Sunday, November 25, 2007

Paris, Je t'aime

It's not easy making a movie with 18 different stories in it. Although 18 different international directors took the challenge, not everyone of them is good, some of them even boring. But in his entity, "Paris, je t'aime" is breathtaking, showing that, as "Love Actually" put it, 'love is all around', especially in the city of love. Here's a resumé (I'll try to make at as spoiler-free as possible) of the 18 different stories.

MONTMARTRE - kind of a dull opening sequence, nothing really special about it. A man finds a parking spot, and sees a lot of odd couples walking by, wondering why he can't find a girl. And than, suddenly, a woman faints next to his car...

QUAIS DE SEINE - another dull sequence, about three teenage boys who are searching for some 'piece of ass', when suddenly a Muslim girl trips right in front of them, receiving help from one of the boys. Really basic, but with a sweet heart to it.

LES MARAIS - this was a huge disappointment! Although a love story between two boys with an artsy background could have been interesting by the great Van Sant. Eventually, everything that comes AFTER the monologue by Ulliel is good, everything before it is just annoying.

TUILERIES - an entertaining sequence by the Coen brothers. Buscemi - without even saying one word - is mesmerizing and the whole sequence is just hilarious. This one kept me hooked until the very end, and this one also gets you truly hooked to the movie.

LOIN DU 16IEME - a beautiful story too, even if the execution is poor, the heart is there. It's the story of an Hispanic woman who drops her child off, early in the morning, to take care of another suburban baby. Beautiful.

PORTE DE CHOISY - this segment has got to be the strangest and weirdest from the whole movie. Some kind of shampoo salesman arrives in a Chinatown-lookalike place in Paris. If I understood it correctly, the story is about inner beauty, but I think I'm wrong.

BASTILLE - a truly wonderful sequence. A man meets with his wife at a restaurant, to break up with her, so that he can run off with his mistress. But the wife has some devastating news. Pretty basic, but truly sad and beautiful!

PLACE DES VICTOIRES - a sad sequence as well. Juliette Binoche plays a grieving mother. One night, she wakes up hearing her dead child. When she arrives at the location, a cowboy tells her she can give one last good-bye to her child. One of the best segments!

TOUR EIFFEL - two mimes who fall in love could have been great, but, even though it has some nice cinematic tricks, the story isn't intriguing and not funny at all.

PARC MONCEAU - a truly original and great sequence, one of the best of the movie! A young girl and an older man discuss their future and her fear for a certain man... Cuaron does a great directing job, and the actors are amazing!

QUARTIER DES ENFANTS ROUGES - an American actress (Gyllenhaal) falls in love with her drug dealer. a beautiful segment again, with a very sad ending.

PLACE DES FETES - a woman comes to a homeless man, he starts talking romantic to her... because she is the love of his life. Beautiful, sad, shocking, romantic,... Place des Fêtes will make everyone cry.

PIGALLE - a boring sequence between Ardant and Hoskins, who are looking for new thrills in their relationship... very unfunny and unromantic, Pigalle is a let-down.

QUARTIER DE LA MADELEINE - a dark horror-Gothic love starring Elijah Wood as a lost tourist in the backstreets of Paris in the night who meets a vampiress. With a black-and-white format but blood-red colour contrast that seems to incongruously bleed off screen, it nearly becomes a pastiche of Sin City – a refreshing eerie and visual turn in an otherwise fairly grounded film. bringing some diversity in the movie, QdlM is a relief. Dark, scary and oddly romantic, Madeleine is superb.

PERE-LACHAISE - another let-down segment. Directed by Wes Craven and with stars as Mortimer and Sewell, it could have been great, but Père-Lachaise is just ordinary, not original at all.

FAUBOURG SAINT-DENIS by Tom Tykwer but I think I was conditioned to think so, given that I downloaded the movie with him in mind as my favourite and nudged myself saying "finally, that's my favourite director here". Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Tykwer delivers a lovely segment in which a blind boy picks up the phone, and hears from his girlfriend (Portman - for once not annoying) that she breaks up with him, and he reflects on their relationship. As is Tywker's style, the story is dizzyingly fast-paced, kinetic and repetitive, featuring screaming and running (Lola Rennt) making it the most adrenaline-pumping segment in Paris je t'aime and possibly also the most touching once Tywker starts wielding his most powerful tool – music.

QUARTIER Latin - even though this segment has been co-directed by Depardieu and has such stars as Rowlands, Gazzara and Depardieu, this segment is a let-down too. Nothing happens, lack of chemistry between the actors.

14TH ARRONDISSEMENT - the last sequence is hilarious and sad at the same time. An American tells in her French class about her trip to Paris. Her French is truly terrible, but at the end of the segment, she realizes that Paris is so much more than meets the eye.With Feist on the background, "Paris, je t'aime" ends in a sweet tone, not letting me down at all, even though some segments bored the hell out of me, the entity of the movie is great! A true cinematic experience for young and old. Paris, je t'aime vraiment!

Yet Paris je t'aime truly spoils you with quality, for all the other stories are well-crafted with crisp acting and amusing writing. It is certainly one of the highlights of 2006 (not saying much, I suppose) and a very personal film in the sense that it is unavoidable to pick a favourite and a least favourite. Highly recommended both to mainstream of "pretentious" (heh) audiences.

Paris, Je t'aime

Original Post here

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Bird People in China

The Bird People in China may not have been the first gentle, understated drama Takashi Miike made, but it was undoubtedly the most respected at that point in his career. Capturing the hearts of audiences in Japan and abroad, it was instantly viewed as a turning point for the director away from the V-cinema Yakuza films that made up the bulk of his filmography. After this, the sky was the limit for Miike and he would follow it up with his first batch of commercial features that cemented his status as a major player within the Japanese film industry.

In an extremely remote part of the Yun Nan province mountainside, the members of a small village have discovered a deep Jade vein that promises to bring untold riches to the region. Japanese Salaryman, Wada (Masahiro Motoki) is working for the Jewellers that have first claim on this vein and with no time to properly prepare he is whisked off to the Mainland. Here a local guide named Shen (Mako) is set to lead him into the mountains to investigate the extent of the treasure. However, before they can depart Wada is accosted by an elderly Yakuza named Yuji (Renji Ishibashi). It seems Wada’s company borrowed money from a powerful Yakuza family and quickly fell behind in their payments. To put things right they offered the Yakuza a cut in their Jade vein claim, but later tried to persuade the gangsters that the claim wasn’t as rich as they first thought. Needless to say, the cynical Yakuza are not fooled easily and poor old Yujie has been ordered to accompany Wada on his little mountain excursion to verify the extent of the claim. With an uneasy alliance formed between these three men they set off on the perilous trip into the heart of the countryside. At first the city men are ignorant to the startling scenery they’re traversing, but little by little they become more receptive to the world around them and at the end of their journey, the men uncover a community that will change their lives forever.

If the plethora of critical appraisals on the cover don’t give you high enough expectations from this film, then allow me to reiterate some of the plaudits: The Bird People in China truly is an evocative, magical film. The title refers to an ancient legend that bird people once soared the skies with the aid of large mechanical wings. These men left behind a manual on how to construct said wings but it was lost for centuries, finally being discovered a few decades prior to the start of this story by a village elder - who promptly resurrected the bird people’s teachings within his community. As utterly fantastical as this may sound though, the film remains anchored in pure expressionistic realism, with the villagers’ embrace of these antiquated beliefs proving to be more a by-product of the peaceful idyll within their community. Free from the needless responsibilities and myriad distractions that take up modern society, their appreciation of life and nature is fundamental enough to incorporate grandiose hopes and dreams. Later on in the film Wada and Co. bump into a Japanese tourist who has been combing the area for clues on this legend. It seems etchings of the bird people have been found right across Japan and that Yun Nan is rumoured to be the birthplace of Japanese culture – in other words the film is more a tale of self-discovery rather than new. The Japanese men are reluctantly embarking on a journey into their own cultural roots and the change it evokes within them is truly heart-warming, resonating beautifully by the deliberate pace.

Not once does the story feel rushed nor does it lag throughout the near two-hour runtime. The pace and tone is intricately set to flesh out some of finer nuances in the story. The first half of the movie is rather light-hearted, with plenty of comedy to ensure that the time flies by as we’re introduced to the major players bit by bit. In a series of transportation gags we see Wada arrive in China by plane, then taking a train to Yun Nan. Completely disorientated from the stillness around him, he meets up with the local guide Shen - whose easy-going nature provides many comedic moments throughout the film. When they bump into Yujie the triangle of unlikely adventurers is complete. The relationship between Yujie and Wada is one of the most important aspects of Bird People in China and although flashbacks show they’re in exactly the same boat - having been ordered to China against their will, their alliance is anything but easy. The bullying Yakuza quickly establishes authority over the subordinate Salaryman and the animosity between the two is used to hilarious effect throughout their initial encounters with the Chinese terrain. The three men start their journey into the heart of Yun Nan territory in a rundown Japanese van, driven by a rather insane old man who doesn’t even blink when the vehicle starts falling down around them. After this van inevitably dies they switch to an auto-rickshaw until they run out of road to travel on and are left with a mountain to climb – literally! If that wasn’t gruelling enough, they hit the harsh side of nature head on with a ferocious thunderstorm destroying the business documents and spare clothing Wada was carrying. Bruised and shell-shocked from the storm, they are left to rely on one last form of transport before reaching the village – an utterly absurd, turtle-powered raft! This may be very amusing, but the analogy is clear. As the men get closer and closer to their destination they are being stripped bare of all the convenience of home and entering a world that’s becoming more primitive, more alien, with each new step and brimming with more surprises than they could possibly imagine.

When Wada and Yujie finally reach the village the pace of the film intentionally slows down considerably. The languid manner in which the rest of the story unfurls perfectly accentuates the difference between the calm utopia of this remote village and the busy “civilised” streets of Tokyo. But story doesn’t begin to wane; if anything proceedings become more interesting because it’s at this point that the differences between our Japanese protagonists truly come to the fore. Up until now there has been a tangible sense of each character’s lack of self-worth and isolation within their wildly different worlds back home. Both realise they have completely lost control over their own lives, yet when they’re confronted with the gentle idealism of this mountain community they react in subtly divergent ways. Yujie may at first seem like a stereotypical Yakuza thug, but he is clearly haunted by the realisation his criminal lifestyle will catch up with him sooner or later. He may not have wanted any part in this Chinese excursion, but he is truly fascinated by the people and culture surrounding him, snapping away with his camera throughout the journey. Wada on the other hand is a stereotypical elite Salaryman. Obsessed with personal appearance and completely focussed on the job at hand he keeps his head in his books throughout most of the journey, refusing to acknowledge the world around him. When the storm rips these books away, he has no choice but to stop and smell the roses – but he doesn’t give them a thorough sniff, maintaining an emotional distance well into his stay in the village. This is not the case for Yujie, who immediately embraces the villager’s lifestyle, immersing himself fully in the simple joys of their everyday life. As Wada investigates the Jade vein with some of the locals, the aging Yakuza stays back to engage in trivial pursuits and play with the children. His real self has finally risen to the surface to reveal a man who is not boorish and cruel at all, but gentle and playful.

Meanwhile Wada continues to be a tougher nut to crack and doesn’t drop his obsession with the job at hand until he starts to interact with the mysterious, blue-eyed village teacher, Yen. Not only does the colour of her eyes hint at her unique ancestry in such a remote part of the world, but Wada also hears her singing the traditional Scottish Folk song: “Annie Laurie”. Stunned that he recognises the tune, the Salaryman decides to take a crack at translating the English verse using the last technical items he has at his disposable – an electronic English translator and a tape recorder. It’s the turning point for his character because he would never have stopped to embark on such a trivial pursuit before, but now he’s so enraptured by the emotion in this girl’s singing that he completely forgets his business with the Jade vein and his life back at home. However, it’s not a complete immersion in the culture of these people; he’s still relying on the comfort of technology. By-products of the commercialism that’s permeated deeper throughout Japan than most nations across the globe - let alone Asia. It’s a country obsessed with financial and personal success at the expense of almost complete cultural isolation from its Chinese ancestors. The fact this village teaches it’s children how to fly is a striking contrast to the high-pressure Japanese school system, which has been the butt of some scathing criticism in films like Battle Royale and All About Lily Chou-Chou. Still, as highly regarded as this traditional way of life is, it’s clear that a degree of modernisation is inevitable – perhaps even necessary, now that the Jade vein has been discovered. Certainly the current generation in the village are eager to improve the financial prosperity and technical advancements their new business ties will bring. Wada seems adrift like flotsam within the currents of all these contrasting ideologies, unable to just extend his hands and crawl his way to shore.

Looking back through Miike’s films as a whole you can clearly see the recurring motif of a group of outcasts who are dreaming of a life somewhere, anywhere away from their current location. When they take the bull by the horns and proactively seek this new life they inevitably meet with disaster or disappointment. The Bird People of China eschews this trend because not only are the protagonists seemingly uninterested in seeking a new life for themselves, but they reluctantly manage to discover this mythical Shangri-la where peace and acceptance awaits. Perhaps it is this deeply ironic twist that attracted the director to the project, but there’s no denying that in Wada and Yuji we have a couple of atypical “Miike” anti-heroes. Even in the village there’s room for some traditional Miike outcasts. Most of the young adults in the village view the bird people legends as nothing but a pipedream, but Yan fiercely believes in her grandfather’s teachings, and then there’s the matter of her mixed-race descent. Another common Miike touch is in the juxtaposing of Wada’s business orders and Yujie’s Yakuza orders in Japan, not only is it an amusing way to highlight their similarities, but it’s also deglamourising the gangster lifestyle in the process. Most of Miike’s films to date have been Yakuza dramas, but he’s never been interested in projecting a romantic image of this life.

As rich in characterisation as The Bird People in China may be, it means nothing if the actors aren’t up to the task of realising them. Thankfully the cast are uniformly excellent. Masahiro Motoki may be better known to Western viewers for his more outlandish roles in Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini or Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t but he fits into the part of Wada like a glove. Amply expressing the inner turmoil and sombre, introspective nature of the character. Still, as good as he is, it’s the veteran character actors Mako and Renji Ishibashi who truly shine. Mako is no stranger to western audiences having starred in numerous high-profile Hollywood films over the years, but as the affable Chinese guide, Shen, he is given a role with plenty of scope to flex his comic muscles deliver a performance that is a sheer delight to watch. Renji Ishibashi has starred in countless Yakuza films over the years so he’s certainly in his element here, putting in a performance that’s as warm as it is tough, capturing the child-like regression of the character and the menace behind his burgeoning mental instability with the skill only a veteran can achieve.

With the story being more understated than most of his films, there’s not so much need for Miike to unleash his catalogue of stylistic tricks, but he does manage to squeeze in one or two of his distinct stylistic touches. He makes full use of a rapid sped-up montage to introduce us to the frantic hustle and bustle of Wada’s life in Tokyo. It’s accentuated further by the measured pacing in the second half as the peaceful life of the villagers comes to the fore. Further contrasts between these worlds are drawn by the chosen colour scheme – another common trick the director incorporates into his film. Tokyo life is a blue-filtered collage of greys and whites, drab colours to match the lifestyle, whereas the Chinese countryside is awash with colour. When the Japanese visitors finally arrive at their destination, a yellow filter kicks in, giving the picture a golden hue and intensifying the greens in the picture. It would be unfair to give Miike all the credit for the stunning look of the film though. Hideo Yamamoto is one of the most talented Director’s of Photography working within the Japanese film industry and has worked with Miike on numerous films, always bringing out the most in the director’s style. He must have had a very rough time shooting on-location around Yun Nan province but the end result is nothing short of breathtaking, as the majestic sweeping mountain sides and epic geography of the area overshadows almost every other aspect of the film. If you’re left with one memory by the closing credits, it will probably be of the gorgeous canvass on which this gentle story is painted. Either that or the rousing message that even the most fantastical dreams may not be impossible to realise after all.

The Hours

"The Hours" is the magnificent adaptation to the big screen of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel.

The story is about three women living in three different periods – the first one is the famous British writer Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) in 1923; the second one is an ordinary American housewife in 1953 (played by Julianne Moore) and the last one is a modern woman, a lesbian living in New York in 2001 (played by Meryl Streep). To cut the story short – it all revolves around Woolf writing her novel „Mrs. Dalloway" – she's writing it, the housewife, Laura Brown is reading it and the last one, Clarissa is living the life of the main character of the book, preparing a party for an ex-lover and long-term friend, the poet Richard (Ed Harris), who's dying of AIDS . That's the most simple way to put it.

The story starts off with Virginia Woolf in 1941 walking towards a lake, putting rocks into her pockets. We hear a voice-over narration of her troubled-sounding voice as she writes a suicide letter for her loving husband. Switch over to 1951 and we see Laura Brown, a suburban wife and mother in Los Angeles. For anyone who knows the story of Mrs. Dalloway will find that Laura's story almost perfectly resembles the book. She wakes up, has breakfast, and prepares for a party. A quick flashforward 50 years later, and it's 2001, where we meet Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian who lives with her lover and daughter, and takes care of her best friend and ex husband (who is now gay and has AIDS). Her day also follows that of Mrs. Dalloway and we quickly learn the deep complexity of her character. She is frightened yet confident, questioning her own lesbian nature.

Themes rise, as concern over self-freedom is blatantly suffocating the three women. Also we see themes of feminism, self-pity, concern, and of course death. As two successful suicides are brought up, more and more tragic moments arise. The stories intertwine through both the book and reoccurring characters in different eras. An emotional impact sends all three stories to contemplate self-destruction but fail to do so because of concern for others' satisfaction.
The acting is without a doubt, superb, if not flawless. Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf in an almost uncanny way (The fake nose Nicole wore was brilliant). We see her transform into a factual character, making us feel we are really looking at the author herself. Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep brilliantly capture troubled women who face their own fate by escaping what they're forced to love. No matter which segment we're watching, the acting sucks us in and provokes our thoughts. Ed Harris who plays Richard Brown gained an Oscar nomination with his sympathetic approach to an AIDS infected gay man who loves his female best friend. As his character shows signs of retraction from his sexuality, we realize that a traumatic experience with his mother and her friend sent him to a life-long confusion.

Moore's anguish as a woman trapped in a marriage she cannot bear with kids she never wanted is somewhat moving. The slice of her life that the movie presents us, however, is too narrow for the audience to build up a reservoir of sympathy. Her character has to be so careful with the emotions she displays outwardly, that even in her private moments, she does little more than sob, so that the audience has to fill in a lot to empathize with the depth of her plight.
Streep's character requires even more work on the audience's part. Was her ex-lover also her ex-husband? What's motivated her to keep in close contact with her lover of long ago? What is she feeling about her situation, other than a reflexive attachment to a period of happiness from way back when? Does she feel conflicted between the energy she invests in a past relationship and her current one? Does her lover resent her split commitment? Whatever the audience decides is equally valid and equally unvalidated, since the film gives no clues on these important aspects of her character.

Although some viewers have described this as boring, I can't say I was ever less than gripped by the slowly increasing tension as each woman's day progresses. However, I was also not very convinced by the flesh and blood reality of many of these people. The truly honourable exception is Moore, who is wonderful as the fragile Laura. Daldry excels himself with this strand of the movie, creating a real sense of the depressive housewife's claustrophobia, and the traumatising effect her quiet breakdown has on her young son. It has been a long time since I saw a movie that left me with such a sense of torpid despondency and hopelessness as THE HOURS, The previous one being REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. An approach to modern cinema we were all waiting for.

Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Edukators)

There's something so wonderfully, functionally elegant about the capacity of the German language to absorb suffixes. The title of today's post is one of these engineered compound words: erziehungs (education); berechtigten (entitled). "Entitled to educate" is a clumsy translation--"those who claim the moral authority to educate." is much closer.

A somewhat thin but likable film, "The Edukators" shows us a couple of young German guys who are reborn Seventies terrorists reduced to gesture. At night they break into rich people's houses and rearrange the furniture leaving notes telling their victims they've got too much money and had better watch out. ("The Days of Plenty Are Over" -- "Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei" -- goes the German film title.) They also go to demos and forcibly leaflet shoe stores with warnings about child labor, but their real thrills come in the break-ins: they're hooked on the rush. One has a girlfriend who works at a snooty upscale restaurant where customers and manager are equally abusive to her.

Things get messy when the other young man, Jan (Daniel Brühl) is prodded into an impulsive break-in with his friend's girl, Jule (Julie Jentsch). He's falling for her and reveals his secret lawbreaking to impress her. She insists on entering the house because it belongs to a man she owes 94,000 Euros to for totaling his Mercedes. This gesture's unplanned and the girl's inexperienced and they have to break back in the next night to find her cell phone. The owner returns while they're there and recognizes the girl. The three young people, Jule, Jan, and Peter (Stipe Erceg) feel that now they're "blown" they must kidnap the rich guy and take him to a cabin in the mountains, which of course they immediately do.

These are young revolutionaries after the fact. There are no longer any Bader-Meinhofs or Red Brigades to belong to. The paradox, a rather pat one, is that the guy they kidnap, Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), was a Sixties and Seventies revolutionary himself, who only slowly slid into the capitalist life. Needless to say the slide turned quite successful since he now earns over three million a year. But he claims to feel nostalgia for the old days and sympathy for his captors. Before long they're all happily playing cards and he's cooking for them and could probably escape sooner, if he weren't enjoying the forced vacation amid romantic reminders of the old days.

Things end surprisingly, but "The Edukators" isn't so much interested in its story as in existing as a platform for youthful critiques of capitalism and pondering the old saw -- which Hardenberg comes up with eventually, Anyone under thirty who isn't liberal has no heart; anyone over thirty who isn't conservative has no mind. The youths are exuberant and naive. Hormones are raging, so, typically, the love triangle almost takes over the politics. Their prisoner is smarter than they are, but what sustains the over-long second half is that his sympathy for his kidnappers doesn't seem fake, just as his story doesn't seem contrived. Or rather, only a little fake and a little contrived.

This is a film that musters some good suspense and adrenalin rushes at first, but starts losing them as the kidnapping wears on because it all begins to seem more about politics and the talk than about the action, though wondering how it's going to end is still what's going to keep you watching. That such a dichotomy should appear -- politics vs. action -- is an irony of the piece. If you've got sympathy for the youthful rebellion or the critiques of capitalism -- or just want to debate the issues brought up -- the movie can hold your interest. The actors are all plausible and appealing, particularly Klaussner and the young but experienced Brühl, whose sweetness and exuberance motivated the 2003 East Berlin comedy, "Goodbye, Lenin." The jerky digital video comes with the territory, though it may some day become as dated as bell-bottoms. The filmmakers could have edited this down to less than two hours and four minutes and given the story harder edges. The music is loud and integral to the youthful portraits.

The ending left me bewildered though. After seeing the film I interpreted it in he way that Hardenberg has succumbed to the establishment again. But on IMDb I read some other interpretations, notably that it was him who helped them to get to the Mediterrenean and who gave him his boat and money. The message in the empty apartment, 'Some people never change', also pointed into this direction. But why the attack by the police - especially with anti-terrorist forces - was still necessary then, is quite beyond me. Also, Hardenberg didn't at all look amused or content in the police car - as he obviously would have if he had only wanted to fool the cops.


In a "not too distant" future, where genetic engineering of humans is common and DNA plays the primary role in determining social class, Vincent (Hawke) is conceived and born without the aid of this technology. Suffering from the nearly eradicated physical dysfunctions of myopia and a congenital heart defect, as well as being given a life expectancy of 30.2 years, Vincent faces extreme genetic discrimination and prejudice. The only way he can achieve his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut is to break the law and impersonate a "valid".

He assumes the identity of Jerome Eugene Morrow (Law) a former swimming star who, despite a genetic profile "second to none", won only a silver medal in a high-profile competition. He then attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a car, but again fell short of his goal in that he only succeeded in paralyzing himself from the waist down. However, as the incident occurred outside the country, no one knows of his newly acquired disability. Thus, Vincent can "buy" his identity with no one the wiser. Though he requires orthopedic surgery to increase his height and contact lenses to replace his glasses while matching Jerome's eyes, he can use his "valid" DNA in blood, tissue and urine samples to pass any genetic test - as long as he takes extreme measures to leave no traces of his identity as an "in-valid". But, where he was once an object of scorn and pity, he is now a perpetrator of an unspeakable fraud. Legally, exposure would only subject him to fines, but socially the consequences would be far more extreme - he is now a heretic against the new order of genetic determinism. Vincent is now a "borrowed ladder" (a reference to the ladder structure of an un-coiled DNA strand) or in harsher language, a de-gene-erate.

With Jerome's impressive genetic profile he easily gains access to the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, the most prestigious space-flight conglomerate of the day. With his own equally impressive determination, he quickly becomes the company's ace celestial navigator. But a week before Vincent is scheduled to leave for Saturn's moon Titan, the mission director is murdered, and evidence of Vincent's own DNA is found at the crime scene in the form of an eyelash. The presence of this unexpected "in-valid" DNA attracts the attention of the police, and Vincent must evade ever-increasing security as his mission launch date approaches and he pursues a relationship with his co-worker Irene Cassini (Thurman).

After numerous close calls, the investigation eventually comes to a close as Director Josef (Gore Vidal) is arrested for the murder. However, just as Vincent appears to be in the clear, he is confronted by one of the detectives covering the investigation, who is revealed as Vincent's estranged brother, Anton (Loren Dean). Anton criticizes Vincent for putting his family under undue stress due to his disappearance, and threatens him with exposure. However, it soon becomes apparent that Anton is acting more out of insecurity and is more concerned with how Vincent had managed to get the better of him, despite his supposed genetic superiority. Vincent and Anton settle their competition as they did when they were children, by seeing who could swim out into the ocean farthest. Once again, Vincent manages to beat his brother, and saves him from drowning. This is simply because he refused to save any strength to swim back to shore, and this is why he has excelled at Gattaca - he is willing to risk everything to succeed.
As the day of the launch finally arrives, Jerome bids Vincent farewell and says that he intends to travel the world. He reveals that he has stored enough genetic samples to last Vincent two lifetimes. Overwhelmed and grateful, Vincent thanks Jerome for "lending" him the identity that has allowed his success at Gattaca. Jerome replies, however, that it is he who should be grateful, since Vincent lent Jerome his dreams. As Vincent moves through the Gattaca complex to the launch site, he is stopped for an unexpected DNA test. Vincent reluctantly agrees to take the test, even though he has none of Jerome's genetic material to hide his identity. The test result uncovers Vincent's "in-valid" status, and the doctor reveals that he has known Vincent's true identity all along, saying: "For future reference, right-handed men don't hold it with their left. Just one of those things". However, the doctor then alters the test result to allow him to proceed regardless, confessing that his son admires Vincent, and wants to be an astronaut just like him, despite an unforeseen genetic defect that would already rule him out. As the shuttle lifts off, Jerome is shown committing suicide inside his home incinerator, wearing his silver medal, which turns gold in the flames.

The story centers on the irony of the perfect Jerome failing to succeed despite being given every advantage while the imperfect Vincent transcends his deficiencies through force of will and spirit. A milder version of the disorder that afflicts Vincent prevents Irene from taking part in space flight. This dichotomy shows how the eugenic policy in Gattaca and the world in which it is set adversely affect the humanity of both Vincent and Jerome, as well as the "invalid" and "valid" humans they represent.

The film's themes include personal identity, courage, friendship, love, hope, the burden of perfection, sacrifice, sibling rivalry, society and control, fate, genetic determinism, and whether human nature and the human spirit can be defined or limited by DNA.

The English Patient

In World War II, a badly burned amnesiac known only as "The English Patient" is found in the African desert and is transported to Italy, where he joins a convoy of medical troops and others at an abandoned monastery. Among them are Hana (Juliette Binoche), a Canadian nurse whose lovers generally meet unpleasant ends; Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hardy (Kevin Whately), two explosives experts who search the monastery for bombs; and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian soldier-of-fortune who knows the identity of the English patient and has a score to settle.

Through flashbacks we learn the story of the Patient: he is Laszo Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian explorer who, in the late '30s, falls in with a group of British cartographers, including Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristen Scott-Thomas), while mapping the deserts of North Africa. After Clifton leaves them on government business, Katharine and Clifton fall in love with each other in the desert, resulting in an affair that, naturally, has a less-than-happy ending.

If one is able to overlook the illogical parts of the story line (such as, why would a patient found in Africa be sent to what is essentially the front line of the war in Italy?), then you can appreciate "The English Patient" as a throwback to the intelligent, layered, sweeping epics of David Lean in the '60s. Much more than "Titanic" or other epic romances of late, this movie puts one in mind of "Doctor Zhivago" and "Gone With the Wind" - an epic love story set against a huge historical backdrop. You shouldn't expect a war film, though there are some striking (if all-too-brief) scenes of violence that stand out more than the romantic sections, as is usually the case (Caravaggio's interrogation by a sadistic SS officer (Jurgen Prochnow) in particular).
The movie is very ambiguous, in regards to pretty much everything. The central question of the film is: How far are you willing to go for love? As critics of the movie are fast to point out, Almasy is, on the surface, a far-from-likable character - he has an affair with a married woman and betrays his country by giving maps and intelligence to the Germans, causing the death of his friend Madox (Julian Wadham) and the torture of Caravaggio, and actually killing a British soldier who has him under arrest at one point. The fact that Almasy is in many ways reprehensible is kind of the point - he's in love with Katharine, and sees the world narrowly in terms of his love that loyalty to country (or anything else for that matter) is secondary; as Almasy says, he hates "Ownership. Being owned." The two engage in a rather bold love affair (shagging within ear shot of hundreds of people at a Christmas party) and it's clear that Katharine is more drawn to the mysterious, exciting Almasy than the comparatively boring Geoffrey.

The 1944 subplot is somewhat shaky and seems superfluous; the romance between Kip and Hannah is never completely believable, and I feel the film could have done without it. But those sequences do add an interesting texture of mystery and complexity to the film, so I won't complain too much.

Like the epics mentioned above, the film is able to convey time and place through simple devices like crowd scenes, strategically placed posters, and military presence. We do not need to dwell on the fact that it's 1938 in Cairo, but it's helpful to know. The direction of Anthony Minghella and the desert cinematography by John Seale are absolutely gorgeous; the sand dunes, sand storms, and haunting caves of the desert are captured in beautiful detail. Gabriel Yared's score is haunting and atmospheric.

The acting is generally solid. Fiennes gives a very layered performance as a character who is mysterious, complex, and haunted. The difference between the Almasys of 1938 and 1944 are remarkable; one exciting and somewhat carefree, the other haunted and reflective. Kirsten Scott Thomas is effective as Katharine, the female explorer looking for adventure, and Colin Firth gives one of his best performances as Geoffrey, who realizes early on that he's no competition for the exciting Almasy. Willem Dafoe does nice work as Caravaggio, the shifty, hunted thief-turned-spy driven by revenge. Jurgen Prochnow gives a performance reminiscent of Jose Ferrer in "Lawrence of Arabia" (and a similar character too): very brief, but more memorable then some of the major characters. Some of the 1944 actors are unremarkable: Juliette Binochette is nothing special, while Naveen Andrews is good but unremarkable. Kevin Whately, as Kip's ill-fated partner, does what he can with a rather smallish role.

"The English Patient" is not a perfect movie by any means, but the vituperative attacks on it by much of the movie-going public are not deserved at all. Maybe it's a show of how film sensibilities have changed since the era of the Leans and Kubricks, or maybe people were expecting something simple to understand. Complex to fault, brilliantly directed and shot, "The English Patient" is a wonderful modern-day epic.


The winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes last night is the first feature-length film from Afghanistan. This quiet, pieceful little film is firstly not about Osama Bin Laden. The film's about the women, their position in the Afganistan nowadays. The Taliban have forbidden women to go out without any male company, whether that is the woman's husband, brother or son. Long before their downfall, the Taliban had virtually no friends outside their fundamentalist, Islamic circle. Certainly they had no international support. Unfortunately, not until they succored Al-Quada leading to the American intervention and continuing occupation were these terrorizing fanatics deposed.

Director Siddiq Barmak's short feature-length film, "Osama," won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Were an Oscar category for Most Harrowing Movie to exist, "Osama" would face no competition.

Set in Afghanistan, this is the story of a mother and twelve-year old daughter who become unemployed, and threatened with actual starvation, when their hospital jobs end with the tottering and inadequate institution's financial collapse. The mother comes up with the idea of cutting her daughter's hair and sending her out as a boy to earn subsistence money for the two of them and the aged grandmother. A sympathetic man who fought against the Russians with the girl's deceased father gives her employment but a Taliban impresses the disguised girl for a para-military training camp that by comparison makes the Hitler Youth movement look borderline rational.

Marina Golbahari is the young girl and she acts the part of a boy with scarcely concealed terror, especially when she is put into the Taliban training camp where, among other things, she must learn Islamic ablutions involving genitals in a room full of boys. There is not a second of humor in her experiences.

She's eventually detected and she goes on "trial" before a "judge" who, before dealing with her case, sends a foreign journalist to be shot and a European female doctor to be stoned to death. For the girl he pronounces forgiveness at the same moment marrying her to a pederast, a wife-acquiring mullah whose understated depravity leaves a stench in every viewer's nostrils.
This isn't an easy film to watch. It begins with a peaceful demonstration by women demanding work and disclaiming any political motivation. They are violently dispersed by not very many armed Taliban using high pressure hoses and brute force. I had a sense that the many female extras were not so much acting as recreating a reign of terror and a time of privation. The riot
scenes are harrowing, the cinematographer focusing closely on frightened and beaten women.
Given Al-Quada's support by the Taliban there exist neither legal nor moral objections to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and our continuing efforts to extirpate any remaining terrorist and Taliban remnants. The more troubling issue, forcefully raised by "Osama," is how a civilized world can tolerate the known misogynistic degradation of women, and many other abuses of basic human rights, without intervening. Can respect for a nation's autonomy or its fundamentalist religion override the duty to alleviate conditions anathema to contemporary conceptions of human rights? We tried German judges for enforcing the notorious Nuremberg Laws that stripped civil rights from Jews and prepared the way for concentration camps and genocide. Should the world now tolerate regimes that in the name of religion kill and torture while subverting the most basic individual rights? "Osama" is a good cinematic brief for a resounding "NO."

The cinematography is sparse and effective-the bleached colors of a ruined town reflecting the hopelessness of its inhabitants. I expect we will be seeing more from Barmak-I certainly hope so.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Un long dimanche de fiançailles

Lovely Audrey Tautou and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reteam (having previously made the delightful comedy Amelie) in the epic war drama, A Very Long Engagement, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot. It is a visual powerhouse of a film that defies conventional genres by melding together different themes and injecting a generous dose of period authenticity. This French language film is an emotional odyssey that keeps you guessing while it never loses sight of its humanity and even humor.

Childhood friends and then lovers, Mathilde (Tatout) and Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) are separated when duty calls in World War One France. War is hell and the trench fighting that will claim countless lives begins to take its toll on men's sanity and tolerance. Manech becomes one of five soldiers arrested for cowardice because each has a self inflicted hand wound to evade the deadly fighting. But instead of execution by firing squad, the condemned men are forced into no man's land to be fodder for the German line.

It is almost certain that all the prisoners died that day, but years later, in 1920, Mathilde continues in her quest to find the truth and her lover. Aided by her aunt and uncle, she enlists the help of an investigative agency and lawyer to track down the people who knew Manech. Slowly the list grows and one clue connects with another as more witnesses emerge. What starts out as a somber war romance develops into a fascinating adventure of love and mystery of fate as Mathilde follows the trail. Sure, she does get frustrated as a couple of clues are dead ends, but when a connection is established, the story leaps forward. At times the help comes from an unexpected source and at other times, sheer coincidence saves the day. There is even a subplot involving treachery and betrayal. Before long, the audience will become caught up in her journey. Is Manech alive and will Mathilde ever find him? The film's structure weaves back and forth through flashbacks with great ease and clarity. An occasional voice over narration ties up the loose ends. As the plot begins to make more sense, key scenes are retold from different viewpoints in the Rashomon style of storytelling. The battle scenes, quite grim and realistic (Saving Private Ryan type of action), are light years ahead of Paths of Glory's anthill scenes, although the opening march through the trenches is almost identical to Kubrick's 1957 classic. There is even a hint of the older favorite, Random Harvest, which also dealt with a wartime romance and search.

A Very Long Engagement is blessed with a strong ensemble cast although it may require a score card to keep track of all the names. Andrey Tautou is quite good as the anxious searcher. Her beauty never detracts from her acting talent. Gaspard Ulliel reminds one of a young Ethan Hawke in his innocence amid difficult circumstances. As the wife of a key character, Jodie Foster is effective as she corresponds with Mathilde. Yes, Jodie does the French thing well, but her appearance is a bit jarring. Dominique Pinon, a favorite of Jeunet's (Alien: Resurrection, Amelie), lends good support as the uncle. Even the smaller roles are well rounded and memorable, a testament to good casting, strong writing, and Jeunet's direction.

Right from the opening shot of a broken Christ statue dangling off a cross that's been blown to bits in a muddy WWI trench, you are reminded of how well director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has understood the importance of masterful cinematography. Immediate, attention-grabbing snappy editing is also a speciality of his. A collection of memorable stills, beautiful enough to be made into pictures to hang on your living-room wall, are the carriers of a compelling story with a universally accessible poetry, both visual and verbal (which alas, is too often spelt out by a persistently meddling voice-over – a narrator, just like in Amèlie – just in case you weren't paying attention to ALL the little quirks, jokes and poetry). A feast of visual humour we can trace right back to Delicatessen and a collection of interwoven, snappy little stories from endearing or comic minor players, could render the movie Disneyish (The way Les Choristes was) had Jeunet failed to also blend into the cake mix two helpings of darkness to one of sex: he does exactly the same thing in both Amèlie and Delicatessen. The resulting movie is one that most adults the world over will respond to, a fairytale for grown-ups (also considering the devastating WWI setting, it's even more grown-up than both Delicatessen, which IMO was too cartoonish, and Amèlie, too artificial and pleased with itself - like a small, furry creature such as a squirrel prancing around and being well aware of its own cuteness). But as good movie as Dimanche is, I don't consider it an "art" movie at all – rather, a very accomplished and entertaining mainstream European movie.

This big budget film is lengthy, but it does have the sweep of a big time novel. The production is outstanding in the authentic costumes and historic set designs of 1920. Jeunet employs cinematography and computer graphics effectively to recreate the era magnificently. He has always been a marvelous director of eye candy, and the film is wonderful to look at. Angelo Badalamenti who has spent a lot of time scoring the moody thrillers for David Lynch is allowed to flourish here with a lushly romantic, emotional soundtrack.

Doubtless this is very likely the ultimate French tearjerker, a kind of Gone with the Wind meets Cold Mountain type of film. It serves as a commentary on war, a romantic fable, a revenge tale, and an intricate mystery. It is a film that defies pigeonholing and that's part of the fun. It also has well defined characters and nice touches of detail and exposition. In short, it is one powerful movie to close out 2004.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Casa de Areia (House of Sand)

As the story opens on the screen we watch a desert-like landscape that seems uninhabitable, and yet, there is such beauty and serenity in the dunes being formed as the wind pounds on them mercilessly. As the camera rests on some dunes in the distance, we watch as a convoy of people and donkeys are moving slowly in the sand. Whatever possessed Vasco De Sa to buy this land, seems to be incomprehensible; that he tries to make a living out of civilization among the shifting sand is just folly!

Little by little we get to know a bit more about Vasco, his wife, Aurea, her mother Maria, as the men he has brought to help him leave them after experiencing the harsh elements in such an arid place. Things aren't made any better when a group of blacks come to see Vasco, who thinks they are going to rob him. He appeases them by giving them some of the things he has brought to this remote place, and we also learn about an island nearby where these former slaves have settled.

After Vasco's tragic death, Dona Maria and Aurea, who is pregnant, are left to deal with the elements. After ten years have passed and Aurea has given birth to her daughter, Maria, she goes exploring and discovers a camp where foreign scientists are making astronomy studies. After a night with Luiz, she goes back for her mother and daughter, but finds her house in ruins after the shifting sand has crushed part of it. Only the young Maria survives.

The kind Massu, on of the black men from the island, has loved Aurea from afar. Fate and circumstances bring them together by a bond that goes beyond all reason. After years have passed, Maria, who is now a grown woman discovers Luiz, who has returned to the area, not knowing what role he had played in her mother and her lives. Aurea tells her daughter to go with Luiz back to civilization, but Aurea has no desire to see a world she can't comprehend anymore.

This exquisitely told story by director Andrucha Waddington is one of the most beautiful films that have come from Brazil in quite a while. The screen play by the excellent Elena Soarez, whose work one has admired as well, collaborates with Mr. Waddington once more in this strange, but highly moving picture about isolation, loyalty and folly. The wonderful cinematography by Ricardo Della Rosa makes everything one sees even better, if that's possible. The magnificent desert location and even the eclipse his camera captures fills one's senses like no other film in recent memory. Joao Barone and Carlo Bertolini's music score is another element that works with all we are watching.

Of course, the film belongs to the two magnificent actresses at the center of the story. Fernanda Montenegro and her real life daughter, Fernanda Torres, make a great contribution to create these women of the desert. Fernanda Montenegro is seen as three different versions of the older women in the story and Fernanda Torres plays the young Aurea and the grown up Maria, the girl that was born in that remote area. Ruy Guerra, himself a distinguished director, plays Vasco with conviction. Seu Jorge, Stenio Garcia and the rest of the cast contribute to make this film work.

It's curious to note some negative comments mainly from postings by Brazilian contributors to IMDb. The film, which was received with bad reviews, in general, from the media in that country, deserved much better. It's also curious that viewers from other areas get a different message and pleasure after viewing this film.

Turtles Can Fly

The Iraq you won't see on FoxNews. An interesting, well made, quality film (for a change) that was filmed on location in Iraq, and was a joint project between the Iraqis and the Iranians. A person might imagine that a film like this might be created to bash some political entity or personage like Bush or Saddam Hussein, or an attack on Americans in general. But actually, the film is not really an attack on anything but the grim realities of Kurdish refugees, the grim realities of war, a lifestyle of abject poverty where obtaining weapons is easier than food or medical care. And in many ways it's a love story, albeit a tragic one. I myself have travelled over the world and seen situations just about as grim in Central America, India and other places, although not quite as violent. People everywhere, in other countries regardless of culture, language, political or religious differences are basically the same and want the same things in life: love, freedom to live life as they see fit, peace, enough financial resources to have decent housing, clothes, medical care and to feed their families, and of course, always maybe a friend or two to share it with, and if lucky a love that'll last a lifetime. But none of these things are easy for about 5/6ths of mankind, and life often becomes just brute survival.

Yet even children may dream, but it is hard to dream when ones nights are interrupted by weapon fire, the possibility of an invasion which to children must really seem "the end of the world", where land mines from previous conflicts lie scattered about here and there, and of course the shattered lives and shattered remains and missing limbs here and there never troubled much the men (and sometimes women) who sit in their plush chairs in their big offices and send men into battle to kill each other while their leaders play golf, or sip champaign at fund raising dinners. I've seen his all over the world. It's an ubiquitous problem. I've always wonder why people are so stupid to give our leaders such power over ourselves. Are we really safer the stronger our government, the more powerful our weapons of mass destruction? Frankly, the facts prove otherwise. I've seen the corpses of dead children, animals, old ladies floating down the Holy Ganghes river and the people don't even look at them and go about their daily lives as if nothing is unusual about this. And for them it is nothing unusual. I've seen children in Honduras, smart, bright searching through trash for anything that they might be able to sell, often to feed a younger sibling. Children raising children is the norm in the third world. We listen to our leaders who scare us to death with "threats" that must be constantly shown to the people to keep us constantly willing to attack anybody and everybody. Yet the media rarely shows the truth that in both the Afghani and Iraq wars, American troops, highly trained, well equipped, backed up by multimillion dollar state of the art fighter jets with enough firepower to start WWIII, and who are our enemies? The leaders, the warmongers, the radical clergy who seek war are never on the lines fighting. The American soldiers new to Iraq might be surprised to find that the majority of the "enemy" consist of 13, and 14 year old boys, semi-illiterate, poor, uneducated, and poorly equipped, whose lives if lost matter nothing to either side of the conflict. And even the non-combatants suffer,everybody suffers from these wars, both sides suffer, except of course the leaders who gain power, prestige and often cold cash from starting these wars. I have seen this, but the majority of Americans have never seen anything like this. If they travel abroad it's to Cancun, San Tropez, Bermuda, Paris, London or Madrid or Rome. Americans in general never go to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, rural India, Central America, Vietnam, Kampuchea unless they are members of the military.

But this movie is not about the Americans except tangentially, it is just a story about children, refugees, whose names we'll never know, whose deaths are never reported in the news.

But even though the movie doesn't say it, I will. Saddam Hussein presented about as real a threat to the security of the USA as a five year old girl would to Bruce Lee in a fist fight. It is a bit queer that when we fight them with state of the art weaponry like cluster bombs which are such fun, smart bombs which are not always that smart, bunker busters,and what not, we call ourselves "liberators", "freedom fighters" and when we invade somebody else's country and they fight back with anything they can get their hands on,we call them "terrorists".

Probably the majority of Americans would not see anything "unusual" here, anything a bit "odd". War is a crime, and like most crimes, a good detective knows that in the majority of cases a crime is easily solved by following the "money trail".

The first question is not: who are the enemy? what religion do they follow? what weapons do they possess? but rather WHO PROFITS FROM THIS WAR? Answer that one, and you'll know everything. We have a military-industrial complex that produces profits in the 100s of Billions and are just itching to try out the latest in war gadgetry, and prove which country has more ingenuity in destroying lives, liberty and property than others.

Saddam clobbered the Kurds because he could. We clobbered Saddam because we could. Look upon it with an impartial eye and one soon realizes that Hussein was a loud mouthed bully, and so are we.

Les Triplettes de Belleville

This stranger-than-usual animation is an ornate, intriguing piece of work, with a unique visual style somewhat resembling certain English cartoonists' (Ronald Searle's, for example) but very remote indeed from either Disney or South Park or Japanese anime. There are times as you watch, especially at first, before the repetition and the overkill of intricate detail begin to pall, when the originality and visual richness clearly approach the sublime. The combination of computer and traditional hand animation methods, carried out at such a level of complexity that the film required five years to complete, is an unquestionable triumph. But you may very well be put off when you realize that overall Sylvain Chomet's first full-length animated film has no discernible point or message; that its central figures are mournful, ugly, and unfriendly; that there is little plot, virtually no dialogue, and that the void left thereby is filled with a great deal of annoying noise and repulsive imagery. The twittering visual machinery of wiggling, yapping, howling dogs, of awkward, caricatured creatures of all sorts endlessly in motion, turns into a series of nightmarish repetitions that can easily become as off-putting as they are wearying.

I wanted to like this movie. Its originality and adeptness as a work of animation remain impressive. It gives new meaning to the very word `animation': every scene is a study of the nature and arts of motion. There are observations whose keenness is unique. As cultural commentary it certainly provides much material for debate. The vision of France a half century ago is quaint and intriguing. But the mournfulness, the sadomasochistic undertones, and the meanness build over time; and when the triplets dined on plates and pots full of still squirming frogs, my sympathies checked out. The undercurrents of nastiness both in the personalities of the principals and the depiction of American culture do not leave an endearing impression.

The plot is simple and can be seen as little more than a rough framework on which to hang the intricate doodlings, the recreation of a grotesque nostalgic vision of postwar France, and the endless experiments with the very nature of animation, which are perhaps ultimately the film's real point. An old French granny, Madame Souza, whose walk clatters from a big orthopedic shoe, lives in a rickety house somewhere in Fifties Paris or its environs. She has in her care a large dog, Bruno, and a large, lean, boy, Champion, her orphaned grandson, who dreams of racing in the Tour de France. She herself ruthlessly supervises his training, which is shown in meticulous detail and includes, at home, the use of a variety of Rube Goldberg contraptions to feed and condition him after he has returned from his exhausting day on the roads. Champion grows up with grotesquely hypertrophied leg muscles and tiny upper body, and competes as planned in the Tour de France. But during the race he's kidnapped by sinister box-shaped gangsters and taken to the city of Belleville, over in the new world. Madame de Souza and Bruno set out in pursuit, crossing the sea in a boat, complete with dramatic storm. Once in Belleville, a blatantly anti-American vision of New York perhaps including elements of Montreal (the inhabitants and even the Statue of Liberty are grossly fat), old granny makes the acquaintance of a trio of eccentric and fleshy former women vaudeville singers (whom we've seen do their scat-singing act on an ancient TV broadcast) and these `Triplettes de Belleville' help Madame recapture Champion from the kidnappers. One writer has suggested the plot is an allegory of how Hollywood steals the best European talents and sucks them dry. If so, the theft is foiled this time.

No movie has ever shown the curious way big cumbersome dogs can manage to get up on a bed with somebody already lying in it. This trick is shown several times. It remains one of the keenest pieces of observation I've ever seen in an animation. The intricacy of detail of Champion's training process is hard to get out of one's head; the depiction of a grueling, relentless exercise routine is unforgettable. Others will like moments like the great storm at sea, though the effects used there seemed to me out of sync with the more linear style of the rest. A momentary TV appearance of what is obviously Glenn Gould intricately nattering away at some Bach keyboard fugue, no doubt beamed to France from the Canadian Broadcasting System, provided one of many delicious little period details during the film's first half. There are also cameos squeezed in by Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire (who is eaten up by one of his tap shoes). Likewise the visions of period Tour de France training crews and roadside fans are priceless. It's difficult to do justice to such an intricate effort. The devil and the wonder are both in the details. Despite the lack of dialogue as a central element and its replacement by incidental noise (as well as occasional jaunty jazz), a feature that links The Triplets with the comic films of Jacques Tati, there really is a lot of quick French at times, and I have the feeling that in omitting subtitles, the filmmakers or distributors have robbed Anglophone viewers of some of the richest details; that there's French stuff here we can never hope to grasp. For the devotee, this is definitely one for repeated viewings. There's a lot to take in -- if you've got the stomach for it. Once may be enough for many, but anybody interested in animation needs that once. Not suitable for young children or anyone easily weirded out.


I can't help thinking that Almodovar (who did the linking segments in between the films) would have formed a more perfect EROS trio with WKW and Antonioni.

Soderbergh's Equilibrium was the flimsiest and weakest short of the three for me, which was unfortunately compounded by the fact that it was wedged between WKW and Antonioni's contributions.

To follow right after the sumptuous, poetic beauty of Doyle's cinematography and WKW's direction only worked to emphasize the lack of richness in the visuals as well as characters of Equilibrium. It also drew unnecessary attention to the overtly "talky" film set mostly in the clinical settings of a shrink's office - in marked contrast to the intimacy of inner emotion and longing displayed in full abundance in The Hand. Ele Keats in the erotic "dream" sequence in Equilibrium failed to conjure up an authentic sense of eroticism and depth, unlike Gong Li's character Hua, and like the rest of film, seemed flat in comparison.

As for Antonioni, in what could very well be his last film, the sense of anticipation by the audience could have also created a lack of patience with the obviousness of Soderbergh's play between dream vs. reality, and also his mockery of psychologists/the psychoanalytic "talking cure" or therapy process.

Like many of his best, Antonioni's short is a deceptively 'simple' film that suggests something deeper: the understanding of love/eros from the perspective of free-spirited women. Like many of his films, the main protagonists are female. To better understand Antonioni's films, it would be useful to try to get into the woman's psyche. Antonioni once said that he concentrates on women in his films because "they are more instinctive, more sincere. They are a filter which allows us to see more clearly and to distinguish things." The Dangerous Thread of Things obviously continues and, in my view, succeeds in this tradition.

In the film, the first couple Cloe and Christopher shows how love can peter out when one ceases to be able to see the wood for the trees - the couple becomes too beset by petty things and the trappings of bourgeois life to appreciate greatness or grandeur in general: according to the synopsis on the film's website, "they barely notice the magnificent ruins and landscapes of Italy - let alone each other."

One senses Cloe's persistent attempts to reconnect with nature: she prefers wearing little to nothing; in the first scene, the camera lingers on her dressing to go out, the dead time of allowing us to see her awkwardness in her attempt. Her American husband, meanwhile, is impatiently waiting for her in his sports car. He snaps at her when she repeatedly expresses that what they had was now finished, and brushes it off simply as just a matter of her withholding from sex with him even as she tries to express how all that was close to her in Nature before now feels oppressive when he is around.

Christopher becomes attracted to the mystery girl who lives in a tower next door. Her freespirited cheerfulness reminds him perhaps of Cloe when they first met. He is attracted by the lack of imposed order ('chaos') within her house. She leads him up to the roof terrace - he is so affected by the magnificent view of the forest canopy that he is beyond words, momentarily forgetting even his lustful pursuit of the girl. They later make passionate love, making the most of the present without any burden or considerations about past or future. She tells him her name - Linda - he doesn't.

Christopher is now in Paris. On the phone, Cloe expresses her longing for him to return; her love is ever present; she only wishes he would change his "attitude." We don't know what she finds so problematic to constantly seek quarrel with him - but maybe his American or consumerist/materialistic values jar with her liberal European or naturist ideals constantly seeking the 'purity' of a primal closeness with nature.

The last scene of the two women taking turns doing a primal dance of unbridled joy on the beach, is rich with the symbolism of their becoming as one in spirit with nature and its rhythms. Their joyful (re)connection with nature and recognition of each other return us to that breathtakingly magical utopia at the canyon depicting two naked siren-like bathers singing in a waterfall.

In terms of image and theme, the film is reminiscent of Picasso's famous Les DeMoiselles d'Avignon. Both shock with an honest depiction of the conflict between the male (also representing modern civilisation and technological objectification) response to the perceived conjunction of threat and temptation posed by female sexuality, nature, love and eros.

To be fair, criticism of the seeming lack of stringency in the direction of the characters does to some extent hold water. There are multiple continuous shots of the couple, but these seldom convey the complexity of their relationship. Some of the shots could also conceivably have been better conceptualized and captured.

This lapse is probably attributable not only to Antonioni's advanced age and health problems, but also to less than ideal cinematography. In a recent Taiwanese TV interview, WKW commented that the reason for any director in his 90s and not in the best physical capacity to want to still make a film would be to satisfy a desire, a love - perhaps this is precisely the eros in the world of film-making that is ultimately portrayed by these directors in the eponymous production.

On the level of ambition and theme, however, Antonioni is still in his element. He did not set out to make just another softcore porn movie as most critics and viewers suggest, nor can it be said to be about nothing. "The Dangerous Thread of Things" is an accomplished film that will in time hopefully be seen for the real gem that it is.

by k_a_p_t_u_r_e from Singapore

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Road to Guantanamo

Let me confess I saw this movie purely for the reason it won the Berlin Silver Bear and also because of the theme it addresses at the hour of urgency, when humans as we are need to question our integrity and value as portrayed so explicitly by this film. I never knew that this was a Michael Winterbottom product. If I had, I probably would never have seen this one, as my previous Winterbottom experience, 9 Songs was to say the least.. flesh, sex and oh yeah a relationship too...

Now, I must admit this man is one hell of a maverick when it comes to making film. It was a nice jolt to my senses when I saw his name credited as Director at the end of this intense, modern horror docudrama!

Many reviewers have criticized this film for being one sided and told from the perspective of the Tipton Three, but as we are not allowed to see what goes on inside Guantanamo, and the inmates are not charged with any crime or allowed contact with their families or legal counsel (they don't need it as they have not been charged with a crime), we have to go on what accounts have filtered through.

A country which asserts itself as the moral compass of the world, and which is based on freedom, liberty and justice for all, has to be held to a higher standard of accountability. Justice for all mean ALL, not those whom we pick and choose. The very fact that detainees are held outside the US without trial, and in conditions which we have seen in pictures of Abu Ghraib indicates that they are not playing by their own rules. Many US ideals have been jettisoned in the name of patriotism, and "If you're not with us, you're with the enemy!" rhetoric.

Four young chavs nurtured in the safety and comfort of Britain's welfare state, with its free health care, education and social security for those who don't find work, go off to Pakistan for a wedding, and suffer a little culture shock, not to mention the intestinal distress caused by the food and water in foreign parts. Having been accustomed to cheese stuffed pizza, burgers, supermarkets and shopping malls, they are somewhat shocked to find meat sold in the open with clouds of flies everywhere, and according to one, the food smells like sh*t with spices.

While in Pakistan, they decide to check out next door Afghanistan just prior to the US bombing. While this may have been from a sense of youthful adventure, their actions don't bear close scrutiny, whether from naive stupidity or idealism or ulterior motives. They may have been no different from young idealists who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, young Canadians and Americans who enlisted in the British Forces in WWII, mercenaries anywhere, or naive adventurers caught trying to smuggle drugs through the far east, but once in Afghanistan they quickly find that war is not an adventurous lark after all. They are rounded up by the Northern Alliance after a brutal bombing raid leaves many dead or horribly wounded, and after barely surviving a month in captivity, they are handed over to the US special forces.

As this is a British film, the US are depicted as loudmouthed, bullying thugs, without too much brain matter - when one detainee is asked where he comes from and replies Titpon, the interrogator snaps "Wheresat"; regardless, they ship the young men off to Guantanamo Bay prison camp where they brutalize them physically and mentally for two years to try to force the young men to confess what they want them to say - that they are card carrying members of Al Qaeda on first name terms with Osama bin Laden. Considering the mind set of a military which charged the Muslim prison chaplain at Guantanamo with treason for ministering to his flock, I rather suspect that the depiction of the interrogators is not far from the truth. Why the facts of the men's story could not be verified for more than two years is a good question. They were being accused of belonging to Al Qaeda and hobnobbing with Osama Bin Laden in 2000, when they were actually engaging in petty crime in Britain and having to report to the police on a regular basis. In the politically motivated American idea of justice, if you confess to a crime, whether or not you are guilty, you will get off lightly. If you refuse to confess, because you are not guilty perhaps, it will go much harder for you (just watch Court TV) because you have wasted their time?

The facts are that a number of detainees being held without trial or any access to legal counsel have committed suicide. We have seen the way prisoners were treated at Abu Ghraib, and newsreel footage of people condemning those who blew the whistle. We have also seen the July 11, 2005 bombings in Britain carried out by young men very similar to the Titpton Three. All the bombers were described as decent young men and boys-next-door types. One of them was even an elementary schoolteacher! I personally feel that the Tipton Three were up to no good and quite possibly were trying to join the fighting in some way or another, but they were not aware of what they were getting into until it was too late to turn back. I kept remembering a comment made to me when Iraq was invaded: If they did not hate us before, they are sure going to hate us now.

The location shooting, combined with actual newsreel footage give this film a superb look which make it a great viewing experience, regardless of whether you feel that it is one-sided or unpatriotic. I hope that the film is shown on US TV on a widely seen channel, rather than an obscure channel which only preaches to the converted.

Seom (The Isle)

Another movie that has attained a little notoriety from the number of walk-outs at festival screenings, and even a couple of audience members passing out. Why not? Its Kim-Ki-Duk - A mind that can tear the borders of creativity!

Whilst it is not hard to see why, it is a shame that is what the film is known for, as there is much more to it than *those* scenes. A mute girl makes a living running a kind of retreat, where men can rent a floating cabin on a lake in the mountains and spend their days fishing, and their nights sleeping with prostitutes. The mute girl makes ends meet by taking on this role as well. A young man arrives and rents a cabin, clearly not their for the fish. We see that he is tortured and suicidal - you wouldn't guess why from the 5 second flashback that is meant to explain it, but the 'filmography' section of the DVD explains it in more detail. The mute girl is drawn to the man's desperation, perhaps feeling sympathy/protectiveness, or perhaps simply relating to another deeply unhappy soul.

The relationship between these two characters, and several other characters that come to the lake for one reason or another, is the main focus of the film. The difficulty some people have with relationships is the topic being studied, particularly when they are not happy in their relationship with themselves. The inner feelings of the characters receive expression in scenes whose 'shock factor' has drawn inevitable comparisons with Takashi Miike, especially AUDITION. Director Kim Ki Duk doesn't seem to mind these comparisons:

"KK: I saw Audition at Toronto and that movie made me realize that there is someone else out there like me. We are two of a kind"

If you couldn't sit through the last half hour of AUDITION, you'll probably want to give THE ISLE a miss too. It's also definitely not a film for animal lovers... there is absolutely zero chance of the film being released intact in the UK or the US, as the treatment of the animals in the film (mainly fish) is far outside what is permissible in either country's regulations.

But there is much more to THE ISLE than the scenes that make keeping your eyes on screen a challenge. In between, the film is absolutely ravishing, and will keep your eyes glued there. The setting of the lake, mostly bathed in deep fog, and the fantastic wordless performance from actress Jung Suh (and the rest of the cast) are beautiful and powerful. The loneliness and sadness of the characters is reflected brilliantly in the total isolation of the floating cabins. There is a deep message in the film, and it is presented to us beautifully.

Like Miike, Kim Ki-Duk makes us work for our reward when we watch THE ISLE... if you want to take away the beauty of his film, you have to be willing to pay the price of the horror, especially the scenes where fish-hooks are "inserted" well.... erm, lets say in the "wrong places".. Thoroughly recommended!

This film also features a great deal of scenes involving cruelty to animals. Unfortunately this element, although thematically effective, will render this movie unwatchable in the eyes of many viewers. With these scenes, Ki-Duk makes a statement about survival and suffering. This is made evident when a shallow, careless, rich couple catches a fish, immediately carves a fillet out of its side, and eats it, only to then release it back into the water where it swims away as if nothing has happened. In one of the movie's most important scenes, this same fish is caught again when Hyun-Shik is fishing and chopping up all that he catches in a fit of rage. When he sees the horribly injured fish, he throws it back in a gesture of pity and disgust. Also the animal cruelty is used to show that the film's central characters are incapable of expressing their emotions in a rational manner. This is realized in a scene where a remorseful Hee-Jin tries to reinvigorate a dying fish out of water by electrocuting it with jumper cables. There is also a scene where a frustrated Hee-Jin throws Hyun-Shik's still-caged pet bird into the lake as the camera pans down to watch the bird drown.

One note: the film is another one of those great films that just doesn't know how to end itself. Actually, we get the perfect ending... a nice long shot and a fade to white and it should have been over, but apparently Kim Ki Duk wasn't quite satisfied to leave it at that and tacks on two extra scenes, about a minute of footage, that are simply inexplicable and serve only to confuse and spoil the mood. My recommendation... when it fades to white, simply stop the DVD

Shi Gan (Time)

Kim-Ki-Duk, that master who made 3-Iron... and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ....and Spring.... It's weird how he manages to put truckloads of emotion and meaning into such simplicity, with such a result that would leave hollywood directors undoubtedly baffled. I'm currently on a large-scale hunt to obtain every piece of celluloid that's passed through him. This movie called "Shi gan" a.k.a. Time turned up first. And very unsurprisingly, he's done it again!

Korea is perhaps famously known for its number of female population going under the knife to look good. I've been to a number of Korean cities, and yes, they are gorgeous. But there's always that skeptical doubt hanging over their heads, whether they had undergone plastic surgery to enhance their various assets. That, is the subject of which Time touches upon.

Seh Hee (Park Ji-Yeon) and Ji Woo (Ha Jung-Woo) are a couple, and coupledom is always disastrous when one party is paranoid with suspicion over the other being unfaithful. A longer than usual glance at another pretty face, or a kind gesture to help a gorgeous person, will bring on alarm bells, violent exchange of words, and an inexplicable bad attitude and demeanour towards others. That's how Seh Hee behaves, and I suppose those who suffer from low self-esteem and confidence, would probably exhibit one or many of the traits put forth.

And it is indeed these triats that will put any relationship under strain, with unreasonableness being the number one reaction felt by the other party. Unconfident about her looks, Suh Hee goes under the plastic surgeon's knife and in certain aspects, starts to tease her ex boyfriend Ji Woo, whom she left abruptly 6 months back in a huff and without explanation, with her new physical self (in the form of Sung Hyun-Ah).While Ji Woo is being confronted with the shock of being left all alone, and his inability to forget Seh Hee, what do you expect from a man who loves someone so deeply, yet she suddenly disappears from your life with nary a word? And how will you react when faced with the "truth"?

Perhaps the message in the movie is about the importance of looks, or the perceived emphasis placed on physical attractiveness. It isn't enough to just look good (when different), and the psychological change, that you now have the opportunity to be someone different, is just as, if not more important and this aspect of well being has to be looked after as well. Watching this movie brings about some comparison of storylines and the differing techniques used to carve out a new life, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In Eternal, one becomes somebody new by undergoing a science fictional transformation with the wiping of memories from the mind. It's psychological, and the technology not here yet. With Time, it involves the transformation of the physical, with technology already ready and very sophisticated in
technique. And that's what makes it quite scary, barring the gory introductory scene.

I could literaly transform my face into something else, and thereafter, with the severing of current ties with friends and family, lead a completely different life. The objective of Seh Hee in the movie, can indeed drive someone nuts, and even drive yourself nuts as you discover you're living a lie, and you can do nothing about it to reverse the process. But if your life is in a rut, would you be tempted to do it? For the reasons of Suh Hee, of being someone else to test the fidelity of your other half, is just plain crazy and you'll easily come to see why it's a lose-lose situation from the start - he loves you now, so that says a lot about his affection for you in the past; He doesn't love the present you as he still can't forget and is still holding onto hopes of seeking the old you out, which will leave the current you miserable because you've already physically transformed. Ooh, it's one heck of a mind exercise.

I would deem this movie very accessible, paced very well, and has enough moments to keep you riveted and guessing the outcome at each step of the way. But it's not plain sailing and he does keep you guessing time and again, deliberately leaving some questions unanswered, providing you with plenty of room for discussion. For those who liked to be teased and dislike being spoonfed with the movie's narrative.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It happens to both the best and worst of us at some time in our lives. Love . If you haven't experienced this yet just wait, you will. It is inevitable that at some time in our journey through life that we will come across someone that fascinates us so profoundly that we feel as though we could spend the rest of our lives with this magnetic individual. There is no exact science to the concept of love. Many believe that the idea of love goes beyond the reasonable or the logical to a more diverse level of the illogical, irrational, and the unreasonable. Why is it that we find ourselves attracted to people that, on the surface, seem as though they would never be compatible with our own lifestyle? Why is it that when we do fall in love with a certain individual and think at first that this is a perfect match, we find over time that less tolerable marks are more frequent on the surface? And why is it that we overlook some individuals that, although at first there is no real `love connection' per say, we seem to have a somewhat pure liking for someone and that it takes us longer then it should to see that person for who they really are to us? Love is a complicated subject that can't be taught, it can only be experienced for what it is . utterly confusing and yet at the same time completely fulfilling.

The story is a twisted and complicated tale from the same man who brought movie-going audiences such award-savvy features as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Joel Barish seems like the average, normal guy who stays pretty isolated from communicating his true feelings to others and yet reveals spectacular insight only to the confines of his journal. He doesn't like going on impulses and gut feelings but rather relies more on common sense and the logical sense of self-direction. That is until he meets Clementine. They flirt with each other and eventually find themselves falling in love with one another . That is until one day Joel finds out that Clementine has undergone a radical procedure to have him erased from her memory because she was unhappy. So, in an act of self-gratification, Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself, erasing every argument, every embarrassment, every thought he has had involving Clementine. But as the procedure goes on, Joel begins to realize that beyond the quarrels and the less flattering incidents there were beautiful memories that he never wants to forget. So he does the unthinkable . Joel attempts to outrun the erasers through a dizzying chase through his mind. The story for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is hauntingly brilliant and, in some cases, personally gratifying. The concepts and the feelings expressed behind the script of this film hit so hard to home that it feels as though we our seeing our own love lives played out on screen. Granted Sunshine does tend to veer off into the ridiculously absurd but when evaluating what one takes away from this film, it is pure genius.

Quite amazingly this low budgeted independent feature showcases a surprising amount of A-list talent but manages to have those performers express well beyond their famous names. Jim Carrey, who has unsuccessfully attempted to make a mark in drama with lead performances in Man on the Moon and The Majestic, gives a thoroughly convincing and commanding performance in the role of Joel Barish. And Carrey's performance is only complimented by his interaction with Kate Winslet, who acts opposite of him as Clementine. Though the two give dramatically different personas to their characters and look as if they would never be quite compatible with each other based on surface actions, which is the idea the filmmakers are trying to express. It's not what is right in front of us that should define a relationship; it is the memories themselves and the experiences of the two individuals. Elijah Wood, in his first role outside the Lord of the Rings franchise which recently wrapped up in December, gives an effective performance as a man one can't help but despise for his methods of obtaining someone's affection but at the same time feel pity for his plight, which is that he feels love eludes him. And Kirsten Dunst performs well within the film despite her appearance that protrudes a sense of innocence that feels off-base or awkward that distracts from the actions of her character. Not to say that she doesn't perform well or that the character is a pointless one, not in the least, but perhaps it is the fact that her innocence, based on her name and the characters she has played, carries a stigma with her role.

Overall, Sunshine, as awkward and thoroughly confusing at it may seem and is, manages to express, in the most informal of ways, the feelings and thoughts we should all have when examining a relationship, in that it is not the superficial features but the underlining memories that make it all worth while. When a relationship hits that unfortunate moment where it all seems to be breaking down, we, as human beings, seem to instantly draw ourselves to the negative aspects of that person, as Joel did early in the procedure, in an attempt of sorts to make everything right within our mind. What Eternal Sunshine successfully expresses is that when breaking down the relationship moment by moment, more often then not the happier events outweigh the bad and that should be our determining factor to keep the relationship going. Too many moments are wasted on gut-instincts and logic, when it comes to love one must live every moment for what it is because we only have one shot in this world and we might as well make it worthwhile. What happens if that relationship doesn't work? You pick yourself up, let the relationship go, and, in time, move on. If you try your best and nothing seems to work in that relationship then perhaps it will never work and you shouldn't play out a fantasy that you know will never be. We have all experienced moments where we feel as though there is opportunity to ask someone out or express how one feels for a certain individual but have chickened out due to nerves, `gut-instincts', or views of superficial matters. Eternal Sunshine promotes the ideology of living within the present and letting the course of the matter play out as it may. If we all relied on nerves and logic, would anyone really fall in love?