike the real life, the history it had mocked has ended.

RATING: 6/10