Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The old adage about good literature being adapted into bad films and vice versa could be applied even to Pulitzer Award-winning novels. In case of Thornton Wilder's THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, there were two Hollywood adaptations - made in 1929 and 1944 - proving this point. In 2001 the novel was quoted by Tony Blair during his speech about 9-11 attacks and this probably served as an impetus for a consortium of European film companies to try a third version. The result of their effort, 2004 drama written and directed by Irish playwright Mary McGuckian, could be best described as "third time - not a charm".

The plot is set in early 18th Century Peru. Brother Juniper (played by Gabriel Byrne), a Franciscan monk, is a witness to a terrible tragedy. A ancient Inca rope bridge he was about to cross only minutes later suddenly fails, leading five people to their deaths. Brother Juniper is shocked by the incident and spends next few years collecting any conceivable bit of information about victims, trying to find whether there was some higher purpose in their deaths. Results of his findings are collected in the book whose conclusions aren't particularly liked by Church authorities embodied in Archbishop of Lima (played by Robert de Niro). Brother Juniper is tried for heresy and during the trial he tells about the incident victims and their lives.

With 24 million US$ of budget, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY was one of the more expensive European films of recent times. Its price tag can be seen not only in cast that includes such big Hollywood names like de Niro, Harvey Keitel or Kathy Bates, but also in elaborate recreation of early 18th Century through costumes and other period details (with Spanish locations being good ersatz for Peru). Unfortunately, all that splendour does poor job of hiding the emptiness of characters and pedestrian pace of the film. While some actors fare relatively well in their struggles with poorly written roles, Gabriel Byrne kills any enthusiasm for the story with his slow and flat narration. In the end, although watchable, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY leaves audience with the same unanswered question as the one asked by its narrator.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Palindromes (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Too many times phrase "art film" is mistaken for "controversial film". Because of that many otherwise talented filmmakers think that they maintain their reputation of great artists merely by dealing with controversial subjects. One of the artists to fall into such trap is Todd Solondz who provided particularly tragic example with his 2004 drama PALINDROMES.

Protagonist of the film is Aviva Victor, 12-year old only daughter of middle class couple who wants to increase her family by getting pregnant herself. A visit to her teenage relative will provide her with a baby. Her parents Joyce (played by Ellen Barkin) and Steve (played by Richard Masur) aren't that enthusiastic and they force her to have abortion during which she will accidentally lose ability to have any more children. Aviva is unaware of that and she runs from home determined to try again. First she has sex with paedophilic truck driver Joe (played by Stephen Adly Guirgis), then finds shelter in the abandoned children's shelter run by Sunshines, Christian fundamentalist couple engaged in militant anti-abortionist actions.

Solondz's script had potential of becoming a very interesting and intelligent film. Some of the issues - abortion, adolescent pregnancy, paedophilia - have been covered before, but Solondz could have easily portrayed them in refreshing and thoughtful way. For example, the issue of abortion is portrayed by showing the hypocrisy among both "pro life" and "pro choice" camps - the former take life in the name of their noble ideas and the latter take away someone else's choice simply in order to maintain their middle-class idyll.

Unfortunately, all those potentials were wasted and PALINDROMES looks like a potentially decent film buried under the thick layers of misanthropy and artistic pretensions. The most notable example of the latter is the decision to cast 12 different actors - of different race, age group and gender - in the role of Aviva. Because of that the audience can't identify with the protagonist and the varying quality of acting is very annoying. The other characters, just like Aviva, are also either too bizarre or not likeable enough for the audience to have any emotional investment in them. There are some bits and pieces in the film that actually work - roles by Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh briefly showing ability to play character three times younger than herself - but they can't alter the disappointing general impression of the PALINDROMES. Even the audience accustomed to "bizarre" films will have problems connecting with this one, mostly due to PALINDROMES often looking bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Infernal Affairs (2002)

(WU JIAN DAO) (2002)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

East Asian cinema industries appear to be booming. Japanese horror films have replaced French comedies as source of Hollywood remakes. South Korean films recently made their way to non-Korean theatres and video stores. Each new kung fu film by Zhang Yimou is eagerly anticipated by world filmophiles. On the other hand, Hong Kong cinema industry - which until very recently used to be only East Asian cinema industry relevant to Western audiences - appears to be somewhat overshadowed by those developments. The only exception is provided by authors of INFERNAL AFFAIRS, crime thriller directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. This film was turned out to be huge commercial success and two sequels on domestic markets, but also the honour of being remade in Hollywood by Martin Scorsese.

The film begins with Sam (played by Eric Tsang), Hong Kong Triad boss, gathering group of his young protégés and ordering them to enrol into Hong Kong police academy in order to become his moles within Hong Kong police. At the academy another young man is approached by Chief Superintendent Wong (played by Anthony Wong) and asked to infiltrate Triads by posing as disgraced police recruit. Years pass and former student is now hardened criminal named Yan (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai) with nobody except Wong knowing his real status of police undercover agent. Yan has gradually earned the trust of Sam and infiltrated his organisation high enough to help Wong organise Sam's arrest during major drug deal. Unfortunately, one of top members of Wong's team is Ming (played by Andy Lau) who happens to be Sam's mole within police. He alerts Sam and the drug deal collapses, together with Wong's plan to arrest his archenemy. Now both men know that they have each other's spies within their respective organisations. Yan and Ming are both ordered to discover moles' identities.

The plot of INFERNAL AFFAIRS is based on simple idea that had enormous dramatic potentials. Screenwriters Alan Mak and Felix Chong exploited most of that potential by creating not only plenty of suspenseful moments and situations, but also by creating complex characters. Yan and Ming, each in his own way, are torn between the deep sense of loyalty and increasingly tempting option to allow their roles to become their real life. Mak and Lau as directors also recognised that this plot is attractive enough for the film to be unburdened with obligatory shootouts and action scenes. One of the most suspenseful and brilliantly directed scenes doesn't involve a single shot or an act of violence. Characters and plot are more important than cheap pyrotechnics - something that Mak and Lau remembered while doing his film while others, including John Woo in Hollywood, apparently forgot.

Unfortunately, INFERNAL AFFAIRS was burdened with at least two unnecessary subplots, each trying to make its two protagonists more human through obligatory romantic relationship. Ming is married and his wife just happens to be aspiring crime novelist, while Yan falls in love with his psychologist and gives away his secret. Both subplots add nothing other than cheap symbolism and unnecessary pathos. The unconventional ending of the film slightly improves the general impression of the film, but it is somewhat confusing.

Despite those minor flaws, INFERNAL AFFAIRS deserves recommendation. It is well-written, well-directed and well-acted genre film showing that Hong Kong cinema industry is on the way to restore past glory.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Layer Cake (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Institutions like Internet Movie Database couldn't exist without films being - directly or indirectly - connected with each other. This feature of modern films sometimes leads to certain titles being remembered less because of their own artistic or commercial value, and more because of their importance for some other film. LAYER CAKE, 2004 British crime drama directed by Matthew Vaughn, is one of such examples. When it was conceived, it was supposed to be just another example of "cool" British gangster films embodied in Guy Ritchie's LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and SNATCH. Ritchie was slated to direct this one too, but he opted out and left the directing to his producer Matthew Vaughn.

The plot of the film is based on the book by J.J. Connolly. The unnamed protagonist (played by Daniel Craig) is mid-level drug dealer who consider himself to be a businessman rather than gangster. He abhors violence and runs his business with precision and professionalism that filled his bank account enough for him to be only few deals away from retirement. However, destiny thwarts those plans for two directions. His old-style gangster boss Jimmy Price (played by Kenneth Cranham) orders him to find drugged-out runaway daughter of influential businessman Eddie Temple (played by Michael Gambon). While he ponders how to do it, another problems is created by Duke (played by Jamie Foreman), his drugged-out business associate who stole million ecstasy pills from Slavo (played by Marcel Iures), former Serb warlord operating in Amsterdam. Those pills are reason why Slavo sent his merciless and deadly assassin Dragan (played by Dragan Micanovic) to London.

The inevitable comparisons between this and two Ritchie's films make LAYER CAKE more ambitious, more conventional and, in a way, much better (at least compared with overpraised SNATCH). This is due to the plot being based on a book and covering more area than East End underworld. This is immediately seen in the opening when protagonist's narration puts the film's complex plot into much broader economic, political and cultural context. The protagonist itself is different - he repeatedly describes himself as "non-gangster" and his accent, aesthetic taste and behaviour suggests someone from middle class background and some sort of education rather than former street child using crime to escape poverty. LAYER CAKE underlines this impression by confronting protagonist with his old, more experienced and more reliable associates (played by always dependable character actors like Colm Meaney and Daniel Harris) who came from the lower social strata and use certain business methods protagonist doesn't have taste for. The film expands on this theme also by confronting protagonist with those who nominally inhabit the higher strata of British society where the line between business and crime is completely blurred.

LAYER CAKE is visually very impressive and Vaughn appears to be very good first-time director. Film's limited resources are spent wisely - London in this film, embodied in prestigious night clubs, modern skyscrapers and old country clubs appears more attractive, more vibrant and more "hip" than in Ritchie's films. The accompanying music soundtrack, however, often sounds too "hip", but it is less of distraction than completely unnecessary romantic subplot involving protagonist love interest, played by Sienna Miller (a subplot that had certain real-life connotations and helped tabloid circulation in past year). The biggest flaw of the film appears to be the plot of the resolution - the plot itself was too complex and the audience will have to watch film repeatedly to actually figure out what really went on.

Despite this, LAYER CAKE earned its place in history. One image in the film - later used in posters - helped Daniel Craig to get the highly coveted role of next James Bond. However, even those viewers who don't care about James Bond franchise could enjoy LAYER CAKE as accomplished, serious and mostly entertaining British gangster film.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The author of this review considers rock music to be one of the most overrated cultural achievements of 20th Century. So many "important" names and pieces of rock music didn't withstand the test of time and the phrase "rock star" is often associated with the transience. The transience and the fact that the glitz and glamour of rock music is often nothing more than facade for emptiness is the subject of MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP, 2003 documentary film directed by George Hickenlooper.

The film, however, doesn't deal with rock musicians or rock music directly. Its protagonist is Rodney Bingenheimer, Los Angeles disc jockey on radio station KROQ. By regular standards, Bingenheimer appears to be one of the important people in rock music industry - many important rock artists, especially those from Britain, made the break into American pop and rock charts only after being endorsed by Bingenheimer through his show. The film, however, shows quiet, short, mild-mannered man who drives old car and lives in relatively small apartment, far from the luxury and glamour associated with rock deities. The film confronts this prosaic reality with golden age of 1960s rock'n'roll when young Rodney evolved from over-ambitious fame-seeker into everyone's best friend, earned prestigious title of "Mayor of Sunset Strip" and enjoyed the very lifestyle enjoyed by rock legends.

The movie is divided into two parts. The first part tells the story of Rodney's rise to his status and gives nostalgic depiction of early years of modern rock music when people with no obvious talents like Rodney could enjoy stars' lifestyle simply by being stars' friend. Many important musicians like David Bowie, Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Debbie Harry or Mick Jagger use opportunity to tell all the best things about Rodney. The second part, which deals with present, is much darker. Relationship between young Bingenheimer and his star friends in 1960s is reflected in the relationship between old Bingenheimer and aspiring yet obviously untalented homeless musician whose bills Bingenheimer pays only to keep him from streets. In the second part Bingenheimer's private life is also explored which leads to two heart-breaking scenes.

Those scenes and the early documentary footage in the film is impressive, but MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP fails to build them into coherent narrative. The film lacks the proper theme and Bingenheimer, regardless of how interesting his life might look, is hardly embodiment of certain issues or cultural trends Hickenlooper was supposed to explore. There are some bits of pieces about importance of fame in modern society - mostly in the form of brief interviews - but the film actually fails to tell how exactly Bingeheimer relates to hype machines of today or how he related to hype machines of the past. It appears that Hickenlooper, despite his intent to document the prosaic reality between rock history, is too much in awe of subject matter. The result is occasionally powerful film that often looks not that different from the which is every day aired on MTV or VH1. MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP could be recommended only to the big fans of Los Angeles rock music scene.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Great films aren't the only films to age well. Even some inferior titles can look much better after passage of time. This is probably due to inferior films of the past looking much better in comparison with inferior films of today. One of the films to benefit from this phenomenon is THE CINCINNATI KID, 1965 drama directed by Norman Jewison.

The plot of the film is set in 1930s New Orleans. The protagonist is Eric Stoner a.k.a. Cincinnati Kid (played by Steve McQueen), young professional gambler who happens to be the best stud poker player in town and, perhaps, a whole country. The prestigious title of "The Man" is, however, held by much older and more experienced Lancey Howard (played by Edward G. Robinson). Lancey comes to New Orleans and displays his formidable skills by humiliating local aristocrat Mr. Slade (played by Rip Torn). When Eric challenges Lancey, Slade is more than willing to help in order to avenge his own humiliation. This help will include giving few "friendly" suggestions to Shooter (played by Karl Malden), Eric's old friend who happens to deal cards at professional games.

If made today, THE CINCINNATI KID would be gutted by critics for its slow pace, poor characterisation, unnecessary romantic subplots and almost laughable lack of subtlety in certain "symbolic" scenes. The film is, however, very good in its final scenes that depict seemingly prosaic spectacle of poker game as the contest of epic proportions. This could be attributed to editing skill of Hal Ashby, as well as Steve McQueen - embodiment of "coolness" whose screen personality looks like it was invented for these sort of films. The rest of the cast, which includes veterans like Joan Blondell and Cab Calloway, as well as reliable character actors like Jack Weston, is also impressive. This includes Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld in thankless roles of Bad Girl and Good Girl stereotypes. Rip Torn is particularly effective in the role of menacing Southern gentleman who doesn't like to take "no" for an answer. Lalo Schiffrin delivers musical theme to this film, which is only a shadow of its future triumphs, but it nevertheless works in the context of THE CINCINNATI KID.

This is hardly the best film of its time or Steve McQueen' career, but it nevertheless could be recommended as an example of Hollywood in its past and now almost unfathomable glory.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Sight for Sore Eyes (2003)


A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Old adage about good literature being adapted into bad movies and vice versa could be applied even for genre novels. Opus of British mystery writer Ruth Rendell - praised for the richness of her plots and characterisations - is another good example. This richness tends not to materialise on screen, because the medium of feature film either simplifies plots or characters or makes them incomprehensible in too faithful adaptations. A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES, 2004 French thriller directed by Gilles Bourdos is the example of the latter.

The protagonist of the film is Bruno Keller (played by Grégoire Colin) aspiring art student obsessed with the idea of living in temple-like house covered with white walls. For Bruno his art is an escape from the childhood traumas embodied in his alcoholic father (played by Bernard Bloch) and uncle (played by Etienne Chicot). When his father dies, Bruno kills his uncle. While thinking about ways to get rid of the body he meets Elise Gardet (played by Julie Ordon), young woman whose childhood was marred in slightly different way - eleven years ago she witnessed brutal murder of her mother. Her former therapist Brigitte (played by Anne Catillon) now lives with her as over-protective stepmother. Elise begins relationship with Bruno while increasingly paranoid Brigitte begins to lose grip on reality.

A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES might be criticised for many things, but not for production design. Since aesthetic vision plays important part in protagonist's life, great deal of effort is spent in creating memorable images and everyday surrounding that should suggest Bruno and other protagonists' alienation and descent into criminal madness. Sadly, the effort in that area isn't matched with efforts in proper storytelling. The pace of the plot is snail-like while many subplots are confusing. The audience will need to pay more attention than usual in order to actually comprehend what is going on and who the characters actually are. Some of those characters are introduced too late for the audience to care about them or for their drastic mood changes to be properly explained. Under such conditions, even the best acting can't improve general impression of the film. This includes even Swiss model Julie Ordon, one of few elements of the film that lives to its title. After watching more than two hours of A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES too many eyes will remain sore.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Taegukgi (2004)



A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

20th Century was very unkind to many nations of the world, but few saw its bad side as Korea did. If spending most of the first half under brutal Japanese yoke wasn't enough, the liberation only brought equally brutal division followed by indescribably cruel and destructive war that ended in the worst possible way - without winners and with traumas that continue to haunt Koreans to this day. Some of those frustrations served as an inspiration for SHIRI, 1999 film that would later introduce South Korean cinema to many nations of the world. In 2004 its author Kang Je-gyu explored the bloody source of current Korean division - the actual war - in his war epic TAEGUKGI. The film, one of the most expensive in South Korean history, turned out to be great box-office success.

The plot is relatively simple and starts with two brothers who live in post-WW2 Seoul, capital of South Korea and try to build better future. Jin-Tae (played by Jang Dong-gun), the older brother, dreams of marrying his sweetheart Young-shin (played by Lee Eun Ju), but first he must support the family, including ailing mother, with shoe shine business. The younger Jin-seok (played by Won Bin) is supposed to go to college. In June 1950 their plans for the future are shattered when Communists from the North invade South. In the ensuing chaos Jin-seok is drafted into the retreating South Korean army. Jin-tae also decides to join only in order to take care for his younger brother. After a while Jin-tae makes a deal with his superiors - he would volunteer for the hardest and riskiest missions, and if he survives long enough to win the highest medal, Jin-seok is going to be released from service. The fortunes of war, with American help, change and as Southern army advances northwards towards Chinese border, Jin-seok, unaware of the deal, begins to question his brother's suicidal bravery, which is often indistinguishable from mere bloodlust. Both brothers, however, are unaware that the fate intends to separate them in the cruellest way possible.

TAEGUKGI is often compared with Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN - film whose realistic portrayal of military conflict looked like shocking novelty to the audiences accustomed to PG-13 wars of Clinton's age. Two films share the same narrative device - prologue set in present-day - but the differences soon become very apparent. Unlike Spielberg, who reserved the naturalistic brutality of war only for the opening segments of film and later opted for more conventional story, Kang Je-Gyu maintains the brutal intensity of modern warfare until the very end. The ugliness of war depicted in TAEGUKGI is even more explicit and, as a result, this film makes SAVING PRIVATE RYAN look like kindergarten play. People are killed in various ways, most of them very unpleasant; all those bloody incidents are showed with disturbing amounts of detail. Even more disturbing is the depiction of effects war has on people, turning the noblest individuals into homicidal beasts.

Even more important element of TAEGUKGI is the good use of time gap between the film and the events it depicts. Half a century, together with the end of Cold War, allowed South Korean filmmakers to approach its greatest national trauma with a degree of objectivity or, at least, appearance of doing so. Although TAEGUKGI, naturally, sees war from Southern perspective and praises heroism of Southern soldiers, both sides in the film commit inhuman acts towards prisoners or innocent civilians. The war is seen less as a conflict between irreconcilable ideologies and more as a tragedy that literally splits families apart pits brother against brother. The troubled relationship between the brothers could be seen as symbolic depiction of current state of affairs on Korean Peninsula, while the near-symbolic ending suggests the ways in which those gaps could be bridged.

TAEGUKGI is impressive film, but it is far from being classic. The characters, although they serve symbolic purpose, are too simplistic. The plot is skeletal and serves only a frame for war scenes. The scenes dealing with Jin-tae and Jin-seok often contain pathos in amounts indigestible to those unaccustomed to Asian cinema. Realistic depiction of war is somewhat compromised with the conspicuous absence of Americans and Chinese. But the worst part of the film is the ending, which is all but telegraphed in the opening, thus taking away a lot of suspense.

TAEGUKGI, nevertheless, deserves praise as a film that deals with the past in an old-fashioned but effective way that would help audience comprehend certain unpleasant elements of the present.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Trauma (2004)

In the world of films, especially genre films, the line that separates "clever" from "confusing" is very thin. Many over-ambitious filmmakers often forget that and cross that line. This happened to Welsh director Marc Evans with his 2004 psychological thriller TRAUMA.

The plot begins with Ben (played by Colin Firth), aspiring London artist, waking up from coma only to learn that he survived a car crash. His beloved wife Elisa (played by Naomie Harris) wasn't so lucky. Devastated by grief and sense of guilt, Ben tries to piece his life back together by moving into new apartment, situated in former hospital building. Just as Ben is devastated with the death of Elisa, the rest of the nation mourns the brutally murdered pop singer Lauren Paris (played by Alison David). Ben is additional aware of the fact, when it turns out that Detective Constable Jackson (played by Kenneth Cranham) considers him to be the prime suspect. But that's only the part of Ben's troubles - he begins suffering from visions and hallucinations and starts believing that Elisa might not be dead. The only person who shows some sort of understanding for him is beautiful neighbour Charlotte (played by Mena Suvari).

Richard Smith's script for TRAUMA provides another example of contemporary psychological thriller where the main issue is protagonist's faltering perception of reality. The issue is usually resolved in some sort of "clever" plot twist which reveals some important characters or plot elements to be nothing other elements of protagonist's imagination. In other to make the film interesting until the very end, Smith tries to throw as much red herrings as possible. Evans also contributes to his effort with use of any "clever" cinema trick possible, trying to make the world of TRAUMA as confusing to the viewer as for the audience. He tries too much and by when the answer is given, it is unsatisfactory - the audience will have to be very patient and very concentrated to comprehend the plot. And that patience is something that the audience will have in short supply, due to TRAUMA looking more like an exercise in style rather than example of capable storytelling. Colin Firth looks fine in his role, and Mena Suvari is attractive in her portrayal of almost ethereal character; yet those looks can't compensate for the emptiness of their characters. Many subplots and characters are left unexplored and underused, making this film traumatic experience for anyone yearning for a quality genre film.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Saw (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Aspiring Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannel must be the great fans of David Fincher and his 1990s thrillers, at least judging by SAW, their 2004 feature film debut. The film has premiered at Sundance Film Festival only to become a sleeper hit few months later and spawn this year's sequel.

The film begins with two men - Adam (played by Leigh Whannel) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (played by Cary Elwes) - waking up at the opposite ends of huge dirty utility room. Their foots are chained, there is dead body behind them and they can reach various objects and cryptic messages. Gordon don't know how and why he got there, but he believes that both of them are captives of Jigsaw Killer - mysterious psychopath who forces his victims to do indescribable things to themselves or other people. Gordon is soon informed that the object of the "game" is to kill Adam, otherwise his wife and daughter will be killed. Gordon begins working with Adam in order to save both of them from the vicious killer. In the meantime, Jigsaw Killer is being pursued by David Tapp (played by Danny Glover), police detective convinced that Gordon is actually the killer.

SAW has simple but very effective concept - two men are put into isolated spot and spend the entire film trying to outwit the unknown killer and each other. Importance of those choices is suggested flashback scenes that feature very graphic violence, as well with some very unpleasant scenes of unknown killer capturing Gordon's wife (played by Monica Potter) and child (played by Makenzie Vega). James Wan showed great ability to create suspense for most of the film. His achievement is even bigger considering film's incredibly low budget - most of the audience probably won't notice that scene occur in rather limited set of locations.

SAW, therefore, had all ingredients of a very good film or genre classic. However, just like so many films, it is denied of greatness in the last scenes, when some of its flaws become too apparent. The biggest mistake is revelation of the killer's identity and another is great plot twist that doesn't make any sense and exists solely for the sake of shocking the audience. In that moment SAW becomes just another collection of horror movie cliches. Even worse is Cary Elwes, whose over-the-top acting matches poor quality of his make-up. The rest of the cast is passable, including Whannel who fares well when compared with veterans like Glover or Shawnee Smith (who appears in one of the film's more memorable scenes). Inevitable comparisons with SE7EN - the film that feature similar villain - or THE GAME aren't going to be favourable to SAW. Wan and Whannel are talented filmmakers, but it will become more apparent when they start create something more original in the future.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Alone in the Dark (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The author of this review had many bitter experiences with films not living to initial critical and box-office enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, experiences with critical and commercial failures weren't any better. However, at times it just happens that films universally perceived as cinema industry's equivalent of toxic waste turn out to be pleasant experiences. In case of 2005 action horror film ALONE IN THE DARK, "pleasant experience" translates into merely "not as bad as the reputation of director Uwe Boll".

The plot of the film is based on ALONE IN THE DARK, 1990s series of popular video games that belonged to survival horror genre. The protagonist is Edward Carnby (played by Christian Slater), survivor of traumatic childhood incident that had thought him to appreciate ancient fear of the dark. After career in Bureau 713, government's paranormal investigation agency, he now works as private investigator. He has recovered an artefact of Abkani, ancient American civilisation that vanished without trace 10,000 years ago. Because of that he is targeted by assassins hired by Prof. Lionel Hudgens (played by Matthew Walker), former Bureau 713 researcher who wants to open ancient gates between our world and world inhabited by nasty shadow-like monsters.

ALONE IN THE DARK should never be mistaken for a good film. Its poor box-office results are quite justified, but, on the other hand, almost pathological amounts of venom spewed by reviewers are not. ALONE IN THE DARK indeed features atrocious dialogue, protagonist's misplaced narration, poor editing and plenty of other questionable creative decisions. Casting doesn't belong to this category - veteran actors like Slater and Stephen Dorff (playing Carnby's former colleague) are quite relaxed in front of camera. Some of the action scenes are well-directed and even the ending - usually the weakest part of mainstream Hollywood films of the same genre - even makes some sort of sense.

Although far from deserving recommendation, ALONE IN THE DARK could spark interesting speculations about the reasons why its author is burdened with such notoriety while other authors with similar quality of opus are not. One of the explanations came in the form of conspiracy theory involving German tax laws and Boll using a loophole by deliberately making box office flops. Another explanation could be in Uwe Boll being a lightning rod for critics and often unjustly getting the treatment they are hesitant to spew on mainstream Hollywood products. In any case, ALONE IN THE DARK is better than expected, but, considering the reputation of its author, this isn't much of an achievement.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

Friday, November 04, 2005

Vera Drake (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Despite many efforts to create some sort of centrist "multi-cultural" consensus as the universal ideology of globalised post-Cold War world, there are some issues that still sharply divide people, even in supposedly enlightened Western liberal democracies. One of those thorny issues is abortion - a debate whose occasional escalation into violence in USA only underlines high levels of emotions stirred in other parts of the world. Because of that, Hollywood tackled the abortion themes very rarely, usually with unsatisfactory results due to Hollywood liberal and leftist filmmakers not being able to channel their "pro choice" views without turning such films into cheap propaganda. What most Hollywood films lack - connection with real life instead cheap stereotypes - is something British director Mike Leigh has, and his exploration of abortion issue in his 2004 drama VERA DRAKE resulted in rave reviews and prestigious awards at Venice Film Festival.

The plot is set in 1950 London, a place still recuperating from devastating effects of World War II. Poverty and food rationing, however, are at least partially alleviated in a home of Vera Drake (played by Imelda Staunton), middle-aged woman who spends any conceivable moment to make life better for her loving husband Stan (played by Phil Davis), ambitious son Sid (played by David Mays) and pathologically shy daughter Ethel (played by Alex Kelly) for whom she would find perfect match in lonely war veteran Reg (played by Eddie Marsan). Vera Drake's friends, relatives and neighbours think of her as an angel, not knowing that she also happens to be something more to numerous women whose "troubles" are removed with a help of soap, hot water, one surgical instrument, cup of tea and few kind words. When one of such procedures results in medical complications, hospital authorities inform police and Detective Inspector Webster (played by Peter Wight) quickly tracks Vera Drake down. Confronted with the illegality of her action, Vera Drake breaks down and her small family utopia is shattered.

Mike Leigh's decision to set his abortion-themed film in mid 20th Century is understandable, because Britain in those times was more impoverished and more socially stratified than now, thus making some of the abortion-related issues easier to portray. Contraception is not part of people's vocabulary, while abortions are illegal. In such conditions more women get unwanted pregnancies while, at the same time, their options are limited to two very unpleasant alternatives - either having a child that would grow up in nothing but misery or risking life in back alleys. Leigh, on the other hand, doesn't present the "pro choice" case explicitly and even those with "pro life" views might find arguments for their side in VERA DRAKE. Film suggests that Vera - one of the most angelic and kind-hearted characters to appear on silver screen - is also product of unwanted pregnancy, and that people actually might find happiness even if they live in poverty. Women who decide to abort often got pregnant because of their own stupidity and irresponsibility, and VERA DRAKE wisely avoids portraying them as victims or proto-feminist heroines. Leigh recognises divisiveness of the issue by having Vera Drake's family reacting to the revelation of her activities in very different ways.

Like in all Mike Leigh's films, the acting is simply superb. Word "great" doesn't do justice to what Imelda Staunton delivers with her performance. The rest of cast is also wonderful - they all portray simple, ordinary people who quickly win audience's heart. Even the character of police detective - embodiment of heroine's downfall - is portrayed as sympathetic human being rather than cold and heartless enforcer of oppressive laws. Although VERA DRAKE happens to look like relatively cheap film, a huge effort in researching and recreating post-war London manifests itself in many scenes. Even the Andrew Dickson's musical score - one of the weakest points of Mike Leigh's previous films - serves good dramatic purpose in VERA DRAKE.

However, even this film has its weaknesses. The shift between long, methodical exposition of Vera Drake's world in the first and its tragic dissolution in the second half of film is mishandled. Vera Drake not taking money for her services is an issue left unexplored, while the ending is unsatisfactory. But the most visible of all film's flaws is in Mike Leigh trying too hard to give social dimension to abortion issue by adding subplot about Vera Drake's rich employer's daughter solving her "problem" in nice, clean and discreet way that money and proper social position can obtain. Although Sally Hawking plays that character very well, she is instantly recognised as a plot device rather than character in her own right.

Despite those flaws, VERA DRAKE deserves praise as a very good film that approaches some difficult and divisive issues in an intelligent and humane way.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

La Haine (1995)

(Note: The review was originally written in 2003, but it is posted today due to its relevance to certain current events.)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2003

Even before Iraq widened the rift between Europe and USA, most of European intellectuals had very low opinion of world's sole superpower. That view, which is now became mainstream among common Europeans, could be best summed up in stereotyping USA as country plagued by violence, crime, drugs, racism and riots - unlike refined, civic-minded and enlightened Europe whose welfare- state policies and "political correctness" made sure that such ills never affect their citizens. This is the reason why LA HAINE, 1995 French drama directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, looks incredibly ironic today, since it depicts all those "American" forms of social pathology in the very heart of "enlightened" and "refined" Europe.

The plot of LA HAINE is set in Parisian suburbs. Unlike in most American cities, Paris, inner sections are populated by upper and middle classes, and suburbs are left to, mostly immigrant, underclass. In one of those suburbs Arab teenager was beaten into coma during police interrogation. That was enough for disaffected youth to start massive riot and wreck the neighbourhood. Soon after the riots the story begins to follow three local teenagers and best friends - Arab small-time dealer Said (played by Said Taghmaoui), black boxer Hubert (played by Hubert Kounde) and small-time Jewish thief Vinz (played by Vincent Cassell). Three youths - unemployed, out of school and with little hope or prospects, spend next 24 hours doing what most youths in their situation would do - hang out and wander around the neighbourhood, getting into all kinds of trouble with police and skinheads. But the biggest trouble is Vinz, who had taken a gun, lost by a policeman during the riot; he hates police and swears that he would kill one policeman in revenge if comatose Arab boy dies.

Shot in black-and-white, LA HAINE shows the other, darker side of modern Europe with more passion than black American directors ever showed in their grim 1990s depictions of inner city reality. Just like inner-city neighbourhoods of America, Parisian suburbs are infested with violence, crime, drugs, graffiti, gangs and the police, acting more like an occupying army than force of order, only fuels the vicious cycle of violence among disaffected youths. To make things even worse for European cultural snobs, those disaffected youths have eagerly embraced American cultural imperialism - they listen to rap, use words like "homeboys" in their vocabulary and try to emulate tough guys from Hollywood movies. Unlike people in American inner city ghettos, protagonists of LA HAINE are able to overcome ethnic and racial differences - in the world of Parisian suburbs Arabs and Jews could live together, but the less visible social divisions are nevertheless in full effect. Small trip to posh section of Paris and encounters with their well-to-do countrymen would illustrate how little understanding exists between various segments of French society and that such lack of understanding would inevitably lead to hatred and violent conflict.

This conflict, which looms in the background just like the violent finale of the film, is telegraphed at the very beginning with the documentary footage of Parisian suburbs riots. Kassovitz (who appears in the film in the small role of skinhead) seems very concerned for the future of his country, since the reality of suburbs is at complete odds of official nationalist credo that tries to sweep all ethnic, racial and social tensions under the carpet. Unfortunately, his message was at times blurred with some elements that seem alien to LA HAINE; small anecdote about Siberian trains is one of such example. But Kassovitz, who had earned Best Director prize at Cannes Film Festival for this film, should nevertheless commended for the film which proved to be prophetic. In the film he told of France being just like a man falling from Eiffel Tower and constantly telling himself "So far, so good". In last few years France has seen the rise of anti-Semitic attacks and far right candidates like Le Pen making surprisingly good results at the polls. Perhaps France didn't hit the pavement, but all those snobs who like to look down on USA should start looking at their own yard.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

Review written on September 8th 2003

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Jacket (2005)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

The author of this review has seen too many potential Hollywood classics almost inexplicably turning into forgettable disappointments. So, when the opposite - a movie bound to be failure inexplicably turning quite good - happens, I tend to really such pleasant and very rare surprise. One of those experiences was provided by THE JACKET, 2005 psychological thriller directed by John Maybury.

The protagonist of the film is Jack Starcks (played by Adrien Brody), who miraculously survived being shot in the head during Gulf War. One of the side-effects of his wound is amnesia. Few months later, while he hitchhikes through rural Vermont, he is picked up by young man who later shoots a policeman. Jack is charged for the crime and later gets committed to institution for criminally insane. There he becomes a test subject for Dr. Becker (played by Kris Kristofersson), psychiatrist whose idea of therapy involves putting patients in straightjacket and having them locked up in mortuary drawers. After one such hellish experience Jack suddenly wakes up near the road only to be picked up by young woman named Jackie (played by Keira Knightley). In her apartment he learns that the year is 2007, but that only happens to be the first in the series of shocking revelations.

The character whose grasp on reality is slipping and time travel as the plot element brought unavoidable comparisons with films like TWELVE MONKEYS, ABRE LOS OJOS or BUTTERFLY EFFECT. Massy Tadjedin's script for THE JACKET doesn't look very good when compared with scripts for each of those films. The main plot point is telegraphed relatively early, characters are one-dimensional and there are even some annoying cliches like obligatory romance, rescuing little children and some sort of sentimental happy ending. Script also fails to deliver any sort of rational of pseudo-rational explanation for time travel, making the film less attractive to all those who like to have film plots nice and tidy.

However, THE JACKET manages to overcome such constraints with the collection of diverse talents showing levels of effort seldom seen in contemporary Hollywood films. The most recognisable is Adrien Brody, great actor who risks being typecast in the roles of delicate souls being tortured and abused; despite the risk, he delivers another great performance. Keira Knightley is also very good and shows another example of British actor mastering American accent. The most pleasant surprise is Jennifer Jason Leigh, almost unrecognisable in first scenes, but whose presence holds the film together and gives it aura of being something more than cheap psychological thriller.

John Maybury, British director specialised for experimental films, also contributes to THE JACKET looking better than it actually is. Tendency to express protagonist's confusion to all kinds of camera tricks is suppressed and THE JACKET and unconventional filming techniques are used only in appropriate scenes. Canadian location and winter setting is also put to good use, creating an atmosphere that fits the script. Brian Eno also provides not memorable, but quite appropriate musical score.

In the end, those who expect another genre classic might be disappointed with THE JACKET, but they are, in most likelihood going to be in minority. More viewers are probably going to appreciate rare example of a film whose quality defies its script.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)