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Sicario (2015)
the borders of the country of law, 30 January 2016

If you really need to put genre tags or labels on movies, 'Sicario' would belong to the 'psychological thriller', 'violent drug action', 'Mexican border' categories. While each of these naming would have its dose of justification, 'Sicario' succeeds to be more than these, actually it is one of the more interesting films in a pre-Oscar Awards season that does not make me too enthusiastic.

The film directed by the Quebecois Denis Villeneuve starts and develops for a while on the lines of a violent well-made and fast-paced thriller about American drug enforcement agencies fighting a bloody war against the smuggling Mafia on the two sides of the Mexican-American border. As the story advances we realize that there is much more than a war of gangs going on, and the questions that are asked are not only about the number of victims or arrests, or the amount of drugs that is confiscated or makes its way to the 'customers' but about the balance between law and efficiency, the price of human life and the tragedy of families who are collateral victims of the violence.

The quality of the film is built of the combination between the sure hand of the director, the music of Jóhann Jóhannsson and the splendid acting of Benicio Del Toro (in a role that fits him as a glove) and Emily Blunt who grows in the viewer eyes from a don-Quixotesque policewoman one can see only in movies to a key character for the whole story and a real person who carries on her shoulder the huge dilemmas of deciding between good and bad, between the rule of law and the need to win the war on crime by any means.

If you like any of the genres I listed at the start, you will not be disappointed by this film. If you are not the fan of any you still can enjoy this powerful drama and professionally made film, which exceeds the borders of the genres.

Anomalisa (2015)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
smart, sad, and apparently simple, 15 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I expect something different, something smart, something deep, each time I am seeing a film written or (lately) directed by Charlie Kaufman. Many of his films are not one-time experiences, the second or later viewing brings new understanding and discovers of new layers under the one of the original story which is also not obvious or readable from the first time. This may be the case also with Anomalisa, which is also the reason that I am cautious in sharing my disappointment with this latest film of Kaufman, which seems to me to be the more obvious and less sophisticated work that he has made or written in the last two decades.

The story is apparently simple. Michael Stone is a famous author of one of those successful 'How To ...' business books. He comes for one night in one of these mid-America metropolis that look so much one as the other, he checks into one of these hotels that that look so much one as the other, calls one an ex-girlfriend who is one of those women that look so much one as the other. We soon realize that all the persons he talks with have the same voice, that all women have a very look-alike appearance. Actually, if we pay attention and we know some psychology, Michael may suffer of the Fregoli delusion, a syndrome in which patients believe that other people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. And the name of the hotel he checked-in is Hotel Fregoli! Or maybe the psychological condition is just a metaphor for broader human estrangement.

All these until he meets Lisa. Or Anomaly-Lisa. Or Anomalisa. The woman who may be the Different One.

I will not continue telling more in order to avoid spoilers, but rather refer on a few details to film-making. Stop-motion, the animation method used by Duke Johnson, and Charlie Kaufman provides a very special look to the film and shifts much of the expression and emotion to the modeled characters, sets, and lighting. All work well together, the faces seem like masks in a theater that reflects the reality but is also somehow different, and so is the surrounding combination of familiar and strange. We are in kind of a dream. yet the situation, characters, suffering is all well-known and very human.

The second part of the story and its outcome, however, quite disappointed me.I had the feeling that too many smart ideas were invested in too small a story. But, as I said, it's a film by Charlie Kaufman, and I may have not gotten it all.

Steve Jobs (2015)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Jobs as father, 11 January 2016

The second film in the mini-festival of Steve Jobs movies that I enjoyed last Friday was also the better one. Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire may have hit gold again, as his Steve Jobs started to collect awards at the Golden Globe ceremony last night, and Michael Fassbender became lead contender to the magic statuette to be awarded for Best Actor on February 28. What is the secret?

The film based on a script by Aaron Sorkin (who also brought to screen the character of Facebook's Zuckerberg) is very different from the other biopic ('Jobs') or from the documentaries dedicated to the man and the entrepreneur who was Jobs. It catches three half-hours prior to three major announcements in the career of Jobs, but does not deal almost at all with the technicalities - they deal with the atmosphere (ordered chaos we can call it), with the encounters of Jobs with people who are close to him - his technical partner Wozniak, his business partner John Sculley, and especially his estrange wife and his daughter, whom initially he refused to recognize in one of these attitudes who built his negative perception as a father and human in the eyes of the public. The situations repeat and escalate, but the relationship with his daughter provide the missing human dimension. We may not understand more of the hi-tech genius of Jobs, but we gain more understanding about the man and father he was.

Besides the smart script, acting is the second winning card that makes 'Steve Jobs' the better Jobs film. Michael Fassbender avoids replicating the physical characteristics of Steve Jobs and focuses on his personal life and the relations with his partners and close ones (as close as he let them be). Kate Winslet builds the character of Joanna Hoffman who was the right-hand of Jobs but gets a much more extended role than she played in reality. You may not recognize her at first sight, as this role is pretty far from her usual gallery. A Globe is hers already, other awards may follow.

By focusing on a specific segment of Jobs' personality this movie succeeded to give a better view of the whole. Yet, it's only one facet of a huge personality that remains from many other points of view an enigma, and maybe character for more movies.

Jobs (2013)
what would have Jobs thought?, 10 January 2016

The entrepreneur is one of the incarnation of the new American Hero in movies, and it is not surprising that the people who made the Personal Computer and the Internet part of the basic fabric of our lives, and turned Silicon Valley in the center of the technological Universe are getting more and more attention from the Southern neighbors in Hollywood. Steve Jobs has his turn as one of these heroes, his premature death in 2011 made of his character an easier to deal with. Easier because he is no longer here to sue anybody, and also because his malady and than death gave an implicit tragic substance to a life of full of achievements but also of personal controversies. As I have seen in one weekend days both feature films dedicated lately to his biography I have the feeling that none of them would have been possible if Jobs had been still with us.

At first sight 'Jobs' directed by Joshua Michael Stern would be the most conventional of the two biographical movies. It starts with one epic moment of success (the launching of iPod which changed forever the music industry) to go back in time to the late 60s when the young Jobs was searching his ways in life among music, India, some drugs, girls. He was different, he was thinking a creative way, but we never get a real glimpse of his technology or design insights. The script written by Matt Whiteley seems rather to emphasize his astonishing business skills, doubled by recognition of talent that can be used in other people, and a set of no-prisoners tools which guided him in his career as well in his personal life. The Steve Jobs in this 'Jobs' is almost a persona we are invited to hate.

What keeps him away from the ugly negative characters space is the acting of Ashton Kutcher. I have read so many bad things about him that his performance in 'Jobs' comes as a real surprise. He succeeds not only to recover many of the physical characteristics of the character, but also gave substance and charm to many of the moments of the film, especially in the first part that deals with the early years. Do we come closer to understanding the real Steve Jobs? I do not think so, but I believe that the problem is in the script and not in the acting, which did not walk the extra mile of trying to discover and explain the motivation of the man and the secrets of his extraordinary skills. Yet, while dealing only with the external strata, the film is quite successful in my opinion in retracing the atmosphere of a time where the flower power revolution resulted not only in fabulous music but also in a wave of inventiveness which changed the world in a different place than intended.

Would Steve Jobs have liked this film? I doubt it, and not only because he personally comes out as the rather jerky character in the story. He may also have said - 'I have already seen this', fired the team and go deal with the next thing. That was Steve Jobs.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
love in times of war, 30 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The life and death of Irène Némirovsky and the fate of the cycle of novels that inspired 'Suite francaise' could be the subject of a thrilling movie, a different one. Born in 1903 in an Ukrainian Jewish family, she took refuge to France after the First World War with her family flying the Russian revolution, but was never granted French citizenship. Converting to Catholicism and writing French nationalistic (some consider these anti-Semitic) fiction did not spare her the fate of the majority of the French Jews - deportation to the concentration camps and death (at Auschwitz). 'Suite francaise' was planned to be a five volumes saga about the years of war, written as the events happened. Irene Nemirovsky wrote only two of them before being deported, the manuscript was unread for more than half of a century until discovered by her daughter and published as what has become a historical novel about the years of the war.

I did not read (yet) the books, but from the synopsis on Wikipedia I understand that the script departs quite afar from the original. The (spectacular) introduction scenes may not be in the book but they are useful to understand the context and the historical moment. Similarly, the final seems to be a Hollywood patch, not necessarily adding anything. The core of the film resides in the building love story between the young French woman whose husband is a prisoner of war and the German officer who is allocated to live in their house. It's a complex relationship, and the merit of the script is that it avoids the black-white, bad-good nuances and moral judgments leaving room for the feelings and emotions. There is also a strong social content, both in the main story (are love or even co-existence allowed between occupier and occupied? here is a question valid also in other times and places) and in the secondary story of the mayor-viscount who pays with his life the price of collaboration. Ambiguity is however the tone that works here best.

One of the hard obstacles for viewers of 'Suite francaise' is the fact that the film is American and spoken in English. I do not know whom I should ask, but I would certainly loved to see a French version. Maybe it's still easier for the non-French to deal with the theme of 'la collaboration'? Beautiful and fragile Michelle Williams and tormented and introspective Matthias Schoenaerts do both good acting jobs in the main roles, but best of all is Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law who may make you change your mind about the moral fabric of the French high classes. Saul Dibb is only at his third long feature film and directs with kind of an academic touch not exactly to my taste, but there are many good reasons to go and see this film.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
techno-survival, 29 December 2015

I expect something special when I go to a film by Ridley Scott . In his long and remarkable career Scott approached many genres from space horror to historical sagas, from road movies to gangster comedies and succeeded exceptionally well in many of these. The secret is of course professionalism, the talent to tell a story, and to build (sometimes) greater-than-life characters which are credible in extreme situations. He tried to do the same with 'The Martian' but in my opinion he did not succeed too much.

Maybe the problem lies in trying to build too much on the combination of two successful genres - the sole survivor story and the big space drama. The second genre was pretty successful in the previous two Academy Awards seasons (with 'Gravity' and 'Interstellar') and Scott and his producers may aim for a similar fate for 'The Martian' - the saga of an astronaut believed dead and left behind on Mars, to be rescued in an extreme action of inter-planetary dimension. We'll see if he succeeds, but on my scale he rather failed.

The sign of such a film not really succeeding is when the day or the days after you remember more the technical aspects. This exactly happens to me with this film. Planting potatoes on Martian soil and sealing a space vehicle with adhesive tape has some fun of itself, but it dangerously competes with the human dimension of the story, with the fight of the lonely astronaut to overcome the elements and his own despair. Matt Damon is a fine action movies lead actor but he's no Tom Hanks (not yet, at least) and his role here may not get him even an award nomination. This techno-survival story leans too much on the technology side.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Spielberg takes on the Cold War, 23 December 2015

So after sharks, dynos, extra-terrestrials, WWII, Holocaust, Olympics terrorism, future, Lincoln and handful of other themes, it's the turn of the Cold War to be processed, re-created and brought to screen in the vision of Steven Spielberg. 'Bridge of Spies' inspired by the historical character of James B. Donovan, defender of the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and then main negotiator in the spies exchange that set him free for the US pilot Gary Powers downed while in a mission over the USSR, is also the first movie in the political thriller genre directed by Spielberg.

Had the script of this film been written by Ken Follett or the late Robert Ludlum, I would probably have accepted much easier the outcome. However, when brothers Coen are two of the three authors of the script I would have expected more than a smooth narrative structure and well written dialogs (in many moments). There is almost nothing of the sparks or daring insolence of many of the scripts in the films directed by the two. The story is roughly divided into two parts, and the tentative to synchronize the two threads (Abel's story and Powers' story) fail not only because they were separated in time by five years but also because it is only the first that has interesting material and consistency. The lawyer who does the right thing defending the rights of a criminal who presumably caused harm to his own country in time of what some perceived as war is too gross an analogy to the contemporary fight against terror viewed from a liberal point of view. The second part is more like the classical East Berlin spy stories, but here again the schematic description of East Berlin and of the Eastern German policemen and even officials lacks authenticity and complexity.

We are left with enjoying two formidable performances by Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan and especially by Mark Rylance and Rudolf Abel. I am looking forward to the nominations for the Academy Awards and I hope that Rylance will get at least an Actor in a Supporting Role nomination. His act here is my favorite from all 2015 movies I have seen until now. On the other hand the political messages that this film tries to convey are much too obvious. Yes, they are important, but important messages are not well served when the style gets that close to propaganda. Actually the genre this film is closer than other is the Western. One lonely hero fights for justice against the whole world and wins against all odds. It's just that the century is the 20th and the hero is not using his gun, but is a lawyer. Problem is that the analogy does not work very well in this recent film of Spielberg.

5 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
I met the Force (again), 21 December 2015

Am I the only one believing that the peak of the career of J.J. Abrams as director and producer was (up to now at least) 'Lost' - the captivating series which dominated the TV screens in the second half of the previous decade? A couple of things are obvious beyond any doubt. Abrams is a passionate of science-fiction, and he has Gargantuan ambitions as he tries to make his mark on many of the major brands of the genre (and some of its action spins) from the MI series, then in Star Trek ( with the 2013 Star Trek Into Darkness) and now with the film that starts the last series in the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies - Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He did not convince me yet on the big screen that he is the same original thrilling creator that made of 'Lost' the series that made people change their weekly schedules even in the era of Internet availability of everything, but he certainly succeeded commercially and this film is 'in danger' of becoming the best cash machine in the history of the movies industry, displacing another film which was not IMO a masterpiece either - James Cameron's 'Avatar'.

It's fun to watch the reactions as well. The enthusiastic fans who rushed to see the movie in the first hours after its premiere or in the first weekend the latest granted it a 8.8 average grade on IMDb. It will go down and I doubt that it will stay in the Top 250 (it's now in the 22nd place). Some other mourn the new series and its success and prompt it as an example of the decay of the 7th art into an industry of mass consumption. The reality is IMO someplace in the middle. 'Star Wars' belongs before all to the fairy tales cycle. Even the science-fiction and action labels apply only second, and you can enjoy them fully as a viewer only if you accept the fact that you are watching a film with emperors and princesses, with monsters and talking toys and animals who happily live, fight, love and die together. Seen from this perspective 'The Force Awakens' is a continuation of the series created by George Lucas , re-using and expanding its mythology, bringing back characters that we knew at younger ages, quoting from the precedent series. Its line of action is not very original and different from the one in the other series, but the demarcation between good and bad is the same, with the ambiguity of the two facets of the Force still being the principal philosophical line along which all the laser swords are fought and space-ships chase are run. As this is the first series in more than two decades that advances in time we are introduced to the new generation of Star Warriors which I guess will become dominant and will fight the final battles in the two series that are expected to premiere in 2017 and 2019.

J.J. Abrams has done a more than decent work, quite respectful towards the original series, especially the first films. There are no spectacular innovations in this film, the graphics and the visual feeling is very similar to the first movies. Some of the characters return and seeing again Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is a true delight filled with melancholia. The new generation offers some interesting acting proposals, with Daisy Ridley on the side of Good as a Hunger Games-like young lead (who I suspect has some royal blood - to be discovered in the coming installments, the original ones had a similar secret), and Adam Driver playing the lead role on the dark side. There is a new robot in town as well, his name is BB-8, and an interesting future waits for him as for his human colleagues. Even R2-D2 makes a come back, and so does the Furry One. The 'new blood' and the action pace that can satisfy even fans of 'Fast and Furious' are good reasons to like this film. Again, however, the entry condition is to accept the convention. If you do not like the genre, it's not 'The Force Awakens' that will convince you to become a fan.

Faust (2011/III)
Another Faust, 20 December 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I came to know quite late the works of the Russian director Alexander Sokurov, and I cannot say I know them well today either. The first one I have seen was Russian Ark, a splendid exercise in virtuosity, composition and visual beauty, but lacking almost completely any epic structure. Next came the 3rd film in his tetralogy about men and power, The Sun which had emperor Hirohito in his days of defeat at the end of WWII as main hero. Now I have seen the 4th film in the series, a very different, special and personal version of the story of Faust. I am yet to see the first two films in the same series which deal with the portraits of Hitler and Lenin, as well as other of his works that drew the attention of audiences and critics like 'Father and Son'. So the impressions here are to be seen as partial notes on my route of better knowing one of the major artists in modern cinema. I am yet to form a dependency for his work or to declare admiration for the director, but I may get there some day.

On many respects this 'Faust' is close to 'Russian Ark'. It is one of the most beautiful and complex pieces of visual art that I have seen lately and I cannot skip mentioning here in this context the name of the director of photography Bruno Delbonnel author of such other wonderfully filmed works like 'Amélie' or 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince'. Sokurov creates a world of his own with hundred of characters, costumes, and behaviors studied and acted to the smallest detail. The world is a synthesis not only of the German world at the time Goethe wrote the original story but of all that was Europe from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It can happen and it actually happens at any of the moments in that period.

Sokurov takes inspiration from the work of Goethe but does not follow it closely. This film is certainly not Goethe's Faust, it is at best 'inspired' by it. It is Sokurov's Faust before all - a work about a man, a scientist and a philosopher searching for the sense of life, mired by an incarnation of the Devil into knowing the savage real world and the wild people who populate it, choosing beauty in the person of a beautiful girl, selling the soul he does not believe it exists in order to spend a night with her, and eventually revolting against the payment he signed for. A more human Faust than in most of the other versions we know.

If this Faust was only a video art work I would have completely fell under its spell. It does have however a narrative dimension, and this is where I found the pace and the style unnecessarily complicated, and the usage of dialog too heavy to follow easily and to be a pleasant experience for the viewers. Acting on the other hand is exquisite - Johannes Zeiler is a Faust torn between the desire to conquer the universe by understanding its mechanics and the passion that burns up his human shell, Russian actor Anton Adasinsky is amazing as the ugly sub-human Moneylender who opens the door to Faust's meeting with the ugliness of the world, and the contrasting Isolda Dychauk as a young botticellian Margarete who descends directly from Vermeer's paintings. This is one of these movies where the attention is drawn at any moment by visuals, and when it ends you tell yourself that you must have missed many of the hidden and deeper ideas. This may be true, but not completely, as Sokurov seems to be one of those directors who love to keep some of the details explained for himself only, assuming that he knows them at all.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A 'Tale' That Cannot Raise Above the Words, 29 November 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When it comes to films inspired by books I find the discussions about whether the book was 'better' (or not) than the film futile. I also do not consider films being 'true' to the books that inspired them as being a necessary virtue for this category. Literature and cinema are very different forms of art. They create emotions and they trigger thoughts each in very different manners. Even if the words in a play by Shakespeare or in a novel by Tolstoy are the same as in the film inspired by these, emotion comes from a different place for readers, theater audiences and movie audiences. It is somehow easier for me to avoid this kind of discussion in the case of the very ambitious project that was undertaken by already famous actress Natalie Portman for her debut as a film director, as I did not read (yet) the memoirs of Amos Oz that bear the same name - 'A Take of Love and Darkness'.

From what I get from critics and friends who have read the book, Portman selected out of the very rich and complex memoirs that cover the first fifteen years of the life of Jerusalem-born Amos Oz one specific thread with a personal touch about the relation between the young boy and his mother, and focused the film on it. This may have been a fine choice, as the change of perspective and the decryption of the character of the young woman who came to Mandatory Palestine from Europe before the breaking of the war, her cultural shock, the building of the relationship with her son, the facing of historical developments and family crisis ending in the suicide that marked the biography of the writer - all these make of some fascinating material. And yet, the film never takes off. It may have been the deep respect for the text which let director Portman believe that she must be true not only to the spirit but also to the letter of the book. Maybe a more mature director, maybe Portman herself ten or twenty years from now if she continues on the directing path, would have had courage to build a more independent story with the risk of competing with the words of the writer. She did not do it, unfortunately.

The result is a very literary film, and this is not, unfortunately, a compliment here. There are a few beautiful things in this film. Cinematography by Slawomir Idziak is exquisite - with the metaphors of dreams, of the Old Country, of the darkening skies of Europe covered by the birds of prey. Portman's acting is also sensible and touching at the key moments. The labyrinth of Jerusalem's narrow streets has both charm and also enhances the sensation of claustrophobia and pressure. Two many other aspects are however missed by: the roots of the psychological and physiologic decay of the mother, the build-up of tension between father and son that leads to the decision of the boy to change the course of his life. I am afraid that the non-Israeli audiences, or audiences not familiar with the history of Mandatory Palestine and the making of Israel will have a hard time understanding the details and the atmosphere, and there is not enough consistency in the characters (not to speak about action) to make them interested in the drama. I usually dislike using off-screen voice in movies. The words spoken off-screen are the most beautiful part of this film, and this is no wonder, as most of them are quotes from the book of the great writer who is Amos Oz. Their role in the film is to explain what the director could not translate in images. This is a problem.

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