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.