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Action films have a problem this fall. The reality of the crazy world
we live in is not only rapidly closing in the horrors and destruction
imagined by script authors, but it is overcoming it also at some
moments. 'Spectre' the 2015 edition of the adventures of Agent 007 has
a number of TV screens that bring to the world TV audiences information
about terror attacks taking place in locations like Mexico City, London
or Capetown. Unfortunately they do not look much mode dramatic than
what we have lately seen on the news about Paris.
So what is left for Agent 007 in a film set (or at least made) in 2015 at the time the news on TV screen compete and overcome the horrors imagined by Fleming and his followers? Director Sam Mendes brings into the story some of the recurring themes from 'Skyfall' as well as a number of characters from the new generation of Bond's companions. Ralph Fiennes is already comfortable in the role played in many episodes by Judy Dench, and the next generation of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) start to gain an air of familiarity. Daniel Craig continues to divide the fan base, bu then, was not this always the case with all Bonds since Sean Connery left the role of the Eyebrowed One? Action is more than reasonable, it is actually quite good in 'Spectre' but this is not something we should be surprised in a Bond movie. The only surprise is actually the lack of surprises.
With the new team taking control with good action, with a Bond widow (Monica Bellucci) worth every second (there are not too many) spent on screen and a Bond girl (Léa Seydoux) who seems here to stay at least for one more film why do I feel still so much missing in the new Bond? One of the reasons may be that the bad guys do not look so bad. It is not that Christoph Waltz is a bad actor, but we do know that in 2015 most of the bad guys have very different ideologies than the politically-correct one brought on screen by 'Spectre'. Old secret services configurations are outdated, and even the evil state surveillance does not seem too high a price to pay in a world dominated by terrorism. The no. 1 enemy of the new Bond film seems to be again reality.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The US and NATO war in Afghanistan did not generate yet too many
movies. Certainly, not many good movies. A few war and B-series films
dealt with the conflict in a one-sided manner, focusing on the action,
demonizing or at best not dealing with the other side but in a very
schematic and generally negative manner. Very few dealt with the
dilemmas and traumas of the warriors, or of the families back home. The
other side was again absent, a far menace at best. Essential Killing -
an European co-production directed by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski
with a couple of well known French actors in the lead roles comes from
a very different perspective. So different that it falls in the other
extreme, and the result is in my opinion a failure.
Let me start with the good things about this film. It's cinematography is very expressive and fits quite well the subject and the action. A Taliban prisoner is captured by the American or NATO forces after killing three soldiers. He is interrogated with brutality, and then taken aboard the plane to another country, supposed European, certainly with harsh winters and very different from the hot desert he dreams to while fighting for his life. The frozen forests, the orange and white uniforms, the silhouettes of the soldiers, the dogs and the wolves, all fit well. One can wonder what actors like Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner do in such a film, but they are here and they do well their job. If 'Essential Killing' was only a survival story, it would have worked, although some details are not completely clear (how does exactly the running prisoner escape the wolves? we just see him walking free after a scene in which he seemed to be turn into pieces by a hoard of about six beasts).
The problem is that 'Essential Killing' tries to be more than a survival story in in what it selects to show and what it selects not to show. Yes, the brutal methods of interrogation are repulsive, and transporting prisoners in other countries without a judgment may be against the international laws. Yes, even the harsher enemies are human and they have their dreams and they fight for their lives. Human solidarity also works beyond language or cultural barriers. This is fine as well. However the one sided view of the conflict in which the bad guys are 'humanized' to the edge of idealization (dreaming about the beautiful woman covered by the celestial blue burka, come on!) and the good guys are demonized (did not the three soldiers killed in the opening scene have their dreams too?) can work only for people who landed from another planet or are truly convinced that the Taliban are the good guys and the ones fighting them are the opposite. 'Essential Killing' may tell some kind of a partial truth, but partial truths are often indistinguishable from lies.
Joel Edgerton is not a completely anonymous actor, but not a big star
either. We know his face from a few supporting roles in a number of
movies, but none of them really made it to the Academy Awards. This
makes even more remarkable the fact that with The Gift he is completely
in control. The resulting movie is packaged as a psychological thriller
set in that part of California populated with apparently happy couples
or families enjoying the good life ensured by their success of their
corporate careers. Yet, not everybody succeeded as well, and happy
facades can hide unhappy relations and dark secrets surfacing from the
A game is played during all this film between the director-script author and the viewers. It starts like a yuppies-go-to-California film, and a seemingly incidental encounter between the successful Simon (played by Jason Bateman) and a former school colleague called Gordo (Edgerton) who does not seem to have done that well. A feeling of un-easiness starts to install in a very subtle manner. It's not only what happens on screen (although the visits and the small gifts and favors made to Simon and to his attractive but fragile wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) start to look more and more like stalking, but also the simple dialogs of the couples seem to indicate that not all is pink and bright in paradise. As the story continues we start to discover more details about the past, the angle and judgment on the characters changes, and the feeling of uneasiness increases. To put it in one of the words used by Simon to describe his ex-colleague weirdo!
Actors-directors are said not to be too successful in directing themselves,but Joel Edgerton is the exception. He is actually the best designed character in a triangle in which all three actors play crisply defined characters, which succeed to be true even as the perspective and the judgment of the viewers about them changes. Hitchcock is the obvious source of inspiration for the movies in this genre, and if Rebecca Hall was a blonde she would have made a perfect Hitchcockian character (Edgerton cannot even avoid filming not one but two shower scenes).
There is not much violence on screen, certainly not on the scale of the 2015 violence in movies, but the feeling of terror is present almost all the time, and its remarkable that it results from psychology rather than from effects. The ending is somehow disappointing in its making, but it includes enough dose of macabre and weirdness and it's open enough to let us wonder what really happened. 'The Gift' is not easy or pleasant viewing, but it gives enough reasons of satisfaction to be worth spending the time with it.
I am fascinated by Leos Carax. In more than 30 years he made just a
handful of long films, but what films these are. Each of them reminds
me when I get to see them why I love and I am fascinated by cinema, and
what an art film making can be under the hands of a director who knows
the secrets and ingredients of turning each film, and each scene in his
films in something different, something that charms, shocks, can be
enjoyable or repulsive, but cannot leave us indifferent.
Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood is the literal translation) will be 30 years old next year. Yet it is not only as fresh as it was made yesterday, but it also has the quality that will make it relevant 30, 60, and 90 years from now (I do not make bets about future that extend between one century :-) ). It's a gangster story in the French tradition, Melville's movies come to mind immediately, and the fact that some of the bad guys are American is actually also a French noir films tradition. Although the making of the film is closer to David Lynch's peak period, 'Mauvais Sang' precludes the best of what Tarantino will make 10 or 15 years later. I actually have almost no doubt that both Lynch and Tarantino saw this film several times and were deeply inspired by it. It is however more - it is a double love story, or two love stories which are sensitive and beautifully told. And then, the final scene makes - so it seems to me - a reverence to 'Casablanca'.
What gives such quality to 'Mauvais Sang'? First, the actors. Michel Piccoli- at the edge of seniority, playing the gangster - combinator whose combines not always succeed best. Breathtakingly beautiful and young Juliette Binoche in one of her first major roles. And, of course, Denis Lavant, Caras's best acting asset ever. Then the cinematography. I do not know how much we owe to Caras and how much to the director of cinematography Jean-Yves Escoffier but almost each shot is a piece of art, and the colors combinations are sublime and uniquely expressive - just watch the repeated combinations of blue, white and red! There are the ingredients, but the ultimate merit belongs without doubt to Leos Carax, a master chef of the French cinema.
This may be the rock film of the year. Meryl Streep plays an aging
supermarket cashier who spends her evenings playing Stones and U2 music
in a club for a faithful audience of a few tens of people, many of them
her age if not older. She has a history. She left her family, three
kids, a comfortable life as the wife of a corporate executive about
25-30 years ago in order to follow her dream. Playing music. She does
play music, but never could make a living out of it. She actually
hardly makes ends. Then, the past calls. Her daughter goes through a
divorce, tries to commit suicide. She is called on mother duty. She,
who left mothership to fulfill a dream that never happened.
The film worked for me on several levels. Music is part of the life of the characters and there is good music in this film, and some of the best scenes are the ones filmed in the music club. Whoever played music or just loves music will immediately relate to the characters that play on stage and those who sit in the audience, vibrate at the sounds they like and are stoned while tunes that they do not like are played, jump and dance when the right music is played. To a certain extend the film is about the differences between the world of passion and the world of conventions and routine. But then it's also a film about the relation between following individual happiness and sharing time and life with the family. Ricki in this film follows her dream and leaves everything behind. She could have been the happy rich wife of a corporate executive and live in a luxurious cottage in a privately guarded exclusive area, but chose a different path. This path practically failed, success did not come, she hardly meets ends, and never did a second disk. The highest price however is the broken relation with her children who grew to call another woman 'mother' and did not even bother to invite her to their weddings. She has just one thing to balance all these losses - her music. Will this be enough? Need I say again that Meryl Streep is phenomenal? It seems nowadays that any role she plays is up to the Academy Awards nominations level, and this one is no exception. She also sings, and she also brings to screen the insecurity, the age and the dilemmas of the character. Mamie Gummer, Streep's daughter in life is also her daughter on screen, and her creation is remarkable. It's not easy to share screen with your own mother, and even less when the mother is Meryl Streep with all her charisma - yet Gummer's Julie is alive and real, fighting her personal daemons and breaking gradually the wall of mis-communication between the two. Rick Springfield does the fine expected role especially when on stage and all the rockers club numbers are credible and emotional. One can see that director Jonathan Demme (of Philadelphia fame) loves music and is also well exercised in documentary. He made a film which looks a little conventional and melodramatic in it's family drama part, but comes to life and is at best when it deals with music. Probably the best rock film of the year.
A few days ago I have seen the brand new 'Black Mass' which is also a
mob story made in Hollywood and enjoying the participation of a fine
cast. I was not enthusiastic. 'Gangster Squad' directed by Ruben
Fleischer has the few ingredients that I was missing in that film,
which make the genre 'mob story inspired by real characters' much more
enjoyable to me. It does start with 'inspired by a true story' (or
'true characters'), inserts the inevitable 'true crime' photos, and
ends with the even more unavoidable text and pictures about the years
spent in jail by the surviving bad guys, and the years happily spent
fighting crime and raising kids by the good guys (those who survived,
of course). In the middle it does better.
The story of 'Gangster Squad' is set in the post-war LA, and this certainly helps as the place and the period seems to gather interests because of the classical 'noire' thrillers that it inspired followed by a number of successful movies (starting with The Maltese Falcon, of course, set and filmed in 1941). The despicable bad guy's name is Micky Cohen and his overtaking of the city could not (at least according to the script) be fought but by unconventional vigilante methods, because most of the police and judicial system was corrupted by hum. Find the right cops, motivated enough by having fought and survived WWII in order to build a world worth being lived by their kids, add the necessary dose of romantic, get a stunt master and a good choreographer for the fights and chases, and success is almost ensured.
The story may be more remote from the truth than in 'Black Mass', the capabilities of the squad in fights and shooting may seem overrated, but at the end of the day the result was more enjoyable for me. It certainly helped to have on board such a fine team of actors, including Sean Penn as the ultimate bad guy, 'can't do wrong' Ryan Gosling, and beautiful Emma Stone who always seems to create around her a fascinating touch of mystery very appropriate in this movie. 'Gangster Squad' is a mob story that works and succeeds to be an entertaining film.
Sometimes you see a film which has great premises and it disappoints.
Some other times however a film which according to the subject and
taking into account previous experiences in the genre is doomed for
failure succeeds to surprise in a good way. This is exactly the case
with World War Z directed by Marc Forster starring The Brad Pitt.
The human race is in danger and the enemy is inside. It is actually us and our neglect to the environment that causes a destructive virus to take over and spread by means of the global airlines network. In a few days or weeks, the danger cannot be hidden, as the virus turns almost on the spot human beings into zombies with enhanced powers and infinite hunger to bite and infect other human beings, and cities and countries fall one after the other into Z dementia. Only tiny Israel (one of a few movies my country comes with some kind of a positive face) succeeds to delay the fate by isolating itself and building a wall separating healthy people from the world-wide infection, but no wall is high enough to stop such an invasion (hear! hear!).
The resulting film is pretty entertaining, although the story is not much different that the one told at least ten if not one hundred times. Director Marc Forster seems to try something else with each of the films he makes, and here his rehabilitation of a genre compromised by too may bad B-series movies succeeds, as he can tell a story and creates a few memorable images like the one of the hysterical zombies pyramids, beings that may have lost humanity but gained social grouping instincts, which had a 'Lord of the Rings' quality. Brad Pitt may seem to be a little bit regressing in his acting career, but as he approaches the mid-age roles time he must have felt happy to act again as the sexy savior of mankind, blessed with both muscles and brains.
The word is saved again. The only bad news may be that WWZ 2 is in preparation :-)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
You can hardly get a better set of premises for a film than the ones of
Le tout nouveau testament or The Brand New Testament by Belge director
Jaco Van Dormael. Bored being, one day, God created Bruxelles (quite a
fun city actually, but this is a tourist perspective, not the one of
the inhabitants and certainly not the one of God). Then he moved
together with his wife and daughter (his Son JC died about 2000 years
ago, as we all know) in a secluded apartment, from where he controls
the world by means of a PC and an Internet connection. He is quite a
nasty guy, making happen to people on Earth all the unpleasant things
we know about, and an abusive father, who does not allow any TV but
sports in the apartment. Until the day when his pre-teen daughter
decides to take revenge and run away, not before using her Father's
computer to let all people on Earth know the date and time of their
death. When arrived on Earth, she needs to find six extra-apostles
chosen randomly from the population of the planet (or of Belgium better
said). Why 6? Because 12 + 6 = 18 - the number of players in baseball,
the preferred sport of Mother.
Before you get angry on me, these are only the first 5 or 10 minutes of the story. The rest is about how these wonderful premises are being used. Director Van Dormael seems to have had two models in his mind. The first is of course the eternal masterpiece of historical satire Life of Brian. Because of the subject. The second is the eternal masterpiece of sweet feel-good movies Amelie. Because of the kid-actress Pili Groyne who is in control of all the action and all good or at least well-intentioned things that happen on screen. The result is also middle-of-the-road. Too middle-of-the-road. Because Van Dormael does not have (yet?) the daring insanity of Monty Python and because Pili Groyne is not (yet?) Audrey Tautou.
Much of the film is spent with telling the stories of six brand new apostles, what they chose to do with the rest of their lives now that they know precisely how long it will last, and how the Brand New Testament and the team of 18 are performing better than the previous editions. As one may expect, the ending is kind of DEUS EX MACHINA.
This sweet merry Reformation on screen is fun to follow for most of the time. Just the pleasure of seeing Catherine Deneuve in a new role (one of the apostles, no more or less) is enough reason to go and see it and there are other. Yet, director Jaco Van Dormael took a bet and partly lost it in starting from such bright ideas and producing just a nice film.
The season for screening films with ambitions for Academy Awards must
have started. Black Mass is directed by Scott Cooper - a relative
newcomer (this is only his third film) but a rising star among
directors at Hollywood if we are to judge the impressing cast he
succeeds to enroll - better and better and certainly more expensive
from movie to movie. It seems to meet at least a few conditions to
enter the competition for Academy nominations. It stars Johnny Depp in
a role we barely recognize him which may well get him into the Final 5.
It tells a story that captured at some point in time the interest and
imagination of big audiences, and it deals with a Big American
character. The fact that this character is a despicable gangster, who
was in control of one of the lead Mafia gangs ('the Irish one') in
Boston in the 80s and early 90s and was responsible for numerous
murders and organized crime felonies may eventually matter when the
jury will debate. Or maybe not. Until then, let us take our places in
the theaters or download from the Internet and watch the movies.
James 'Whitey' Bulger now serving a couple of life sentences is the kind of anti-hero America is fascinated with. The story starts in 1975, when Bulger is enrolled as an informant by the FBI - a status which together with the family ties (his brother played by Benedict Cumberbatch was a state senator) ensured him two decades of immunity and the almost total dominance on the crime industries in the Boston area after eliminating (with the help of the police and justice system) the Italian rival gangs. The story on screen mentions nothing about the still not elucidated episode of the murder of the "Lady of the Dunes" that took place a year before, but does include the death of Bulger's only child that actually took place in 1973. From this episode we may or maybe are supposed to understand the motivations of his violence and lack of respect for law or human life? Quite thin for an explanation in my opinion. Despite Depp's fantastic acting the man behind the crimes remains an enigma.
The rest is a 'true crime' story (the film is inspired by a true crime book) with the relations between the boss and his acolytes, the treason and executions of the traitors, the have-heard-it-already rants about the Mafia honor code, with corrupt cops and victimized girlfriends, and with a twist towards Bulger's support for Irish nationalism and terror movements, which was part of the reasons that led to his eventual fall. It started quite confusing to my taste, it improved as the story grew and the relation between characters became more clear (and the number of characters decreased :-) ) but it did not reach any of the peaks of the genre like in Scorsese's films or in Mystic River. Depp's performance is hypnotic, I will try a metaphor and say that he brings death to his hero on screen. Cumberbatch on the other hand will not get another Academy nomination for his role here. I know nothing at this point about the other candidates, but in an average to weak year I would bet for a couple of awards.
What critics and audiences call 'the Romanian New Wave' is not that new
any longer. Already in its teens it has focused on the present times,
and the recent past of Romania - the last decade of the Communist era
and the 'transition' period the country went through after the fall of
the Communism. By doing so it neglected a tradition built into the
history of the Romanian cinema - the historic movies. The first grand
Romanian movie made more than a century ago was already a historic
film, bringing back to screen the War of Independence of Romania in
1877 several decades after the event. The genre was taken over and
polluted in the Communist period by many films which not only brought
on screen heroic episodes and heroes of the Romanian history but also
distorted it on the lines of the National-Communist propaganda of the
regime. This may be the reason Romanian directors, producers, and
audiences as well avoided the genre for a while. It is only in the last
few years that historical themes came back to screens in more
significant movies - the war period and the Holocaust first. Now
'Aferim!' by Radu Jude goes further back in the past, to the first half
of the 19th century. His film (blessed with an important prize at the
Berlin Festival early this year) however has also strong and explicit
implications in the realities of today's Romania as well.
Folks who know the history of Romanian cinema and remember some of the films made decades back will recognize elements of atmosphere and quotes. The 'Eastern' genre which took the structure of the classical American Westerns bringing on screen local characters or even changing the landscape to the fields, forests and mountains of the Romanian countries was popular in the 70s with the 'Haidouk' series but also in the works of Dan Pita (the 'Ardelenii' series). The inspired black and white cinematography credited to Marius Panduru and the very conventional generic that opens the film brought in mind the even older 'Tudor' by Lucian Bratu made in 1962 which dealt with events that took place 14 years before the year 1835 when 'Aferim!' is situated. The violently naturalistic nature of some of the scenes has also its roots in the Romanian literature (Liviu Rebreanu's novels) which were also brought to screen.
Yet, this film aims more. The story of the local sheriff (let us use this name for the sake of the international audience) and of his son searching for a fugitive gypsy in the forest and swamps of Wallachia is not just a road movie or an initiation story from the perspective of the young lad destined to inherit the profession of his father. It is a deep and cruel reflection of the prevailing attitude not only of the ruling class but of the whole or great majority of the population of Romania towards other nationalities. The story and the characters come in a frontal manner against deeply rooted stereotypes like the welcoming attitude of Romanians towards strangers or the positive role of the Orthodox church in the moral fiber and education of the masses. It is actually a priest who speaks on screen a tirade full of prejudice against all categories of strangers living or getting in contact with the Romanian at that time - Gypsies of course, but also Jews, Turks, Russians, etc. Folks less familiar with the history of Romania should know that by 1835 Romania was still broken into smaller countries under Turkish, Austrian and Russian rulers - so what is seen on screen has a historical perspective. It is however the relation with the present that comes in mind immediately for those who know history and present. Romania as other East European countries have a big social and ethnic problem with the lack of integration of part of their Roma (gypsy) minorities. The roots of this situation lay to a great extent to the slavery practiced on this minority until mid 19th century. Slavery was abolished (in 1855-1856) but prejudices stay.
The merit of Radu Jude is to avoid any excuse or sweetening of the historical facts, while telling a coherent story and creating characters who are not only credible but also memorable. He carefully builds the atmosphere, habits, language of the time in a well documented manner. He is helped by a fine team of actors - Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu as the father and son, Toma Cuzin as the fugitive (would have deserved maybe more screen time to give more complexity to his character), and Alexandru Dabija as the cruel but credible landlord. Two of the best actors of Romania from the older generation Victor Rebengiuc and Luminita Gheorghiu appear in short roles, which shows that even important artists were interested to be part of this cinematographic experience. I feel that 'Aferim!' is a film that was much talked about since its release, and will be even more talked about in the future.
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