Friday, April 29, 2011

Simple Life

The Naked Island (1960) - Shindo
On a small island, a family- father, and mother and two young sons, ekes out a living by cultivating an arid soil by transporting water from the main land by their wooden row boat everyday. It's a back breaking work and highly repetitive. Shot on black and white Cinemascope and accompanied by a memorable score (by Hikaru Hayashi) and without any dialogue, The Naked Island shows the resilience of human spirit against nature in its simplest terms. It's a thing of beauty.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

To the Sea

Alamar (2009) - González-Rubio
There is a brief intro to how Natan, a fat cheeked, curious dark little boy came about, in snapshots with his Italian mother's narration. She was vacationing and fell in love with a local fisherman in Mexico. But their lives were completely different, so now the boy lives in Rome and dad comes over and takes him to his tiny fishing village for a while.

This 'for a while' is Alamar- the boy learns how to snorkel, fish, makes friends with birds, interact with the locals and nature while living in a house on stilts in the middle of the ocean with his dad and grandpa. This docudrama captures some very intimate moments of father-son relationship in the stunning backdrop. Beauty is in its simplicity. Alamar is slice of life doc at its best.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Post-Modern Love

Three (2010) - Tykwer
I can't find any news article that says Tom Tykwer, the German director known for his celestial, kinetic action films, having a breakdown or going through traumatic events in his life. But I'm assuming he had to have been, because his new film, Three is extremely chatty, dense and very grown-up, unlike anything he has done prior.

His first German film since Princess and the Warrior, Three concerns a middle aged modern Berlin Couple, Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper) falling in love with the same man, Adam (Devid Striesow). Riddled with the post-modern themes, The film is in part, reminiscent of Don DeLillo's book, White Noise - it starts with Hanna and Simon obsessing over death. Their media soaked, technology savvy, slightly ironical professions reflect this as well (Hanna, a TV talk show host on philosophy, Simon, an art engineer who fabricates large installations for artists).

But however superfluous their jobs might sound, Tykwer's treatment of these characters is nothing but patronizing. And the characters are fully realized by Rois and Schipper. Self absorbed and childless, they are an emblem of modern, attractive, thirty/forty-something professional couple. Rois especially shines in the role of petite, wide eyed, klutzy Hanna, who expresses herself physically as well as verbally in many of the film's comic situations.

Hanna and Simon's midlife anxieties (health scares, death of the family members, stagnant sex life) come tumbling down when they encounter, on separate occasions, an attractive biologist Adam, who works at a stem cell research lab. Drawn to this wise, cherubic man, Hanna and Simon start having affairs with him unbeknownst each other. From then on, the film becomes an old Hollywood style, even Shakespearian, comedy of errors with a revelatory climax.

Adam is an obviously a metaphoric figure for cure, a new way of looking at things in this overwhelming, complex world where inevitable advancement in technology is rewriting the way we live, think and love.

Three is a handsome looking film that features effective split screen, rhythmic editing and playfully paying homage to early years of cinema with b&w sequences. It showcases Tykwer's regular DP Frank Griebe and editor Mathilde Bonnefoy's excellent skills to convey the hectic, technologically imbued world.

Written by Tykwer himself, the film is an ambitious and highly personal work. Does it work though? As the film approaches death, birth and sexuality in a very earnest fashion, it comes across as quite corny. It's much a do about nothing that is quite enjoyable. Mostly because of its likable actors. As I hear his new project being a big budget fantasy, Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis, I'd like to think he snapped out of his midlife crisis quite unscathed.

Three plays as part of Kino! 2011: New Films from Germany at MoMA, April 27 - May 2nd

Director Tom Tykwer will attend the opening night of the exhibition to introduce the New York premiere of Three.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Children of the Bomb

Children of Hiroshima (1952) - Shindo

[Never before seen in the US, Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima, a searing anti-nuclear war film gets a theatrical release in a new 35mm print for a week (April 22nd through 28th), as a part of the traveling retrospective- The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo, at the Brooklyn Academy of the Music (BAM). The retrospective will continue with Shindo's 11 other films until May 5th.]

Takako (Nobuko Otowa, director Shindo's muse and wife, seen in Naked Island, Kuroneko, Onibaba) is an elementry school teacher on a small island. She decides to visit her home town, Hiroshima, during the Summer school recess to pay respect for her family who perished when the atom bomb fell four years ago. She is also looking for surviving children from a kindergarten where she used to teach. She soon finds that many of her friends and colleagues are maimed, blinded and made infertile by the bomb.

Subtly didactic in his approach, Shindo never succumbs to cheap melodrama or bombastic sensationalism. Shindo's treatment of the fateful day, August 6, 1945 in flashback, is swift but effective- brief shots of ordinary people going on about their lives while the wall clock winds down to 8:15 a.m. Then static shots of the aftermath: bodies, burning sunflowers, burning bird cages frozen in time, culminate to a stock footage of mushroom cloud shot from Enola Gay. Even with Takako's sunny disposition and the stoic resignation of its citizenry, you can still feel the palpable collective scar left on the Japanese psyche by the bomb. "The thinking man on a stoop evaporated in an instant, but his thoughts still live on."

Shindo finds hope in innate goodness in people, in elders' sacrifices for the future generation and in shots of carefree kids swimming in the city's river. At the same time, he quietly indicts the evils of war and the use of nuclear weapon with shots (which bookend the film) of the school fields full of kids looking up at the sky while the sirens go off.

Forgotten for almost 60 years, the timing of the Children of Hiroshima's release can't be any more befitting than now, with Japan being on the verge of nuclear meltdown. The retrospective's proceeds will go to help Japan disaster relief effort.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Marriage Bliss

Possession (1981) - Zulawski
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Mark (Sam Neill) comes back to Cold War Berlin after finishing some insidious gov't job, resulting his subject still wearing pink sox. He is taking a break for the sake of his family. It turns out, his wife Anne (Isabelle Adjani) is having an affair with a very odd, über German man, or so he thought. She disappears, comes back to tend their son, gets in to emotional arguments with Mark (both verging into hysteria), then disappears again. Mark puts a tail on her only to have the private detective he hired go missing. There is someone else, or something...

I remember watching this as a curious and horny teen late at night, not understanding what the hell's going on most of the running time. It was that mondo curio value (Isabel Adjani having sex with tentacled monster!) that attracted me. Ah, those were the days.

Possession is an omnifarious film that can result in multiple interpretations. I hear Zulawski was going through a messy divorce during that time. This gory deconstruction of marriage is both farcical to its supposedly sacred institution and emotionally acute. The physical manifestation of raw emotions in Possession has no equal in film, save von Trier's Antichrist maybe. Adjani is unbelievable as the woman who can't be possessed/dispossessed. The ten minute freakout scene in the subway station alone is worth the admission price. Sam Neill shows that he predates Bill Pullman in the fire-within whitebread department. Bruno Nuyten's dizzing, pre-steadycam cinematography is dazzling and desolate West Berlin with The Wall's omniscient presence is perfect for the setting of the best break-up film (sorry, High Fidelity fans) of all time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

She's Alive!

Android (1982) - Lipstadt
Kinski gets the top billing as a renegade scientist Dr. Daniel. But he's in the film about 30 minutes total. It's about a horny android named Max (credited as Himself) who is Dr. Daniel's assistant. When a trio of fugitives land in their remote space lab, Max makes an autonomous decision to take them in, largely because one of the fugitives is an alluring female, Maggie (Brie Howard). Dr. Daniel is mad but soon changes his mind when he too sees Maggie. The logic according to the mad doctor is, he needs a sexual stimulation from a female for his masterpiece, the perfect woman android Cassandra 3000 (Kendra Kirchner).

Metropolis references abound. Also it has a good deal of nudity and ending suggests that Android was conceived as prequel to Blade Runner or could be seen as one. For a Kinski whoring himself for a paycheck movie, this is pretty decent actually.

Women in Black

Women Without Men (2009) - Neshat
I've been an admirer of the works of the Iranian born visual artist, Shirin Neshat. Her use of Persian calligraphy and black & white images to convey the disparity and distance between the sexes in the Islamic world is truly beautiful and enigmatic. I've been wanting to see Women Without Men, her first narrative feature, ever since it came out.

Falling somewhere between an allegory and a straight historical narrative account of 1953 Iran, when CIA backed military coup reinstated the Shah, Women Without Men tells the entwined story of 4 women. Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), a middle aged wife of a verbally abusive military general decides to leave Tehran and buy an orchard in the countryside. This beautiful orchard becomes a haven for Zarin (Orsolya Tóth), a prostitute whose clients become melded into one faceless monster, Munis (Shabnam Toloui), a politically aware unmarried woman, held prisoner in her own house by her strict brother and her friend Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), who's hopelessly in love with Munis's brother.

The magic realism of the source material befits well with Neshat's style. Visually, the film has some very powerful moments, especially concerning Munis who throws herself from the rooftop to escape her predicament and being resurrected.

Neshat's unsentimental treatment of these women is a bit too cold and detached to be emotionally resonant, but nevertheless, her powerful images leave indelible mark you can't easily shake off.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Manifest Destiny in Smaller Scale

Meek's Cutoff (2010) - Reichardt
I bet Kelly Reichardt has had several infuriating experiences sitting in the passenger's seat of a car driven by male drivers who suffered from 'never-ask-for-directions-when-lost' syndrome and been wanted to make a movie about it. This slight anti-western takes place in Oregon Trail in 1845. Three ox-carts driven pioneer families- the Tetherows (Will Patton, Michelle Williams), the religiously inclined Whites (Shirley Henderson, Will Huff) and the young Gatelys (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan) with a blowhard guide named Meek (the great Bruce Greenwood, buried in stringy hair & beard and sounding like beetlejuice) get lost in the arid surroundings.

Stephen Meek is a quintessential foolhardy outdoorsman- arrogant, irrational and full of vanity. Soon the band picks up on Meek's bullshit, especially Emily Tetherow. She lets her displeasure known. He then asks her opinion on his philosophy about man and woman: "Woman is chaos and man is destruction." Emily answers with "I'll have to think about it." Whether Reichardt believes this to be true or not, in the end, it's Emily who becomes in charge of their destiny.

The drinking water is running low and the pioneers start dumping family heirlooms to lighten the load. The tension amongst them doesn't actually materialize until they capture a spying Peyote Indian (a violent savage, according to Meek). Meek wants to kill the savage right away but the Tetherows want to keep him alive since he might lead them to where the fresh water is. Gately girl (Kazan) takes the role of 'the one that goes crazy in the wilderness'. Ok, this being Reichardt movie, known for her minimalist aesthetics, nothing on the screen is too dramatic. Even Emily (with her bonnet tightly around her head, covering her facial expression most of the time- reminding me of a burqa on Muslim women) doesn't stand out much from the subservient the other two girls. Everything is understated.

Meek's Cutoff is a frontiers movie with a tinge of Aguirre. It's just a less dramatic take on manifest destiny. If Aguirre would register at 10 on the dramatic scale, Meek's Cutoff would be at about 0.5. But with good ensemble cast and beautiful yet pragmatic, mostly static cinematography and great tension creating soundtrack by Jeff Grace, the film is a quietly engrossing experience that doesn't provide you with an easy way out.

Moving Life

Still Life (2006) - Jia
The Three Gorges Dam, the largest man-made project in human history, has become a symbol of China's ambition to be a global superpower where some sacrifices are regarded as inevitable. Sound of hammering and sentimental pop ballads always in the background, Still Life's new urban development against picturesque mountains is nothing but still. It concerns two relationships being tested - the human cost of changing times. However small and trivial, Jia applies communal activities to connect people, dividing the film in to separate chapters - Cigarettes, Liquor, Tea and Toffee.

Unlike some of my peers, I was never wowed by Jia's films. I'm still not 100 percent convinced that Jia is a great director. Still Life, another one of his carefully composed, thoughtful narrative/doc hybrid on changing times in China, is very good indeed. Jia regular Zhao Tao's story of a wife of a workaholic is not really necessary and leaves the film somewhat asymmetrical.

My main gripe with him has always been his too polished style which betrays the subjects he's documenting. Same with this film. I like 24 City a little better.

My 24 City Review

Thursday, April 7, 2011

God-given Talent

Andrei Rublev (1966) - Tarkovsky

Andrei Rublev works on two fronts. It works as an expansive Russian historical epic and it works as a contemplation on the god-given talent. Spanning three plus hours in 7 episodes, Rublev plays out like a good thick Russian novel. The famous monk is both the subject and spectator coming in and out of focus.

From the balloon ride that opens the film to Rublev standing dazed in the pillaged church with the snow falling to color part at the end, Rublev is a visually stunning film.

It's the young bell caster part at the end that really packs the punch. The reckless young man challenges himself in a grand scale. This spectacle tickles now old and reclusive Rublev who has given up painting. You don't acquire talent. You either have it or don't. If you do, you will be the subject of envy and jealousy and might pay dearly for it. But it's your duty not to waste it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lust for God II

Thérèse (1986) - Cavalier

Filmmaking that is as pure as its subject, Alain Cavalier tells the short life of Thérèse Martin, a young Carmelite nun who was canonized after her death and known for her writing. The film starts with Thérèse frantically trying to get into the convent because she can't wait to be wed (to Jesus) even though everyone says she's too young. She takes the matters all the way up to the pope.

Carefully framed and lighted, every frame in Thérèse resembles Rembrandt paintings. Catherine Mouchet's portrayal of clear eyed young girl who devotes herself to god with never wavering enthusiasm and warmth is totally convincing. Just as it becomes apparent that Thérèse is dying of tuberculosis, that her faith in afterlife is wavering, the film ends quietly, without any clear answers.

Cavalier doesn't seem to be interested in making Thérèse a religious propaganda or psychoanalyzing his subject. But he makes you wonder that if true devotion is only possible when you are young. Ignorance is bliss? An old nun tells Thérèse, "Don't worry, it's the first 30 years that's hard." Cavalier doesn't judge the little nun. He just presents her short existence matter of factly and there is a lot of beauty in it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Lust for God

The Devils (1971) - Russell
Heavily censored and outright banned in many countries upon its release, Ken Russell's The Devils tells a story of witchery and political intrigue in the plague ridden 17th century France in true Ken Russell fashion - operatic, vulgar and very very entertaining.

Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) of city state Loudun becomes the leader against the Cardinal (and King Louis XIII's consort) who wants to consolidate power in all of France in order to suppress protestant revolts. Well regarded and loved by many women (including all the nuns at the local convent), Grandier is a very vain man. Mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), a deformed nun in charge of the local convent is sexually obsessed with Grandier. The news of his secret marriage tips her over the edge and into madness. Other nuns follow suit. Baron Loubardemont, under the cardinal's order to demolish Loudun takes this opportunity to carry out despicable exorcism (forced enema among others) on the nuns in their religious/sexual frenzy and therefore accusing Grandier of bewitching the lustful nuns. It all culminates to the raping of the statue of Jesus in the convent by naked crazy nuns and Grandier burning at the stake.

While poking fun at the organized religion and its faithfuls, Russell's bombastic filmmaking can be too much at times (especially crazy zoom-in/out shots in the orgy scene). Derek Jarman's set design - white tiled Loudun and David Watkins's hot-lights-in-your-face cinematography heighten the craziness. But it's Reed's performance (of his career) as a complex man of god that gives the film its gravitas. And orchestrating this much madness is an achievement in itself.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Homage to No Reason

Rubber (2010) - Dupieux

A nebbish looking man with many binoculars dangling from his neck nervously waits in the middle of the desert. There are empty wooden chairs on the dusty road behind him. A police patrol car pulls up, painstakingly knocking down every single one of the chairs. From the trunk of the car, a sheriff emerges and points out that there are no reasons behind many of the great movies. "In Steven Spielberg's E.T., why is the extra terrestrial's color brown? No reason." and so on.

Rubber is about a tire with psychokinetic power. It blows up people's head. It beckons the question why anybody would watch a movie about a tire with psychokinetic power. If all the spectators are dead, they (actors) can all go home. But we watch, hoping something would happen. And it does- heads blow up, a pretty girl takes a shower in a desolate motel room, more heads blow up, and so on.

It's like a funny idea stretched to an hour and twenty minutes. Too self aware and jokey to be a true cult classic, Rubber is a fun little movie perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.

*This would make a great double feature with The Red Balloon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Crowded House

The Haunting (1963) - Wise

Robert Wise makes a G-rated film scary with the camera angle, movement, sound and tight editing. It's the usual setup- a paranormal studies in a haunted mansion, 3 chosen people, pounding at the door in the middle of the night, cold spots, etc. But it's so effectively creepy.

Julie Harris is mousy, easily irritable Eleanor, wrecked with guilt in the death of her mother. Claire Bloom is sexy Theo and young Russ Tamblyn is Luke, the heir of the haunted mansion. There is a great lesbian sexual tension btwn Eleanor and Theo throughout. But the real star is Wise's direction. There are no "boo" moments or ghosts, but he creates the glum atmosphere with great skill that really gets under your skin. I remember watching the terrible CG ridden remake of this and how nothing worked. Wise, a veteran filmmaker, shows you what you can achieve a lot with little things.