Year in Review: The Top Ten Films of 2016

1) Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water is a layered and textured film that harmonies deft cinematic craft, a fascinating primary thematic exploration and small incidental moments. Consequently, the movie feels authentic, humorous and sharp.

2) Knight of Cups

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Knight of Cups, is a wondrously reflective film that at once is about the soul’s attempt to ascend from its earthly bounds and at the same time, a meditation on the frustration of the creative process.

3) The Witch 

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Eggers has constructed an intrinsically quiet and introspective film that when watching it strikes one as intruding upon an exceptionally powerful and private prayer.

4) Arrival

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Arrival is a magnificently cerebral and emotionally moving triumph.

5) Hail Ceaser!

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Hail Caesar is concerned with making us believe in extraordinary things through the power of the cinema.

6) De Palma

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De Palma serves as an insightful documentary for advocating that a genre filmmaker can be an auteur.

7) The Neon Demon

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s poisoned penned letter to the modelling industry is a stirring and horrific fable that seamlessly blends Dario Argento’s vivid surrealism, Gothic horror and a captivating portrait of spurned innocence. 

8)The Nice Guys 

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The Nice Guys is an amusingly made picture with a subversive and witty screenplay. It also benefits from an outstandingly impish and physical comedic performance from Ryan Gosling.

9) Kontributsiya (The Contribution) 

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Kontributsiya (The Contribution) is a meticulous and sumptuous period piece, with scenes that are brimming with intensity and stirring dramatic weight.

10) The Jungle Book

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The Jungle Book has fundamentally cemented my view that contemporary cinema can still excite and makes us wonder.

The Virtues of Black and White Film

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George Miller’s ferociously savage and visionary post-apocalyptic film Mad Max Fury Road has been recently re-released in black and white. The new version entitled the “Black and Chrome Edition” is the director’s preferred cut of the film. With this in mind, there is no better time to reflect on the virtues of the filmic style and in turn assess the effectiveness of its use in Miller’s third sequel of the Mad Max franchise.

Primarily, black and white film creates a deep-seated sense of unreality that illustrates the inherent dreamlike quality that has been part of the cinema since its inception. Many early films of the medium employed the technique, and the result was instant cinematic immortality. For example, the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930s and 1940s had a majestic sense of terror and atmosphere that would have been undisputedly absent if they were in colour. Film Noirs would have lost their murky morality, high contrast potency and shadowy silhouetted shots.

And the projectionist’s vivid dreams of being the title character and winning the girl of his dreams in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. would have lost its charming romanticism; as he imagines himself as the famous detective on the movie screen that he sees every day. Black and White has a specificity and immediacy that makes it intrinsically cinematic. Perhaps the most striking examples of its power come in Orson Welles’ 1941 film- Citizen Kane. Two sequences, particularly linger in my mind when reflecting on the venerated picture.

The first is the opening scene. It starts with a series of upward panning shots as the camera travels up multiple outside areas of Charles Foster Kane’s empty and ghostly’s Florida mansion- Xanadu. In between shots of the metal fences and steel gate bars, we see clear glimpses of the foggy grey sky. They evoke a sense of Gothic tragedy as we look upon the dying moments of a man’s entire empire through the shots of the abandoned house. The opening is excellent in the context of the next scene which is a newsreel montage of Kane’s illustrious career and endeavours; including the building of Xanadu that conveys a sense of optimism.

The second is a scene in the tail end of the film. At this point, Kane is in his twilight years, and in the aftermath, of his second wife leaving him, he walks around his house in an emotionally frozen and dazed state. One of the rooms he walks into is a corridor filled with a seemingly infinite series of mirrors. The quick shot shows an endless amount of reflections of the deeply despaired and still Kane.

At this moment, the use of the format illustrates the sheer surreality of his descent into loneliness and despair; with the use of black at the very end of the row of mirrors in the room. At the same time, it also conveys how the character has now regressed, illustrating a larger point of how Kane has always sought to recapture a youth that has always eluded him.

In the introduction to the “Black and Chrome Edition,” Miller cites two reasons for the appeal of the form. Crucially, the monochromatic flourish makes the picture abstract due to the style still being able to extract the essential qualities of a scene with an atmospheric finesse. Moreover, Miller states that “Something about losing some of the information of colour makes it somehow more iconic.” Despite these virtues, the Australian director acknowledges that “There’s some information that we got from the colour [version] that’s missing.”

The most vital element that is lost in the alternative version is the acute sense that fresh greenery and nature have been lost as a result of a nuclear holocaust scorching the land. Consequently, the plot point of Furosia desperately trying to get to the mythical “Green Place” loses some of its potency and narrative significance. Moreover, in the third act, the oldest member of the Many Mothers tribe bonds with one of the fives wives of Immortan Joe over the seeds and plants that she has collected over the years. Their vivid descriptions and preservation in the face of the old woman’s death lose something in black and white.

In fact, the majority of Mad Max Fury Road does not work in black and white. The primary reason is that the main uses of gravely brown and bright orange that permeate the colour palette of the original version clash with the stark colours. One could argue that bright colours have been used before in the format. For example, in an interview with Robert Altman, he claims that the Japanese Filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa was the first person to point the camera at the sun in his 1950 film Rashomon.

From this crucial declaration, one would guess that visual look of Rashomon was filled with an overreliance of natural light. However, Kurosawa offsets this with how he shoots the forest scenes. As the characters walk through them, they are seemingly endless, and the background looks like its sublimely changing form, which is achieved through the use of soft focus.

Another film that uses daylight within the context of black and white photography is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries. Most of the sequences have an idyllic quality that comes from the film being shot on location. Therefore, many of the sequences in the picture have a natural radiance. The film still engages in black and white due to the form seamlessly harmonising with the narrative, which depicts an ageing professor recalling his past experiences on a long car ride to Lund.

In considering the ascetics of Mad Max Fury Road, it seems to owe an enormous debt to the exuberant use of colour in John Ford’s 1956 Western picture- The Searchers. For example, some of the most impressive uses of colour in the film, which occur in the opening Citadel scenes amaze the eye as much as the sequences where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) rode through Monument Valley. At which point, one starts to see the problem with the picture in black and white due to its colour scheme not translating well in the form. Moreover, Miller demonstrably crafted in the movie in the vein of classic Westerns, which typically were in colour.

(John Ford did make a black and white Western with the 1962 film- “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance.” Critics cite it as “A fundamental reimagining [by Ford] of his mythic West” – a grittier, less romantic, more realistic portrayal of frontier life.” The point illustrates that the format served the narrative, themes and new portrait of Ford’s West.)

Despite this central problem, a few aspects of Fury Road work remarkably well in black and white. For example, the storm sequence gets elevated to a masterfully constructed action sequence that has feverish intensity and a nightmarish edge. Moreover, the nighttime scenes, which already had a sense of foreboding and tension rise to new heights of surreality. In particular, the sequence involving the blind Bullet Farmer, when he ravenously fires off a set of machine guns while shouting out passionate declarations seems like it has come out of a German Expressionist silent picture.

Finally, Charlize Theron’s performance as Imperator Furiosa is accentuated in black and white. The photography makes her come across as a character that could have existed in the annals of early cinema rather than a modern icon of hard-edged femininity. In particular, the intensity of her eyes reminded me of the shot in Metropolis when Maria’s Maschinenmensch double wakes up, which evoked a fierce purpose in a manner akin to Theron’s character.

Review: De Palma (2016)

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The great surprise of the documentary De Palma is that it serves as an insightful document for advocating that a genre filmmaker can be an auteur. The picture simply shows the famed director Brain De Palma sitting down and talking about his life, the movies he made and the various cinematic techniques that have become synonymous with his name. The last aspect particularly fascinates because of the meticulous detail and effect that the stylistic flourishes have on the audience.

Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow wonderfully make this potentially troublesome issue work by allowing the footage from the discussed film to play for a considerable amount of time. Then De Palma’s follow-up commentary is played over a small section of the moving images. With this approach, the viewer can passively admire the technique in its entirety before the famed director provides context for its use.

This aspect is evident when De Palma is talking about the utilisation of split screen for the prom massacre sequence in the third act of Carrie. Initially, he shot the entire scene with the technique. Though, he later realised that is was not visually appealing due to not being suitable for action.

The documentary is at its best when De Palma’s personal recollections from his past harmonies with deft cinematic craft. For example, the veteran filmmaker speaks of time in his youth when he used to take photographs of his adulterous father for his mother. While this is being told, footage from Dressed to Kill is shown, which depicts the main character taking pictures of a woman and looking at them developing in his studio.

The moment serves as a crucial touchstone moment for the director and his much-maligned portrayal of women in his films. The story can be inferred as a dichotomy that on the one hand shows women as indisputable pillars of moral virtue that command absolute loyalty and curiosities that representation temptation and sin. De Palma further defends his portrait of the fairer sex by stating that he has been indulging in staples of the genre that have existed since the beginning of the cinema.

With this in mind, one could look at the director as an legitimate Neo Hitchcockian whose fascination with women were equally murky and wholly captivating. Or perhaps the current reading is a red herring, and a crucial point that De Palma makes at the beginning of the film is fundamental in understanding the thesis of his entire oeuvre. He states that the director creates romantic illusions and in turn makes the audience fall in love with them before demonstrably dispelling them.

Review: Rogue One- A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Rogue One, which is the first cinematic attempt to branch out of the episodic storytelling structure that weaved the narrative of the Skywalker lineage, halfheartedly succeeds in presenting a bold new vision for the near forty year movie franchise. George Lucas’ mythological heft and silent film sensibility are replaced with a stark, tense and claustrophobic picture that illustrates the severe effects of war, which is primarily demonstrated with director Gareth Edward’s free roaming handle held camera moves. Moreover, it is also shown in the following two ways.

The first is in an excellent opening sequence that takes place on an ashen barren planet called Lah’mu, which seems stripped of all natural beauty. A young and ambitious imperial officer called Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) lands on Lah’mu to take the scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and his family into custody.

The scene has echoes of Sergio Leone’s directorial style with Edwards allowing the scenery to loom large and his understanding of the drama leading up to the gunfight being the most crucial aspect that makes it exciting and meaningful. Moreover, Leone’s reliance on sound is also echoed here in two ways. The first is the Death Troopers whose indistinct radio chatter is an unnerving reminder of chaotic nature of war. The second is the sound of a hatch to a minuscule tunnel entrance being used as a source of salvation and later emerging tension as a young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon) attempts to hide from the Empire. Finally, the scene is impressively punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s admirably composed score which was written in the short time span of a month. In the opening scene, his percussive use of drums and fascinating array of unusual small sounds accentuates the underlying dramatic weight and tension.

The sequence predominantly illustrates that war is not a simple black and white affair with clearly defined notions of good and evil as a father’s loving act can be seen as a traumatic touchstone moment for a child that stays with them and shapes their views for the worse. The scene compounded with another one that happens in the first act serve to explore an idea that has permeated the saga which is of failed father figures. With this in mind, there is also a strong sense of atoning for past sins with a lot of characters in Rogue One, which on the one hand represents a sense of temporary hope and on the contrary their lives in service of a utilitarian cause that is much larger than themselves.

Rogue One also showcases the brutalising effect of war by exploring the Rebel Alliance and exposes that their practices in conflict are suspect. For example, for any extreme defectors of the cause they deem it necessary to send someone to kill them which is shown in the first act with the plot involving Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Saw Gerrera. (Forest Whitaker) Ultimately, like the Jedi Council in the Prequel Trilogy, the Alliance are portrayed as a bickering and short-sighted organisation who fail to see the forest for the trees, which inherently echo Lucas’ exploration of the failure of civil institutions in the face of dealing with the problems of evil in society.

In fact, the most powerful reminder of this idea comes towards the middle of the film when an X-Wing squadron are sent to kill Galen Erso. The usual triumphant showcase of the pilots preparing for flight is subverted and replaced with an acute sense of the foreboding as they fly amongst the black, rain-soaked and mountainous terrain of Eadu. In the aftermath, Jyn venomously remarks that the bombers of the squadron might as well have killed her father.

Felicity Jones performance as Erso is captivating because of how the actress effortlessly conveys the subtle change in her worldview through the course of the film. In the beginning, Jones portrays Jyn with a caged steeliness, grumbling reluctance and a relatable cynicism that encapsulates most of the people in the galaxy. Whereas, towards the end of the film, Jones imbues her character with a fearlessness and an endearing sense of optimism.

Nevertheless, Rogue One becomes problematic whenever it is relying on its past. At best, the nostalgic tendencies come across as precious virtual museum exhibits that are attention seeking because they ask the audience for a relishing and adoration of the technological advancement. At worst, they come across as inept choices that nearly undermine the newfound maturation of the series. The first example that presents this criticism comes from the CGI recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The ethical and cultural debate can be had another day however in the context of the film the choice is fundamentally troublesome.

The scenes with the effect go beyond the point of evoking the Original Trilogy and moves in the direction of ghoulish recreation that seems pandering and disingenuous of the film’s vision. The picture wants to separate itself from the rest of the saga. With this premise in mind, the producers should have been bolder and recast the part as opposed to carrying out this expensive effects endeavour. Star Wars has always pushed the boundaries of film technology with its use of CGI and Digital, but this intrinsically clashes with the rigorous Guerrilla ascetic of the picture.

In the final battle when a group of X-Wing pilots take on the Empire’s forces, the moments where the new pilots state their call signs are mixed with archive footage from A New Hope and Return of the Jedi where the pilots declare their designations. The tiny moments felt head-scratchingly awful due to the nonsensical evocation of the past.

The real centrepiece of the sobering atrociousness of Rogue One comes in its final moments. The last three to five minutes of the picture infuriated me in a way that no other motion picture did this year. I sincerely detested the concluding two scenes of the film.

The first involves Darth Vader igniting his lightsaber and proceeding to kill a large group of rebel soldiers in a single contained room. The sequence felt like the producers and filmmakers were placating a deeply rooted and ravenous, insatiable adolescent bloodlust of the people who think that Darth Vader is only meaningful or impressive if he utterly destroys a considerable amount of people. Presence, restraint, tone and most importantly sense seemed to have been thrown out of the window when this scene was initially concieved and it was replaced by several variants of excited squealing and high fives.

The second depicts the Darth Star plans being handed to a character, which turns out to be Princess Leia who is brought to life with CGI which freakishly gives the illusion that Carrie Fisher has not aged a day beyond twenty-one. She proceeds to turn around and directly says to the camera that the plans represent hope. The moment ends with Leia’s ship whizzing into light speed.

The sequence is bothersome because it lessens the primary theme of the film which is disenchanted characters gaining optimism in the face of devastating bleakness and hardship. The whole point of Jyn’s character arc was that she gained some semblance of hope again in the face overwhelming odds. Having Princess Leia express what the film was about made for a terrible souring of the whole experience.

Both scenes ruin the potential ending shot of the film which showed Jyn and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) holding hands while looking on at the destruction that the Death Star has laid in its wake as it is about to destroy the planet. That moment would have left the audience with a bittersweet feeling of the characters succeeding in their plight which came at the cost of their lives.

For all the criticism that has been levelled at George Lucas over the years, he at least understood the importance of crafting a singular shot. As the films went on, the final visual moments of his pictures never lost their cinematic potency or encapsulation of the mythical underpinnings of the Star Wars saga that came from an introspective nature of the scenes in question. They allowed the audience to reflect on the characters’ current emotional state and their future on a grand scale. The ending of Rogue One makes the entire endeavour feel like it is taking baby steps towards shedding its fanboy skin.

Recollections of a Festival: Russian Film Week (2016)

Introduction

In the midst of turbulent and unforeseen times comes the Russian Film Week, which is a festival that provided curious cinephiles and moviegoers with a glimpse into the rich cinematic heritage of the country. The festival showcased over twenty films from the last eighteen months including the debut of three brand new pictures. This was coupled with a varied assortment of workshops from the industry’s leading directors and producers as well as the Golden Unicorn Awards that celebrated Russia’s worldwide cinematic contribution in the recent past. The single day that I attend was dedicated to showing films from the long-standing and venerated Russian production company Lenfilm.

Lights in the Studio (2007)

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The first feature of the night was the short film “Lights in the Studio.” Over the course of its twenty-five minute running time, it seamlessly blends the past and present endeavours of the company as a character called “The Good Spirit of Lenfilm” walks around the backlot and various departments of the studio. The audience is shown many elements of the production process including an Audio Dialogue Replacement (ADR) session and crew shooting on a massive snowy fortress set. These elements are punctuated with small clips from many of the films that the studio has made throughout its history.

The most striking sequence combines these two aspects as the benevolent spectre walks into a projection room overlooking a screening room. When the ghost starts up the projector, the screening area transforms into a place with a bustling crowd that seems right out of the 1930s. The film that they are witnessing is an unnamed classic black and white picture.

The scene depicts an extended tracking shot of a stationary train as the passengers get off it to see and embrace their respective loved ones again. As this is happening, the audience is reacting with a palpable sense of excitement and fear. The moment mirrors the reaction of the audiences who saw The Great Train Robbery in 1903 as they reportedly recoiled during the scene where the train was racing towards its destination. The members of the crowd at the time thought that the speeding locomotive was going to come out of the screen and hit them.

The central problem of the short comes in its opening scenes. The camera work and framing of the scenes powerfully evoke the feeling of tension and horror. For example, one moment shows the ghost in a statue pose and then the next moment it is gone, which is made all the more horrific by the haunting and ethereal score. Another moment shows a point of view shot of the ghost watching a woman coming into his domain. The framing of the series of shots makes the scene feel like it ought to be in slasher film as it looks like the spirit is stalking the woman like a hunter with its prey.

While one could argue that this is intentional because it leads to the old phantom revealing himself as an entity who should not be feared. The filmmaking choices clash with the established gentle antiquated charm that is evident in the first few minutes, and strongly permeates the entire film.

Ptitsa (2016)

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The next picture of the night was the full-length film “Ptitsa.” It tells the story of an incredible friendship that develops between an ageing rock star called Oleg (Ivan Okhlobystin) and a teenage girl named Katya who is played by Evdokiya Malevskaya in her first onscreen performance. They meet at a clinic where the former is being treated for alcoholism and the latter for tuberculosis.

The movie teeters on the edge of being tonally whiplash-inducing. However, in the Q&A that accompanied the film, first-time director Kseniya Baskakova elaborated on the tightrope dichotomy of tragedy and comedy. She stated that the film initially started out as much more bleaker affair however through the course of the production she tailored it more towards the comedic and ultimately views the story as a fairy tale.

Some aspects support this declaration. For example, Katya views her father as a shining redemptive figure that will save her from her current mundane life circumstances much akin to how a princess sees a prince. Moreover, the ending has a fairy tale quality as it depicts an amusing looking angel visiting Ola as he is close to death. The rock star’s fatal last moments on earth appear to vanish as the happiest of all endings come true with Katya becoming a fully fledged singer performing in a stadium of adoring fans with Ola looking on with pride at the young girl.

In the same Q&S session that took place after the film, one of the audience members in her complement of the picture compared it to a Sophia Coppola film. While one could make a case for this comparison, I would argue that Ptitsa feels in spirit closer to a Wes Anderson film.

Firstly, Anderson in his films always emphasises an acute sense of community, whether nuclear, distant or disparate animals as shown in Fantastic Mr Fox. Through the course of the movie, Ola loses his ties to his musical community with his bandmates joining his adulterous producer. By the end of the film, there is a feeling that Ola is now part of a tight-knit community with Katya and the woman he meets at the tail end of the picture.

Secondly, children in Wes Anderson films are usually written with an amusing and cutting adult edge that contrast with the grown ups who have to overcome their differences for the purpose of facing a specified obstacle. Malevskaya impressively carries this aspect in her performance with her sardonic line deliveries and composed facial expressions. The latter aspect is vividly illustrated in a scene in the first third of the picture when Katya is visited by her mother in the hospital.

Throughout the scene, her parental figure emotionally laments about her daughter’s behaviour. Towards the end of the scene, she reveals she is going on holiday and is leaving Katya some money. Malevskaya’s  performance at this moment portrays steely coldness and distance which manifest in her facial expressions. She speaks to her mother as though she is a complete stranger. This is particularly evident with her parting words, which are “have a good flight” which are delivered with a matter of fact coldness.

Finally, Baskakova in her camera work employs panning shots like Anderson. The famed director applies the shot to illustrate the details in a scene such as the activity of entire household of individuals. These can be comedic because of the timing of a cut with when a person is talking. So, for example, a character could ask for something and Anderson would cut to the other character’s reaction. In a similar vein, Baskakova’s comedic use of panning shots come from the actors’ precisely timed facial expressions reacting in wonderfully comedic harmony.

Kontributsiya (The Contribution- 2016)

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The final film shown was “Kontributsiya” (“The Contribution”) which is about a former Red Army detective who is given a chance to survive death via firing squad by investigating the whereabouts of a precious and rare diamond that was generously bequeathed to the White Army cause.

The picture is a meticulous and sumptuous period piece. The cinematography has this antiquated beauty, which is primarily illustrated in the drawing room where most of the film takes place. The shot composition and colour scheme of the central area are an ashy brown fused with sickly green that give the scenes a critical sense of history. Not only of what has happened in the past but also that what is presently occurring is paramount for the future of the country.

Moreover, the picture’s small moments crackle with intensity and stirring dramatic weight. The best scene that encapsulates these qualities comes in the final act of the film. The detective Murzan (Ilya Noskov) responds to a thinly veiled insult from General Pepeliaev (Maksim Matveyev) with the following sentiment. He nobly states that he will not take commands like a dog on a lease, especially for the chance to live. In response, Pepeliaev orders his men to execute his wife, Verochka (Nadezhda Tolubeeva) in the streets. The tension that emerges out of the situation is resoundingly perceptible.

Director Sergey Snezhkin sustains this sense of foreboding by having the sound of a grandfather clock’s pendulum function as the primary source of noise in the scene. Moreover, Snezhkin infrequently cuts to shots outside, which gives the feeling of an interminable wait for a heinous and cruel action to be enforced. Finally, Snezhkin in his framing allows the actors’ faces to take up the entirety of a shot, which allows their horror of the situation to be effectively communicated to the audience.

Matveyev’s performance as General Pepeliaev is compelling because of its introspective nature. There is always a sense that Pepeliaev is reflecting on the information that he hears. For example, at the beginning of the film, a woman mocks him by saying that they are now hiring boys as generals. Matveyev’s facial expressions at this moment evoke a state of inner thinking and regression as though those words have temporarily awaken his inner child, which he momentarily shows to the lady. It is a wonderfully layered and subtle performance that anchors the film.

The advertised Q&A session did not occur. Instead, Snezhkin introduced the film and talked about a rather notable and fascinating behind the scene fact. He stated that he had taken his name of the movie because the producers forced him to cut down his three hours version into a short and nimble hundred minute cut. The revelation still lingers in the mind because the film’s compact storyline feels complete and satisfying. One wonders what is left to say and show in the eighty minutes of missing footage.

The opening five minutes of the movie depicts a couple been woken up by an attack on the city suggest at some outdoor combat scenes that could have left on the cutting room floor. Notwithstanding, despite the temptation, of passionately shaking one’s fist at the producers for forcing a director to compromise his vision, this is one of those rare cases where their judgement was utterly correct.