Tuesday, 28 February 2012

#31 India — Pather Panchali (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 February 2012

Ah! Essays!

I have far too much University work at the moment, so no review today. Instead, here's a picture of Alan Turing.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

#29 Georgia — Kin-Dza-Dza! (1986)

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:
13 Tzameti

Friday, 10 February 2012

#28 Poland — The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

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

New Template!

I got annoyed at the previous template, so now there is a new one! I'll probably spice it up at some point when I get the time.

#27 Uruguay — Whisky (2004)

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

#26 Canada — Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

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)