Tuesday, 8 May 2012
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
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
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
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
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
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
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.
Friday, 17 February 2012
Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Ku. Ku; ku. Ku. Ku? Ku! If we were on the planet Pluke in the Kin-Dza-Dza galaxy, I could have just said nearly anything, so long as it didn't involve matches or bells that hang from one's nose.
If the above paragraph made absolutely no sense, but you found it kind of amusing, then Kin-Dza-Dza! is the film for you. It starts on Earth, where a man named Vladimir Nikolaevich is told to get some groceries. On his way, he gets sidetracked by a man professing to be an alien who doesn't know where he his. Vladimir accidentally gets teleported to the planet Pluke alongside a violin-carrying passer-by and they must both figure out what the hell is going on.
The world of Pluke is excellently crafted. We learn of its language (mainly consisting of the word "ku"), its class system (decided by which light turns on when a device is pointed at you and what colour trousers you wear) and customs. All of these are wildly imaginative and very funny.
The film isn't just all laughs either. There's a wealth of subtext about social divides, cultural differences, racism, life philosophy etc. These don't bog things down though; the film still keeps most of the emphasis on the surreal sci-fi and absurdist comedy elements.
Most of the technical aspects of the film are simply average. The editing and cinematography are passable, but nothing special. The acting is similarly bland and the cgi is plain awful. The art direction, however is inspired. The pseudo-cyberpunk ships and locations are very well crafted and lend the world a lot of character. The music is also great, it's quirky and bouncy, and compliments the tone of the film perfectly.
Kin-Dza-Dza! will appeal to both those looking for some light sci-fi, and those who want a heady comedy. Allegedly it has a huge cult following in the post-soviet states and I can see why; the dialogue is frequently hilarious and quotable, and the world is very vivid. I would certainly recommend this film to anyone who likes their films with a big splash of absurdity, regardless of genre tastes.
Also recommended from Georgia:
Friday, 10 February 2012
I actually started writing a review of Wojciech Has' post-surrealist masterpiece The Hourglass Sanatorium, but decided it was a lost battle trying to write anything on the film whilst assuming limited prior knowledge. So instead you get to hear (read) me gush about colour use and music for 500 words or so. Lucky you.
There are very few directors who can claim the same consistency and mastery of an art form that Kieslowski had. He made five of the most important and arguably best works of the nineties in a row, until retiring and tragically dying of a heart attack at the age of 54.
I don't know of any director with a better control of colour and music. The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours Trilogy demonstrate an almost perfect attunement to their use.
In this film, the use of a greeny-yellow colour filter gives everything a gorgeous autumnal feel as opposed to just washing everything else out (cf. A Very Long Engagement). The reds and greens in the frame seem to slowly separate out over the film as Veronique moves towards some understanding of her life. These go together to give a magical, fantastical air to proceedings. The cinematographical flairs present throughout give a virtuosic finish to the film's visual style.
The music is hauntingly beautiful and is a definite contender for my favourite musical score (perhaps equal with Joe Hisaishi's accompaniment to Hana-Bi). Zbigniew Preisner (yes, I had to look up the spelling) constructed a very dramatic soundtrack which blends with the content perfectly. Themes pop up every now and then to show vague memories or feelings that Veronica has. It is similar to Blue's usage of music, but a bit more subtle (I'm not saying anything against Blue here, that utilisation fits well in the themes of the film).
Irène Jacob is captivating as the double lead. She plays the characters with innocence, grace, tenderness and inquisitivity. The viewer can't help but fall in love with her and pray that her situations come to a happy end. The fact that she's utterly gorgeous does help her case somewhat. The rest of the cast put in good performances, but all are overshadowed by Jacob and the focus Kieslowski puts on her characters.
I don't want to spoil any of the plot, as it is very interesting to watch unfold. Lets just say it involves double lives, musicians and lots of Irène Jacob.
Although I could sit and appreciate the film just for the acting, cinematography and music, there is a lot of depth which becomes more and more apparent on multiple viewings. Anyone who enjoys humanistic films will have a field day here. The themes of human connections and relationships are deeply and profoundly explored. There is also the feeling of chance and fate which Kieslowski would come to focus on in Red. Due to the openness of the plot and depth of the main character(s), the experience is a very personal one; someone else may take something completely different out of their viewing from me. This increases the connection which one — or I, at least — has with the work.
The Double Life of Veronique is one of the few films which seems to get everything right. I can't find a flaw in any of its aspects, although some may argue that the plot gets a bit complicated at points. It is a film which goes for the heart, mind and soul in equal measures and hits all three. If you appreciate art, watch this.
Also recommended from Poland:
Other films by Kieslowski (Three Colours Trilogy, Dekalog, Camera Buff)
Wojciech Has (The Hourglass Sanatorium, The Saragossa Manuscript)
Roman Polanski (Repulsion, A Knife in the Water)
Andrzej Zulawski (Possession, The Third Part of the Night)
Andrzej Wajda (War Trilogy)
Wladyslaw Starewicz (The Cameraman's Revenge, The Mascot)
Zbigniew Rybczynski (Tango)
Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Comedy is probably the genre I have the most loose taste in. People are often surprised to hear that I love films like Anchorman, Airplane and Hot Shots Part Deux as well as the films of Buster Keaton or Chaplin when most of my favourite films are fairly depressing. The one thing in comedy I really can't stand is the awkward comedy, the film or TV show that delights in making you squirm in discomfort. Whisky is a well made film, but near enough epitomises this niche.
When Jacobo, a socially-awkward sock factory owner, hears that his successful brother is coming to visit him, he asks his similarly introverted employee, Marta, to pose as his wife to make him appear well-to-do.
Each character is well fleshed out and superbly acted. The distance between the two brothers is painfully felt and Marta's difficulty in communication is shown to hide a childlike compassion and warmth. The technical aspects of the film are all well executed. The slow pace wrings out every last drop of discomfort from the scenes and the stark, cold cinematography emphasises the emptiness in the character's lives.
The directing duo do a superb job here, the film is subtly well-observed and focused solely on the three main characters. There is no dressing up or contrived sub-plots here, and the film is all the better for it.
Personally I didn't enjoy Whisky. By the halfway point, I was waiting for it to end so I could watch something a bit less awkward. It is certainly not a bad film though. Many will find joy in the Coenesque repetition coupled with very real characters. Fans of Jim Jarmush, Aki Kaurismaki should definitely look this up. If my earlier review of Noi Albonoi made you watch the film and you enjoyed it, give this a try too.
Note: The film is called Whisky as it is the word used to make people smile for photographs.
Friday, 3 February 2012
Two of my favourite styles of cinema are German Expressionism and early Experimental Cinema. The aesthetics of both are all nearly lost in modern films, but live on in the works of Canada's Guy Maddin.
The style of Brand Upon the Brain seems like a supercharged riff on the films various experimental movements. The camerawork draws upon that of Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera and the presentation style of a silent film with an orchestral score and narrator pays homage to Japanese cinema, where a Benshi would talk over the film. The editing is a beast of its own; the cutting is frantic and loose, which gives the film an absurd and energetic feel.
One of the amazing things about Guy Maddin is that, despite the incredible amounts of style in his works, he never sacrifices a bit of substance. The story presented is a rather interesting one. A man (representing the director) gets a letter from his mother to return to the lighthouse where he was brought up and paint it before she dies. When he gets there, he is assailed by memories of his past, where his draconian mother ran an orphanage in the lighthouse and his sister and him began to discover sexual urges.
Behind the story, Maddin builds up very strong themes on coming-of-age (non-sentimental, thank God), sexual repression, gender, parent-child relationships and more. I found it difficult to decide whether to focus on the dazzling visual style, the absorbing story or the well-explored themes while watching.
Maddin keeps his signature pitch-black absurdist humour right in the foreground in this case. The dark themes and story are lightened up tremendously by the comedic aspects; I watched pretty much all the film with a smile on my face. The humour doesn't feel tacked on at all, it is built into all aspects of the film, from the hilariously sensationalist intertitles to the bizzare logic which underlines the story.
The music and narration in the DVD version are both stellar — although I would love to see the film live. The music consists of a virtuosic orchestral ensemble playing dark, impressive and beautiful lines over key moments. Isabella Rossellini provides the narration in dramatic style, her accented voice modulating to the rhythm of the pictures.
All of the actors do excellent jobs. They theatrically overact all of their parts in the style of original silent films. While none of them are quite Lillian Gish, their emotions are rather absorbing.
Anyone who has enjoyed another Guy Maddin film will be sure to enjoy this. I would go so far as to say its the best of his I've seen. If you have enjoyed any of the films I've talked about, but haven't seen anything of Maddin's films, or saw The Artist and felt it was a bit tame, I urge you to watch this. It's probably my favourite film of the 00s (joint with Nuit Noire (2005)) and I'd count it among my favourites of all-time.
Also recommended from Canada:
Other films by Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Careful)
David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Naked Lunch)
Claude Jutra (My Uncle Antoine)
Francois Girard (The Red Violin)
Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Half way there! At the start of this I didn't think I'd make it to this point. Here's an extra special review to mark this event. Enjoy.
Never has there been a film so misunderstood as Tommy Wiseau's 2003 masterpiece, The Room. The sheer volume of viewers who don't "get" it and instead enjoy it for supposedly unintentional comic value is disgusting. I assure you that the comedy is not only completely intentional, it is the most subtly satirical and intelligent humour since Jacques Tati.
The Room opens with the main character, Johnny, on a tram journey. The understanding of this metaphorical device is key to understanding the nature of the film. The tram here symbolises the modern way of thinking. Tram systems are seen as important because of their "green" nature and are recently being implemented in a number of cities — such as my home town, Edinburgh — to help reduce carbon footprints and suchlike. Johnny steps of the tram at the end of the title sequence, and thus starts a new life, attempting to appreciate the simple things in life, such as American Football and doing chicken impressions. Such a life-changing moment has not been implied so subtly and perfectly since Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman's 1975 film (reviewed earlier).
One comment which is frequently made about the film is that Tommy Wiseau's acting as Johnny is one of the — if not, the — worst performances of all time. What you will notice, however, is that the acting is very restrained and there isn't one false move until he steps off that tram. Wiseau is inviting us into his simple world, one where we should not judge or be judged for how we present ourselves or how good our vagina location skills are (hint, it's not on the belly button). The fact that most viewers do not find this idea incredibly beautiful makes me weep for modern society.
A scene which is frequently misinterpreted, but is in fact one of the most overtly symbolic segments of the film is the flower shop scene. This short scene has more content and depth than most films have in their whole run-time. I will explain a few of the important aspects, but to go through them all would take a lifetime. First off, the shopkeeper fails to recognise Johnny as he walks into the shop, despite his very memorable features. She does not know who he his, because he is a new man, changed by his decision to live a better life. The fast, surreal pace of this scene coupled with the jarring dialog emphasises his dissatisfaction with the emphasis on efficiency in modern life. This channels Tati's Jour De Fete, alongside the absurdism of Bunuel's comedies.
There are moments, however, when Wiseau takes us out of this ideal view of life, showing it as an impossibility. The most obvious of these is in the plot, where his life is ruined by the modern world for attempting to choose a better way of life. More subtly, the frequently blurry camera suggests that this ideal life can only be a dream, and that it is unobtainable now. The picture of a spoon which is often parodied and made fun of also exists to strengthen this idea. It is a reference to the scene in The Matrix where reality is called into question with the bending of a spoon.
The most important aspect which is often seen as amusing i— ah screw it, this film is absolutely awful. Watch it anyway though, as it's rather hilarious.
Also recommended from the USA:
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Friday, 27 January 2012
Why I chose this: I discovered Ceylan around the same time I saw my first Bela Tarr film. Since then, he has been one of my favourite modern directors. I got Climates on DVD as a Birthday present, but never got round to watching it. This series is turning into a great way to watch DVDs I've had for too long.
Climates stands as another testament to Ceylan's painfully astute understanding of relationship breakdowns. Sitting between the phenomenal Uzak's exploration of a damaged brotherly connection and Three Monkey's examination of a family unit under siege, Climates studies a man-woman (it's not revealed if they are married, unless there was an obvious wedding ring I missed) relationship in its most sorry state.
Ceylan is often lumped into the Contemporary Contemplative Cinema "movement". Although he shares a common approach with a few of his peers — most notably Andrei Zvyagintsev — he has much more in common with the works of Michaelangelo Antonioni. His work demonstrates a profound knowledge of modern society's effects on human relationships, which makes his films very easy to connect with, if you can get past the slow pace.
Ceylan's choice to cast himself and his wife as the main characters is both brave and thought-provoking. How autobiographical is this film? The strength and believability of both performances gives saddening clues.
Although the cinematography isn't quite as stunning as Uzak, it is used as a storytelling device more effectively. It goes together with the mise en scene to reinforce the emotions and connections present in the shot. Physical space and actor positioning is used to show emotional distance between characters and depth-of-field is altered to show disassociation with a character's surroundings.
Music is used sparingly and is all connected to the diegesis in clever ways (cf The Big Lebowski). It sometimes borders on manipulative depressiveness, but never quite crosses the boundary and so remains sincere. However, the weather changing to fit the mood of the scenes sometimes feels fake and obvious, but this doesn't heavily detract from the experience.
The characters feel very real and well developed, and the presentation is painfully honest, but I still didn't find the film to be as great as Uzak or Three Monkeys. Perhaps the main character's boorish insensitivity prevented me from properly connecting with him, or his wife's childish aloofness from understanding the original attraction.
I do have a few gripes, but in general, Climates is a great, if depressing, view of the disintegration of love and how it still leaves pieces of itself behind. Perhaps not necessary viewing, but definitely worth a watch for fans of Ceylan's other work or of slow, humanist cinema in general.
Also recommended from Turkey:
Other films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, Three Monkeys)
Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven, Head-On)
Tuesday, 24 January 2012
Why I chose this: I'm sure I've mentioned Bela Tarr a number of times in this series so far. Some of you may have picked up that he is one of my favourite directors. Having only seen Satantango, Werkmiester Harmonies and The Turin Horse, I jumped at the excuse to watch another.
The best way to watch a Bela Tarr film is with equal amounts of patience and Prozac. No-one else makes films which are quite as long, slow and depressing as Tarr. His 1994 masterpiece, Satantango, consists of around 150 shots where very little happens. It also happens to be seven hours long. The Turin Horse tones it down a bit, restricting itself to 30 shots and a measly three hours. It's a good thing that as well as the languid miserablism, his films are among the most beautiful, hypnotic, subtly absurd and intelligent you will find.
Damnation's themes are dense and numerous. Human absurdity, emotional and physical connections, obsession and relationship roles all feature. devastating bleakness hangs over everything. It is present in the rain, the faces of the characters and the black-and-white images. The scene which I think ties all of these together and has the most emotional impact is the main character talking about his previous relationship with a joyous girl, which ended in her suicide. His descriptions created vivid, colourful pictures in my head, where the colour slowly faded as the happiness fell from their relationship.
The photography is outstanding, consisting of very long shots which track over space at a crawl. Often, the camera would start facing a wall, or the ceiling and I would try to guess just what it would do next; I was almost always wrong. The lighting is stark, striking and effective, evoking film noir at its best. The glacial pace of the shots and editing allow the viewer to drink in every detail of the frames and bask in the atmosphere.
Mihaly Vig's music is as excellent as in his other films (although his genius in The Turin Horse is perhaps the pinnacle of his achievement). It switches between ironically upbeat folksy tunes and melancholic melodic meanderings. The jet-black humour and ultra-bleak tone are both strengthened by its presence.
Tarr's film world is, as ever, unplaceable. It seems to at once exist in the past — a mix of 50s clothes and 70s hairstyles perhaps? — and some future circa the apocalypse. This adds to the absurdity and bleakness of the film and creates a truly unforgettable setting.
Many of the details are left to the viewer's imagination, so everyone's interpretation of certain elements will be different. For example, who is the poetic old woman with the umbrella who pops up every now and again? For me, she seemed like a remnant of a God who has long forsaken this land (hence the title). Others may think I'm talking rubbish; I'll let you decide.
If you have watched a film and thought that it was "too slow", this film probably isn't for you. If you want a well developed story, look elsewhere. But if you are patient, appreciate deep thematic exploration and want an unique experience, then Damnation and it's sister films are near unparallelled.
Also recommended from Hungary:
All other Bela Tarr films
Miklos Jancso (The Red and the White, The Round Up)
Marcell Jankovics (Feherlofia)
Friday, 20 January 2012
Why I chose this: I flip-flopped a lot here. I watched a number of French films in the last few weeks; Rivette's surreal Celine and Julie Go Boating, a re-watch of Last Year at Marienbad — a personal favourite — and a relatively unknown 70s production called The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. Another possibility would be Les Enfants Du Paradis, which I think is the best standard-style film ever made. Eventually I settled on the least known one; there's nothing I love more than finding hidden gems, so hopefully I'll satisfy others with this interest.
The late Raoul Ruiz was an unfortunate victim of chance. Despite making over 100 features and possessing a film-making skill to rival all of cinema's best, he never achieved the worldwide recognition of, say, Bunuel or Godard.
The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is, on the surface, a film where two narrators — one seen and one unseen — discuss progressively contrived theories of how a series of paintings join up. Further down, it is a very wry satire on art criticism and interpretation.
I don't think I have ever second-guessed myself more than I did watching this. I myself formulated convoluted ideas on what the film was trying to say, then realised the more that I thought about them and the more obscure they got, the more I was falling into the film's trap and doing exactly what it was satirising. There is a sort of meta-irony in there that would make this film a hipster's wet dream.
The cinematography by frequent Resnais and Greenaway collaborator, Sacha Vierny is stunning. The frames are sharp, shadowy and thoughtfully composed, presenting tableux vivants of the eponymous paintings. Vierny's work on Last Year at Marienbad is felt many times, although never quite reaching the utter perfection of Marienbad's images.
The narrative structure is effective and surreal. We move through the paintings, one by one, before witnessing a kind of snapshot of the paintings intertwined at the end. This compliments the absurdity of the theories in a similar fashion to Bunuel's narratives running alongside the crazy lives of the bourgeoisie.
Although one could discuss theories about the film until Ruiz started rolling in his grave, this would completely miss the point of the film. The satire is fairly subtle, but executed in a way that shows these critics or theorists to be childishly endearing rather than simply calling them idiots. I think they — myself included, as I probably fall under this banner — would perhaps prefer the latter, however. Even if one doesn't catch/pay attention to this facet of the film, they can easily get swept along by the excellent cinematography, surreal atmosphere and complex theorising.
Also recommended from France:
Marcel Carne (Les Enfants du Paradis, Port of Shadows)
Alain Resnais (Last Year At Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Night and Fog)
Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot Le Fou, Breathless)
Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Army of Shadows)
Jaques Tati (Play Time, Mon Oncle)
Krzystof Kieslowski (Three Colours Trilogy)
Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Friday, 13 January 2012
Why I chose this: If a recent re-watch of one of my favourite films isn't reason enough for a review, I don't know what is.
I'm a sucker for hand drawn backgrounds in film. They add an otherworldly quality which is impossible to achieve otherwise. Black Narcissus joins this with my love of high-saturation technicolour films to make a film of timeless beauty and originality.
A selection from an order of nuns are sent to a remote Himalayan town to start a convent. They aim to educate the natives and keep them healthy, but find themselves brought to conflict by the exotic surroundings and a handsome agent known as Mr. Dean.
I generally don't talk much about acting in these reviews, mainly because it's an aspect of film which doesn't interest me as much as cinematography or music. In this case, failure to mention the acting would be a crime. Everyone in the film gives a top-rate perform ace. Deborah Kerr plays the uptight and very proper sister superior, Clodagh, who slowly reveals a deep humanity as the film progresses. Kathleen Byron is intense and unforgettable as Sister Ruth, who is deeply affected by the surroundings and begins to go mad. Mr. Dean is played with a concern for the nuns and sense of right, overshadowed by a refined brutishness by David Farrar.
In true Archers style, the film is full of memorable scenes. Clodagh's open talk with Mr. Dean ("I couldn't stop the wind from blowing and the air from being as clear as crystal, and I couldn't hide the mountain.") is one of the best written and acted segments I've seen, and the ending is as tense as any Hitchcock film.
All of these components are brought together by Jack Cardiff's spectacular cinematography. There are many images which will haunt the viewer long after the final reel ends. The colours are as sumptuous as you'll find in any Christopher Doyle film and the composition as good as any from Sven Nykvist.
Although the film is about nuns, it is not overtly religious; the focus is on the themes of the power of nature, nostalgia and temptation rather than faith. Each of those three are very well developed and weave in and out of each other for the picture's duration. The story is constructed in such a way that the themes are intrinsic rather than tacked on, which increases their power and the sense on sincerity which the film gives.
As much of a cliche that it is, there is something for everyone in Black Narcissus. Those to whom scenery porn is the most important element will be more than fulfilled, acting fetishists will be captivated by the cast and story lovers have a thrilling ride to be dragged along on. The style grants the film a certain magic that is matched perhaps only by Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis. Any cinema lover should see this at least once.
Also recommended from the United Kingdom:
Stanley Kubrick (Any of his films)
Powell & Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp)
Nicholas Roeg (Walkabout, Don't Look Now)
Carol Reed (The Third Man)
Mike Leigh (Another Year, Naked)
Terry Jones (& Terry Gilliam) (Life of Brian, (The Holy Grail))
Terry Gilliam (Brazil)
Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I)
Tuesday, 10 January 2012
Why I chose this: I'm not familiar with any other Armenian works than those of Sergei Parajanov. I'm still to see his other films, but I felt that The Colour of Pomegranates needed to be rewatched, so it seemed like a good choice for this review.
The Colour of Pomegranates is not a conventional biopic. Rather than being a simple dramatisation of key points in the subject's life (e.g. Senna, Ray), it is a visual representation of their work interspersed with poeticised versions of their life, all played out in stunning tableau vivant. The subject in this case is the Armenian poet and bard Sayat Nova (King of Songs).
Unless you've seen another Parajanov film, I can guarantee you've never seen anything like this. Each shot is a work of beautifully surreal art. The image composition is bizarre but striking. Look at the picture at the top of the page. Almost every frame has the same quality as that.
The excellent soundtrack consists of Armenian folk music of many varieties. Every piece is very musically interesting and complements the exotic images perfectly.
The film is not just pretty pictures, there is an incredible amount of symbolism ingrained into the images. Some can be interpreted literally, while some require more thought. No matter how deep into the complex metaphors one wishes to delve, it is impossible to not find any food for thought, which sets it apart from many other visually driven films (such as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in the previous review). Some may find some of the symbols too overt, and I may have agreed with them if this were a standard narrative film. In this case, the symbolism is the narrative, so the blatant nature of some metaphors is entirely necessary.
Perhaps the only gripe I have with the film is that it is too short. I own the fantastic Second Run transfer, which has a running time of 70 minutes; I could watch this for hours! I have managed to acquire the rushes of the film, which comes to four hours long, but has no sound. I'll get round to watching this despite this at some point (if anyone wants to know where they can get this, leave a comment).
The Colour of Pomegranates is one of the most dizzyingly original films ever produced. It's beauty and poetic nature are matched by very few and grows with multiple viewings. Anyone who appreciates cinema as art simply must see this film as it stands as one of the highest points that film has ever reached.
Friday, 6 January 2012
Why I chose this: Apichatpong (or Joe as he likes to be called) is one of my favourite contemporary directors. This week was the first time I got a chance to see his Palme D'Or winning 2010 feature, so what better film to review for my Thailand segment?
Joe is a master of duality and context. In Syndromes and a Century, the juxtaposition of two similar stories set in different places/times makes a perfectly normal trip to the dentist a heartbreaking allegory for the breakdown of brotherhood in the modern world. In Tropical Malady, the placing of a feverish nightmare hunting segment after a love story gives it insane depths of new meaning. In Uncle Boonmee, a princess having sex with a catfish is put alongside visits from a red-eyed monkey-spirit to show... Nope, lost me.
Perhaps there is actually a wealth of hidden meaning in this film. Perhaps I'm just not in tune with the director, or am too simple to understand what's going on. Or perhaps Joe has just created a film with as little concrete meaning as possible in the vein of early Bunuel or Kiarostami's characters and dressed it up with pretty images and mysticism to make us think it's deep. Let us not forget that it was Tim Burton who presented this with Cannes greatest prize; a director to whom "style over substance" is a way of life.
That is not to say that I didn't find anything to take out of Uncle Boonmee, nor does it mean that I didn't enjoy it. The film follows a stream of consciousness through a dying man's memories of his other lives — think of a less substantial implementation of Tarkovsky's Zerkalo — which invokes themes of the power of memory, nostalgia and the essence of life along the way. These themes aren't so much explored as they are vaguely suggested, but the idea of themes is that you at least give us some direction to go in (cf. Antonioni), not just say "think about memory for a minute. Good, now think about erotic fish".
One aspect which is not lost from his other films is the visuals; the images are still breathtakingly beautiful, the trees still an incredible shade of green, the light still shifting and parting over the frame. Another is the mystical and dreamy atmosphere, constructed by the languid pacing, free-form editing and otherworldly imagery. If you found yourself captivated by the second half of Tropical Malady, or hypnotised by the camera's hospital wanderings in Syndromes and a Century, you will be transfixed once again.
Uncle Boonmee is both astonishingly beautiful and unnecesarily opaque. Viewers may fall in love with the style of the film, but there's only so much that two hours of pretty pictures can do without anything to back them up.
Also recommended from Thailand:
The Last Life in the Universe
I also watched Scorpio Rising this week, which was great. That's one down on my New Years Film Challenge, 29 to go.
Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Why I chose this: The first time I heard about this film was when I was still in my cinematic infancy in 2008. It was in the Empire magazine review for Thomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In. At the end of the review, the film was compared to The Spirit of the Beehive, Orphee and Pan's Labyrinth. At the time, Pan's Labyrinth was my favourite film, so the others mentioned were committed to memory. I only attempted to watch The Spirit of the Beehive last year when I took it out of the university library only to find that the DVD was rendered unwatchable by extensive scratches. I returned it and forgot about the incident. A few weeks ago, I took it out of the library again, and found once more that the disk was terribly scratched, despite having told the library to replace it. Luckily, I got a voucher which would give me a £20 Amazon voucher if I opened a free LoveFilm trial, so I obliged and put the film on my list. After a long struggle to watch the film, here are my thoughts.
Making a poignant film where a child is the main character is hard. When one decides to do this, they instantly generate a tightrope of sincerity which they need to be very skilled to stay on. Films of this variety can very easily fall off one side of the line into the "Awwww... Look at the ickle kiddie... Feel sorry for it!" realm of emotional manipulation tactics. Just as easily, it can overbalance into the territory of forced morals and themes, both of which lead to an ultimately shallow work. If, however, the film can make it to the end of the rope (if you'll excuse the extended metaphor), the result can be almost universally relatable. The Spirit of the Beehive is one such film.
The child in question is a young girl called Ana who begins learn life lessons against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war after she sees the film Frankenstien at a travelling cinema. She is played astoundingly well by a seven-years-old Ana Torrent. Her discoveries of death and the world seem as real as her initial innocence and are met with a degree of wonder, confusion and apprehension which only exist in the world of a child. Just thinking about this film revives the tender and serene feelings which go with Ana's discovery of a fugative in a barn and the trepeditious perplexity she displays when her sister plays dead.
The cinematography is beautiful, flooding the frame with dreamlike honey hues and generating sparse pseudo-surreal images. It complements the graceful pace of the film and creates a very relaxing atmosphere.
There is obviously a lot of allegory present, but I'll be honest and say that I didn't pay attention to it as I was utterly captivated by the film's dreamlike quality.
There is nothing which cannot be praised about The Spirit of the Beehive. It remains beguiling, touching, utterly gorgeous and perhaps the greatest film about childhood there is.
Also recommended from Spain:
Talk To Her
Open Your Eyes
Who Can Kill a Child?
Sunday, 1 January 2012
1. The 400 Blows
I have not yet seen a single Truffaut film. For someone who claims to know a thing or two about cinema, this is practically inexcusable. I don't know the reason why I've not seen The 400 Blows yet, but I'll aim to see it this year.
2. The Blood of a Poet
I find surrealist cinema fascinating; the short films of Maya Deren and such works as The Seashell and the Clergyman and L'Etoile de Mere continue to amaze me. I have only seen Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, which I found visually astounding, but otherwise underwhelming. I am very interested to see his visual style applied to surrealist film.
3. The Burmese Harp
Music, great cinematography and anti-war message — what's not to like? Additionally, Ichikawa's An Actor's Revenge is one of my favourite films. The only thing holding me back is the hefty price tag on the Masters of Cinema dual format edition.
4. Celine and Julie Go Boating
Probably the film I'm most looking forward to seeing, despite knowing very little about it. The film seems like a mystery in itself and all the reviews I read struggle to explain how the film affected them. This one is simply a case of finding a free period of three and a half hours.
5. The Decalogue
Okay, it's a TV series instead of a film, but I'm still counting it. I've seen the majority of Kieslowski's work and am told that The Decalogue is his best. This is as good a reason as any to watch it.
6. Diary of a Country Priest
My two favourite directors are Tarkovsky and Bergman, so Bresson seems like a logical director for me to love. So far, however, I've only seen Au Hasard Balthazar, which I wasn't particularly impressed with at the time (it is on my rewatch list). I feel that I need to try more of his films, and Diary of a Country Priest seems to my taste, so here it is.
7. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Bunuel is another director who's films remain mainly unseen by me. I've only watched Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or so far. I keep meaning to watch more, but seem to get thwarted by scratched DVDs, lack of region 2 availability etc. each time. This year I will succeed!
8. La Dolce Vita
I've seen a few Fellini films, but La Dolce Vita continues to be at once not in the university library and very long (you'll notice that the latter becomes a theme as we go down the list). I promise I'll get down to it this year.
9. The Face of Another
There are three main reasons for this particular inclusion:
1. Woman of the Dunes and Pitfall by the same director are both among my favourites.
2. I recently watched The Skin I Live In and Eyes Without a Face, both of which I enjoyed, but felt they had something missing. This seems to have similar content, so perhaps it will have what the others lack?
3. Anything published by Masters of Cinema goes on my watchlist at one time or another.
10. The Gospel According to Matthew
This has been on my watchlist for a long time, mainly due to reputation. Since Masters of Cinema recently released a dual format edition of the film, this seems like an excellent time to see it.
11. The Great Dictator
I have seen and loved most of Chaplin's highly acclaimed works, but have still not watched The Great Dictator, which many cite as his best. I aim to remedy that this year.
12. The Human Condition
The Human Condition Trilogy is widely considered one of the best films of all time. Since it is also directed by one of my all-time favourite directors, I owe it to myself to watch this, even if it is difficult to get hold of in my country (Scotland).
13. Late Spring
Although I found Tokyo Story to drag unbearably, I intend to go back and watch it again at some point. Perhaps the best plan of action is to familiarise myself with more Ozu films first, so Late Spring gets a place on the list.
14. Marketa Lazarova
I bought Second Run's immaculately presented Frantisek Vlacil collection after getting some Amazon vouchers for a Birthday and recently being recommended his films. I found The Valley of the Bees rather amateurish, but tried to watch Marketa Lazarova anyway. I got 20 minutes through and turned it off as the incoherent editing was getting on my nerves too much. I'm willing to give it another go after getting more into Czech cinema, however.
15. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
As unlikely as it may seem, I greatly enjoy low-budget horror films such as Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead. This and its sequel are considered classics of the genre, so it earns a place in my list.
Since Tarkovsky is my favourite director and Nostalghia is the only of his non-student films which I am yet to see, it is an easy choice.
I tend to find Kurosawa's films very hit-and-miss. For example, High and Low, Stray Dog and Rashomon are among my favourite films, but Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood did little for me. The reason I've not watched Ran (or Kagemusha for that matter) yet, is that I don't want to start watching it, get through an hour and find that it's not to my taste (the film is three hours long). This year I'll bite the bullet and watch it anyway.
18. The Red Shoes
Powell and Pressburger are my favourite British filmmakers after Kubrick. Black Narcissus is a masterpiece for my money; I love the colours, hand drawn scenery and intensity. The Red Shoes is considered one of their best.
Madness is a theme which I find very interesting. A number of my favourite films (e.g., Through a Glass, Darkly, The Cremator) explore it to different lengths and I find that it generates scope for intensity and surreal imagery. Repulsion goes on my list due to its reputation for this, and also because it's a classic which I should probably see at some point.
20. The Rules of the Game
I have no excuses. This frequently tops best film of all-time lists, but I am yet to watch it. I hope to fix that soon.
21. Scenes From a Marriage
The problem with Bergman is that he has made so many films which are considered masterpieces, it takes a very long time to watch them all. I've seen a great deal of his pictures, but not Scenes From a Marriage, which is probably the most highly rated of those I have missed.
22. Scorpio Rising
I love Kenneth Anger. Eaux D'Artifice is probably my favourite short film of all time. I have no idea why I haven't seen Scorpio Rising yet.
23. Songs From the Second Floor
I regard You, The Living as one of the best films of the Noughties, so I am very interested in exploring Andersson's other works.
24. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Another which I am rather embarrassed about not having seen yet. This one is on here more because I feel like I should watch it rather than wanting to see it more than other films on my watchlist.
25. The Sword of Doom
Tatsuya Nakadai in a well-photographed jidaigeki in the Criterion collection? Yes please.
26. The Terence Davies Trilogy
These films have been on my watchlist for a while, but reading a very moving article in Empire magazine about Davies made me want to watch them as soon as possible.
27. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Another classic of low-budget horror which I am yet to see.
28. The Thin Red Line
Anyone who has read more than one of my reviews here will know that I have a tendency towards visually beautiful films. The Thin Red Line is here mainly due to its cinematographical reputation and my enjoyment of Malick's recent The Tree of Life. I actually own this film on DVD, I just need to find three hours to sit down and watch it.
29. Les Vampires
I've actually seen the first three episodes of Les Vampires. I hope that by putting this on the list, I'll force myself to watch the rest.
30. A Woman Under the Influence
I recently joined criticker.com to get film recommendations. I am very impressed with it in general, but its main purpose seems to be to force me to watch A Woman Under the Influence. Every third suggestion seems to be for this. I guess I'll need to see what all the fuss is about.
There we have it. We'll see how I fare throughout the year. I'd be interested to hear any feedback about the list — anything I should avoid? Something I should watch as soon as possible?
Also, I'd love to hear other people's film challenges if you have any.