Tuesday, 29 March 2011

REVIEW: Boardwalk Empire

Created by Terence Winter
With: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald.

With ‘Mad Men’ season 4 over and the new one still in the works, I felt in need of a good period drama TV series that was both intelligent and soulful. Enter ‘Boardwalk Empire’, a new HBO creation, much praised by the American and British critics alike, produced by Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg and showered with Golden Globes. It premiered in America last September and is currently playing on Sky Atlantic in the UK.

The pilot episode was clearly designed to establish the show as the new cool kid on the block, something to be reckoned with. It is supposedly the most expensive TV pilot ever produced, which can be seen from the astounding attention to detail, the beautiful costumes and a sure-hand direction by Scorsese. The story is set in the year 1920 in Atlantic City, during the prohibition era and just before the emergence of the mythical criminal lords like Al Capone and his likes. The main character is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, based on the actual Enoch Johnson, an elected treasurer of the city and an underground criminal. He is played by Steve Buscemi, who, at first, seemed like a peculiar choice to play someone assertive and controlling, considering his many previous roles as a feeble sidekick. However, I now think that this was a perfect casting decision as Buscemi manages to give a certain mercurial quality to Nucky, which absolutely fits in with his nature: Nucky is someone who enjoys the lavish lifestyle his illegal actions (mainly bootlegging) provide him with but he also loves the power of a politician and basks in the glory of a supposed do-gooder. He is someone who is constantly torn by his opposing impulses and is a real chameleon.

Nucky is supported by his driver Jimmy, played by Michael Pitt, whose previous films include Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers” and a re-make of “Funny Games”. Jimmy suffers from post-traumatic disorder as he recently came back from WWI. His angelic features disguise his disturbed character and his love for brutality leads Nucky deeper into the criminal world.

This is no ordinary gangsters’ tale. Although there is a fair bit of violence and hedonism on show, there are also some interesting character observations and for me “Broadwalk Empire” is a wonderful keyhole into America’s past. The protagonists encounter some historical figures and ordinary folk, whose authenticity might be questioned by historians, but they look and sound like real people of flesh and blood, much more real than the sepia-coloured photos of the time. The set for the series was especially built, so the houses and the streets of old Atlanta look very believable. The city is, of course, an important character for the show – it used to be the Las Vegas of its day, with burlesque shows, illegal alcohol, nightclubs, gambling and loose women, which is very much interwoven into the series’ plot.

Overall, “Boardwalk Empire” is a curious and high-quality piece of work. There are some clear parallels with “The Sopranos”, which is a definite compliment. It is well written, well acted and directed and is a feast for the eyes. Every character seems to have a secret; nothing is what it seems to be. Do not be alarmed by the pilot’s dense plot, however – I think they just tried to put too much information into one episode in order to catch the viewers’ attention. If you feel like you’d like some procrastination that wouldn’t be totally meaningless, by all means, watch this. It doesn’t beat “Mad Men” for me, but then I am just shallow and would watch Jon Hamm instead of Steve Buscemi even if he were in a loo paper ad.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

REVIEW: Limitless

Dir.: Neil Burger
With: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro.

Bradley Cooper has a lot riding on this film. “Limitless” is essentially his first foray into the Hollywood A-list leading-man territory. It is his first attempt at showing that he can be more than the likable but jerky boy-man we’ve grown accustomed to from “The Hangover” and “The Wedding Crashers”. He also gets his first executive producer credits here, which makes many aspects of this thriller oh-so more understandable. Basically, a lot of first-times for Mr Cooper, an eloquent, Georgetown-educated Italian-Irish American and an ex-Discovery Channel presenter.

He has clearly picked out his first big film very carefully – “Limitless” sounds great on paper – an unsuccessful and depressed writer tries a new drug that enables him to use his entire brain’s potential but doesn’t ask himself what its side effects are. I don’t know what the budget was for this, but it was obviously very high, the movie looks robust, slick and, well, expensive. And judging by the creative adverts that appeared on the London tube prior to the film’s premiere, someone has put much thought into its promotion. It is a huge shame that the good things about it end here. The plot is literally all over the place, certain subplots are never concluded or explained and some characters pop in and out of it without much logic behind their appearances. The film is full of clich├ęs, there are scenes in it where you’d think the supporting cast must have all come out from a ‘Sylvester Stallone acting school’ – yes, their attempts at portraying credible emotions are that bad. It has the makings of a good film that tried to do too much and went off the rails towards the end.

Robert De Niro’s casting in "Limitless" seems like a calculated ploy to get more audiences into the cinemas, he hasn’t much onscreen time and when he does, he doesn’t really do much but frown and look at his phone/watch/Bradley Cooper. However, in my opinion, Bradley Cooper has shown that he can carry off a film on his own, the mixture of his quite handsome but also strange looks makes him appealing and entertaining to watch and gives him the airs of being just above the average. His character teeters on the brink of being likable and dislikeable and Cooper has achieved this quite well. There is one scene in particular where he contemplates drinking someone’s blood (no, I definitely wasn’t watching Twilight) in order to stay alive and there is something really animalistic, desperate and quite revolting written in his otherwise groomed face and creepily azure eyes.

At the same time, "Limitless" does manage to address some interesting themes. It draws a picture of a modern world where people in developed countries are given many opportunities to excel, but the way they use these opportunities makes them none the wiser; the protagonist’s shallowness and the previously-unknown greed manifest themselves in his first actions post pill-taking; he gets a haircut, new wardrobe and works out at the gym. As if a person who really did become thousands times more intelligent would really care about what his abs looked like. His so-called newly acquired cultural tastes are used purely to get more beautiful women in bed. His girlfriend, who was supposed to be the good moral person in the film, disappointingly ends up going back to the perfected, albeit freakishly confident and calculating version of him. Neither he nor she can resist the glossy life his unreliable new skillz have presented them with and it really does not say much good about the couple. The ending of the film just confirms the bleak and cynical view on modern values as perceived by the makers of the movie.

And to end this, how it all began – Bradley Cooper, the actor-student, asks Sean Penn a question Inside the Actor’s Studio.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hiatus/my DVD collection

I’ve been the most terrible blogger. I know, I admit it. I haven’t seen a single film in a week, haven’t read anything film-related and I’ve been neglecting my duties to bring more criticism to the world of cinema. My excuse for this? Last week of term, deadlines next week and head in the clouds of German grammar and Persian painting. Lame, I know, but then there we are. But I am back in my element next week Thursday, with popcorn, nachos and Haribos.

In the meantime, I decided to take a little break from studying and write something about what all of us have on our shelves – my DVD collection. I hope this is sufficiently interesting for you people. I’ve been mostly buying films I can’t find online or rent, so my DVDs are generally either oldies-but-goldies or really obscure films. The larger part is at my parents’ place, some are on an unconditional loan to friends. So, I had to make do with the 1.5 meter high tower of discs by my bed.

And you know what? I’ve discovered something truly astonishing about myself by analysing what I’ve been buying over the years. I am a sexist. Almost every film that I’ve bought myself is about a strong or at least enigmatic female. I have never noticed that before and I was very surprised. Judge for yourself: Bringing Up Baby with Katherine Hepburn, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Belle De Jour with Catherine Deneuve, Rosemary’s Baby, Gone with the Wind, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Liz Taylor, Girl Interrupted, L’Appartement with Monica Belucci, Caramel – Arabic film about women, Jules et Jim with Jeanne Moreau, Angel-A by Luc Besson, La Notte with Monica Vitti, and even Striptease with Demi Moore!!! And I know for a fact that The Fifth Element, Pretty Woman and their likes are waiting for me at home. The macho-driven exceptions are the LOTR trilogy (gift), Sin City (gift), The Great Gatsby (eye-candy), Chinatown (Jack Nicholson…mmmm) and the Godfather (good movie).

It’s funny how I never noticed this trend before. It’s always quite amusing/ dispiriting to see yourself fit in a certain category, be it an Ivy League graduate, a yummy mummy, a fashion victim or a BNP voter. I am a cinematic sexist, which means that I go for pro-women films and avoid the bubble-gum romcom variety because I find them diminishing, the other kind only watch male-populated films about frat houses, gangs, bromances and hoes. I don’t know if I subconsciously choose “women’s” films or that these films are just really good and happen to be about women. I hope it’s the latter.

Conclusions? Well, I guess I am going to be very aware of my pro-women side now. Am I still going to buy these kinds of films? Probably. Am I going to try and macho-up my selection a little bit? Most definitely. Expect a blogpost soon about homoerotic works like Gladiator, Spartacus and Fightclub

Sunday, 13 March 2011

REVIEW: Unknown

Dir.: Jaume Collet-Serra
With: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger

I only went to see this because of the film’s topography. It is set in modern Berlin and I couldn’t help but say ‘yep, been there, done that, froze my ass off right here, got off at this tube station, etc’ throughout the movie. So, for me the film was already a nice experience from the word ‘go’. I must admit that “Unknown” pleasantly surprised me. It is high-paced, entertaining and well made. The story is slightly questionable; the logic of events is a little off-hand (without ruining it for those who haven’t seen it yet, two words – sensory memory?!).

Although it does remind me of Bourne, with its identity-less protagonist and European chic, “Unknown” is by no means a paler alternative. Still, it could have been much worse, if Liam Neeson wasn’t cast in it. He has so much gravitas on screen that he’d make any flimsy character instantly more believable. The only problem I have with him, although I like him very much, is that I always think of him as Oskar Schindler. So, whenever I watch something with Neeson, I think: ‘oh, there’s Schindler shooting at some dude’ or ‘there’s Schindler with a beard, pretending to be Zeus’. Maybe it’s just me though. It seems that his career is currently developing along two contrasting paths: on the one hand you have him in “Taken” and the “A-team”, shooting and killing any mofo who comes in his way, and you also have films like “Batman begins and “Clash of the Titans” where he is the wise and elderly mentor-figure (much like another Celt, Sean Connery a couple of decades ago). I guess he is just versatile :-) or doesn’t want to do any more serious dramas.

The ladies in the film are two lovely blondes – January Jones of Mad Men, playing a wife, again; and Diane Kruger, a German playing a Bosnian in Germany (haha). They play off well in contrast to each other; it is interesting to see which one turns out to be more ‘genuine’ to Liam Neeson’s character in the end.

The real highlights for me were all the proper German actors involved in this movie. You might remember them yourselves from “The Downfall”, “Lives of Others” and “The Educators”. Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in “The Downfall”, was absolutely great as an ex-Stasi officer, trying to cope with the present in a tiny Berlin flat. Him and Frank Langella had a lovely scene which is so subtle that much was left unsaid in it.

And on another note, people have started sending me links to interesting documentaries, articles, photo shoots, etc about films and filmmaking because of this blog. I thank you all for thinking of me and keep them coming! x

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

REVIEW: Inside Job

Dir.: Charles Ferguson
Narrated by Matt Damon.

First of all, Matt Damon should narrate all documentaries. It should become his main job I think. He sounds trustworthy, objective when needed and sarcastic at other times. Most importantly, he is not boring. The film won an Oscar for the Best Documentary Film this year.

As tempted as I am to go into a prolonged and unnecessary rant about various CEOs portrayed in this excellent documentary, I think that the best way to get my point across is to make you guys go and watch this. I am sure that there won’t be a single person left who won’t be infuriated and amused (in a very dark way) by the statements made in the Inside Job. The documentary attempts to explain the main reasons behind the recent financial crisis and track down the main puppeteers. It is largely a collection of interviews of an impressive rank: everyone from George Soros and an escort service owner to the French finance minister had a say. However, it is the people incriminated by the documentary who made the greatest contributions to its entertainment value.

I think that I must have developed wrinkles on my forehead because of frowning so much. It’s one thing to read about the financial developments, and another to see the actual people involved, try to defend themselves and come up with shaky explanations of their actions. Perhaps it is my socialist roots showing, but my god, do these men deserve a flogging!

From a cinematographic point of view, the film is dynamic and manages to explain the reasons behind the crisis in a very clear way that will make even the most humanities-orientated brain buzz with recognition. As for the interviewees, they must be studied by actors for their apparent superiority, airs of self-importance and absolutely preposterous attempts at keeping a straight face. Many people in the audience laughed, in disbelief, I expect, at their reasoning. Of course, every story needs to be seen from both sides, but in this case, the facts speak for themselves.

So yes. Go watch it. It is highly educational. I don’t know where my new obsession with “issues” is coming from, first a post on feminism, now this anti-banking propaganda. I’d better go and review something warm and fuzzy like “No Strings Attached” next, so that my sense of justice will finally be lulled by plastic utopia.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Best Girl Power films

It’s the International Women’s Day today, so I decided to remember the best films that celebrate strong females. I find it so sad that the majority of female characters in films are either supporting a male protagonist or are portrayed as objects of desire without much personality. Just makes you wonder how it all started. I guess, the fact that most directors are men suggests a more voyeuristic and appraising approach to filming women, but then what about the scriptwriters? Why are the women in films often needy, romance-crazed, weak, obsessed with their appearance and in need of a strong shoulder to cry on? Surely, this cannot reflect real life. At least I hope it doesn’t. Even successful actresses often complain that there are hardly any interesting roles available, many end up drowning in the quicksands of romcoms. On the other hand, when there is a film made about an interesting female character, they become instantly recognisable and their characters turn into icons of feminist pop culture. Which, of course, often begets creepy men lusting after them. It really is a vicious circle; sex sells whether we like it or not. The list I came up with has different kinds of women in it, some are clever, some are not, some are weak and develop their strengths later, others exploit their sex appeal to their own advantage. Imperfect, deeply flawed and mesmerising to watch, these ladies are the ones to behold.

Run Lola Run. 1998
Dir.: Tom Tykwer
With: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu

The defining film of German cinema in the 90s. It follows Lola, who must save her boyfriend’s sorry ass from the guys he owes money to. There are three different endings, it’s interesting to see which one you’d like best, depending on whether you are a romantic, a cynic or an optimist.

Thelma & Louise. 1991
Dir.: Ridley Scott
With: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davies

Although it is hailed as a feminist milestone, I think that Thelma & Louise is largely a story of an escape from the grime of everyday life and finding yourself once you think you’ve lost everything. It also marks Brad Pitt’s breakthrough appearance in film.

Nikita. 1990
Dir.: Luc Besson
With: Anne Parillaud, Jean Reno

In fact, this could be any other film by Besson. He always has stories about outlandish females who are pretty awesome and can really kick ass. I think it is Nikita’s mixture of fragility and strength that makes it such a successful film.

Gone With the Wind. 1939
Dir.: David O. Selznick
With: Vivien Leigh, Clarke Gable

I re-watched Gone With the Wind the other day when I was hungover in bed. It is such a great story! And Scarlett O’Hara is perhaps the most flawed character ever, which doesn’t make her any less appealing; in fact, I find that it is easier to relate to her because she is never scared to go for what she wants; one can live vicariously through her rascally ways.

Alien. 1979
Dir.: Ridley Scott
With: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm

Sounds like Ridley Scott also likes his strong females, which is quite interesting, considering that he is said to be quite the macho himself. Sigourney Weaver’s Officer Ripley is probably the most strong-willed character in the cinematic history, with a huge capacity for survival. As we know, the character was originally male. Shame about the shitty sequels.

Legally Blonde, 2001
Dir.: Robert Luketic
With: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson

Isn’t this just a great film? It strikes the perfect balance between comedy, caricature and tackling some real issued at hand. And Elle is the most adorable creature, even in her Barbie pink outfits.

Erin Brockovich, 2000
Dir.: Steven Soderbergh,
With: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney

Single mother, leopard-print bra, industrial poisoning = winning combination for an Oscar.

Silence of the Lambs, 1991
Dir.: Jonathan Demme
With: Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster.

The symbiotic relationship between Clarice Starling, an FBI agent, and Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic psychiatrist, is one of the most interesting and disturbing dynamics in recent cinema. Although, the power often lies in Lecter’s hands, Clarice is never too chicken to face him, or herself for that matter, to get to the truth of things.

Kill Bill vol. 1, 2003
Dir.: Quentin Tarantino
With: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah

A feminist’s wet dream.

And finally, food for thought from 007:

Sunday, 6 March 2011

REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau

Dir.: George Nolfi
With: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt

It is amusing how after the huge success of Inception last year, there is suddenly an influx of films in 2011 all based around the concept of changing reality. Limitless, Source Code, Unknown and The Adjustment Bureau all seem united by this red thread that runs through their slinky, grey-hued trailers. I mean you can’t really blame the filmmakers for trying to come up with some new sci-fi spectacles, anything is better than the constant recycling of the old super-hero flicks.

The Adjustment Bureau is actually based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, a long-standing contributor to the world of cinematic science fiction. In the original version, a salaryman suddenly discovers that the world is controlled by the Adjustment Bureau who make sure that things all go according to the Plan. In George Nolfi’s film, the salaryman is replaced by a confident, young Democratic front-runner played by Matt Damon. Throughout the film he discovers more about himself, the nature of fate and what he is prepared to sacrifice in order to change it. Emily Blunt plays his romantic interest, a ballet dancer who brings out the best in him.

The film is far from perfect, but it is also far from being a total failure. It looks great, the characters are stylish and attractive, and there is a certain Mad Men feel to the Adjustment Bureau employees (not surprising considering that John Slattery aka Roger Sterling plays one of them). I think that the editing could have been done better, the pacing of the film really failed to engage the audience at certain moments. At the same time I thought that it was quite entertaining, the acting was good too. Matt Damon is particularly watchable; he just seems to exude earnestness and likability. He and Emily Blunt managed to achieve a great onscreen chemistry, which is hard to come by these days. I especially enjoyed their first encounter in a fancy bathroom.

George Nolfi is a scriptwriter turned director, he wrote for Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum, so Matt Damon’s involvement in the project is clearly not a coincidence. Moreover, there is more than a hint of Bourne in some of the scenes from The Adjustment Bureau. Also, the whole doors-as-portals-opening-at-random-locations concept is an old idea, which I think I saw in some car advert a couple of years ago.  The idea of having an attractive politician as the protagonist is, on the other hand, quite innovative. Perhaps, Obama had something to do with the way politicians are perceived these days.

The Adjustment Bureau tries to cover a lot of ground; it is a sci-fi film, a thriller with a bit of action and a romantic story. Whether it was done successfully or not depends on your personal tastes, I personally think that there was a certain balance to it. It could have potentially been very light-hearted, but it is played with a poker face. It should not be taken too seriously though; for a Sunday night thriller it is more than adequate.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Best Onscreen Debaucheries

Oh, what joy it is to fall into the arms of Bacchus when you have a good reason for it! And what joy it is to watch film characters go insane in celebration, in sadness and in the face of imminent danger. Heavy hedonism, nudity, bodily fluids flying around and people releasing their demons often mark a good onscreen party. Of course, the term debauchery meant different things at different times; whereas for most of us in the present day the epitome of a debauchery would be a drunken trip to Las Vegas and a subsequent marriage to a stranger, to the 19th century public a debauchery would include overstepping the social/moral expectations, like in the case of Scarlett O’Hara. The most important factors in appreciation of the onscreen debaucheries are the feelings of camaraderie one feels for the characters and their antics and a certain fascination for the lack of constraint they display.

Let’s start in the chronological order, according to the period in which the film is set:

Mulan, 1998
Dir.: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
With: Ming Na, Eddie Murphy

Set in the 4th century AD, Mulan is full of modern references, and the ancestor ghosts’ party at the end of the film used to be my favourite onscreen celebration when I was little. (Watch from 2:00)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975
Dir.: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
With: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, et al

Sir Galahad the Chaste, one of King Arthur's knights, loses his way and enters a mysterious castle populated by 150 virgins. His purity is put to a great test. Although no actual debauchery is allowed to take place by Galahad’s buddies, the promise of it is hard to resist. (Watch from 1:00)

Gone with the Wind, 1939
Dir.: Victor Fleming
With: Clarke Gable, Vivien Leigh

Scarlett O’Hara, having buried her first husband and bored out of her wits, defies lots of rules by agreeing to dance at the ball. Can't place the video here, so please just click on the link below.
The Barber of Siberia, 1998
Dir.: Nikita Mikhalkov
With: Julia Ormond, Oleg Menshikov

This Russian-American production follows an American lady and her adventures in Tsarist Russia. She subsequently flirts with the local male population and goes on a date with a general to a traditional Russian (religious!) celebration. (Watch from 2:00)

Diner, 1982
Dir.: Barry Levinson
With: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern

Two buddies, a depressing bar, sad music and a tired middle-aged stripper sound like a great setting for a mood change.

Old School, 2003
Dir.: Todd Phillips
With: Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson

Frank the Tank!

The Hangover, 2009
Dir.: Todd Phillips
With: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifinakis et al

The enigmatic end credits. Again, please click on the link.


The Matrix Reloaded, 2003
Dir.: Wachowski brothers
With: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne

The only party set in the future in this list. Zionists are grinding against each other in this subterranean, sweaty rave.