Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Belgrade Phantom

Resorting to a semi-documentary approach is especially problematic as a number of interviewees, particularly the sociologists, psychologists, or similar schooled experts in the period are likened to “voices of God,” trying to persuade the viewers that these joyrides were revolutionary. Their opinions, however, cannot be questioned by the audience because they are never called into question by the filmmakers. Even the real life police officers chosen presumably to represent “the other” perspective, endorse the Phantom as a liberator and an “urban hero.” Together with the other participants, witnesses, the Phantom’s friends and acquaintances, they retell the whole affair as it was unfolding night after night. Their accounts are then illustrated with fictionalized reconstructions of the events. The revelation of the Phantom’s true identity is delayed to the final quarter of the film, but when an interviewee exposes his real name—Vlada Vasiljević—the point is as anticlimactic as if his name were John Smith in English. That the filmmakers did not know how to capitalize on building suspense around the Phantom’s real identity can perhaps be explained by the fact that both scriptwriters, Jovan Todorović (also the director) and Bogdan Petković (also the producer), are inexperienced debutantes. Nevertheless, these very young filmmakers, still in their twenties, have invested an enviable amount of energy into the project.
This troubled production started in 2006, and it is exemplary of the current lack of fundings and resources that hamstring the Serbian film industry. This is reflected in the scenes of the Phantom’s chases with the police through Belgrade, which come across as very low-budget, rather than Hollywood, to which the authors appear to have aspired. The Internet Movie Database ruthlessly lists numerous mistakes related to the reconstruction of the period, and with the expressive young actor Milutin Milošević in the main role, who does not utter a word throughout the film, this becomes an enervating experience to watch. But the most frustrating problem is the lack of coherent, or even ambiguous, view of the past. While the interviewees in the film rush to condemn the period, the director claimed in an interview elsewhere that those days were “romantic”. Whether one wants to trust the story or its teller is beside the point here, as both come across as equally confused.
This confusion though points towards another aspect of this film. As film theory has already shown, the films that reconstruct the past reveal more about the conditions of the ever evolving present in which they were made, rather than about the history they are describing. This film also speaks volumes about contemporary Belgrade, Serbia, and some of its filmmakers and intelligentsia, rather than about the now long gone seventies with their lulled down social and economic security, and underdeveloped consumerism. This film was directed by a young director, Jovan Todorović, who was trained at the well known Belgrade’s film school (FDU) and taught there by the same eighties filmmakers mentioned above, such as Slobodan Šijan. Šijan also briefly portrayed the Belgrade Phantom incident in his Strangler versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja) in 1984. This suggests that on one level, and in regards to some filmmakers, little has changed in Serbia in terms of filmmaking styles, or creative thinking, ever since then.
In the seminal anthology on the state of East European filmmaking Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European Filmmakers Working in the West (edited by Graham Petrie and Ruth Dwyer), Gerald Peary wrote in 1989 about this school’s peculiar loyalty to Hollywood and its values, regardless of the fact that many of its teachers had at that time never been in the US at all. While Šijan actually spent some time in the States, Peary singles out Nebojša Pajkić as an example of someone who had not, but who was aggressively pro-American, while both of them were, curiously, politically pro-Ronald Reagan! The results of the training provided by such academics are still in evidence in Serbia, as there are groups of young filmmakers that are blindly loyal to genre, particularly Hollywood style, films. As an example, The Belgrade Phantom is promoted in press releases as an action film. A whole spate of recent films have attempted to mimic the recent Hollywood productions and genres with varying results; see particularly the films made by Dejan Zečević: T.T. Syndrome (T.T. Sindrom, 2002) and The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek, 2007); and Srdan Golubović: Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001) and The Trap (Klopka, 2007), and others. And some of their authors still maintain that such filmmaking has political meaning. Just as The Belgrade Phantom, they are obsessed with “urban heroes,” who are, for some inexplicable reason, perceived in Belgrade (and often throughout the Balkans) as morally righteous and immune to the degrading state of the nation that followed the years of strife, wars, and economic transition to capitalism. Although it would be difficult to prove empirically that all that is “urban” must be good, this belief is oddly still very common amongst some of the intellectual elites not just in Serbia, but across ex-Yugoslavia.
So just like in the eighties, a number of filmmakers from the FDU continue to repeat the mantra of “salvation” in “urban,” and “western,” values (in whichever way they perceive or understand these values), in the same manner that once their communist opponents preached their manifesto. Intellectually hidden within this bubble, they can only produce films as bland as The Belgrade Phantom, which cannot provide a nuanced and complex portrait of a truly significant year, and period, in Socialist Yugoslavia’s history. This film did not manage either to criticize or romanticize the era. It did not show how to engage, or what to do with the past, but that maybe, it only wanted to run away from it… in a white Porsche. As long as this is their aspiration, such local filmmakers are not only farther from themselves, but also from the world to which they want to belong to.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

World's Greatest Dad

Suburbia has transformed from an innocent place with friendly neighbors to a world full of miserable, sometimes disturbed people, dreams deferred, and earth-shattering secrets. From this year's Sundance Film Festival we have Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy World's Greatest Dad, we delve once again into the unknown of Any Town, USA.
This film mainly takes place in a school setting, but the themes and conflicts that arise coincide with those found in other films about suburbia. Robin Williams stars as struggling writer Lance Clayton. He lives with his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), a porn obsessed, perverted teenager who attends the private school Lance teaches a not-so-popular poetry elective. There is tough love between the two. It's a typical teenager vs. the parent relationship only the censors have been turned off.
Lance is dating another teacher on staff, Claire (Alexie Gillmore), who he suspects isn't totally committed to their relationship. Life isn't getting any easier for Lance who struggles to reach his students or find a publisher for his work. When things couldn't get any worse, Lance suffers a blow few could recover from. From tragedy comes opportunity and it is up to Lance to decide what is the right thing to do.
It would be wrong of me to give away the tragedy, but it is something that does occur in Any Town, USA. In fact it happened not too long ago just a town over from me. It's the first time I can think of it being used in a film, or at least of this magnitude. There are several times during the film that I felt uncomfortable, but not to the point of disgust. There are some pretty heavy issues handled here and I think it is tasteful.
Williams does a fine job, especially in the second half of the film. For a comedian I can imagine it being difficult to change emotionally like that, but Williams has proved time after time in films like Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, and Insomniac that he can play just about any role thrown at him. He has a presence that is very real and powerful.
I was surprised by Sabara's performance as Kyle. I had only seen him in Spy Kids so I really didn't know what to expect. He seemed to have a clear idea of who Kyle was and what is motives are.
Goldthwait, who also wrote the screenplay, tackles a lot of issues both for adults and teenagers. At first I thought the film was going to end up like last years Towelhead, a hodgepodge of issues and conflicts that are each could have been their own film, but here we have an even dosage of each, culminating to a great finale and realization by William's character.
The film isn't perfect. One thing I don't like films to do is talk about other films. I feel like it is only a way for the writer to show off his movie knowledge and personal views about certain movies, although one segment involving zombie movies is relevant to the story. Occasionally it can be beneficial. Some of the scenes were a bit overdone with cheesy, overused dialogue, and some of the deliveries felt like they were just saying their lines and not really connecting with them.
Overall I was impressed. Goldthwait is not a big time filmmaker but this is certainly a step in the right direction (he has acted in several films and worked on other projects behind the camera). Williams gives one of his better performances as of late, but he doesn't steal the show. I thought the story was good enough to stand on its own, which is a very good thing. I hope this film doesn't get completely overlooked this year. You should try to see this one if you can.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen revolves around the vision of a sheikh (Amr Waked) who wishes to use his love for salmon fishing as a means to enrich the lives of his local people. Dead set on making his dream a reality, he contacts Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), his representative, and asks her to do the necessary, at whatever price, to make his dream a reality. She seeks the help of the British governments leading fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), who unwilling joins what he considers to be one big joke. Things get even more complicated when Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, makes the whole project a “goodwill” opportunity, to create a positive vibe between the Middle East and the British. Armed with nothing more than faith and a whole lot of fish, this team sets out to do what Dr. Jones considers to be “theoretically” possible.
When you are presented with a film that is based around fishing, of all sports, you become a bit skeptical about the whole thing. Its a big risk choosing such a niche subject and trying to make a film that appeals to everybody. However, with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, it is a risk that has paid off. Whether your interested in fishing or not, this movie will have elements that you will absolutely fall in love with. Simon Beaufoy has done a magical job in adapting Paul Torday’s book. He has definitely kept the the heart and soul of Torday’s story in his screenplay, mixing together witty dialogue and great conversations. With this being comedy-drama, comedy has not been overused or misused. It is used as an element to enhance the story as a whole and the characters involved. Certain comedic instances may not particularly be required, but they don’t take away any value from the film. After having a go at reading the synopsis, you’d expect a film of this nature to be very cheesy. Its not at all. What Hallström does very well is use fishing not as a subject of discussion but rather a central common ground between the characters. Each character is taken down a different path towards the same goal and seeing that blossom on screen is truly amazing to watch. Sophisticated dialogue and great story transitions make the most of every moment.
There are a few patches in the film when it comes to the overall story that definitely could have been improved. However, these are pretty hard to notice primarily because of the brilliant performances showcased by the cast. In fact, it is the highlight of the entire film. Ewan McGregor digs deep and showcases his Scottish side, illuminating the character of Dr. Alfred Jones. You are introduced to this sophisticated man who just intrigues you at every stage of the film. Emily Blunt brings to life the very professional and self-contained Harriet Chetwode-Talbot while adding her on-screen cuteness that just makes her character adorable. However, if we are to talk about characters, Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance as Patricia Maxwell is just mind blowing. Her fast-paced, unrestricted dialogue adds that extra oomph to the story line that just makes for an interesting character on screen. When you think about a government press person, you do get the impression that they are going to be a bit aggressive, a bit over the top and Scott Thomas delivers that in her character. Kudo’s to the crew for selecting a brilliant cast!
What Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does quite well is add a different dimension to a rather niche subject, putting together amazing film elements and an outstanding cast, to create a truly pleasant movie to watch. The story may not be for everyone but simply watching the cast perform is worth every moment.
Ewan McGregor & Emily Blunt. Frankly, it doesn’t take much more to convince one to head off to the theater. Both McGregor and Blunt co-star in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a new British comedy-drama directed by Swedish director Lasse Hallström. The screenplay, written by Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, is based around Paul Torday’s book of the same name, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing in 2007 and the Waverton Good Read Award in 2008.

The Concert

 This movie is vastly enjoyable, with a catch. The audience must attune themselves to accept the magic of the motion picture, suspend belief and willingly submit to manipulation. For this particular movie, they must also abandon from the very start any glimpse of hope that the movie makers have their heart in classical music, despite the allure of having Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, OP. 35, to be exact) billed as the central showpiece. In the real world, an orchestra does not plunge into a performance cold, without a rehearsal. In the real world, in a world class concert, soloists do not perform a piece of music that they have never played before. In a real world, a performance of excellence does not start in complete disarray and then magically snap into perfection. But all that do not matter. All these can happen in a movie, and that is the magic of the motion picture that one must accept.
Now to the good news. As a movie, "The concert" has all the right ingredients: it starts as a hilarious farce, eases into a poignant melodrama and climaxes in a soaring, uplifting finale. The story really started 30 years ago (revealed in an unhurried manner via flashbacks throughout the movie) when brilliant young conductor Andrei Filipov's (Alexei Gustov) "dream concert" was abruptly interrupted and terminated. Conducting the Bolshoi Orchestra he was experiencing the ultimate sublime harmony in music achieved between conductor, artist and audience, in the performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with an enormously talented Jewish violinist Lea. But the concert was never allowed to finish, as Lea and other Jewish members of the orchestra were taken away right in the middle of the performance to concentration camps while Filipov who stood up for them lost his job.
30 years later, as the story unfolds in the present, Filipov, now a janitor with the same Bolshoi Orchestra, intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to substitute on short notice in a performance in Paris after a cancellation. He comes up with the outrageous but brilliant idea of putting together an impersonating orchestra with his ex-colleagues and go to Paris. One does not need a great deal of imagination to see how much fun can be have from developing such a plot, particularly with the rich collection of oddities of characters in the orchestra, stereotyping notwithstanding. True, this is not exactly the subtlest of humour, but still a tremendous amount of fun.
The other plot line is in Filipov's pursuit of his unfinished dream from 30 years ago. They will play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto and he also wants a celebrated, much demanded, young violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent) as his soloist. This plot line feeds the unabashedly manipulative and yet highly successful tear-jerking half of the movie that well balances and complements the comic side.
Gustov is convincing as the sensitive protagonist with a dream. Among the large cast of excellent support character, the best are Dmitry Nazarov as the massive, huggable sidekick cellist and Anna Kamenkova as the resourceful, enterprising wife reminds me immediately of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly". But if none of these succeeds in pleasing, the movie, as one critic aptly puts it, "bets all its chips on the performance" of Melaine Laurent. Those who have seen her in "Inglourious Basterds" will need no reminder of her as "France's most glamorous Jewish actress" as one other critic puts is (the most glamorous actress in any nationality and ethic background, one might say). Go to this movie to see her, if for nothing else.
While the initial buffoonery does not do justice to the real world of classical music concert, the aforementioned soaring finale does give the audience a long-awaited of the sunny side of Tchaikovsky, in a portion of the first and third movements of the Violin Concerto.
One music critic describes it opening movement thus:
"…..begins in the strings and the woodwinds. It builds to a crescendo of excitement before the solo violin enters with an improvisatory sequence followed immediately by a statement of the first theme (Moderato assai). This is worked up elaborately and then the second theme appears, also in the solo instrument."
In the movie, this is employed also for dramatic effects. The initial bars draw slightly discernible frowns and head-shakings from the audience. Then, when radiant Anne-Marie Jacquet comes in confidently with her solo theme, everything falls into place magically.
What the same critic has to say for the finale of the concerto:
"The two principal melodies of this Finale have a folk –like character – the second one, a broad theme first stated by the solo violin, exhibits definite Russian gypsy characteristics. Tension and excitement build and the end is a brilliant climax".
By this time, the audience has been palpated to an emotional climax and the fitting conclusion, while may not necessarily bring them to their feet as the audience in the concert hall in the movie, will guarantee that they leave the cinema in an uplifted and happy mood, and forever in love with Melanie Laurent.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Exporting Raymond

In 2005, Everybody Loves Raymond wrapped up its ninth and final season, taking its leave after 2010 episodes which led it to become one of the more beloved shows of the era. It was a show that highlighted the ups and downs of every day, married life, a topic which obviously the general public related to. Seven years later, you can probably turn your television on right now and find a syndicated episode of Raymond somewhere. Shortly after the finale, show creator Phil Rosenthal was approached by a SONY representative and asked to help the Russian television network create a native version of Raymond. Rosenthal brought along a film crew to document the events, revealing that comedy isn't quite as universal as we might expect.
I'm not sure exactly what Rosenthal expected from his trip abroad but it becomes quite clear early on that he wasn't prepared for this undertaking. He is thrown for a loop when he discovers that he has to invest in Kidnapping and Rescue Insurance, an issue he is assured never comes up; he astutely points out that if it "never" came up, there would be no need for the insurance. Upon arriving, he meets up with his private security guard/driver and their exchange soars right past the "awkward" stage and borders on becoming "tense." He is undoubtedly a stranger in a strange land and it only gets worse from there.
Later, Rosenthal is brought to the studio (which literally looks like every depressing, dilapidated building you've ever seen in a Hollywood version of Russia) and introduced to the crack team of writers and crew he will be working with. They show him clips from American shows that have previously been remade and he is given a glimpse into what Russians find funny. In my opinion, this was the best part of the entire documentary. Rosenthal is shown a clip from the Russian version of The Nanny, one of the most successful programs ever, which was truly atrocious. If, like me, you believe there is no lower form of "comedy" than Fran Dresher and The Nanny, then allow me to burst your bubble: judging from the 30 seconds shown in Exporting Raymond, I would say the Russian version is approximately 37 times worse. That exact sentiment is written in bold across Rosenthal's face as he looks around the room at his laughing coworkers and realizes he's bitten off far more than he could possibly chew. It is moment that is both hilarious and a little bit heartbreaking.
As Exporting Raymond progresses, we see more and more conflicts unfold for Rosenthal. The casting process alone turns out to be a major hassle as the actor Rosenthal wants to play the Raymond character is unable to get leave from his theater company and he is replaced with an actor who appears to be the Russian equivalent of Paul Walker in terms of acting ability. To top it all off, Rosenthal doesn't get along with the director of the pilot episode, who seems to regard him as a nuisance and refuses to listen to his advice, which is, of course, the only reason he was brought in.
The greatest strength of Exporting Raymond is its ability to point out the dramatic differences between the Russian culture and our own with a simple, understated style. This is a, "Let the camera roll and see what happens" sort of documentary and there's very little in the way or post- production or narration; rather, for the most part, the audience sees what Rosenthal sees and his reactions which are generally priceless. There are times when the film loses focus and becomes somewhat dull and even at its best, there's nothing excessively funny or definitively special about Exporting Raymond. But it still serves as a quirky, fun, and moderately insightful piece of work that is worth a viewing if for no other reason than to experience Rosenthal's dumbfounded facial expressions for yourself.