Friday, December 31, 2010

Certified Copy

 It's hard to classify and align an Abbas Kiarostami film under conventional epithets, even by art-film standards. His films would prove quite challenging and tedious to watch, if not for extensive dialogue and characterization. Here is an indie filmmaker who doesn't believe even in the usage of artificial lighting and expensive filming equipment. The Taste of Cherries and Ten were the two of his earlier movies that I had watched with baffled astonishment, for every next work of his usually involved a slow, but graceful revelation of the story behind his lead character(s), something that is almost compulsorily startling, and always revealed through the mode of dialogues, never with narratives. Pivotal facts in a story are left neatly phrased, but with a question mark, to be judged and responded by the audience. This is the simplest reason which demarcates those who like his films from those who don't.
For a veteran of film-making, Abbas Kiarostami has mostly stuck to filming within his homeland of Iran. Certified Copy marks his first foray outside his turtle-shell, and what better talent to have at your disposal, than the beautiful belle of France, Juliette Binoche..and what better place to do your filming than the seductive locales of Italy?
In a fashion so typical of all his movies, Kiarostami opens his film with such a passive perspective on his two main characters, that though being comfortable to watch from a bystander's point-of-view, it's more like eavesdropping on them. With a lecture that's purposefully boring, the story progresses just the way it started, like a work-in-progress, also ending with the same level of uncertainty and doubt.
Elle, a french antique-dealer and James (British opera-singer William Shimell in his first film-role) meet at a book-reading, where James is promoting his new book on the value of copies in art. Apparently, Elle is comfortable speaking French, English and Italian whenever she could, while James, who can understand these languages, still prefers to speak in his impeccably British-accented English. Elle has come to the reading along with her son, who immediately senses in her an urgent need to connect with James. This is revealed in a long, but witty and funny conversation between mother and son, which reveals that they're both living separately from the father at the moment. Through his agent/publicist, Elle obtains a private audience with James, which later evolves into a conversation-filled trip to the Italian countryside, one that winds in and out of their personal lives just like the road they travel, until they arrive at a quiet village in Tuscany. The conversation initially tends to stick to the topics relating to copies in art. But as we follow these two down the narrow lanes of the cobbled country-side, weaving in and out of museums, galleries, parks and around beautiful statues, we sense that each of the two are at complete ease in giving vent to emotions, even when one can sense that the other is trying to steer the conversation in a different direction, going with the flow with the same level of seriousness as the other.
After one particular scene in a coffee-house, the conversation and it's corresponding reactions and emotions get so personal and impassioned with formal tones taking a steep dip, you begin to look closer into the true nature of the bond between the Elle and James. Are the two, actually like-minded people who have just met and found themselves in each other? Are they in love? Have these two met previously? Are they role-playing each other? Do they share a history longer than we think? Or even worse, is James actually the father of Elle's child? Or do these questions even matter at all?
From a deeper perspective, the subtly beautiful locales of Tuscany and also the actors' respective appearances might seem distorting, while appearing to be distractingly beautiful. The sole focus of your attention is instead focused on deciphering the nature of a relationship, through merely overhearing what two people have to talk and share. And for a professional actress, Juliette Binoche is at ease in supplementing her dialogue with facial reactions that seem both genuine, while at the same time restrained and coy. She is certainly the most beautiful woman in the world. I can’t think of another actor, male or female, who can light up the screen like she can with a simple smile. It’s a radiant thing. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her work here, and it’s not hard to see why. Shimell is brilliant as a man who is obviously smitten by love, while using his sternness to bring about the doubt as to how old his love really is. I'm actually happy the director chose an unknown actor over the great Robert DeNiro, who while being awesome, would have overshadowed the uncertain theme completely with his mere presence in the film. My guess is that the two really ARE a married couple and that the impassiveness we see at the beginning was the certified copy.
I will certainly be watching this a second time, simply to see if it would answer my questions, by showing some hint of recognition between the characters, something that I might have missed earlier, simply because I wasn't looking for it. This review was the result of a glorious week for movies in Chennai, which allowed the screening of this yet-unreleased film as a part of the 8th Chennai International Film Festival, last week. I doubt the U.S. release is even close to being conformed. And as far as our Indian cities are concerned, yes we pirate them as long as we don’t have a choice.

 By Fazil, for Passionforcinema.com
To read the original article, click here

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another Year

 If you are familiar with Mike Leigh's body of works, you'll be familiar with the themes and the setting of this film. In fact, for the first few minutes you might even be thinking "Oh dear... Another Year, another Mike's Leigh's movie". Then slowly this becomes something that somehow stays with you, especially, I suppose, if you are a slightly older person than I am. This is not only a film about relationships, but it's a film about growing old and what relationship mean to a person who's growing old. You've got the old happy perfect couple on one side of the spectrum, the old man who starts his day and ends his day by drinking a can of beer (and obviously has many of them in between), the ageing 40 something woman, who suffers form depression and her to drinks herself to the point of embarrassing herself all the time, you've got the recently widowed man whose life seems to have stop making sense since the death of the wife. Anyway, in other words, this isn't a happy depiction of life: it is after all a Mike's Leigh's film. It's a film about real life, about little moments, silences, gestures, little things. There are so big resolutions, no big twists, not a lot of character development, because after all in life we don't really change much and the biggest twist one may have in his life over the course of one year, is that his or her car might have broken down.
A lot has been made about how Mike Leigh like to shoot his films (rehearsing for 6 months with the actors, letting them improvise and basically writing down the script as he goes along). In this one he ended up dividing his film into 4 season and he gave each of them a different look and feel. Well, to be honest, there's absolutely nothing new or original in that: summer looks shining and warm, winter is obviously grey, foggy and with muted colours, perfectly in keeping with the last chapter which is mainly about death.
The film is pretty slow and yet quite mesmerising. The wonderful performances have a lot to do with the success of this film and I wouldn't be surprise if I ended up seeing some of those names getting some sort of nomination at the Oscars next year (and of course the BAFTA... You know those Brits, are so patriotic).
However I did find some of the dialogue a bit fake and forced (especially the scenes at the dinner table with the new girlfriend). Everybody is always waiting for somebody else to finish their sentence before speaking again during the busiest dialogue scenes. On the other hand, during the slower and more quiet scenes silences and awkward moments are stretched a bit too far. It didn't quite feel right to me.
At the end of the day I couldn't really help feeling that the film is a bit too indulgent in a few places and some of those scenes could have been trimmed a lot more in the editing (I suppose, that's the danger of filming sequences in one very long take: there's probably not a lot of coverage to shorten things with).
Critics have loved it, of course, and I can see why. This is the kind of film that stays with you... But really, in a few years time will we go back to "Another Year" and watch it again? I don't think so.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Aura


The Aura (El Aura) is Bielinsky's second feature. Two will be all we'll have from him, because he died this year of a heart attack at forty-six. The first is Nine Queens, which is rather famous and suffered an American remake. Nine Queens is an exceptionally inventive teaser and puzzler about con games. The Aura is a teaser and puzzler too, but a moodier noir, focused on a 'existential" loser hero (like Meursault in Camus' Stranger), with a slower pace and a more beautiful look. It meanders and winds up more or less where it started – plus a shaggy dog. Maybe it goes on too long, but Bielinsky has used the noir format – a heist, actually several, that go wrong; a naive man who falls in with dangerous company – to develop a rich and mysterious character who's got all the ambitions and defects of the noir hero, and then some. No one respects him and his larcenous ambitions are absurd, but when things get going he holds his own against some pretty rough characters. He goes through many emotions, while remaining fascinatingly unreadable and strange.

This unnamed hero (the exceptional Ricardo Darin, who also starred in Nine Queens), a taxidermist in Buenos Aires with epilepsy, first appears on the floor in front of an ATM machine after a seizure. He gets up and pushes the button and the cash comes out—his life is like that. Next, he's in his workshop assembling a fox. While he's delivering it to a museum he meets Sontag (Alejandro Awada), a condescending friend (strangers look down on him too) to whom he explains how easy it would be to rob the guards bringing the employees' pay. To show how much the taxidermist believes his own fantasy, we see the imaginary robbery rapidly enacted around them. Sontag has heard all this before, and seen his friend show off his photographic memory, and has little use for any of this. But since his first choice for the weekend was unavailable, he invites the taxidermist to come hunting. He refuses. But then, going home and finding his wife has left him, he changes his mind.

Out in the woods of Patagonia he accidentally kills a man called Dietrich (Manuel Rodal) who owns a seedy hunting lodge, and after Sontag leaves in a huff knowing nothing about this, the taxidermist falls heir to his victim's plans for robbing a casino. A pair of vicious hoods (Pablo Ceyrón, Walter Reyno) turn up, hired long distance to take part in the heist but not yet knowing all the details of it. The taxidermist improvises, as he's always done, about a robbery, based on what he's seen in the dead man's shack, foolishly pretending that he's been in on the plan all along. He also gets involved with Dietrich's young wife Diana (Dolores Fonzi) and her surly teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Finding neckties, chips, and notebooks with betting schemes, he goes to the casino and is immediately spotted by a security man-cum-loan shark (Jorge D'Elia) who picks his pocket and turns out to be the man who planned the caper with Dietrich. The taxidermist's larcenous ambitious are absurd, in his hands the plans for the heist get ever more complicated and confused, but he nonetheless bluffs his way through. There's another heist too that he gets to peek at as a result of listening to messages on Dietrich's cell phone. They all go wrong, Reservoir Dogs style.

"The Aura" is the word doctors give the moment before an epileptic attack, he tells Diana, a magic moment when he feels safe and free, but is helpless to resist the seizure. Apart from the striking widescreen photography of cinematographer Checco Varese, we can almost see the sound track, created by Jose Luis Diaz Ouzande and Carlos Abbate, which creates the epileptic attacks as aural environments, and brings in sputterings of guns and twitterings of birds; this is further enhanced by the music, never obtrusive, of Lucio Godoy.

The beauty of Bielensky's pacing is that the rush of action is interrupted by peaceful pauses, and the story, which is far more complex than we can suggest here, is sequenced in days to give it structure. Writers have alluded to a zombie movie or a Beckett story as hiding somewhere here. The torturous suspense of Coens' Blood Simple comes to mind, and also many previous noirs, but The Aura, with its Patagonian atmosphere and striking images and sound and its careful pacing, is distinctive. Darin's character is central to the film. Never was a noir more about character and never was that character so unique. Yet the taxidermist, like Dietrich's wolf-like dog with burning eyes who adopts him, remains a cinematic enigma. Bielinsky was an original and a meticulous craftsman who gives you lots to chew on. With this second feature, Bielinsky's demise seems tragic. The world has lost someone who was already becoming a master.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Away We Go

Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in "Revolutionary Road", director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with "Away We Go".

TV's John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures' salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers' books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor and warmth that allows us to relate to both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.

Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director's hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the "she's having a baby!" sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of "discovering yourself on a road trip" indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film's acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt's brother through a crisis). You won't find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it's reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film's heart.

As with any Mendes' production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun's hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement -- beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue -- you will ever find in a Mendes' film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we're lucky, we'll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Elite Squad

Kinetically filmed, "Tropa de Elite" reaches the dizzying heights of Fernando Meirelles' "Cidade de Deus", as not so much as a photocopy but more as a cinematic twin brother. Film focuses on the brutal, abet necessary foundations of Tropa de Elite, a one hundred strong company of men who swings into action when normal police gets held up themselves. Intense amount of corruption and violence is present here, however brilliantly fleshed out characters lifts the film from being trite after the 1000th gunshot.

The film being presented in two parts, we are indulged into an extended prologue to get acquainted with the protagonists: Captain Nascimento, feeling the stress as a 0-1, is on the lookout for a substitute between André Matias, a law student cum policeman struggling with his own identity and Neto, the ideal candidate as his replacement who's violent and relentless to a fault. Accompanied by a sometimes distracting voice over, the audience is given proper time to find themselves immersed in the narrative and characters. Even if the film's screenplay explodes every second of its almost 2-hour running time, personality development is not left on the back seat, to much relief.

Andre Ramiro's performance as André Matias is pitch perfect. Practically the film's moral backbone, he elucidates the distinction between pretending to know and knowing. The best scenes in the picture not involves scenes of brazen violent explosions but his rationalizing and character driven moments. The film uses his character to deter the judgmental audience from pretending to know but reminds them they know nothing.

Padilha is in control of the film until its very last shot; able to summon his own elite squad of cinematographers and sound technicians. The production values are top notch indeed, as the cinema also explodes with every bang and boom. Filmed in cinema verite, it gathers up inspiration from previous war-themed films – from the tones and hues of the mentioned "Cidade de Deus" to Alfonso Cuaron's blood splatter on the screen technique from "Children of Men". With the sound and images pushing the audience to its nauseating edge, full immersion is delivered without breaking a sweat.

Comparison to "Cidade de Deus" should be complementary, as "Elite" tackles the impotent depiction of policemen by the former. In fact, it acts as its contemporary, acting as if it exists on the same universe. It demands merit in its own right though, as the film is well staged like its depiction of training the elite, making it an involving exercise, not seen since Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket".

Immersive, hypnotic and engaging, "Tropa de Elite" guarantees Padilha to be noticed on a more mainstream circuit. Previously delivering "Onibus 174", also tackling the same themes of nurture and consequence as a catalyst to violence, he is able to comment on sensitive themes without being too preachy and also able to wrap it in a well produced package. Film is definitely an above average fare and is essential to be experienced on the big screen, just for its sound design alone.

Equilibrium

After the third world war had ended, the survivors realised that mankind would not be able to survive much longer if it didn't tackle the thing that makes them fight - emotion. To tackle the drive to hurt and hate, the Government issues drugs to sedate the populace from the highs or lows of feeling. Meanwhile the police round up those who still feel and destroy art, books and anything that would stir feeling. The heads of these police are the elite Clerics. John Preston has always been a Cleric, but the failure of his partner and an encounter with a feeler start him thinking and feeling.

With sighs of `matrix clone' and `cashing in', I, like many viewers overlooked this film in favour of other things that may have come across as more original. However, in the mood for a bit of slick action, I rented this film and was pleasantly surprised by it. The plot may not be original - but what is these days? The film has shades of 1984 and Brave New World about it and it uses these ideas reasonably well. The concept does fall down a little bit with too much thought but on the surface it works well enough to suffice for a sci-fi action movie - the running time doesn't allow for much more than superficial thought here, although there is enough in this future to be thought provoking.

The action is good considering the low budget involved here. Yes, it's all very much thanks to the influence of the Matrix but at least it is quite stylish and exciting in it's own right rather than just being a lazy copy. The action scenes are well spread out over the film and they have good pace despite being very much style over substance. The explanation for all the acrobatics and semi-invincibility here is not as good as the explanation/justification for the same in Matrix, but again it is acceptable for this level of film. If anything, the plot goes too fast and too far - it is difficult to accept that things happen so fast, but generally it works.

The cast is a strange mix but works. The thing that surprised me was the sheer number of British actors in the cast. Bale is good in the lead role despite his American accent, he is pretty cool and manages to do the emotional change required despite the rush enforced on him by the film. Diggs is disappointing - his character doesn't get enough screentime and he doesn't fulfil the role of rival to Bale, he is a good looking guy but that isn't enough here. The support cast features Bean, Pertwee, Connelly, Fincher and McFadyen but really it is totally Bale's movie and he does pretty well to make it together.

Overall this is not a great film but it is an enjoyable action sci-fi that manages to produce an interesting, if unoriginal plot and some slick and fun action that is no less slick or fun for being a low rent version of The Matrix's effects. Well worth a Friday night look!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Castaway on the Moon

Twenty whole minutes into Castaway on the Moon, you’d actually believe it to be a parody-take on the lonely, estrangement of a single character perfected like never before in the Tom Hanks starrer, Cast Away and also in the recently directed Moon. I loved both these movies myself, feeling immersed in the most desolate loneliness that a modern world could throw on you, having to handle your survival solely on your own terms, and will power, existing solely for the reason of survival, et cetera. But that’s where Castaway on the Moon stops being desperate and mournful to the point of shoving you into that box of face-tissues. Because our hero Mr. Kim here has somehow managed to get himself into a very similar, lonely situation such as Hanks’, except the fact that “lonely” ain’t exactly what you think it means here..
In fact, he finds himself a castaway, on an island, bang in the middle of a river running through the very heart of the bustling city of Seoul, right beneath a huge, congested bridge, in full view of all the skyscrapers around! No one seems to acknowledge the fact that the island exists, even if some do, they don’t consider it habitable. There’s no satellite signal here, his mobile dies, he’s too scared to kill himself by hanging, he can’t swim ashore for he’s incapable of such a task; and even if he does survive and get ashore, he’s got a lifetime of debts that would surely finish him off for good, which is why in he tries (and fails in) committing suicide in the first place, by jumping off the bridge before landing into this predicament, one that is very much his own fault. Unable to get help (and unwilling to die), he desperately starts surviving and adapting to a pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of his own, which not long afterwards, starts to appeal to his liking. In fact, he decides against leaving the island forever, living as a social recluse, and finding sustaining means of survival on his own.
All is well, until Kim finds a message waiting for him one morning, one that would change his life all over again.
Across the river, our man is being watched by a wholly different kind of social recluse. Min is a young lady, who is a complete shut-in, acutely withdrawn from society, within her apartment in a high-rise building yet still living a peaceful and contended life, just like our island hero. She lives with her parents, yet texts on her mobile to communicate with them, she hasn’t come into visual contact with another human being for years, she eats simple food and keeps a strict exercise regiment, she has her own syntax for life and sleeps in bubble-wrap blankets inside her closet. Min’s world is limited to the virtual one on her computer. In fact, she’s actually a local, virtual celebrity online. Her only view into the real world is through a small window, through which she peers out during a airborne-attack military drill every once in six months using her zoom-lens camera. And it’s in this fashion that she spots a lonely islander trying to hang himself from a tree, in vain. This brings about a total turn of events in her life, one that transforms her from a ghoul into a enhanced, hi-tech version of Amélie Poulain, eager to help and in need of love, resulting in surely one of the most memorable characters you’ve ever watched, even amidst the mecca of brilliant quirkiness that Korean cinema has turned into.
Our two protagonists don’t even come into sight of one another and share barely ten words (that too, written) during the entire two hours, yet share myriad emotions otherwise impossible to film, and even more impossible to comprehend if otherwise filmed. Mr. Kim, the islander’s character reminds me a lot about Robert Maitland, a character in a very similar situation from J. G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, who finds himself stranded on a fenced-off wasteland in the middle of a London motorway intersection, unable to escape due to bizarre reasons. Similarly, Min’s character seems loosely based on a reclusive “Hikkomoro” in  Joon-Ho Bong’s short film, Shaking Tokyo, that featured in the anthology of short films Tokyo!, though I believe the latter could’ve been inspired by the former too.
When the only two characters in a love story have absolutely no means of physical (or even visual) contact, each living in their respective hermit-states, with no means of communication, no form of acknowledgment for the other’s presence, and with the girl genuinely under the absurd impression that the guy is an estranged extraterrestrial, it is literally a cinematographer’s worst nightmare come true. It could have probably been easier to film a dreamy song in some exotic locale, hero and heroine prancing around each other and singing incoherent lyrics flawlessly.. wholeheartedly declaring their love to the skies and the scenery and extras around. But no, what we see here is both surreal while still real, hilarious while still heartbreaking beneath everything. There’s one touching moment when Min literally nudges our man along, giving him hope amidst lonely despair by simply sliding her little finger across her zoom-lens. Yet another scene blatantly parodies the castaway moment when the guy creates fire. The whole cinema hall was in splits for a full minute..
Though our Kim and Min might seem like freaks of nature to a more traditional, conservative and social audience oblivious to Korean films, they’re actually not so bizarre when compared to the characters you’d often see in several other films from the country. Somehow, Koreans manage to pull it off and make weird seem fashionable while still appearing graceful and elegant.
Lee Hae-jun is not as well known as other great Korean directors like Park-Chan Wook, Joon-Ho Bong and Kim-Ki Duk, basking in the breakthrough-era of Korean cinema, post 1997, but he certainly shows plenty of promise, considering the fact he’s scripted the movie himself.
As for the young actors, simply taking up such bizarre roles alone shows plenty of courage. But Jae-yeong Jeong’s portrayal of a modern-day, twisted version of Robinson Crusoe should in no way warrant critics to exalt it beyond Tom Hank’s role of Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Mr. Hanks is a terrific actor and far too respected more for his performances than for the millions he makes out of them. And the fact remains that he’s proved his worth in dozens of roles, in more ways than you can perceive his skill.
Castaway on the Moon was screened here in Chennai as part of a Korean film festival co-organized by the Indo Cine Appreciation Foundation, the one that organizes the annual Chennai International Film Festival, every December. I’m not really sure if this one’s available on DVD. But if you find a way to access it, and want to spend a light-hearted rainy afternoon, sipping hot beverage while cocooned in layers of blankets,  preferably cuddled with yours lovingly,  here are your two precious hours, gift-wrapped in painted Korean hanji.

By Fazil (at PassionForCinema.com)
To read the original article, click here 

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scoop

 At first, you'd think she's onto something, especially when Woody steps in. While you expect him to leave, he doesn't. He latches her onto Peter, the ice-cream man. Between these two, the scrawny, lizard-like chap looks suspicious and dare say, exceedingly obnoxious. He definitely seems like the guy behind everything. He goes around planting evidences here and there..and he simply refuses to LEAVE! But wait a sec. There's this Peter who's not just an ice-cream man, he's THE whipped-cream-coated Mr. Rich n handsome man in London, who looks like bourbon- pastry, even to a doe-eyed Scarlett Johannson, embodying what you might call in Woody's movies...too much of a good thing. And with the old-school sort of traditional narrative, Woody shows us how he could bend our minds with the same chain of motion that we've been accustomed to over several years.
At the very beginning, Scoop promises plenty of light moments with its quirky lead-characters, the city of London and yes, a turbo-charged classical soundtrack compilation, one that ranges from Tchaikovsky and Strauß to Edvard Grieg! Infact, there's not a single moment in the film that's entirely devoid of a classical-music background, oozing romance and dollops of love. But it's exactly that love which charms our bespectacled Sondra (Scarlett Johannson), a journalism student away from a valuable opportunity- of-a-lifetime scoop in her hands, one that has been hand-delivered to her practically from the grave.
A serial-killer has been on the prowl in London for the past several months. This modern Jack-the-Ripper goes by the name of the Tarot Card killer, strangling several women in London and leaving behind a signature tarot card. Now Peter Lyman is an aristocrat, whose secretary dies immediately after she discovers some facts that lead the murder case investigation directly to Lyman. She meets up with a famed, but deceased newspaper reporter Joe Strombel in a hilariously surreal after-life sequence, on a boat manned by a reaper. She reveals her suspicions to the inquisitive man famous for scoops, turning him back into the blood-hound reporter he was, now with the scoop of the decade in his hands. Desperate to get this news into the papers, he "cheats death" a number of times and comes into contact with our Sondra through an American small-time magician, Sid's "dematerialiser". A thoroughly smitten Sondra ventures to investigate Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), who falls for her beauty the very first time he sees her. Seeing where this is going, Sid has no option but to stay close to Sondra for her own "protection".
Scoop, I muct say is the third most visually striking movies of Woody's, after Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Matchpoint, both also starring Scarlett. The narration in the form of a dramatically undercover, amateurish investigation occurs at a manic pace, providing us with a multitude of incidents that might provoke us into falling for Sondra's theory, which might be a good thing. But the same when applied to the course of a man being smitten by a woman, moving on into declaration of love, engagement, etc.. kind of ruins the entire character of Peter, making him look stupid (and I must say Mr. Jackman being one of the finest-looking specimens of his species brings a bad name to men in general(?))
As low a chord as Scarlett Johannson strikes with her passive expressions, she makes up with her wholesome, gorgeous appearance and her bespectacled, girly chatter. Together with Hugh Jackman, these two look like what scientists should keep in mind when they decide to preserve human DNA for cloning the human race in future. But even these two actors are offset with the presence of the least appealing man in all of hollywood, probably because he sleeps upside down to supplement that massive brain of his, and his mouth too.. This lizard-like man might seem like he's high on something while he stammers his way across his lines, but the mere fact that he's Woody Allen, turns his fluid motions into an acting class.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Izgnanie (The Banishment)

A respectable family drama with its style and lethargic editing its main drawback, "Izgnanie" will also definitely test the patient, even Andrei Zvyagintsev's most loyal of fans. Insecurity over the plot is palpable as film overextends its welcome with pondering and introspective filming that doesn't quite translate well on screen. Plot and cinematography, especially in the countryside, offer some solace to art house fans, however audience will wonder why it took too long to make the point.
Film follows a middle class family as they go to the pastoral countryside, presumably where the paternal character, Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) grew up. Plot only advances approximately an hour in the picture as a reveal is introduced. Character and story development is sporadic, definitely welcome, as it reminds audience that they aren't watching paint dry. The final act in the film, a flashback, carries the meatier part of the movie as it emphasizes the tragedy that happens earlier. Adultery, abortion and family secrets are aplenty, however seen and are better executed before.
Best actor nod for Konstantin Lavronenko at Cannes 2007 is somewhat deserving. It is indeed a subtle performance, however doesn't hold a candle to other actors vying for the same gong.
With an abundance of establishing shots and transport moving in and out of frame, the film could have easily eliminated 30 minutes of its 2 and a half-hour running time. Anna Mass, the editor, has puzzled together a film that wallows in atmosphere and creates images that are borderline pseudo-cathartic. Such scenes include a 3-minute trailing shot of water flowing from a water source that stopped delivering hydration before. May have functioned as time change and indication of liminal moment, but overly indulgent nonetheless, as it feels that it's delivered as art for art's sake.
Adapted from a novel by William Saroyan, it is clear that translation is also a problem. With the production of the film being abject to the characters, audience is clearly not allowed into these personalities, only as observers. This abjectivity produces lack of engagement that a plot like this could easily flourish on. From the outside, characters are clearly sophisticated enough and it is curious why connection never gets there.
English title is marketed as "The Banishment" as it may signify a plethora of themes and undertones in the movie. It straight up refers to the family's eviction from their 'idealised' Eden in a midtown neighborhood (although clearly far from it as it is depicted as violent and drab), but also refers to the individual isolation of the characters from one another. They are all devoid of communication or any sort of outward emotional connection, except for hate, contempt and the chains of nuclear family. Film becomes a burning effigy to families that are only bonded because they have to.
What could have been a beautifully insightful movie on the danger of disregard of family bonds, film overachieves in being meditative to a fault: dragging its run time to way beyond its limits, diluting its intended purpose. The patient will find satisfaction but will still notice the film's over the top brooding by overstuffing it with non-consequential establishing shots, pretending to be worth more than it is.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Milyang (Secret Sunshine)


Any Korean film that has Kang Ho-Song in it is worth every minute you spend watching it. This Korean bumble-bee makes the most of whatever his job requires him to do. And the kinds of roles he chooses can baffle even the most determined critic. They are anything from an obscure henchman (The Chaser) to a mad, blood-thirsty vampire (Thirst), a misfit dad (The Host) to a vengeful one (Mr. Vengeance), not to forget the North Korean border guard (Joint Security Area) and “the weird” in The Good, The Bad and The Weird; at present, he is one of the best known faces outside his country. He doesn’t bother about how much screen time his roles garner, yet his skill (despite the fact that he’s never been formally trained) is a cocktail of versatility. Which is why I blindly believed in this 2007 Golden Palm nominee that promised a LOT of tearful moments, with Ho-Song playing second-fiddle to one of the most harrowing female characters that 2007 ever saw. True, Do-yeon Jeon won a lot of accolades for her awesome acting, but let it be known that I wouldn’t have watched Secret Sunshine, if not for Ho-Song.
Any movie that begins with a scene showing the protagonist arriving at an unfamiliar place usually ends up with the place itself, town or city, big or small, getting heavily intertwined with his/her life. And so, the apprehension is already underway when we see Shin-ae (Do-yeon) arriving at the small town of Miryang (translated as Secret Sunshine in Chinese) with her son, having decided to come and live in her husband’s birthplace after he dies in a car accident, leaving behind a successful music career in Seoul, evidently out of mental depression, and having effectively renounced any faith in God. Her appearance is perpetually bleached and harried; almost ready to burst into a dam of tears at any given moment, yet she is composed and stoic when it comes to being social. Somehow, she finds a foothold here pretty quickly, stimulating the interest of the local mechanic (Ho-Song), whom she befriends quickly. Starting with piano-tutoring, she quickly manages to secure a deal to buy a new piece of land and start a music school. Life seems to open up a consoling, encouraging vista as she rapidly comes out of her depression, until tragedy strikes and takes away her little son. Shattered and uncertain with her future, she finally accepts God into her life, seeking emotional solace. Little does she know that the very faith that brings her peace holds a different kind of surprise, one that is both cruel and demeaning to her, pulling her deep into an abyss of confusion, grief and madness. The cumulative effect of all her pent-up anger against the world results in her taking a totally destructive, enraged path of action in order to satiate it, one that could only be described as a prelude to Charlotte Gainsbourgh’s character in Antichrist.
Right from the beginning, the town itself seems to hide a lot within the psyche of its residents. An evangelic, born-again pharmacist who seems too involved in other’s affairs, a shopkeeper who takes offence upon Shin-ae’s recommendation to re-decorate, an amorous mechanic suddenly turning into a man of faith, an adolescent girl who loves her abusive boyfriend, the girl’s father who maintains a blatant disgust for her and a creepy interest in Shin-ae, her perpetually mute son suddenly giving a beautiful speech in school, the very same women who seem openly affectionate towards her while all the time indulging in crass gossip behind her back…we just don’t seem to find answers to what lies behind all these social anomalies. The director lays out all of them on a platter at face value, from the point-of-view of Shin-ae, and proceeds with the narrative from there.
The lives of all the people mentioned above shall come to change, as Shin-ae’s life takes cruel and horrible twists and turns, through the realms of retribution and repentance, culminating into a shattering effect towards the end. We see all the aforesaid characters considerably changed, for better.. The shopkeeper looks happier after business improves, as a result of following up with Shin-ae’s recommendation, the pharmacist’s household ends up riddled with guilt, the young adolescent girl finally decides to take a stand on her life, taking up a hair-dressing job, and the mechanic finds himself evolved into a refined and supportive man with no illicit feelings towards our protagonist… At the same time, we find that as Shin-ae’s life takes a toll into intense grief, she inadvertently has an effect on everyone else in the town, directly or indirectly. Her suffering tips the emotional scale of the entire town in turn, while affecting others, rendering her simply as an object of total pity.
Though Milyang might seem like an experiment in grief, it is very obviously and conspicuously scripted in such a way so as to make the film more appealing as a thesis on the society in general, unwritten norms that distance you from others if you refuse to comply: an over-enthusiastic mother gets looked down when she wildly applauds her son’s speech in school, a hysterical, grieving grandmother reviles the mother for not following suit and remaining distanced during her son’s funeral, the almost child-like, unconventional chemistry between mother and child, while in private, the juvenile approach she takes to a threat of ransom in return for her child, the stark difference between others’ release of emotions in a prayer hall, and the mother’s livid grief, Shin-ae looking upwards dramatically changing in meaning, before and after she renounces God, a relatively gentle man turning into a monster of rage against someone who stood him up on a formal date. There’s even a heavy criticism (even mockery) of the delusional, evangelical methods of Catholicism which, when considered along with Shin-ae’s state of mind, could be entirely pardonable. Chang-dong Lee has always been a critic of the general culture in Korea, ever since his first film, Green Fish (also starring Ho-Song). In fact, he even found it bittersweet to have been appointed after his tremendous success as a filmmaker, as Minister for Culture and Tourism by the Korean republic, having originally started out as an acclaimed novelist. He resigned after a year, to return to making films.
The stark, simple, sunlit cinematography far away from the chaos of the cities acts as a source of comfort and an aid for consolation. There is a perpetual, documentary feel throughout the film, with long tracking shots mostly behind the protagonist, very unorthodox camera angles and also extended shots of her while she’s grieving alone, even the whole narrative is solely based from Shin-ae’s POV. In fact, I am led to recall watching Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring, thinking of the woman who comes to find peace, as a post-Milyang Shin-ae with acute mental depression.
Yes, there have been several referrals to the movies of Von Trier, and aptly so too with the perpetually traumatized woman being a vacuum pump for your tear-glands and no possible hope in sight. But what Chang-dong Lee actually tries here is to establish a (biblical?) connection between one individual’s suffering and the happiness of some half-a-dozen others while putting forward the question of whether it is really worth it. And if I’m correct in interpreting the abrupt ending (Chang-dong Lee opens his movie with a shot of the sky and closes it with a visual of an ugly patch of earth) as her emotions coming to a full circle, I guess she’ll cope with it on her own terms, unable to ever forget what’s happened, well who can?

By Fazil (at PassionForCinema.com)
To read the original article, click here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Owning Mahowny

Every once and while, film buffs get a treat. Amongst all the crash and burn violence and volume of the summer blockbusters, every once and while, a movie will sneak under the radar and capture our attention.
Owning Mahowny didn't get much of a theatrical release. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the film never played on more than 24 screens and earned only a fraction of the minute $10 million budget. But here is your chance to find it in the lonely ‘O' section of your local DVD retailer.
The movie is based on the true story of Dan Mahowny (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a mid-level bank official that has a gambling problem. Dan will bet on almost anything and his addiction would result in a financial hole not easily climbed. It is here that Dan begins to use his title at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to fraudulently steal money for week-end trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Over his eighteen month spree, Dan was able to gamble over $10 million of the banks dollars.
The film follows Dan through the initial stages of his addiction and careful details his interaction with Vegas hotel staff, co-workers and his girlfriend as he feeds his desires while keeping his compulsion secret. As he falls deeper into the casino's pockets, the hotel owners fall deeper in love with his freelance style, and Dan is soon treated with celebrity like status upon every visit. However, eventually, the police begin to piece the missing money together and the result is the uncovering of the biggest one-man bank fraud to ever hit the Canadian borders.
Owning Mahowny is a terrific film largely in part to the incredible acting performance by Hoffman. As Dan Mahowny, Hoffman is able to portray an insatiable gambler who is ignorant to his surroundings when at the card table. His stare at the table and lack of emotional response, either for the good or the bad, is incredibly parlayed by Hoffman's sweat and stature. A scene where Mahowny takes his girlfriend to Vegas but quickly ignores and forgets her once he is in front of a blackjack table is unforgettable.
Owning Mahowny is not without its good supporting cast either, including John Hurt (Alien) as the Casino owner that takes a shine to Mahowny and Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) as his girlfriend. Both show us the contrast between someone who doesn't want to know how he does it and loves him for it and the other who can't seem to get to know the man she loves.
Like 1999's Rogue Trader, it is scary to see the loopholes exploited by bank or financial institution employees in these true stories brought to the big screen. It both movies, you see how one man with the access to large amounts of money can easily get over their own head and dig themselves deeper and deeper into a whole, yet they are always thinking they are one bet or one trade away from righting the wrong.
Owning Mahowny was one of the best films of 2003, and should not be missed. Storytelling doesn't get any better than this.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Leaves of Grass

It's rare for the following two things to coincide: One, a small-time actor, writer & director scripting a story with two leading characters, to be played by a specific, prolific actor, whose refusal would have resulted in the script itself being scrapped; and Two, the actor himself willing to be so desperately keen to act in the movie that he forgoes half his pay to simply bag the part. Leaves of Grass might seem like a feeble attempt at bridging a gap between the Coen brothers and well..(Pineapple Express??) Tim Blake Nelson might be more memorable as the somewhat dazed Delmar character from O Brother, Where Art Thou? But here he is with a script, a production budget and even proving he can direct a movie himself. I'm not familiar with his Grey Zone and Eye of God, but if he could write a complicated script with such ease, I'm certainly lauding him for them too..
And there's Edward Norton, the man who would never agree to appear in a film he didn't believe he had reason to respect, playing two opposite roles now with a subtle, yet b/w contrast.
From the opening scene to the close, we see worked out in the transformation of young and admired Brown University Classics Professor, Bill Kincaid (Norton), that regardless of any improvement we may think we have made in our lives or our selves, we never really leave our childhood homes and family, for we carry it and them with us, and we should, as we try to somehow balance the past with the future, the rational and intellectual with the emotional and experiential, control with unbridled exuberance.
While the script is one of ideas, the movie is realized by a great cast, full of humanity and warmth and life. We learn, for example, from Bill's high tech state of the art hydroponic agrologist-gone-haywire pot growing identical twin brother, Brady (also Norton), the relationship between God and parallel lines. Brady, with a false message of his own death, tricks brother Bill, who has eschewed and remains estranged from his family, into returning home to the small town of Idabel in southeast Oklahoma (closer to Hope and El Dorado than Tulsa) to help with Brady's scheme to negotiate a loan extension with the state's drug kingpin from Tulsa, the otherwise respectable oilfield equipment purveyor and Jewish philanthropist, Pug (delightfully and fiercelyplayed by Richard Dreyfuss). After being fetched at the airport by Bolger (Tim Blake Neslon), Brady's best friend, partner in crime, and all around Sancho Panza, Bolger takes Bill to the rival drug gang's headquarters, to test whether they will mistake Bill for Brady. They do, and Bill is pummeled to senselessness, only to wake up at Brady's home, discovering that Brady is alive and wants him becoming a participant in a scheme for an alibi if the drug loan renegotiation, as he thinks it will,turns bad.
Bill is unwilling, at least until the persuasive Brady charms him into a monster bong hit of the 7th generation Uber-potent bud being cultivated by Brady and Bolger. As Bill the professor is "annihilated" in a puff of smoke, Bill the brother begins to become reborn, relearning from Brady what he has forgotten, a passion for life, in all of its quirky, messy, deadly serious, loving, and improbable guises. As Brady's plan unfolds, Bill is bound ever closer in the scheme, and to the family and place he thought he could do without in his quest for success and control over his life. Charmed by local teacher and poet, Janet (played with equal parts innocent charm, brutally competent knife-wielding non-chalance, and subtlety by Kerri Russell), Bill learns from her the ancient art of noodling for monster catfish and is reminded by her recitations of, and commentary about, Whitman's free verse, and her own, that not all that is beautiful and majestic follows classical rules of form and expectation. And love, that terrible beauty, is born. In reuniting with his mother, a pot-smoking ex-flower child fed up with the world, who has checked herself into a nursing home so that she "can do as she pleases" (played by the ever beguiling and compelling Susan Sarandon), Bill learns of the patience, depth, frustration,and courage of love that lets go and trusts. And when Bill seeks forgiveness and understanding for a terrible wrong by his brother from Pug's rabbi (rivetingly played by Maggie Siff), he learns that atonement is only approached, but perhaps never achieved, by the hard work of righting what is wrong.
The comedy, as mentioned, is pitch black and the sudden switch from laughs to gasps happens in a blink of an eye, honestly you won't see what's coming before your left open jawed at the outcome. Its this kind of storytelling that keeps viewers riveted, you just don't know what's coming and that I feel is the secret to a really good film.
This is a solid debut from Blake Nelson, albeit held together by Norton, so it's going to be interesting to see what he does next.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Red Riding trilogy


“You eat meat with your teeth and you kill things that are better than you are, and in the same respect you say how bad and even killers that your children are. You make your children what they are. I am just a reflection of every one of you.”
- Charles Manson, serial killer, rapist, life-convict.
Everyone loves a good murder mystery, more so when there’s an element of serial-obsession involved in it. Serial killers and compulsive murderers have continuously kept us guessing and contemplating what they’d do next for so long that today, when we watch or read on them, it only feels normal when such characters spawn a set of skills meant to trick, connive and collude even the most challenging adversaries our minds could manifest and challenge them with. It’s true such stories most instantly draw us into a sense of paradox. On one hand, there’s a fervent need for justice in it’s most pulped form, a desire to see a murderer face the combined wrath of what has resulted out of his own horrific actions. On the other, we will the killer to up the level of pathological difficulty for those on his trail. In a way, we don’t want him captured, not yet. Even if what we see is based on incidents that are not entirely fictional, we usually come to the point where storytelling wins over: when the general attitude becomes ego-centric. Of course, being at the receiving end of a medium, watching or reading on such people changes perspectives, but what transpires ultimately is the fact that a disturbed induvidual who is refused to be acknowledged by society as a human at all, most leniently a monster, is now an exotic specimen of intrigue for us to exercise upon him, the dark recesses of our own induvidual personalities.
The Red Riding trilogy is more than everything that’s been described above, and more: a familiar cocktail of whodunit drama, anxiety and frustrating twists in the plot and the most important ingredient of all: the fear of having to blink your eyelids. Based on the quartet of novels written by british author of The Damned United, David Peace (Red Riding In The Year of Our Lord: 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983) and adapted into three screenplays by Tony Grisoni, “Red Riding” is actually supposed to mean the West Riding locality of the provincial town of Yorkshire, UK. It’s a beautiful place with ugly looking buildings, cloudy skies all year round and plenty of sheep running around vast farms on it’s outskirts. David Peace actually based his novels on real-life incidents that happened in and around the little town. Though Tony Grisoni wrote the three screenplays together, three different directors were hired to bring in very distinct filming styles, handling and feel to the three films, generating the impression that the three films had actually been filmed at three separate times. Not that the three directors (Anand Tucker, James Marsh and Julian Jarrold) belong to the cream of the british film fraternity, maybe apart from Marsh, who’s still fresh from directing the Oscar winning documentary, Man on Wire, which still keeps us in the dark as to his capabilities when handling linear-narrative fiction. Not many filmmakers jump between the two sacred, basic genres of modern cinema, maybe giants like Wiener Herzog do, yes. But for others, it’s really not easy.
Talking about genres, I’m not sure and I haven’t had any genuine opportunity to deny this fact, but when it comes to crime-heavy movies depicting serial killers and investigations in pursuit of such criminals in the traditional format, from the point of view of those in pursuit, there haven’t been any good movies out of UK in this department at all. And comparing this fact with that of American films, there lies pure contrast. The only other time British television launched me into the world of serial-crimes, be it in the sixties, or in the modern times, was in the hugely popular tv-series – Life on Mars, which actually got me quite irritated, trying to find a solution to the time-warp paradox, and milking it out of proportions, killing the fun in it completely.
Still, this shouldn’t mean that such incidents are new to this country. And this trilogy pretty much makes up for the void that at least I see here.
Without revealing too much of the plots, the first part,1974 starts with the discovery of a disturbing corpse of a very young girl, who has been found to be bound, tortured, raped, mutilated with bloody engravings on her body and real swan wings stitched to her back. The police immediately jump to damning conclusions and Leonard Cole, an obvoiusly innocent autistic boy is framed and jailed quickly. The sinister silencing-down by the officials appear suspicious. The horrors of the reality soon catches up with amateur journalist Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) who decides to dig deeper, only to discover a huge ring of corruption and cover-ups involving his own chief editor, the local police chiefs, the mother of a victim, a powerful businessman (Sean Bean) and the violence of it all waiting to eat him up.
The second part, 1980 goes behind the notorious real-lief serial killer, the “Yorkshire Ripper”, a dramatisation of the investigations and the ever-looming hand of the corrupt police force. Paddy Considine plays Peter Hunter, partly connected with the events that took place as a bloody culmination of the first movie. He is assigned to bring in a “fresh perspective” to an already prolonged and publicly defamed team of detectives. He’s given all the support he needs, the team members he wants and the voluminous casefiles of the Ripper. Soon, he realises the mistrust and deception lurking within his own department and his own team when the Ripper is “caught”, and cofesses to all but one of the murders in their files, hinting at the possibility of the first of many Copycat Murders, which eventually keep continuing even after the arrest.
Part three plays the role of a redemption prayer to both the first two films. Heavily intertwined with what we see in Part one, 1983 brings back two very quiet characters, Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey) and an elusive male prostitute, BJ (Robert Sheehan) both of whom have gathered significant information about local authority figures without coming into much prominence. An otherwise grumpy public-solicitor, John Piggott (Mark Addy) decides to help Leonard Cole, the autistic boy, now in jail.. only to discover a huge ring of paedophililes, operating professionally on a very high level, with his own late father’s name embroiled in the mess. The mental turmoils these people undergo comes a full circle when the last few moments bring such a climax to the trilogy, that the total horror of it all becomes a form of artistic extremism in itself during the final ten minutes of the last movie.
Inspite of being a small production under the Channel 4 banner, and originally being straight, made-for-television films, so much detail has been deployed in the making of this epic, that even the camera-formats used in filming the three parts have their purposes. 1974 and 1980 were filmed in 16mm and 32mm formats respectively, while the final part was shot in standard,modern high definition. Julian Jarrold (1974) uses several closeup shots with deep camera focusing that seemingly blurs-in the foreground into more creepily detail, while James Marsh (1980) tries and minimises excessive colour-editing, unlike the other two. Anand Tucker’s 1983 however ends up looking the best with strong contrast ratios and heavy, smoke-filled, stationary shots. The cloudy skies of Yorkshire (where the trilogy was filmed, using predominantly local crew members) are a perpetual gray, providing a favorable, even light to the cinematography. The yorkshire accents are so thick in places, you’d be grateful for the subtitles in the US-release.
Though the storyline might appear to suit any location, be it yorkshire, London, or even someplace in the US, what makes it necessarily adaptive to only the provincial town of Yorkshire, are in many ways, exclusive..from the public reactions to the horrific incidents, the attitude of the self-righteous, but indigenous press against the police force, the personal isolation felt amidst the community members and the eerie beauty of the landscape that brings in a whole new artistic sense to the horror spewing out of this little county; this is Neo-Noir at its best. Each of the lead characters seemed to fall short of actually becoming “likeable”, as long as their plotlines were in the foreground, the concept of using sex as a means of comfort might baffle some, but the complete absence of sexual tension preceding such passionate episodes of lovemaking is so typical of the elusive genre called Noir, which so few filmmakers seem to have provided. Relationships arise amidst the sense of apparent comfort. Eddie falls in love with a mother whose daughter was a victim, Hunter has a prior history with his partner-detective, and Maurice starts to bond with a sipritual medium, who helps him find the source of the murders, talking through spirits. Still, the directors knew where to draw the line between love and trust. At the point where Maurice seems so sure of whatever the medium (Saskia Reeves) is trying to convey…even we are reduced to blindly trusting some impeding breakthrough where there is absolutely no hope otherwise for those wrongly implicated into life sentences.
The films actually work as standalone masterpieces themselves, though the real ingenuity is seen when watched as a complete set, spanning approximately the entirety of five nail-biting hours. The trilogy isn’t so much about what happens objectively, but about the world in which it takes place, an abyss of greed and evil. The experience is so diverse and immersive, that by the time we watch the final part of the series, we have come across so many characters and complex plot twists, clues and dead ends, that we find ourselves evolved into such a state that we’d suspect even the most unlikely of characters put before us. Everybody could be a suspect, lawmakers, businessmen, doctors, priests, a mentally unstable lad, even the autistic boy in prison.
It’s rare to achieve such an intense level of quality within a single production, and three different directors, which is why some simply choose to ignore theatrical time limits and proceed to make considerably lengthy masterpieces like The Best of Youth, Shoah, Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Lord of the Rings, all involving production budgets of many small countries’ GDP figures put together. But to hardly spark a news-flash (do yourself a favor and don’t watch the cheesy US-release trailers, they’re horrible), with a restricted television-studio budget and a quality supporting cast (Sean Bean, Jim Carter, Warren Clarke, Rebecca Hall and David Morrissey included), Channel 4 has achieved something as spectacular in it’s own right, and the result is there for all the front-row critics to put down their note-taking and sit with their jaws in their laps. Unbelievable.

By Fazil (at PassionForCinema.com)
To read the original article, click here

This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Terribly Happy


The ironically titled Danish film 'Terribly Happy' is the tale of a cop sent to serve as local Marshall in a remote border town in South Jutland called Skarrild that doesn't need cops or have much use for them. It's a place where nothing much happens. Ha! Well -- that's what they say. This part of the country, you don't know if you're coming or going. People use the same monosyllable, "Mojn" (pronounced "moyn") to say both "hello" and "goodbye." Men of few words, they are, these boozy locals, who like to settle scores their way, not "by the book." Klepto kids are just boxed brutally on the ears and sent packing. There's a bog that swallows up junk, sometimes a cow, maybe some darker secrets. This place is insular, mysterious, and weird. And a bog, like a pistol, once introduced, must be used.
'Frygtelig lykkelig' (it sounds funnier in Danish) has its own rhythm and momentum, and a snappy style including a sound design that's sometimes explosive, sometimes ironic. The film's consistently effective, and has a unique feel, though at times its hodgepodge of genres and stylistic borrowings evokes Coen brothers (especially 'Blood Simple') and David Lynch work as it would be if the American auteurs had filmed in Danish in consultation with Aki Kaurismaki. A mix of psychological thriller, horror story, and neo-noir, it moves fast but also manages to take the time necessary to also be a mood piece in which the town vies with the cop for the role of protagonist.
Here are the outlines, but the details have to be omitted because it's all in the surprises and twists. Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is the policeman from Copenhagen sent out here because he's had a mental breakdown some time ago. He has, shall we say, anger issues. "You're working your way up?" somebody says. Again: ha! He's in serious limbo. He looks convincing in his police uniform and has a modicum of leading man looks. But then again there's something a bit fuzzy about him too -- something a bit lost. He misses an estranged or divorced wife back home, and repeatedly tries to call her and a little daughter, but without results. He has messed up in some way, and this is a punishment assignment.
Like many noir heroes, Robert comes on the scene already in trouble and immediately gets into more. A pretty but dicey blond called Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), appears, saying her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) has beaten her. She barges in on Robert the way many a dubious babe has appeared on a hapless noir detective's doorstep. It's not so much a domestic squabble complaint as an attempted seduction -- and instant jeopardy for Robert. He can't ignore Ingerlise but there's no safe way to deal with her. The local rule against outside "by the book" punishments is compounded by the fact that Jørgen turns out to be a scary dude, the town bully; also a man said to have fathered a number of children around town.
The only kids we see are shoplifters corralled by the local grocer, whom Robert learns to smack as instructed rather than book (the kids, that is, not the grocer). And then there's the well-dressed Dorothe (Mathilde Maack), Ingerlise and Jørgen's little girl, who's often seen creepily pushing a big baby carriage around the town's empty, haunted streets with her teddy bear inside. It seems when bad stuff begins at home, she escapes by pushing the carriage. Funnily enough rumor has it she's not Jørgen's. You just don't know, around here.
Genz toys with the unexpected in ways that transcend the film's various genres. These include the Western too, since Jørgen wears a ten-gallon hat and, as odd and menacing at times as Dennis Hopper's bad guy in 'Blue Velvet,' he winds up in a "shoot out" against Robert. Only, in truly Danish style, the shots exchanged are of whiskey, alternating with chugged bottles of beer. (Another bar regular's face is a dead ringer for Hopper's.)
Robert's an outsider but it's never fully clear whether Skarrild wants to exclude him or lock him in forever as one of theirs. His tarnished rep appeals to them because the town's own morals are generally shaky. There's a running card game of the self-declared "quack" Dr. Zerlang (Lars Brygmann) and other local fixtures want Robert for a fourth at the card table. "Everyone knows everything but says nothing" about you in this town, is the rule, and so they know Robert's secrets when he arrives and soon know more in the nightmare Ingerlise and Jørgen force upon him, which he may eventually resolve, or make worse; he must let the town decide. The town has the last laugh, but so do we.
Adapted from a novel by Erling Jepsen,'Terribly Happy' has been richly rewarded in Denmark for its skillful direction, cinematography, writing, and acting. Henrik Ruben Genz obviously had fun making this. It probably didn't hurt much that both he and Erling Jepsen are from the South Jutland region.

Crossed Tracks


Roman de gare is a complex film that begins almost too convoluted, but ends on a perfect note of closure. A story about a man on a journey for research on his next book becomes a visualization of the same suspense aspects he is manifesting in his head for the novel. We as an audience are hard-pressed to decide whether this man is truly a writer, a teacher who has left his school and family behind, an escaped serial killer magician, or, yes, God himself. Much like the soon to be lead role in his latest masterpiece of fiction, he actually becomes each one, playing the parts at just the right time until we finally see how everything that occurs has been orchestrated by his actions. It is not that he meant for it all to happen, no, chance and fate played a part as well. However, when all is said and done, Pierre Laclos has put his hands to the dough and molded a series of events in the real world to mirror the freedom he has in his mind when composing his thrillers. An unlikely God, Laclos takes himself seriously for once and decides to step out of the shadows that have been shrouding him for too long. The ghost is ready to take shape.

The first twenty minutes or so of this film can be quite disorienting. Timelines jump and characters appear and disappear making way for a completely different set of people to take center stage. What is shown becomes so oddly juxtaposed that I began to think this was to be a sort of Lynchian piece, showing multiple planes of reality, maybe even visualizing the novel in conjunction with the author's search for inspiration. The fact that we are introduced to the celebrated writer Judith Ralitzer straight away, talking about her new novel God, The Other, yet are soon whisked to meet Laclos as he travels just after the release of her previous book, confusing us as to where we are in time, begins to make us question what is real and what is not. Allusions to a killer magician and the disappearance of a woman's husband plant the seeds that our hero Laclos could be some sort of nefarious creature, playing a role with the young woman he kindly drives home after her blowup with her fiancé. Maybe this is the man that abandoned his family, or maybe he is the killer that murdered said man and took his identity, or maybe still he is neither and just a pawn in the hands of the filmmaker. My mind was racing trying to work out what might be happening, but thankfully as the story progresses, these questions are answered, every single thread finds a connection to each other—and not in the simple ways you assume they will—and the tale hits its stride as it sticks to one present time until finding its way back to the beginning of the film, which in reality is the end of the story.

That last convoluted paragraph might have your mind reeling now before you even experience the film itself, but rest assured, it all does make sense. Roman de gare isn't some trite piece with its only goal being to manipulate and confuse, no, it does have a place it wants to go to and eventually reaches that destination. Every move is carefully orchestrated and infuses a lot of humor with the dark subject matter being portrayed. When you hear the description that will be used for the back of the book jacket of God, The Other, just remember it because I could have probably copied those words down here and it would have served perfectly as a review of the film. Because in essence, the novel being written as the movie goes on is the movie itself. Like that scene in Spaceballs when they decide to watch the movie they are in and eventually find themselves on a live feed as they fast-forwarded too far—that is this film. What is shown to us is what is written in the book, even that which happens after its publishing. It is the perfect crime in double.

Writer/director Claude Lelouch has crafted a very special thing here, always keeping the viewers on their toes, surprising even when it is obvious what will happen next. I will admit to never having heard of this former Oscar winning screenwriter, but suffice it to say, he has been added to my consciousness to try a seek his previous and future work. The story is what really succeeds, but it couldn't have done it without a really well versed cast. Fanny Ardent is great as Ralitzer, conniving and persuasive, you can never tell what she is capable of and in some instances aren't given the opportunity to find out as other characters are one step ahead of her; Audrey Dana is gorgeous and affecting as Huguette, the heroine of the film and novel alike; and Dominique Pinon is wonderful as always playing Laclos, stealing the show with his affable charm and kind heart—no one plays the ordinary man alive with life better. A common face amongst the work of auteur Jenuet, Pinon shows that he can carry a movie and hopefully will continue to do so in the years to come.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Central Station



Central Station begins with a shot of several large groups of people pouring out of train carriages and onto the platform at a local train station. The shot is linked to the next scene that takes place on ground level of the station, that being a pouring out of emotions that happens when several people partake in dictating letters to a woman they've never met but entrust to write down what they've said before mailing them off to the chosen address' of loved ones. Just in the opening, director Walter Salles foretells the spilling out of emotion the characters will go through in this film whilst, some might argue, bringing to attention the illiteracy problem that he believes plagues his native Brazil. The opening also goes a long way in establishing the protagonist of the film, a certain Dora (Montenegro), and how she is 'before' the film develops her. Central Station is, essentially, a road movie but it is one of the better road movies that I have ever seen. It is a humbling and thoroughly interesting piece that studies two people of binary oppositions in a situation that consistently pushes weight down on top of a delicate mindset that is possessed by the protagonist.
As a character, Dora is initially unlikable. She spends her days writing out letters dictated to her by illiterate people but rarely posts them to their respective addresses. She is friendless, bar a loose woman named Irene (Pêra) whom visits from the apartment downstairs, and does not have any family or pets. But what makes Central Station so memorable is the gradual changes Dora undergoes in order to become a better person and this is accomplished through the time she spends with a very young boy named Josué (de Oliveira). So the film is a character study, made in a language that is not of the English variety and stretches out to a little bit under two hours. But what brought it its success, I think, is its familiarity in regards to structure, a constantly shifting film that moves on down its single strand arc, effortlessly gliding from location to location and setup to pay-off. The beginning of Dora's transformation occurs not so far from her own door given how many miles she must travel in this film. She witnesses a young boy steal something from a stand before he is chased by security and mercilessly shot in a desolate area near the station.
The initial incident from the outside that interrupts Dora's life, which itself could constitute as the set up, is her acquiring of Josué, when a tragedy befalls him. She figures he is helpless and may need to steal to live, similarly to what the prior, now dead, youth had to do also. The centre of the film revolves around Dora delivering Josué to his father, an address that she acquired a few days earlier when the boy's own mother dictated a letter to her. The character's goal is in a very remote and far off place, too many bus rides and truck lifts away to be reached in a relatively quick time. But complications to do with people having moved on or being missing equate to the two having to trek on to the point where it would be wiser to continue into the unknown rather than just turn back, since a certain point as been crossed. During this time, Dora will undergo a transformation.
The ideas behind the film are perfectly captured by a truck driver, whose words double up as the film's entire study, something the author(s) wants to make quite clear. At one point, whilst driving flat out on the open road, the trucker exclaims that 'the open road has changed him'. Not only this but 'many times' when discussing his job and his experiences with Dora. Principally this is exactly the point. Central Station, being the 'road movie' that it is, allows two or slightly more persons to learn more about themselves as they travel on a continuous route of no return. This is the crux of the film as explained by an individual who is helpful for as long as he needs to be, states what he needs to state before being removed from the text once his kind-natured spirit is brought into repute for aiding in some shoplifting. Additionally, the boy Josué himself brings to both our and Dora's attention Dora's flaws.
If the demonisation of Josué's father is very much present as this uncaring and far away individual, who enjoyed being under the influence of alcohol, then the boy points out Dora bears a similar mindset with her attitudes to alcohol. The statement draws on parallels with the father, as this uncaring and quite solemn individual who doesn't see job through. Then we remember Dora's attitude to all the letters she wrote and to the people she took money off of, while she insulted them in the process. Is Dora any better than the boy's father? Did she ever stop to think of this? Perhaps the father is a better person for at least he, as pointed out by the boy, could mould wood and earn a living out of a skill. While thoroughly engaging and always interesting as interactions and situations are played out, Central Station takes time to develop exchanges and studies like all great, slow-burning character studies do. The film is rewarding in a spiritual, dramatic and emotional sense and it could quite feasibly be labelled as one of the better films to ever come out of South America.

Night of the Sunflowers



Is it actually possible that the Coen brothers, while in the process of scripting a movie like, say No Country For Old Men or Miller’s Crossing somehow got lost in a village in Spain, trading their way out in return for one of their scripts, and that script has made it out today into a brilliant thriller, so reminiscent of their style, only this time at the hands of an unknown Spanish filmmaker, in fact his very first directorial venture?? Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo seems very denying, though. He could have, with such a prized script approached any big production house and claimed fame to someone else’s ingenuity. Why then, did he decide to start his work from where he finds himself at home, i.e. rural Spain? Why cast a bunch of unknown actors into a promising script? And what on earth made him venture so far out into the desolateness that he claims, is the becoming of the smaller villages within Spain? Perhaps, there lies an ulterior motive in this brilliant script. And perhaps he did, after all script the movie himself. It’s an insult to any American cinephile, who has no conceptual idea that countries across the Atlantic also make movies, and better ones too.

Night of the Sunflowers is not necessarily a character study. We simply have here, a series of unfortunate events that results out of a meeting by chance, between a rapist and murderer, and his next victim. The rapist will try to victimize a young woman, and who she is and where it all takes place play a decisive part in the violent events that will ensue. So this movie has several strong points. One of them is showing how someone completely unrelated to the rest of the main characters of the story, someone who meets one of those people (the young woman) by chance, can be the trigger for all we're about to see. Then, the structure is very attractive too, as the director tries to make full portraits of each important character and show us, not only what they're doing there, but where they come from, in every sense; he shows us what that person is like, their personality and motivations, and what they want, basically; then he drops that character into the spiral of events that have been started by the attack to the young woman, and so comes this suspenseful story, involving two speleologists, the girlfriend of their leader, a very honest and stern old cop and a dishonest, corrupt young one, and two old men who live in an otherwise derelict village.

Jorge Sánchez’s script takes us on a trail of deceit and murder, edging us to rationalize the circumstances in which these incidents take place. We somehow do exactly that, with no remorse as to the consequences, in the light of what we think is significant or obscure. All that rationalization later makes us feel guilty in a brilliant epiphany towards the end. Somehow, the source of all the evil here is shown as what comes with the arrival of outsiders into an otherwise placid village life. The difference between the natives and the townsfolk is so apparent; it’s literally chalked in black and white. On a later introspection, it is exactly this difference which boils down the series of crimes -unknowingly committed- to what is right and what is wrong. Somehow, we find ourselves at the receiving end of a basic moral instinct which we uphold when faced with a more societal setting. And that, according to Jorge Sánchez is a more obstinate, impervious and obscene act than the real crime we see here.