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Istvan Szabo is probably the finest Hungarian film director ever. I
have seen and greatly enjoyed 'Hanussen' and 'Mephisto' which both
feature his preferred actor, the fantastic Klaus Maria Brandauer . The
latest is nothing less than a masterpiece in my opinion, a strong
parable about the relation between dictatorship and art, between power
and the artist, and a meditation about the human character and the
tearing dilemma of the artist who has to chose between being silent and
being silenced. What few people knew at the time the film was released
was that in 'Mephisto' Szabo had spoken about his own life and choices.
I somehow failed to see until now 'Sunshine' which is a not less ambitious endeavor describing in a big epic film the story of one Jewish Hungarian family which is symbolic for much of the history of the Hungarian Jews in the 20th century.
They do not do such films any longer, some may say. 'Sunshine' is a saga spread over three generations of the Sonnenshein / Sors family - a family of Jewish origin whose story is followed since the last two decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire through the First World War, the Communist revolution of 1919, the inter-wars period, the horrors of the Second World War and of the Holocaust, the Communist terror that followed. The tradition of such stories is actually not rooted in Hollywood but rather in the solid novel sagas of writers like Thomas Mann or John Galsworthy. The main theme is the fate of the Jewish family trying to find its identity first in the relatively liberal Austro-Hungarian empire, the tentative to melt its identity by 'assimilation' and conversion, followed by the cruel return to reality during the Holocaust, and the temporary illusion of salvation by adopting the principles of the internationalist Communism.
The 16 years that passed since the film was released make the demonstration of the futility of the identity hiding games played by Jews in Europe in general and Hungary in particular look somehow didactic on screen (but not in reality, as recent events show). Istvan Szabo had the bright idea of distributing Ralph Fiennes in the triple role of the three men in the three generations of the Sonnenschein / Sors family. Fiennes is a fine actor and this was one of his best roles, but the real strong and persistent character is the one of Valerie - wife, mother, and grandmother and more than all the survivor and the strong character that represents the moral and tradition compass of the whole family during the succeeding storms of the century. Two actresses - Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris play this role at different ages. They are both wonderful. The strength of the film comes however from the accumulation of facts and the building of the emotion that leads to the final rediscovery of the true identity of the character. As somebody once said: 'Nobody can run away from the star under which they were born'.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lucy was supposed to be a film I should highly enjoy. I love Scarlett
Johansson not only for the way she looks but also for daring to
undertake complex and different roles that put at work her acting
talent. Science fiction is one of the genres I like most. I liked
everything that Luc Besson does
actually everything he did until this
film. In my opinion 'Lucy' is a low for both Scarlett and Luc as well.
It's not terribly bad, as they are too good artists and professionals
to fall too low, but it's highly unsatisfying, well below expectations.
Readers of popular science magazines, or watchers of the similar TV shows should be already familiar with the scientific pretext of the film. The complex and sophisticated computing machine which is our brain is barely used, maybe at 10% of its capacity. If somehow (maybe using a blue powder drug!) the brain efficiency was used at a higher percentage the respective individual would get capabilities that are well beyond average to the point that they may seem superhuman to the other mortals. This is what happens to the hero in 'Lucy' but the problem is that the combination of sexy techno-thriller does not work well with the pseudo-science in the film. Talking about the meaning of life and universality of time in-between car chases and the destruction of the French Academy by bullets and mortars is some kind of fun, but not much more.
When talking about many other films made in Hollywood I have often complained about their length. It's seldom today to find a feature film that does not reach 120 minutes of projection, and in many cases American (and not only American) productions exceed the 150 threshold, without any consistent gains in complexity or quality, but adding time resistance to the qualities required from viewers and justifying to some extent the additional ticket prices. 'Lucy' is only 85 minutes long credits included and this may be one of the reasons it feels like hurried and superficial, with the main ideas exposed like in a crash sciences lesson and all the characters with the exception of the main hero reduced to uni-dimensional sketches, without any character development. It's just a pity to see the talent of such fine actors like Morgan Freeman or Amr Waked wasted in such a way. The becoming of a genius and superhuman is described in a manner that is neither too original, nor too spectacular, and the smart dialogs between the beauty who became a genius and the scientist whose role seems mostly to be amazed without being able to help are just deprived of any emotion. There is one sentence about losing the capability to feel which if developed could have added a very different dimension to the film, but it was lost in the rush. When time becomes a dimension to be transgressed the journey looks more like an adult version of the 'Night at the Museum' which may run in the neighboring cinema hall. And that cinematographic metaphor reminding a famous ceiling painting? is it parody? 'Lucy' has many good premises and wastes most of them.
It's really amazing that 'Nightcrawler' is the first directing
achievement of Dan Gilroy - whose record only includes a few scripts
(one of the Bourne series movies among them). It's a real catchy,
witty, brutal and realistic story about the thirst for sensations in
the news and the monster it creates. It's also a very well written
story (Gilroy authored it as well) with crisp and interesting
characters which we keep discovering as long as they are alive on
screen. The visuals also have quality - on one hand I have visited Los
Angeles recently, so I could not only recognize the places but also
feel the atmosphere, on the other hand much of the action happens at
night and is news related, so the nervous camera moves with focus on
blood and violence makes a lot of sense.
The main character, Louis Bloom is unemployed. I suspect that the proximity with another more famous character L. Bloom is not coincidental, as like Joyce's Ulysses he is wondering at nights in a big city, looking however to more earthly matters of life. He is a smart unemployed who spends his time navigating the Internet in search of educational and motivational stuff that can push him out of the current status of small criminal, steeling metals and selling them by the pound. The only problem is that nobody wants to hire him, despite his verbal skills of self-promotion, and the reason is bluntly put to him by a potential employer: 'I am not hiring thieves'. There is however one industry that does not seem to have such scruples: it's the crime news industry. Local TV networks are ready to pay good in order to serve their customers (us!) the bloodiest news and the most graphical images at breakfast time. Bloom will soon learn the technicalities of the profession, and find inside himself enough resources not only to survive but also to become successful in it.
The action takes place in Los Angeles, and we can even see the Hollywood sign at some point, but it's far from the typical Hollywood production. It actually has more of an indie atmosphere, and reminded me at some moments 'Drive' which was released three years ago. Same intensity, same fringe world. The difference is in the approach. There are no good guys in 'Nightcrawler', maybe the exception of Lou's assistant Rick (played by Riz Ahmed) who does not have much chance of survival in the world described by the film. The film takes also a sharp critical stand about the business, work and human (or should I say inhuman?) relation in the corporate world of America. The words we can hear day to day in the corporate environment sound so natural in the mouths of the criminals. Something must be wrong with the words or the way they are used.
On a higher level however the film is not only about the industry and one specific character that makes his way in it. It is also about the audiences who create the demand for sensationalistic news soaked in blood. About us.
Much of the quality of the film relies on Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as Bloom. Gyllenhaal has in this movie the sparkle, darkness and craziness of the big roles. He may not get the Academy Award this year, but he is getting close to that level. Rene Russo also provides an excellent support as the hungry producer ready to accept almost anything and to bend almost any moral or legal rules in order to rise the rating of her news show.
This was the first movie I have seen in 2015. I can only wish that the year in movies will be as good as this one.
Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) should be a super-hero. After all
only a super-hero can destroy in 28 seconds the US East Coast command
center of the Russian mafia (actually exceeding by 9 seconds his
plans), can survive an army of armed and dangerous enemies in a Home
Depot, even saving the lives of all his good friends, and then take a
flight to Russia to destroy the whole organization's brains in the
It is actually the anti-hero vision of the character that gives this story a high dose of credibility. Yes, I am incredulous of having said it :-) Denzel's character building is so rigorous, so precise, so human that he not only builds himself as the positive character we as viewers can sympathize with, but also lightens the whole story, which otherwise would be a brutal encounter between yet another retired agent and the world which would not let him enjoy his quiet reading and lattes at night hours, a world full of violence, of human traffic, of ladies in distress silently shouting for help with nobody to hear but Hollywood super-heroes.
Director Antoine Fuqua seems to make amends to me for Olympus Has Fallen which I liked much less for various reasons. I would have liked Chloe Grace Moretz to be more on screen, but her absence for much of the screen time after having been the trigger of the story has logic. The Equalizer is based on a TV series from the 80s which I did not see or maybe I forgot, but there is enough good material in this film - including mystery hints about Robert McCall's past including a tragically lost love - to make me hope that this is another start of a series, on big screen this time.
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
'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.
*** 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 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.
*** 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
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!
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
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.
*** 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.
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