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REVIEW: Foxcatcher (2014) February 29, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

REVIEW: The Cover Story (Naslovnica, 2014) January 16, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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THE COVER STORY

(NASLOVNICA)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

Croatians these days don’t go to cinema much. When they do, it is usually due to some big Hollywood blockbuster, some over-hyped populist comedy or childen’s film that serves as good excuse for a family to visit shopping malls. Documentaries are the least likely genre to get average viewer’s attention in such state of affair. Croatian filmmakers are even less likely to do so, and that is hardly surprising, considering what Croatian film industry used to deliver to big screens in last quarter of century. So, having Croatian documentary as part of regular cinema repertoire is preciously rare occurrence which requires something extraordinary to happen. This being Croatia, an extraordinary thing is more likely to be something extraordinarily bad that extraordinarily good. And the extraordinarily bad thing is exactly what happened to the makers of The Cover Story.

The author of the film is Silvana Menđušić, Croatian journalist and former television repoter, who, among other things, used to be an editor of Gloria, country’s most popular women’s magazine. In her directorial debut she chose a subject close to her work – modern media and their, at times symbiotic, at other times abusive, relationship with celebrities and the way trivial stories and gossip take public attention away from more important subjects like politics and economy. Menđušić had the idea to tell this story from the perspective of one of Croatian tabloids’ favourite subjects. Dolores Lambaša was 32-year old actress who became famous by appearing in Croatian soap operas; she maintained her celebrity status due to her personal life or series of stormy romances, mostly with her male colleagues who were also few decades her senior. In small and, in recent times increasingly conservative, country, such lifestyle was perfect tabloid fodder but also brought many risks of making celebrity’s life miserable. Menđušić tried to portray such trials and tribulations by portraying a year in life of Dolores Lambaša, who apparently saw the project as an opportunity to present the public with more private and more authentic version of herself.

That was the idea. The life had something different in store for filmmakers. On October 23rd 2013 Lambaša was traveling at Belgrade-Zagreb highway in the company of her collague Stojan Matavulj. The car drove off the road and overturned. Matavulj survived, Lambaša didn’t. This tragic event brought another, macabre dimension of celebrity to Lambaša, but also faced Menđušić with a dilemma – whether to abandon or continue her project. She chose the latter option and documentary premiered few months later, apparently in much shortened form than originally planned.

The basic structure of The Cover Story is framed by the scenes shot shortly after Lambaša’s death. They are set in the newsroom of Story magazine and show how various reporters and editors try to make special edition dedicated to Lambaša and browse through apparently very rich archive of photographs made through the years. The main (and much larger) segment consists of footage Menđušić made few months before the accident which feature Lambaša. Some of those scenes show her working on her latest soap, dealing with various media, but also give a glimpse of her very personal life, including her own literary attempts, musings about career and apparent lack of culinary skills. Those scenes also show her increasingly frustrated with the way she is seen by Croatian public – as a “gold digger” and talentless social climber instead of serious professional actress. She tries to address this situation by talking to her friends and colleagues; some of them express frustration with apparent lack of serious opportunity and inability to pay bills by working in various provincial theatres and doing similar gigs. Lambaša apparently tries to turn another page in her professional career by appearing at stage and, before starting this new adventure, asks some of her older and more experienced colleagues for advice. Probably the most intriguing such sequence features aforementioned Matavulj who looks clearly agitated and provides some common sense words accompanied with series of profanities.

The Cover Story, even with specific circumstances of production taken into account, is a deeply flawed and utterly disappointing film. It is obviously unfinished and appears to be rushed into production for the sake of exploiting tragedy while it is fresh in minds of Croatian public. Menđušić, either afraid of controversy, lawsuits or accusations of sensationalism, fails to provide any meaningful context to her material. The viewers, unless they happened to be in Croatia in 2013 and had some familiarity to Lambaša and details of tragically short life, would completely fail to understand what was film about. Perhaps some day, probably in not so near future, footage made for The Cover Story will become part of more coherent and more comprehensive work that deals with Croatian media and society in the first decades of 21st Century. Until that happens, The Cover Story will not serve any purpose. Except as a warning to those few unfortunate Croatian cinemagoers who like to give a chance to Croatian documentary filmmakers.

RATING: 2/10

REVIEW: The Spirit of ’45 (2013) October 20, 2015

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THE SPIRIT OF ’45

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2015

One of the more universal human traits is a tendency to watch the past through rose-tinted glasses. So, when someone mentions “old times” during conversation, it is more likely than not that those words would be accompanied with “good”. In the sphere of politics, this phenomenon was usually associated with the Right. That would make sense, because it is usually the old people who are more conservative or afraid of younger generations’ potentially dangerous and catastrophic ideas. There are, however, even some people on the Left who are also prone to nostalgia. One such example could be found in Michael Moore, whose Capitalism: A Love Story presented surprisingly sympathetic view of Eisenhower era – period until recently portrayed by American leftists as incarnation of everything wrong in American society. Even more telling example could be found in The Spirit of ’45, documentary by Ken Loach, British filmmaker known as one of the more outspoken and radical leftists among in today’s cinema.

In this film Loach deals with the events that arguably represent the greatest achievement of British Left in 20th Century. In Summer of 1945, only few months after the victorious end of WW2 in Europe, British voters rejected Conservative Party of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill. Instead they enthusiastically embraced Labour Party which had explicitly named socialism in their electoral platform. New government of Clement Attlee in next few years implemented series of far-reaching economic and social reforms which included mass nationalisation of railways, coal mines, electricity and other public services and also introduced new system of housing and National Health Service, thus creating modern welfare state.

Loach argues that two things made this monumental change possible. First was war, which, by its nature, mobilised British masses into huge collective action; its outcome – victory over Fascism – convinced most young people that everything was possible. The other, even more important reason for Labour landslide victory were memories of interwar period, marked by poverty, austerity and, most of all, broken promises for veterans of World War One and their families. New generation simply didn’t want return to pre-war status quo nor it would allow that their wartime sacrifices be in vain just as their fathers’ had been.

The Spirit of ’45 tells this story through combination of documentary footage of the period and interviews with some of the people who witnessed those events first hand. Both segments are made in black-in-white, probably for the sake of consistency. The interviewed people, who are in their 80s – nurses, miners, workers – through various anecdotes vividly describe unimaginable poverty and hopelessness of pre-war period, the way impoverished masses began to organise through trade unions and Labour Party and, finally, how their struggle finally bore fruit in electoral victory and seemingly small changes that made their lives exponentially better. Many of those stories are quite moving and film is quite convincing and making its point, even for viewers who are aware of radical leftist that Loach wears on his sleeve.

Loach is, on the other hand, less successful when it comes to explaining why post-war socialist utopia failed to materialise or why Labour failed to expand on their ambitious programs. Some of the interviewees point to reforms simply being in the form of state taking over companies from private owners, while leaving organisation, practices and even some of the old cadre intact. Loach hints that the changes simply weren’t radical enough, just like in Land and Freedom, when he blamed defeat of Republic in Spanish Civil War on its leaders’ reluctance to embrace people’s self-organisation and self-rule.

The last part of the film shows what happened three decades later, with arrival of new Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and how her government systematically rolled back all or most of post-war reforms. Public services were reprivatised, workers’ rights abolished, trade unions suppressed, sometimes with massive use of police power, like in the case of great mining strike. Loach also accuses modern Labour leadership of being too close to middle and ruling class, and forgetting their working class roots. This part of the film simply repeats what many leftist intellectuals and artists were telling about Thatcher and her years in past three decades and in many ways looks like Loach is preaching to the choir.

The biggest flaw of his film is, however, in what it failed to tell the audience. The Spirit of ’45 never bothered to show that Attlee’s Labour government lasted for only one term and that consequent Conservative governments actually accepted its policies, not attempting to change until Thatcher years. General consensus about post-war welfare state and Keynesian economy began to unravel only in 1970s. Loach doesn’t show economic and other problems that led British voters to turn to Thatcher in 1979 in a same way they had chosen Atlee in 1945. Because of that, The Spirit of ’45 looks incomplete or, to be more precise, it looks like a great story made small by all-to-familiar selective use of historical facts. It is still a good and at times powerful, documentary; as a history lesson, at least for those who don’t share Loach’s political views, not so much.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Magic City (Season 1, 2012) June 6, 2012

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English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka...

English: Olga Kurylenko during the new Ford Ka presentation in Paris – cropped version Polski: Olga Kurylenko na prezentacji nowego Forda Ka – wersja wykadrowana Français : Olga Kurylenko pendant la présentation du nouveau modèle Ford à Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MAGIC CITY

SEASON 1 (2012)

A Television Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2012

Thanks to expansion of cable, television series has replaced feature film as the prime form of screen drama. Cable companies, unburdened by most commercial or censorship considerations of network television, have created titles that allow much better storytelling and complex characters than those shown in theatres. Some of them reflect ambition of competing with great film sagas of the past. One of such examples is MAGIC CITY, period drama aired by Starz. Although usually compared with today’s TV shows like MAD MEN and BOARDWALK EMPIRE, its style and setting owes much more to Coppolaa’s THE GODFATHER.

The plot is set in 1959 Miami, place which is experiencing great tourism boom. Protagonist is Isaac “Ike” Evans (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), owner and founder of Miramar Playa, the most elite and glamorous of all Miami hotels. On surface, Ike’s empire looks like the perfect incarnation of American Dream; he is, however, more than aware of its fragility and dark origins, embodied in his former partner, violent Miami crime boss Ben Diamond (played by Danny Huston). Ike, as a relatively recent widower, also has to deal with family issues – new wife in form of Cuban showgirl Vera (played by Olga Kurylenko) and two grown but very different sons – reckless Stevie (played by Steven Strait) and serious and idealistic Danny (played by Christian Cooke). Evans must protect his empire by navigating through political and business intrigues in a city beset by ethnic and racial prejudice and threatened by emerging Cold War crisis from neighbouring Cuba.

Based on the first eight episodes, it could be argued that MAGIC CITY fails to reach the standards set by MAD MEN. The characters look terribly clichéd, and some of them, like ultra-violent gang boss played by over-the-top Huston, look like caricatures. Two of Evans’ boys only gradually transcend the simplicity of division between “good” and “bad” son. Plot develops in rather familiar trajectory, offering few surprises to any but the least experienced viewers. Violence, nudity and sex n MAGIC CITY looks less like an attempt to portray dark underbelly of shining and prosperous 1950s America and more like an obligatory content of today’s cable television.

Yet, despite those flaws, MAGIC CITY has plenty of charms. Morgan is very good in the role of imperfect and vulnerable protagonist who desperately tries to do the good thing. Great effort is invested in costumes, scenery and other period details; absence of “cool” and iconic soundtrack (probably caused by budget considerations) actually works very well, making the scenes more realistic and natural.  One of the best, or probably the best, part of the show is provided by the opening titles, which wouldn’t look out of place in best James Bond film. Although the season ends with obligatory and rather predictable cliffhanger, it also leaves much room for improvement.  It is less likely that the second season of MAGIC CITY could be as great disappointment as in the case of BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

RATING: 6/10

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) December 26, 2009

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Michael Moore in his latest documentary CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY claims that many previously unimaginable things can happen in mere two years. It is hard not to agree with this claim, especially when illustrated with the sight of ecstatic black supporters of Barack Obama during 2008 election night. However, that very same passage of time is one of the reasons why Michael Moore’s documentaries, including this one, tend to lose much of their power when viewed outside proper historic context.

In case of this film, that effect was helped by its broad subject and very specific circumstances that served as Moore’s inspiration – great financial crisis of 2008. When Moore started his film, he had good reasons to believe that those dramatic events would serve as perfect background for another strong indictment of American economic and political establishment. Current crisis, like few before it, exposed many previously hidden cracks in seemingly perfect structure of American Dream and gave plenty of arguments to all those who viewed it as nothing more than great illusion. Collapse of real estate markets through subprime mortgages and toxic assets made tens of millions lose their jobs and home, while the very people responsible for it – Wall Street bankers – actually became even richer through bailouts made by the taxes collected from their helpless victims.

This created huge, almost palpable, anger among American public, which Moore tries to use and channel towards the criticism of the system itself. For him, the great crisis of 2008 only proved what he had been telling for decades. American capitalism, instead of creating prosperity, destroys it; it makes the rich getting richer, the poor getting the poorer and the middle class – the basis of healthy society – is quickly disappearing. Just like in his previous documentaries, Moore tries to underline his message by segments showing real-life excesses of capitalist greed and its destructive aftermath; all that is brought in general context by combination of historic documentary footage, horror movie soundtrack, suggestive editing and Moore’s own narration.

Moore, to a certain degree, succeeds in describing the symptoms of American socio-economic ailment, but he utterly fails when he tries to make some kind of coherent narrative out of it. Both attempts to present causes and provide eventual solution to the problem reveal the usual limits of any populism, mainly in the attempts to give simplistic and unconvincing answers to serious and complex question. Apart from using his reliable muse – George W. Bush – as a symbol of everything rotten in USA, Moore points to his ideological predecessor Ronald Reagan and his presidency as the very moment when things started to go bad. Before that, Moore argues, America wasn’t so bad and through  his childhood recollection of 1950s and 1960s Michigan he paints near idyllic picture of affluent blue collar Catholics that produce quality cars, strong unions that protect their middle class status and high taxes that keep rich capitalists in check, channeling their wealth towards useful things instead of their excesses. How that utopian idyll – during which, Moore, to his credit, acknowledges that things weren’t that great for blacks or in Vietnam – allowed itself to degenerate into present sad state of affairs, is not convincingly explained.

Moore seems even less coherent and honest when he tries to point towards the eventual way out of this economic mess. For him capitalism is evil and he even recruits Catholic priests to express such views. So, some kind of alternative must be found. At times he suggest that the anger created by crisis won’t be controlled, and that the people would start fighting back against rich capitalists until they establish new system. What kind of system, Moore isn’t so sure. At one time, he points to young Americans embracing socialism, which, due to overuse by right-wing propaganda, ceased to be four letter word in American political discourse. However, when the time comes for him to say what is alternative to capitalism, he goes for the safer and easier option and says “democracy”.

And this option is embodied in the main political consequences of America’s economic calamities – election of Barack Obama. Moore, despite attacking some Democratic politicans in this film, tries very hard to absolve the new president of any eventual wrongdoing, and apparently refuses to consider any notion of Obama’s charismatic presence not being matched by his actual aims or abilities. American system is unjust, rotten and evil; yet, at the same time it is not because it allowed someone good like Obama to become its essential part. Moore apparently can’t make his mind which of two competing visions of America is the right one. Because of that, viewers are left with anger and without any hope for change. Even the sense of humour appears to failed Moore. CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, instead of being important document of our times, looks like series of  unconvincing sermons and some old tricks (like ambushing corporate officials for impromptu interviews and “citizen’s arrests”) that look more pathetic with each new film.

Film looks even more disappointing at the end of 2009, with political realities contradicting Moore’s predictions – like the the populist anger taking right-wing instead of left-wing forms. Perhaps Moore can create satisfactory films only in very specific set of circumstances that aren’t likely to be repeated – like Bush presidency, for example. Then again, a lot can happen in two years.  Moore can find another muse, resulting in films much better than this one.

RATING: 3/10

District 9 (2009) November 29, 2009

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

The author of this review had misfortune of having to live in time and place characterised by wanton display of man’s inhumanity to man. Needless to say, much of that inhumanity was fuelled by differences in culture, religion, political persuasion and ethnicity – usually not noticeable or understood by outside observers. To make things even more tragic, all that occurred in place previously deemed immunised by the decades of “benevolent”, “civilised” and “enlightened” rule, and perpetrators, rather than uneducated primitive troglodytes,  having “refined” and “humanitarian” upbringing. Those experiences helped me to appreciate political, social and other allegories in DISTRICT 9, 2009 South African science fiction film directed by Neill Blomkamp.

The plot of the film, based on Blompkamp’s 2005 short ALIVE IN JOBURG, is set in alternate fictious universe where Earth received an alien visit in 1980s. The visit occurred in form of huge spaceship which ended “parked” in sky above Johannesburg. Government expedition didn’t discover any crew, and the only cargo was in form of million apparently malnourished crustacean-like aliens, physical labourers. Those aliens, nicknamed Prawns, were brought to the ground and settled into specially designed part of Johannesburg known as District 9. The interaction between newcomers and old inhabitants of the city wasn’t very fortunate – few violent incidents led to Prawns being segregated, forced to live in ghetto and, like any other underprivileged minority, indulging in vicious cycle of poverty, violence, petty crime and all kinds of social pathology.

Twenty years after arrival, multinational corporation MNU – which runs District 9 – is going to relocate Prawns to another, “safer” and more convenient location far away from the city. MNU’s official Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley) is brought from desk duty to field in order to supervise the operation. His inexperience and incompetence leads to his infection with mysterious alien fluid which apparently begins to alter his DNA. Wikus suddenly becomes very valuable to his employers who would like to use him in guinea pig in some sinister experiments. Wikus, who is rapidly turning into alien, escapes from secret laboratory and the only shelter happens to be District 9. There he discovers that one of his alien “clients” Christopher (voice by Jason Cope) spent twenty years trying to extract fluid that would restart the spaceship and rescue his brethren from captivity. Wikus and Christopher forge an alliance, having to evade not only MNU’s mercenary thugs, but also about Nigerian gangsters who built their own underworld empire in District 9.

Genre connoisseurs would probably notice similarity of this film’s main premise with the main premise of 1988 Hollywood film ALIEN NATION. Those two films are, however, very different. Unlike the previous film – made in smug, self-satisfied Reagan’s America at the eve of Cold War triumph – DISTRICT 9 is clearly influenced not only by South Africa’s troubled apartheid past, but also shows author’s displeasure with the chasm between noble multi-cultural ideals of post-apartheid country and prosaic, unpleasant realities of continuing racial prejudice and ethnic strife. World today is much scarier and much more cynical place, and what might begin as noble and humanitarian endeavour, like “helping oppressed people” or “bringing democracy”, might end as brutal orgy of violence and exploitation. Blomkamp sees what a man can do to his own kind and logically concludes that aliens won’t fare any better.

This message of DISTRICT 9 is so effective because of Blomkamp’s realistic approach. Realism is not only in superb special effects, but also in a way he combines them with real life shanty towns of Johannesburg. Another addition to realism is clever use of fake documentary, which not only serves as an excellent plot framing device but also helps audience to suspend their disbelief. The script also – at least for the most part – avoids the usual stereotypes. Aliens, despite their insect-like appearances, aren’t monsters, but they aren’t celestial angelic beings either. Even Christopher and his son – the most human-like and most sympathetic alien characters – aren’t without flaws. Same multi-dimensional characterisation could be found in its human protagonist, who discovers his inner humanity only when he is deprived of its outward characteristics. South African actor Sharlto Copley proves his talent by tying the audience’s sympathies towards entire course of his character’s transformation.

Blomkamp’s filmmaking talent, interesting basic idea, pessimistic and unflattering portrayal of humanity – all that makes DISTRICT 9 one of the more interesting and thought-provoking science fiction films of our time. However, it is far from being a genre classic. Blomkamp probably got overwhelmed with the desire to make film as “big” as its idea; that “bigness” is actually capitulation to genre conventions. In the second half DISTRICT 9 loses much of its edge; what began as dark comedy turns in full-blown “serious” science fiction film with clichés like escape from secret labs and bloody combat including robots. By the time film ends, most of the audience could feel unpleasant not only because they saw negative portrayal of humanity, but also because DISTRICT 9 became unsatisfactory combination of “brainless” genre film and clever political allegory. However, despite this minor disappointment, DISTRICT 9 deserves recommendation as one of the most interesting films of our times.

RATING: 7/10

Public Enemies (2009) November 29, 2009

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A Movie Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Filmmakers can be aware that certain circumstances beyond their control can conspire in a way that affects the general perception of their work. One of such irresistible forces manifested itself last year when global markets collapsed and everyone started talking about greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. That period of history suddenly became one of the most talked about and films with plots set in it were bound to receive additional publicity, as well as increased scrutiny by those who like to compare cold historic data with its contemporary artistic interpretation. PUBLIC ENEMIES, 2009 crime biopic directed by Michael Mann, was the best example of those phenomena.

The film, written by Mann, Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman, is based on Bryan Burough’s non-fiction book PUBLIC ENEMIES: AMERICA’S GREATEST CRIME WAVE AND THE BIRTH OF FBI, 1933-34. The book dealt with series of dramatic events that gripped imagination of American public during the first two years of Roosevelt’s administration, namely the exploits of the few professional criminals who would later become staple of a popular culture, as well as lawmen who tried to put violent end to their careers. This short episode of American history proved to be treasure chest for Hollywood filmmakers; almost every major character in that drama received an homage in the form of a separate biopic. Michael Mann’s film, however, concentrated almost exclusively on the best known of them all – John Dillinger.

Plot begins in 1933 when Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp), already hardened and experienced criminal, liberates his friends from prison in a daring and violent raid. His newly created gang then begins series of spectacular bank robberies, with local and state authorities unable to stop them because of gang’s clever use of fast automobiles and escapes across state lines. This crime spree is seen as an opportunity by J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup), young and ambitious director of US Bureau of Investigation who dreams about turning his underfunded and insignificant federal agency into America’s true national police force. His favourite and equally ambitious agent Melvyn Purvis (played by Christian Bale) is to lead the manhunt whose prime target happens to be Dillinger. Purvis and his men, mostly young and inexperienced college graduates, are at first outmatched, outwitted and outgunned by street-smart gangsters. While Dillinger enjoys luxurious lifestyle, romance with Chicago hat check girl Billie Frechete (played by Marion Cotillard) and reputation of a folk hero among impoverished Depression-era masses, Purvis must abandon his “scientific” methods of law enforcement. Instead he relies on old-fashioned methods like physical torture and informants from criminal underworld, as well as more experienced lawmen like former Texas Ranger Charles Winstead (played by Stephen Lang).

On paper, Michael Mann looked like ideal choice to cover Dillinger saga. He had built his reputation on manneristic combinations of intense drama and even more intense action and used to portray almost epic-like struggles between strong characters on the both sides of law. Therefore, PUBLIC ENEMIES looked like a film tailor-made for Mann, with plenty of opportunity to make great or, at least, a very good film.

Sadly, most of those opportunities were missed, although Mann did his homework in strictly technical sense. Action scenes are directed very competently, and great effort was invested in portraying fascinating saga of Dillinger as realistically as possible. Mann used digital video, clothes, weapons, vehicles and other props and details clearly belong to 1930s. Even the locations used to portray some of the most legendary shootouts are authentic. However, despite all this, PUBLIC ENEMIES is looking false and the viewer is having impression of watching routine low-budget television biopic instead of genuine Hollywood epic.

History buffs would probably point out that Mann’s realistic style only underlines his liberal – to put it mildly – and so Hollywood-like attitude towards historic accuracy. Chronology of the events of Dillinger saga and Hoover’s anti-crime campaign is completely wrong, and many of the characters are either composites or significantly different from their real-life equivalents. Defenders of Mann could use the usual argument of accurate portrayal real life – even in case of such larger-than-life characters like Dillinger – not being attractive for the audience. Furthermore, Burroughs’ book with its epic scope simply couldn’t be realistically adapted in feature film format. Mann was, therefore, forced to cut corners.

However, even those viewers who couldn’t care less about historical accuracy might notice some major flaws in PUBLIC ENEMIES. The most obvious is casting. Johnny Depp was great as larger-than-life outlaw in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series. That flair and panache is visibly absent in his portrayal of Dillinger. For most of the film he is cold and efficient criminal with almost unnatural abilities to escape law enforcement; he looks more like a vampire or similar gothic character rather than ordinary average American with whom so many impoverished inhabitants of Depression-era America could sympathise. Another bad casting decision is Marion Cotillard, whose presence could be explained only by her latest Oscar and not too justified requirement to have actress who speaks English with thick French accent. There is hardly any chemistry between Depp and Cotillard and their characters’ tragic romance looks only like a lame attempt to give some kind of emotional content to otherwise cold and soulless portrayal of history.

There doesn’t seem to be any purpose for PUBLIC ENEMIES apart from giving “new” and “realistic” treatment to the story already told by Hollywood. There are, however, some hints of this film being allegory of our times. Hoover’s “War on Crime” is hard to disassociate with Bush’s “War on Terror”; scenes of citizens being wiretapped or criminal suspects being brutally tortured could be viewed 1930s equivalent of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, just as Dillinger and his gangsters could be viewed as 1930s equivalent of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda – convenient boogeymen that justified suspension of civil liberties and all-powerful government Leviathan. Mann, on the other hand, missed the opportunity to portray the political background behind Hoover’s campaign, as well as the increasing rivalry and rift between director of FBI and its top agent. There are very few scenes with Crudup who – by portraying politician – appears to be more alive and realistic than Bale as robot-like Purvis. Michael Mann’s veteran Stephen Lang, on the other hand, is much more effective as quiet but efficient FBI agent with Wild West experience.

On the other hand, Mann missed opportunity to make parallels between Great Depression and its contemporary equivalent. World of 1930s is, on the surface, portrayed accurately, yet its main feature – poverty and hopelessness created by Depression – is nowhere to be seen. The audience is left wondering where is “public” that was supposed to be thrilled and scared by Dillinger, and why he was its “enemy” in the first place. More than three decades ago John Milius answered some of those questions in DILLINGER, less ambitious but more effective and memorable Hollywood tale about greatest Depression-era criminal. Michael Mann, just like in ALI, again showed that he doesn’t handle biopics that well.

RATING: 4/10

 

Fighting (2009) November 20, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

Hard economic times have struck today’s world, and even the Hollywood is forced to acknowledge those realities. At least, this is one of the impressions given by the opening scenes of FIGHTING, 2009 drama directed by Dito Montiel.

Young protagonist Shawn MacArthur (played by Channing Tatum), who came to New York in order to pursue American dream, is forced to make ends meet by selling cheap counterfeit merchadise on the street. This kind of activity brings many risks and in one of such incidents MacArthur is forced to display his fighting abilities. This leaves good impression on Harvey Borden (played by Terrence Howard), quiet street hustler who tries to make a name as a street fight promoter. He approaches young man and becomes his manager, trying to use his talents in the sleazy world of professional bare-knuckles street fighting. MacArthur gradually make his name and some money, but soon he has to confront some ghosts of his own pre-New York past.

While the opening scenes of the film suggest something like an honest portrayal of social realities of contemporary New York, FIGHTING soon reveals itself to be nothing more than formulaic and not particularly formulaic sports drama. Dito Montiel, former punk rocker with a troubled street past, was supposed to give this film, which purports to expose “dark underbelly” of New York and its illegal fighting scene, some “street credibility”. His talents, however, couldn’t hide the series of cliches, including the bet scheme subplot and romance that appear to be obligatory for many films of the same genre. Audience also might have some trouble suspending their disbelief, since the protagonist happens to be played by an actor who looks more like a fashion model than tough street fighter.

Ironically, casting appears to be the only thing that makes this film watchable. Terrence Howard, one of the best character actors of contemporary Hollywood, again shows great skill by making his character of soft-spoken, quiet and dignified street hustler much more impressive than the rest of film.  Another hidden gem is Altagracia Guzman who gives great does of humanity to the role of overprotective grandmother of protagonist’s love interest Zulay (played by Colombian actress Zulay Henao). Their efforts, however, can’t compensate for the increasingly annoying defficiens of overcliched and utterly predictable script which makes FIGHTING look much longer than its 93 minutes of running time. Although watchable, this film has already lost its fight against descent into cinema oblivion.

RATING: 3/10