Monday, February 24, 2020

In the Loop

In the Loop; satire, UK, 2009; D: Armando Iannucci, S: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky, Mimi Kennedy, David Rasche, Steve Coogan

The British and American governments are planning to start a war in the Middle East. The crisis turns into a chaotic media grotesque when the British Minister for International Development, Foster, clumsily says during an interview that a war is "unforeseeable", causing an angry backlash from his superior, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm. The British officials travel to Washington to talk the crisis through, and meet the American General Miller and Assistant Secretary of State for Policy Barwick. The only source that advocates urgent military intervention is the non-transparent man called "Iceman". The officials try to stop the news from publishing their data before the vote at the UN. In the end, Foster is fired.

Even though it is never mentioned directly during the entire film, and even though all the names and characters are fictional, "In the Loop" is an obvious satire on the events leading up to the Iraq War and the administration of George W. Bush and Tony Blair trying to "sell" the war to the public, despite lack of support. Director and co-screenwriter Armando Iannucci enjoys making fun of the flawed politicians and their agenda, inserting several burlesque moments, yet he erred by filming the entire story with a shaky, hand-held camera, which is not that cinematic and seems clumsy and chaotic at times. Some of the lines, despite being burdened by too many pop-culture references, are simply irresistibly funny and delicious to listen to, and a good deal of them ended up landing in the hands of excellent Tom Hollander as Foster. In one such moment, Foster and General Miller have this comical exchange: "I am a fake hawk." - "Are you an idiot? Or a fake idiot?" In another funny scene, Jamie is kicking a fax machine that leaked secret data to the public, and attacks the man who did it in the office, but suddenly stops to shout at the sound of the opera playing in the next room: "Hang on, hang on, for a start, turn that racket off! It's just vowels!" Malcolm insults the American Assistant Secretary of State with these words: "You know, I've come across a lot of psychos, but none as boring as you!" Strong dialogues, though the movie would have benefited if it did not have such a frenzy-fast pace and instead slowed down for the viewers to enjoy more in such writing acrobatics.

Grade:++

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July; drama, USA, 1989; D: Oliver Stone, S: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Kyra Sedgwick, Willem Dafoe, Jerry Levine

Ron Kovic is a patriotic young lad living with his very religious parents. Inspired by TV adds calling young men to enlist to fight in the Vietnam War, Ron follows suit. In Vietnam, Ron sees a silhouette charging from a sand dune and shoots, inadvertently killing a fellow American soldier, Wilson. In another battle, Ron is shot through the chest and left paralyzed from the vaist down. Now in a wheelchair, he returns home to his parents, still patriotic, but slowly starts doubting his country's leadership in the war. He meets his ex-sweetheart again, Donna, now an anti-war activist, and joins her advocacy. Ron suffers a nervous breakdown and goes to Villa Dulce, where he meets another war veteran in a wheelchair, Charlie. They argue and fight. Ron visits Wilson's parents and apologizes. He becomes a bitter opponent to the war and Richard Nixon.

"Born on the 4th of July" is a movie comprised out of three features: anxiety, suffering and disillusionment. Director Oliver Stone took the real life story of Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic and, thankfully, restrained his political fundamentalism, allowing for the viewers to draw their own conclusions and messages from the bitter story. The movie works the best in the first half: it starts off with a sequence of little children playing war with toy guns, implying that there might be some deeper human obsession with conflict. Tom Cruise delivers one of his most realistic and finest performances as the hero, who slowly undergoes a transition from a right-wing to a left-wing spectrum, after being left paralyzed from a shot in the war. Cruise works both during the small moments before the war, such as when Ron takes the braces from his teeth before he goes to talk to the girl he has a crush on in a store, up to the gritty, dark time after the war. There is a devastating moment when a doctor has this exchange with Ron, who recovered from his injury: "You will never be able to walk again". Ron just asks: "Will I be able to have children?", and the doctor gives him a direct anwser: "No. But we have good therapists". The movie works showing this sad, emotional struggle, but in the last third, it starts to become too melodramatic, preachy and manipulative, especially in the last 20 minutes when it just basically becomes a polygon for Ron shouting and swearing at the Republican National Convention, with little subtlety or sophistication. The whole subplot involving fellow war veteran Charlie is pointless. After an energetic first half, it seems Ron does not know what to do with his life anymore, and the movie becomes equally unsure, going around in circles without a clear goal of what direction is should take in the final act. There are several episodes (one of them involving Ron's sex with a prostitute, despite his disability), yet seem isolated and unconnected. However, "4th of July" manages to assemble an ambitious story that gives spotlight to neglected people.

Grade:++

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Child

L'Enfant; drama, Belgium / France, 2005; D: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, S: Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Jérémie Segard

A Belgian city. The young, rebellious and immature love couple Bruno and Sonia have suddenly became parents of a baby, Jeremy. The child brings change into their irresponsible lives. They don't live with their parents anymore and are seeking their won apartment, but lack money. One day, Bruno decides to give Jeremy away to an adoption center. When Sonia finds out, she falls unconscious and ends up in a hospital. Bruno panics and brings back Jeremy from the center. Sonia takes the baby and does not want to talk to Bruno anymore. Bruno, now alone, teams up with a boy from the neighborhood to steal purses on a moped. When the police catch the boy, Bruno decides to give himself in. He later decides to reconcile with Sonia.

Winner of the Golden Palm in Cannes, "The Child" by the brothers Dardenne is a supremely simple film: short, economic, fluid, with such a realistic, almost documentary-like story that it seems as if it came from your neighborhood. All the actors are excellent, whereas the story is full of unobtrusive details (for instance, when it is depicted that Bruno rather spends his money on video games than on his own baby). The Dardenne brothers craft "The Child" in the tradition of Bresson's distanced, 'raw', ascetic, neutral film approach, without any kind of moralizing or glamour, allowing for the public to "assemble" their own emotional experience, yet that is also the film's main problem: as a whole, it does not manage to intrigue or completely reach and engage the viewers into its flow. Frankly, it does not have anything new to tell that was not said before about clumsy, irresponsible young parents. It is too conventional and standard to truly stay in the viewers' memory, yet it is an interesting social drama about little people from the "margins", with a perfectly symbolic title: it can apply to either the baby or Bruno, who has to grow up and take responsibilities.

Grade:++

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Ides of March

The Ides of March; drama, USA, 2011; D: George Clooney, S: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright

Governor Mike Morris is fighting to get a nomination as a potential Presidential Candidate during the Democratic Party primary. Stephen (30) is his junior, while Paul is his senior campaign manager. One day, Stephen gets a phone call from Duffy, the campaign manager of Pullman, the rival of Morris. Duffy offers Stephen a job if he joins his side, but Stephen refuses. Stephen starts a relationship with Molly, a young intern, but is shocked when discovering that she had an affair with Morris and now wants to get an abortion. Morris refuses to accept the endorsement of Thompson, feeling the latter is incompatible with his views. When Molly dies from drug overdose upon hearing that Stephen is threatening to sabotage Morris' campaign with his affair, Stephen blackmails Morris into accepting Thompson's endorsement and securing a nomination.

George Clooney's 4th feature length film as a director, "The Ides of March" fulfils the author's fascination with politics, delivering a bitter story about disillusionment with any ideals. Surprisingly, even though liberal himself, Clooney depicted the dirty behind-the-scenes ploys of the Democratic Party, not the Republicans, making the whole topic even more challenging. The movie is somehow lukewarm and never really goes beyond the good grade, except for some isolated moments of greatness thanks to strong performances by the actors. In one of these moments, Stephen, the junior campaign manager for Democratic candidate Morris, meets his rival, Duffy, who tries to persuade him to switch sides. Stephen counters that this is "something Republicans would do", but Duffy is quick to respond: "You're right, this is exactly what the Republicans do, and it's about time we learned from them. They're meaner, tougher and more disciplined than we are. I've been in this business for twenty five years and I've seen way too many Democrats bite the dust because they wouldn't get down in the mud with the elephants!" While this is surprising, nothing of this has such a revelatory punch as it was expected. It is kind of standard, with a limited creativity. Stephen's character arc goes a fine path, depicting him change from an idealistic man who believes in his candidate to a blackmailing liar who only wants to win the race, realizing that in politics, even people with the most noble intentions have to compromise to achieve their goal. The most intense moment is actually non-political: when the journalist, Ida, who snitched him in her story, is not allowed to go beyond a backstage pass blocked by bodyguards, Stephen tells her: "You are my best friend". That Stephen came the closest to a friendship with someone who just tolerates him and barely sees him is already indicative of what kind of world of schemes he got himself into.

Grade:++

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral; romantic comedy, UK, 1994; D: Mike Newell, S: Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, James Fleet, Kristin Scott Thomas, Simon Callow, John Hannah

Charles wakes up in his bed, realizing he is late for a wedding where he is invited to be the best man. He forgets the ring, but the wedding still succeeds. Charles' friends Fiona, Tom and Gareth are also there, yet what intruiges him the most is one of the guests, American Carrie, with whom he spends the night with. The 2nd wedding: Charles meets Carrie again, but she is now engaged. He still lands with her in bed. 3rd wedding: Carrie marries Scottsman Hamish, while Charles can only mourn for himself. A funeral: Gareth died, and among the guests, Charles again meets Carrie. 4th wedding: Charles is about to get married himself, to Henrietta, but meets Carrie who divorced Hamish. Charles breaks up the wedding and starts a relationship with Carrie.

"Four Weddings and a Funeral" became an extraordinarily successful British film which works thanks to its charm and wit, which manage to lift it up from some occasional convulsive or clumsy moment, and a major kudos should be given to the wonderful performance by Hugh Grant, who delivered one of his finest roles. The simple, yet effective storyline is the most interesting part, creating a time frame consisting exclusively within only five events (hence the four weddings and a funeral from the title) through which the two protagonists, Charles and Carrie, meet while attending them as guests, and this "restrictive" narration gives their interaction a certain preciousness, since it is rare and can only exist within these five parameters. The script by Richard Curtis has inspiration: in one example, Matthew holds a speech at the funeral for the deceased Gareth, which masterfully transitions from funny and ridiculous ("...his recipe for "Duck à la Banana" fortunately goes with him to his grave...") to surprisingly emotional and magical, all within one sequence ("He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest; My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song. I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood, For nothing now can ever come to any good."). Even though this is a romantic comedy, the director Mike Newell even allowed it to include some goofy and ludicrous jokes (such as the closing credits which reveal that Fiona got married to Prince Charles). Andie MacDowell is both sweet and funny as the American girl Carrie, creating chemistry with Grant, and contributing to the positive impression of the overall film.

Grade:+++

Monday, February 3, 2020

Au revoir les enfants

Au revoir les enfants; drama, France / Germany / Italy, 1987; D: Louis Malle, S: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Philippe Morier-Genoud, François Négret, Francine Racette




France, World War II. Julien Quentin (12) is unwillingly sent by his mother to a rural Catholic boarding school for boys. The daily routine is underwhelming: they study math, until they are interrupted by air raids and have to hide in a bunker; food rations are scarce, whereas the rich kids exchange their food for cigarettes thanks to Joseph, who is punished for it when this is discovered. A new kid is brought in the school, Jean Bonnet. Julien discovers a notebook in Jean's locker, confirming Jean's real last name is Kippelstein, meaning the latter is Jewish. One day, Nazi officials enter the school and arrest Jean, three other boys and the priest who was hiding that they were Jews. The arrested people are deported, and die in concentration camps.

Louis Malle waited for a long time unil he thought he was mature enough to film this painful autobiographical story from his childhood—he only made three more films after this—yet the wait was worth it, since the critics rewarded his "Au revoir les enfants" with acclaim and recognition. "Au revoir" is very good, yet still a little bit overrated. It has a great, fantastic, very touching and intense finale, yet the entire story up to it is at times bland, sometimes even boring, with routine episodes from the boarding school and numerous episodic characters who do not stand out as especially memorable, except for the two main protagonists, Julien and Jean. It is stronger as a therapy—for Malle's own torment and guilt of his passivity as a child, yet, when you are a kid, you cannot make such a difference, anyway—and humanistic message, yet weaker as a cinematic achievement. Presented without music, with minimalism and a realist narrative, "Au revoir" is deliberately de-dramatized, and thus not even the arrest and deportation of the kids by the Nazi officials creates any suspense, instead just presenting the events as something that just happened. Malle is wise enough to avoid depicting the myth of "innocent youth", instead choosing a more realistic description of 12-year old boys, who are starting to dominate each other, or are fighting, bullying, being vulgar or talking about sex in 1001 Nights, with his alter ego Julien standing as an intellectual who tries to "endure" this stage of his life, even when it is not that easy (the sequence where he wakes up during the night after having a "wet dream", and has to clean the stain from his sheet). A problem is that Julien and Jean do not bond until the end, when they become friends for only some 10 minutes before the finale, and thus their relation is not that strong, yet Malle was maybe just being honest about this episode, refusing to glamorize or distort it into a typical mainstream film that some have wished. It is both a small glimpse of the Holocaust and a coming-of-age study about loss: in the final close up of the film, Julien has grown up.

Grade:+++

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Elevator to the Gallows

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud; crime-drama, France, 1958; D: Louis Malle, S: Maurice Ronet, Jeanne Moreau, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Jean Wall, Iván Petrovich, Félix Marten, Lino Ventura

Paris, Saturday. Julien Tavernier has an affair with Florence Carala, the wife of his boss, Mr. Carala. The lovers decide to kill Mr. Carala. Julien devises a clever plan of using a rope to climb up to the top floor of the company, shoots Mr. Carala and locks all the doors from inside, making it look as if the boss committed suicide. Julien exits the building, but then realizes he left the rope hanging. Julien enters the elevator, but gets stuck inside when the janitor switches off the electricity for the weekend. On the street, Julien's car is stolen by teenagers Louis and Veronique. As Florence sees Julien's car, she assumes he abandoned their plan. At a motel, Louis shoots a German couple with Julien's gun, and therefore the police suspect Julien is the perpetrator. When the power is switched back again in the morning, Julien finally exits the elevator, but is arrested for the murder of the German couple. Florence realizes the mistake and informs the police that Louis is the one to blame. The police develop the photos from the motel, showing Louis with the German couple, and thus arresting him. Bu they also arrest Florence who is seen with Julien on the photos.

Louis Malle's feature length debut film (if his documentary "The Silent World" is disregarded), excellent "Elevator to the Gallows" caught the director instantly on the right foot, crafting a remarkably polished crime-drama film. A story that could have developed as your run-of-the-mill crime flick about two lovers who conspire to kill the husband of the woman is enriched with a lot of twists and unexpected de-tours, which, although they may seem too "knotty" at first, eventually all align into a harmonious whole in the finale, confirming that the script was meticulously written and planned in every little detail which is justified at the end. One of the surprises is that the main character, Julien, gets trapped in a shut down elevator, and thus spends 60 minutes of the film's running time inside. In another, even though he perpetrated a seemingly perfect crime, concealing all the traces behind him, after killing Mr. Carala, Julien is arrested, anyway, for a murder he (ironically) did not commit, but a teenager who stole his car and used his gun, implying the fatalism and inescapable determinism of Julien's fate. Filmed mostly with natural lighting, "Elevator" conjured up an elegant, relaxed form of realism, giving Jeanne Moreau a juicy leading role, whereas some critics consider it a precursor to the French New Wave.

Grade:+++

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Death Wish 3

Death Wish 3; action, USA, 1985; D: Michael Winner, S: Charles Bronson, Gavan O'Herlihy, Ed Lauter, Deborah Raffin, Martin Balsam, Alex Winter, Ricco Ross, Marina Sirtis

Paul arrives to New York to visit his old friend, Charley, but finds him murdered in the apartment. The police arrive and arrest Paul, mistaking him for the murderer. In jail, Paul has a fight with Fraker, the leader of the street gang who killed Charley. Police Chief Shriker releases Paul, who decides to stay in Charley's empty apartment, hoping to get revenge. Gang members break into the apartments and assault the tenants. When Fraker's gang arranges for Paul's new girlfriend, Kathryn, to die in a car crash, Paul buys a gun and starts shooting gang members one by one. Shriker joins him. When Fraker is about to shoot Shriker, Paul uses a rocket launcher to blow up Fraker and half of the apartment. Once their leader is dead, the gang dissolves, and Paul heads back home.

While the 1st "Death Wish" film was actually a good contemplation on the murky topic of vigilantes and ethical problems arising from it, its sequels quickly went the route of "Rambo" sequels, embracing killings as some sort of action-fun roller coaster without any major consequences. Part III is so over-the-top that it is a guilty pleasure, with several unintentionally comical moments that secured it cult status. The villains, the gang members, are presented in such a cartoonish way that "Death Wish 3" becomes a ridiculous experience, a trash fest that resembles a parody at times. The main protagonist Paul turns into an extremist right-wing shooter, using excessive violence against gang members which were dumbed down and distorted so much as to secure the viewers a safe cheering at their killings without any bad conscience. In one fight sequence, a thug stabs a knife into Paul's lower back, but Paul just nonchalantly pulls out the knife, as if it is super easy, barely an inconvenience to him, as if it is an epidural anesthesia. In another exaggerated moment, after being assaulted by the thugs, Maria dies in the hospital from a broken arm (!), while in the finale Paul even uses machine guns and heavy artillery to shoot and blast dozens of thugs on the streets, in a finale that turned a New York suburb into a war zone. Even the government is presented as incompetent: two police officers take away a gun from a Jewish old couple, and sure enough, cut to the next scene of robbers breaking into their apartment through the window at night. There is even a sequence of a grandpa trying to use a heavy machine gun from the Korean War against the thugs, but since the weapon is jammed, the punks storm his place and throw him from the stairs on the ground. What is too much, is too much. Only two features are worth seeing—the aesthetic cinematography by John Stanier, who uses a wide lens at times; and the elaborate action sequences, with some impressive explosions of buildings—but one has to admit that there is no point in the story, which is just there to indulge the lowest battle and hate urges of the viewers.

Grade:+