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REVIEW: F20 (2018) November 23, 2018

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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F20

A Fillm Review

Romantics among critics and film historians like to tell stories about many great and valuable films that never got made or went through development hell over being too “artsy” or not “commercial” enough for The Powers That Be. Such is fate usually reserved for films and their creators in market-driven cinema industries, but sometimes the opposite can happen in cinema industries that owe much of their existence to taxpayers and bureaucrats that run them. In those cinema industries chances for film to be greenlit are in reverse proportionto it being audience-friendly genre piece. One of such example can be found in Croatian cinema with F20, 2018 thriller directed by Arsen A.Ostojić.

The film had its origin ten years ago in a screenplay written by Hrvoje Sadarić,young man who happened to be Croatian Parliament clerk at the time.Despite his apparent proximity to corridors of power and despite hisscript actually winning a contest for aspiring filmmakers, it took nearly whole decade before that script became a feature film. The easiest explanation for such long development hell could be found inits content, which puts it in the genres of crime film, thriller and horror – those that mandarins in government and quasi-government boards see as worthless , too commercial and least likely to winprestigious festival awards for projects they are about to finance. F20 was, therefore, made only after huge difficulties and,because of its lack of “artsiness” didn’t receive as much attention among Croatian critics and cultural establishment as would have otherwise done.

The plot of the film is relatively simple. Filip (played by Filip Mayer) is young man who spends summer in his parents’ Zagreb apartment playing violent videogames. His only regular contact with the outside world is pizzeria whose owner Mate (played by Mladen Vulić), faced with a labour shortage, had to use his daughter Martina (played by Romina Tonković)for delivery service. Young woman, who would like to spend summerholidays with her friends partying on Adriatic coast, hates her job,but she falls in love with a young man, seduces him and decides to gowith him to the coast anyway. The only problem is the lack offinance, but Martina is determined to solve it, even if it meansstealing her father’s money with Filip’s help. Young couple, however,soon find that those simple plans have a habit of backfiring, and during a single night two of them get engaged in increasingly violent cycle of events that would end in bloodshed.

F20 is a simple film based on idea that combines many often used plots about crazy love, “simple” crime schemes going bad andseemingly ideal people turning into homicidal maniacs. Ostojić, aware of its simplicity and lack of originality, tries to spicethings up by employing non-linear narrative structure. Hence, the opening of the film shows police and paramedics dealing with bloody aftermath of the events that would be seen in the film; the notice atthe film’s opening goes even further by explaining the meaning of the title and giving the clear indication where would certain character and the plot go. Despite the spoiler-like structure, apparent lack ofbudget and occasional use of cliches, F20 mostly works as a very exciting and well-made thriller that pays homage to 1980s slasher films at the very end. This is mostly due to good direction and young actors who are very good in playing theircharacters who are one-dimensional and shallow even after major plot twist. Unlike most ofCroatian filmmakers, Ostojić doesn’t bother audience with some “deep” content or social commentary; 90 minutesof running time doesn’t leave much time for that. However, there are opportunities for some levity, mostly in the form of rather unconventional policeman played by Alen Liverić. Ostojić, probably in an attempt to win parts of Croatian establishment, uses his film to advertise certain aspects of Croatian economy, which includefamous beach party clubs at Zrče, as well as Croatian video-game SCUM, which is being played by Filip. Some critics from the left, onthe other hand, might easily frown upon certain conservative aspects of F20, mostly seen in positive attitudes towards traditional family values and negative attitudes towards youthful hedonism and gaming subculture. However, despite all those flaws, F20 deserves recommendation as a film which is good, and not only interesting for being made outside Croatian mainstream.

RATING: 6/10

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REVIEW: Suburra (2015) August 9, 2018

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SUBURRA

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

There seems to be fewer and fewer proper gangster films in contemporary Hollywood. So, all those who want to seek new classics of that particular genre must seek them elsewhere. One of such, seemingly unexpected, candidate for new gangster film classic is Suburra, 2015 Italian film directed by Stefano Sollima. Based on the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, its title is inspired by eponymous neighbourhood of ancient Rome, infamous for as den of poverty, prostitution and crime. Inspiration for the title might be ancient, but the events that inspired the actual plot are quite contemporary – downfall of two most powerful men in modern day Rome. The plot begins in November 2011, when the unnamed Pope (which looks like real life Benedict XVI) is making decision to abdicate (which he would ultimately do in 2013), just as the government of unnamed and unseen prime minister (who could easily be real life Silvio Berlusconi) is about to lose majority in Italian Parliament. Among the members of Parliament is Filippo Malgradi (played by Pierfrancesco Favino), who seems more preoccupied with the law that would allow transformation of Roman port Ostia into luxurious Vegas-style resort. The project would benefit his sponsors and associates, among them Samurai (played by Claudio Amendola), former right-wing terrorist whose modest petrol station is just a front for a headquarters of well-connected and politically protected criminal empire. One night Malgradi allows himself to engage in some drug-fueled sex with underage prostitute, leading to a tragic accident and setting a series of apocalyptic events involving various factions of Roman organised crime, political establishment and Catholic Church.

Stefano Sollima, son of Sergio Sollima, director best known for gritty 1970s crime thrillers, has already created a reputation of his own by dabbling with the same genre, both in film and television, including hit series like Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah, the latter inspired by eponymous film. Suburra in many ways reflects the dark and depressive mood of 1970s Italy, during infamous “Years of Lead”, when Italians were confronted with realities of lines between organised crime, terrorism, politics and big business being completely and sometimes violently blurred. Sollima, however, adds a refreshing sense of style and great narrative skill to his film. The script very efficiently introduces a set of different characters – from the very top to the bottom of Roman society – and the plot lets them connect and interact throughout few days in convincing and realistic manner. Sollima is helped in his efforts by excellent cinematography of Paolo Carnera and very effective soundtrack by French electronic music band M83, creating an unique atmosphere which is noirish and attractive at the same time. Sollima’s skills are even better when he switches between styles, sometimes creating huge effective contrast between scenes of decadent beauty (like the orgy in the beginning) and those that feature uncompromisingly brutal and hyper-realistic violence (like the almost semi-documentary gunfight at the shopping mall). Suburra is also aided by a diverse and talented cast, which includes some international stars like Favino and Jean-Hugues Anglade (in brief role of corrupt French cardinal), and some lesser known actors (like Elio Germano in the role of a pimp, Giulia Gorietti as prostitute and Alessandro Borghi as brutal head of Ostia gangsters). Plot mostly avoids cliches, at least until the very end, which might seem as little bit too Hollywood-like or convenient, but it also brings some surprise by allowing seemingly weakest or the most paathetic characters to have the last word. While it is too early to tell whether Suburra would become one of the 2010s top gangster films, its success is undisputed and could be seen also in Netflix-produced prequel TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Vegetarian Cannibal (Ljudožder vegetarijanac, 2012) May 24, 2018

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VEGETARIAN CANNIBAL

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Immortal words of Lord Acton are more relevant to our modern world than we would like to think. And the examples that illustrate that point are more likely to be recognised in some seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life than in the distant sphere of high politics. People who are actually exercise absolute power in today’s world are physicians – the only profession that the rest of society allow to make decisions about someone’s life or death. Naturally, with such power, absolute and unchallenged by default, come many temptations for abuse. Vegetarian Cannibal, 2012 Croatian film directed by Branko Schmidt, deals with that subjects.

Film is based on the novel by Ivo Bolenović, former doctor who – we might (not) like to think – found inspiration in his old colleagues and co-workers. Protagonist, played by Rene Bitorajac, is Dr. Janko Babić, top gynecologist in one of Zagreb’s top clinics. At first glance, he looks like the dream son-in-law for any upper-middle-class mother – apart for successful career, he enjoys top physical shape, “hip” musical tastes and seemingly progressive social values embodied in his vegetarianism. His professional life, on the other hand, displays alarming levels of incompetence, with patients sometimes dying in surprisingly messy fashion, while many having their lives completely ruined. Dr. Babić, nevertheless, has apparently high opinion about himself, which allows him to treat patients with other disdain and often employ all kinds of abuses towards his subordinates. His real talent, however, is getting away with it. In this he is helped by corrupt policeman Ilija (played by Leon Lučev) who not only brings him protection and political connections, but also introduces him to the parallel world of seedy night clubs and dog fighting, controlled by Jedinko (played by Emir Hadžihafizbegović), shady but well-connected “businessman” who runs human trafficking/prostitution operation and needs Dr. Babić’s expert services with his female “merchandise”, which includes illegal abortions.

Based on the conventional genre parameters, Vegetarian Cannibal is a drama, but there were some critics that described it as a horror film. This is mostly due to some graphic scenes of surgery that included large amounts of gore, disturbing enough to make some audience sick during its 2012 Pula Film Festival premiere. Film is, however, most disturbing when its content is put in the context of everyday Croatian reality. Dr. Babić is not some kind of supernatural demon nor deranged axe-murderer; he is just a person who happens to be in position which makes his greed, incompetence and lack of morals more destructive than in more regular circumstances. Croatian viewers are disturbed when they realise that they might encounters plenty of such characters in hospital, courts and various offices. Even more disturbing is the realisation that many of them aren’t that different from Dr. Babić, and that many of them would yield to temptations under his circumstances. This is most evident in scenes during which the doctor, faced with official investigations and possible professional ruin, resorts to all kinds of tricks, lies, manipulations, stealing and falsifying records; in those scenes many Croatians might recognise themselves dealing with situations created by decades of harsh socio-economic realities in post-communist period and even find some sort of sympathy for the main character. Those scenes are also the closest when Vegetarian Cannibal comes to being a comedy, albet dark one.

Branko Schmidt, who recently built reputation as one of the best Croatian filmmakers, handles this film very capably. It is well-paced, well-edited and mercifully short. Film lacks compact conventional plot and functions more like a character study, with series of small vignettes illustrating Dr. Babić’s descent of depravity which, ironically, corresponds with his rise in social standing. Rene Bitorajac is excellent in the main role, while the rest of cast does very good job in small, but memorable roles. Not everything in Vegetarian Cannibal is perfect, though; some scenes seem over the top or a clumsy attempt to put the all blame for Croatian problems on uneducated and primitive post-communist nouveau riche from Bosnia. Some characters are undeveloped, mainly Dr. Babić’s loyal nurse played by Nataša Janjić. However, those willing to stomach this slice of unpleasant Croatian reality on the screen are going to be reward with one of best films recently made in this part of the world.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Comic Sans (2018) April 3, 2018

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Even small cinema industries like Croatian can expect occurrences when two recently made films are looking very much alike. The last such example could be found in Comic Sans, 2018 film directed by Nevio Marasović. Which just happens a lot of plot details with previous Croatian film, 2017 The Eight Commissioner directed by Ivan Salaj. Both films feature relatively young, upcoming and successful citizen of Zagreb who is, faced with unexpected crisis, forced to interrupt his good life in Croatian capital and spend some time on the remote Croatian island.

Protagonist of Comic Sans, played by Janko Popović Volarić, is Alan Despot, successful copywriter whose career allowed him lifestyle most Croatians could only dream of, which includes relatively luxurious apartment, expensive cocaine habit and almost any woman he could lay eyes on. But not everything is well in Alan’s life, and one of the reasons could be found in his former girlfriend Marina (played by Nataša Janjić). The end of the relationship affected Alan very badly, and, following disastrous post-break up encounter, Alan makes complete mess of himself at important corporate party. Because of that, he reluctantly accept proposal of his father, bohemian painter Bruno (played by Zlatko Burić) to accompany him to the island of Vis, where their old aunt has died and presumably left them some inheritance. Alan’s arrival on the place he barely remembers brings another unpleasant surprise in the form of Barbara (played by Inti Sraj), his former Slovenian girlfriend who is about to marry another man.

Comic Sans is far from the carbon copy of The Eight Comissioner. It actually looks more inspired by typical Hollywood “Oscar bait” films, especially those made with relatively small budget and featuring specific genre blend of comedy, drama and road film. Because of that *Comic Sans* in many ways looks formulaic with its set of charmingly quirky characters and trying to check all required marks. One of them is presence of Slovenian and Serb characters, necessary for film to have some sort of success in neighbouring countries and proving that the authors are far from regressive nationalist bigotry that appears to be on the rise in present-day Croatia. Another is obligatory presence of LGBT character (in rather unexpected scene) that should bring some progressive credential to the authors.

Yet all those efforts fail because Marasović chose rather unlikeable character for protagonist. Alan, portrayed as spoiled member of priviliged Croatian elite is simply too dislikable for audience to empathise with, and Janko Popović Volarić doesn’t do anything that could make viewers root for his character. Script, often with burdened with failed attempts of humour doesn’t help, and there is also an unpleasant impression of Comic Sans being unfinished. Whether it is due to Marasović’s failure to properly end his film or budget constrains is difficult to see. Overuse of a song by legendary Croatian singer Mišo Kovač is another problem, which could affect even those viewers who happens to be his fans. The only bright spot of this film is Zlatko Burić, Croatian actor working in Denmark, best known for the sinister role of drug lord Milo in Pusher trilogy. Burić, who brought few of his colleagues from Denmark to the set, obviously enjoyed playing completely different character of laid-back neo-hippy parent, who happens to show more responsibility and maturity compared to his seemingly more successful son. Burić almost succeeds in lifting Comic Sans above the mediocrity and we could only hope that he would appear in more Croatian films in the future.

RATING: 4/10

REVIEW: The Eight Commissioner (Osmi povjerenik, 2018) January 31, 2018

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

Good literature usually doesn’t translate into good films. Success in such endeavour is even less likely when it comes to Croatian films. Sometimes it is due to issues relating specifically to Croatian cinema or society and sometimes it could be result of certain contents that get lost in translation, no pun intended. One of such examples could be found in The Eight Commissioner, 2018 film directed by Ivan Salaj.

The film is based on eponymous 2003 novel by Renato Baretić, which was celebrated as one of the greatest if not the greatest work of Croatian 21st Century literature. The protagonist, played by Frano Mašković, is Siniša Mesjak, young, ambitious and succesful politician groomed to be next mayor of Zagreb. His career comes crashing down after being caught in nasty sex and drugs scandal and the prime minister, played by Stojan Matavulj, decides to send him as far from spotlight as possible. The best option happens to be Trećić, insulated island in Adriatic Sea whose inhabitants failed to set up local government according to Croatian laws. Mesjak is sent there as commissioner in order to run local affairs and organise first elections. Even before the arrival Mesjak sees there is something odd about the island where seven of his predecessors failed in such task. The island is not covered by cell signal and doesn’t have Internet connection, while the locals speak incomprehensible local dialect. Thankfully, Mesjak gets help in the form of Tonino Smeraldić, played by Borko Perić, kind-hearted epileptic youth who works as his translator, guide and assistant. The commissioner gradually discovers the island’s secrets and wins hearts and minds of islanders, while, in the process, he begins to get fond of the place.

Two elements that were responsible for original novel’s success – political satire and linguistics – probably wouldn’t work well among non-Croatian audiences. In Croatia, however, there would be some issues with the plot and characters not corresponding well with present-day economic and political realities (somewhat different than in 2003 when the original novel was written). For this combination of comedy and drama more inspiration could be found in Northern Exposure, mainly through its portrayal of insulated but charming little community and series of lovable quirky characters, both locals and outsiders. Unfortunately, if Salaj indeed had plans to turn his film into Croatian version of popular TV show, it didn’t work well.

The acting is, for the most part, good, especially in the case of Perić, who had shown great talent for comedy. Mašković, who is supposed to be the straight man of comedy duo, lacks chemistry and , furthermore, lacks even the basic charm to win viewers’ sympathies for his character of failed politician – arguably the most despised profession in today’s Croatia. The bigger, and more important issues, is in the film’s structure and pacing. Salaj tries to stuff too much material in his film, including some delightful experiments with magic realism that, among other things, make The Eight Commissioner the first Croatian film to feature Australian Aboriginal character. His efforts, however, mostly add to the epic length of 139 minutes – rather unusual for Croatian cinema – and many scenes, especially in the beginning, are painfully overlong or unecessary. It is likely that The Eight Commissioner would have worked much better if made as miniseries instead of feature film. While the film has some bright spots, they aren’t enough to compensate its flaws or prevent it from being one big missed opportunity.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: Agape (2017) December 12, 2017

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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

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

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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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Television Reviews.
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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.