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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.
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.
*** This review may contain 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.
*** This review may contain 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
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.
The history of England was blessed with several famous queens -
starting with head-losers Anne Boleyn and Mary Stuart, continuing the
two Elisabeth's and of course Queen Victoria, the record holder of
longevity until recently, the queen who gave her name to a whole era of
maximal glory and expansion of the British Empire. The big dames of
English cinema were accordingly blessed with the respective fabulous
roles that they love to bring to the big screens and are regarded as
peaks of their careers. For Dame Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul
directed by Stephen Frears provides (for the second time actually) the
opportunity to create a memorable portrait of Victoria. Her success in
completing this task is the best part and the best that can be said and
written about this production. Unfortunately, this is not the only
thing that can be said and written about this film.
It's very difficult to disconnect the historical episode of the relationship between the old widow who was also the queen of the largest empire on earth at her time (and maybe at all times) and the Muslim servant from India who raised to become her secretary, counselor, spiritual adviser, friend, surrogate son and maybe more than all these, and the political situation today, 120 years later, when the divided Britain faced with the realities of globalization and immigration tries to put again sea and borders between her and Europe. The authors of the film invested quite a lot in describing the atmosphere of the imperial households and its corridors of power and gossip with the adequate costumes and decoration but they are talking all the time to the contemporary spectator while telling a story based on real history or facts as they happened ... or almost, as they cautionary and wisely warn us in the opening.
We are thus left with an impossible friendship and even love story, impossible because of a mountain of reasons: class differences, race prejudices, age gap, cultural and historical precipices. The only thing that can save such a film from falling in complete melodrama or faked rhetoric is the human dimension. In Victoria and Abdul this dimension is only partially delivered by the splendid acting performance of Judi Dench. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast cannot come even close to her class. Ali Fazal is fit physically but lacks the nuances that can explain some of the contradictions of his personality. We never know or really understand what is his real class background, whether the deepness of his knowledge in the Quran and oriental culture is genuine, or if he intentionally misled his beloved queen in the details of the history and realities of the inter-faith conflicts on the Indian continent. The rest of the cast is condemned to represent a gallery of half-ridiculous, half-perverse characters representing the British aristocracy class full of prejudice and bad faith. If only the caricature would have been pushed a little further we could have had more comical fun, but Stephen Frears could not really abandon the ambition of passing some important message about today's politics. In my opinion he failed, and the principal great merit of this film is telling a half-baked potential love story while allowing Judi Dench to add another great role to her illustrious filmography.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although located at the Southern extremity of the European Union, or
maybe just because of this, Greece found itself in the last few years
at the crossroads of Europe. The economic crisis that hit Europe and
the whole world a decade ago was specifically tough on the Greek
economy, part due to global factors, part to the accumulation of bad
administration and wrong decision in economic policies. For the Greek
economy to survive harsh austerity programs were imposed by the EU and
the IMF, resulting in salary and pension cuts and especially in loss of
jobs for a significant percentage of the work force. On the other side,
Greece found itself, together with Italy, being a target destination
and entry point in Europe for hundreds of thousands of refugees from
war and economic catastrophes in Africa and the Islamic world. The
social and economic pressure resulted in high costs for the Greeks
families and individuals, in personal crises for people losing or in
danger of losing their safety in a world in change. For some of them
the refuge was in political extremism. For other in love. This is the
background but also the major theme of actor and director Christopher
Papakaliatis's film 'Enas Allos Kosmos' or 'Worlds Apart'.
The film is based on three stories, which at first seem to have in common only the relationships between three Greeks and three aliens of different origins and statuses. A young student is saved from rape by an illegal Syrian refugee and the inevitable resulting love story is also the opportunity for the girl to be exposed to the realities of the life conditions of the migrants and the life danger they encounter under the threats of fascist hooligans. A mid-age father of a boy has a one-night stand with a beautiful Swedish woman that turns into a longer relationship, just to discover that she is the manager of the restructuring program at his work place that puts his career and the careers of the people under his responsibility under threat. A housewife struggling to meet ends meets a German retiree in front of the supermarket where she cannot afford any longer buying food, starting a moving and discrete love story at the sunset of the lives of the two. None of the three stories can have a happy end in real world, and maybe this is where the film should have concluded. But it did not.
The telling of the stories is pretty fluid, in the style of the European (especially French) romantic stories with a social background. Acting is also good, all the six actors are well cast and play their roles with sincerity and emotion. It's the seventh character - the one of the aged and disappointed worker falling into extremism which deserves a special note. The name of the actor was Minas Hatzisavvas and this was his last role on screen, he died soon after the film was completed.
The three stories eventually came together, and this is were I believe, the whole structure loses originality, falling into a territory of expected and melodramatic turns of fate. While the whole Greek defiance is running high (we are several times reminded that the world may have invented economic efficiency but the Greeks invented love), this film about the crisis of the Greek individuals and the Greek family cell under pressure of crisis and having a hard time to cope with the relation with other nations in a global world, has a much too conventional American end.
About half of the viewers in the hall of our local cinematheque who
came to watch this film were hardcore fans who came to watch the first
screening of this film prior to the opening of a science fiction event
that also includes a film festival. I did not have a chance to discuss
with them the film at the end, one of the reasons being that some of
them left before the end of the screening. I cannot be sure about the
reasons, they may have seen the movie already, or they reserved the
pleasure of full viewing for the festival, or maybe they just had the
same feeling as I did. It's a crazy and fun idea, but not enough for a
full and watchable movie.
Maybe part of the explanation is that Christian Nicolson, the author of 'This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy' seems to be - according to the IMDb - a first-timer in everything: script writing, acting, film direction, producing movies. Nicholson may be aware of his lack of experience, so he tried to turn it into an advantage, even more than this, into a concept. Here is the story (no spoiler, it happens in the first five minutes). Three fans attend the screening of a movie at a sci-fi convention, and somehow find themselves trapped into the world of the low cost films of the genre. Not only their universe is blurred, but also their personalities, and they will need to fight to survive and get back. Luckily, this is the less credible alternate universe ever created in movies, as all effects and gadgets are more visible than in the first movies of Melies, and more ridiculous than in the worst King Kong film. Space ships are made of hair-drying fans, transporting devices of shower heads, etc.
A good idea does not make a film, as original and as crazy it may be, and 'This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy' is a good illustration on this respect. What may have worked in the 1960s TV shows for kids that lasted 15 or 30 minutes at most cannot work for a 90 minutes film, if it is not complemented by well defined characters, fresh jokes, good acting. Unfortunately these are all but absent in this film, and after we understand the concept and have fun for a few minutes we start waiting in vain for something new and interesting to happen. None of these happen here, and the parody is reduced at its own parody with very little comic effect. By the end this comedy was closer to put me to sleep than make me laugh.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The success of the Romanian cinema in the last decade or so did not
spring up from nothing. Although the cinema in Romania was more
strictly censored and controlled by propaganda during the Communist
period, a handful of talented directors existed and they made a few
good or at least decent films in a difficult ideological environment,
with very little technical means. One of these directors was Dan Pita.
Something strange happened though with him and most of the film
directors in his generation after 1990. With some exceptions they seem
to not have been able to use to the best the freedom of expression
(political and stylistic) or to adapt to the technical progress that
became soon and fast available. Many of their films seem to be stoned
in the past, repeating mistakes and perpetuating stereotypes that
belong to a different era. Pita's Kira Kiralina is a good example on
this respect - a cinematographic failure on almost any respect.
Kira Kiralina brings to screen a story by Panait Istrati - a writer of Romanian origin who charmed the French readers in the 1920s with his stories of passion and brigands located in the the North of the Balkans and especially in the cosmopolitan area of the last hundreds of kilometers of the Danube course before reaching the Black Sea. It's a fascinating zone, a land of legends and passions which could be the stage of great stories and movies. The problem with the script written by Ioan Grigorescu and the screen version of Dan Pita is that they did not create a cinematographic vision parallel to Istrati's text, but rather chose the easy path of having a screen character read the story off-screen and what we see on screen is kind of an illustration of this reading. If we put together the scenes where the main character remembers and reads loudly the episodes of his childhood and troubled teens age, we probably get many minutes with the actor smoking and writing on the same sheet of paper. Such techniques are maybe fit to TV theater or low cost TV dramas, but not to big screen movies. Story telling is broken, more an exemplification of the monotone reading of the book text. Characters are introduced by the voice of the story teller and not but what they achieve themselves on screen. Some of the action scenes are a complete failure, like the dramatic shooting between the sadistic father of the two kids, and the brothers of the mother, or the revenge scene taking place a few years later.
The cinematography of a few of the scenes (filmed out-doors) and the exceptional costumes (designed by Oana Paunescu ) offer a glimpse of what this movie could have been. Unfortunately, they are just exceptions and the overall conception fails to provide a credible description of the world at the mouths of the Danube at the end of the 19th century and of the heroes created by Panait Isrtrati. The orthography even of the name of the film ('Kira Kiralina') is different in the distribution from the one of the poster ('Kyra Kyralina') and for some reason unknown to me different from the one used in the Romanian versions of the book ('Chira Chiralina'). Actors work is irrelevant, they all seem stiff on screen, fresh newcomer faces as well as the known Romanian actors in the cast. The very last two scenes of the film (even if one of them us too verbose) happen after the story teller task was completed, and they give a hint of what this film could have been if a different approach was chosen. It's too little and too late.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For the second consecutive year the cinematheque in my city hosts a
Czech Film Festival, and the most interesting film I have seen by now
is this work co-directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb describing an
event that took place more than 40 years ago in what was then
Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. It was by all criteria a shocking
event, especially for the 'quiet' and 'normalized' Czechoslovakia of
the 1970s. Today we would immediately suspect a terror attack, but the
roots of crime of the girl who one day drove her truck in a bus station
in Prague killing eight people have their origins not in ideology but
in a deep personal trauma and in the complete failure of a system that
could not perform basic obligations to its citizens, and even less knew
how to tolerate differences and deal with the individuals in trouble.
Olga Hepnarova grew up in a mid-class normative family, but was by all criteria a non-normative young woman rebel, non-communicative, isolated by her school and work colleagues, a lesbian in a society that did not tolerate homosexuality. I found the acting performance of Michalina Olszanska to be superb, she is living within her character, the desperation and mute cry for help of Olga crosses the screen. Can her deeds be pardoned? Hardly so, as eight innocent people lost their lives in an act of violence that she considered to be a revenge on the system. Is the environment she lived in responsible also for her situation? So it seems, as she seems to be permanently looking for something or somebody to cling on, but she finds nothing in the system (doctors, psychologists, companies she worked for) and nobody among her family or the people she meets who can or wants to help. She is described as a schizophrenic, considered herself bullied and persecuted by everybody around, and had a strange detachment between her intelligence and the way she lived, her actions and reality. Only in the last very moment she seems to have realized that that was for real, and of course, that was too late.
Directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb decided to make this film in the style of the good Czech cinema of the 1960s. This is reflected not only the black-and-white coloring, but also in the approach in describing the daily reality. We are in Czechoslovakia of those times, we see how people lived and the problems they faced, we are faced with the dullness and lack of hope of their lives, but the critic of the system is never explicit . The script is written and the film is made like censorship is still in place. Good story telling, inspired editing, and excellent acting performances make this film interesting, although we know the end (and the Czech viewers know even better the story). It's not easy to watch as this is a grim story with an unavoidable tragic ending, a spiral of fall and desperation that never provides a ray of hope but those who are interested in the life of that side of the Iron Curtain during the cold war and in good cinema will be rewarded.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The assassination in Prague in 1942 of Reinhardt Heydrich - 'protector'
of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the planners of the 'final solution'
- was one of the most spectacular events of WWII. Although it did not
change dramatically the fate of the war, it had a strong impact on the
moral of both the German as well as the Czech and other nations
fighting on the allies side, proving that the Nazi occupiers were not
immortal and that punishment was to be inflicted on the heads of their
regime. It also led to savage reprisals that destroyed any hope of
cooperation between the German and the occupied Czech areas. 'The Man
with the Iron Heart' based on a novel by Laurent Binet and directed by
Cédric Jimenez carefully describes the main characters of this
historical drama as well as the events before and after the attack on
A few weeks ago I have seen 'The Zookeeper's Wife' which figured as central character the wife of a Polish Resistance hero who helped him in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews in occupied Poland. The first half of 'The Man with the Iron Heart' had the chance to develop as a 'The Holocaust Planner Wife' with a description of the biography and ascension to power of Reinhardt Heydrich, from an immoral officer in the German navy to the highest ranks of the SS under the influence of his wife. We are used to think positively about love stories, and this is a love story of a different kind, the one between two mean people, united by an ideology of hate, deeply corrupt despite the cultural polish of their education and hobbies. This part of the story and the film is supported by the splendid actor work of Rosamund Pike, with Jason Clarke also giving a convincing performance as the hateful and hated ReichProtektor. I liked less the 'punk' version of Himmler created by Stephen Graham, it was supposed to be sarcastic, but hard to laugh about such an horrific historic character. Over all this part of the film is the best in my opinion, and maybe would have deserved to be developed more. The authors of the script however decided to cut the action in the middle and focus in the second part on the resistance fighters who prepared and executed the assassination, the consequences of their deeds and their fatal fate. It was not bad, but closer to the beaten paths.
Events of WWII like this one seem to continue to be a source of inspiration for film makers - best proof is that 'The Man with the Iron Heart' is released less than one year away from 'Anthropoid'. Each brings a different perspective, and some of them succeed in creating solid stories, with heroes we care about (sympathize or hate). It's the case of this film as well, a film that I recommend.
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