Thursday, 30 December 2010

BESIEGED (PORTUGAL/1970/ANTÓNIO DA CUNHA TELLES)

After splitting from her patronising, abusive husband for the married American Bob, Marta slowly comes to terms with the concept of freedom. Her newly-formed illicit relationship with Bob at first appears to give her everything she needs, even an apartment which Bob pays for. In an attempt to further liberate herself, she has flings with a photographer, whom she encounters during a modelling shoot, and a drug-dealing bad boy who perhaps leads her the furthest astray. Before long, she is once again left picking up the pieces of her own life, as well as those of others.

A wistful tale of anomie in a metropolitanised Europe, Besieged is a key film of the Cinema Novo, Portugal’s own take on post-war neorealism. The film often echoes early Polanski and Cassavetes, and it’s safe to say the males in the film don’t come off particularly favourably – the title and opening credits refer to a siege of manipulative men. Consistently androgynous with her cropped hair and schoolgirl skirts, Marta is a tragic figure whose constructed happy-go-lucky image, occasionally recalling the starlets of the French New Wave, belies her status as a lost woman. Unfortunately, given how much of the film rests on her story, Marta isn’t a particularly sympathetic character, her twists and turns led more by disillusionment with her current state than a genuine desire to create a new life for herself. Simplistic sound design becomes distracting when less is heard than seen, but the film does feature some magnificent vérité photography.





TRAVELLING ACTORS (JAPAN/1940/MIKIO NARUSE)

Hyoroku and Senpei are two actors whose ‘big break’ comes in the form of a role as the front and back halves of a horse in a baffling pantomime production. Despite the relative unimportance of their role, the two men are desperate to prove their mettle, discussing their trade as if they were revered professionals and showing off to geishas. When their theatre manager books in a live horse in their place for a performance in a rural area, the show becomes a bigger hit than expected, and the actors are informed that they will soon be replaced. Beaten at their own game by an animal, the men are left to fight a battle for their self-esteem.

Sharing the same playful but sincere comedy as Mikio Naruse’s earlier Wife, Be Like A Rose! , Travelling Actors is a gentle meditation on serious issues. Though ostensibly a comedy, it is clear that Naruse has a motive in championing these hack actors over the locally conscripted soldiers. The men’s role as the horse appears to consist simply of resisting the instruction of the owner, an act tirelessly portrayed performance after performance. This by extension is Naruse’s own conscientious objection, and an attempt to underline the importance on the arts in reflecting a nation’s status. Naruse occasionally throws in a shot of the men’s legs, as if to remind us that this is all the audience sees of them, whereas of course we as a film audience witness much more. A minor treat.





Friday, 24 December 2010

THE SUNSHINE BOY (ICELAND/2009/FRIÐRIK ÞOR FRIÐRIKSSON)

Margrét Dagmar Ericsdóttir is an Icelandic producer whose son Keli experiences a particularly severe form of autism. Margrét worked with famed Icelandic director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson to create a documentary in which she talked to experts and other parents of autistic children to understand the condition better for herself. Margrét visits professor of animal sciences Dr. Temple Grandin, who stands as living proof that one can achieve goals despite being diagnosed with autism at a young age. Other interviewees explain how they or their relatives have overcome their problems through openly embracing the comforting aspects of sensory stimulation.

What marks The Sunshine Boy apart from other documentaries of a similar nature is that the filmmaker herself has a personal connection to the subject, but chooses to learn through examining others in her position. Essentially, the journey of the film is one of reflection, and it is to Margrét’s credit that we as an audience are never allowed to wallow in pity. The range of experts deal with autism in different ways, some apparently more effective than others, and the suggestion is that a parent could feasibly teach these methods at home to give the child the best opportunities in life. What perhaps doesn’t work so well is the choice of music – the use of Björk’s song Human Behaviour in particular is a little insensitive. Additionally, Kate Winslet’s narration is quite unnecessary – for a documentary about overcoming communication problems, it’s unusual that the investigator should be dubbed by a famous actress.





SINCERITY (JAPAN/1939/MIKIO NARUSE)

A subtly complex story about class values in Japan, Sincerity concerns the friendship of two schoolgirls from different backgrounds. Nobuko lives with her parents in a lavish, state-of-the-art house where she is given what she wants, while Tomiko shares a very modest house with her seamstress mother Tsutako, the father figure noticeably absent. When Nobuko gets a middling report card, her mother consults the teacher who advises her to take after Tsutako’s style of raising a child. As the teacher continues his favouritism towards Tomiko, Nobuko’s father loses his temper and before long, a devastating secret is revealed that could destroy both families.

At little over an hour, it’s not the most memorable of films and is unlikely to ever sit amongst Japanese classics, but Sincerity is nonetheless an interesting slice of drama with a timeless social dilemma at its heart. All of the characters in Sincerity are given a fair amount of screentime as the problem here affects everyone. Intimate close-ups, as in Naruse’s earlier Avalanche, echo the intensity of emotions. Playing against type, the strongest of Naruse’s characters are the two children, Nobuko and Tomiko, whose insistent questioning about the structure of family drive the narrative through its peaks and troughs – in fact, the girls appear to understand a little too much about relationships given their age for the story to be completely convincing. Perhaps most notable about the film is that the war context becomes little more than a plot detail in the context of family values.





FINISTERRAE (SPAIN/2010/SERGIO CABALLERO)

Opening on a sinister static shot of police tape, Finisterrae tells the bittersweet journey of two ghosts who lose their way. Our two protagonists have recently died, and are acclimatising to their new status as ghoulish members of the undead. With one horse between the two, they embark upon a journey along the well-carved pilgrimage route The Way of Saint James. Stops are afforded for ‘practicalities’ such as fishing and keeping warm by a campfire (although it is never explained why the ghosts need either of these). Their journey brings them many surreal moments such as a trip through a forest of speaking trees and an intimate ghostly striptease to an organ piece that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Disney short.

Created by Sergio Caballero for Sonar, the festival he co-directs, Finisterrae was originally shown in episodes but was later released in cinemas in its entirety. Though one is meant to expect a certain stoicism from the themes, the film is not without its own sense of humour, although most of this is derived from breaking the sombre tension that dominates. There’s an eclectic soundtrack at work here, including Nico and Suicide (this was made for a music festival, after all), but often it adds nothing to the story or the characters. Stunningly shot by photographer Eduard Grau on a range of stunning locations, the film is hard to resist visually, and could almost be the colourful cousin to Albert Serra’s Birdsong. A peculiar but amusing journey.





Monday, 20 December 2010

ENTER THE VOID (FRANCE/2009/GASPAR NOÉ)

After the boundary-pushing histrionics of Irréversible, many questioned what exactly Gaspar Noé could do next in an attempt to outdo himself. As a result, his latest project Enter The Void has been hyped to an almost embarrassing degree, with themes of drug addiction and spirituality promising an intense display of zeitgeist. Expatriate drug dealer Oscar lives with his pole dancer sister Linda in a flat in Tokyo. On what appears to be a slow evening at a bar, Oscar is shot by the police, and the story takes a turn as he becomes a floating ghost, able to see but not interact with the world around him. In this spirit form, Oscar seeks to fulfil his childhood promise – to protect Linda from evil.

Although it’s shot entirely from Oscar’s point of view, Noé keeps a lot of the film on the surface, and he frequently repeats symbols as if to remind the audience that this film has profundity. Oscar mentions the Tibetan Book of the Dead, before sinking into a DMT-induced hallucination evoking mandalas. A memory-led narrative full of potential becomes worryingly simplistic with lines like “I promise I’ll never ever leave you”. As proven in Irréversible, Noé knows how to play with his audience, and one must applaud him for some of what he manages to put on screen, but where he might have conceived of his film as a sugary pill designed to cure cinema’s ailments, one can’t help but feel this is little more than a placebo.





Saturday, 18 December 2010

INITIATION: SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 4 (USA/1990/BRIAN YUZNA)

Somehow unrelated to its three predecessors, Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 follows the story of a journalist named Kim who, upon learning of a recent case of spontaneous combustion, decides to launch an investigation into the subject. Desperate to get approval from her boss, she offers to run the story for him, but as usual is pushed to one side. “Boys will be boys,” asserts her straw-haired colleague, but Kim is undeterred and starts researching independently. While at a bookstore, she encounters the proprietor Fima, who takes her to the spot on the roof where the woman had died. Visiting Fima at her home proves to be a wrong move when she passes out and subsequently wakes up to a visceral initiation ceremony involving rats and cockroach larvae.

The theme of Christmas has apparently been waylaid here, with only scant references to religion and the Bible to explain the festive setting. For the most part, director Brian Yuzna gives us gruesome insects with sexual overtones and sham pagan rituals in lieu of a story, Kim’s draw to the pathologically sinister Fima too obscure to be believable. Nonetheless, this fourth instalment in a famously tacky horror series is remarkably entertaining, with some godawful dialogue and subpar acting. Clint Howard, the physiognomically-challenged brother of director Ron Howard, portrays a creepy vagrant named Ricky (most likely a high point in his career), while former Bond girl Maud Adams is hilariously rigid as Fima. Naked Lunch it ain’t, but there’s fun to be had.





Thursday, 16 December 2010

WHITY (GERMANY/1971/RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)

A unique, feverish spin on the Western, Whity centres on the troubled life of a man caught between several worlds. The illegitimate son of proud town official Ben Nicholson and his African-American servant, Whity serves as whipping boy for many of the townsfolk, even being shunned by his own mother. When Ben claims to be dying, his wife and sons each try to seduce Whity into killing off the others, effectively leaving them to inherit all of Ben’s money. Ben, of course, is perfectly healthy, and witnesses his test of faith go terribly awry.

As his idol Jean-Luc Godard had done so frequently in the sixties, Fassbinder subverts the very conventions of the genre he works with in, essentially divorcing the Western of its ‘Western-ness’. Colour, in its every manifestation, is of utmost importance in the film. In addition to the expected dusty yellows and browns, the screen is populated by florid reds and pinks, almost shocking in their appearance. More bizarrely, racial difference is marked by burlesque makeup – everyone except for the protagonist is literally black or white. Hanna Schygulla, a regular collaborator of Fassbinder’s, has a fantastically demented turn as a singing prostitute, several marks off Marlene Dietrich in her coquettish crooning. It’s clear that Whity was a preferred project of Fassbinder’s, as his kitsch parody attempts to tackle many controversial subjects – racism, sexism, sadism, bestiality – and though it is more likely to provoke than inspire, Fassbinder makes it clear that it’s not to be taken too seriously.





Saturday, 4 December 2010

PRISON (SWEDEN/1949/INGMAR BERGMAN)

It is perhaps very fitting that the first film that Ingmar Bergman made from his own script was a meta-referencial, existential study of good and evil. Shot on a minute budget for the time, Prison follows Martin, a director whose life is changed by a suggestion made by his old maths teacher during a meal – life on Earth is Hell. Martin delights in amusing his friends with the idea, but decides to use it as the basis of a film project. The film then essentially begins again, and it soon becomes clear that we are now viewing the director’s project, both on and off screen. As Martin and his friends experience existential crises, their own lives begin to mirror the filmic hell that Martin is striving so hard to recreate.

Laden with verbal and visual puns alike, Prison is an unusual early exercise in recursive filmmaking, bolstered by a decent cast and cinematography. At moments, one might even be led to believe this is some modern film experiment riffing sarcastically on forties cinema. But as interesting a concept as the film presents, it isn’t in and of itself a significant film, besides manifesting the emergence of Bergman’s style. It’s almost as if Bergman created the meta-film element as an excuse to explore the histrionic potential of photography, and the title itself may have been a reference to his experience of working for studios. Watch out for the Méliès-style short film (later seen in Persona), which confusingly sits inside the film-within-a-film.





Thursday, 2 December 2010

INLAND (ALGERIA/2008/TARIQ TEGUIA)

While on a mission to provide electricity in a deserted area of west Algeria, topographer Malek discovers a community damaged by the religious intolerance of Islamic extremists. After encountering many of the local representatives, ranging from policemen to shepherds, Malek realises that the task at hand involves repairing more than just electricity. Over the course of a few evenings, Malek finds himself awoken by explosions, said to be cicadas landing on mines in the area, but a daytime investigation reveals another issue – refugees. When one woman attempts to hide out in Malek’s base camp, she unexpectedly draws him into a wild journey across the country, driven only by a desire to be lost and forgotten. The film is punctuated by darkly lit flashbacks to debates about class division and society’s priorities,

What grabs you immediately about Inland is the soundtrack, ranging from Afrobeat and raï to ambient electronica and indie rock. But although the diverse musical choices each add their own touch to the film, its most powerful moments are those which approach silence, a neat contrast with the wordy evening debates which sit awkwardly between scenes. The film eschews aesthetic complexity in favour of a more direct, realist approach – one particularly strong shot takes the journey of a train, inviting the viewer to survey and assess the landscape as is Malek’s responsibility. Reminiscent of Waiting For Happiness, Touki Bouki and even the exoticism of Woman of the Dunes, Inland is a bold drama with a subtle yet seductive rhythm.





Saturday, 27 November 2010

THE BUTCHER (SOUTH KOREA/2007/KIM JIN-WON)

One of the more unsettling trends in modern cinema is the pseudo-snuff film, designed to trick the viewer into believing they are witnessing an actual murder. This trend is manifest in Hollywood’s brief obsession with torture porn, but few prominent films have chosen to combine the gore with another contemporary trend, the handheld first-person horror. Enter Korea’s The Butcher, a low-budget independent feature just over an hour in length. The titular character is the pig-masked leader of a group of snuff filmmakers, who keep a selection of victims tied up in a basement in preparation for their films. In between torturing their captives into terrified silence, the group discusses the best ways to profit from their horrific scheme.

Clearly inspired by visceral B-movies and Japanese V-cinema, there is nothing new in The Butcher that hasn’t already been achieved, and one wonders what, if anything, director Kim Jin-Won is trying to say. The film switches between the views of two cameras, one held by a member of the Butcher’s group, the other attached to a female victim. One could be generous and suggest that Kim is making a statement about the sort of viewer who indulges voyeuristically in the genre, but there is too much fantasy in the film’s construction for the director to be excused. To his credit, there are moments where it is easy to forget that this is a fiction film, the low production values adding to the realism, but for the most part, The Butcher deserves no attention.





Thursday, 25 November 2010

PIONEERS IN INGOLSTADT (GERMANY/1971/RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)

The first of Fassbinder’s films to receive significant critical attention, Pioneers In Ingolstadt concerns the construction of a bridge in a German village, spearheaded by a select group of soldiers. Our protagonist of sorts – the story jumps between various characters – is Berta, a reserved young woman who falls almost instantly for a soldier named Karl. Unlike her vampish friend Alma, Berta struggles with sexuality, and her romantic manner jars with Karl’s impatience. Alma, on the other hand, is content to manipulate the men to feed her desires, and by her own assertions is ‘well-liked’ by the visiting soldiers. Before long, the task at hand is forgotten in a long weekend of debauchery.

The film is an adaptation of a play by Marieluise Fleißer, and carries much of the expected theatricality in its mise-en-scène. Fassbinder’s angle on the play is led by gender stereotypes, and he uses his burgeoning film style to experiment with these conventions. The soldiers’ presence in the town is seen as intrusive, almost unwanted, but charged with erotic potential. Men are simultaneously portrayed as heroes and beasts, lycanthropes whose desires get the better of them at night, while the women’s envy is borderline Freudian. The bridge, too short to necessitate much attention, provides a symbol for the relation between the military and small-town Germany, while another motif, a moonlit park bench, provides a setting for various dalliances, sexual and romantic. It might not be a classic, but Pioneers In Ingolstadt is vital viewing for the Fassbinder fanatic.





Tuesday, 23 November 2010

WELFARE (USA/1975/FREDERICK WISEMAN)

Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare opens with a montage of people having their photograph taken and then being told to ‘have a seat please’. The people appear to come from diverse backgrounds and all of them look apprehensive. The setting here is a welfare centre, crowded with people in varying degrees of desperation trying to claim benefits for their circumstances. The camera sits in on consultations, learning the ins and outs of individual problems, the government’s representatives trying their best to deal with each case humanely but fairly. Sparks fly between agitated claimants and black policemen, with deeply racist accusations forming the basis of pointless arguments.

At almost three hours, Welfare is an intense experience, and it’s clear that Wiseman had a wealth of good footage to sift through. Although the camera often gets uncomfortably close to its subjects, few are conscious of its presence and a lot of personal information is exchanged, making for a documentary rawer than Wiseman’s earlier works. We as the audience spend enough time with each claimant to share their pain and frustration with the benefits system. Welfare shows off Wiseman’s photographic bent, his portraits of people in trouble echoing the work of great photographers such as Manuel Rivera-Ortiz. Given the length of the film, there are several opportunities for one to question the necessity of Wiseman’s neutrality, which occasionally borders on inactivity, but it is important to remember that these subjects are halfway between situations, and it would be unfair, even wrong, for Wiseman to interfere.





NEW WOMAN (CHINA/1934/CAI CHUSHENG)

Fresh from a broken marriage, Wei Ming moves to Shanghai where she becomes a music teacher and writer. Wei manages to get her book published through a friend, but it quickly transpires that the publisher is only interested in Wei’s status as a young woman. Additionally, Dr. Wang, the headmaster of the school where Wei works and the husband of her friend, takes a shining to his new employee, but fires her when she spurns his advances. Destitute and needing to support her ill daughter, Wei reluctantly becomes a prostitute, and when she discovers who her first client is, her burning shame leads her to new lows.

Partly based on the tragic life of actress and writer Ai Xia, New Woman is typical of the golden period films in its portrayal of the lower classes in Shanghai, but there is something unusual in its revelation of the facts. Though not immediately obvious, the film is a commentary on the semi-reality created by the world of cinema – Wei, substituting for Ai Xia, is taken for a ride by the promise of success, when it is only her image and sexuality that is desired. In a sinister twist of life imitating art, lead actress Ruan Lingyu, a prolific star at the time, committed suicide not too long after the release of the film, tired by the constant vigil of the press. With some bizarrely shot sequences and a disturbingly heartfelt performance by Ruan, New Woman is an unforgettably dark slice of cinema.





KISSES (JAPAN/1957/YASUZO MASUMURA)

After a bizarre encounter visiting their respective fathers in prison, teenagers Kinichi and Akiko fall into a troubled relationship that leads them deeper than they bargained for. Having won money on a bet at the races, the pair confide each other’s money woes, learning that their priorities lie on rescuing their fathers. Kinichi is determined to make bail of 100,000 yen for his father, who has been imprisoned for election fraud, and realises that he will have to call upon his estranged mother for help. Akiko decides she must pay back the 100,000 yen of public funds that her father embezzled, but her job as an artist’s model fails to fetch enough to cover her mother’s hospital bills, let alone her father’s release.

For those familiar with the work of Yasuzo Masumura, Kisses might feel a particularly tame debut film, but that’s not to say it lacks his flair. Though not exactly the twisted duo of Nagisa Ôshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, Kinichi and Akiko’s forced independence seems representative of the post-war period, but Masumura allows his characters to enjoy the freedom they are also given by their circumstances. A sequence at the beach allows the young couple to experience the simple joys of being a teenager, before the streets of town remind them of their harsh reality. There are some superb shots too, particularly as an untethered camera follows the couple as they motorcycle to the beach. The story might be forgettable, but it’s hard to finish Kisses unmoved.





Sunday, 21 November 2010

RIO DAS MORTES (GERMANY/1971/RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)

In the opening scene of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Rio Das Mortes, Hanna Schygulla repeats to herself a passage from a childcare book about achievement, indirectly teasing the two protagonists who are to be introduced later. Mike and Günther, feeling unfulfilled by infrequent employment and soured relationships, decide to unravel the mysteries of a treasure map, plotting a trip to Peru in the hopes of finding gold. Mike’s girlfriend Hanna doubts the men’s ability to organise such an excursion, but is crushed when they succeed, and tries to find whatever means she can to stop them.

One of ten films made by Fassbinder between 1970 and 1971, Rio Das Mortes appears to have suffered the most from a lack of focus, with thin characterisation and an unproductive narrative. Whereas the chain-smoking hedonists in his earliest films were consigned to their worthlessness, Mike and Günther are given a misleading goal and take an hour and a half to fail it. And even though the plot promises exploits of Herzogian proportions, there is not enough time in the film for anything to build up, and more importantly, nobody in the film appears to realise that Rio das Mortes is in Brazil. Whether intentional or not, the film offers a host of awkward laughs, particularly during a woeful fight where Günther’s trousers split. There are glimmers of the familiar Fassbinder here, with Schygulla stealing the scene as ever, but all in all one wonders who, if anyone, was driving the film to its conclusion.





Saturday, 20 November 2010

VIOLETTE NOZIÈRE (FRANCE/1978/CLAUDE CHABROL)

Fourteen-year-old Violette is the rebellious daughter of a 1930s bourgeois family, already competent at manipulating adults despite her immaturity. Dressed in head-to-toe fur, she sneaks out of the house to bars where she works as a prostitute, using her earnings to fund her partner’s spending habits. When the family doctor reveals that she has syphilis, Violette manages to turn the situation to her advantage by claiming her parents gave her the disease genetically. In a cold-hearted decision, Violette dupes her father into drinking poison so that she can falsely accuse him of molesting her. As her situation worsens, she learns the hard way that every action has its consequence.

A precursor to the early works of Michael Haneke, Violette Nozière is an unusually disturbing social drama, its characters too gullible to defend themselves. Isabelle Huppert is astonishing as the titular character, a believable enfant terrible considering her age at the time (twenty-five), and a stunning cinematic presence as ever. Director Claude Chabrol is subtler than his contemporaries in his treatment of the bourgeoisie, but his target is still clear, particularly in the reaction of Violette’s parents to her syphilis. Chabrol equates precocious sexuality with criminal behaviour, but simultaneously identifies the issues with chastity in modern society. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the film is its rhythm – Violette’s contempt for her parents isn’t sufficiently substantiated – but the Freudian overtones keep the action convincing even at its strangest moments. An underrated oddity, Violette Nozière is a film not to be taken lightly.





Sunday, 14 November 2010

OWN DEATH (HUNGARY/2008/PÉTER FORGÁCS)

In multimedia artist Péter Forgács’ fiction film Own Death, the protagonist is heard and often not seen, presented to the viewer through found footage and photographs as he describes his life after the near-death experience of a heart attack. The protagonist, assumed to be a publisher or printer, is very aware of his physical vulnerability and often refers to his reaction to his environment (sweat and muscular pains being particular favourites). But as he unravels each moment of pain or suffocation, the images suggest a secret joie de vivre, a longing to fulfil the dreams he had almost lost forever. Occasional segments of text, echoing the narration, appear across the screen in a typewriter serif.

Forgács’ interpretation of Péter Nádas’ novella is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway, creating a new text from several existing texts, and the bricolage of dozens of people’s lives hint at reincarnation or a desire to be anyone else. Newly shot footage flows adds motion to an otherwise sedentary slideshow, and intimacy is afforded to images of fingers and faces through use of gentle musique concrète, care of Béla Tarr’s frequent collaborator Mihály Víg. Whether deliberate or not, the narration is frustratingly anodyne and monotone, and one wonders if we are meant to celebrate the protagonist’s ability to articulate his pain, or to merely suffer with him. Moreover, the man’s thoughts often feel repetitive and steal the footage of some great mythic potential. An intriguing experiment, but one that never leaps off the screen as it should.