Friday, 30 December 2011

#17 Russia — Mother and Son (1997)

Why I chose this: For me, Russia is easily the most difficult country to pick one film from. Of the seven films which I call my absolute favourites, four are Russian. In the end, I picked Mother and Son, as I regard it as the most under-appreciated of the four.

Russian and Soviet cinema has consistently produced some of the most seminal and interesting artists in the world. The same industry which cemented an editorial language that persists today with films like Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin proceeded to destroy it with Sokurov's Russian Ark. Cinematic techniques were invented left, right and centre in Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera; mise en scene reinvented in Parajanov's Colour of Pomegranates; the medium of film raised to its highest peak (in this writer's opinion) by Tarkovsky. I also believe that Russian cinema perfected emotional art in 1994 with Sokurov's Mother and Son.

The plot is paper-thin; a doting son nurses his dying mother in her final day on Earth. Rather than telling a story, it tells a relationship, an emotion, a part of human life. It accomplishes this with minimal, poignant dialogue and some of the most beautiful images I've seen.

Much of the film is shot through textured glass, which distorts everything and gives an ethereal, dreamlike quality to the visuals; many of the shots look more like moving expressionist paintings than live action.

The extreme minimalism and distortions make the film seem like it's from another world, where all we have is the long grass swaying in the wind, ourselves, a loved one and some faraway notion that life might elsewhere exist. In terms of other contemplative cinema, it is more akin to the pseudo-apocalyptic and starkly beautiful worlds of Bela Tarr (especially his most recent masterpiece The Turin Horse) to the ultra-realism of Chantal Akerman or the mystical colourfulness of Weerasethakul.

There isn't too much one can (or should) say about Mother and Son. A famous director once said something along the lines of 'if a film can be described in words, it can't be truly great' (I'd love to know exactly what it was if anyone knows). This seems rather apt in this case; Mother and Son can't be explained or described, it can only be felt and lived.

Anyone who enjoys slow-moving, emotional films owes it to themselves to see this as soon as possible. It is the most tender and beautiful picture I have encountered, I hope I can lead others to witnessing it with this review.

Also recommended from Russia/Soviet Union:
Andrei Tarkovsky — All of his films are among the best in the world
Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark, The Sun)
Elem Klimov (Come and See)
Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky)
Sergei Parajanov (Colour of Pomegranates, Legend of the Surami Fortress)
Akira Kurosawa (Dersu Uzala)
Mikhail Kalatozov (Soy Cuba, The Cranes are Flying)
Larisa Shepitko (The Ascent, Wings)

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


There won't be a review until Friday due to far too much food and alcohol. Hope you all had a great Christmas.

Friday, 23 December 2011

#16 Christmas Special: Macedonia — Goodbye, 20th Century!

Why I chose this: I was originally planning on reviewing the 1994 war drama Before the Rain for Macedonia. When I was pointed towards a film which the press release describes as "a film about the merry Santa Claus who in rage destroys our world", I changed my mind instantly.

I went into Goodbye, 20th Century! expecting a camp B-movie about Santa Claus going on a killing spree. What I got was one of the most energetic, inventive, bizarre and visually impressive films I've seen.

The action is split into two main parts with a brief interlude. The first is set in a post-apocalyptic 2019. It is implied that man had been judged unworthy to live on the Earth and something similar to the Flood in the book of Genesis accrued. This section follows Guzman, a man who is sentenced to death for fornicating with a saint. At his execution, he discovers his immortality and embarks on a journey do discover how he can finally die for his sins.

In part two, Santa Claus returns from work to his rented flat on New Year's Eve, 1999, where a wake is taking place. They exchange ideas about what will happen when the new century begins, such as all human decency being eradicated or that the world will begin a new era where nothing is the same. Santa gets increasingly distressed about the state of human kind as the night goes on and decides to do something about it as the century turns.

Whilst some plot points are quite incomprehensible, the film is a whirlwind of visual flair and creative ideas. The cinematography is at once flowing and angular; dutch shots are used extensively but transitions are smooth. This strengthens the bizarre imagery of the religious execution at the beginning and the unexplained operatic performance in abandoned ruins. The editing is erratic, but never jarring and adds to the madness inherent in every other facet of the film.

The film's tone fluctuates wildly between humorous, sadistic and generally weird in a similar way to the films of Emir Kustrurica and Alejandro Jodorowsky (incidentally, Lazar Ristovski who plays Santa Claus also features in Kusturica's Underground). This lends an energetic intensity to proceedings and throws raw emotions out at the viewer regularly.

A hypnotic quality is maintained throughout by the combination of the mentioned techniques and the fantastic music. When applied to the first section it invokes Jodorowsky's El Topo, but makes the latter part more Lynchian in nature.

Some may find the incoherence of the narrative off-putting, but those well versed in visually evocative and abstract cinema should make it their mission to watch this film.

Also recommended from Macedonia:
Before the Rain

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

#15 Norway — Cool and Crazy (2001)

Sorry for the delay, Christmas and all that jazz.

Why I chose this: I decided to walk into the university library, find an Artificial Eye published DVD from a country I hadn't seen a film from and review it. This article is the result.

Cool and Crazy takes a snapshot of the members in a Norwegian all-male choir from a small fishing villiage. We learn about their loves, life and reasons for being in the choir. They come from all walks of life — a businessman, a drug addict, fishermen etc. — and their ages range from early 20s to late 90s. It is fascinating to see completely different men come together to create such beautiful and sad music.

If one is making a documentary, it is important to decide how visible the team are when shooting footage. Perhaps a Michael Moore-like style will be chosen, where the interviewer is as important as the interviewee. The crew may be silent as the subjects talk to the camera, or a fly-on-the-wall approach may be used. If you feel the need to mix and match these techniques, it should be done in a way which complements the content and message. Cool and Crazy has the potential to be a great film, but rings false due to not following that last step.

For the majority of the film, the crew stay silent and allow the choir members to sing and talk to the camera. A false note is struck (pun not intended), however, when the choir sing out in the frozen plains. These scenes, while aesthetically beautiful, feel very forced. The choir have no reason to sing in the cold like that, other than for the director to get some pretty shots, and the voices are obviously re-recorded in a cosy studio. One of the eldest members literally has icicles hanging off his nose during the last scene.

One of the highlights is the political conflict which arises when going to Russia as part of a tour and the concert which they sing in when they arrive. The difference in the members lives is very obvious during the trip; one member is a strong-willed communist, some are completely the opposite and others would be more concerned with Bjorn from the fisher's union. These differences are then set aside for the concert and the choir execute a fantastic rendition of the Russian folk piece, "Korobeiniki" (some may know it as the Tetris 1-A music).

While the documentary style of Cool and Crazy seems at odds with it sometimes, the music is beautiful, the lives of the members are interesting to hear about and the meandering pace maintains a calm atmosphere. Those interested in choirs, or music in general will come out of the film feeling rather fulfilled, others may find little substance beneath the songs.

Also recommended from Norway:
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix
Troll Hunter

Friday, 16 December 2011

#14 Germany — Fitzcarraldo (1982)

This time, the jungle through the eyes of a German via an Irishman.

Why I chose this: After being left a bit cold by Aguirre, but thoroughly enjoying Bad Lieutenant, Fitzcarraldo was the next Herzog step for me.

Fitzcarraldo is the story of an opera-obsessed Irishman, Brian Sweeny Fitzgerald, whose dream to bring the music of Caruso to the Amazonian jungle. After failing to find funding among the rubber barons of his town, he sets out on a quest to tap the rubber supply of a large expanse of untouched land, protected by harsh nature and superstitious natives.

Few films have scenes which have an incredible visceral impact and make me truly feel the sweat on the brows of the characters. Action films are generally far too ridiculous and shallow for me to really get drawn in to. The only scenes which immediately come to mind for this are the bell casting in Andrei Rublev, the shelter building in Dersu Uzala, the chase through the woods in Diamonds of the Night and now the arduous dragging of a 300 ton steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Fitzgerald decides that this is the best way to get to the rubber, rather than braving the rapids which would surely mean death.

The main reason Fitzcarraldo has its incredible impact is that Herzog is a madman. Only someone who stole his first camera, got shot in an interview and carried on, threatened to kill his actor if he didn't finish a scene and jumped into a cactus and ate his own shoe due to bets would decide that the best way to film a boat being dragged over a mountain was to drag a boat over a mountain. The picture gets its raw intensity from the singular vision of its artist. The only thing more ambitious than Fitzgerald's idea is the film itself.

Klaus Kinski is a miracle as the quirky and quite possibly insane lead. His character consists of little more than pure drive towards his goal, which Kinski displays perfectly with his sporadic relationship with Molly (the beautiful Claudia Cardinale) and his outbursts when obstacles appear which threaten the realisation of his dream.

Fitzcarraldo is a film which aims to do one thing and do it well. It succeeds at this admirably, presenting an amazingly focused and ironic exploration of blind ambition. Viewers looking for a film which is in equal measures an entertaining adventure and an intelligent thematic study will find few films above this.

Also recommended from Germany:
Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse)
F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise, Faust)
Robert Weine (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

#13 Ukraine — Zvenigora (1928)

Why I chose this: It was described to me as a poetic propaganda film in an online forum. I thought it sounded interesting and the DVD was produced by a favourite of mine, Mr. Bongo, so why not?

Watching a film labeled as "avant-garde" is like looking for precious metals in a mass of discarded art history essays — sometimes you strike gold, but more often than not, you end up with a pile of pretentious rubbish. Zvenigora most definitely lies under the first umbrella.

Filmed in 1928 under Soviet rule as the first part of his Ukraine Trilogy, Dovzhenko referred to Zvenigora as his "party membership card". Although it savagely attacks the european bourgeoisie and praises the beauty of Ukranian landscapes and industrialism, Zvenigora is much more than a simple propaganda film.

What little story there is follows an old man whom tells his grandson of a great Viking treasure buried in the mountains of Zvenigora which they both search out for most of their lives. The plot stays in the background for the majority of the film, eclipsed behind the dreamlike imagery, symbolic editing and poetic narrative. The influence of this can be seen in the likes of Tarkovsky's Zerkalo and Antonioni's L'Eclisse.

Using multiple exposures for image superimposition is a technique which has sadly fallen out of use due to the wide use of CGI. Such a simple tool can be put to great use with a bit of imagination, such as in the regrettably forgotten Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, the films of George Melies and Buster Keaton's The Playhouse. Zvenigora uses it in the Viking flashback scene to put a beautiful dream-like haze over proceedings, which makes it one of the most memorable and inventive scenes in a film which is full of them.

Although the film may sound similar to Soy Cuba, the propaganda aspects are less in-your-face — the reason for which the film gained little appreciation by the government despite its underlying beliefs — which makes it much easier to enjoy simply as a "cinematographical poem" than as a mainly political picture. Viewers who like their surrealism a bit more subtle than what the French would produce in the following years will find a lot to like, as will fans of poetic, contemplative cinema a la Tarkovsky.

Also recommended from Ukraine:
Ballad of a Soldier
Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors

Friday, 9 December 2011

#12 Cuba — Soy Cuba (1964)

Why I Chose This: Cinematography is one of my greatest loves in the world of cinema. After seeing many state that Soy Cuba has the best cinematography of any film they've seen, I was instantly interested in seeing it.

After watching so many pictures and seeing so many cinematic techniques near perfected over a number of films, it is rare to see something which truly makes one re-discover the magical nature of cinema. Soy Cuba is a work which not only made me embrace the magic, but also changed how I look at cinema.

The cinematography in Soy Cuba reminds me of a quote I once read from Werner Herzog regarding Fitzcarraldo. In it, he says that even children nowadays can tell if something has been computer generated or digitally tampered with, but when the boat is dragged up that hill, you know it's real and are witnessing something special. The same is true here; the shots aren't digitally put together like in Children of Men, or cuts hidden behind peoples backs as in Rope (as impressive as both those films are), these are real, and that gives them a power like no other.

The camera seems as much a part of the world as the characters themselves, and displays empathy towards them. In the club dance scene, the camera flows delicately around the room with the soulful singer, before tossing around chaotically along side the empassioned and confused bar dancer. Perhaps the most impressive shot is during the funeral scene, where the camera climbs up a building, crosses the street in the air into the window of a cigar factory, travels the length of the room and back out into the street where it delicately floats above the proceedings.

Every shot is beautifully composed on top of the acrobatic movements. Frames of sugar cane fields, waterfalls and cloudy landscapes are like warm chocolate for the eyes. The extensive use of dutched shots adds to the dreamlike quality of the shots, contrasting with the harsh reality of the content.

The story is split into four vignettes, each attacking Batista's Cuba or glorifying the Cuban Revolution. The first is about a girl named Maria who lives in a shanty town and hopes to marry her fruit-selling boyfriend. Due to Batista's rule, nothing can save them from starvation except becoming a bar dancer and drug dealer respectively.

The second story concerns an old sugar cane farmer who's harvest is the best in years. During the harvest, he is told that his land has been sold to a fruit corperation and that he must leave.

The first two sections are both heart-breaking, sincere and very human. The viewer connects with the characters after a short period of time and feels for their plight. The next two, however, are more obviously politically minded and feature very heavy-handed messages about the revolution and Batista's rule. Since this is primarily a propaganda film, this is to be expected, but it may impact some audiences opinions of it somewhat.

In the penultimate story, a student becomes a martyr for the cause after him and his friends get very involved in the revolution. Although the content is not as compelling as the first two stories, some of the scenes are incredibly visceral and the cinematography especially excellent.

A small family in the mountains where the rebels are fighting are the focus of the concluding section. After their home is bombed by the current government, the father takes up arms to protect his wife and children.

Although the political message is about as subtle as a Michael Bay film, Soy Cuba is perhaps the most visually stunning work I have witnessed. If you can stand being beat about the face with communism for a few hours for the sake of hypnotically beautiful art, then this is a film for you. If not, maybe try The Cranes Are Flying instead.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

#11 Serbia — Underground (1995)

This time, a Serbian film. But not A Serbian Film.

Why I chose this: Because watching and reviewing a film by a genius is much more fun, interesting and sanity-preserving than watching a baby get raped (as featured in A Serbian Film).

Emir Kusturica is among very few directors to have won two Palme D'Ors at the Cannes film festival and has been making exciting, energetic films for thirty years. It is therefore a shame that his name isn't more well known among film lovers. The first film of his which I saw was his more simple-minded, but completely bonkers comedy, Black Cat, White Cat. Although it is an excellent film which revives the thought that there are still comedies being made that can live up to the golden ages of Keaton and Chaplin, Monty Python and Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker, it pales in comparison to Kusturica's sprawling epic of a few years earlier.

This is one of the rare films which manages to blend and swap multiple genres seamlessly. Like in Lindsay Anderson's If... where I couldn't pinpoint the moment when it changes from a startlingly real depiction of youthful repression and an highly surreal revenge story, I only realised that Underground had stopped being a comedy when someone had hung themself from a bell tower whilst a wheelchair-bound man and his wife were set on fire.

Underground is a surreal epic comedy war drama in three parts - set in World War 2, the Cold War and the Yugoslav Wars respectively. The story is very large and complex, but mainly revolves around Blacky and Marko, two friends in Yugoslavia - an area now part of Serbia - who are both in love with the same woman and hateful of the Germans who repeatedly bomb them and attempt to steal away that same woman. It follows them from being petty thieves, to high government officials and all the way to war profiteers and army commanders.

One of Kusturica's greatest assets is his mastery of tone. The same things which were side-splittingly hilarious in the first half are made incredibly haunting in the latter. He achieves this with a wide array of tools; music, colour palate, characters and settings all morph alongside each other to convey the feeling of the action and the minds of our anti-heroes.

If I had to pick one favourite aspect of the film, it would have to be the Gypsy brass band which follow Blacky around for the first two thirds of the film. They not only add much to the surreality, comedy and mood of the film, but the energetic and virtuosic music they play - written by Goran Bregović - is absolutely amazing.

The performances by the leading cast are all excellent, particularly Mirjana Jokovic, who plays the love interest with equal measures of confusion, lust and sensuality. The monkey who plays Soni also gives a great performance as a monkey.

There are so many complex themes in Underground that it seems impossible to deal with them all in one review. It has explorations of patriotism, cultural identity, the effects of war, escapism from hostile environments, love, friendship, man's self-destructive nature, oppression and even more. On top of this, the film seems cuttingly allegorical in places, raising questions about governments in effect when the film was made.

Underground remains one of the most original films ever created, one which is so packed full of questions, answers, laughs, sobs and real characters that it demands multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. Recommended to anyone who enjoys films which do something different.

Also recommended from Serbia:
Other films by Emir Kusturica (Black Cat White Cat, Time of the Gypsies, When Father Was Away on Business)

Friday, 2 December 2011

#10 Senegal — Moolaadé (2004)

Into unknown territory for me with a film from Africa.

Why I chose this: Easily the most famous Senegalese film-maker and accredited by many as the father of African film, Ousmane Sembène was an easy choice for director. Moolaadé had been on my watchlist for some time, so I decided that this was the perfect time to watch it.

This marked a milestone in my film-viewing in that it was the first African film I had ever seen. After years of watching more Russian and Japanese films than any Scotsman should have business seeing, I found it very interesting to be introduced to a culture completely different from that which I am used to. What could push a Westerner out of their comfort zone more than a film about female circumcision?

Collé is the second of her husband's three wives. When four young girls who have escaped the "purification" ceremony come to her, she grants them Moolaadé (meaning 'magical protection' in Bamanankan), which prevents other villagers from entering the lot on pain of divine wrath. Thus begins a political, philosophical and moral battle with her community to protect not only the girls in her trust, but also future generations who would otherwise be subjected to the awful ceremony.

Moolaadé is not a subtle film - but how could it be? Sembène unrelentingly attacks the tradition at any chance he gets, attempting to expose all of its horrors. Whenever the elders are questioned as to the advantages of such an act, they simply reply that it's traditional, or that it is required by Islam (exposed as a complete falsehood by the end of the film). It isn't unnecessarily graphic, but shows you enough for just your imagination to make some scenes sickening. 

The film is beautiful and virtuosic, coming in equal parts from the sweeping shots of the village's colourful, alien vistas and the just as colourful folk score. These are enhanced by the wonderful garbs worn by the women, making the film a visual and aural pleasure.

Although, on the surface Sembène simply deals head on with the subject matter, the themes are far more universal than that. Most anyone will be able to identify with a people held back by pointless tradition and an unwillingness to embrace the future, be it in your country or even within your family.

Moolaadé is a great piece of political and educational film-making, succeeding both as an argument and as visual art. Although some viewers may raise issue with the intensely one-sided view which the film takes, or perhaps with the brutality of the subject matter, it is inarguably an important work which will hopefully be observed and taken to heart in years to come.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

#9 Iceland — Nói Albínói (2003)

For review number nine, I chose Iceland, because I can.

Why I chose this: I'm not going to lie here, this was the only Icelandic film I had on my watchlist and I think the only one I'd actually heard of. If someone is outraged at my ignorance of Icelandic cinema, please let me know and give me films to watch.

I started my Red Desert review with a rant about use of colour in films. I hope you will forgive me in doing the same here by saying AAAAAHHH, COLOUR FILTERS! WHYYY!? Seriously, Nói Albínói would be an incredibly beautiful film if the team would stop screwing around with different filters and turning the contrast settings up to 11.

I feel bad about starting the review on such a negative note, as this is actually a great film. The story follows Nói, a troubled Icelandic teenager as he struggles with love, family and his future. He is always in trouble at school for the lack of effort which he puts in, but seems to have hidden depths of intelligence. His main concern, however, is with Iris - the new cashier at the garage shop which he frequents.

It is very subtley observed but filled with wry humour and a painfully acute sense of irony. Most of the scenes are very simple and slow paced, showing every facet of Nói's life. Although most of the focus is put on Nói, I found his father, Kiddi, to be the most interesting and real character. He is an alcoholic, drinking himself further from reconciliation and his son, as he realises more and more that he made all the wrong choices in life, all of which he wants Nói to be spared from. Þröstur Gunnarsson absolutely nails this part, where the rest of the cast put in simply passable performances. Particularly touching is his karaoke scene with him trying to have fun and connect with his son, while Nói gets thrown out of the building for underage drinking. We never see Kiddi's reaction, but just thinking about it is heartbreaking.

The music - by the director's band, Slowblow - is amazingly beautiful and complements the film perfectly. The minimalistic melodies fit the serene landscapes like a glove and contribute to the soothing tone of the film.

The themes of alienation through being different, family conflicts and yearning for a better place are all well developed, especially at the film's sobering, abrupt ending.

Nói Albínói won't change anyone's life, but it is a touching and amusing film which is well worth a watch. Recommended to fans of Jim Jarmusch, Aki Kaurismäki and snow.

Also recommended from Iceland:
Sorry, I've got nothing

Friday, 25 November 2011

#7/#8 Iran/Mexico — Taste of Cherry/Japón (1997/2002)

Why I chose Taste of Cherry:
Kiarostami is arguably the most famous name in the Iranian New Wave. Having seen The Wind Will Carry Us previously, I was eager to see some of his other works and Taste of Cherry seemed as good a place to start as any.

Why I chose Japón:
I had originally planned to review one of Alejandro Jodorosky's films, as they are mainly produced and made in Mexico. After watching Japón because I liked an image I saw of it online, I decided that I can sneak Jodorosky in under Chile as this film needs to be better known.

Iran has an exceptional and mature independant film industry, in spite (or perhaps because of) the draconian restrictions placed on it. Kiarostami's humanist style of cinema has thus far evaded the fate of politically-minded film-makers such as Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi (a different article entirely).

Carlos Reygadas is a director to watch in the coming years. Winning a number of prestigious awards such as the Cannes Jury prize for his films, he is beginning to make a name for himself among cinephiles. He is very much a disciple of Tarkovsky, making contemplative and beautiful films about human issues.

Why am I joining these two reviews together? I watched the films back-to-back with no prior knowledge of what they would be about. They turned out to have near enough identical stories; a man wants to commit suicide for an unknown reason and seeks help to carry it out. In Taste of Cherry, the help needed is in the form of someone to come and bury Mr. Baadi after he commits the deed, while in Japón, the un-named man seeks the peace and quiet of a small canyon-side village to ease his mind before he joins the choir invisible (or more likely the gnashing teeth painfully real).

Japón combines glacial pacing with some of the most beautiful images committed to celluloid, a slowly drifting camera and atmospheric music. This gives the film a hypnotic quality which feels surreal and magical. Conversely, Taste of Cherry is very firmly rooted in reality. The pacing is directly associated with the main character, instead of being used as a technique for inspiring contemplation as in Japón. This means there are slow sections of car rides around town, contrasted with dialog-heavy encounters with other characters.

Kiarostami seems hell-bent on keeping every facet of the story and character interpretable by the audience. He seems to observe the action rather than direct it (except for one moment which anyone who has seen the film will be able to identify). He does not tell us what to feel, nor does he tell us what the character is thinking or even what happens in the end. This is very admirable and viewers who look for films which provoke completely independant thought will find much to like. Reygadas is more concrete, giving insight into the mysterious man through dream sequences and more overtly suggestive scenes. However, saying that someone has made a film which is more objective than Kiarostami is like suggesting that it might rain in Scotland; Japón is still a very subtle film which will reward multiple-viewings.

The characters in both films are very similar, being both mysterious and passive. Mr. Baadi has an expressionless face for nearly all the film; is this a byproduct of Kiarostami's views on audience participation and projection, or is it an organic reflection of a man with no emotion left? Japón's man-with-no-name is slightly more reactive. He spends the majority of the film in a similar state to Mr. Baadi, but there are moments which break through his blank mask, such as his breakdown on the bed. It is arguable which is the most real character. I would say that Mr. Baadi seems more like a placeholder for the audience and that Kiarostami's adversity to strong objectively emotional moments prevents his character from breathing in the film world. Mr. Unnamed has the same passive quality, but his reactions to his surroundings seem less affected by the director's agenda, which is rather ironic when you think about it.

Although Taste of Cherry is undeniably more innovative and personal, it lacks the intense atmosphere and emotional impact of Japón. Many viewers may (and do) prefer the near-blank canvas which it allows the audience to project themselves onto, the ultra-subtlety prevents it from having the incredibly moving scenes present in its Mexican cousin. Ultimately, which you enjoy and prefer will come down to the person you are; how you empathise with people and your views on life. What I will say is that anyone who isn't blown away by the beauty of Japón's final scene is either incredibly jaded or has no poetry in their soul.

Also recommended from Iran and Mexico:
Other films by Kiarostami (Close Up, Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us)

Jafar Panahi (Offside, The White Balloon)
Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, A Little Princess)
Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

#6 Czech Republic/Slovakia ‒ The Cremator (1969)

A note about the country: perhaps I am cheating here by lumping the two countries together, but the film was made when Czechoslovakia existed in Prague (which is now in the Czech Republic), the dialog is in Czech, but the director is Slovak. The film is also considered part of the Czechoslovak New Wave, so I think you'll allow me to join the two.

Why I chose this: I've only been getting into Czechoslovak cinema recently, despite the love for Jan Svankmajer's shorts which I developed years ago. The Cremator seems to be a perfect mix between the visual style of Svankmajer, coupled with the political mindset and absurdist humor of the New Wave. I hope it will lead more people into discovering another pocket of cinema.

The Cremator is a hard film to place. It is so original and bizarre that it is difficult to pidgeon-hole it into a certain genre or even mood. If I had to describe it in one sentence, it would be something like "A pitch-black surrealist, political horror-comedy". 

It follows the titular cremator, Kopfrkingl, as he slowly gets dragged into the arms of Nazism and descends into madness. He is obsessed with his duties; believing - due to his love of Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead - that by cremating the deceased, he is freeing their souls to go up into the ether. Prolific Czech actor Rudolf Hrusínský plays him absolutely perfectly. His voice fits the film to a tee; it is dark, deep and monotonous, but also sadistically gleeful, like a child past his years burning ants with a magnifying glass. 

Kopfrkingl's voice and mannerisms coupled with the stark, angular image compositions and surreal imagery create an atmosphere which is very dense and chilling, but the dialog and absurd characters underline it with a delishiously dark sense of humour; a husband gets frustrated by a wife whom bursts into tears for ridiculous reasons whenever he takes her anywhere and Kopfrkingl repeats sentence fragments throughout the film in a very Coenesque fashion. The comedy works in a similar way to that in cult classic Man Bites Dog, in that it will revolt some and greatly amuse others. 

The sets and cinematography are stunning. Clearly influenced by German expressionism and the absurdo-Gothic trappings of Svankmajer. Each image is thoughtfully composed and some - like the Brothers Quay state in their introduction to the film - are like daggers to the eyes.

The editing work is fantastically eccentric. If Black God, White Devil (#3 in the series) was edited by Edward Scissorhands, this was edited by a brilliant, mad surgeon who forgot to take his pills. Shot lengths are all over the place, some lasting half a minute or so and some, not even a tenth of a second. This plays on the madness of the central character beautifully and adds to the unnerving atmosphere.

The film works in equal measures as a cutting political and historical portrait, a disturbing exploration of madness and (literal) God complex, a blacker-than-black comedy and an atmospheric and chilling horror. If any of the above appeal to you, then put The Cremator right to the top of your watchlist; it is not a work to be missed.

Also recommended from Czech Republic/Slovakia:
Jan Svankmajer (Pretty much all of his films are worth a watch)
Jaromil Jires (Valerie and her Week of Wonders, The Joke)
Frantisek Vlacil (Marketa Lazarova, Adelheid)
Jiří Barta (The Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Vanished World of Gloves)
Oldřich Lipský (Happy End, Lemonade Joe)
Jan Nemek (Diamonds of the Night, The Party and the Guests)

Friday, 18 November 2011

#5 Belgium – Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Why I chose this: I am a huge fan of a number of directors who have been clumped under the so-called Contemporary Contemplative Cinema aesthetic. Chantal Akerman falls under the same banner, but is a director who's works I am unfamiliar with. I put off watching Jeanne Dielman due to its length and reputation, but felt that the empty Belgium review was calling for it.

I like to think when I'm watching films. If I'm not thinking, I often grow bored and fidgety. Films can generally get away with not making me think if they have a particularly excellent atmosphere, but generally I like them to present an interesting matter, explore it and move at a pace slow enough for me to digest the content and mull over it. It is for this reason that where many would see Jeanne Dielman as the most boring, pretentious "film" they know of (perhaps rivalled only by Sátántangó), I see it as a beautiful, hypnotic and cerebral work of art.

Coming in at a whopping 3 1/2 hours, Jeanne Dielman is as heavy on your scheduled as it is light on plot. The hours we witness map over three days in the titular character's boring, sterile life as she washes dishes, polishes shoes, makes dinner and turns the odd trick to bring in some money. Most of these events play out in real-time, shot with a static camera, and are repeated with slight variation over the diegetic days. Viewers who aren't used to the glacial, contemplative style of film-makers such as Tarr, Sokurov and Weerasethakul will most likely feel bored, frustrated and alienated by the pace and ultra-subtle thematic explorations, but those with patience and an appreciation of the art will be rewarded with a cinematic experience like few others.

There is a very good reason for the painful presentation of the content. The normality of the tasks which Jeanne executes coupled with the pace heightens the viewer's awareness to the small details of her life and the small variations over the days. Where someone forgetting to turn on a light in the hallway wouldn't even register to the audience in most films, here it is a huge red warning light of things to come.

Akerman's main aim is to depict the unrelenting tedium which many women become trapped in (or did in 1975). It is not only Jeanne who is a victim of this; the old woman in the post office and cashier in the shop where replacement potatoes are bought both seem to be in the same near-comatose state. It is suggested that decisions for these women are largely made by other more vital people, most obviously in the butcher-shop conversation and Jeanne's meatloaf. Although viewers may disagree with either the content or the way in which Jeanne deals with it, the way Akerman puts across her message is still impressive.

Delphine Seyrig is wonderful as always and a rather interesting choice. On one level, Seyrig has always been a women's rights activist, so it is both ironic and fitting that she plays the role of Jeanne. On another, this woman who has been described as the thinking-man's sex symbol is reduced to the most painfully normal woman possible. Also interesting to note (or at least it was when I was on a particularly abstract thought train during the film) is the difference in the treatment of time between this film, where it is concrete and hyper-real, and some of Seyrig's other films, such as Last Year at Marienbad and Daughters of Darkness, where it is transparent and out of reach. 

Jeanne Dielman is a very esoteric film, but those which can appreciate the deliberate pace and subtle build-up may find a new favourite.

Also recommended from Belgium:
Man Bites Dog

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

#4 Japan – Horror Special

An extra special Halloween feature this time

Why I chose these: I found it absolutely impossible to choose one Japanese film to write about. I've probably seen more Japanese films that any other country in the past few years so I have quite a number of favourites. Since it's horror season, I felt that an ensemble review of some of my favourite Japanese films in the genre would both be fitting and allow me to praise as many films as possible.

Note: This article doesn't seek to provide anywhere near a broad overview of Japanese horror, simply the films which I personally enjoy. If you want a more in-depth discussion of the subject, I would greatly recommend the Introduction To Japanese Horror Film by Colette Balmain and Japanese Horror Cinema by Jay McRoy.

Japan's love for supernatural stories goes back far further than the films it has produced. Ghost stories (or kaidan) were popular in the Edo period, where they would be read out in a room of a hundred candles, one extinguished after each story.

Perhaps the first Japanese horror film (although it is more a supernatural drama) was Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari in 1953. Ugetsu is a beautiful and heartbreaking work by one of the country's greatest directors and is still considered among the finest Japanese films of all time. Although - like all of Mizoguchi's films I have seen - I respect Ugetsu, it isn't among my favourites. To find these, we will need to jump forward to 1964, in which two films which I consider the very best in the genre were made.

If you ask an average film buff who their favourite classic Japanese director is, 99% of the time it will be either Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu. I would argue that these viewers haven't seen enough Masaki Kobayashi films. I find it impossible to name a favourite of his; Hara Kiri, Samurai Rebellion and The Human Condition trilogy are all among the finest films produced in any country. If I was pressed, however, I might name Kwaidan. In stark contrast to the minimalistic black and white of his previous films, Kobayashi's first venture into colour is among the most dazzling and expressionistic ever made. The gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds, slow pace and incredible score (by the incomparable Toru Takemitsu) give the film a magical fairy-tale feel. For a film to keep up the incredible atmosphere and sense of wonder for an hour and a half would be an amazing feat; Kwaidan manages it for a whole three hours over its four separate ghost stories. If you see one film I mention in this review, make it Kwaidan.

Some directors and actors have successful careers which span an incredible length of time; Lillian Gish acted for an incredible 75 years with some of the best performances in film history, the late Sidney Lumet made two of his best films 50 years apart. Kaneto Shindo is another such artist. He made his first film in 1951 (the same year as Lumet, incidentally) and was honoured with a nomination for the top prize at Cannes the next year. He is currently 99 years old and his most recent film is Japan's entry to the Academy Award's Best Foreign Language Film category. Along the way, he has made some of the country's greatest pictures. In 1964 he released Onibaba (meaning demon woman), which still stands as one of the genre's most controversial and influential works. It is inarguably more scary than Kwaidan or Ugetsu and much less compromising in its execution. The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is as beautiful as the content is ugly, colliding with the rapid editing, angular shots and frenzied taiko drum soundtrack to create an truly unnerving atmosphere.

Four years later, Shindo created a companion piece to Onibaba with Kuroneko (The Black Cat). Kuroneko is its predecessor's visual equal, containing more chiaroscuro lighting in succulent widescreen black-and-white. It is more deliberately paced, building the tension and eerie atmosphere rather than assaulting the viewer. It is arguable which is the better film, but I find myself more drawn towards Kuroneko for its more refined and pure viewing experience.

Now for one of the most original, outrageous and fun films I've had the pleasure of viewing: Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (1977). House can best be described as ultra-cheesy teen-pop adventure mixed with phantasmagorical horror. It's as if someone took a colourful children's book, interlaced scenes from The Shining and directed it in the middle of a particularly bad acid trip (which, if you read up on the film's production doesn't sound too far-fetched). It has everything from a bear working at a noodle bar to a man getting turned into a pile of bananas because he doesn't like watermelon. That's only the start of House's crazy goings-on. The colours are especially vivid and are splashed around all over the frames. Special effects are very predominant, but they look like they were made by a child (which I understand was actually the director's ambition) and add to the surreality of the film. Anyone with a taste for the unusual owes it to themselves to watch House. It is utterly unique and not to be missed.

Whilst on the subject of incredibly insane pictures, it would be a crime not to mention Tetsuo: The Iron Man. David Lynch's Eraserhead is perhaps the only film which can stand next to it in terms of unnerving strangeness (yes, I have seen Death Powder and I think it's awful). The plot is secondary to the surreal visuals, raw industrial music, stop motion effects and disturbing horror sequences. There isn't too much that I can actually write about this film, it just needs to be experienced.

When it comes to contemporary Japanese horror, (or J-Horror as it is often now referred to as) there are many influential directors who have made a great impact in the Western world as well as back home. Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike and Sion Sono are among names often mentioned. I myself find myself drawn to the more thematically interesting and humanistic works of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, especially Pulse. Rather than simply setting out to scare people, Pulse is more an exploration of loneliness and alienation in a horror setting. That isn't to say it's not scary - it most certainly is. The atmosphere and horror build up at a very slow pace and provide the perfect bleak setting for the themes. Fans of subtle but very creepy intelligent horror should watch it the first chance they get.

Although South Korea has recently had a better track record in Horror, Japan has a rich and diverse history in the genre which is well worth exploring all corners of. Any recommendations for films which haven't been mentioned are welcome in the comments section.

Recommended from Japan:
Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan, Samurai Rebellion, The Human Condition, Hara Kiri)
Takeshi Kitano (Hana-Bi, Sonatine, Dolls, Kikujiro)
Akira Kurosawa (Stray Dog, High and Low, Dersu Uzala)
Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko, Naked Island)
Mikio Naruse (A Woman Ascends the Stairs, Late Chrysanthemums)
Kon Ichikawa (Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, An Actor's Revenge)
Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another)
Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Floating Weeds)
Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, A Snake of June)
Nobuhiko Obayashi (House)
Shuji Terayama (Emporer Tomato Ketchup, Grass Labyrinth)
Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade of Roses)
Shohei Imamura (Ballad of Narayama, Vengeance is Mine, The Eel, Profound Desires of the Gods)
Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu Monogatari, Sansho the Bailiff)
Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion)
Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure, Tokyo Sonata)

#3 Brazil – Black God, White Devil (1964)

Number three, exciting times. Something a bit different this time.

Why I chose this: Because it would be boring if I liked every film I reviewed for this series. Also because I want an outlet for ranting about how bad this film was and this series was lying around, unsuspecting. Enjoy.

I am a very open-minded person. I also tend to see the good in things, be it people, food or film. I can generally look past the flaws in a work if it really has something to it and pride myself on being able to take something from almost every picture I watch. This film was complete and utter rubbish. Let me tell you why.

I was looking forward to watching this film all summer while I was back home. I saw it described as a mystical, visually stunning and hugely original take on the Western genre. This sounded very much like El Topo – one of my favourites – so I was very much interested in seeing it. As happens with most of the films I stumble across, it was quickly lost in my vast watchlist, popping up at me whenever I trawled through it and making me more eager to get a chance to watch it. I noticed that it was available at the University library, so decided to wait and take it out after the holidays. After returning to my studies and settling in, I saw it on the shelves of the University’s collection and instantly grabbed it. I watched it the same day and was dismayed to find that it wasn’t so much a film, rather than a series of scenes made specifically for the purpose of mutilating my brain cells and making my eyes bleed.

Almost every review I have read describes the film as a visual feast, or cinematographical masterpiece. I’m sure they must have watched El Topo instead and mistaken it for a similar film. The cinematography was a mess of amateurish fast pans, random zooms and shaky handheld camerawork where it didn’t make sense. When the camera was put in one place and held there, some moments of beauty shone through, but they were then promptly defecated on by a zoom to half of someone’s face.

The editor on the film is called Rafael Valverde. I have concluded that Mr. Valverde is, in fact, a drunk Edward Scissorhands. I can find no other logical explaination for the random cuts, arbitrary scene endings and general lack of coherence present in this insult to film-making.
The sound effects team were obviously tourists who happened to be passing by one day. I counted two different sound effects for gunshots (which there are a lot of). If Wikipedia is to be trusted, the director was 25 when he began writing and directing the film. Some simple calculations gives the conclusion that the film was around 7 years in production. The credits list a foley artist for the film. For these numbers to work, he must have spent around two hours working and seven years picking his nose, laughing at the actors or working on a film worth the time spent watching it.

Speaking of laughing at actors. I spent a fair amount of time doing this as soon as Corisco – a bandit with a God complex – shows up. Three moments in particular demonstrate perfectly his skill at ruining a scene. The first is a tender moment when he seems to connect with a young girl in his entourage. They circle each other, the camera circles the other way, the music swells and they move in to kiss. He then proceeds to rub his beard all over her mouth and tries to eat her face. A second, where he and his cowherd-turned-bandit compatriot are discussing morals and other characters. It was one of the few scenes in the film which felt right. The camera stayed still on a well-composed frame of barren wasteland, the dialogue was meaningful and the plot seemed to be making sense. Suddenly, Corisco takes great offense at something his friend says and jumps towards the camera, arms flailing with all the tone and subtlety of an ape on acid and shouts “LIES!”. Everything the scene built up to is instantly torn down in one masterful moment of awfulness. The third and most glaringly horrible is his death (oh yeah, spoilers, I hope by now I’ve convinced you not to see the film). Shot to the sound of the same bullet as near everyone else in the film, he stays standing and – I’m not joking here – tosses his arms out like Rose in Titanic and spins around for a bit. He then falls to the ground and I cheer internally, hoping that we are now near the close of the film.

The really sad thing about this film is that I can tell the filmmakers tried to accomplish something here. There are interesting themes and profound dialogue hidden somewhere in the gruesome mess which point to the framework of an excellent film. Avoid.

Recommended from Brazil:
Not this
Black Orpheus
City of God
Central Station

#2 Italy – Red Desert (1964)

Number two in my series. That means I’m actually committing to doing this: not letting it get lost in the sea of other projects and responsibilities that come with being an Honours student. I’m here to stay.

Why I chose this: Antonioni’s films have been sitting like a gaping hole in my generally broad film-watching spectrum. I hadn’t seen a single one until around a month ago when I watched Blowup and was left unimpressed. I decided last week, however, to persevere and watch some others on his impressively large list of supposed “masterpieces”. This lead me to taking out his whole 60s trilogy on alienation (L’AvventuraLa Notte and L’Eclisse) alongside his first colour film, Red Desert, from the library.

I appreciated L’Avventura for its cinematography and mysterious tone, but didn’t feel any connection to it. I loved both La Notte and L’Eclisse for a myriad of reasons which would require another few articles, so I will spare you that. A few days later I sat down to watch Red Desert and was absolutely blown away. It now sits as the only Italian film which I have rated 10/10, which I think is reason enough to include it here.

Andrei Tarkovsky once said in an interview that colour film is no more than a commercial gimmick and that he did not know of a single film which used it well. This statement seems more and more true as cinema ages. The magical years of Technicolour, hand painted sets and true experimentation with colour are gone. Directors tend to see colour as being simply “there” (e.g. almost every film which will show at your standard multiplex), use it for some heavy-handed symbolism (e.g.Schindler’s List, A Single Man) or use it as a bland wash to give a film a certain ‘look’ (e.g. The Matrix, A Very Long Engagement). In this writer’s mind, colour should not be a simple tool for getting across some arbitrary point, it should live and breathe in the world of the film. When used correctly, it can strengthen tone, develop themes and reflect the state of characters. Sharp readers may protest that A Single Man – which I listed among films which use colour ‘wrongly’ – does use it for the latter. The difference is that the utilisation goes against what is happening in the film. When a film is trying to explore the subtlety of human affection and loss, whilst going against this subtlety with its techniques (desaturated colours = sad, saturated colours = happy-ish), the impact of the content is lessened.

There are, of course, modern exceptions to the ‘rule’ of mediocrity. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique comes to mind, alongside the films of artists like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai. These exceptions included, I feel that nothing can match the surreal beauty of Technicolour experimentation. I find myself captivated by the colours in films such as Black NarcissusThe Holy Mountain and Suspiria. Red Desert now stands at the top of my list, which is sadly ironic, as Tarkovsky pointed to the film as one he thought used colour badly further into the interview I mentioned earlier.

Slightly tangential exposition aside, this brings me to what Red Desert does which sets it apart from its peers. Here the colours meld, clash and overlap in a variety of ways to effectively mirror the feelings of the protagonist, Guiliana (Monica Vitti) in the landscape itself. Similar to the way in which Antonioni uses cityscapes and buildings in his alienation trilogy to show how small and lost we seem in our creations, the colours mimic Guiliana’s distance from reality and emotional confusion.

In true Antonioni fashion, the plot isn’t so much a story as a series of events driven by the characters and their environment. Guiliana is the psychologically disturbed wife of a factory manager. She begins to question everything about her life when she meets a restless engineer named Zeller (Richard Harris) who seems drawn to her.

Vittorio Gelmetti’s atmospheric electronic score, coupled with distorted industrial sounds create an uneasy soundtrack to the film. Passionate scenes are punctuated by fog horns and brief escapes to nature bring with them the sounds of fire from factories. These make the cold, industrial modern world inescapable – a theme visited many a time in the film.

One of the most unforgettable scenes in film history occurs when Guilliana escapes to a dream world in her head. The sea and sand of a beach glisten with natural beauty. This land is hers alone. Whereas in the real world, the machines make their monotonous pounding, here, the rocks are alive and sing with a serene and strange voice. Then suddenly we are drawn back into reality, forced to confront sickness, an ugly, derelict Earth and the ever present alienation of a modern world.

Red Desert is one of the most original pictures I have had the pleasure of seeing. It is at once beautiful in its composition and ugly in its nature, pessimistic for the state of a place which birds won’t even come near, yet optimistic for our chances with learning to adapt. A film for anyone who has ever struggled to find connections in our world.

Also recommended from Italy:
Antonioni’s alienation trilogy
Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, La Strata, Nights of Cabiria)
Vittorio Di Sica (Umberto D, Bicycle Thieves)
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy
Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, Man With no Name trilogy)
Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo, Arabian Nights, Mamma Roma, Canterbury Tales)
Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red)
Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust)

#1 Sweden – Persona (1966)

This review marks the first of many to come. I have set myself an aim to watch and review a film from as many countries as possible for the St. Andrews Award and my own pleasure. The initial target is fifty, but that may increase depending on how I feel.

Why I chose this: Tracing my love for foreign, artistic and generally weird films back to one picture leads me to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. I took this out of the University library on a whim after an online recommendation and was awestruck from the initial montage. It seems a perfect choice for my first review, so here commences my epic journey around the world of film.

Bergman has made a great number of influential, complex and beautiful films, but Persona stands among the most singular of his works. It concerns Elizabeth Vogler (the incomparable Liv Ullman), a stage actress who suddenly turns mute during a performance. She is committed to a hospital, where a nurse named Alma (Bibi Andersson) is put in charge of her. When they are sent away for a respite at a secluded summer house by the beach, Alma confides all her cares and fears to Elizabeth and their identities become blurred.

The film – as most created by Bergman – is less about the story and more about the questions which it asks and the answers which it gives (or doesn’t give). The explorations of identity, motherhood, art and the human psyche are deep and complex, requiring multiple viewings to truly appreciate.

If philosophical musings aren’t your cup of tea, then the film can simply be experienced passively as a work of art. The cinematography of frequent collaborator Sven Nykvist is breathtakingly beautiful; he captures every expression on the actresses faces perfectly and composes each frame with the skill of a master artist. The lighting at once seems natural and dreamlike. This is particularly notable in a scene near the beginning of the film where Elizabeth’s face as she lays on her bed slowly darkens as light leaves the room. The shot is both beautiful and terrifying.

Bergman has a knack of coaxing the best possible performances from his cast and this skill is displayed to its full power here. Alma seems completely open, innocent and full of vitality. As the film climaxes however, we witness a venomous, grudging side of her. Bibi Andersson plays both of these parts perfectly; exposing an almost childish naivety with animalistic reactions to hurt and betrayal. Liv Ullman is silent for almost the whole film, but gets across more
emotions than most could dream of with just her face.

Persona is a film which has remained a favourite of mine and one which I take something new from every time I watch it. If you like your films dense, beautiful and atmospheric, I urge you to watch it.

Also recommended from Sweden:
Any other Bergman film
Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor, You the Living)
Lukas Moodysson (Lilja 4-Ever, Show Me Love)
Tomas Alfredson  (Let The Right One In)
Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage)