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living in Israel
makes a living out of computers and computer networks
best films ever - Casablanca, The Great Dictator, Citizen Kane
likes travelling, blues, rock and jazz music, reading, sports (especially football), and of course - films
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Cinematographic anniversaries are trendy. Films made 40, 45 or 50 years ago celebrate their birthdays with digital versions of the original films, sometimes even recovering scenes forgotten on assembly or removed by censorship or self-censorship. It is a great opportunity for me to see for the first time some of the important creations of the cinema of the world at that time, films that were unlikely to be brought on the screens of Communist Romania where I was living in the 1960s or 1970s. In many cases, these are real revelations, a good example being 'Midnight Cowboy', directed by John Schlesinger. The film, recovered under excellent technical conditions, is extremely fresh and at the same time authentic, giving viewers a time travel opportunity in the 1960s America, with music and landscapes of the period, with its people and their sins.
The story in the film is very contemporary, and I think that a remake (which I hope will not be done) should not change too much from the scenario. The two main heroes live on the edge of the Big Apple society, trying to make a living in the masculine version of the oldest profession in the world supplemented by a semi-homeless life and small robberies. The mirage of the great city quickly turns into a struggle for survival, in which the strange friendship between two strange people is a lifeline that helps them survive, even for a while. The social radiography and the psychological characterization are exceptional. These were the years in which American cinema, including that of big studios, was shifting from the self-censorship based on moral patterns to a more modern and realistic approach to the America of contrasts. This film is rightfully considered a landmark in this evolution.
I could write an essay on the interpretation of the two actors, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and it would be deserved. For Voight , the role of Texas cowboy Joe Buck who came to conquer New York and is hiding terrible traumas behind his innocent smile was his first important role, the one that launched his career. Hoffman was coming after the success of 'The Graduate' and the role of the cynical crook 'Ratso' not only consolidated his career but also helped him avoid stereotypes of distribution. This was his first or greatest composition role, others were to follow. Can I say these are two interpretations of anthology? I said it. And there are many other reasons to see 'Midnight Cowboy', one of the most contemporary movies I've seen lately, although it was done 50 years ago.
Dracula Untold (2014)
I'm not a fan of vampire movies. The genre does not interest me at all, and there must be other good reasons to have me sit in front of a screen to see a movie that belongs to it. One of these reasons is the promise that the movie says something new about the origin of the character, invented by Bram Stoker and modeled on the deformation of Vlad Tepes' historical personality. It's what 'Dracula Untold' promised ('Untold' like in the untold story). A promise that is far from accomplished. The film directed by Gary Shore is an acceptable entertainment film, not a masterpiece and not as bad as it could have been.
Historically, everything is a mess. Vlad is moved from Wallachia to Transylvania, the Cozia monastery (also moved over the mountains) becomes a fortress but with walls painted on the outside as in Bucovina, nothing in the film resembles Transylvania from then or now, which is no wonder as filming was made in Northern Ireland, and the cinematography is more like that of 'Lord of the Rings'. But there are pleasant surprises also. If we put aside any historical pretext, Vlad is portrayed as a charismatic and moral character, ready to sacrifice his humanity to save his country. The lead role actor, Luke Evans, is very good, making to look credible some of the most incredible scenes. After all, we are in an imaginary world where comics style meets vampire stories on big screens with computer graphics.
Director Gary Shore (well-known from advertising films) is at his first feature film, but this is not felt at any time. He builds the story intelligently, focusing on the main character and his evolution. The film has rhythm and the graphic effects are of good quality. The end even hints to a possible sequel, although I have not heard about one having been produced or in plans. The historical pretext is totally missed, the film does not say anything about the history behind the Dracula historical character, possibly just suggesting an alternative to the origin of Bram Stoker's fictional character. The line in the end credits that officially informs us that the characters and action of the film have nothing to do with real characters, now or in history, has never been more true.
Il capitale umano (2013)
facing the crisis
'Il Capitale Umano' ('Human Capital') is an adaptation to screen of an American novel written by Stephen Amidon, adapted and directed by Paolo Virzì. The story in the book takes place in the US during the economic crisis of 2001 caused by the collapse of the hi-tech market. The action of the film is transferred to Italy in 2008, during the crisis caused by the collapse of the real estate market. Both crises have resulted in spectacular falls in stock market shares, with implications for the savings and financial situation of tens of millions of people, more or less wealthy. The problems are universal, and this kind of global crises have long time ago crossed the borders between states and the world's economies. The consequences however are local and personal. Starting from the American novel, Paolo Virzì managed to make an intelligent and exciting film, and also very Italian film.
While rewriting the novel for screening, Paolo Virzì uses a method that is not original but which he manages skillfully -presenting the same events from three different points of view belonging to different characters. The success of the screenwriter and the director lies in the fact that we find out not only the different details that have been put together which will clarify the story, but we also get to know better the psychology of the characters, belonging to different social backgrounds and different generations. Virzì manages to capture his attention through a fluent story telling and through the psychological and social depth of his heroes' characterization. Of course, the excellent acting of the whole team of actors only helps (with a special mention for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, excellent here as well as in all the movies she is on screen).
'Human Capital' is the film of a crisis, and in this crisis each of the characters will be hit sooner or later. The quality of the film lies in the precision with which every character finds its place in the story for and in depth the description of their psychology. The Italian social environment, with its class differences, is excellently rendered. The localization of the story succeeded well to the director. Eventually each of the characters involved will manage to survive one way or another to the crisis. With one exception. It's a smart, well-written and well-acted film, the kind of which I would love to see as many as possible.
Stan & Ollie (2018)
Laurel & Hardy do melodrama
Since my childhood, I'm a passionate fan of the Laurel and Hardy films. They were among the few who were not censored in Communist Romania where I grew up, and we could enjoy a healthy and non-ideological laugh. The pleasure and the feeling of freshness remained intact when I watched them again after ten, thirty or fifty years. I'm afraid, however, that this comic viewing pleasure raises the expectations for any film that has the couple as heroes, even when it's a biopic that refers to the late years of their common career, like 'Stan & Ollie' directed by Jon S. Baird. The risk of being disappointed is hard to avoid.
Movies about aging cinema stars are enough to represent a sub-genre of the 'movies about movies' genre. Some of them were memorable. Let's remember 'Sunset Blvd.' or about Fellini's 'Ginger and Fred'. 'Stan & Ollie' is trying to walk along the same path, documenting the tentative to return to stages and screens of the two actors, more than a decade after their split, as the began to catch with them and the tastes of the public had changed. Laurel (Stan - Steve Coogan) and Hardy (Ollie - John C. Reilly) are a couple, a couple which has gone through a crisis and trying to get back to what they were, to reestablish the flame of humor and friendship between them. It is both a story about cinema and a story about a relationship, complicated by the presence of wives and the producer, who all play significant roles in their lives.
The problem is that we are dealing with a sad story about two people whose job was to make us laugh, and who probably were nice and funny persons, playing somehow their screen roles roles in real life. The film mixes a number of gags in the style of the films with the two comedians with a melodramatic story that has a known ending. None of the two threads is convincing. The comic part is not cruel enough, it does not go as far as the movies in which the two acted. The melodrama is predictable and superficial. The acting performances are remarkable, especially John C. Reilly's, an actor who has played some outstanding roles in recent years. It is not enough. 'Stan & Ollie' is a nice biopic that demands respect for the two actors, but it does not bring anything new to those who have loved their movies and is of course not representative for those who did not know them. I would rather recommend watching or watching again their original films.
end of the empire
1913 is a year that fascinates me. It was the last year of an order that reigned in Europe and the world for almost a century, established at the Congress of Vienna that had traced in 1814-15 the borders of Europe and the relations between the great powers of the time. Of course, it had been a century with many events - the 1848 revolutions, the emergence of new national states (Germany, Italy, Romania among them), conflicts and regional wars - yet Europe had been spared of major continental scale conflicts as the 30-year War or the Napoleonic wars had been in the previous centuries, and the balance between the great powers seemed relatively stable, also influenced by the relations between the royal and imperial families that reigned in many of the countries of the continent. Contradictions and conflicts were accumulating, while the more sophisticated classes benefited from a life style close to decadence. Europe had several cultural capitals - Paris, of course, but also Berlin, Vienna, Prague, or the newcomers Budapest and Bucharest - cities where the arts flourished in parallel with the underground rottenness. The fascination for this last moment of bourgeois tranquility and escapism that was 1913, a moment before the storms of the 20th century, is shared by many authors of books and movies. Hungarian director László Nemes, is the latest with his recent film 'Sunset' / 'Napszállta'.
László Nemes also faces the 'second film' syndrome, which are suffering from the directors who have made an exceptional debut. After 'Son of Saul' enjoyed an exuberant reception by critics and collected about all the major awards for foreign films (including the Academy Award and BAFTA for best foreign language film) three years ago, expectations are high. 'Sunset' is undoubtedly an ambitious movie. Nemes chose the year 1913 to launch a warning about the contemporary period, similar in his views to the accumulation of contradictions, the differences between the styles and the levels of life of the social categories, but above all similar in ignoring the acute problems facing Europe today. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was less than a year after 1913 to be engulfed in WWI, and which would disappear in five years, is a metaphor for today's Europe, another multinational empire suffering of escapism, ignoring the gathering problems or not finding the real solutions. In such times people seek their identity, so does the heroine of the film, Írisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman coming to Budapest in search of the truth about the death of her parents, about the fate of the hat store left to them in heritage, and about the destiny of her brother, whose existence she learns about, shrouded in a fog of mystery and fear.
László Nemes likes to put his audiences to test. With the story at hand he could have made of 'Sunset' a Gothic mystery with elements of historical drama mixed with 'horror'. These elements are present in the film, but the criminal intrigue does not seem to be the focus of the attention of the director (who is also co-scriptwriter). More important seems to him to be the ambience, an end-of-the-empire Budapest. The cinematography seems to be in tune with the name of the film, obscure lighting that leaves the feeling that night is permanently coming, which makes of the light of the few scenes shot in daylight to seem almost blinding. Part of the story is related to the hat making business, with the beautiful 1913 fashion creations that would make the English royal house of today jealous, a craft and symbol of a twilight world. The actors are superb, with Juli Jakab in the lead role combining the determination and defiance of social rules with an inner power that compensates for her fragility. Romanian star Vlad Ivanov is as good as always (I do not remember him acting a bad role in a movie or on stage ever), embodying Oszkár Brill, the hat store owner, a useless beauty factory, an apparently respectable institution, also hiding vices and dark stories between its walls. He speaks his role in Hungarian, and unfortunately I do not know this language well enough to judge whether he speaks impeccably or with some accent that may suggest a stranger in a cosmopolitan world.
'Sunset' is a beautiful and interesting movie, but the lack of attention or decision in the narrative thread loses the spectators at some point, or at least, it lost me. The characters appear and disappear before they have been completely defined, the same situations are repeated with small variations, and many of the details of the story are not concluded or explained. I could not avoid a feeling of length and repetition, and the open end added another enigma without clarifying anything that has happened until then, which does in my opinion add another element of dissatisfaction. László Nemes does not need to prove anything, he already has made to himself on merit a name among the important filmmakers of today's Hungary and Europe. He should now just pay more attention to his spectators.
Le mystère Picasso (1956)
Clouzot films Picasso
Pablo Picasso and a few other important artists of the 20th century (Constantin Brancusi is another example) had a love affair mixed with fascination with the photographic and film cameras. They recognized them as a means of artistic expression and not to a lesser extent as communication medias through which they could expand their fame in life and could document for posterity their artistic processes and the way they lived. These artists opened the doors of their studios and homes to photographers and filmmakers inviting them to photograph and film freely the ambience in which they lived and worked. Sometimes they picked the cameras themselves to explore new artistic genres. 'Le mystere Picasso', which I saw as part of the Clouzot retrospective at the local cinematheque, is one of the significant art documentaries that originated from these collaborations.
In Clouzot's filmography, this documentary finds its place in-between two of his most famous films - 'Diabolique' and 'Les espions'. Clouzot was at the peak of his popularity and success. The whole team is actually carefully selected, with Claude Renoir as a cameraman and director of photography and Henri Colpi in charge of editing. The result is a film that itself is a work of art.
At the beginning of the film, Clouzot makes a promise. He will give us a unique opportunity to enter the mind of a great artist while he realizes his creations. The promise, I feel, is only partially respected. We are, indeed, witnesses to Picasso's creative process, but the understanding of what happens in the mind (and soul) of the artist is left to the spectator. In the film Picasso speaks few words and when he does they are addressed to Clouzot and his team, and not to the spectators. And he does right, I think, by letting his lines and colors talk. Adopting a technique already used in 1949 by the Belgian director Paul Haesaerts in the documentary 'Bezoek aan Picasso', Clouzot places the camera on the opposite side of a white translucent glass surface on which Picasso draws, paints, applies collages, wipes, paints over, etc. . until he stops and declares 'this is ready'. Successive layers combine styles and techniques. Spontaneous creation or conception in advance? How does the artist decide when the work is done? These are not explained to us and we have to draw our own conclusions. Most of the works featured in the film (about 20 in number) were destroyed after filming. They only exist in the movie, combined with the music and the editing that accelerates or stops during the creative process, as decided by the director. Each of the sequences is work of art by itself, and together they create one of the most original art documentaries in the history of cinema.
the Rennaissance of the musical genre continues
Elton John accompanies my passion for pop and rock music for nearly 50 years. I confess that I was not an unconditional fan of Elton over all these years, the celebrities with bizarre behavior have not been and are not my cup of tea, but this musical directed by Dexter Fletcher managed not only to captivate me and make me vibrate (again ) to the music, but also to bring to light some of the roots of his way of being. Now, when Elton John's career seems to get close to an end (at least the touring part), there are chances for me to return to the ranks of his fans, thanks to this film.
Dexter Fletcher should initially have directed 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and he was the one who finished the film after Bryan Singer left the production. In 'Rocketman' producer Elton John entrusted him from the very beginning with responsibility of making a film about his own biography, childhood, coming to age, building his artistic personality and personal crises. He was right, I guess. Fletcher demonstrates again his huge talent in making the audience live again the atmosphere of the British pop world of the years of glory and to get to know the heroes of this revolution with their musical genius, but also their personal problems, the confrontation with life as stars, with drugs, alcohol, sexuality. His contribution to the revival of the musical genre can not be disputed, but I think it's more than that, because Fletcher combines in his films the limits and freedoms of the 'musical' genre, which became part of the mainstream in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s and the vibration of British rock. It is, if you want, a cinematic equivalent of the fusion that took place half a century ago between the pop in England and the rock and soul coming from overseas, from America.
The fact that Elton John is an executive producer of the film may, on one hand, be an assurance to viewers that the biographical information presented in the film is accurate and verified, but may also raise the suspicion that the film conceals some less comfortable details. It seems to me that the latter doubts can largely be eliminated. The script written by Lee Hall does not make many concessions to the characters of the singer's parents, nor to the ones of the more or less true friends who accompanied his career, and especially not to Elton John himself. The singer is shown in the periods he searches to define himself as a musical personality but also as a human being, including in the uncomfortable relationships with those around him, with his loneliness and the crises that brought him to the verge of suicide just when he was reaching the peak of his career. Homosexuality issues are addressed much more directly than in the 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The choice of Taron Egerton for the lead role of the artist's maturity period seemed to me to be excellent. The little-known actor shows his talent becoming Elton John on screen (including singing the musical part). The film is much less a musical biography in the strict sense of the cinematic genre and much more a true musical, with songs and dance numbers inserted in the story, not as entertainment but as a way of expression in the most dramatic points. But the film is entertaining, and sensitive, and a pleasure to watch and listen to. It's a good substantial musical that has the chances of winning new fans for Elton John, now and in the future.
interesting cinema, lacking emotion
Director and script author Marius Olteanu, at his first feature film, demonstrates in 'Monsters' that he knows the job. The film, which on these days made its debut on the Romanian screens in Cluj at TIFF and which I saw yesterday at a LGBT film festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, is professionally made and has many interesting ideas in its conception, is acted well by a team of actors who are guided with a safe hand, and has a modern, intimate and minimalist theme with references to the Romanian social realities. All the ingredients for a successful film are present, except for one - emotion.
The film describes 24 hours of the lives of Dana and Arthur (or perhaps Andrei, both names are used in the film), a childless couple of professionals in Bucharest, both approaching their 40s. The story is reported at first from the woman's perspective, then from that of the man, in segments dealing with the same hours in the life of the two, connected with a phone call. Then they get together for the third part of the story. The characters are slow to reveal themselves, we realize gradually that this is a couple in crisis, that this crisis lasts for a long time, that each of them seeks happiness separately, but they also can not live without each other. Why do not they split up? Why do they stay together? Spectators are left to find their own answers. If they exist.
Potentially this an intimate and interesting narrative about two people living an unusual love story, about a relationship that falls apart under social pressure but still refuses to disappear altogether. In the context of the debates about the 'traditional family' (in Romania but not only), the film also has a political message, discreetly expressed and not as a manifest. Yet, despite the potential, the film has some execution problems. One of them is length and repeatability. It does not take five screen minutes to express what viewers can understand in thirty seconds (the taxi scenes are an example). There is too little happening between the two characters, and what's interesting in the story are mostly the side episodes (the gay couple encounter, the chat with the taxi driver). The two lead actors, Judith State and Cristian Popa are very good but they are both too introspect, which makes it difficult to identify with them from the viewers' perspective. The cinematic ideas are interesting (the parallel segments of action in time, the use of the variable screen formats) but in the absence of emotion, they seem like demonstrative. I also enjoyed Alexandru Potocean and Serban Pavlu's performances in supporting roles. I look forward to the future movies of Marius Olteanu with the hope that the artistic but first of all human emotions will come to meet his incontestable cinematic skills.
Shooting the Mafia (2019)
a special kind of documentary about a special kind of woman
'Shooting the Mafia' is a documentary that tells the story of the life of a woman who is our contemporary, but whose biography is very different from that of most people around her and us. The merit of the Irish director Kim Longinotto is that she chose a non- conventional way of bring on screen an extraordinary biography. The combination of a special subject and of an exciting way to make movies makes of 'Shooting the Mafia' a captivating film, which also enters in a polemic with the way the the Sicilian Mafia is presented on the screen.It's a story we seem to know from films like 'The Godfather', but here we see it from another perspective.
Letizia Battaglia's biography covers all of Italy's modern history since the Second World War. The Sicilian teenager is raised in a strict atmosphere by a tyrant father. She accepts to get married at age 16 with the first man she was proposed to, in order to leave the house where she was secluded. Soon she gives birth and she grows up two daughters up to the age of maturity, like a typical Italian domestic woman, whom the man does not allow to learn or to practice a profession out of their home. Her re- birth of the person takes place when she is about 40 years old, but she will will take revenge on life as they say, divorcing, maintaining numerous relationships with men (many of them younger), and working as a photojournalist at a newspaper in Palermo . Here she will soon come in contact with the sordid realities of poverty and corruption, but especially with the violent society dominated by Cosa Nostra (the name of the Sicilian mob). She will photograph the murders in blood soaked pictures, become a friend of the judges who are trying to fight the phenomenon and who are murdered one after another, and she will get involved in politics when it becomes apparent that journalism activism is no longer enough. This is the biography of a special woman of great courage. The feminist message and the political criticism of violence, corruption, and especially fear are combined directly and expressively.
In order to bring the story of Battaglia's life on the screen, director Kim Longinotto has film sequences, photographs made by Battaglia throughout her work (many of them filled with violence, but of remarkable expressiveness and quality) and testimonies of her own and of those who have surrounded and accompanied her throughout her life (among which some of her former lovers, but also the current one). For the first period of her life, when she was not in front of the film or photo cameras, sequences from the films of the Neo-realistic era of post-war Italian cinema were used. The result is a documentary that is never boring, from a visual or from a message point of view. The spectators get the portrait of a strong and courageous woman who had the power to change the course of her life, to overcome the social and gender prejudices, to love and work in a profession she taught herself in which she excelled, a woman who has not remained indifferent to suffering around her, a woman who has done and continues to do all she knows and can do to correct injustice. 'Shooting the Mafia' is an interesting documentary and a remarkable cinematic portrait. It's also a condemnation of organized crime, showing its the real sordid face, very different from the glamor it gets in some of the Hollywood movies.
Les diaboliques (1955)
the French movie that Hitchcock would have loved to make
'Les diaboliques' made in 1955 by Henri-Georges Clouzot ends with an explicit request from the viewers of not sharing the plot and especially the end of the film. Of course, I will honor this request. I will say, however, that it's a long time since I had the pleasure of seeing a smart thriller like this. It's a film that shows its age in the way it's filmed and acted, but that does not bother at all, but on the contrary, like the best alcohols, it seems to be better appreciated now, in the perspective of the 64 years that have passed since its launching on screens.
I wonder why Clouzot 's name is not mentioned in the dialogue book between Truffaut and Hitchcock. Truffaut definitely knew this movie, and I would be amazed if Hitchcock did not know about it as well. I dare to fantasize that if this clever scenario (based on a novel) with characters well-characterized psychologically, with the story taking place in two closed spaces (a boarding school and a province house) linked one to the other by a journey with the car, with its suspense and permanent changes of situations and evolution of the characters that keep the audience's interest constant, Hitchcock the master of suspense would not have refused the opportunity to make this film.
Simone Signoret achieves in 'Les diaboliques' one of the most memorable roles of her career. There are many contrasts between the character played by her and the one acted by Véra Clouzot. Strong woman vs. weak woman. Mistress vs. wife. The apparent mismatch is accentuated by the fragility of the wife, in a role where a tragic real life coincidence involved the death of the actress, wife of director Clouzot, a few years after the film was made. Paul Meurisse in the role of the despicable school director is so credible that many of the spectators would like to cross the screen to kill him with their own hands. It is worth watching also each of the secondary roles, which offer the opportunity of unique creations, original typologies mostly in the comic register , in the best tradition of the classic French film and theater. Among them you will find with more than a decade in advance the character that inspired the creators of Inspector Columbo.All these make of 'Les diaboliques' a jewel of the classic French cinema and of the psychological thriller genre of all times.
Johnny English has a rival in the Mossad
Everyone enjoys a good laugh, and the summer cinema season is optimal for comedies. It's just the right time to watch a movie like "Mossad" written and directed by Alon Gur Arye, a parody in the genre of the "Naked Gun" series that combined comedy and espionage made in the 1990s by the American ZAZ trio (Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker), or of the British films that had as a hero Johnny English (played by Rowan Atkinson), back on screen last year. I saw the movie yesterday evening at its first or second public screening, before the official premiere, in a cinema hall that was full with an audience that reacted enthusiastically. I can bet that a new Israeli cult comedy is about to be born, and that Britain's secret agent Johnny English has now a serious Israeli rival in the secret agent Guy Moran (interpreted by Tsahi Halevi), equally ready to save the world risking to destroy it ten times.
The satirical arrows in this cinematic parody genre are usually directed towards two main directions - a "serious" theme from an area of activity with visibility and of major interest for the public (in this case the fight against terrorism and the secret wars led by the national spy organizations - Mossad, CIA) and the 'serious' movies related to this theme (here the action films and series such as 'James Bond', 'Mission Impossible', etc.). In order to succeed, such films should avoid dealing with any of the 'sacred cows' and should include as many jokes as possible with references to known realities or famous films, all packed in a story which aims to be coherent but is explicitly not taken too seriously. I think the screenwriter and director Alon Gur Arye has very honorably succeeded to meet these conditions and the result is a fun and engaging movie.
The pace of jokes and comic situations is considerable and these are present from the first frame before the generic to the last one at the final credits. I'm not convinced that everything will pass the screen to the international audiences, and as the screening had English subtitles I noticed that some adaptations are being attempted. The level of satire and critical humor dealing with the bombastic myths, local bureaucracy, or typology of secret war heroes did not seem to me to fall under anything else in the genre, the latest 'Johnny English', for example. I can say the same thing about the level of acting - Dvir Benedek and Tsahi Halevi are excellent in the key roles, the feminine presences are attractive and expressive, Tal Friedman creates an original role that makes us forget his appearances in popular comic television programs, and the Israeli screen and stage veterans Gila Almador and Ilan Dar act in the movie with obvious pleasure. They all have fun and make us have fun. The less successful parts of this film are related to the coherence of the action (there is no moment of real suspense) and the special effects that have suffered from a clear lack of funds, with results visible today in the era of spectacular graphic effects. These details cannot spoil too much of the pleasure I had watching "Mossad", which has good chances to be the summer blockbuster in Israel, and to be successful elsewhere and beyond its first season of screening.
Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)
a soap opera about a soap opera about the conflict
Making a film about the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians (or, shortly, 'the conflict' as the locals call it) is probably almost as complicated as the peace talks between the two sides. Yet, scriptwriter and director Sameh Zoabi chose not only to write and direct such a film, but also chose as topic the making nowadays of such a film titled 'Tel Aviv on Fire'. The genre? A soap opera - one of the most popular forms of cinema and television entertainment in the Middle East, with peak viewing rates among both the Jewish and the Arab sectors. The historical moment when the action takes place? The 1967 war, one of the key moments of the "conflict," a crushing Israeli victory and Arab defeat, perceived in polarized opposite ways by the two sides. An Arab television studio in Ramallah is making a soap opera that tries to rewrite history, as many movies from big houses do, in this case the 1967 war history. A brilliant cinematic idea - a soap opera in a soap opera.
The main hero (performed by the excellent actor Kais Nashif) is an aspiring film maker who works as a Hebrew language consultant for the soap opera, and who finds himself blessed with the opportunity to become the script writer of the series, having to reconcile all the parties that seem impossible to coexist in this part of the world: the Arab sponsors wishing that the film has a more patriotic message, the Israeli officer commanding the crossing point between Jerusalem and territories who wants to embellish the image of the Israeli officer in the story, the producer who wants to make a successful film, and his girlfriend who doubts his feelings. They all follow the successive episodes of the series and the way the action progresses, but can there be any outcome that is acceptable to all? Or is such an outcome just as impossible as a solution for peace in the Middle East?
The hero in the film has as tools his own talent and a few portions of humus (another topic of Israeli-Palestinian cultural mini-conflict). Director Sameh Zoabi uses the tools of soap opera combined with absurd humor, so suited to a conflict unwanted by most of those involved. Zoabi does not avoid stereotypes, on the contrary, uses them skillfully and in balanced doses. The result is better than I expected. He will not succeed in making everyone happy, I am convinced that many of those who have seen or will see the film will find smaller and bigger details that make them angry and will claim that the screenwriter /director has exaggerated in his sympathy with the other side. Probably even angrier will be some of those who will not see the movie but talk and write about it. Many of the situations seemed to me too exaggerated or unlikely, but I think such deviations are possible and admissible in a comedy that tries to approach in the satirical registry situations that are not simple at all. An extra merit of the film is that it brings to screen an intellectual and middle class Palestinian environment that is not shown too often in local films. I found 'Tel Aviv on Fire' to be an amusing and a necessary film. After all, if we really want to live in peace one day, we need, among other, to be able to sit one by the other, watch the same movie and laugh together. Even if the reasons and the scenes we laugh at are not always the same.
Two for the Road (1967)
on the bright side of marriage
'Two for the Road', the 1967 film by Stanley Donen enjoys the beautiful and appropriate music of Henry Mancini, but it seems to me that it could also fit a paraphrase of the famous song at the end of a film made 12 years later, 'Monty Python's Life of Brian', with a little change of text. Instead of 'Always Look at the Bright Side of Life', which I hear is very popular at ... funerals, I would propose 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Marriage', an appropriate title for this film that describes a stormy love relationship, but far from being a critique of the institution of marriage, is rather a tribute to it. An unusual and unconventional homage, like the whole of this film, different in theme and script from other of Stanley Donen's, a director that I am now rediscovering, shortly after his passing away in February 2019.
One year before this film, Claude Lelouch had made "Un homme et une femme" which enjoyed a huge audience and critical success and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and two Academy Awards. Stanley Donen takes over the idea of a film that relies heavily on a single turbulent love story and casts Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in the lead roles. He is an architect of great talent and success, she, well, she is Audrey Hepburn, his wife, who wears toilets designed by the great fashion houses, but whose profession, if any, we do never hear about (as for most of the characters Audrey Hepburn was cast in). They travel, they meet, they fall in love, they marry, they dispute, they cheat. The style of the story is non-linear, oscillates between what constitutes a serious crisis which potentially can end the decade long marriage, and flash-backs that reconstitute the beginning and the evolution of the relationship between the two. The landscape where all this takes place is the road, the shores of the Mediterranean, France, Europe - from this point of view the film is one of the first 'road movies' in which the vagabond way of life (although the heroes are far from being poor) is not just a background but plays a significant role in the story.
Will the relationship between the two partners resist the erosion and the routine of marital life entered in the second decade, the professional success with the accompanying pressure, the temptation of extra-conjugal ties? The viewers will receive the answer in the film, in a relaxed manner and in a style dominated by the romantic comedy. The film wins much by the unusual way the story unfolds, letting us gradually discover the characters of the two lovers and the complications of the relationship between them. A linear narration would have been more banal. I could not avoid however the sensation of repetition. Maybe something was missing out in the plot to make the outcome more credible. The two glamorous actors play beautifully their roles. Produced in a cinematic decade that began with love stories dominated by the existentialist crises of the English films with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, or the social realism of the French New Wave films and ended with Arthur Hiller's 'Love Story' inspired by Erich Segal's novel, 'Two for the Road' is an original romantic film that still manages to conquer its audiences.
Had Stanley Donen directed only 'Singin' in the Rain' it would probably have been enough for him to have a place of honor in the history of cinema. But Donen has directed and produced many other successful films, most of them between the 50's and 70's of the last century. Blessed with a long life, Donen died two months ago, and on this occasion the local cinematheque screened a few of his films. On this occasion, we saw 'Charade', a typical blockbuster entertainment for that period, combining the genres of espionage thriller and romantic comedy, taking place in tourist advertising landscapes and casting famous celebrities whose clothes gave the tone of the fashion to the times. It's here that the James Bond series started.
The main heroine of the film is an American young woman (Audrey Hepburn, permanently dressed impeccably by the Givenchy house) who finds herself a widow of a husband she did not know much about and whom she was planning to divorce, deprived of the comfortable life she had before, in an illustrated postcards Paris. Moreover, she is suspected by the French police of being involved in her husband's violent death and becomes the target of the pursuit of a gang of picturesque gangsters who are convinced that she is the possessor of a wealth she has no idea about. She is helped or at least seems to be by another American in Paris (Cary Grant, about 26 years older on screen and in reality) and a clerk of the American embassy (Walter Matthau). Our heroine will inevitably fall in love with the older man despite the age difference, but he also seems to hide more than one secret and will assume successively several different identities. The love story and action thriller progress in parallel with the game of changing identities of the hero, with the young woman having to guess and choose permanently between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys' while the number of corpses increases.
The introduction scene and the generic are so modern that in the first two or three minutes I was wondering whether I entered the wrong cinema hall and I was seeing a new movie. I cannot say the same about everything that followed. I never was a great enthusiast of Cary Grant's type of actor and I believe that the difference in age between him and Audrey Hepburn makes the relationship between them on screen look not so credible in this movie. High quality acting creations can rather be found in the secondary roles, and here we have an exceptional cast including Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy, all of them gorgeous actors. Paris of the 1960s looks very well, filmed with the characters one in pursuit of the other. It is said that 'Charade' is Hitchcock's best film that was not filmed by Hitchcock. The reason is that around the same period the master of suspense made several films based on spy stories, including 'North by Northwest', which also features Cary Grant, or 'Topaz', which also takes place in part in Paris. I believe that Hitchcock would have been able to get more out of this movie, perhaps with different casting, perhaps with a more subtle use of the identity mysteries in order to create a denser suspense atmosphere. I am sure however that he would have liked Henry Mancini's music. Anyway, 'Charade' remains now, 56 years after being released, overall, more than honorable entertainment.
the enigmas of 'Persona'
'Persona' is one of the most enigmatic movies in the history of cinema. Those who read the chronicles written right after the 1966 release of the film or the articles dedicated to it in the books of cinema history will encounter as many interpretations as authors. The same happens if we read the opinions written by film lovers on sites like IMDB, or we discuss the film between us. Ingmar Bergman had the inspiration not only of not talking a lot about this film (even less than about his other films) but he also avoided sharing too much of his personal thoughts or ideas even with the actresses or the other members of the production team. The result is an enigma. Each of us who sees or sees again this movie has his own Persona'.
The ambitions are clear from the way the film is 'packaged' using the classic projection room effects. Short sequences from classical films emphasize the effect of declaring 'here we have a work of cinema'. The prelude sets up an atmosphere that could be defined as a dream, we are clearly in a world that resembles the real world but which exists only in the eyes and souls of the spectators, built with materials put together by the creator of the film from his own thoughts and dreams about the world. The 'story' could be told in few words, even if it is not a banal story. This is where the interpretations begin. What do we actually see on the screen? An ambiguous relationship between two women, evolving from a patient-care relationship to an attraction that starts to look as a melding of one into the other? Are the two characters the symbols of the two facets of the human personality - the soul and the character - as interpreted by some experts in the psychoanalysis theories? Is there a hint (or more) to a lesbian relationship? Maybe there is an element of class struggle, between the actress active on the intellectual level and the country girl whose strongest emotions are on the erotic plane? Are we dealing with a horror story, a thriller in which there is a physical threat and a struggle between the two women to gain control one over the other? Why did the actress stop talking - personal traumas, maternity failure? What is the connection between the horrors of the outside world (wars, the Holocaust) and the inner storms concealed by the Scandinavian calm? These are just a few of the questions that can be asked and of the possible interpretations.
Comprehensive and ambitious cinematographic constructions involve risks. More than 50 years after the film, the Vietnam War is no longer actuality but history, closer to the Holocaust which is also quoted by the famous photograph of the terrorized little boy in the Warsaw ghetto. The black and white image also gains aesthetic significance, not necessarily obvious and intentional at the time the film was made. Acting is gorgeous, Bergman's two preferred actresses (and lovers), Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann are building on the screen two versions of femininity that at some point merge one into the other, two variants of the director's fascination with women for which he created the most generous roles in his films. Seen for the first time or seen again today, 'Persona' is a cinematic art concentrate and an intellectual challenge that continues to attract and fascinate through its open character and enigmas.
Young Picasso (2019)
youth of a genius
1907 was an 'annus mirabilis' (a wonderful year) in the history of art and in the life of Pablo Picasso. It was the year when Picasso painted 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', a painting that overturned all the traditional conceptions of composition, perspective, and aesthetics. The canvas represents a scene in a brothel where five naked women with deformed faces and twisted bodies appear in a composition and forms not yet encountered in the history of art. The artist, at the wonderful age of maximum creativity, overturned concepts and traditions and opened new roads, which he will continue in the coming years, but also be followed by many other painters. He did this after having traveled in a few years, with the speed of geniuses, the artistic trajectories in which he assimilated and synthesized the art and experiences of his predecessors. 1907 represented a milestone. After that year, art was not the same as before, and Picasso was not the same as before. Phil Grabsky's 'Young Picasso' documentary in the 'Exhibitions on Screen' series deals with Picasso's life and art before and until 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'.
Unlike other documentaries in the same excellent art film series, 'Young Picasso' does not deal with one single exhibition in one or several of the world's largest museums, but rather creates a virtual version of an exhibition that would be worth organizing sometime in the future. The works discussed are filmed in the great museums hosting Picasso's works and in the museums dedicated to him in his city of birth Malaga, in Barcelona, which represented his gateway to the artist circles, and in Paris where he established himself since 1900. The documentary follows the biography of the child and the young man who would become Pablo Picasso. He was born on October 25, 1881 in Malaga, Spain, in a middle class family. His childhood was protected from material worries, and his family understood his talent and call, encouraged them, and supported them through education. His father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco (Picasso was to adopt his mother's surname), descended from a family of small nobles, was a painter, college professor of art and a curator of the local museum. Since he was aged 7, his father, detecting his passion and talent, began his formal education as an artist. At the age of 16, Pablo Picasso was sent to Madrid at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts San Fernando. Conventional university studies did not really attract him. Bored with the academic style, he was spending more time at the Prado Museum, absorbing the art of the Renaissance and Baroque masters. Arrived in Paris in 1900, Picasso was surrounded by a circle of artists and writers of exceptional intellectual effervescence. Between 1900 and 1906 he created the reference paintings of his' blue 'and' pink 'periods, demonstrating a perfect knowledge of tradition and exceptional talent in painting in a close to 'conventional' style. His 1907 revolution was to come from within the world of painting, after the assimilation and decanting of the art that preceded him.
We find in the 'Young Picasso' many of the delights that previous documentaries in this series accustomed us with: works of art filmed in excellent resolution allowing us to see details that often escape even when we have the painting in front of us in a museum, comments of elite experts and biographers who put the works into context and gradually build the biography of the artist, novel revelations from insiders, in this case coming from one of Picasso's grandchildren, himself an expert in the field. 'Young Picasso' is an artistic and intellectual delight.
Buffet froid (1979)
dream or absurd or both?
'Buffet Froid' made in 1979 by Bertrand Blier can be seen as an almost perfect antithesis of the films of the French New Wave that had burst into the cinema world two decades ago. If the New Wave was a Reformation, this film belongs to the Counter-Reformation. Formal simplicity is opposed by abstract sophistication. Lively street scenes are opposed by empty streets at night or lofts transported from New York to the sky-scrappers in the Defense district of Paris. The characters drawn from life are opposed by characters descending from Beckett's or Ionesco's theater. Sincerity is opposed by lack of emotion. Naturalism is opposed by absurd. But, maybe it's all a dream?
The film starts with a ten minute scene that takes place in a Paris subway station. Two characters entertain a dialogue that could be extracted from 'En attendant Godot'. It's about the dreams, or better said the nightmares that haunt one of them (played by Gérard Depardieu). In the dream he is a wanted assassin, followed but never caught by the police. Does the dream start here? Or maybe we are in a dream in the beginning, as Parisians know, the La Defense subway station is never completely empty, not even at night. Further action includes corpses, fast consoled widows, car chases, assassination attempts through music, wine bottles and canned food. Nothing makes too much sense. The characters act like robots that do a lousy job, both socially and emotionally.
The film has an interesting aesthetics, even if too obviously programmatic. Dialogues are fun, even if they seem a little retro nowadays. Existentialism and absurd theater need landmarks to be appreciated and enjoyed all the way. These are missing in this movie, which looks more like an absurd theater show filmed in the '70s. As a spectator I can not fail to appreciate the acting performances of Depardieu, Bernard Blier, and others, but I would have preferred them to be used for better causes.
Red Joan (2018)
a big story, a failed movie
Trevor Nunn, the director of 'Red Joan', had in his hands a huge story. He also had in the cast Judi Dench, a great actress in a role that seemed to have been written for her. The film starts very well, the first few minutes in which we see an old lady living a quiet life of retirement in Cambridge, just to become within a few minutes the main suspect of a half-century-old spy story, promises a thrilling continuation. Lindsay Shapero's script places for most of the movie the apparently respectable Ms. Joan Stanley in a MI-5 interrogation room remembering via flash-backs the story of her life, a story that combines love, war and betrayal. Unfortunately, from here, the movie that promises so much and so good disappoints in all respects.
The story of the infiltration of Soviet intelligence agents into the most selective circles of English society, in the secret services and in other British institutions has inspired countless books and movies. 'Red Joan' starts in the same university environment (Cambridge in this case) contaminated by communist sympathies in the 1930s to focus on the world of the scientists who found themselves involved in military programs during the war, in competition with the enemies (Germany ) but also with the allies (the Soviets in the first place, but also the Americans). The case of the brilliant young woman physicist, attracted more because of sentimental reasons in the left circles, who at some point decides to influence the fate of the world from her relatively minor position, invites many interesting questions: What made these young idealists to get involved in activities which most of their compatriots considered as high treason? Why did they continue their activity after the masks began to fall and the fog of propaganda dissipated, making public the crimes committed by Stalin? What actually treason means when we place in balance the national interests on one side and the peace of the world on the other? Do scientists have the qualification, the right, or perhaps the obligation to take sides influencing peace or war on a planetary scale? All these are extremely interesting questions from an historical perspective, but also in the contemporary world. We can add to these a romantic story, which may hide a manipulation of sentiments for political purposes, and the very actual cinema theme of the role of women in a men-dominated world (that of science). All the premises for a fascinating film are here.
Unfortunately, none of these promises realizes, and none of the questions get an adequate response. Director Trevor Nunn chose to treat this whole story at the level of a routine espionage movie or series, moving from one subject to another, and addressing them all superficially. The characters have no depth, we do not find out anything credible about the motivation of betrayal. Not even the two actresses can help. Judi Dench is wasting her talent by making old Joan to look for the whole movie like an old lady in tears, while Sophie Cookson as young Joan struggles with the (non)-credibility of the character, and her make-up is similar the whole movie (making her look in her early 20s) although she traverses a period of about 12 years, including a world war, and a lot of dilemmas, crises and personal tragedies. Worse, the script is full of errors, from details to credibility gaffes that make the story unbelievable for informed viewers. 'Red Joan' is a lost opportunity and a waste of talent.
an inconvenient mirror
'This is who we are!'. This is the message that film director Radu Jude repeats obsessively in all his films. He puts an uncomfortable mirror in the face of the sometimes unwilling Romanian spectators, bound to face unpleasant truths about the Romanian society today, about the more recent or the more distant history, about the prejudices against those living alongside the Romanians in the same country and the discrimination generated by these prejudices, about ignorance and its effects in the Romanian present. His recent films have produced, with no exception, controversies in his country along with appreciations and prizes abroad. "The Happiest Girl in the World", Radu Jude's debut feature film already contains all these elements.
Made in 2009, Radu Jude's film has many elements specific to the minimalist trend in Romanian cinema in the first decade of the millennium, but already contains the elements that will enable him and his colleagues to overcome the patterns imposed by their own success. The story in the movie is simple, the action taking place in one afternoon. Delia, an 18-year-old from the province has won a car at the draw of a soft drinks company. Together with her parents she comes to Bucharest to film a commercial ad in the center of the city, in the University Square. Her win is the family's chance to break the vicious circle of poverty by selling the car and investing money to start a tourist hostel. The sale of the car, however, blows the dreams of the girl, for whom it is more important to the enjoy the status of driving a dream car and spending a holiday together with a girlfriend. Mercantile dreams in a mercantile reality, that of the transition Romania.
Radu Jude manages to concentrate in the 99-minute film, much of it filmed in the same place very familiar to those living in Bucharest, much of the essence of the Romanian society two decades after the change of regime: lack of moral compass, mercantilism, lack of hope, cultural conflicts between the center and the rest of the country . He is helped by good acting, especially Andreea Bosneag's role as Delia and Serban Pavlu as the director in a supporting role. The main problem of the film is that none of the characters succeed in gaining the audience's empathy. Even Delia finally appears more like a manipulator who poses in the victim, although her character, a girl born around the time of the revolution, would be the least responsible for what happens to her. The mirror set by the director in front of the spectators wants to be straight and ruthless, but the lack of characters with which viewers can identify is diminishing from the power of the film and the efficiency of the message.
the formidable magnetism of Anna Magnani
'They do not make movies like those anymore' is a saying that makes me smile. Of course, it is true. For the good and for the bad. The technical means, the tastes of the audiences, the style of acting, and many more have changed over the 120 years of cinema history. The reciprocal saying is also true: "Then, they were not making movies like we have today". Also for the good and for the bad. Watching movies like 'Bellissima' makes me think that there also are a few important things that stayed the same. Many viewers, when watching a movie, look for emotions and sincerity, want to see a well-told story, with characters that they understand and identify with. For these viewers, good movies had, have, and will have these qualities. It's the case of Luchino Visconti's 'Bellissima', a 1951 film that succeeds to make us interested and emotional today, because of its cinematic and sentimental qualities, and through the magical acting of the actress around which the film is built: Anna Magnani.
There is a recurrent discussion in Hollywood about the need for strong female roles. Seeing this film and remembering a few other Italian films from the 50s or 60s ('The Nights of Cabiria', 'La Ciociara'), I believe that this discussion must have been entertained many times in history. It is true that Italian cinema has benefited from exceptional actresses such as Giulietta Masina, Sophia Loren, or Anna Magnani. In 'Bellissima' two very popular themes and styles meet: the movies about movies industry, a constant in the cinema history, and the Neo-realism of the Italian cinematography between 1945 and 1960. Maddalena Cecconi, the main heroine of the film, lives in a poor neighborhood of Rome together with her husband and their six-year-old daughter. Both spouses work from dawn to night, but hardly manage to cover the cost of living. Cinema is part of their life, outdoor projections in the inner courtyard of the multi-storey apartments building where they live on rent is both entertainment and existential surrogate, transporting viewers into the imaginary worlds on the big screen. When a competition is announced at the Cinecittà studios for a child role that will be attributed to the most beautiful girl in Rome, Maddalena immediately sees the opportunity to change the life of her little girl, break the economic and social barriers, move her into the dream world. She will be ready to do everything or almost everything to get the little girl succeed, but here she will face another layer of social reality. The world of cinema is far from the ideal that viewers see on screen. It is a world in many ways more ruthless and more unequal than the one of the proletarian neighborhoods. The political convictions of Visconti, one of the most radical Neo-realists, are expressed in this film without hesitations or ambiguities.
The film has many qualities that make it pass the exam of time. The script is very well written, the characters are well drafted forming a true social mosaic, the story does not linger at any moment, and humor is also present, probably in a higher dose than in any other Visconti movie. But above all we have Anna Magnani's fascinating acting performance. She is passionate and obsessed with protecting her daughter, sensual and dignified, she burns on the screen. To emphasize her acting, Luchino Visconti uses an original cinematic technique, and I wonder if a director today would have the courage to adopt it in a contemporary movie: he fixes the camera on the heroine figure, even in motion scenes or in dialogues . Sometimes he seems to have forgotten to change plans, but of course, everything is intentional. Beautiful, expressive, modern! 'Bellissima' is a movie that manages to create emotion, but also an acute social critique directed against the exploitation of children in the film world. And if that was the case, the little girl who played in the film as Anna Magnani's daughter started and ended her acting career with this movie, never to return to act in another role!
No Blood (2018)
late debut, but it was worth waiting
I do not know whether the debut as a feature films director at the age of 57 is a record, but I'm sure it's a rarity. Yet, Joe El Dror is not a new name for the Israeli public, being known as a playwright, translator and screenwriter. He reached fame in the 1990s when he was co-author of one of the most popular satire programs in the history of Israeli television, after which he somehow disappeared from public attention. His comeback with the movie 'Bli Dam' ('No Blood') to which he is also the screenwriter as well as (debutante) director brings him back to the public's attention. A comeback in strength and quality, as 'Bli Dam' is in my opinion one of the most interesting and best made Israeli movies in recent years.
To some extent, Manny, the main character of the film, may be considered an alter-ego of the director. He, like Joe El Dror, is a theater man and a writer, but he has not written for a long time. He is a lecturer at a theater school, but his art seems to be disconnected from the interest of the students. The reason for the drought of his inspiration, however, may come from some place else. He and his best friend (from the kindergarten!) have a 'special' military past, including non specified ultra-secret missions. Their failures may be delayed post-trauma cases. Manny, Roni and his wife are a triangle of middle-class youngsters, OK from a material point of view, but who fail to achieve anything on any plan, professional, personal or sentimental. Light drugs or superficial relationships do not offer an alternative. The appearance of a beautiful and mysterious woman in Manny's life may offer an opportunity to find some interest, but she will bring with her unexpected dangers.
One of the secrets to the quality of 'Bli Dam' is the ambiguity. At no time are we sure as spectators what kind of film we see. Like in life. The film begins as a romantic story in Tel Aviv's 'yuppie' environment, to take soon a thriller path. The two plans, romantic and thriller, continue in parallel and intensify. The feeling must be familiar to Israeli spectators and not only to the Israeli ones. What kind of world do we live in? Is there any substance in the superficial world of our entertainment and relationships? Can we ignore our past, wars, or the threats around us? Can we trust the woman we know and love, or the best friends, or the well-known reporters that bring us the news at the TV stations? Scenarist and director Joe El Dror intelligently manages to make us ask these questions, alongside telling a story that oscillates between romantic and thriller, and also reserves us a final twist, which puts under a question mark everything that what we have seen before. Each viewer will have to draw his own conclusions.
What I liked. The sublimed but the more effective political message. The story telling, its ambiguity, the fact that you can approach this movie from many points of view and more you think about it, more you can find new meanings. The dialogues. The highly professional cinematography, showing the city of Tel Aviv and the interiors of Israeli houses. The acting with one exception. What I liked less. The actress playing Rona disappoints. She should have become the magical - erotic and thriller - pivot of the film. I do not know if it is the actress or director's fault, but she did not succeed.
I can just hope that Joe El Dror will soon compensate for his late debut with a few more films, with the talent and professionalism that he demonstrates in 'Bli Dam' .
a film made 50 years too late
I saw 'Pompeii' in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Movies that heavily advertise their 3D effects must be seen in cinemas equipped with this projection technology. I skipped the movie at its time in cinemas, and I just saw it now at home, in reasonable conditions, but not in 3D, so I lost the thrill caused by the lava waves and fire boulders threatening my body integrity. The story of the film is of course a disaster that is famous from the history books, while the story that was crafted on it is kind of typical for the historical mega-productions at the mid-20th century, plus some melodrama a la 'Titanic'. Too late and too conventional for the second decade of the 21st century. Yet, the catastrophe remains on the screen, the film itself is not a disaster, rather like at the limit of acceptable entertainment.
Almost everything that's happening in this movie prepares the special effects of the last 30 minutes. The story is a kind of simpler 'Gladiator' that includes a love story between a Celt slave (played by Kit Harington) and a noble Roman girl (played by Emily Browning) that has just as much chances of being consumed as the people of Pompeii had to escape the disaster. Film director Paul W.S. Anderson fails to infuse too much life into this pretext-story, and focuses on rendering on screen bloody gladiator fights and the special effects of the volcano. These are really well-directed, the realism of the men's confrontations in the arena and outside it being basically the only, let us say, modern features of the film.
The actors' performances are acceptable. Besides the two actors in the main roles, the cast also includes Kiefer Sutherland, an actor I like to watch in any movie or TV series where he appears. The special effects are of good quality. Viewers looking for art movies have nothing to find in this film. Spectators who are looking for acceptable entertainment and who properly calibrate their expectations are likely to have a good time watching this movie.
Sulla mia pelle (2018)
a very efficient docu-drama
I do not have a Netflix account (yet), so I rarely see films protected by the ecosystem of this kind of broadcast. Luckily, a few movies like 'Roma', which was also presented in Cannes and now this 'Sulla mia pelle' (the English title is 'On My Skin: The Last Seven Days of Stefano Cucchi'), which was presented at the Venice Festival last year, enjoyed a limited broadcast on the screens of cinema theaters. The fragmentation of cinematic distribution creates 'islands' and makes comparisons difficult, but this is a long and complicated discussion. What I can say is that the film directed by Alessio Cremonini approaches in an original way the genre of docu-drama, bringing to the viewers a committed view and a firm opinion about a case that is still under way in the Italian actuality.
Nearly ten years ago, in October 2009, a 31-year-old Italian, named Stefano Cucchi, was arrested by the Italian carabinieri, being suspected of drugs possession and trafficking. Despite coming from a 'normative' family, he had a criminal record, and had been hospitalized for rehabilitation of drug addiction. The judge decided that he should be detained until the investigation was completed. For a whole week his family was unable to get in touch with him or get news about his condition, he did not meet with a lawyer, and after seven days the family was informed that the young man had died. The autopsy showed the cause of death as a combination of blows received at the beginning of detention and disastrous medical treatment in the penitentiary system hospitals. Years later, some of the doctors involved were sentenced to small suspended sentences, but the police officers who were involved in the arrest and are suspected of having beaten and having caused the injuries that ultimately led to the death of the young man, were inducted only during the last year. The trial is still under way.
These are the facts as known from the news. The film presents for the most part the events of the last week of Stefano Cucchi's life from his perspective, with some interludes in which we are witnessing the family's efforts to find out what is his situation and to help him. This is actually a reconstitution. We understand that the young man was not a saint, in fact he was guilty of what the police suspected about him, and he was trying to hide details that could have indicted him. We can speculate whether drug trafficking is a minor or major crime, but of course the young man did not deserve to die in detention, not to be beaten, he had to be provided medical care and allowed contact with his lawyer. The causes of his death seem to be a combination of systemic problems in the Italian justice and penitentiary systems, combined with the indifference and personal negligence of many involved. Such a thing should not happen in a modern justice system in a European democratic country. Director Alessio Cremonini, along with lead actor Alessandro Borghi and the rest of the actor's team, describe in a very credible and dramatic manner the descending spiral towards the inferno of a young man who obviously made mistakes but did not deserve death. The cool rendering of the police station and prison hospitals is frightening. Great cinema job. There is however a question to be asked. I have no reason to challenge the depth and seriousness of the documentation. However, does not the firm approach taken by this well made docu-drama risk to pronounce an early judgment in a case still under way?
Ahlat Agaci (2018)
long but rewarding
Watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film 'Ahlat Agaci' ('The Wild Pear Tree') is a cinematic experience that I would compare to reading some of the books of the classics of Russian literature. It's not easy reading, but it's catchy. The length of the books or of the movie exceeds the average, but as a viewer you do not feel the passage of time, because the writers or the film director in this case absorb you in their worlds. As in Chekhov, the characters of Ceylan's film live in a provincial city and the adjoining village, in a socially suffocating atmosphere and are surrounded by a human landscape composed of people unable to understand their intellectual aspirations. The Russian books (Tolstoy's for example) and Ceylan's films contain philosophical or historical diversions that give them an universal and perennial content that crosses the boundaries of geography and time.
Sinan Karasu is a young man who returns to his city and to his non-functional family after graduating college. The prospects of a college graduate are not too many or too attractive: either to take a teacher's exam after which he will be assigned to teach at a primary school in a remote area of Turkey, or join the army or the police. His father, Idris, is a teacher, but also a betting addict, which got him into debts, and led the family to losing the property of their house and living at the edge of a precarious existence. Idris's ambition seems to be to return to his native village, where in weekends he digs a fountain on a hillside, with little hope of ever hitting water. Young Sinan is also a writer, he wrote a book inspired by the local people and culture, but the kind of non-commercial book that finds neither editor nor reader public. The gaps between his aspirations and realities, between his ambitions and the mediocrity around are huge, and the result is a permanent conflict with a world with which he tries to entertain dialogues, but which he also approaches with a sense of intellectual superiority without foundation in social realities.
Like many other good movies (or books or other works of art), 'Ahlat Agaci' can be viewed and understood at several levels. At the personal level, the film has complex characters that we discover and we get to know better and better as we advance in the viewing, with the help the excellent acting performances of actors such as Dogu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir and Bennu Yildirimlar . There is also a political and social layer that is never explicit, maybe in order to allow the film to be easily distributed in Turkey and thus be accessible to the local audience, which is probably very important for a director like Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but also because true creators know how to convey messages without transforming their works into manifestos. Finally, there is a philosophical layer, more or less related to the main story, but which raises interesting issues such as the compromises that a writer is bound to make to gain popularity and what are their limits, or the relationship between religion and its institutions and their relevance in social life. Ceylan knows to tell a story and to film beautifully, and attentive viewers will also benefit from short moments of surreal insertions that deserve not to be missed. The film is long but in rare moments it feels so (the scene of the conversation with the two imams is the only one in which I had the impression that the cutting of a few minutes would have been beneficial), and the spectators will be rewarded at the end with one of the most exciting film finales which I have seen lately. A movie to see.
The Code (2014)
crypto-wars down under
One of the effects of the almost universal spread of the Internet is that digital crimes and cryptographic wars have become one of the popular themes in the action and thriller genres. A new literature and movies sub-genre called 'techno-thriller' was labelled, in which computer programmers with Internet and cryptography expertise became the main heroes. While 'techno-thrillers' are numerous on the big and small screens, the good ones, as in any genre are not so many. I had seen a few years ago the first season, produced in 2014, of a quite successful such a series called 'The Code'. The action takes place in Australia. The series was created, produced and written by Shelley Birse and directed by Shawn Seet. I have now seen the second season, made in 2016, which fails to match the first one in interest and quality. There will be no third season.
The second season takes over the main characters of the first season, investigative journalist Ned Banks (played by Dan Spielman) and his brother Jesse (played by Ashley Zukerman), a genius in computers, but suffering from an acute form of autism that makes him dependent on his brother. The two are again engaged in a political plot that combines corruption, terrorism, the struggle for the independence of the indigenous peoples of West Papua, dubious businesses and crimes committed on the Internet. The series take on two elements that are often used in such films: cyber attacks that can paralyze all Internet based services, so practically all economic and social activity almost anywhere in the world; and permanent surveillance of everyone in any place, represented on screen by overlapping digital clocks every few minutes, giving the impression that the scenes are captured by security cameras. The later trick is in my opinion quite schematic and non-credible, as some of the locations are in the depths of the jungle, where it is unlikely that such devices exist or can be mounted.
The second season has, like the first, six episodes. It captivated me only in the first two, which manage to build the premises of an interesting main thread, along with several other secondary stories. Unfortunately, the continuation is not up to expectations, one of the more interesting threads is terminated too early, the social elements are presented schematically, and some of the secondary intrigues fall into melodrama or banality. The actors' performances are OK, and the episodes are well filmed. Technological aspects are, however, presented as in many other such films, amateuristically, with obvious technical errors. The final episode recovered some of the interest, but it was too late, and no seeds were sown for any continuation. The producers of the show may have also come to the conclusion that the chances of success of a third season are a close to null.