Fun Fact of the week: When the Beatles almost made “The Lord of the Rings”

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More than 30 years before Peter Jackson made history with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Fab Four became interested in turning the novel into one of their famous films. John Lennon reportedly contacted the great Stanley Kubrick trying to persuade him to take the project. Lennon even split the roles between the band taking Gollum for himself and casting McCartney as Frodo, Starr as Sam and Harrison as Gandalf. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) they were turned down by both Kubrick and J.R.R.Tolkien. Soon after, the band dissolved and the project was abandoned. It’s still quite amusing to imagine what a film would it turn out had it become one of the Beatles’ fancy musicals. Well, we’ll never know.

Review: Solaris (1972)

To see list – no.31

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It’s difficult to be interested in cinema and never stumble across the name of Andrei Tarkovsky. It was Solaris that introduced the legendary Soviet filmmaker to me. This science fiction epic is a magnificent film in every aspect with its poetic structure, philosophical background and impressive camera work. Adapted from an equally ambitious novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris was meant to break new ground in science fiction cinema and its legacy today is the proof that it succeeded.

The screenplay is formidable in its own terms. It gives no direct answers or explanations preferring to let the film and the characters speak for themselves rather than offering a clear narrative form. Tarkovsky requires the full attention of his audience. The film starts on Earth at some point in the future where space travel is established. Our protagonist is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a psychologist who is about to travel to a space station orbiting the mysterious planet of Solaris. Research on the station has been stalled for unknown reasons and Kelvin is chosen to investigate the situation. Of the 85 scientists originally working at the station only 3 have remained and the future of their research depends on Kelvin’s verdict. Kelvin is informed by a friend of his father about some bizarre incidents regarding Solaris. When he finally takes the trip to the station he discovers that one of the three scientists, Dr Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan) has killed himself and the two remaining researchers, Dr Snaut and Sartorius (Jüri Järvet and Anatoliy Solonitsyn respectively) are reluctant to communicate and behave in a mysterious way. Before long, Kelvin finds himself confronted with Solaris terrible secret.

Tarkovsky used the original novel merely as the basis for his artistic visions. Instead of focusing on science and extra-terrestrial life, he cared about portraying his characters’ inner struggles and exploring themes such as existentialism and the ambiguity of reality. This caused a rift between him and Lem, who worked with him in the development of the screenplay. The infamous Soviet censorship also demanded editorial changes. However, Tarkovsky managed to prevail and maintain artistic freedom delivering an overwhelming picture that today is often cited among the greatest sci-fi films of all time.

Solaris is undeniably a masterpiece with no weak spots or flaws. I believe its greatest aspect is its philosophical background. The scene where a half-drunk and clearly weary Snaut rambles over humanity’s vain pursuits just after reading an excerpt from Don Quixote is amazing. Then we have Kelvin’s struggles with reality. Even though he realizes that what seems to be his wife is not actually a human being, he is reluctant to abandon her and soon starts to reflect on the idea of staying in the station forever. On the other hand Sartorius wants to use these beings for research something which Kelvins finds inhuman. It is interesting how Tarkovsky avoids to take a position or criticize any of his characters. It is left to the audience to decide what is moral and what isn’t. You may call Kelvin a fool for wanting to leave in his “dream” or dismiss Sartorius as cruel, it’s up to you. It’s up to you to decide what the ending scene means too but I’m not going to give it away here. To sum up, Solaris is an astounding artistic experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone, sci-fi fan or not.

9/10

Review: Moonlight (2016)

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I actually watched Moonlight one day before it won this year’s Best Picture Oscar in the most twisting way in the history of the Academy Awards, but I only got to review it now. The way it turned out, this win was completely unexpected, but probably not undeserving at all. Moonlight is a sensational tale that explores human nature like few films do. It is not as an easy watch as the “Best Picture” frontrunner La La Land or in fact any of the other contenders for the prestigious award. Nevertheless, it makes for a breathtaking picture if the viewers allow themselves to take the enthralling trip it offers.

The story is split in three parts. The main character for all of them is Chiron, first as a young boy, then a teenager and finally a grown man. There’s no conventional timeline, the plot just jumps from one part to another skipping several years. Moonlight doesn’t try to tell a story, but rather showcase life with all its struggles and pains through the eyes of a black boy in a rough Miami neighbourhood. Chiron is a symbol for everyone growing up in a world they don’t understand but being unable to escape. He is different yes, but aren’t we all? Is it so difficult to find someone who really cares about you? Is it so bad to behave differently, to feel differently, to address sexuality differently? The film is as powerful as a film can get. Of course it is not for everyone, it doesn’t offer the kind of light entertainment a lot of people look for when going to the cinema, but it has the ability to affect deeply in an emotional level if one is patient.

The script was written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins (who also directed it) and it was inspired by their memories and experiences as young black people growing up in Miami. Surprisingly, it is Jenkin’s only second feature film, the first being Medicine for Melancholy. His work in Moonlight is impressive. It is bold, aesthetic and clearly directed with careful attention to detail. The score and Mahershala Ali’s supporting role performance are the icing on the cake. It’s not that I predicted its surprising “Best Picture” win in the Oscars, but I really felt it was the only film that could rival La La Land. Overall, Moonlight is by all means a magnificent picture and I believe that the recognition it gained will give hope to many an ambitious filmmaker out there who’s not looking for Hollywood’s cliché formula.

9/10

Review: Casablanca (1942)

To see list – no.10

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Yes, I’ve finally watched Casablanca and I felt like I reached another milestone. Saying that the film is famous is just an understatement. Casablanca is undoubtedly one of the most loved, influential and timeless pictures in the history of cinema. Yes, even 75 years later, this classic continues to mesmerize the audiences with its captivating story and compelling characters.

Filmed and set during WWII, Casablanca focuses on Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expatriate who owns a club in the city of Casablanca, then in French Morocco. He is introduced as a powerful, rich and cynical man who only cares about his own good. Everything changes though when Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into his club. Rick’s past, as well as his well-hidden emotional nature, start to unfold and the events that follow lead him to a great dilemma.

Do you know anyone, at least half-interested in cinema who has never heard of Casablanca? Probably not. Now, there is reason why a film so old is still famous today and frequently appears in “top 10 films of all time” lists. So what distinguishes Casablanca from its contemporaries? I would say its story. The characters seem to have been taken out of an ancient Greek tragedy as they find themselves caught between love, duty and honour. The plot and pace are excellent, especially the way the timeline unfolds raising questions and then revealing the answers one at a time while the action is building and the climax is drawing closer. A love triangle or a love story with sad (or even bittersweet) ending wasn’t something you saw much in films back then. Casablanca was bold, affecting and included characters much more realistic and relatable than the conventional of Hollywood’s golden age.

Of course one could by no means ignore the superb acting. Humphrey Bogart is outstanding as the overwhelming Rick Blaine, indifferent on the outside, but a romantic sentimentalist on the other. Ingrid Bergman also shines in what is probably her most famous performance. She did a remarkably good job considering that she was still learning English. The supporting cast is solid, nothing less expected from actors like Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. The surprising fact is that nobody had any great expectations about the film. The story is an adaptation of a not so successful play, the production was rushed and used limited budget due to the war and both Bogart and Bergman tried to get out of the film at some point. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. Surprisingly, everything worked perfectly for Casablanca and the result continues to inspire actors and film makers to this day.

8/10