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