Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

There are instances when history can play cruel tricks on films. Some titles destined for greatness may sink into insignificance because some trivial event that makes them irrelevant to the public. But there are other examples - films that reached immortality due to some events they couldn't even dream about. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, 1962 political thriller directed by John Frankehnheimer, is one such film.

The plot, based on the novel by Bill Condon, begins in 1952 during Korean War. Small American unit, led by Captain Bennett Marco (played by Frank Sinatra), is led to ambush by treacherous guide/interpreter Chunjin (played by Henry Silva). Marco and his men are captured by Soviet elite unit, shipped to Manchuria and subjected to three days of brainwashing. They are injected with false memories of heroic escape during which utterly unpopular Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (played by Laurence Harvey) showed enough bravery to get Congressional Medal of Honour. Shaw's tyrannical mother (played by Angela Lansbury) and her husband, right-wing senator John Iselin (played by James Gregory), try to use this medal for their own ambitious political agenda, but Shaw doesn't want to have anything with it. Two years later, Marco and other survivors from the unit are plagued by nightmares. Marco, who was promoted to the rank of major and now works in military intelligence, suspects that Shaw has been brainwashed into becoming sleeper assassin for Communist bloc.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE today enjoys enviable reputation of 1960s classic and one of Hollywood's few masterpieces in political thriller genre. It is also the best known title in the filmography of John Frankenheimer, director who would later become hailed as the master of that particular genre.

To a certain extent, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is worthy of its reputation. Frankenheimer, one of the first directors to gain the experience in the new medium of television, introduced many innovative techniques and showed great talent in this film. One of the best examples of Frankenheimer's talent can be seen at the very beginning when the whole process of brainwashing is explained to audience in one of the most shocking and most disturbing scenes in the history of cinema. Because of that, the pace of the film never suffers from Condon's complex and often cryptic plot; the audience is intrigued by the multitude of interesting and colourful characters, as well as their unconventional interactions. The end scene is also very effective, because Frankhenheimer makes it look like documentary footage and thus helps audience to suspend the disbelief.

Another reason why the audience can accept this film is in the fine acting. One of the examples is Frank Sinatra, who provides quality of every-day regular person to his character and thus allows audience to accept the complex plot, which is mostly seen through his eyes. Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, almost goes over the top by playing her diabolical character, but, thankfully, she never crosses the line that separates overacting from truly powerful performance. Laurence Harvey, whose role is hardest, wasn't so fortunate casting choice - his British accent is at odds with American character; he handles this complicated role as best as he could. Same can be said of Janet Leigh, whose character appears only to have regular Hollywood female star on the film's poster.

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is very good film, but it is nevertheless a product of its time and many elements of its cryptic plot are going to be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with Cold War America. George Axelrod's script could be interpreted as a reaction of left-leaning liberal Hollywood to right-wing rhetoric and paranoia of McCarthy era. This motive is used with little subtlety - one of the most pathetic characters in the film is obviously modelled on McCarthy, and his worst enemy is a senator that supports noble liberal causes. The script goes even further - it not only mocks McCarthy's anti-Communist paranoia, but makes a case that Communism and anti-Communism fuel each other in the symbiotic relationship at the expense of liberal democracy. In other words, fighting Red Menace through repression would deprive USA from its traditional liberties - the very thing that makes the America superior to its ideological adversary.

Unfortunately, those intriguing ideas could be only glimpsed through often convoluted plot that takes too many liberties with viewers' common sense and logic. It is good acting and superb direction that raises THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE from the average. But it took something else to make this film a classic - Kennedy assassination, with which many details of the film's plot have a disturbing similarity. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE maintained its legendary status because of that tragedy and its long-time effect on American collective psyche. However, even when taken out of its historic context, this film is a thought-provoking piece of quality filmmaking that deserves recommendation.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Constantine (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Some things in life are inevitable - like death, taxes and Hollywood ruining cult comic books. The example for the latter could be found in CONSTANTINE, 2005 horror film directed by Francis Lawrence.

CONSTANTINE was named after John Constatine, protagonist of HELLBLAZER series of comic books. Started in 1980s, the series dealt with misadventures of an antihero who used his magical abilities and fought various demonic forces in order to survive rather than save the world. Constantine, drawn in the image of Sting and using distinctive language of blue-collar Englishmen, was one of the most recognisable of modern comic books.

Of course, when Hollywood adapted the series to the big screen, hardly anything of the comic book remained, apart from character's name and smoking habit. Almost anything else was changed - London became Los Angeles, Constantine transformed from British into American and instead of looking like Sting he looked like Neo from MATRIX. The last decision, made in order to cast Keanu Reeves in main role, doomed the film, at least if anyone remotely familiar with the original comic book is concerned. Needless to say, writers Kevin Brodbin and Frank A. Cappello transformed complex plot and multi-layered characterisation from the comic books into simplified and predictable plot that uses every pseudo-religious cliche imaginable from exorcism scenes and legendary Spear of Christ to obligatory appearance of Satan himself.

Keanu Reeves might indeed be limited actor, unable to play complex, multi-dimensional characters. But we can't know for sure based on CONSTANTINE, because the scriptwriters altered protagonist into conventional and not particularly convincing hero. Rachel Weisz, on the other hand, is much better, despite the thankless role that includes another cliche in the form of twin sister. The same can be said of Tilda Swinton as Archangel Gabriel and Peter Stormare who provides one of film's few entertaining moments while playing Satan. Unfortunately, their efforts aren't enough to raise CONSTANTINE above the average levels of Hollywood mediocrity. With some decent special effects and occasionally interesting scene, CONSTANTINE is watchable, but the viewing experience is still too painful for those who had misfortune of reading the comic books beforehand.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Monday, July 25, 2005

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood comedies, like Hollywood films in general, are worse now than they used to be. Among those comedies that defy such trend most notable are set in the past. This isn't so surprising, because those comedies tend to relate to older audience, which not only can understand some arcane pop culture references, but also presumably has better taste. One of the films to benefit from this phenomenon is ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, 2004 comedy directed by Adam McKay.

The plot is set in 1970s San Diego, in a time when the television news were exclusive domain of macho men, usually gathered in "action news" team. One such group is led by Ron Burgundy (played by Will Ferrell), news anchor for local station Channel 4. Self-obsessed Burgundy and his posse are enjoying fame and everything hedonistic 1970s have to offer. But their idyll comes crashing down when the station, in order to provide some diversity to the news, brings aspiring female reporter Veronica Cartwright (played by Christina Applegate) to the team. Burgundy and his friends are appalled with the prospects of a woman challenging their sexist sentiments, but they are also attracted to her.

Like most films created by veterans of Saturday Night Live, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY is basically a single joke extended to 90 minutes. However, Ferrell and McKay, who wrote the script, overcame those limitations by adding interesting characters, plenty of pop culture references, politically incorrect humour and couple of surreal scenes in best possible moments. Although Ferrell sometimes overacts in his role, this isn't annoying, mostly thanks to the very talented supporting cast and few star comedians appearing in cameo roles. But the best impression is left by Christina Applegate who shows great comedic abilities and again proves that her talents were tragically underused by Hollywood. Although some scenes don't work and although some couldn't see much point in bashing 1970s macho culture, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY shows that the past has bright future in Hollywood comedies.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Sunday, July 24, 2005

New York, New York (1977)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Martin Scorsese is arguably the greatest American film director living today. Yet, his greatness, like anyone's greatness, should never be mistaken for infallibility. Recently Scorsese disappointed many of those succumbing to GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR pre-"Oscar" publicity campaigns. Those who remember old days are probably aware that Scorsese had failed films in the past. Most notable among them was 1977 musical drama NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

The plot of the film starts in 1945, with the Americans celebrating the end of World War II. Saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (played by Robert De Niro) tries to take opportunity given by mass delirium and take aspiring singer Francine Evans (played by Liza Minelli) to bed. Francine initially rejects him, but two of them discover each other's talents and join the same big band that tours the country. Gradually they fall in love, marry and have a child. As their band becomes successful, Francine begins to yearn for solo career. Differences in temperament and musical tastes between Jimmy and Francine lead to inevitable separation.

Martin Scorsese envisioned NEW YORK, NEW YORK to be homage to classic 1940s and 1950s MGM musicals, which he had liked to watch in his formative years. The idea was to have a film with spectacular music and dance numbers, obviously fake sets and unrealistic costumes, but the plot and characters were supposed to be dark and realistic, more in tune with the sentiments of New Hollywood expressed in Scorsese's previous films like MEAN STREETS, ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANY MORE and TAXI DRIVER.

The amalgam between those approaches to filmmaking - symbolised in the casting that paired New Hollywood icon Robert De Niro with Liza Minelli, accomplished singer and daughter of MGM musical icon Judy Garland - didn't achieve what was supposed to do. De Niro with his Method acting looks alien to the film better suited to the talents of Liza Minelli. Some of the scenes are overlong, especially Doyle's failed attempt of seduction at the beginning. Others, like the one about parking dispute, should have been left on the cutting room floor. Because of that, NEW YORK, NEW YORK often looks uneven and incoherent, and it is easy to understand why it turned out to be both commercial and critical flop.

On the other hand, the Scorsese's talent in many of the scenes is undisputed. This is especially evident in "Happy Endings" number - which was introduced in 1981 version of the film. All those patient enough to sit through De Niro's theatrics and Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin's uninspired dialogue are going to be rewarded with some scenes very pleasing to the eye and ears. The best thing in NEW YORK, NEW YORK are songs. The title song later became one of the popular pieces of music of all times. Because of that Scorsese deserves praise, although his film still should be viewed as failure.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Football Factory (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Many Europeans like to perceive their continent as one of the least violent places on planet. This perception, often taken as a fact whenever someone debates USA or its current policies, is hard to defend in context of what accompanies sports events in Old Continent. Europe's most popular sport - football (soccer) - is almost impossible to divide from the phenomenon of football (soccer) hooliganism. England, a country where modern football was invented, also gave birth to modern football hooliganism. This phenomenon gradually developed in subculture of its own, which later became subject of many books, sociological studies and films. Some of the films dealing with the subject became controversial, like THE FOOTBALL FACTORY, 2004 drama written and directed by Nick Love.

The protagonist of this film, based on the novel by John King, is Tommy Johnson (played by David Dyer), young man whose life revolves about drinking beer, casual sex and occasional use of drugs. His biggest thrill, however, comes every Saturday when he joins his fellow Headhunters - militant supporters of Chelsea football club - in their bloody battles with other football hooligan groups. Weeks before Chelsea is to play a Cup match against arch-rival Millwall and Headhunters fight battle against Bushwhackers Tommy starts having visions about his imminent death, which leads him to start questioning his lifestyle and loyalty to group that includes drug dealers, right-wing extremists and violent psychopaths.

Makers of THE FOOTBALL FACTORY were accused of celebrating hooligan lifestyle and those accusations intensified after film sparking a fight between rival football fan groups in Sweden. Nick Love could counter this argument by pointing to the character of Bill Farrell (played by Dudley Sutton), 70-year old WW2 veteran who praises martial spirit of young hooligans while lambasting their right-wing ideology. Even more telling are scenes in which bleak housing estates are spelled out as the prime reason why so many British youth embraced hooligan lifestyle. THE FOOTBALL FACTORY goes even further, by blaming hypocritical middle class for abandoning blue collar Britons to the vicious cycle of poverty, drug, violence and right-wing politics. This use of film as a weapon in class warfare is hardly original - many British filmmakers expressed similar sentiments in the past, although they don't look as relevant in Blair's Britain as they did during Margaret Thatcher.

The acting in THE FOOTBALL FACTORY is superb, as it is to be expected from a British film. Yet, excellent performers can't compensate for the film's biggest problem - lack of originality. While few films have dealt with the issues of soccer hooliganism, the way Love approaches the problem is too similar to the way Danny Boyle approached heroin addicts' subculture in TRAINSPOTTING. With this in mind, THE FOOTBALL FACTORY begins to look like obviously derivative product. Too many scenes are being borrowed from older and usually superior films like LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and GOODFELLAS. The ending, despite great efforts to make it unconventional, is both predictable and disappointing. What looked refreshing in 1990s is now turning British cinema industry into spent force.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Very Long Engagement (2004)


A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

One of the most annoying stereotypes used by Hollywood and other forms of American entertainment industry is the alleged cowardice and lack of martial spirits among French people. Those views are difficult to reconcile with historical record, which includes characters like Louis XIV and Napoleon and France enjoying centuries-long reputation of Europe's greatest military power and most belligerent country. However, France in 20th Century, just like the rest of the Continent, lost the taste for combat due to traumatic experiences of two world wars. In the last year, two French films dealt with those traumatic events. First was STRAYED by Andre Techine, and the second was A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, 2004 period drama directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The film, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot, begins in January 1917, during the last stages of Battle of Somme. Few years earlier millions of Frenchmen enthusiastically joined their British and Russian allies against Germany and Austria-Hungary, determined to liberate Alsace and Lorraine from German yoke. But all their bravery achieved nothing but an endless line of trenches where the soldiers have to deal with mud, disease, shelling, poison gas and incompetent officers who occasionally have them mowed down by German machineguns during futile infantry charges. After months and years of such hardships, many of the men had enough and tried to end their misery by self-inflicted wounds that would have made them unfit for military service. French military brass sees such deception as a crime punishable by death, but having the men shot might risks mutinies, so condemned men are instead led to no man's land where the dirty work should be done by Germans. One of such groups included 19-year old Manech (played by Gaspard Ulliel). Three years later his fiancée Mathilde (played by Audrey Tatou) is convinced that Manech somehow survived that ordeal. She begins her own investigation, helped by the Parisian private detective Germain Pire (played by Ticky Holgado). She is soon confronted by series of conflicting and confusing accounts about her fiancé's ultimate fate, but even more confusing is the fact that some of the witnesses are being killed in gruesome way.

For those who know him for his romantic comedy AMELIE, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's decision to direct a war film looked strange. Yet, Jeunet is hardly a stranger to the stories in which large numbers of people get killed in gruesome fashion, as those who watched his underrated ALIEN: RESURRECTION might attest. The plot of Japrisot's novel served as an opportunity for Jeunet to show that he could handle light-hearted and disturbing material in the same film. Thanks to the huge budget, CGI and Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, early 20th Century France is reconstructed in all of its glory and misery. Scenes depicting bleak and banal reality of the trench life provide sharp contrast to scenes depicting the idyllic Breton countryside where Mathilde lives, as well as magnificence of Paris, reconstructed in loving detail and shot through warm, sepia filters. Because of that, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is a successful genre combination of a war film, period romance, detective story and black comedy.

More impressive than any visual trick is the gallery of memorable characters, all being played by experienced actors. Some critics saw Audrey Tatou as merely repeating the role she had played in AMELIE, but even if there is many similarities, they aren't that visible because the story isn't centred on Mathilde's character exclusively. Almost any of the condemned men is given a back story and the audience is anxious to find what ultimately happened to them. The acting is great - some of Jeunet's regulars, like Dominique Pinon, are well matched with major stars like Tcheky Karyo or Jodie Foster appearing in virtual cameos. Especially moving is the performance by Ticky Holgado, at least for those aware that the actor was dying from cancer while playing a comical role.

However, otherwise great impression left by the film is marred by one unfortunate casting choice. Gaspard Ulliel, who was very effective in STRAYED, appears to lack proper chemistry with Tatou and the love scenes, which appear in flashback, almost ruin any suspension of disbelief. Thankfully, those scenes are relatively short. On the other hand, some other scenes - like the hospital incident at the end - are too long, too elaborate or too spectacular to be taken seriously. Yet, even with such flaws A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT deserves recommendation. There are very few films that deal with such depressing chapters of history in a way which is realistic and entertaining at the same time.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Legend of Suriyothai (2001)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood in recent years taught us that the films are the last place where the people should learn about history. Queen Sirikit of Thailand had other ideas. Convinced that Thailand's history textbooks aren't detailed enough, she taught her cousin and renowned Thai filmmaker Chatrichalerm Yukol into making a film that would deal with one important chapter of that country's history. The result was LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI, 2001 historical spectacle which later turned into one of the biggest box-office triumphs of Thai cinema. This brought attention of Francis Ford Coppola who helped the film with international distribution.

The plot of film is set in early 16th Century Siam. The country which would ultimately become modern-day Thailand is composed of many principalities gathered around mighty city of Ayutthaya and the national unity is maintained through the complex set of dynastic alliances. The story begins in 1528 when Princess Suriyothai (played by M.L. Pyampas Bhirombhakdi) has to sacrifice her love for childhood friend and distant relative Prince Piren (played by Chatachai Plengpanich) in order to marry Prince Thien (played by Sarunyu Wongkrachang) from different dynasty. The marriage, although political in nature, is happy one but the rest of Siam won't be so fortunate in next two decades. The country is going to be hit by small pox epidemic, invasions from neighbouring Burma, dynastic coups and endless intrigues, especially when king's consort Srisudachan (played by Mari Charoenpura) decides to put herself and her lover to the throne.

Although its budget is small compared with contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI looks very much like the "larger than life" film epics of 1950s and 1960s. Lack of budget for CGI and big stars was compensated with the support of Thai government - thousands of soldiers and sailors, as well as hundreds of elephants serve in spectacular battle scenes. Filmmakers spent years researching the period and almost any detail in the film - costumes, sets and even locations - is authentic. The movie is also very realistic in showing some unpleasant, but banal aspects of history that include beheadings, ritualistic killing of children and some unorthodox sexual practices. The result of all those efforts is a film that looks more impressive than its Hollywood counterparts despite some of very obvious shortcomings.

The main problem of the film is in some 40 minutes of original footage being edited out of new version for international markets. The plot at times looks accelerated and characters appear and disappear without serving any apparent dramatic purpose. Producers to some degree compensate that with extensive use of titles and narration that would help with viewers unfamiliar with Thai history to connect the dots. But this won't solve the film's main problem. In order to emphasise patriotic credentials of the heroine, filmmakers keep her character remains one-dimensional until the very end. To make things even worse, actress playing Suriyothai looks inexperienced and her acting is wooden. Other actors are much better, especially Mari Charoenpura who gives very human face to her villainous character.

While some viewers may be disappointed with the entertainment provided by LEGEND OF SURIYOTHAI, this film nevertheless gives a fascinating glimpse into one of the lesser known chapters of world's history. And fulfilling this educational purpose is reason enough for this film to receive recommendation.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

In 2002 Paul W. Anderson wrote and directed RESIDENT EVIL and thus proved that a video game could be adapted into successful film. Its success was sufficient enough to warrant a sequel, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE, directed two years later by Alexander Witt.

The film begins almost exactly when the last ended - with Alice (played by Milla Jovovich), former security agent of Umbrella Corporation and the only survivor of the deadly T-virus outbreak in Corporation's secret underground laboratory, waking up and finding that the disease has spread to Raccoon City. Corporation evacuates its top officials and scientists, including Dr. Charles Ashford (played by Jared Harris) before having town sealed and leaving entire population to the mercy of virus that turns them into carnivorous zombies. A small group of survivors, which includes disgraced policewoman Jill Valentine (played by Sienna Guillory), is contacted by Ashford who promises that he will guide them to safety if they find his daughter Angie (played by Sophie Vavasseur). The group, which is joined by Alice, agrees but its soon becomes apparent that they would have to deal not only with zombies, but also with the fact that the zombie-infested town allowed Umbrella Corporation to test all kinds of nasty weapons on human targets.

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE had bigger budget than the original and this reflected in more spectacular setting - entire futuristic city instead of isolated lab - as well as deadlier weapons, increased number of explosions as well as in the increased bodycount. But the Paul W.S. Anderson's approach to screenwriting remained the same, thus depriving the film of any originality in the plot or characters. Shallowness of the content is, on the other hand, somewhat compensated with the interesting production design and energetic direction by Alexander Witt. Just like in the original, Jovovich, this time teamed with Sienna Guillory, continues to prove her ability to play action heroines and two actresses make a formidable duo. Because of that RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE is watchable even in scenes when uninspired script gives some atrocious lines to Mike Epps' comic relief character. There are times when the film, just like the original, shows that it could be something more, especially in the scene when survivors take shelter in the church. This and other wasted opportunities aren't reason why RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE shouldn't get recommendation. But, most importantly, with high levels of graphic violence, plenty of foul language and occasional nudity, this film will satisfy the audience that likes that sort of entertainment.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Resident Evil (2002)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Big screen adaptations of popular video games are widely perceived as a futile task, but there are some filmmakers able to perform that task better than others. Paul W.S. Anderson created such reputation with his work on MORTAL KOMBAT. Few years later he began to adapt RESIDENT EVIL, Japanese video game often cited as the first example of horror survival genre. Result of Anderson's effort is 2002 film that created a franchise of its own.

The plot, set in the near future, begins in huge underground laboratory owned by Umbrella Corporation, business entity whose products are present 90 % of all American households. What homemakers don't know is the fact that Umbrella makes most of its profits to biogenetic research. Most of that research has been conducted in "Hive", huge underground lab complex. An accidental release of deadly T-virus triggers gassing of the whole complex and deaths of 500 scientists and officials. Team of special operatives comes to "Hive" to investigate, and their only help is Alice (played by Milla Jovovich), amnesiac woman who used to be "Umbrella" security agent. All of them would have to deal with "Red Queen", supercomputer that had them trapped in order to prevent further spreading of disease, but also with small army of hungry zombies created by virus.

All those expecting to see particularly complex plot, intriguing characters or exploration of important social issues are most likely to be disappointed with RESIDENT EVIL. Anderson, who also wrote the script for the film, is more interested in the "high concept" he borrowed from the game - fighting zombies in dark corridors - and his strictly technical approach has resulted in a film that would satisfy the fans of horror action genre. Berlin studios were put to good use and contributed a lot to somewhat surreal atmosphere of the film, same as the use of techno soundtrack. The film borrowed few elements from other genre classics, most notably ALIENS, so RESIDENT EVIL features not one, but two strong female protagonists. Michelle Rodriguez is very effective in her role, but she can't steal the show from Milal Jovovich. Although she appears scantilly clad for most of the film, Jovovich proves not only that she can act, but also that she can carry the film like an action heroine. That potential was recognised but not properly used by her ex-husband Luc Besson. Anderson didn't repeat this mistake, but there are times when RESIDENT EVIL looks unfinished or below its potential, especially in the scenes featuring tragically underused German actress Heike Makatsch. Yet, even with these flaws RESIDENT EVIL deserves recommendation as a flawed but generally entertaining piece of genre cinema.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Machinist (2004)


A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

This year's record box office slump in America only confirmed what many critics claimed for years - Hollywood lost ability to bring anything new or attractive to the audience. There are very few mainstream films that could be characterised as original or extraordinary. One of them is THE MACHINIST, 2004 thriller directed by Brad Anderson.

Protagonist of the film is Trevor Reznick (played by Christian Bale), drill shop operator who suffers from insomnia and hasn't slept for a year. While this state of affairs didn't affect his work ability, it manifested itself in dramatic loss of weight and Trevor becoming alienated from his colleagues. Two bright spots in his life are Stevie (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), prostitute who often offers services with a discount, and Marie (played by Aiatana Sanchez-Gijon), a waitress in an airport diner where Trevor comes every night. Trevor's life routine becomes to unravel after an enconunter with Ivan (played by John Sharian), sinister-looking man who claims to be his colleague. Ivan's presence distracts Trevor enough to cause a terrible accident and this is followed with mysterious post-it notes left in his apartment. Trevor begins to suspect that everyone around him is involved in a conspiracy.

Although set in unnamed American city, THE MACHINIST is very European film. Not only Barcelona provides locations, but also there are lot of references to European cultural legacy, namely the works of Kafka and Dostoyevsky. The latter provides one of the vital clues for the plot resolution. Dark cinematography of Xavi Jimenez and Charli Jiminez provides surreal atmosphere, very much like in 2001 Spanish thriller INTACTO. Roque Baños music, inspired by Bernard Herrmann's masterful score for Hitchock's films, also contribute a lot to THE MACHINIST.

The acting is, of course, superb. John Sharian, whose character looks very much like Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW, is very good. Same can be said for Jennifer Jason Leigh, who manages to push her "prostitute with a heart of gold" character beyond stereotypes. But the most impressive work is by Christian Bale who is almost unrecognisable due to spectacular weight loss which made Welsh screen icon resemble teen fashion models and concentration camp survivors. Bale captivates the audience not only by his strange appearance, but also by his acting skills and very credible portrayal of an individual's descent into madness.

However, effort by screenwriter Scott Kossar wasn't that impressive. The plot resolution is simple, banal and in many ways disappointing. The great plot twist is hardly original and THE MACHINIST will not going to be particularly praised by those more familiar with the genre classics. Yet, the great effort invested in this film is more than enough for THE MACHINIST to deserve recommendation. Another recommendation might come from this film replacing phrase "going De Niro" with the phrase "going Bale" in many vocabularies.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Chariots of Fire (1981)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Few people these days are willing to view "Oscars" as true measure of some film's quality, because too many of "Oscar"-awarded films tend not to age well and have their reputation maintained after initial hype. This phenomenon isn't exactly new and in past three decades there were plenty of examples of "Oscars" not preventing some films from sinking into obscurity. One of such examples is CHARIOTS OF FIRE, 1981 drama directed by Hugh Hudson.

Among the few people that remember majority is most likely to recognise musical score by Vangelis while not remembering the plot. It is set in 1924 Britain and tells a story of two very different men who are going to represent that country at Olympic Games in Paris. Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross), a son of wealthy Jewish financier, has enrolled at Cambridge and sees athletics as his way to fight latent anti-Semitism. Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson) is a devout Scottish Christian who sees his athletic prowess as a way to honour God. Two of them compete against each other only to become part of British track team at Olympics where they would have to compete with highly favoured Americans.

It could be said that CHARIOTS OF FIRE is a successful film. The early 1920s period in Britain is well-reconstructed with relatively small budgets. The roles are played by a diverse cast, ranging from highly respected veterans like Sir John Gielgud to virtually unknown and relatively young actors like Cross, Charleson, Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell, many of whom would later become some of the most recognisable faces of British cinema and television. Script by Colin Welland tells a story very competently, while Vangelis delivers one of his first great film scores which, despite the use of modern electronic instruments, doesn't seem out of place in period piece.

If the movie succeeds it is in spite rather than because of Hugh Hudson's direction. This was Hudson's first feature and it shows in couple of scenes where there is either too much cheap pathos - especially slow-motion scenes of track athletes - or film looks cheaper than it actually is. The viewers more familiar with British television are left to wonder whether CHARIOTS OF FIRE could work better if made with lesser budget and more experienced director. It isn't hard to imagine why Hudson didn't get far in his subsequent career. It could be argued that the producer David Puttnam, rather than Hudson, is the most responsible for the film's ultimate success.

Success of the film also could be explained with the specific political context in which it was released. Story about athletes having to make difficult moral choices and noble sport ideals being corrupted by nationalism and politics was very relevant after the boycotts of 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The movie, despite Puttnam's attempts to inject left-wing politics in it, was seen as an example of unapologetic flag-waving - something sorely needed for the audiences in declining Britain of late 1970s and early 1980s. In many ways CHARIOTS OF FIRE represented British equivalent of ROCKY - a film that marked the tilting of political balance to the right that would occur under Margaret Thatcher, just as America had gone through the same process with Ronald Reagan.

However, even without its historic, cultural and political context, CHARIOTS OF FIRE should be recommended. The film is worth watching despite providing another reason to put words "Oscar" and "overrated" in the same sentence.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Owning Mahowny (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Most of the people, and that includes heads of Hollywood studios, have difficulties in comprehending that some of the most spectacular disasters in history have their roots in things that are quite banal. One such real life example served as a basis for OWNING MAHOWNY, 2003 Canadian drama directed by Richard Kwietniowski.

Based on the book STUNG by Gary Roos, the films begins in early 1980s Toronto where Brian Mahowny (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) works as one of the top managers in prestigious Canadian bank. Mahowny has quickly risen through the ranks, enjoys great respect by bank's bosses and clients alike, but his success apparently didn't affect his lifestyle - he wears cheap suits, drives old automobile, lives in apartment with conspicous absence of furniture and dates rather unglamourous colleague Belinda (played by Minnie Driver). There is one passion in Mahowny's life - he likes to bet on horses and this is the reason why owes some 10,300 $ to local bookie Frank Perlin (played by Maury Chaykin). When Frank threatens not to take his bets any more, desperate Mahowny solves problem by manipulating bank's books. This solution, however, proves to be temporary and Mahowny tries to cover his wrongdoing by stealing even more money and traveling to Atlantic City where he hopes that he would win at the table. Large sums of money and Mahowny's impulsive behaviour catch attention of Victor Foss (played by John Hurt), casino manager who would do anything in order to please his new and mysterious client.

Although based on real events, OWNING MAHOWNY doesn't bother itself with a plot. The essence of the film is character study. Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the most dependable character actors and independent cinema icon, is wonderful in his portrayal of a generally decent man whose otherwise perfect life starts to disintegrate under the weight of gambling addiction. This process is presented through the series of banal and very predictable incidents, but Hoffman has managed to win audience's sympathies for his character, which results in some very powerful scenes. The most moving is the one happening in Atlantic City when the casino employees start to root for protagonist during one of his rare but spectacular winning streaks, hoping against the hope that Mahowny would quit.

Hoffman is strong, but not strong enough to carry film by himself, at least not when burdened by Maurice Chauvet's script. Simplistic plot is advanced through the series of predictable situation and characters that, compared with Mahowny, look one-dimensional. This leads to great waste of talent, especially in case of Minnie Driver, almost unrecognisable under the bad wig, or John Hurt whose character of sleazy casino manager looks simply cartoonish. Even more disappointing is the subplot about ambitious Canadian policeman (played by Ian Tracey) who discovers Mahowny's suspicious activities by accident. Those plot elements also point towards even bigger problem - the movie doesn't bother to explain why and how Mahowny became an addict and even more fascinating story about the aftermath of the affair is left out. Because of that OWNING MAHOWNY starts looking like second-tier television movie and what was fascinating character study becomes banal and unconvincing cautionary tale.

RATING: 5/10 (+)

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Criminal (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Hollywood remake of non-Hollywood film is always a tricky business. When American filmmakers stray from the original, they risk being accused of butchery. When they stick to original, they are bound to make the weaknesses of original more apparent than its strength. CRIMINAL, 2004 thriller written and directed by Gregory Jacobs and based on 2000 Argentine film NUEVE REINAS (NINE QUEENS) belongs to the latter category.

Like all recent American remakes, CRIMINAL has the original plot brought in contemporary USA. It starts with Richard Gaddis (played by John C. Reilly), seasoned con artist who notices young Mexican Rodrigo (played by Diego Luna) trying to pull a simple scam in a casino. When the youth gets in trouble, Gaddis intervenes and decides to tutor him in the art of scams and possibly make him a partner. Soon opportunity for a big score arrives in the form William Hannigan (played by Peter Mullan), media tycoon interested in rare banknotes. He took a room in a hotel where Richard's estranged sister Valerie (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) works as a concierge. Richard and Rodrigo team up with one of Richard's old partners in order to sell him forged banknote.

CRIMINAL is a work of Gregory Jacobs, long-time collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, who co-wrote the script. The film is competently directed and acted, mostly thanks to the efforts of experienced character actors like Reilly, Gyllenhaal and Mullan. Compared with them Diego Luna is bland, but nevertheless effective, although at times it appears that he was cast more because of his appeal to Latino audiences in USA then acting ability.

However, all this is of little importance when it becomes apparent that Jacobs and Soderbergh didn't bother to change Fabien Bielinsky's original script in any significant way. Complex plot that was fascinating four years earlier looks banal and melodramatic, especially at the end which isn't any surprise at all. Those viewers who watched NUEVE REINAS beforehand will be affected with increasingly unpleasant feeling of deja vu. Even more annoying is the lack of proper social, economic and political context for the plot. NUEVE REINAS stood out among Argentine films for the prophetic dimension of its final scenes. This and other elements are missing from CRIMINAL and turn it into another Hollywood example of pointlessness.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Friday, July 01, 2005

Baltic Storm (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

James Cameron, while he was promoting TITANIC, liked to describe 1912 sinking of the world's most modern and luxurious passenger liner as a moment which challenged general belief in omnipotence of modern technology, paving wave for even more heart-breaking disillusionments of 20th Century. One of such disillusionments happened on September 28th 1994 when a ferry boat "M/S Estonia" sank on the route between Talinn and Stockholm, carrying 852 people to the bottom of Baltic Sea. This proved to be the worst naval disaster in recent European history and the victims' families had to deal not only by unimaginable failure of sophisticated technology and precautions designed to prevent such tragedy from happening, but also by the way governments handled the investigation. There were many unanswered questions leading to multitude of conspiracy theories, the best known being based on the book by German investigative reporter Jutta Rabe. Fictionalised adaptation of her work became BALTIC STORM, 2003 thriller written and directed by Reuben Leder.

After a prologue that reminds the audience about the end of Cold War and emergence of new countries like Estonia, the plot introduces Jutta Rabe's alter ego in the form of Berlin TV reporter Julia Reuter (played by Greta Scacchi). In September 1994 she receives tip from Gehrig (played by Dieter Laser), former Stasi official and her long-time informer - a top Russian weapons scientist and valuable cargo of top secret weapons are being smuggled from Estonia to Sweden on board "M/S Estonia". When Russian intelligence services hear about, they send a covert team that kills a scientist and blow up the ship. Only few people survive, including Swedish lawyer Erik Westermark (played by Jürgen Prochnow) whose son went missing. He later swears that he saw some survivors officially declared missing while recuperating in hospital. He and Julia team up in order to discover the truth, but their crusade is being hampered from all quarters, most notably by Estonian and Swedish governments, which take great pains to prevent people from accessing the wreck and recording evidence of explosion.

Estonia disaster was a real and very traumatic event for the Baltic nations, especially small Estonia. The audience is reminded of that in a documentary footage that represent the most powerful and moving pieces of BALTIC STORM. Unfortunately, those clips only make the rest of the movie look banal and exploitative. Plot trying to connect those events with a sale of former Soviet technology, ex-KGB hitmen, silencing of inconvenient witnesses and conspiracy even more sinister than those described in THE X-FILES is unconvincing, especially when Donald Sutherland appears only in order to represent the bogeyman-like US government. Instead of making a case against official truth, BALTIC STORM looks like a collection of cheap B-movie cliches. Even worse is the abysmal direction, use of annoying techno music for action scenes, but hardly anything can match the unimaginably awful levels of acting. Prochnow, whomore or less sleepwalks through his role, is actually one of the better performers in this film. In the end, BALTIC STORM is going to achieve the opposite of what its makers intended - instead of giving the true, or at least probable, account of what really happened in Baltic a decade ago, this film insults the memory of victims by reducing them as convenient plot element in uninspired B-movie. BALTIC STORM is another movie that proves old adage of history repeating itself first as a tragedy than as a farce.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

Luther (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Social conservatives often complain about the lack of explicit religious themes in contemporary cinema. This could be explained with most of those films having rather limited appeal - by fully endorsing one religion they tend to alienate viewers who are atheists or have different religious beliefs. A good example is LUTHER, 2003 German biopic directed by Eric Till, a movie hardly to make strong impression on viewers in predominatly Catholic countries.

The film deals with one of the most important figures in European history. It starts in 1507 Germany when young law student Martin Luther (played by Joseph Fiennes) decides to become priest. Soon he is ordained, becomes Augustine monk and makes a pilgrimage to Rome. There he is digusted with corruption and selling of indulgences - documents that allow sinners and their relatives to evade God's wrath in exchange for financing Catholic Church. Luther sees this as betrayal of Christian principles and on October 31st 1517 nails his famous 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg church. Pope Leo X (played by Uwe Ochsenknecht) reacts by trying to make Luther recant, but it soon becomes apparent that Catholic Church has lost the ability to quickly silence those opposed to its religious supremacy. Luther, whose views became widely known and popular thanks to the recently invented printing press, refuses to yield to papal authority. He has people on his side, while Saxon prince Frederick the Wise (played by Peter Ustinov) provides political protection, and this provides a fertile ground for the movement that would become known as Protestant Reformation.

Makers of LUTHER had difficult task of having to tackle not only complex theological issues by also putting them into proper historical context. In the first half of the film Eric Till succeeds in that task. Joseph Fiennes is very good as a young monk driven by personal demons, strong religious conviction and deep sense of outrage over injustices and corruption. Peter Ustinov is also very good in one of his last roles, while Bruno Ganz is very moving as Luther's friend and mentor Johann von Staupitz - character very different from the one he played in DER UNTERGANG. A great effort was made with costumes and production design and early 16th Century Germany is successfully brought to screen despite the lack of budgets. Even some minor historical flaws (Pope worrying about Turks threatening Vienna years before it really happened) could be forgiven.

Problems for LUTHER appear in second half, when it becomes apparent that the film was partially financed by Lutheran groups. Script by Cammille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan now has to deal with Luther as a leader of a powerful movement instead of brave and lone dissenter. Description of the events is less detailed, which isn't that surprising considering Luther's controversial role in German Peasant's War and his developing anti-Semitism. In second half LUTHER becomes less of a historical movie and more of dry and routine noting of the important events in Luther's life, including the marriage to Katharina von Bora (played by Claire Cox).

However, even with apparent lack of objectivity, LUTHER proves to be more interesting and more accurate depiction of history than anything recently produced by Hollywood.

RATING: 5/10 (++)