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vampire games, 21 October 2014

When Tim Burton and Johnny Depp come together one already knows what to expect. Dark Shadows is the 8th film directed by Burton with Depp in the cast, the first one being Edward Scissorhands from 1990, maybe the most famous of all. We already know that a fantastic and strange world of weird beauty and ugliness will be created on screen. We know that it will be scary but that we need not take it more serious than necessary because we are now adults and fairy tales do not scare us any longer (do they?). We also know that Depp will again be hard to recognize, but will be himself as well, another entry in a series of fantastic characters that we - who love the actor - wish will last for as long as possible.

'Dark Shadows' is inspired by a TV show which gained cult status in the late 60s and early 70s which I have never seen or heard about before. It starts as a Gothic witches and vampires story in the 18th century to continue as a back-from-grave witches and vampire comical action in the contemporaneity of the TV show. Tim Burton and his script writers chose the path of creating from the perspective of 2012 a retro-actual comedy combined with situation gags about the culture, revolts and music of the 70s including a cameo appearance of Alice Cooper. These are actually some of the funniest moments in the film, as the rest of the story is pretty conventional and does not exceed the level of a mediocre comics-inspired intrigue.

Acting-wise we have of course Depp, as pale and as weird as ever. Besides Depp the film is blessed with exquisite cast including Michelle Pfeiffer which unfortunately seems lately to fade away from important roles, Eva Green which has a love scene like you never saw on screens before with Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter which I wish had spent more time on screen. And yet, despite moments of fun and splendid visuals that only the imagination of Burton can create, something is missing in the script. I did not see the TV show, and yet I had a very strong feeling of deja vu which could not be completely balanced by acting and spectacular visuals. A movie relying only or mostly on visual effects, as perfect as they may be, risks to feel like unfinished.

a cinematographic exercise with no substance, 20 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I am following quite closely the development of the Romanian cinema, and Corneliu Porumboiu is one of the directors whose previous work I enjoyed a lot, especially '12:08 East of Bucharest' which was a story about the 1989 events of the fall of the Communism in a small town of Romania, placed under doubt both from a political as well as personal memory perspective. I confess however that I was deeply disappointed by this 2013 film which seems to me to be a dry and didactic exercise in method taken to the extreme where all substance and action become largely irrelevant. The result is simply boring, and the reaction of the audience at the Haifa Festival was a mix of incredulity, sarcasm and revolt with the daring one leaving the screening hall before the end and getting back good minutes of their lives.

'When Evening Falls on Bucharest' tries to tell the story of a delayed day in the making of a film that does not tell anything important. The director (Bogdan Dumitrache) endlessly rehearses a nude screen with the lead actress (Diana Avramut) who 'happens' to be his lover. The scene is meaningless, but the director tries to get some sense of it. Almost the same as the envelope of this film which contains meaningless dialogs about the beauty and ugliness of the human body, the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni or Chinese food. The lives of the characters are empty, their actions are incomprehensible (why does the director go through the pain of simulating an endoscopy in order to postpone a filming day? we never know), and the result is boring.

I know where this is coming from. Much of the success of Romanian cinema in the last decade was due to using a minimalist approach in describing the day-to-day lives of people during the Communist rule, or the transition period that followed. The method fit well the stories, because it is good to speak on low tone about situations that otherwise would generate revolt in the hearts of the viewers. The human dimensions of the characters of those films are much emphasized by the method. In 'When Evening Falls on Buchares' acting is very much according to the method, but the characters are empty, there is no human dimension to emphasize. There is only one good idea in the whole script, one scene in which the scene in the film is mirrored in reality, with the roles of the man and woman switched over. Reality is more efficient than the best directing. The rest is flat. If the director meant to say something smart about the relationship between director and actor, or pass some social message about the emptiness of life in today's Romania, it all got buried in the huge boredom that this film creates which to some viewers may cause even anger. Talking about Antonioni is even less than an Antonioni quote. The characters of Antiononi exercised existential spleen because they first of all existed. Porumboiu's characters in this film do not even exist.

The Judge (2014)
0 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
justice and family, 19 October 2014

The Judge is a rather classical combination of family drama and court drama, enjoying a couple of fine actors in lead roles that will land them some place in or close to the area of the Academy Awards candidacies. It's solid but rather conventional cinematography, and as I understand the first output of a new production enterprise where Robert Downey Jr. is placing some of the money earned by the best-paid actor in Hollywood today. As a capitalist Mr. Downey Jr. seems to like conservative, low risk investment.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a successful and filthy lawyer who helps people rich enough to pay him to get away in the American courts of law even if they are obviously guilty. When his mother dies he returns for what should be a one or two days unwanted family reunion in the mid-west city of birth too small for his ambitions. As much as he dislikes the trip he is also rather disliked by a quite non-functional family run by a tyrannical father (Robert Duvall) who is also the judge practically running the place, a man admired by half of the town (the good one?) and hated by the other half (the bad one?). When his father is accused of murder Hank will find himself defending him for once with truth and justice as goals, while all the past he was running of for the last two decades risks to overwhelm him.

The relation between father and son is enhanced by the intense acting of Downey Jr. and Duvall which may both compete for the Academy Awards a few months from now. Director David Dobkin seems to have previously dealt with comedies only, The Judge being his first exploration of a 'serious' thematic. He make a few mistakes on the road - the film is too long, and the treatment of the subject too heavy and conventional to my taste. It's not bad cinema, it is just so expected. I hope that better contenders will show up on the road to the Awards between now and February 22, 2015, the date of the ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, LA.

Tarantino in the Cold, 18 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers would have loved to make this film. It is filled with characters from their world, transplanted in the hellish cold landscape of Scandinavia. If I am to compare it with experiences that are familiar to the 'mainstream' cinema viewers 'In Order of Disappearance' is a combination between the world of Tarantino, with his little-brained gangsters immersed in their own sub-cultured world transported in the landscape of 'Fargo' the original with its endless landscapes of snow and the cold that crosses the screen to almost freeze the cheeks of the viewers in the cinema theater.

As in many other gangster stories tragedy hits by hazard a regular family whose son is killed by mistake for being at the wrong place and time which intersects with a drug trafficking scheme. When the police takes the easy path of declaring the incident an accidental overdose case, the father decides to follow the path of the killers and to take revenge. The fact that he is driving a huge snow-plow will play an important role in what follows, and this is where director Hans Peter Molland seems to make another respectful bow to one of the earlier movies of Spielberg, where a huge truck is chasing a man on deserted roads. The temperature is different here.

I mentioned a number of possible quotes, and they may be real or just reflect my own cinematographic associations. Actually this is a very original and well made film, with an exquisite cinematography based on the contrast of snow and darkness, with a Scandinavian atmosphere and a very Scandinavian hero (superb acting from Stellan Skarsgård) with all the sadness of a grieving father and the resolution of making justice, even when left left with no choice. On the way the film also makes a few painful comments about the state of things in the Scandinavian society, the relation with the immigrants, the culture, the prejudices and the lack of empathy to the fellow human. It is populated with a full world of tragicomic characters, and it is fun to watch. Go and find it!

the comet and the star, 10 October 2014

Films about film making, about famous actors and directors were very much en vogue a few years ago, and "My Week with Marilyn" belongs to this wave. About that time two (good) movies about the master of suspense were made, one came from Hollywood - Hitchcock -, the other from the BBC - The Girl. 'My Week with Marilyn' combines The Forces,being a coproduction of Hollywood (Weinstein) and BBC, about another Anglo-American film making experience. This time it's not about a great English director getting to the peak of fame on the shores of the Pacific, but about the ultimate American star and sex symbol, Marylin Monroe landing in 1957 the UK to make 'The Prince and the Showgirl'. That was from a certain point of view a stellar encounter of the third degree, between the comet of Hollywood and the star of the English stage and screen Laurence Olivier. On the sides it was also the story of the encounter of a young 'third' (number is important) studios assistant with the woman of any man's dream in the epoch. Colin Clark was the name of the character, he wrote a book of memories about the experience, and the film extends the subject to a romantic story - carrying into the film the ups and downs of adaptations of memoirs or 'true stories'.

The question one asks himself when seeing this film is 'was Marilyn Monroe really the awful actress that is described here?' I probably need to watch the 1957 film (it is available for free on the Internet) to have an answer. The closing text run on screen before credits tells us that the next film of Marilyn was to be 'Some Like It Hot' - the most famous film she ever made. Maybe the problem was her uprooting from Hollywood to the British Pinewood studios? 'My Week with Marilyn' does not explore this track. Was she also the terribly insecure and unhappy human being that is described here, too beautiful to be ever loved for anything but her physical appearance? This seems more plausible, especially because we know the end of her life. Did she really get comfort and moral support in the relation with a young and anonymous assistant, one of the tens of figures in the shadows in any film production, as the script claims? Were there ever buddies of a love story in this relation? Probably only in the mind of the memoirs writer, but who really cares? The character played by Eddie Redmayne is so unconvincing that I was wondering if his lack of charisma was the result of masterful acting or directing or of lack of talent and ... well .. charisma.

With quite a thin story, and with a BBC style of directing that avoids too thick an intervention in the story telling, much of the film relies on acting and actors. Talking about acting let me start with the supporting roles. The list is really impressive, having on-screen Judy Dench or Emma Watson is a pleasure, although for each of them I have wished the roles were more consistent. If anybody was concerned that Kenneth Branagh will approach the role of Olivier with too much deference to make it real, he can rest quite - Branach constructs a real life Olivier, infuriated by the lack of talent and professional ethics of the American star, but also a middle aged man fascinated by the beauty and by the romance of the superb blonde with the camera. In the lead role Michelle Williams creates a Marilyn that risks to replace the real Monroe in the minds of those who see this film. Her Academy Awards nomination was highly deserved.

It's one of those films made with love for cinema, one of the cases when superb acting overcomes the lack of consistency of the story that is being brought to screen.

almost underrated, 7 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Watching Johnny Depp in action is always a holiday for movie fans. Depp is one of these actors who can hold a film by himself, and in fact he does exactly this in many cases, included here. The problem starts to show up when the principal reason for seeing the film is that Johnny Depp is in it, and not much more beyond. The Rum Diary is a film that Depp wanted very much to make, it is based on a true story - the one of journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson - set in 1960, by the time the history of the Americas was taking a turn. However it is also mostly a film for Depp's aficionados and another proof that true stories or biographies do not necessarily lead to good films.

The dry story in The Rum Diary is very much about the profession of journalist, and about fighting personal daemons in order to be a true professional. A young journalist takes a job in Puerto Rico, a job he finds out soon nobody wanted to take. He is a drinker and befriends another journalist who is an even heavier drinker and the wrong girl owned by a local tycoon. He discovers soon that one cannot drink as much as he can or wants, befriend beautiful women, write good stories, and be honest at the same time. One may ask what is wrong with this story and why it fails to draw the attention although it has all ingredients of many other successful stories about journalists, corruption, exotic Caribbean islands and their fascinating and dangerous culture. Moreover, it is a true story! Well, this may actually exactly be the problem. We have already seen so many movies (some of them good indeed) inspired by such a true story, that when it is brought to screen closer to what it really was, it looks unsatisfying and deja-vu.

The good things - some very good cinematography and a rendition of the 1960 Puerto Rico which is both realistic and colorful. Then we have Depp - of course! The not so good thing - a story that does not really decide what it wants to be - political thriller, retro-history, comedy, with an anti-climax ending. For folks like myself unfamiliar with who Hunter S. Thompson was, this film does only tell an unconvincing story about journalism in exotic Puerto Rico. Director Bruce Robinson made a very promising debut in the 80s, another couple of movies soon after, and then stopped making films for almost two decades until this one. His fans may have expected more from his come back after such a long waiting. Good acting and sure hand in camera and cinematography cannot compensate the weakness of the story. What was supposed to be the strong point of the film eventually ends by being its weakest link. 'The Rum Diary' may raise in time to be better than the commercial failure it was on screens, but less than what it could have been with a better story to support the theme.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
dangerous species, 5 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'Under the Skin' is directed by Jonathan Glazer whose best known previous achievement is 'Sexy Beast'- a violent thriller made in 2000, which has allowed Ben Kingsley to make one of his most ferocious appearances grabbing on his way an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This time the star is the gorgeous (in many ways) Scarlett Johansson, who has used us lately with ... unusual roles such as the 'voice off' from 'Her', or the ruthless killer in the recent 'Lucy'.

The role played here is that of an alien female, with Scarlett entering the skin of a terrestrial young woman coming to our planet on a mission to kill. Driving a truck, she wanders the city of Edinburgh and its suburbs in search of men whom he lures (something that us not too difficult even for an alien who entered under the skin of Scarlett Johansson) and then kills and dips them in a bath of black substance in which they enter without seeming to be aware of the danger. The goal is enigmatic to the crime film watchers, those who are really interested in a possible explanation of everything who will find it documented in the novel that inspired the book which is written, by the way, in a lighter style, very different from what we get on screen.

The spiritual and emotional worlds of the serial alien murderess and of the terrestrials seem completely disjoint at the beginning. As the action slowly progresses, change happens. The main character seems to begin to be interested in the motivations of the acts of humans, in the strange mixture of empathy and indifference, of love and hate which makes each of us. Which of these aspects will prevail, and who eventually is the more more dangerous of the species - I will let those who plan to watch the movie to guess. I will only say that, despite the slow pace and the fact that the film is hard to fit into the classical genres of 'science fiction' or 'movies with aliens', or even 'horror films', attentive and patient viewer swill be rewarded a superb acting performance by Scarlett Johansson, and the screen presence of extras surprised by hidden camera when climbing up in a truck driven by Scarlett; by a bleak but beautiful cinematography; and by a maybe ambiguous message which ends by asking questions about ourselves, the human species.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Zero or Infinity?, 4 October 2014

'The Zero Theorem' is directed by Terry Gilliam, a highly original creator and an explorer of the future, which he already described in rather dark colors in several memorable films like 'Brazil' and 'Twelve Monkeys'. His other principal title of glory, the 'Monty Python' series, somehow balances in his filmography the concept of anticipation with the one of an alternate present or past in the comic registry. 'The Zero Theorem' was shot mostly in Romania, and part of the technical team and actors are Romanian, to the extent the in the program of the festival I saw the film in it was classified as a an English-Romanian co-production.

In the fantastic scenery of an abandoned church that some of my Bucharest friends might recognize we find the hero of the film (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz), a specialist in 'processing entities'. working frantically on a mission entrusted by a large corporation whose chief is called impersonal 'The Management' (Matt Damon), a mission whose goal may be finding the meaning of existence, or an absurd demonstration that accumulation of full (100%) is equal to the Great Zero. Or perhaps the essence of human existence and the absurd are the same? Actually it does not really matter, because the story and the logic of the film is focused on the frantic and obsessive search of the main character. Or maybe this is human nature, a continuous search that ends in nothing? Or in the Infinity?

We find in this film's many of the visual metaphors Terry Gillman used us to, in a colorful world activated by a strange retro-advanced technology, like belonging to a branching of time for human scientific developments that extends the early 20th century. We also find a fierce critique of large international corporations - the main character is provided with such items of 'personal development' like a virtual-dream love relationship (with gorgeous Gwendoline Christie) or psychoanalysis through tele-presence (by severe Tilda Swinton). He is subjected to tracking methods that infiltrate his privacy inspired by Orwell's '1984' and Gilliam's own 'Brazil' and also terrorized by a small and despotic manager, a familiar figure many of those who worked in large global corporations may find familiar.

'The Zero Theorem' is first of all a wonderful visual experience. It is also a film that does not open immediately all its secret doors, but gives the impression of depth and complexity that calls for a second and maybe more viewings.

J. Edgar (2011)
The Gatekeeper, 19 September 2014

The name of J. Edgar Hoover not only marks half of century of the history of defending the law and making justice in the United States, but still raises passions until today. The developments after the terror attacks on 9/11 have brought back to the front stage of the public debate the balance between rights of the the citizens to be protected and the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and about the role of the federal government and its agencies in protecting freedom for the many while respecting the rights of the few. 'J.Edgar' the movie clearly belongs to the genre of the biographical documentary, and according to your beliefs you may get out of this film liking or hating it. There is one thing that is hard to deny in my opinion - this film has passion too, same as the character it describes. One may admire J.Edgar for his dedication to the ideals of making out of America a country of law and order according to his own vision or for building out of nothing one of the best government agencies in the US and the world, or one may hate him because of his obsessional search for a no. 1 enemy, or for the methods he put in the service of the cause. One cannot deny reading the biography or watching this film that he was a man of passion.

There are things that I loved and things that I hated in the way this film was written (by Dustin Lance Black) and directed by Clint Eastwood. The parallel running of the auto-biography of the character as dictated 40 years later to a young colleague is smartly run in parallel with the 'present' of his late age career at the time of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations. One character is already old, the other ages and the story advances. I should actually say one triplet of character, as the extraordinary Leonardo DiCaprio (whom I do not like, but I cannot prevent myself to admire) is very well supported by Naomi Watts as the never consumed lover who turns into the eternal secretary of Hoover and Armie Hammer as the eternal friends who also figures up - as rumored by history - as potential lover. All are supported by a Judi Dench as Hoover's pious mother, as splendid as you expect. What I liked less is the ex-screen off-screen story telling, hard to digest even under the pretext of Hoover dictating his memoirs at the sunset of his life, or the schematic sound of some of the dialogs - even bad guys seldom speak on clichés as some of the characters here do. Overall the excellent acting and the well kept pace overwhelm the dark sides of the production.

At the end of the day we get another story big as a cinemascope screen of an American hero. Or anti-hero. Depending of course on your beliefs and on the way you relate to the character and the different threads of the story. Hoover appears as a historic character who had to be obsessed with a Public Enemy no. 1 be they real or imaginary. In parallel he lived his personal drama of (historically alleged) homosexuality, the dark secret of the blackmailer who could so easily be blackmailed. One cannot deny that he built a fabulous crime fighting institution which definitely remains his principal legacy. However, Hoover was also for almost half a century a Gatekeeper, even one who loved to present himself as a popular hero, in comics or movies. Here is a very different kind of movie about him. One which leads the viewer at the end to ask the question of what was The Gatekeeper defending his country against.

reborn indeed, 12 September 2014

The combination of high-tech thrillers a la James Bond and the so English humor of Rowan Atkinson worked fine for me in the original 'Johnny English' and work even better in the 'Johnny English Reborn' sequel released eight years later, which I got to see only now. If I am to look for the perfect comedy entertainment I would go for something like this because it succeeds to be funny and anti political-correct, while keeping some logic and sending references to the original movies it is inspired from, without taking itself too much seriously at any moment.

If I am to decide what are the reasons JE works for me better than other similar comedy-parody movies I would of course first of all mention Rowan Atkinson. He is himself, meaning Mr. Bean whatever the role he plays - a combination of Britishness and irreverence, a walking gaffer and catastrophes generator, and yet - a warm human being. The greatest comical character one can identify with since Stan Laurel.

The second reason are the scripts of the Johnny English films. They actually have logic. Of course, it's Brit logic, it's movies logic, but if you really put the script of the two Johnny English movies near the stories of most of the James Bond films, not only you will find them similar, but English may won many of the credibility contests.

This second and I hope not last installment of Johnny English has also the great advantage to bring back to screen one of my mostly beloved actresses, Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame. Did I say that was my preferred TV-series of all times. I did and now you know it all too. I hope that director Oliver Parker (or somebody else) will go on with the JE series, and that Gillian will become Atkinson/English's Q for a long time.

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