Tuesday, 8 May 2012

#35 South Africa — Dust Devil (1992)

Sorry for the delay on this one, university has a way of stopping me from watching films. Note that this review is on the "Final Cut" of the film, which I hear is far superior to the theatrical version.

Perhaps a film where the tagline is "He's not a serial killer, he's much worse" looks a bit out-of-place among the other titles I've reviewed. I might agree with you there, but don't let that put you off watching what is actually a very atmospheric and artistic horror film.

The eponymous villain is a shapeshifter who preys on those who have nothing left in life. When a woman named Wendy runs away from her abusive husband, she picks up the Dust Devil and a series of grisly and surreal events occur.

The plot is fairly predictable, but has a number of interesting features to do with African witchcraft and is set against the background of racial tension in South Africa. But the focus of the film is undoubtedly on the atmosphere rather than the storyline.

Although the genre here is definitely supernatural horror, the film's feel seems influenced by artists such as Sergio Leone and Peter Weir on top of the ones you might expect, like Carpenter, Argento, Fulci and Bava. The result is a slow-paced dreamy haze over supernatural creepy imagery and spatterings of gore. The main components of the former part are Simon Boswell's drifting, haunting score, and Steven Chiver's imaginative, beautiful cinematography.

Stanley's direction is assured and well-paced. Character development segments are mixed up with surreal dream sequences and atmospheric long takes of the desert, making a cohesive and well-structured film.

Unfortunately, the acting lets the film down in some places, especially that of the police captain who is trying to catch the Dust Devil. A lot of it feels unnatural and forced. However, Robert Burke plays the part of the villain excellently, being both cold and intense.

Dust Devil has picked up something of a cult following in recent years and it is easy to see why. Its strong technical aspects and dreamy, haunting atmosphere make it a solid thinking-man's western-tinged horror film. The predictable plot and suspect acting damage it somewhat, but if what I've described sounds like your kind of film, I'd recommend checking it out.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Still alive

I'm still alive, this blog isn't dead. I'll update as soon as my insane university workload dies down a bit. If you want a film to watch, go find Institute Benjamenta by the Brothers Quay, it's awesome.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

#34 Denmark — Michael (1924)

This one is a bit dubious with regards to country-of-origin, but I'm counting it because Dreyer was Danish.

I never thought that a film about a homosexual relationship could be made in the '20s until I saw Michael. By today's standards all the allusions are incredibly subtle, but by the those of the day, it's incredible that the film was even released.

The titular character is a young model who catapulted an older artist to fame and now lives with him as an adopted son/lover. As the film progresses, he becomes more distant from his painter and closer to a princess whom his master is capturing.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the art direction. The architecture and decoration of the rooms are astoundingly beautiful; the giant head statue, the water fountain and many other features make the mansion feel very grandiose and a work of art in itself.

The art is all excellently captured by the cinematography, which makes strong use of deep focus (anyone who says that Citizen Kane invented deep focus simply hasn't seen enough early German cinema) to create complex framings and give the large rooms a greater sense of space. As Dreyer would go on to perfect in his later films (most notably The Passion of Joan of Arc), close-ups are put to good use, effectively capturing all the emotion in the character's faces.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned emotion doesn't really take any skill to capture, which brings me to my main gripe about the film: the melodrama. The whole film is rife with super-sentimentality and overacting. It seems impossible that the same man who made this film would go on to direct an incredibly subtle performance, decades ahead of its time only four years later, or show such a masterful understanding of the depths and intricacies of emotion in Ordet (which is his masterpiece in my humble opinion). For all of Michael's beauty and historical intrigue, it is forced to be a minor film in Dreyer's oeuvre with its uncharacteristic presentation style.

It would, however, be a mistake to avoid the film just because of the melodrama, as there are a number of important and well explored themes contained within. I love films about artists, as I always feel they are in some way autobiographical for the director (being a firm believer in auteur theory) and reflect their views of art and the problems with creating it. Michael is no different and gives very interesting insight into the way that an artist interacts with their subjects and how the painter-model or director-actor relationship affects them in their private lives. Youth is also an important theme, especially the understanding of others due to the stage of life that one is at and how different ages view people and the world in different ways.

Although the over-sentimentality does damage the film somewhat, Michael is still worth watching as an interesting example of early gay cinema, a work of great aesthetic beauty and a great study of the relationship between an artist and their subject.

Also recommended from Denmark:
Other films by Carl Theodore Dreyer (Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet)
Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Europa)
Thomas Vinterberg (Festen)
Benjamin Christensen (Häxan)
Gabriel Axel (Babette's Feast)

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

#33 Mali — Yeelen (1967)

Yeelen marks the second African film I have seen and reviewed, after Moolaadé. In my review for Moolaadé, I wrote about how far removed it was from Western culture and film-making styles. If anything, Yeelen is even further away from the comfort zone of your average Westerner; its focus on Malinese sorcery and mysticism makes a lot of the more subtle aspects of the story go right over most of our heads.

Niankoro is on the run from his sorcerer father for stealing fetishes from his tribe. He journeys to his uncle to try and get help to fight whatever his father throws at him. His journey takes him through troubled villages and vast wastelands where he must use his hereditary magical powers to survive.

The film is a great example of the story and presentation strengthening each other through common ground. The mystical nature of the plot is reflected in the rife use of symbolism (a lot of which, I'll admit, I didn't understand), the eccentric but beautiful cinematography and the sparse tribal/electric jazz soundtrack. These elements together create a strong cohesion, where separately they would jarringly disregard standard cinematic technique.

Aesthetically, the film is spot on. The images really capture the beauty and magic of the plains where the action takes place, and a Tarkovsky-esque appreciation of water is displayed as a counterpoint to those dry, sun-licked frames. The editing style is very loose, which helps strengthen the otherworldly feel of the film.

The symbolism in Yeelen is very dense, but any viewer who pays attention should be able to get the basics. Much of it relies on the framing of the images and by bringing attention to the editing to relate the characters to animals and celestial bodies, make sweeping humanistic statements and most likely give more cultural context to proceedings which would require a greater knowledge of the world the film exists in to understand. As such, far more is implied than is explicitly shown, which would make multiple viewings very rewarding.

The very slow pace of the film, coupled with the dense content means that a great deal of patience and attention is required to fully appreciate all of its aspects. It isn't as glacial as, say, Sátántangó or Jeanne Dielman, so even if you disliked films of their ilk, I'd still suggest giving this a try.

Yeelen is a very interesting and incredibly "different" film. I think I'd need to see it again to gain a better appreciation of its intricacies, but I believe it can be thoroughly enjoyed for its beautiful imagery, mystical atmosphere and representation of a far-away land and culture. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

#32 China — Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

Sorry for the delay, I had to take a whole day out to travel to Ipswich and back for an Undergraduate of the Year assessment. Should be back on schedule from now.

Although more famous for his recent wuxia films such as The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, Yimou made some rather excellent dramas earlier in his career — and boy are they pretty. Raise the Red Lantern is one of the latter and perhaps his best, alongside his 1994 epic To Live.

Polygamy in films is something that I have found interesting since watching a few African films. The interplay between the wives is completely alien to my Western mind and is ofter fascinating. Raise the Red Lantern is no different and is a particularly great example of this. The four wives of a rich and powerful lord in 1920s China are the focus of the film. They are constantly vying for his love and attention whilst attempting to maintain tenuous friendships. When I say "focus", I mean focus. We never even see the lord's face because his character isn't important to the proceedings, only what his character represents.

The cinematography is fantastic, coupling a very naturally beautiful lighting style and a more emotionless ultra-symmetric and thoughtfully composed framing method. This style emphasises the properness expected of the wives and the near mathematical ways in which they live. The framing also shows how trapped the fourth wife (Gong Li) is in this world by only showing the sky a number of times you could count on one hand. Colour filters are put to very good use (anyone who has read my Red Desert review will know that it is very rare for me to say that) and go together with the rich colour palate to create a fairly dense symbolic language which often says more than the characters do.

Culturally, the film may pose a challenge for some viewers. The aforementioned polygamy, coupled with the completely Eastern opera singing present a very different view of the world and make it more difficult to pick up on some of the subtleties which a greater understanding of the environment would give. If you are like me, however, you will find this a fascinating window into what seems like another world.

The acting is fantastic all round. Characters are played with equal measures of restraint and subtle expressivity. This compliments the soft lighting and measured pace very well, creating a fairly relaxed but involving atmosphere.

Although the slow development and lack of particularly relatable characters sometimes causes the narrative to drag slightly, the other aspects more than make up for it. Those interested in different cultures, or viewers who just enjoy a well crafted film will definitely appreciate Raise the Red Lantern. Even if synopses you find don't seem particularly engaging, I'd still recommend giving this film a watch.

Also recommended from China:
Other films by Zhang Yimou (Hero, To Live, The House of Flying Daggers)
Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle)
Spring in a Small Town
Song at Midnight

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

#31 India — Pather Panchali (1955)

There's a funny story about me trying to watch Pather Panchali from a while ago. I took the DVD out of the library because I'd heard good things about it. When I put it in my player, the menu screen identified the film as Aparjito. Not knowing that this was the title of the second in the trilogy, I assumed it was an alternate name and watched it anyway. When I logged on to IMDb, I realised my mistake and that both the DVD case and the label on the disc were wrong. When I took it back to the library, it turned out that the cases and labels for Pather Panchali and Aparjito had been switched somehow. So now the disks have the titles scrawled out and the correct ones written in marker pen.

The film concerns itself with the lives of a poor Bengali family trying to survive through lack of jobs, illness and conflict. There is not one central character, instead the emphasis is put on everyone in the family; the job-hunting and cheerful father, the old and decrepit auntie, the quiet and young Apu, his unruly sister and their mother who tries to hold everything together.

Although the characters themselves aren't developed much, their relationships to each other are. You get a very real feeling of how the family view each other and how this affects their lives. They are amazingly well played by amateur actors, making the characters feel very organic. The mother is especially convincing; the emotion of her character is displayed subtly, but unmistakably.

The realistic presentation and use of amateur actors takes a lot of influence from the Italian Neorealism movement which peaked a number of years prior. As such, there is very little forced sentimentality, instead opting for a very honest observation of events.

The cinematography is a very interesting feature of the film. The compositions are often desolate, but have a beautiful dreamlike quality to them. It's like the viewer is viewing the film through the eyes of a child (perhaps Apu).

The legendary Ravi Shankar's score is nothing short of breathtaking. It it very intricate and full of energy, adding to the vibrancy that the cinematography gives the film.

Each role in the family unit is explored to the same large extent. One understand the Durga's frustration at having to abide by certain rules and remain accountable to her mother, but one also empathises with the mother and her struggles to bring her children up correctly whilst juggling all other facets of life. The viewer witnesses the father's generous relationship with Apu and how the parents must balance keeping the children happy whilst not spending frivolously. Particularly heartbreaking is the old aunt who doesn't have a set home and must rely on the progressively irate mother for support. All of these complex roles and relationships give the film a number of thematic layers which the viewer can draw from based on their family situation throughout their life.

Pather Panchali isn't really my kind of film due to its insistence on realism, but it is a deeply layers and incredibly well crafted film that anyone with an interest in the films of Italian Neorealism or Ozu et al. is sure to love.

PS. due to heavy workload, new reviews will only go up once a week on Tuesdays.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

#30 Romania — Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (2007)

A Romanian friend of mine told me that she saw this film with a male friend of her's. His reaction upon coming out of the cinema was "My ovaries hurt". That pretty much sums up my reaction both times I've seen the film.

Four Months... is not subtle. It doesn't "suggest" themes, it takes them, shapes them into a nice big boot and delivers a swift kick to the balls. Repeatedly. The main themes are found in the abortion which serves as the central plot element and the value of life, which the characters (and the viewer) are forced to contemplate afterwards. These are not shown in a morally ambiguous way for the viewer to interpret; the film is, at heart, almost a propaganda film.

It is set during the 1980s in Romania, when abortions were illegal. We are dragged along behind two young women, one who wants their pregnancy aborted. What follows is shocking and hard to watch, but is given a very humanistic slant by creating strong, believable characters whose feelings are very easy to empathise with.

The direction is stellar; there is nothing to distract the viewer from the core of the film, it is very well paced and has a number of phenomenal scenes which are among the best of the decade. In particular, a static dinner party shot which lasts around 10 minutes is perhaps one of the most simple but deep and heartbreaking shots in modern cinema.

The cold and raw cinematography goes along with the stark and uncompromising presentation. It doesn't adhere to any one style, instead shifting between them as necessary. For example, a long hand-held camera journey through dark and ominous alleys is just as accomplished as the aforementioned static dinner shot.

Both leads put in excellent performances. Their characters are very real and subtly emotive; their naivety and confusion seem very organic and unforced.

Although the focus is very much on the central themes, the deliberate pacing gives the viewer a lot of time to contemplate the more universal applications of the content. Because of this, it isn't just a film about abortion, it's a film about the choices we make for good or bad, friendship, the strains which relationships go through when difficult situations arise and much more.

Four Months... is not an easy film to watch, but it's one which will stay with you for the rest of your life. Perhaps the effect is comparable to that of Requiem for a Dream. I could not imagine anyone taking hard drugs after watching that film, nor can I imagine anyone getting an abortion after seeing this one. It was one of the most important and powerful films of the noughties and I'm sure it will maintain a strong reputation in years to come. Recommended to anyone who can stomach the content or thinking about getting an abortion.