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Topaz (1969)
not exactly a final jewell
13 December 2017
'Topaz' is quite different than most of the previous movies in the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock and also lacks the (American movie) stars in its distribution, as his fans were accustomed in the 20 or 30 years that preceded its release in 1969. These may be two of the principal reasons that the movie is less credited in by the critics and historians of cinema. There are, however, sufficient reasons of satisfaction for the movie fans, and the film does not fall in my opinion lower than 'Torn Curtain' that preceded it by three years, and also brought to screen a Cold War spy story. On the contrary, I would say.

The film brings to screen a novel by Leon Uris which tells a true story of a Soviet spy ring in the high French political environments during the critical days of the Cuban missiles crisis. The events in the fall of 1962 that brought the world closer than ever to an atomic war were since then the subject or background of many books and films, but Hitchcock was the first well-known film director to bring what was at that time very recent history to screen, in a moment when the story was still under censorship in France. However, this was not in the area of comfort for Hitchcock who liked to be very involved in the writing of the story and building of the suspense, an opportunity that was lost with 'Topaz' . This may be also why there is less Hitchcock thrill in this film than we are used. There is yet quality, but more in the details than in the overall architecture.

One of the best parts of the film is the rendition of the atmosphere of the time and places where the action takes place. Washington, Moscow, Copenhagen, Paris are all well served by filming on location, the only exception is Cuba, for obvious reasons. We can say that Hitchcock was a pioneer (also) of the international spy thriller, and we can only imagine what would have happened if he had been trusted with a James Bond movie. He also uses in a flawless manner the combination of documentary clips cut and edited together with filmed fiction. The lead actors are not doing great service to the movie, but we can see a progress and less stiff acting than in previous films. It is with the supporting roles that the good surprises appear, with the beautiful and exotic Karin Dor in the Cuban episode, and the French stars Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret giving style and credibility to the French episode of the action. It is in the humor of dialogs and situations, in the use of music (composed by Maurice Jarre) and in the creative games of colors that we find some of the Hitchcock touch. Otherwise, we can just enjoy a good action movie based on a Cold War story which has the merit to have been filmed at the time of the Cold War. Not a bad film, but not really one of the best Hitchcock films either.
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Torn Curtain (1966)
the odd charm of the Cold War films
10 December 2017
I love seeing films half a century after their initial releases. It's not only a cinematographic experience that in many cases brings up unexpected gems, but also an opportunity to compare the acting and directing styles, the technical means, and the perspective on events, which some were actuality at the time the films were made and became history since then. In some cases it's also the opportunity to compare a fresh viewing with our own memories about the film, although this is not the case here with Torn Curtain , a late film by Alfred Hitchcock, whose Cold War theme seen from the Western perspective had no chance to pass the filter of the censorship in my native Romania at that time.

There are many interesting elements in this story about a an American scientist (Paul Newman,) who plays spying games and simulates a crossing of the lines to East Germany in order to discover the status of a key weapon in the rockets arsenal of the Communist block. When his unknowingly fiancée (Julie Andrews) joins him against his will, his mission becomes more complicated. It's at the same time a psychological thriller (the fight of the minds between the American professor and his East German counterpart), an action movie, and a relationship story with some of the Hitchcock touch. As in many of his films, Hitchcock succeeds wonderfully in the thriller part, partially succeeds (or partially fails) in the action area, and fails completely in the romantic zone.

50 years later, the very interesting part of the film is the rendition of the Cold War atmosphere. I have seen several films about that period, some more recent, and I was surprised how well Hitchcock succeeded to catch the feeling of the area without falling in any black-and-white clichés, describing a world close to what I knew, with people living under the pressure of a dictatorship, but still managing to joke, eat, drink, dance even under the scrutiny of the portraits of Karl Marx. There are less credible scenes - for example the whole auto-bus episode (why were these people traveling together at all?), but they belong to the action part of the script. Acting is decent, with Newman and Andrews doing what I remember they were supposed to do, but the most wonderful surprise is a poignant scene with the Russian-born actress Lila Kedrova which some may remember from Zorba the Greek . Her role there was unforgettable, so is the one here if you have the chance to see the film. A few daring Hitchcockian camera takes build the thriller part. A film to watch, especially if you are Hitchcock fans.
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21 November 2017
'Marjorie Prime' can be considered a science fiction film of a particular kind. The director of the film is Michael Almereyda, is 58 years old and without being one of Hollywood's most celebrated names, he has a diverse and exciting cinematographic record that includes action and vampire movies' a 'Hamlet' placed in New York City today and a fairly successful romantic story happening in a New Orleans who is trying to get back to normal after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. This story is about a well-placed family that lives in the near future somewhere on the ocean, and uses hologram and avatars technology to bring a younger incarnation of the long-dead husband to an old and Alzheimer's disease affected mother, trying to bring back from past memories about events and experiences.

A lot and very little is known about this terrible neuro-degenerative disease. Diagnosis and symptoms are becoming better known in the smallest details. The population of the globe is aging, and with it the percentage of affected people has grown spectacularly over the last decades. The exact causes are unknown or not elucidated to the end. Heredity plays an important role in 70% of cases, but it is not the only source. Treatments do not yet exist, not even in the near future world imagined in 'Marjorie Prime'. What is proposed at the beginning of the main heroine film is not a healing treatment, but a slowing down of the advance of the disease and an attempt to temporarily remedy the situation by refreshing the memory. The appearance of seemingly real people, frozen in time at a certain age, does not, however, remain without impact on other members of the family. As time passes, other family members begin to need the avatars company. Biological mechanisms continue to do their job, while their virtual partners remain immune to disease or aging. But not in their capabilities. The screenwriters equipped the avatars in 'Marjorie Prime' with cognitive expansion. In other words, avatars learn, enrich their information about their own past (in fact, about the people they represent virtually), and thus improve their interaction and relationships with other people and with each other.

As the action progresses, the questions that we can ask multiply. In fact, what are we, people? body? thoughts? an entity that some call soul? Or are we just the memories we leave behind? I will not reveal more because I do not want to take the pleasure of watching those who decide to watch this movie. It can be interpreted as a parable. Perhaps it is about the perennial character of human beings, or of mankind itself. In a world where wealth is getting better and acquiring features that include learning and self-improvement, is there room for people? Because the robots have the potential to overcome the goals we have created, to help people and expand their physical and intellectual forces, and become competitors to the planet's limited resources. When is this threshold crossed? Perhaps it is actually about the perennial character of the human species in another form of incarnation? The film has an end that some will find pessimistic, but I'm not one of them. From the cinefil's point of view, I admired the clever writing story (adaptation of Jordan Harrison's play) and the exceptional play of Lois Smith, Tim Robbins, Geena Davis. Recommended!
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disturbing parable
21 November 2017
The movies of Yorgos Lanthimos are hard to compare or include in a category. Maybe they should be declared a genre of their own. Dogtooth or The Lobster provided dystopian perspectives of family and love. With 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' it looks that he made steps ahead. Both in assimilating and processing myths and social relations, but also in creating a disturbing atmosphere. This is a disturbing film from many points of view. Because or despite of it it forwards a strong message that makes the film impossible to forget.

The story starts as a medical drama. The successful surgeon dr. Murphy (Colin Farrell) has it all - a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman), two manageable kids, and some kind of a tutoring relation with another teenager of lower social condition which he may lead to becoming a surgeon as well. Yet, the apparent solid fabric of his life is slowly deteriorating as the kid friend starts showing signs of becoming somebody different, who shares dark secrets and has reasons to punish or even destroy his life. The film slowly slides into horror, fantastic, myth. It ends in a very different place from the one it started. It's shocking and frightening.

The art of Yorgos Lanthimos combines the fluent story telling with the mastering of the different genres, but his roots are deeper, as the hints to Greek mythology that is included in the title. He also makes no effort to avoid controversy of break taboos. It's not easy viewing, but it's impossible to get out of the mind if you immersed in his world. Strongly recommended.
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Hungarian lust and money drama
21 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
We may have been among the first viewers of 'The butcher, the whore and the one-eyed man' ('A hentes, a kurva és a félszemü' is the original title) at its projection in the first half of October at the Haifa International Film Festival. The film was still marked as in 'post-production' on IMDb, so no reviews or too detailed information were available.I have seen no previous work of director János Szász and I know too little about the Hungarian cinema nowadays, so it was a good opportunity to see new faces and compare the approach of the Hungarian film makers with the one of the neighboring Romania or Czech Republic ones, with whom I am more familiar. I was not disappointed.

The story is set in the decade following WWI. While the whole Europe was living the post-war trauma, the situation was much harder in the countries that had lost the war: Germany, Austria, Hungary. A whole world had crumbled and many people were left with the scars of war not only in their flesh but also in their souls. Many women were obliged to sell their bodies, men to steal or kill to meet ends. For some the situation was post-apocalyptic, while other tried to retreat into the traditional ways of living and surviving. On this background, in a remote and poor corner of the defeated Hungary, takes place the story of love and hate, broken promises and violence that engulfs the triangle of characters in the title. It may be based on a true story, but the naturalistic approach reminds the novels of Zola with their inevitable sliding in evil and deer endings.

The black-and-white cinematography approach in this film belongs to the line open by Michel Hazanavicius in the more entertaining 'The Artist' and continued by other directors like François Ozon more recently in 'Frantz'. They use the 'old' cinema approach to deal with the post WWI period when cinema did not yet get colors, but also to make artistic statements: homage to the film industry of the period and a filter of a reality of the war and post-war period that fits well from a stylistic point of view. After all, the middle and the end of the 1920s was the time of glory of the German expressionist film school. The result is spectacular here, there are a few shots of anthological beauty and expressiveness. The names of the three actors are Zsolt Nagy, Dorka Gryllus, and Géza Hegedüs . I do not remember having seen previous work of theirs, and all three are fine in their respective roles. This brutal story of love and deception does not fall behind similar films about the period with much more famous names on the generic.
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Tiere (2017)
uneasy beauty
20 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I am a passionate of Switzerland, one of my preferred countries for vacation, a place that won its name for the beauty of its nature, but also for the calm and order that seem to reign in its cities and villages, as well as in the relations between its people. Seldom has the beauty of Switzerland and of its mountains seemed to me so disturbing, so uneasy, as in 'Tiere' the film directed by Greg Zglinski which I have seen a couple of weeks ago at the Haifa International Film Festival. The title was translated in English as 'Animals', but should it rather be 'Beasts'? Better German speakers will tell me, It seems that the director and authors of script learned one of the basic rules of fantastic and horror art, theorized and applied in its writings by the Romanian historian and writer Mircea Eliade: fantastic and horror can be even more efficient when exceptional events and strange phenomenons start in a 'normal' and friendly surrounding. The movie directed by Greg Zglinski turns a land of vacation that is very familiar to many of us into a land of uncertainty and uneasiness.

What we are presented in the film is a collection of inter-related parallel stories. At first time they are quite banal - a mid-class German couple leaves for a few months in the Swiss mountains, they do not seem to be the happiest couple in the world, but is not infidelity nowadays quite banal also? They leave a caretaker in place in their apartment, she seems to have her small misdemeanors as well. The neighbor upstairs falls to her death, was it an accident or a crime, did it really happen? Yet, all is more complicated than it seems, we soon slide from Woody Allen into Hitchcock territory, because same as the characters in the story we never know what is true and what is cheat, and the style of filming is so designed that we are never sure what is reality, what is dream, or maybe comma delirium. The director plays with the cinema genres as he does with the perspectives of the story telling. At some moments in time 'Tiere' looks like characters comedy, at other it is mixing elements of social drama and romantic stories, add to this the fantastic touch that envelops everything as the fog sometimes envelops the landscape of the mountains.

I liked much of what I have seen. The film benefits of efficient acting with Birgit Minichmayr, Philipp Hochmair, and Mona Petri playing more than three roles, or -if you want - more than three incarnations of their characters. Cinematography is superb. I liked less the ending which commits the sin to try to explain too much. Overall however, 'Tiere' is a film to see, not only by fans of the horror films genre.
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the darkest hours
9 October 2017
It so happens (and maybe it was not just a coincidence) that I have seen 'The Dead Nation' ('Tara moarta' in Romanian) at the Haifa International Film Festival the very day that is declared in Romania as the National Holocaust Day. I saw the film in a hall where maybe one half of the viewers were survivors of the Holocaust or their immediate descendants. This very special documentary created by Radu Jude is part of a still open debate in Romania about the role and responsibility of its leaders and people in the Holocaust. It's the kind of event that cannot be judged only from the perspective of the film fan, because it includes so much history, politics and emotional charge.

Radu Jude shows again that he is a director who does not run away from controversy and who is not afraid of inventing new ways to put on screen his ideas and the messages that he considers as important. 'The Dead Nation' covers the years 1936 to 1944, the darkest period in the history of Romania and in the history of the Jewish community in this country, which counted almost one million people prior to WWII. While the country fell into nationalistic dictatorship, became an ally of Nazi Germany, implemented racial laws, and deported part of its Jewish population in ghettos and forced labor camps in occupied Russia and Ukraine, it also lost part of its territory to the neighboring USSR and Hungary, with the Jews being considered and scapegoats. However, there is no direct footage on screen about what happened. Instead, the director used a collection of photographs recovered from a photo studio in a small dusty town in South Romania of the epoch. Instead of pogroms, ghettos and death trains we see on screen the peasants, soldiers, nationalist militants in their festive but also daily lives occasions. And riffles. Many, many riffles. The soundtrack is more sophisticated, composed from a combination of nationalist Romanian songs, news reels commentary, speeches of the politicians of the time alternated with reading from the daily journal of a Jewish doctor - deprived of all rights, subject to fear, abuses, persecution. The message is the one of 'parallel lives'.

'The Dead Nation' lets the viewers make their own judgment, there is no off-screen comment that guides, explains, tries to make explicit points. There are no moving images, just a collection of stills pictures from the Acsinte collection of photographs. Viewers are left to judge by themselves. It belongs to a category of itself, maybe the only similar documentary that I can compare this film with is Claude Lanzmann's 'Shoah'. I can only wish that the public impact and contribution in understanding and assuming the dark history of the Holocaust will be - from the Romanian perspective - similar.
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the great puppeteer
7 October 2017
Seeing the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski is a special experience, now, more than two decades since he stopped making films, and died soon after. The Polish director's relative short life (he died at the age of 54) and career (less than two decades) is now turning into legend. Each of his films shows the quality and the emotion of a true master of the cinema. "The Double Life of Veronique" (or "La double vie de Véronique" in French) is one of his best known movies, made at the peak of his cinema career, between the Decalogue and the Three Colors trilogy. Somehow I missed it at release. Now, in the perspective of the life and death of the director, not only that it stays as a remarkable piece of cinema but it is enriched with new significance.

Fate and identity are the two big topics of this film. Have you ever had the feeling that you are not alone or even unique in the Universe, that somewhere or maybe in some other time, a parallel destiny is shared with yours? Did you ever feel like your life is not the result of your own decisions, that higher forces manipulate you life, same as a puppeteer controls his marionettes? If you ever felt something like this or if you can understand or imagine such feelings, this story of two young women, living in two different parts of Europe, sharing talents, feelings and fate without their lives ever intersecting for more than a few seconds, this story should not seem strange at all.

Beautiful films (and books, and paintings, and musical works) have complex layers of meanings and a multitude of details that are revealed to the viewer, reader, listener. This is exactly the case with "La double vie de Véronique". One can use multiple keys to read the story. There is a political reading about the parallel destinies of the two women who are born and live on the two sides of the curtain that divided Europe and was just falling down by the time the film was made. There is a philosophical reading about destiny and about the controllers of the destiny (the puppeteer, the writer who creates characters and write about their destinies). There is a religious reading with multiple symbols that ask to be examined from the name of the main character to the music that is sung and played during the film.

Each of the scenes includes details that support the multiple stories and have their place in it, in some cases relating to other scenes in the peer story. The only exception was the secondary thread about presumptive perjury by the French Veronique whose sense I could not decipher. Music plays an important role, as the two women are musicians, they sing and teach music that reflects their relation with fate and God. So does light, which is in some cases maneuvered by the characters. The mirrors also show up in many scenes, sometimes as a reflection of the self, in other cases as a gate to the other side, as in Lewis Carroll's stories. Shades and mysteries follow the characters and the viewers at any corner and in any moment.

Kieslowski's mastering of the art of cinema is matched by the superb acting of Irène Jacob. She is strange and beautiful, sensitive and expressive. I can also wonder why her star paled after Kieslowski stopped making films, and why other film directors could not make better use of her beauty and talent. She is part of the same generation of French and French-speaking actresses as Juliette Binoche for example, but their post 1995 careers were so different. What a pity.

I am happy to have discovered "La double vie de Véronique", even if so late. It's a film to see and see again.
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Foxtrot (II) (2017)
like a foxtrot
2 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Not only that there is no such thing as bad advertising, but bad advertising can help a lot. The success (public, critics, festivals) of Samuel Maoz's second film 'Foxtrot' may become at some point an example in the text books of cinema and public relations. The critics in Israel (including the Minister of Culture whose office actually supported financially the making of the film) who have trashed the film for its political attitude without seriously discussing it and (some of them, probably) without seeing it just succeeded to create a big fuzz around 'Foxtrot' which will make many Israeli film fans go and see it, and may also draw the attention and increase the international interest. Will the viewers be rewarded with an exceptional cinema experience? Not in my opinion. It's not a bad film, but it also has many disputable parts, and I am not referring only to the political approach. Will it win it an Academy Award? I very much doubt it will even make it through the selection, although, of course, I will be glad to be proved wrong.

The film is built of three different parts, somehow like the three acts of a theater play. They may well be each of them a separate movies, as there are different leading themes in each of the acts, although they are interconnected. The first and the last part takes place in the house of the parents of a soldier, the middle one describes him and his comrades at the location where they are on duty, a a security checkpoint, someplace in an almost lunar landscape, that started to erode and decompose. A quote from Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker comes to mind immediately, it's just that the natural disaster around symbolizes the more universal disaster that is ongoing. I liked especially the first part, which describes so well the nightmare that any Israeli parent who sent his kids to the army fears more than anything else in the world. At some point in time the story breaks and the worse news received by the parents turn to something different and behind their grieving are hidden more darker secrets. The second part includes the problematic scenes and the least that can be said is that the story of the soldiers just out of their childhood put into the impossible situation of policing the local population in the occupied areas is told from a very programmatic point of view. Can such incidents happen in reality? Hard to believe IMO, but they deserve a discussion, and the discussion should be about the events and not about the right to show them on screen. The last part takes us back to the parents home, and the critical approach now shifts against the mid-class Tel Aviv families busy with their neurotics and their own mean small personal traumas, unable to face reality and hiding themselves behind the smoke of grass.

The three episodes have each their merits and their lose points, but they hardly come together, as each seems to carry its own message or more than one. Grief dominates the first, youth faced with war and politics dominate the second, escapism is the main theme of the third. It's a world that seems to have a hard time coming together, and so do the messages of this film that lack shared coherence. The film is full of symbols, too many, some quite good (the road leading to nowhere), some too obvious (the mud, the reclining cabin), some re-circulated from other movies trying to make the parts come together without really succeeding (the camel). When they try to be direct, the makers of the film failed, as in the schematic representation of the soldiers, the local population, and the relation between them. Lior Ashkenazi is fantastic in the first part, but his acting falls into mannerism and is less convincing later. Sarah Adler is a semi-miscast, too young for the role, spends much of the first part under sedation and never lets us understand her relationship with the father or the son. Overall my feeling was that this ambitious film failed in many respects because it tries to say too much and lacks one leading thread. As the dance in the title the story goes ahead, aside, and back, to return to the point where it started. It is still very much a film worth to see, even if some of the viewers will get to see it because of the wrong reasons, while some other will avoid it because of the same wrong reasons.
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End of Watch (2012)
predictable end of watch despite interesting film making
30 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
The fact that David Ayer is both the sole author of the script and the director of 'End of Watch' is quite interesting. If two different individuals would have written the script and directed the movie, respectively, I could have commented that the thin story written by the script writer had to be balanced by the film director, and he picked an interesting manner of filming based on some not very solid pretext in order to achieve what is an interesting movie. As the two are one - David Ayer - I am guessing that the idea about how to make this movie came first and the story was built around it. Of course, this is just a guess.

Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) and a couple of patrolling cops in the violent low-class districts of LA. One is a WASP, the other is Mexican. They are exemplary cops, actually too good to be true, the kind of cops that save kids from burning houses at the risk of their lives and get decorated for their deeds. They are more than friends, they are brothers, share all secrets, dance at each other's weddings and hold new born kids. They live and fight crime together and are ready to die together. And death eventually comes after them. Violent and unfair as they live in a violent and unfair world. Ours.

All this is nice, but, frankly speaking, it does not make for a too interesting story. Actually what really happens on screen is not too much and it's also very predictable. I could put a rather safe bet that at the end one of the cops dies, the other survives to see his funeral, the only question is which fate each of the two will be to occur. There is actually so little action in the film that the script-writer / director added a few minutes at the end describing facts having happened previous to the ending that do not add anything to the story.

With no real action to put on screen David Ayer tries to catch our attention with describing the details of the relationship between the two cops and with their colleagues, in the style made famous by 'The Wire' TV series. I like this part, which was supported by the excellent acting of Jake Gyllenhaal (one of my preferred actors) and Michael Peña . The second film directing trick is to use hand-held camera for part of the time. The pretext is the passion of one of the cops for documenting his work, which is mirrored by a similar hobby of one of the gangsters. It is this kind of technology-based detail which became obsolete one or two years after the time the film was made (2012) when any smartphone became a hand-held video camera with social networking becoming a repository and mean of communicating and transferring video files. We are left with an experiment which does not harm too much and makes the viewing of the film more interesting.

At the end, I feel like 'End of Watch' despite its qualities risks to disappoint the two categories of viewers that it seems to target. Action movies fans will be disappointed by the too short and too simple cop story. Quality cop dramas fans will be disappointed because the heroes do not enjoy enough time on screen to develop their friendship and make a difference in the violent world that they deal with on daily basis. Both claims could have been solved by a more complex and interesting story and script, but 'End of Watch' did not have one.
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