Sunday, September 13, 2015

Tales of Hoffmann

frieze no.173, sept 2015

 click to enlarge
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015


It’s not clear what’s going on at the start of Crumbs, except for the info imparted via opening titles, that we are in some sort of post-apocalyptic world, where mankind has lost the urge for survival. A little hunchbacked man treks across a fantastical, extraterrestrial-seeming landscape, finds a plastic Christmas tree, spots a uniformed Nazi in gas mask and sparkly Mickey Mouse ears, and takes to his heels. This is the first Ethiopian surreal science-fiction movie.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

El elefante desaparecido (The Vanished Elephant)

From the very opening, we are warned that this is a film of doubling and illusion. A car slowly pulls up and to a stop in a nighttime Lima street, but we gradually realise that we are observing the scene through a large window, with the street and headlamps subtly reflecting and shifting in the pulled focus. It turns out that this sequence – man with gun stealthily enters house – forms the final chapter of Edo Celeste’s latest in a long line of successful detective novels, and he is composing it as we watch, before deleting it in disgust at his reliance on cliche – a black cat. It also turns out that later on Edo himself will repeat the exact same actions, via the same shots, trying to find the woman who can help him find the mysterious man who has posed for a photographic project depicting his works’ hero, Felipe Aranda, who also seems to be the presumed-dead husband of the mysterious woman who kickstarts the plot by summoning Edo to a clifftop rendez-vous and presenting him with a package of photographs allegedly mailed to his name to her address by said deceased husband, Raphael Pineda (yes, it’s an anagram of Felipe Aranda). And that black cat will turn up again, more than once.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jimmy's Hall

After the foolish fondness of The Angel’s Share (2012), Ken Loach is back in familiar ground with the story of Jimmy Gralton, who built a community hall in Ireland’s County Leitrim in the early 1920s that enraged the local haves. Also involved with reinstating an evicted tenant farmer, he fled to America for ten years or so, before returning to do the same thing all over again. The heart of the film is expressed in the words of his mother, at the hearing on his deportation in 1933 (the only Irishman ever to be deported from his country): “Why is an old tin hall so dangerous?”

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Puerto Ricans in Paris

A particularly hard type of film about which to write critically is the comedy of modest ambition that achieves its aim with an acceptable amount of appeal in playing, gags, plot, and outlook, but little more. One does not wish to criticize for not being more (not least as so many are so less), nor to overpraise its slight achievements, leaving one mostly in the territory of reportage, rather than critical appraisal. Which is a way of saying that such a film is Puerto Ricans in Paris, a perfectly inoffensive, oftentimes smile-raising fish-out-of-water/culture-clash comedy that does what it aims to do pretty much without fault.

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A Midsummer’s Fantasia (Han-yeo-reu-mui Pan-ta-ji-a)

Jang Kun-jae’s third feature is an unusual project, comparable in recent memory only to Miguel Gomes’ singular Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in that it is divided into two distinct halves, the first with an overriding documentary feel, the second using actors from the first to narrate a fiction.

The film takes place in the near-abandoned village of Gojō in the Nara Prefecture of south-central Japan. A young Korean film-maker (Im Hyeong-gook) is visiting with his interpreter (Kim Se-byeok) to research the area and interview locals, and the film’s opening is straight documentary, with credits rolling over a long-held, static shot of a barely-bustling café full of old people, followed by a table interview with the proprietors. The film style adheres closer to something one might wish to call typical east-Asian slow narrative fiction thereafter, however, with lengthy, static shots of people talking, or thinking, frequently with their back to the camera. In the film’s first half these are interspersed with further documentary-style interviews, distinguished by an unselfconscious use of jump cuts in the monologues, although others are played out before the dramatist’s cameras, as Im and Kim talk with various non-acting locals of the region, and we learn from them something of its history and current character (all the young people have left and the school has been closed for twenty years), just as Jang himself did, making his own research.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Cameraman

The Cameraman is the beginning of the end for Buster. After a string of incredible films created in an atmosphere of complete freedom, he moved to MGM and was pretty much put in a straitjacket. Some looseness remained in this, his first outing for them, but his art would become increasingly compromised, and one can already see it: the gags are simpler, less organically developed and character-driven; and whilst there are extended sequences like the terrific Tong War, up in which Buster and his camera get swept, the comic parts of the movie tend to comprise separate bits of business rather than the coherent, fundamentally integrated gag sequences of his past – for example, the climax of his previous feature College (1927), where the separate bits of business are all in service of his rushing to get the girl. The Tong War sequence, by comparison, is mostly a succession of disconnected gags; its throughline has no momentum, despite hilarious moments; and it has a complete non-ending. The same goes for much of the film.

Which is not to say that there are not excellent parts – Buster leaps casually on and off a good number of fast-moving vehicles – and given the subject there is of course a nice amount of cinematic self-awareness and film-making jokes (coincidentally or not, the comically unusable footage he first shoots is a dead ringer for Vertov). There’s also a street-corner cop who functions as a most unusual audience surrogate; every time they encounter one another, Buster is in yet another crazy situation and the cop’s goggling eyes remind us explicitly that without the soothing flow of story, the constituent parts of what we are seeing are not ordinary, not reality. This is only one of a number of elements that work to break the mystique of cinema, although they are of a different, less enchanted cast than the magic of Sherlock Jr. (1924), and it turns out in the end that even a monkey can make a movie.

When Buster and the cop first meet, however, an extended exchange of misunderstanding plays out entirely through inter-titles, and seems to epitomize how Keaton’s comedy was going to be dead-ended from here on. Likewise an extended tussle with a fat man in a small changing room feels un-Keatonish in its restriction (but is nonetheless hilarious). He even executes the perfect slip on a banana peel but for no reason other than to do it – if the rest of the gags were in service to story or character it would be an amusingly irrelevant addition; as it is, it plays like a resigned absurdity, advertising its own spuriousness.

Buster is of course his usual terrific self, but has few truly spectacular stunts to perform. The moving vehicles are a highlight, as well as that consistently balletic quality of perfect timing to his entrances, pratfalls, and moments of realization; and the dash from telephone to the boarding house of his beloved is a perfection of physical comedy in harmony with the emotional thrust of the scene. His paramour, Marceline Day, is particularly lovely, though given predictably little to do, and the real co-star is a delightful capuchin dressed in a sailor’s suit whom Buster acquires in amusingly macabre fashion. The monkey is hilarious, of course, but the unhappy truth is that you know there’s something wrong with a Keaton picture when it needs a monkey, and you get the feeling Buster knows it too.

d Edward Sedgewick, Buster Keaton p Lawrence Weingarten, Buster Keaton sc Clyde Bruckman, Lew Lipton, Byron Morgan, Joseph Farnham ph Reggie Lanning, Elgin Lessley ed Hugh Wynn, Basil Wrangell sd Fred Gabourie cast Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin, Sidney Bracey, Harry Gribbon, Richard Alexander

(1928, USA, 69m, b/w)
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For those who caught the hugely entertaining Mirageman on the festival circuit, the even-less-widely-distributed Mandrill, by the same Chilean team, is well worth seeking out. As the earlier film was a loving, tongue-in-cheek homage to ’70s exploitation-action film, so too is Mandrill, casting the hugely-appealing Marko Zaror this time as an eponymous Bondian hitman, inspired equally by fictitious movie super-agent John Colt (with highly amusing and spot-on film clips), as by the childhood murder of his parents. Unfortunately for him, the daughter of his long-sought target is a beautiful and feisty young woman who provides him first with the challenge of seduction, and subsequently that of staying alive.

The film wears its superficiality happily on its sleeve, reveling in the hard bright light of glamorous commercial photography in sun-drenched exteriors or golden casino interiors, and in the superlative fighting skills of Zaror (with only a minimum of digital assistance). Motivation and characterisation are unashamedly clear-cut, although the sympathy-eliciting cracks in Mandrill’s tough-guy persona are a little over-exposed – his tears flow readily, and when denuded of his designer shades his eyes reveal too clearly the slow-moving cogs behind them to convince as those of an invincible super-man. But otherwise Zaror is a pleasure to watch, perfectly named, an inexorable, manly force with something of both the monkey’s cunning and simple-mindedness.

 The film’s well-judged momentum falters only towards the end, in an oddly curtailed sequence that starts like some trial of strength in grainily-shot rooms (only two) containing ever-tougher opponents; it had the makings of a beautiful series of abstracted confrontations, given the fighting and film-making skills, but it cuts abruptly and disappointingly to the climactic showdown, which itself fails to build on the earlier confrontation that it reprises. But the film is carried off with enough style, and such good humour, particularly in flashbacks to a (well-cast) younger Mandrill and his caring and amusing uncle, and the pastiche is so lovingly accurate – including a vibrant soundtrack of exploitation funk, Barry-esque Bond lines, and hopping tropicalia – that deficiencies of construction and rhythm (tension is too often curiously under-milked, and the script was concocted on the run whilst shooting) are quite happily overlooked for the sake of plain, simple enjoyment, fondly stylish film-making, and the prospect of an unashamedly set-up sequel.

d/sc/ed Ernesto Díaz Espinoza p Derek Rundell, Marko Zaror ph Nicolás Ibieta m Rocco cast Marko Zaror, Celine Reymond, Alejandro Castillo, Luis Alarcón, Augusto Schuster, Francisco Jovanni Guerrero
(2009, Ch, 90m)
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Hanyo (The Housemaid) x2

In 2010, Sang-soo Im boldly took on a remake of one of the beloved classics of South Korean cinema, Ki-young Kim’s The Housemaid (1960). Both are interesting films, and the original at least is worth seeing under any circumstances, if only for its strangeness. They are also different enough that in fact one does not really need to discuss them together, but I am going to anyway.

The 1960 version takes place almost entirely in the newly-built house of a nice young couple who’ve overstretched themselves financially, yet need to take on a housemaid. The husband gives piano lessons, and foxy Ms Cho, one of his pupils, brings a friend from the factory to work as the maid (a magnetic Eun-shim Lee). Before long they have both declared their love for him. Cho is out of the picture without too much difficulty, but Lee is another matter, immediately tagged as a bad girl for her smoking habit. She appears repeatedly at the night-time window with the frightful intensity of Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus (1947), committing atrocious acts of violence, but also manipulated by the couple into a terrible act of self-harm, and imbued with just enough humanity that she cannot be simply written off as a nut-job. The melodrama runs high, with the hysterical horror of the hothouse atmosphere ratcheted up through generous use of thunderstorms and sinister symbolism, and the presence throughout of a bottle of rat poison. The wife’s perpetual refrain that none of this would have happened if she hadn’t wanted a bigger house gives the film a bitter, if not 100% convincing sociological undertow – Korea’s new middle-class overstretching itself – and the unexpected ending frames the film as a case study in male/female relations in a way that is at least (deliberately) amusing if not entirely convincing.

 The modern version shifts the focus from the couple to the maid, and removes all ambiguity from the former’s behaviour, to position them firmly as the villains. They are not struggling middle-class, however, but fabulously rich with the sort of inherited wealth that means Hoon, the husband, has known no life other than being able to have whatever he wants. Kim also alters the Ms Cho character into Mrs Cho, the older housemaid who appears first to be a sort of sinister Mrs Danvers, but becomes a much richer character, and commentator on class distinctions, through a wonderfully textured and funny performance from Yeo-jong Yun. Do-yeon Jeun is similarly gradual in revealing herself as Eun-yi, the new housemaid, seemingly child-like but already divorced, apparently subservient, but with a strong streak of willfulness. She is cast almost completely as the victim here – even before we see her bending over to clean the bath in her little maid’s skirt, we know there’ll be trouble from the commanding, sculpted Hoon. His foxy little wife, with big doll eyes and bee-stung lips (Seo Woo) is ginormously pregnant with twins, but you know he’d be at it anyway. Her deliciously scheming, glamorous mother appears on the scene to sort things out, and things go worse for Eun-yi when she declares decisions about her body to be beyond the control of the all-powerful rich.

 The class distinctions would have benefited from considerably more ambiguity – the family are borderline two-dimensional in their evil, and of course being a housemaid is a shitty job – but an epilogue breaks out the vicious absurdity to fine effect. This manages to claw back some goodwill from the finale proper, which sees Eun-yi flip into unconvincing crazy, and makes all-too-obvious sense of the film’s unnecessary, semi-documentary prologue. But Im builds several scenes around a superbly tingling erotic tension, and much of the whole is shot with a pleasing elegance of movement and framing (unnecessarily excessive use of handheld aside); and even if the meat of its themes fails to satisfy, the performances of Jeun and especially Yun certainly don’t.

d/p/sc Ki-young Kim ph Deok-jin Kim ed Young-keun Oh ad Seok-in Park m Sang-gi Han cast Jin Kyu Kim, Jeung-nyeo Ju, Eun-shim Lee, Aeng-ran Eom, Seon-ae Ko
(1960, SKor, 111m, b/w)

d/sc Sang-soo Im p Jason Chae ph Hyung-deok Lee ed Eun Soo Lee pd Ha-jun Lee m Hong-jip Kim cast Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Woo Seo, Ji-Young Park, Seo-Hyeon Ahn

(2010, SKor, 106m)

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Cave Of Forgotten Dreams

For all his life Werner Herzog has been seeking out the unvisited, the unseen and in some cases, the unimagined, to capture them on film with all the wonder and edge-of-the-world danger that have been his unabated inspiration. One of the least accessible and most fascinating places on the planet (also full of dangerous gas!) is the cave system at Chauvet, where only 17 years ago cave paintings were discovered that were twice the age of the oldest previously known. The French government shut it up tight, allowing limited scientific access and, for brief periods in 2009, Werner Herzog. With a 3D camera no less.

In the enclosed cave, the 3D is great. That uncanny way of seeing fully enhances the intense “experience” of being in such an unusual space. The unweathered folds of rock and the ripples of calcite evoke a lunar or extraterrestrial mood, and chambers seen through chambers create an eerie depth. But its most important function is to demonstrate how the 35,000 year-old art was rendered with careful consideration of the contours and forms of the stone canvas.

Repeated close examination reveals the depictions of a wide variety of animals to have been executed with remarkable sophistication, for all their apparent simplicity. Line, shade, and occasionally colour, are used with exact and discreet skill, and if they necessarily recall Picasso, that is after all only because he recognized their mastery. Some of the effects are yet more surprising, in the suggestion of sound and movement, with repeated anatomical features working like a flick-book or… the movies (“proto-cinema” in that accent).

Other than wildlife, there are a few abstract paintings, a remarkable wall of red handprints, and one mysterious human figure, the lower half of a female, possibly being impregnated by a minotaur, rendered on a fat downward-hanging outcrop (the mystery in part is due to the authorities’ odd decision not to lay the access walkway so as to allow full examination of the reverse – Herzog puts his camera on a stick). Above ground, we’re shown a similar, modeled figure in the Schwabian museum and one yearns to learn more about the connection and function, but the mists of time remain opaque.

In fact, not only for its pictorial value, Herzog has got his hands on another cracking documentary subject, since most of the questions he could possibly ask are simply answerable by “we’ll never know” (which he relishes in his voiceover). He is also blessed with a good handful of learned, engaging, and varyingly eccentric interviewees amongst the scientists involved with the site. They all have a marked philosophical bent that makes up for the lack of hard facts, and Herzog is particularly pleased to learn that one serious young man used to be in the circus. There’s also “Experimental Archeologist” Wulf who demonstrates the remarkable discovery that these people used a true pentatonic scale for their simple flutes, whilst garbed in (?)correct period dress; the sense that Herzog has sought out some strange woodland peasants is confirmed when we meet the guy who’s basically ex-head-of-perfume in France (only in France!), who hunts for caves by smell.

Herzog covers a lot of ground, but there remains a sense that this is not as inquiring a documentary as it might be. He makes the most of his time in the cave, but a slightly joshing air in the rest of the – presumably non-time-pressed – sequences goes hand in hand with typically Herzogovian nonsense like “these images are memories of long-forgotten dreams” in the “enchanted world of the imaginary”. Shadows on the cave wall lead him irrelevantly to Fred Astaire rather than to Plato, and the albino alligator epilogue is merely spurious. His usually sure sense of music unfoots him here too: medieval choirs are always good, but heartbeats rarely are, and Ernst Reijseger’s score resorts too frequently to self-consciousness mournfulness and try-hard trance.

Suggested traces of spirituality in the cave’s contents indicate a sentience developed enough for us to acknowledge the inhabitants as ancestors. Herzog’s most promising supposition is that it is “as if the modern soul awakened here” (this is indeed the point at which Neanderthals had been almost entirely replaced by H.sapiens), and Herzog worries at our profound disconnection with something so fundamentally connected. Needless to say, we’ve next to no idea who these artists were, although tantalizing evidence is found in the wall of handprints, via which other work by the same individual can be identified throughout the caves. The question posed is basically: what is humanness? (“we shall never know”!), and if this avenue diverts to a Romantic musing on man’s relation to the splendor and perpetuity of landscape, at least the Ardèche River valley is utterly gorgeous. For all one might wish for a little more serious inquiry, it is a remarkable and invaluable record that provides plenty of food for thought.

d/sc Werner Herzog p Adrienne Ciuffo, Erik Nelson ph Peter Zeitlinger ed Joe Bini, Maya Hawke, Ernst Reijseger with Werner Herzog, Jean Clottes, Julien Monney, Jean-Michel Geneste, Michelle Philippe, Gilles Tostello, Carole Fritz, Wulf Hein
(2010, Can/USA/UK/Fr/Ger, 95m) 
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An irrepressible and disappointingly unheralded film: Marko Zaror plays Maco, a mild-mannered young man who works out in his bedsit, seems to have no friends or acquaintances aside from a younger, mentally-ill, and hospitalized brother, but boasts some mean martial arts skills and a built bod. One night out jogging he foils a home invasion with fearful excitement, and via one of the victims, a TV reporter (young, blonde, pretty María Elena Swett), his act of heroism and subsequent disappearing act (like a mirage!) becomes well-known throughout Santiago. He is immediately taken with the idea of this vigilante persona, not least since the TV coverage prompts signs of interest in his chronically withdrawn brother.

Director Ernesto Dí­az Espinoza says his twin inspirations were Taxi Driver and the live-action TV “Spiderman”; the darkness of the former is largely absent until the finale, where the knockabout comedic tone is slightly jarred by the sinister lair and purpose of the the Paedofilia Red gang, whence Mirageman’s final mission is to rescue a little girl. Otherwise, Spidey holds sway, as Maco punches and kicks his way through gangs and purse-snatchers across Santiago (several sequences apparently filmed with a hidden camera), culminating in a terrific set-piece as Mirageman fights off countless black-clad goons, Bruce Lee-style, in the grounds and patios of a country mansion, before winding up on a hillside arena-like terrace, facing off against a beardless Chuck Norris-a-like.

 Zaror’s skills carry the film – often the action was improvised as he would let a couple of thugs come on him and wait to see how he would defend himself until the camera rolled – enhanced by a shooting style that lets his moves speak eloquently for themselves, helped occasionally by some discrete editing. It’s also very funny, such as the sequence where Maco tries out a succession of outfits, or makes himself a vigilante shopping list (including “flexible trousers”), and particular fun is poked at the exploitative media through news reports and on-the-street interviews (mostly negative about the city’s new vigilante, save the amusingly odd would-be sidekick, Pseudo-Robin), along with headline pages through which unrolls the subplot of the reporter’s manipulation of her new-found celebrity, and subsequent fall from grace. The film is perhaps too thin an idea to stretch to the potential sequel or the TV series currently in production in Chile, but it’s hugely enjoyable, well-paced, good-natured, and even somewhat touching in the end.

d/sc/ed Ernesto Díaz Espinoza p Derek Rundell, Marko Zaror ph Nicolás Ibieta pd Constanza Lopehandía Meza m Rocco cast Marko Zaror, María Elena Swett, Ariel Mateluna, Mauricio Pesutic, Iván Jara, Jack Arama, Gina Aguad, Eduardo CastroArturo Ruiz Tagle
(2007, Ch/USA, 90m)
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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Imaginary Documentaries of Montreal Filmmakers Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack

The Bitter Ash

A rather precious thing happened in Montreal in the mid 1970s. Canadian cinema had been dominated by the National Film Board since its formation in 1940, and the generally-perceived character of Canadian film was all educational documentary, and not a lot of fun. Directors such as Claude Jutra, Don Owen, and Gilles Groulx struck off on their own to make the first Canadian new wave fiction films (A tout prendre [1963], Nobody Waved Goodbye, and Le chat dans le sac [both 1964] respectively), on the back of independents like Sydney J. Furie’s groundbreaking A Dangerous Age (1959) and Larry Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963), but for all their youthful, semi-bohemian trappings, these were still quite po-faced affairs. Then came the “genial loser” films of the 70s, led by Owen’s Goin’ Down The Road (1970), and others such as The Rowdyman (Peter Carter, 1972) and Paperback Hero (Peter Pearson, 1973), for the first time really reflecting blue-collar life back to Canadians through fiction. Yet still there wasn’t much joy to be found, even in the much-lauded The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Ted Kotcheff, 1974). For the first time, however, there did seem to be a viable future for Canadian fiction feature making, so the government, in its wisdom, upped the Capital Cost Allowance tax break for film investment to 100%. This basically created a tax shelter whereby anyone with some cash could write it off against production of a film, which didn’t even need to be finished, let alone exhibited or make back its money. So a free-for-all ensued, sleaze and genre holding the day and, amongst other things, launching the career of one D. Cronenberg – his Montreal-set Shivers (1975) earned a magazine article entitled “You Should Know How Bad This Movie Is. After All, You Paid For It” (Saturday Night 83, September 1975). more at
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Friday, February 13, 2015

Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf)

The last time I saw Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, it had been selected by AFI Festival guest director David Lynch ffor a special (and it was) screening in Grauman's Chinese theater. No surprise - the film's psychological horror techniques echo throughout Lynch’s oeuvre from Eraserhead on. I will admit to having an unresolved relationship with Bergman (don’t we all!) but whichever way you slice it, this is a film of both brilliantly mounted psychological tension, and of naked, neurotic exposure that could have been made by nobody but Bergman, and would barely even have been contemplated by anyone else – partly because he displays that same sense of self-importance as always, but this time it’s fundamental to the subject matter, and in any case, it’s hard to say that it isn’t actually justified.

The film is set up in good mysterious style by the passed-on-diary device of a vanished artist, and a mournful opening monologue from his lover Alma (Liv Ullmann). Max von Sydow is the stern-faced Johan, recovering from an unspecified physical illness with possible mental roots, on a possibly deserted island. The couple enjoys a moment of happy idyll, but as soon as Johan lights a gaslamp beneath his face, the darkness comes rushing on. Johan shows Alma (not us!) the grotesque figures who appear in his sketchbook. Then visions arrive: his dead mother, a past lover, a sycophant. The sycophant turns up again, when the pair accepts an invitation to dine with the brusque, menacing Baron (Erland Josephson) in his castle on the other side of the island. The aristocratic guests, it turns out, are something like a manifestation of Johan’s demons, led by the sinister vampiric figure identified with Johan’s sketchbook Birdman.

The film is split explicitly into two halves, and when the hour of the wolf comes on, that dead of night time when it seems day may never come again, and one’s darkest fears and impulses take control, physical reality becomes relative as Johan embarks on a nightmare course through the surreal geography of the castle, needled and threatened by the uncanny aristocrats. He’s directed into a tryst with a grotesque former lover, and finally experiences the artist’s ultimate humiliation, clown-faced before a cruel, laughing audience, unable to perform, deprived even of his physical voice.

The film is remarkable both for its technique of escalating horror, and for the autobiographical nakedness of artistic insecurity. Bergman borrows a certain amount from the classic tradition – the Birdman is a deliberate dead-ringer for Lugosi, complete with Nosferatu’s folded ears, and Erlandson is shot to look like Karloff as the Monster. But there’s also hugely effective use of concrete music, Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro photography is dazzlingly brilliant, and the film is filled with eerily surreal moments all of its own, be it a corridor flapping with birds, an old woman removing her eyeballs and face, or a spine-tingling effect that has the Baron walk, tortured and hunched, up a wall and onto the ceiling, physical horror born of pure emotion (and an ur-epitome of the Lynchian style).

The result is hugely effective – manipulative to an extent, of course, like all horror films, but shot through with a dread that is palpably Bergman’s own (autobiographical elements are sprinkled throughout), and a desperation made explicit in Johan’s passionate explanation of the artist’s compulsion to create, in the face of a world that doesn’t care. A shame therefore, that the nightmare ends in prosaically explicit fashion, unmistakably pointing to a specific guilt as the source of his self-torture. A shame too, that Liv Ullman’s character is smothered by Bergman's tendency for beautiful, intelligent women who will stick by their men no matter what, utterly subservient. Like Bergman himself, Johan is a great man, through one’s relationship to whom it is only natural that a partner should define herself, it seems.

The film was conceived as a companion piece to Persona, and that earlier work’s theme of personality transference/merger is prodded again, but far less fruitfully – Alma is a spectator to Johan’s visions, and suggests that the demons have been transferred to her at the end, but this a slightly irrelevant adjunct to the central portrait of the tortured artist, and her character feels merely like an excuse to include a spectator. Both actors are brilliant, of course, and Bergman lets them free on a number of long takes of textured acting dynamics, while Ullman does at least give Alma a tragic helplessness – she can make you cry just be looking at a camera – as she attempts to pull the dismissive Johan back to the real world.

However one feels about Bergman and his self-regard, this is a killer example of a master film-maker at the peak of his powers. With this film as with Persona, it's not as though he uses a lots of experimental techniques (though he kind of does), but one feels that he could use anything at all, that he has all of cinema’s possibilities at his fingertips, and that he knows how to invent what he needs. It’s not an easy film, but approached with caution, neither is it an especially difficult one; if one is prepared to pay a little attention, it is a rich and frightening and totally captivating experience, which is just as it should be.

d/sc Ingmar Bergman p Lars Owe-Carlberg ph Sven Nykvist ed Ulla Ryghe pd Mari Vos-Lundh m Lars Johan Werle cast Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, Gertrud Fridh, Georg Rydeberg, Naima Wifstrand, Ulf Johansson
(1968, Swe/Nor, 99m, b/w)
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Sawdust City

This is a great example of something or other: the synopsis in the 2011 LA Film Festival programme made it sound like a tired Midwest indie. It’s debatable whether it’d have seemed more or less attractive if they’d added that it was inspired specifically by Cassavetes’ terrific Husbands, and by him and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky. First-time director David Nordstrom was on hand to introduce the screening, and dedicated it to the just-passed Falk. Falk would have liked it a lot, I believe.

Nordstrom was not slavish in his inspiration, and nor did he confine himself, channeling a load of wintery 70s vibe with a sailor and a knapsack. A first-rate opening montage introduces us in very natural fashion to two brothers, who’ll soon see each other again after several years apart, with closeness and caginess. On the soundtrack, Pete the sailor calls brother Bob from a bar, chews the fat, lets on he’s in town, and says he’s got to find dad. They spend the night, and the rest of the film, on a bar crawl. Some personal, emotional stuff comes out, of course, but mostly the film lets them just be together, spar, drink, annoy, and generally fit.

The whole premise allows Nordstrom to hit obvious notes, but he nails almost all of them, dispensing the secrets of absence and family with care, and creating a couple of central characters whom one would be happy to watch doing almost anything together. He takes Bob himself, opposite Carl McLaughlin, a quiet, stolid presence who perfectly registers restrained annoyance, and makes his shell almost visible. But Bob is the remarkable creation, and a selfless performance – he can be such a dick at times that strangers want to beat him up. But he’s always ready to forget and raise another beer, and his obligatory toilet confessional is properly great.

If the film were no more than that, it'd be pretty fine, but it has a killer touch: the brothers are joined by Gene (Lee Lynch), a free-flowing barfly and practiced freeloader, who injects a great deal of amusement into the proceedings, supposedly guiding them to their dad. The kicker is that it’s exactly like late 60s Dennis Hopper is in the movie: his first shot is an instant classic, sitting at the bar, telling a hilarious story, with cowboy hat and shaggy beard. But it’s not an imitation: in speech he has echoes of Hopper, but his own voice. Lynch is brilliant, in a really unusual move pulled off to a tee.

The film plays out to a spot-on soundtrack of 70s bar rock, and the feeling for that kind of small-town bar existence is note perfect (filmed in Nordstrom’s home town). Photography is handsomely appropriate, by James Laxton; there’s a great deal of humour; and the emotional stuff is almost all handled well. If the final dialogue is cliché-ridden, the characters have earned it – and would they not be likely to talk that way? Thing is, Cassavetes and Falk wouldn’t have, and one misses the first-rate naturalism of the rest of the script. But overall, terrific.

d/sc/ed David Nordstrom p Mike Ott ph James Laxton m John Wood  cast David Nordstrom, Carl McLaughlin, Lee Lynch, John Brotherton, Becca Barr, Julie Carlson
(2011, USA, 97m)
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God's Ears

The best lap-dancer in town, Alexia, leads a self-contained but perhaps rather lonely life until in remarkably quick succession she meets, befriends, and falls in love with a handsome young autistic man, Noah. Everything goes gently and sweetly until for no apparent reason she decides she doesn’t want to let any close to her after all. But don’t worry, it all turns out fine, for this is a film about how the strength and courage of the mentally disabled can be an inspiration to us all; it is also a film that will cheerfully frame the first word of the “Live Nude Girls” sign outside Lexy’s club to provide her with hope in her moment of doubt; and one in which it will gradually be revealed that Noah possesses an impressively and improbably sculpted torso.

As it happens, though, he shadow boxes in his room, and sweeps up at John Saxon’s gym, the latter present to embody the warning regret of missed opportunity, and to roll out the life lessons (the ring is like a tabernacle, didn't you know?). The film is carried by the central performances: Margot Farley as Lexy mostly just has to look bright-eyed or soulful, which she does very well, and has a nice rapport with her fellow dancers; but writer/director Mark Worth is remarkably effective as Noah, detailed and admirably restrained, and his rapport is at its best with his autistic uncle Steve (a similarly well-modulated Tim Thomerson). All of which almost makes up for the banal and obvious music, the Reader’s Digest philosophising, and the fact that it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

d/sc Michael Worth p Kassi Crews ph Neil Lisk pd Francis Titsworth m Corey A. Jackson cast Margot Farley, Michael Worth, John Saxon, Mitzi Kapture, Tim Thomerson, David Jean Thomas, Dominic Daniel
(1008, USA, 117m)
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Dios los cria (…and God Created Them/Façade)

The cinema of Puerto Rico is neither extensive nor widely known; all the more cause for celebration, therefore, that this title should have been chosen a couple off years ago by the Academy for typically meticulous preservation treatment; more so that it should prove so fully deserving.

A delightfully Buñuelian satire on the business classes and man’s fundamentally self-serving nature (with a couple of broadsides aimed at religion for good measure, starting with the title), Morales’s widely-hailed but little-seen* debut comprises five short stories: brothers quarrel over an inheritance; a businessman tricks a bishop twice over; a stuck lift prompts confessions and recriminations; an aged prostitute vainly contemplates her lot; and a man reorders his domestic arrangements between wife and mistress. Director Jacopo Morales is fond of the ridiculous, from the old man’s funeral that becomes a triple mourning, presided over by the fulsome décolletage of his young widow (of one day!), to the businessman’s gliding escalator descent and re-ascension to the strains of a heavenly male choir; the deliriously purple prose of the blonde temptress (with ridiculous flute-led 70’s love theme) that repeatedly draws her lover (Morales himself) back to her bed in the final episode, and its unexpected revelation and farcically logical resolution.

The cinematic presentation is mostly straightforward, although the fourth episode is formally daring – and successful – in its almost complete lack of dialogue, the montage of looks and touches in a dimly-lit hooker bar carried by the time-worn features of Esther Sandoval as the old pro; and the widely-applicable parable-like nature of each episode is reinforced by an effective final-frame freeze. The silliness may rob the satire of some of its bite, but it is recognisably the product of ferocious outrage at a world of masquerades and hypocrisy and, most important, absurdly, viciously funny throughout.

d/p/sc Jacopo Morales ph Carmelo Rivera m Pedro Rivera Toledo cast Norma Candal, Carlos Cestero, Pedro Joan Figueroa, Daniel Lugo, Chavito Marrero, Benjamin Morales, Jacopo Morales, Alicia Moreda, Gladys Rodríguez, Esther Sandoval, Miguel Ángel Suárez
(1979, PR, 120m)

*so much so that it’s nigh on impossible to find a still from the film. Contrary to the implication of the top image, it’s in colour, pleasantly grainy, with a thoroughbred 70s feel, from the cocktail jazz to spray-stiffened hair-helmets, prominent lapels and manly beards. And pulls off with perfect aplomb the old middle-aged-man-imagines-secretary/nun-naked gag.

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

AFI Festival 2014

Back in the years when film critic Robert Koehler ran the show, the AFI Festival positioned itself, coming towards the end of the season, as the ‘festival of festivals’, which was a celebratory way to justify the fact that international festival-goers would have seen much of its programme already, but that those less-travelled would finally get a chance to see the mouth-watering titles about which they’d only read and imagined. This round-up character is no longer specified under director Jacqueline Lyanga, and such a simple elision gives the event a slight tarnish for not admitting it (recycling a lot of TIFF’s Korean strand, for example). Even if one may also miss the spiky, serious-mindedness of Koehler’s taste, the festival nonetheless remains a decent forum for a sampling of new world cinema, much of which would never find its way to Los Angeles otherwise.

Hollywood product is standard for the galas (Foxcatcher, Clint Eastwood’s The Sniper, both 2014), which are entirely missable, unless one wants to face the scrum for the sake of getting a jump on the general release. I was far more interested to see the Chinese winner of this year’s Golden Bear at Berlin, Bai ri yan huo (Black Coal, Thin Ice – literally, Fireworks in Daytime 2014). It turns out the prize is a tribute to the skilful direction of Diao Yinan Zhifu (Uniform, 2003), with touches of dry, surreal humour, discreet revelations, boosted sound design, a measured palette from muted gray-greens to neon pink, a particularly effective burst of sudden violence, and a beautifully simple reverse-shot time-jump that takes us from the prologue to the main body of the film. What all this obscures, however, is a fairly standard detective mystery, short on character and emotion, lifting the endings of both A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Beau travail (1999) to no particular effect, and culminating in an oblique and deliberately frustrating finale. Perfectly watchable, a big hit at the Chinese box office, but not a major film by any means, even if it makes one wish that more lightweight genre fare could be pulled off with a least such an aspiration to elegance in its making. 

Leviafan (Leviathan, 2014) by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Izgnanie [The Banishment], 2007), is another celebrated festival hit (best script at Cannes), and it is a curious beast. At heart, it tells two fairly simple but appealing tales: first, of the little man against bureaucracy, as hotheaded Kolya fights to forestall the transfer of his house and land to the irredeemably corrupt mayor. When his lawyer, armed with career-destroying dirt, makes the inexplicably idiotic mistake of getting into said mayor’s car halfway through, however, the drama becomes more intimate and family-focused, and things get even worse for Kolya. Bookending the film are portentous, Phillip Glass-scored sequences of the rugged northern Russian coastline where Kolya’s little fishing town is situated, beautiful in the majesty of nature and the charm of the rundown buildings and ruined boats. The point seems to be both that man is small and, per the whale skeleton on the beach, that the body of once-great Russia (or, indeed, Thomas Hobbes’ social contract as ideally applied to communism) has been picked clean by the corrupt bureaucrats, in bed with the all-powerful church. A couple of intrusive scenes with priests indicate first how the church rubs along quite happily with the new capitalism, before baldly lecturing on the Leviathan itself (yes, man is indeed small) and the nature of God’s truth. What could have been a rather affecting, intimate film with appealing performances from all concerned is crushed by a metaphysical weight it neither earns, nor can carry.

About the latest from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardennes, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014), there’s little actual criticism one can make, as has been the case for their films for some time now: pursuing their narrowly-defined, well-honed form and content, they place themselves almost outside of critical judgment, comparisons becoming valid only with the rest of their work which, being of such consistent standard, means the best one can say is that yes, this is another Dardennes brothers film. The most obvious difference here is the star power of Marion Cotillard, although if one didn’t know her, one wouldn’t guess; she is resolutely unstarry, but giving one of the strongest, invisibly actor-ly performances to be found in the brothers’ filmography. The other difference, less obvious, is that aside from the ending of Le silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008), this may be the brother’s most blatant foray into metaphor. Cotillard is a recovering depressive, and the situation in which she finds herself directly mirrors the subjective experience of living with bi-polar disorder: her situation is impossible, and absurd, as her factory boss has forced her 16 colleagues to decide between letting her keep her job, or instead laying her off to keep their €1000 bonus. Thus, she must spend the weekend going through the same seemingly hopeless process again and again, visiting her colleagues to try and persuade them to vote for her, an exercise that alternately produces hope and optimism, or despair and self-loathing, resolution to continue, or surrender to its futility. Whether she has won or lost in the end is unclear, and it is all rather effective if, as usual, quite depressing, the message being that making the effort is an end in itself, because what else can you do?

David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) is yet more ripe for metaphorical interpretation, although the subtextual wellspring is intriguingly unclear (and the subject could not be more different from that of the Dardennes’ film). Following a backseat make-out session, teenaged Jay learns from her seducer of the existence of an ‘it’ that – guess what? – follows, and kills, unless its quarry has sex with someone else, in which case it will turn its attention to the new partner and, if successful in killing them, then return to pursue its previous prey. That it moves slowly yet inexorably, can take the form of any humanoid known or unknown to those it follows, creepy or benign, and is invisible to everyone else, is effectively exploited for chills and shocks; the set-up inevitably lends itself, however, to repetition, and an impossibility of ending the film in any satisfactory way, opting instead for weakly-presented ambiguity. More interesting is that just as the production design is deliberately unspecific, evoking the 1980s but carefully out-of-time, so the metaphorical import of the conceit is left nebulous – one can’t lay STDs on it, nor distinguish whether high school kids should have sex as soon as possible to rid themselves of something or other, or avoid sex completely to avoid catching it in the first place. It is another example (after the ending of Black Coal, Thin Ice) of empty suggestiveness rather than intriguing implication, but more successfully so, and given the originality of the premise (alarmingly, taken from the director’s recurring childhood dream), competent direction, photography, and performances, the film ends up more or less succeeding in spite of itself (and in spite of the derivative ominous-synth-bass-chords-under-arpeggiator score).

There seems to be less on offer from the fascinating underground of Argentina than there was a few years ago, which is a great shame (I am waiting with baited breath for the new Mariano Llinás film La flor [The Flower]). However, a middle-ground independent cinema seems to be developing to counter the state-funded, usually-starring-Ricardo-Darín product, that is certainly better than nothing. Pedro Almodóvar-produced Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales, 2014) is the debut feature from TV director Damián Szifrón, and the background shows, with sharp, bright photography from DP Javier Julia, and several ad-ready, affluent settings. The presentation is a cover, however, for absurdist black humour, across six unconnected tales of increasingly whatever-can-go-wrong-will. The direction is impeccable, the escalating chaos neatly handled, and much of the film is genuinely amusing; but Szifrón’s fondness for killing off his characters, and the suspicion that he has contempt to one degree or another for every single one of them (even Darín’s accidental folk-hero) leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, the whole glossy enterprise suggesting a film-maker who wants to have his cake and eat it.

As an Orson Welles nut, I was intrigued to see the new documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (2014). There are so many by now, that what more can one say? Nothing, as it turns out, although what director Chuck Workman has done is cram a great deal of material into 94 minutes, such that aficionados will unconsciously fill in the gaps, and newcomers may be forgiven for thinking they now know the whole story. But gaps there are aplenty (most glaringly, given the title, Welles as magician), as Workman races from one obvious beat to another, covering several interesting films (Mr Arkadin, 1955; Chimes at Midnight, 1965) with footage alone (and barely touching F for Fake, 1973 or The Immortal Story, 1968); parading the usual stories and talking heads, albeit in new interviews, offering little in the way of thesis or insight; and slathering it all in bland-to-inappropriate music. A couple of rare snippets (make-up test stills for the unmade Heart of Darkness, actual footage of the 1937 ‘voodoo’ Macbeth stage production), and a delightful random montage of Oja Kodar’s opinions are slim consolation. Yes, a workman-like primer, mostly uninspirational, but for its ambition to all-encompassing scope, probably destined to become the standard Welles documentary. Not what he deserves.

No great surprises either in Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014), as absurdly, self-deprecatorily amusing as one might expect, a mockumentary following the Wellington, New Zealand, flat-sharing lifestyle of a group of affable vampires. Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner (2014) is likewise hardly a revelation, although does boast a barnstorming central performance from Timothy Spall, totally deserving the Cannes award for his grunting, bandy-legged gorilla creation, and gorgeous Turner-suggestive evocations of natural light in long-term Leigh DP Dick Pope’s photography, to offset the inherent stuffiness of both the period setting and Leigh’s direction.

After the surprising control and effectiveness of Katalin Varga (2009) and the empty fetishism of Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was curious to see which way Peter Strickland would swing in his third feature, The Duke of Burgundy (2014). The answer was towards the hermetic world of Sound Studio, although this time with a mite more substance. If the shade of art-porn director Radley Metzger hovers around the fringes, so too do the fairytale mittel-European environments, pastoral scoring, and febrile sexuality of Juraz Herz (Morgiana, 1972; Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, 1970), and the general would-be-sophisticate chocolate-box tone of the 1970s Emmanuelle series. Such emotional content as there is resides in the relationship between the two female lepidopterists (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara d’Anna) who spend much of their days and nights enacting mistress and servant role-plays, to gradual dissatisfaction. But once again, Strickland is far less concerned with the people than with production design (impeccable), semi-abstract camera effects, and esoterica – a great long list of insects and field recording data makes up the bulk of the credits; the title (unexplained) is a species of butterfly – and it is thanks only to Knudsen’s finely modulated performance that the film breathes with any real life at all. Strickland is clearly a distinct and powerful talent, and has once again created a strange and glittering film, but the literally superficial, Tumblrcore approach of worrying at his various fetishes will produce diminishing returns unless he can also recapture some of the humanity of his debut.

Another disappointment was Plemya (The Tribe, 2014) from Ukranian director Miroslav Slaboshpitskiy, despite its winning the festival’s special jury award. Its appeal is easy to account for, however, since on one level it is a remarkable achievement – as the opening title card warns, it is a film told entirely through sign language, with no subtitles or translation, and many of the young performers give vivid performances (particularly when angry) in frequently impressive, lengthy takes. It is centred around a group of youths at a boarding school for the deaf, but is little concerned with deafness per se. Instead it follows a group of young men and two women as they go about various nefarious and well-practised night-time crimes, mugging, pimping, and whoring. The overall effect, however, is simply that of another film enamoured of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, with little concern for character or emotion. This cannot be blamed on the sign language, as there are moments when such elements have a chance to blossom, but the unflinching abortion scene seems designed more to shock than provoke empathy; and the last-minute conflict of the sullen central character results in a denouement of cold, hard violence that is abrupt and excessive, but nothing more.

So this festival was not stellar for me, although of course I could have seen an entirely different set of films and perhaps be surprised by a hidden gem. But not much about such a recycling of other festivals is hidden, and if one chooses one can look at Variety, Hollywood Reporter, or Indiewire reviews for previous outings from almost every single title. I had not been intrigued by the coverage of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) – call it fear of a slow cinema, or rather, of a pointlessly self-indulgent slow cinema – and suspicious of the star/producer/composer credits for Viggo Mortenson, but it turned out to be a captivating, delightful treat, and I was unprepared for its magic. It is slow, to be sure, but measured rather than molasses: the opening scenes of conversation between soldiers and Mortenson’s surveyor, sitting on the moss-heavy coastal rocks of Patagonia, surrounded by large brown sea lions, plays like a cousin to Werner Herzog’s Herz aus Glas (1976) or Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974), quotidian conversation slowly delivered as though the words are coming from somewhere else (echoes of Herzog’s 1972 Der Zorn Gottes too, in the precious jewel of a daughter amongst this small band of men in the wilderness). But the film soon reveals itself to be something more like a western on the pampas, far closer to those of Monte Hellman (or even Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971), as a man’s quest across the wilderness gradually loses its object, momentum, and context, ending up in a place of otherworldly magic before evaporating into thin air. The portentous late-on query (repeated) ‘what makes life function and move forward?’ is offset by the emphasis on ‘a man is not all men’, and even a coda that hints that all may be a dream is more mysterious than infuriating. After a week of decent but uninspiring viewing, it was a thrill to see something that dared reach for the spiritual and the metaphysical, and which succeeds with such single-minded simplicity.

(originally published on

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking)

Taking place over one hot summer’s day as a family reunion of three generations leisurely unfolds through eating, chatting and taking a stroll, nothing very striking actually takes place in Still Walking, none of the characters is especially out of the ordinary, much food is prepared. This is well-worn territory, both in Japan and abroad, but Koreeda's film is distinguished by the skillful and natural way in which relationships, resentments, and regrets are revealed, gradually and gently.

The life of the household is grandmother Toshiko, cheerful and bustling; her husband Kyouhei is unfriendly and brusque, preferring to spend much of the day sitting in his consulting room. It is soon apparent, however, that his rude behaviour stems primarily from shyness and malingering disappointment at having had to retire from the doctoring job that was his whole life. He also has an extremely uneasy relationship with his second-eldest son Ryota; the reason they are all present on this day, it turns out, is to commemorative the anniversary of the death of eldest son and heir Junpei, and time has increased the influence of his memory, of which the parents have made no attempt to let go, into an impossible yardstick to which Ryota feels he should not be demanded to measure up.

He in turn is struggling in his relationship with his adoptive son Atsushi – his new wife Yukari is a widow – but knows hardly where to begin; he does not demand respect in these relationships, but at the same time struggles to deserve it, even at 40 retaining some of the selfishness of childhood, a propensity to avoid responsibility, and a constant need to check his cell phone. Yukari meanwhile, behind a display of impeccable manners, perceives endless slights from her mother-in-law even beyond those belittlements unwittingly bestowed.

The grandparents disapprove of both their surviving off-spring’s marriages; the buffoonish husband of daughter Chinami and their noisy children are the main reasons the grandparents don’t want them to move back home; behind a sweet round exterior, Toshiko is revealed to have a store of hard-hearted feelings, even cruelty, stemming only in part from deep despair at the loss of her child. It is this same despair that seems also to bind the elderly couple together, not exactly in mutual loathing, but certainly with unfriendliness, abetted as much by Toshiko’s gentle but constant contradiction of everyone around her, as by Kyouhei’s irritability.

As is often the case with this sort of picture, inspiration was drawn in part from Koreeda’s own family memories, and the veracity of the characters and relationships is impeccable, from the fundamental ties of family that produce unspoken understanding, to the fixed relationships and quirks that frustrate at every meeting. A tentative step forward is made in both father/son relationships by the following day, and a sweet ending perfectly illustrates the silly little things that can bond a son and his mother. And there the film indeed should have ended: a suddenly intrusive voice-over destroys the mood and a brief coda skips us forward several years to provide information we didn’t really require. But this is not enough to ruin what has come before, a well-judged and unsentimental family portrait of quiet beauty.

d/sc/ed Koreeda Hirokazu p Kato Yoshihiro, Kôno Satoshi, Taguchi Hijiri, Yasuda Masahiro ph Yamazaki Yutaka ad Isomi Toshihiro, Mitsumatsu Keiko m Gonchichi cast Abe Hiroshi, Natsukawa Yui, You, Takahashi Kazuya, Tanaka Shohei, Kiki Kirin, Harada Yoshio
(2008, Jap, 115m)
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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Die Stille vor Bach (The Silence Before Bach)

Pere Portabella’s filmic meditation comprises a series of various vignettes, united by the music of Bach. We hear it played on piano, church organ, harmonica, harpsichord and, in a nicely surreal reverse tracking shot, on a gradually-revealed subway car full of cellists. Portabella is not precious about the music: we first see it coming out of a player piano, and throughout the film it will play against the sounds of rain storm, telephone, and the domestic clatter of dropped dishes, and as a cacophony of selections performed simultaneously in a piano showroom.

Portabella is an old crony of Buñuel’s (he produced Viridiana), and the film is peppered with gently surreal touches, from playful cuts between episodes, via a frankly mysterious silent shot of an upright piano being dropped into the ocean, to a less successful sequence of a dressage horse “dancing” to the music. The film culminates with a series of abstractions, beautifully photographed, roaming in close-up through the serried ranks of organ pipes while the music is strangely distorted as though a ring modulator (perhaps the Bach of the future).

The photography (by Tomàs Pladevall) is especially lovely in the period domestic interiors – Bach introduces himself to the camera in the church of St Thomas in Leipzig where he was cantor, and takes us through a little lesson in harmony and tension, repeated with emphasis on sensitivity and delicacy at home as he instructs his son. This is echoed in the words of the fantastically enthusiastic butcher (discussing roasting meat, in fact) from whom famously, though perhaps apocryphally, Mendlessohn purchases endless cuts for the original pages of the St Matthew Passion in which they are wrapped. Elsewhere, we are in present day Leipzig where a tour guide dressed as Bach fills us in on a little history, or on a tourist boat on the Elba for some more background information. As though to emphasis the universality of the music, we are early on presented with a truck-driver discussing his love of chamber music in a motorway service station, later playing a lonely bassoon in his motel room, and finally arriving at a high-end music shop where the owner discusses the problems of getting a baby grand into a third-floor duplex.

The pleasure people get from the music of Bach is emphasised in part by the trouble they take to enjoy it. A piano tuner laboriously goes about his work at the start of the film, as though to prepare us, as well as the instrument; Bach’s ink-stained fingers carefully draw the required multitude of staves across a virgin page; his modern-day interpreter ritually dons his costume; and the player piano and the pipe organ display their complex workings with pride.

The other major strand is one of godliness, stemming from Bach’s own faith and convictions about the inspiration and purpose of his work. It is maintained (somewhat archly) that the music of Bach immeasurably enhances the glory God, without whom the latter would be “third-rate”, and the current cantor of St Thomas (the “present-day Bach”, as he is described, surely with a touch of wry Catalan ambivalence) relates that many of the non-believers in his choir ask to be baptised after having performed Bach’s music for some time – the silence before Bach is imagined as a dark, godless place.

The film itself opens in silence, the camera prowling around an empty white gallery space as though to declare not only that before the Bach there is nothing, but also that the space will soon be filled with “art” (confirmed by the European art-film staple of superfluous naked lady, taking a shower). It makes no bones about its unconventional structure and lack of narrative, which place it closer to poetry or meditation; theses are touched upon and universality suggested more than represented, but the main pleasure is to revel in the beauty of the music. As such, one must allow the film to sweep one along or not and, with such glorious sounds on display, who can resist?

d/p Pere Portabella sc Pere Portabella, Xavier Albertí, Carles Santos ph Tomàs Pladevall ad Quim Roy m J.S. Bach cast Christian Atanasiu, Féodor Atkine, Christian Brembeck, Àlex Brendemühl, Georgina Cardona, Lucien Dekoster, Beatriz Ferrer-Salat
(2007, Sp, 102m)
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Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Currently fêted – more or less with reason – for Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s first feature, expanded from his graduation short at age 24, was shot in black and white in Boston and New York with a young cast and, at its best, a fine fifties-throwback feel. This is due in large part to an impressively-arranged jazzy orchestral score (by Justin Hurwitz, performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra), and the fact that the film turns out to be an unexpected musical; rather like Rivette's Haut Bas Fragile, some way into the movie a character at a party starts to talk in rhyme before bursting into song and dance.

The story concerns Guy (Jason Palmer), a jazz trumpeter, and his girlfriend Madeline (Desiree Garcia) who have split up almost before the opening credits are done, and it meanders along until they meet again by chance at the end. Much of the film in between is fatally inconsequential and there’s nothing like character development, but the jazz club music is terrific (Palmer is a fine trumpeter), and a scene of subway flirtation creates a real erotic charge.

The songs themselves are less successful than the score and for some frustrating reason we rarely get to see the dancers’ feet, but the first number generates excitement from its tiny cramped setting, and there’s some nice group choreography in a diner. There are echoes (no more) of Cassavetes and the nouvelle vague in both form and content; the handheld camerawork is of the popular style, all jittery auto-focus, heavy-handed on the zoom, and over-reliant on close-up, but it does achieve some beautiful moments of light and delicate shades of monochrome (mostly involving the rather pretty Garcia, and despite also an annoyingly substandard digital picture). If not quite a success, definitely an admirably ambitious curio.

d/sc/ph Damien Chazelle p Damien Chazelle, Mihai Dinulescu ed Damien Chazelle, W.A.W. Parker m Justin Hurwitz cast Jason Palmer, Desiree Garcia, Sandha Khin, Karen Adelman, Anna Chazelle, Bernard Chazelle
(2009, USA, 82m, b/w)

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Eagles in the Chicken Coop

It’s hard to resist films about film-making, and it’s hard to resist a mockumentary in which the subjects’ first short is a message of protest to their parents against going to school, in which a fuzzy super8 figure leaps from a freeway bridge, entitled Why? And it’s hard to resist them when they grow up into struggling directors, not especially bright but whole-heartedly dedicated to making the best films they can. The problem is, they’ve unwittingly signed on to make a soft-core TV flick with a slick, bottom-feeding production company who spot great free production values in the beautiful and sprawling ranch to which they have access.

The boys aren’t trying to be particularly arty, just tell a story with truth and logic, but that’s neither what the company wants, nor paid for. It’s all very well put together, finely detailed (at least to start with), and often very funny, from the on-set improvisation just to get the damn thing made, to the increasingly ridiculous measures to which the company goes in order to steer the project back towards the sort of dreck they can understand (best memo: “no more shadows on naked bodies”, and Kathleen Quinlan’s steely producer is a hoot).

But, as appealing as the real-life team of Brent Florence and Kenny Luper are as their fictional counterparts Bill and Armondo, it’s really a one-joke movie, and as such wears inevitably thin. Nor does the crowning metaphor work as anything but a slightly mean and self-defeating joke: hard-working and well-intentioned as they are, they neither are, nor think of themselves, like the eagle in their next project, brought up to believe he’s a chicken until one day he finds he can soar. And it’s at least twenty minutes too long.

d/ed Brent Florence p James Bass, Bryan Laszlo Bihari sc Brent Florence, Kenny Luper ph Matthew W. Davis ad Matt Sanders m Todd Hannigan, Jørn Lavoll cast Brent Florence, Kenny Luper, Kathleen Quinlan, Chloe Snyder, Bruce Abbott, Cameron Bender, Alex Holdridge, Sara Simmonds
(2010, USA, 95m)
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Monday, November 10, 2014


After the horrible Une fille coupée en deux, it was mildly pleasing that Claude Chabrol’s final feature should be slightly better. Prolific new wave veteran that he is, it comes as a bit of a surprise to realize that he’s never before worked with Gérard Depardieu, but here they are together at last, with Depardieu as the eponymous police inspector, plucked from a Simenon novel, and the sort of detective who can’t resist a case even when on vacation (in Nîmes). It’s a murder mystery, with the charred body of someone who is who he shouldn’t be, a possible murderer in hiding, a sexy mistress, and a bitter widow. It’s all very bourgeois, of course, though Chabrol doesn’t dish out his usual skewering. Instead, he’s more interested in setting up a series of doublings and pairings, and in the fraught relationship between Bellamy and his half-brother (Clovis Cornillac, with apparently only one expression, of disgust at himself and the world and, distractingly, the latest Astérix to Depardieu’s Obelix). But the best thing about the film is the easy, intimate depiction of Bellamy’s marriage. Marie Bunel is note-perfect as his wife, smart and sexy, and Bellamy cannot keep his hands off her as they discuss the case in bed or the bathroom (it’s a very French film in that way – Bellamy flirts with every pretty young thing he can and Vahina Giocante’s temptress is a two-dimensional pantiless fantasy).

Depardieu is alarmingly rotund these days and huffs and puffs his way upstairs, but with little affectation elsewhere; if anything he underplays too much and comes off as the less charismatic of the pair, with a peek into his psyche being too little too late, and his dissertations on shadowy capitalist control and economic class differences coming off as mere window dressing.

This being Chabrol, it’s all mounted with great professionalism, taste and efficiency, but all the criss-crossing parallels of family and self-hatred are empty of significance. So too are Bellamy’s assertions that the world is a mess (it certainly isn’t for him). Jacques Gamblin is a fine nervy presence as the murderer-or-not, though partly hampered by an obtrusively false nose and beard; Rodolphe Pauly (Les amours d’Astrée et Céladon) gives an amusing turn late on as a venturesome young lawyer; but the film as a whole is lifeless. Chabrol’s cinema used to be back-handedly branded as anti-bourgeois entertainment by and for the bourgeoisie, but in this case you can drop the “anti”.

d Claude Chabrol p Patrick Godeau sc Odile Barski, Claude Chabrol ph Eduardo Serra ed Monique Fardoulis pd Françoise Benoît-Fresco m Matthieu Chabrol cast Gérard Depardieu, Clovis Cornillac, Jacques Gamblin, Marie Bunel, Vahina Giocante, Marie Matheron, Adrienne Pauly, Yves Verhoeven
(2009, Fr, 110m)
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014


After ten years of working on Blancanieves, writer-director Pablo Berger must have had mixed feelings about the appearance of The Artist (2011) the year before he was done. The latter film’s runaway success was undeniably a useful ice-breaker, however, for these are similar beasts, modern silent films made (largely) according to the conventions and constraints of the 1920s. Berger even gives Uggie a run for his money, with a perky rooster named Pepe.

Where The Artist’s use of this form is intimately tied to its content, however, Blancanieves uses the old-fashioned more simply to charm, and to help transport us to the era, for a tale that has nothing to do with cinema, or with sound. We are in 1920s Seville, for a retelling of the Snow White story. Carmencita is the daughter of a renowned bull-fighter, now the ward of a cruel stepmother. Left for dead in the forest, she is taken in by a band of six “enanitos toreros”, a ramshackle travelling band of dwarves, with whom she discovers her own talent for bullfighting. Engaged to perform a show at Seville’s grand arena, she once again encounters her stepmother, and the poisoned apple makes its appearance.

The story is so well-known that the appeal must be in its telling, and Berger is superficially successful. His strongest assets are the superb, shadow-daubed photography of Kiko de la Rica (Lucía y el sexo [2001]); lovely, lavish production design, clothes and jewelry; and the face of Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], Y tu mamá También [2001]), who has a fine old time as the evil stepmother, her undeniable beauty gradually transformed into a cartoonish death’s head.

The vigorous score by Alfonso de Villalonga does most of the emotional heavy-lifting and is only occasionally over-bearing; elsewhere it is a lovely mixture of flamenco guitar, hand-clapping, and strings, strikingly augmented with what sounds very like a theremin. Berger and editor Franco go several times for some rapid and effective montage, in time to the music, and elsewhere go so far as to synch sound to image, first as a record plays, and later with fireworks. This is an issue in modern silent cinema throwbacks – to synch or not to synch? The convergence of sound and image tends to break the time-travel spell, since few scores for silent films remain with their original sheet music extant, many had none in the first place, and the convention has always largely been to fit the music to the film; the spell is broken when we feel that the image has been fitted to the music.

That is not much of a complaint. The sequences in question work nicely, even if the slightly disconcerting effect has no function in the film’s overall scheme (as opposed, say, to Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times [2005]). Other stylistic flourishes include fun with the iris and repeated circles, from the grand plaza de toros, to the fateful apple, but these are mere echoes rather than metaphorical underpinning. Standards for the use of circles as visual symbols, in silent films or otherwise, were admittedly set high by Abel Gance’s La roue [1923], but Berger’s project has no aspirations to create a parallel, poetic meaning to its narrative. The form as a whole functions as high-class window-dressing.

The poetical and emotional elements embedded in the original fairytale – character, motivation, and magic – are further streamlined by alterations Berger has made to the story. Magic is out – there’s no mirror, and so shorn of the specific jealousy of vanity, the stepmother becomes even more of a caricature than Disney’s version (the film successfully runs with this, however, having Verdú fulsomely dominate her chauffeur with corset, top hat and riding crop). The decision to remove the element of magic is understandable; less so other changes. A certain amount of humanity is lost by having the chauffeur leave Blancanieves for dead, rather than let her go free in the forest; and the stepmother here does not bother to disguise herself, but brazenly hands the recently memory-recovered Blancanieves her apple, which is nonetheless received with not a jot of recognition.

There are also, for some reason, only six dwarves. It’s a distracting irony, even if non-verbal, when one of them recognizes this discrepancy in the large ‘7’ painted on their wagon – a film-maker’s eye-wink, and another spell-breaker, but less so than when the dwarves decide to name their new friend Blancanieves, “like in the story”. This irony is merely flippant, and allowing the characters to know the story that they are in fatally undermines its integrity, especially when that iconic apple is brought out (they’ve conveniently forgotten that part of the tale).

Only a couple such moments break the spell, and for the most part Berger conjures the sort of archetypal charm one hopes for in a fairy tale. Sofia Oria and Macarena García are both appealing as Carmens young and grown respectively (even if García is little more than a pair of wide eyes and pretty page boy haircut). The dwarves are an entertaining bunch, although the subplot of resentment Berger adds is no more than a device to justify one particular peril later on, and is otherwise unnecessary and undeveloped (likewise the illiterate Blancanieves signing herself into bondage with a machiavellian agent). Most damaging of all, however, he foregoes the classical closure of the fairytale form for an ending of melancholy ambiguity. One can accept the substitution of lovelorn dwarf for handsome prince, a stimulating disruption of the original story’s dynamic; some viewers will be repulsed rather than amused at the sight of lines of people kissing a corpse; many more will find the tacit endorsement of bull-fighting unforgivable. But to deny the audience any kind of ever after, happy or not, is a disappointment for all.

d/sc Pablo Berger p Pablo Berger, Ibon Cormenzana, Jérôme Vidal ph Kiko de la Rica ed Fernando Franco pd Alain Bainée m Alfonso de Villalonga cast Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Sofia Oria, Daniel Giménez Cach, Ramón Barea, Inma Cuesta, Ángela Molina, Pere Ponce, Carmen Segarra, Pep Ferrer
(2012, Sp/Bel/Fr, 104m b/w)
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Le vendeur (The Salesman)

 A few years ago there was a gratifying trend for festivals, in and around LA at least, to focus a sidebar on cinema from Quebec, and I found myself developing quite a fondness. Without presuming to pigeonhole an entire region’s cultural output, one could recognise in Le Vendeur a quiet wit, straightforwardness and lack of illusions that seem characteristic.

Marcel Lévesque is in his late sixties, but still works at the car dealership where he has been the number one salesman every month for sixteen years, and dismisses all suggestion of retirement. It’s a declining industrial town in the depth of winter, some hours from Quebec City, and the film is punctuated with the number of days the local plant has been closed (over eight months). This affects the whole community, but Marcel can even flog a car to a laid-off worker. He is a kind, friendly man, a jovial, loving father and grandfather, but still a killer salesman, chummy and persistent rather than pushy, firmly believing that everyone needs a new car: “I lie to make people happy”.

Something happens. The film flows along without any apparently significant event until it does, simply filling out the few details of Marcel’s routine life, fleshing the character, conjuring the sublime placidity of his existence, and making all the more powerful the cracks that appear in his tranquil mien (veteran Gilbert Sicotte is superb). If he seemed dedicated to his work before, it now looks more like his life than his job; the others on the lot are uncomfortable at his not taking a break, but we feel the full force of his lonely tragedy, and recognise the car lot as his only life raft.

It is a finely controlled feature debut from Sébastien Pilote, discreetly shot, with some beautiful snowy moments, and similarly low-key but effective music; matters proceeds with fine, unhurried pacing that conveys a sense of the gentle rhythm of the town’s life, but it reveals itself in the end to be a film of quietly devastating hopelessness and unexpected power.

d/sc Sébastien Pilote p Marc Daigle, Bernadette Payeur ph Michel Le Veaux ed Michel Arcand ad Mario Hervieux cast Gilbert Sciotte, Nathalie Cavezzali, Jeremy Tessier, Jean-François Boudreau, Pierre Leblanc, Pierre Mailloux, Sébastien Harvey
(2011, Can, 107m)
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