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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

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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

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

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THE CONSTITUTION

(USTAV REPUBLIKE HRVATSKE)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 7/10

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

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LISTEN TO ME MARLON

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

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

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

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

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

RATING: 6/10

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

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A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

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

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

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

RATING: 7/10

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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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