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an impossible love story, 25 September 2017

The history of England was blessed with several famous queens - starting with head-losers Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart, continuing the two Elisabeth's and of course Queen Victoria, the record holder of longevity until recently, the queen who gave her name to a whole era of maximal glory and expansion of the British Empire. The big dames of English cinema were accordingly blessed with the respective fabulous roles that they love to bring to the big screens and are regarded as peaks of their careers. For Dame Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul directed by Stephen Frears provides (for the second time actually) the opportunity to create a memorable portrait of Victoria. Her success in completing this task is the best part and the best that can be said and written about this production. Unfortunately, this is not the only thing that can be said and written about this film.

It's very difficult to disconnect the historical episode of the relationship between the old widow who was also the queen of the largest empire on earth at her time (and maybe at all times) and the Muslim servant from India who raised to become her secretary, counselor, spiritual adviser, friend, surrogate son and maybe more than all these, and the political situation today, 120 years later, when the divided Britain faced with the realities of globalization and immigration tries to put again sea and borders between her and Europe. The authors of the film invested quite a lot in describing the atmosphere of the imperial households and its corridors of power and gossip with the adequate costumes and decoration but they are talking all the time to the contemporary spectator while telling a story based on real history or facts as they happened ... or almost, as they cautionary and wisely warn us in the opening.

We are thus left with an impossible friendship and even love story, impossible because of a mountain of reasons: class differences, race prejudices, age gap, cultural and historical precipices. The only thing that can save such a film from falling in complete melodrama or faked rhetoric is the human dimension. In Victoria and Abdul this dimension is only partially delivered by the splendid acting performance of Judi Dench. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast cannot come even close to her class. Ali Fazal is fit physically but lacks the nuances that can explain some of the contradictions of his personality. We never know or really understand what is his real class background, whether the deepness of his knowledge in the Quran and oriental culture is genuine, or if he intentionally misled his beloved queen in the details of the history and realities of the inter-faith conflicts on the Indian continent. The rest of the cast is condemned to represent a gallery of half-ridiculous, half-perverse characters representing the British aristocracy class full of prejudice and bad faith. If only the caricature would have been pushed a little further we could have had more comical fun, but Stephen Frears could not really abandon the ambition of passing some important message about today's politics. In my opinion he failed, and the principal great merit of this film is telling a half-baked potential love story while allowing Judi Dench to add another great role to her illustrious filmography.

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Greeks and strangers, 16 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although located at the Southern extremity of the European Union, or maybe just because of this, Greece found itself in the last few years at the crossroads of Europe. The economic crisis that hit Europe and the whole world a decade ago was specifically tough on the Greek economy, part due to global factors, part to the accumulation of bad administration and wrong decision in economic policies. For the Greek economy to survive harsh austerity programs were imposed by the EU and the IMF, resulting in salary and pension cuts and especially in loss of jobs for a significant percentage of the work force. On the other side, Greece found itself, together with Italy, being a target destination and entry point in Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees from war and economic catastrophes in Africa and the Islamic world. The social and economic pressure resulted in high costs for the Greeks families and individuals, in personal crises for people losing or in danger of losing their safety in a world in change. For some of them the refuge was in political extremism. For other in love. This is the background but also the major theme of actor and director Christopher Papakaliatis's film 'Enas Allos Kosmos' or 'Worlds Apart'.

The film is based on three stories, which at first seem to have in common only the relationships between three Greeks and three aliens of different origins and statuses. A young student is saved from rape by an illegal Syrian refugee and the inevitable resulting love story is also the opportunity for the girl to be exposed to the realities of the life conditions of the migrants and the life danger they encounter under the threats of fascist hooligans. A mid-age father of a boy has a one-night stand with a beautiful Swedish woman that turns into a longer relationship, just to discover that she is the manager of the restructuring program at his work place that puts his career and the careers of the people under his responsibility under threat. A housewife struggling to meet ends meets a German retiree in front of the supermarket where she cannot afford any longer buying food, starting a moving and discrete love story at the sunset of the lives of the two. None of the three stories can have a happy end in real world, and maybe this is where the film should have concluded. But it did not.

The telling of the stories is pretty fluid, in the style of the European (especially French) romantic stories with a social background. Acting is also good, all the six actors are well cast and play their roles with sincerity and emotion. It's the seventh character - the one of the aged and disappointed worker falling into extremism which deserves a special note. The name of the actor was Minas Hatzisavvas and this was his last role on screen, he died soon after the film was completed.

The three stories eventually came together, and this is were I believe, the whole structure loses originality, falling into a territory of expected and melodramatic turns of fate. While the whole Greek defiance is running high (we are several times reminded that the world may have invented economic efficiency but the Greeks invented love), this film about the crisis of the Greek individuals and the Greek family cell under pressure of crisis and having a hard time to cope with the relation with other nations in a global world, has a much too conventional American end.

the concept is not enough, 15 September 2017

About half of the viewers in the hall of our local cinematheque who came to watch this film were hardcore fans who came to watch the first screening of this film prior to the opening of a science fiction event that also includes a film festival. I did not have a chance to discuss with them the film at the end, one of the reasons being that some of them left before the end of the screening. I cannot be sure about the reasons, they may have seen the movie already, or they reserved the pleasure of full viewing for the festival, or maybe they just had the same feeling as I did. It's a crazy and fun idea, but not enough for a full and watchable movie.

Maybe part of the explanation is that Christian Nicolson, the author of 'This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy' seems to be - according to the IMDb - a first-timer in everything: script writing, acting, film direction, producing movies. Nicholson may be aware of his lack of experience, so he tried to turn it into an advantage, even more than this, into a concept. Here is the story (no spoiler, it happens in the first five minutes). Three fans attend the screening of a movie at a sci-fi convention, and somehow find themselves trapped into the world of the low cost films of the genre. Not only their universe is blurred, but also their personalities, and they will need to fight to survive and get back. Luckily, this is the less credible alternate universe ever created in movies, as all effects and gadgets are more visible than in the first movies of Melies, and more ridiculous than in the worst King Kong film. Space ships are made of hair-drying fans, transporting devices of shower heads, etc.

A good idea does not make a film, as original and as crazy it may be, and 'This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy' is a good illustration on this respect. What may have worked in the 1960s TV shows for kids that lasted 15 or 30 minutes at most cannot work for a 90 minutes film, if it is not complemented by well defined characters, fresh jokes, good acting. Unfortunately these are all but absent in this film, and after we understand the concept and have fun for a few minutes we start waiting in vain for something new and interesting to happen. None of these happen here, and the parody is reduced at its own parody with very little comic effect. By the end this comedy was closer to put me to sleep than make me laugh.

the winter of the film director, 28 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The success of the Romanian cinema in the last decade or so did not spring up from nothing. Although the cinema in Romania was more strictly censored and controlled by propaganda during the Communist period, a handful of talented directors existed and they made a few good or at least decent films in a difficult ideological environment, with very little technical means. One of these directors was Dan Pita. Something strange happened though with him and most of the film directors in his generation after 1990. With some exceptions they seem to not have been able to use to the best the freedom of expression (political and stylistic) or to adapt to the technical progress that became soon and fast available. Many of their films seem to be stoned in the past, repeating mistakes and perpetuating stereotypes that belong to a different era. Pita's Kira Kiralina is a good example on this respect - a cinematographic failure on almost any respect.

Kira Kiralina brings to screen a story by Panait Istrati - a writer of Romanian origin who charmed the French readers in the 1920s with his stories of passion and brigands located in the the North of the Balkans and especially in the cosmopolitan area of the last hundreds of kilometers of the Danube course before reaching the Black Sea. It's a fascinating zone, a land of legends and passions which could be the stage of great stories and movies. The problem with the script written by Ioan Grigorescu and the screen version of Dan Pita is that they did not create a cinematographic vision parallel to Istrati's text, but rather chose the easy path of having a screen character read the story off-screen and what we see on screen is kind of an illustration of this reading. If we put together the scenes where the main character remembers and reads loudly the episodes of his childhood and troubled teens age, we probably get many minutes with the actor smoking and writing on the same sheet of paper. Such techniques are maybe fit to TV theater or low cost TV dramas, but not to big screen movies. Story telling is broken, more an exemplification of the monotone reading of the book text. Characters are introduced by the voice of the story teller and not but what they achieve themselves on screen. Some of the action scenes are a complete failure, like the dramatic shooting between the sadistic father of the two kids, and the brothers of the mother, or the revenge scene taking place a few years later.

The cinematography of a few of the scenes (filmed out-doors) and the exceptional costumes (designed by Oana Paunescu ) offer a glimpse of what this movie could have been. Unfortunately, they are just exceptions and the overall conception fails to provide a credible description of the world at the mouths of the Danube at the end of the 19th century and of the heroes created by Panait Isrtrati. The orthography even of the name of the film ('Kira Kiralina') is different in the distribution from the one of the poster ('Kyra Kyralina') and for some reason unknown to me different from the one used in the Romanian versions of the book ('Chira Chiralina'). Actors work is irrelevant, they all seem stiff on screen, fresh newcomer faces as well as the known Romanian actors in the cast. The very last two scenes of the film (even if one of them us too verbose) happen after the story teller task was completed, and they give a hint of what this film could have been if a different approach was chosen. It's too little and too late.

no hope to cling, 27 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

For the second consecutive year the cinematheque in my city hosts a Czech Film Festival, and the most interesting film I have seen by now is this work co-directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb describing an event that took place more than 40 years ago in what was then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It was by all criteria a shocking event, especially for the 'quiet' and 'normalized' Czechoslovakia of the 1970s. Today we would immediately suspect a terror attack, but the roots of crime of the girl who one day drove her truck in a bus station in Prague killing eight people have their origins not in ideology but in a deep personal trauma and in the complete failure of a system that could not perform basic obligations to its citizens, and even less knew how to tolerate differences and deal with the individuals in trouble.

Olga Hepnarova grew up in a mid-class normative family, but was by all criteria a non-normative young woman – rebel, non-communicative, isolated by her school and work colleagues, a lesbian in a society that did not tolerate homosexuality. I found the acting performance of Michalina Olszanska to be superb, she is living within her character, the desperation and mute cry for help of Olga crosses the screen. Can her deeds be pardoned? Hardly so, as eight innocent people lost their lives in an act of violence that she considered to be a revenge on the system. Is the environment she lived in responsible also for her situation? So it seems, as she seems to be permanently looking for something or somebody to cling on, but she finds nothing in the system (doctors, psychologists, companies she worked for) and nobody among her family or the people she meets who can or wants to help. She is described as a schizophrenic, considered herself bullied and persecuted by everybody around, and had a strange detachment between her intelligence and the way she lived, her actions and reality. Only in the last very moment she seems to have realized that that was for real, and of course, that was too late.

Directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb decided to make this film in the style of the good Czech cinema of the 1960s. This is reflected not only the black-and-white coloring, but also in the approach in describing the daily reality. We are in Czechoslovakia of those times, we see how people lived and the problems they faced, we are faced with the dullness and lack of hope of their lives, but the critic of the system is never explicit . The script is written and the film is made like censorship is still in place. Good story telling, inspired editing, and excellent acting performances make this film interesting, although we know the end (and the Czech viewers know even better the story). It's not easy to watch as this is a grim story with an unavoidable tragic ending, a spiral of fall and desperation that never provides a ray of hope – but those who are interested in the life of that side of the Iron Curtain during the cold war and in good cinema will be rewarded.

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solid war drama, 26 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The assassination in Prague in 1942 of Reinhardt Heydrich - 'protector' of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the planners of the 'final solution' - was one of the most spectacular events of WWII. Although it did not change dramatically the fate of the war, it had a strong impact on the moral of both the German as well as the Czech and other nations fighting on the allies side, proving that the Nazi occupiers were not immortal and that punishment was to be inflicted on the heads of their regime. It also led to savage reprisals that destroyed any hope of cooperation between the German and the occupied Czech areas. 'The Man with the Iron Heart' based on a novel by Laurent Binet and directed by Cédric Jimenez carefully describes the main characters of this historical drama as well as the events before and after the attack on Heydrich.

A few weeks ago I have seen 'The Zookeeper's Wife' which figured as central character the wife of a Polish Resistance hero who helped him in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews in occupied Poland. The first half of 'The Man with the Iron Heart' had the chance to develop as a 'The Holocaust Planner Wife' with a description of the biography and ascension to power of Reinhardt Heydrich, from an immoral officer in the German navy to the highest ranks of the SS under the influence of his wife. We are used to think positively about love stories, and this is a love story of a different kind, the one between two mean people, united by an ideology of hate, deeply corrupt despite the cultural polish of their education and hobbies. This part of the story and the film is supported by the splendid actor work of Rosamund Pike, with Jason Clarke also giving a convincing performance as the hateful and hated ReichProtektor. I liked less the 'punk' version of Himmler created by Stephen Graham, it was supposed to be sarcastic, but hard to laugh about such an horrific historic character. Over all this part of the film is the best in my opinion, and maybe would have deserved to be developed more. The authors of the script however decided to cut the action in the middle and focus in the second part on the resistance fighters who prepared and executed the assassination, the consequences of their deeds and their fatal fate. It was not bad, but closer to the beaten paths.

Events of WWII like this one seem to continue to be a source of inspiration for film makers - best proof is that 'The Man with the Iron Heart' is released less than one year away from 'Anthropoid'. Each brings a different perspective, and some of them succeed in creating solid stories, with heroes we care about (sympathize or hate). It's the case of this film as well, a film that I recommend.

3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
mirror games, 17 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

After having seen last week the 2016 "Frantz" I continued yesterday my (François) Ozon cure with "The Double Lover" (or "L'amant double" in original) the latest film of the French director, a film that was present also in the 2017 competition at the Cannes festival. Both movies deal with issues of identity, truth and deception and how these can impact relationships between men and women. This is were similarities stop. There are many differences and almost all in favor of the 2016 film.

The story which is 'freely' inspired by a novel by Joyce Carol Oates (which has already originated a movie by David Cronenberg) starts as the story about a relationship between a psychoanalyst and his patient that turns into a strange and uneasy love affair. While the relation between shrink and patient needs to be based on trust and truth, in this case the contrary happens, as each of the two characters avoids fully sharing their feelings, hides things from the past, speaks half truths or plain lies. They seem that they cannot work as a couple on any plan. The bad start of the relation develops to worse and the odd things that happen on screen are complicated by having them told in a mix of genres - French art film with Paris and a museum of disturbing modern art as background, erotic thriller, horror and guilt in the Hitchcock and Polanski traditions. All these get together in a 'bouillion' that becomes less and less credible, up to the point that the story cannot be solved but by explaining that all was some kind of dementia delirium with very prosaic physiological roots. What should have been a sophisticated game of mirrors becomes a multiplication of images by mirrors disposed in a chaotic manner. To make things worse, the ending makes the mistake of explaining too much in sordid details. Hard to believe that the film with this ending comes in the filmography of Ozon just after "Frantz" with the wonderful ambiguity of its open ending.

Acting is also problematic. Ozon's choice of actors seems sometimes odd (not only here) because they are characters that do not feel well in their own skins. In this case he chose Marine Vacth (his discovery in "Young & Beautiful ") for a role that needs more expressiveness and fragility than what the actress delivered on screen. There is no chemistry between her and either of the two selves (or twin brothers) played by Jérémie Renier . I will never complain about seeing again Jacqueline Bisset in a film and I appreciate Ozon's creating in every film of his strong and interesting feminine characters that break the stereotypes, but her role or maybe roles (another odd double) seem to be wasted talent here.

"The Double Lover" never reaches at cinematographic level its ambitions. The jury at Cannes 2017 deserves an award for not giving - despite the names of the director and the cast - any award to this movie.

not just action, 15 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A lot of film fans deplore or criticize Tom Cruise's latest choice of roles. They all seem to be focusing on action movies, with the 55 (!) years old actor cast in roles where the ration between fights, high-speed chases and use of advance weaponry on one side and meaningful story and dialogues on the other is dangerously unbalanced in the favor of the first. His role in the 2014 'Edge of Tomorrow' apparently falls in the same category. However, the film directed by Doug Liman is much more than this. It is actually one of the smartest science-fiction films in the last few years.

Time looping is one of the most intriguing themes in science fiction, and has a huge number of variation and derived paradoxes. The authors of the script of this film have taken the idea and introduced it into a 'War of the Worlds' kind of film and actually cinematography and even the evil alien's appearances look quite similar to the one in the films inspired by H. G. Wells classic novel. What is different is that the superiority of the alien race is not based only on physical abilities but on the capability of controlling and resetting time. Luckily, at least some of the humans will be contaminated and use the trick to fight the invasion. I will stop here in order to avoid spoiling too much, with the promise that there are many more surprises, and that the solution and ending combines action and fine sci-fi.

Tom Cruise does what he best does (and likes it) in the last decade, with Emily Blunt a good and fit companion to his deeds. Well-paced action combines with smart writing for a film that needs no excuses to be liked.

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magic fun, 13 August 2017

I have somehow missed 'Now You See Me', a very entertaining movie directed by Louis Leterrier when it was released four years ago. Luckily, it's one of those movies that do not lose their appeal that fast, and then it's summer time, so the right time for fun and entertaining films. The only detail that seems overcome by time in this film is the usage of phones phones with geo-positioning systems.As smartphones took over the market, and applications as Google Maps became ubiquitous, the cops using keyboard based not-so-smart mobile phones seems to have happened twenty and not four years back. It's kind of a lesson for film-makers which may find more and more difficult coping with the pace of progress of our smart gadgets. Maybe the sequel avoids this mistake.

'Now You See Me' combines two genres - the big robbery and the magicians movies, with more emphasize on the later. 'The closer you look, the less you see' is the key saying of the film which tells the story of four magicians with different specializations brought together in a team that combines huge magician shows a la David Copperfield with bank robberies. They are supported by a finance tycoon (Michael Caine), followed by a former magician (Morgan Freeman) whose pastime is exposing on TV the tricks and frauds of magicians, and have of course all the FBI and Interpol on their tracks. The roles of manipulators and manipulated, suspects and innocents change all the time, and as in a good magic show we are never sure what we exactly see on screen.

The story may have a few holes that cannot be filled even by magic, but the convention works well, and is well supported by the actors. Watching Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine is always a delight in this kind of roles that they enjoy playing in this epoch of their careers. The rest of the team does a good job as well, with special mentions for Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. 'Now You See Me' is a film to enjoy, like a good show with magicians.

Frantz (2016)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
victims of war, 12 August 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

'Frantz' is one of those films that follows you long after the screening is over. What I and maybe many other viewers of François Ozon's 2016 film will remember years from now will be the silhouettes of the two principal heroes - the beautiful German young woman Anna (interpeted by Paula Beer) whose lover, Frantz, fell on the front two months before the end of the First World War and the out-of-world French young man Adrien Rivoire (actor Pierre Niney) who is also an ex-soldier, has met Anna's lover some time in the past, and comes to put flowers on his empty grave and ease the grief of Anna and Frantz's parents. One may say that Pierre Niney is a miscast, and maybe this is true, but he is a miscast not as an actor, but in the world his fate was to live in.

Frantz himself gives the name of the film, as all characters are tormented by his absence, his falling in the war makes him the victim, but actually everybody in this film is a victim of the absurdity of the war. The film succeeds to present in a moving manner how destinies are cut short by war, and how difficult are healing, forgetting, forgiving. It also asks questions about the capability of humans to cope with the horrors of the past - can they do it while facing the truth which is sometimes more cruel than their imagination allows? Or maybe lies are allowed when they can help healing or avoid reopening fatal wounds?

Ozon's film also carries an anti-war message. The heroes belong to the two sides of a war that created devastation for both nations. One may have been victor, the other defeated, but both countries are in ruins, millions of lives were lost, the survivors continue to carry the scars of the war traumas but also the germs of hate that will be at the root of the next war. The symmetry of scenes and situations may seem demonstrative, but it's good to remember that blood, enmity and mistrust divided Europe no so long ago.

The film makes use of black and white for the majority of the time, with colors inserted in some key moments, without necessarily marking the borders between reality and imagination, past and present, truth or fiction. It was a very good idea in my opinion to avoid the trap of a happy ending and to leave more ambiguity in place, with a mysterious lesser known painting of Manet handling to the viewers the key to what may have happened next. Questions marks are relevant for both past and future.

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