Monday, 31 May 2010

CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (JAPAN/1960/NAGISA ÔSHIMA)

Makoto is a coquettish student who believes that her feminine wiles are enough to get her through life. When she is threatened sexually by a driver with whom she had hitchhiked, another student named Kiyoshi comes to her rescue, throwing the man off and warning him that he could destroy his reputation. Makoto is convinced that she has finally found her prince charming and the pair spend time together, but as Kiyoshi starts to blow hot and cold, it becomes clear that he is as questionable a character as her attacker. A hard-up student, Kiyoshi makes scraps of cash by sleeping with older women and leasing his room to couples, and when Makoto’s attacker offers a bribe to prevent them heading to the police station, his money-grabbing instinct takes over.

As in a few of Nagisa Ôshima’s films, the issue at the heart of Cruel Story Of Youth is the commodification of human beings. Makoto is an incredibly naïve and vulnerable character, and because of this, it is painful to witness her story arc, but she is difficult to sympathise with given that she has essentially created her circumstances. Ôshima does a superb job of narrating the woes of adolescence, even as the story gets decidedly adult. A sequence wherein Kiyoshi refuses to save Makoto from drowning unless she does everything he says is particularly memorable and sums the film up succinctly. Raw, sexual and dangerous, Cruel Story Of Youth is a still relevant evocation of the rebellious teenage spirit.





Sunday, 30 May 2010

A (JAPAN/1998/TATSUYA MORI)

The Aum Shinrikyo group, now known as Aleph, are a cult religion in Japan whose central tenets combine elements of Christianity and Buddhism. In 1995, the group was reviled for a sarin attack they carried out on a Tokyo underground train, which killed at least twelve people. The attack was supposedly arranged by the cult’s leader Shoko Asahara in response to rumours that the police had planned to raid his headquarters. In his documentary A, investigative filmmaker Tatsuya Mori managed to integrate himself into the cult’s headquarters shortly after the attack, spending time with members to understand them as people. Spokesperson Hiroshi Araki cuts a bashful image, and one wonders how, if at all, he was selected as a representative given his relative ignorance to the origin of the attacks.

The film plays out as a sort of press pack, arranging interviews and news items chronologically to measure the repercussions of the attack. Rather than sensationalising events unnecessarily, Mori remains as neutral as possible, an approach which allows the subjects to loosen up and contently discuss their beliefs. For the first half of the film, it is hard to conceive of the dangers of a cult represented in the media by someone like Araki, but as Mori probes deeper, he unexpectedly uncovers a stash of chemicals in a storeroom, instantly changing the audience’s perception of the film. At 133 minutes, it may be a little longer than necessary, but A is otherwise a respectably unobtrusive profile of a terrifying sect.





Saturday, 29 May 2010

WÊND KÛUNI (BURKINA FASO/1982/GASTON KABORÉ)

In the middle of a dry stretch of land by the Volta river, a boy is found lying face down wearing threadbare rags. When a friendly traveller finds him, he is unable to recall his past or even speak. Taking pity on the boy, the traveller brings him to a nearby village, where he is entrusted to the care of Tinga and Lale, who rename him Wendkouni, ‘God’s gift‘ in the Mòoré language. Despite his muteness, Wendkouni manages to integrate surprisingly well, working hard alongside Tinga and growing close to adoptive sister Pognèré. When a hysterical villager named Bila hangs himself in a tree, the sight so greatly disturbs Wendkouni that he finds himself able to talk again, but with his first word being a plaintive cry of “Mother!”, revelation isn’t going to be easy.

Prior to producing Wênd Kûuni, the second film ever produced in Burkina Faso, director Gaston Kaboré had been disturbed by the simplistic representation of West African peoples in documentaries. In the character of Wendkouni, Kaboré finds a means of constructing an identity from scratch. Free of language or other cultural signifier, he is absorbed into a community which gives him purpose and love, and later helps him to articulate his pain. At the end of the film, he emerges from his chrysalis, stronger for his suffering and with newfound direction. Wendkouni’s relationship with Pognèré is particularly touching, as both young actors (siblings in real life) support each other through the painful process of growing up.





THE CASTLE (AUSTRIA/1997/MICHAEL HANEKE)

Mere seconds after entering a bar in a small German village, a land surveyor known only as K (Ulrich Mühe) is met with disproportionate revulsion. His every move is challenged, and some of the villagers inform him that he is not allowed to be there, despite K’s insistence that he had been appointed to work on the local castle. The next morning, K encounters Arthur and Jeremias, two simple men who have been told to serve as his assistants, but who serve to do little more than annoy. During his uncomfortable sojourn in the village, K receives intermittent communication from Klamm, his unseen employer, who sympathises with his confusion but does little to help. Rather than waking up each morning to work, K finds himself wrapped in more red tape each day, and both Klamm and the castle soon seem like figments of his imagination.

It is hard to imagine a modern director more suited to adapt Franz Kafka’s final work than Michael Haneke, who has made a name for himself creating unsettling psychological dramas. As in Kafka’s book, the threat is intangible but palpable throughout, and Haneke keeps a rhythm to the film with abrupt fades to black. The film is however weakened by a narration which detracts from the cinematic illusion. While a difficult character to portray, K does not feel as in conflict with his surroundings as he does in the book, but Haneke does well to represent his frustrations realistically. Not perfect, but an admirable effort.





THE COFFEEHOUSE (GERMANY/1970/RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER)

Based on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy of the same name, controversial director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s televised play The Coffeehouse presents all of its characters simultaneously, on a set populated only by actors and decorative chairs. The coffee house in question comprises the unpleasant customers who frequent it, whose bourgeois concerns range from gambling to romantic infidelities. The coffee is notably absent – these people seem to survive off each other’s problems and disenchantment with the world. The camera, static through much of the film, hones in on relevant conversations, conveying very little movement whatsoever.

Like Béla Tarr’s TV version of Macbeth, which is dominated by an hour-long shot, Fassbinder’s version of The Coffee House requires considerable patience from the viewer, and relies heavily on the richness of language to communicate its emotional subtleties. Before making his film adaptation, Fassbinder had rewritten the play for the stage, stripping it of its elaborate set design and whimsical comedy to place it firmly in the modern age. It is this unrelentingly stoical approach which permeates a lot of Fassbinder’s early work, and it was at this point that his theatrical output was most prolific. On screen, The Coffeehouse still feels like a play, but as a film it does paradoxically gain an undercurrent of comedy through its supposed seriousness. As actors deliver their lines in turn, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the status of the production rather than the content, and the characters’ hysterical self-pity becomes little more than a theatrical whimsy.





THE VIDEO DEAD (USA/1987/ROBERT SCOTT)

A TV arrives on the doorstep of Mr. Jordan, an unemployed layabout who has no recollection of buying such a device, given his scepticism regarding technology. In the middle of the night, the unplugged TV somehow switches itself on, becoming a portal for a series of zombies which had featured in a film Mr. Jordan had criticised earlier. A few years later, the house is occupied by a new family. Teen siblings Jeff and Zoë hold the fort while their parents are away, only to be delivered a TV that they didn’t order either! With the insatiable curiosity necessary to drive these sorts of narratives ahead, Jeff decides to play about with the TV in the attic, unleashing a barrage of zombies into the quiet neighbourhood.

As one might assume, there’s not much remarkable about this one, asides from the comical special effects and porn star acting. The zombies which emerge from the TV are far too human to present any significant threat – some of them are just a couple of eyeliner strokes from being New Romantics. In trying to create an original twist to the zombie genre, the film forgets pacing and plot, but more than makes up for it with some creative deaths – one unfortunate individual is stabbed (yes, stabbed) with an iron. Essentially, The Video Dead is no different from any other horror-comedy hybrid, but it does make an amusing (and surprisingly accurate) prediction about the future of televisual culture. A recommended watch when drunk or stoned.



Thursday, 27 May 2010

AS I WAS MOVING AHEAD OCCASIONALLY I SAW BRIEF GLIMPSES OF BEAUTY (USA/2000/JONAS MEKAS)

Jonas Mekas is one of the most prolific artists working with film, and even to this day he keeps himself occupied with projects at the grand old age of eighty-seven. His four-hour magnum opus As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses Of Beauty narrates the past thirty years of his life through a careful compilation of family footage, accompanied by commentary, music and audio clips. Through Mekas’ meticulous editing, positioning disparate events side by side, precious memories lose their preciousness and become performances of ‘real life’ – a family excursion is no longer a fun day out, rather a beautiful silent play of light and colour.

Mekas, a man haunted by the spectre of memory, achieves the rare feat of putting himself on camera without needing to be in front of it. His juxtaposition of images is never gratuitous or sentimental, even as flowers superimpose images of children, and although names of relatives and friends are mentioned, the priority is never to learn exactly what role these people play in his life, rather to learn what sort of people they are or were. Any budding artist working in 8mm and 16mm would do well to watch Mekas’ work to learn how to make true meaning of home video footage. In spite of, or perhaps thanks to its extensive length, As I Was Moving Ahead is a wholly immersive experience – while these may not be memories from our own lives, they will be by the end of the film.





THE COUNTRY TEACHER (CZECH REPUBLIC/2008/BOHDAN SLÁMA)

Petr is a young, overqualified science teacher who finds himself working at a school in a small rural village. Although he seems to be coping well in his new environment, some of the local adults are sceptical about his sudden appearance, with the headmaster of the school even raising questions. Petr finds comfort in a kindly woman named Marie, who is grateful for the presence of another man in her life besides her teenage son Lada. After a revelatory visit from his ex-boyfriend Mihi, Petr realises that he has taken this job as a way of running from his identity as a gay man. Worse still, he finds that he has fallen for Lada, who is discovering the joys of love with his girlfriend Bara.

In both content and style, The Country Teacher resembles the Korean feature Bungee Jumping Of Their Own, in which a teacher finds himself drawn to a male student he believes is the incarnation of his departed high school sweetheart. While the latter sounds excessively saccharine, it is the better-handled film of the two. In The Country Teacher, Petr deals with many feelings, including a forbidden attraction, but his stony demeanour means that some of his more surprising actions are hard to believe. In spite of this, the film does handle the dramatic moments realistically, and doesn’t forget the emotions of secondary characters in telling its story. An endearing tale of love and identity, The Country Teacher is no great shakes but definitely deserves a watch.





Wednesday, 26 May 2010

FINIS TERRÆ (FRANCE/1929/JEAN EPSTEIN)

Set on the fog-addled islet of Bannec in Brittany, Finis Terræ tells the story of Jean-Marie and Ambroise, two teenagers working as seaweed collectors for the summer. When a mischievous caper involving a bottle of alcohol gets them in trouble with their superior, the boys fall out, but when Ambroise gets an infection in a cut on his finger, Jean-Marie does what he can to help. On the hunt for a doctor, he rows through perilous weather to Ouessant, the nearest port, little knowing that a doctor is already on his way on a separate boat. As the crashing waves surround the island in a haze, everyone begins to wonder what has become of Jean-Marie.

Expressionist director Jean Epstein’s films often convey simple stories in a headily lyrical manner, and Finis Terræ is no exception to the rule. With its majestic photography and meditative close-ups, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film is communicating a profound statement on humanity in every single frame. Visual motifs of broken bottles and shells echo the day-to-day approach to life the boys share, and an intermittent shot of names being crossed out gives a powerful sense of time passing with very little action. Epstein even manages to use the film’s silence to great effect, as Jean-Marie’s attempts to shout to the doctor go apparently unnoticed. Simultaneously romantic and realistic, Finis Terræ is a gorgeous essay on human nature and endurance, painted with the very skilled brush of one of cinema’s greatest poets.





BO BA BU (UZBEKISTAN/1998/ALI KHAMRAYEV)

In the middle of the Uzbek desert, a blond-haired woman limps aimlessly, bandages adorning her body. Spied by a father and son team of hooded shepherds named Bo and Bu, she is fitted with a makeshift leash and dragged behind their cart like an animal. At first, Bo and Bu appear to show some affection for the woman, whom they name Ba. They feed her, wash her and take care of her as if she were a member of their flock. Before long, the two men find themselves vying for her attention, but are unable to shake off their obsessive objectification of her, and she is violently thrown around between the two like a ragdoll.

The film portrays the men as unpolished savages, unable to communicate beyond monosyllables. It is alleged that the film sparked controversy in various Central Asian countries for such a blunt depiction of the area, but director Ali Khamrayev quite pointedly does not associate the film with any specific country, saying only that it takes place “11,000km from New York”. In spite of this, the film seems to only really have one thing to say. The woman, played by Arielle Dombasle, stands apart from the backdrop as a blue-eyed, pink-lipped Barbie doll, an icon of all things European. Her presence in the desert alone seems to be the catalyst for the shepherds’ downfall, evoking a simple statement on European influence. Neither a straight drama nor a hilarious parody, Bo Ba Bu is an unusually mixed bag.





LAW AND ORDER (USA/1969/FREDERICK WISEMAN)

Frederick Wiseman’s Law and Order opens with a slideshow of presumed criminals expressing a range of emotions, setting the precedent for the rest of the documentary. Taking place in Kansas City, Missouri, the film catches little snippets of arrests, interrogations and prosecutions performed by the local police force on various charges, as well as testimonials from victims. We see a man assuring a policeman that he could quite happily “take care of” the child molester he wanted to prosecute, and an uncooperative drunkard is dragged to the ground for insolence. A particularly startling scene shows a landlady complaining about a couple living in one of her apartments. As the argument between the three grows steadily, it is revealed that a knife had been brought into the dispute, but the policemen doggedly refuse to get involved because “ma’am, this is between them”.

Although not as shocking as Wiseman’s own Titicut Follies, Law and Order is still a powerful work, a distillation of sixties attitudes to the authorities. Policemen are greeted with disobedience, apathy and threatening behaviour, and given the violent approach taken by some officers, it’s easy to see why. Attitudes to race are also placed under the microscope, as Kansas City was fresh from the MLK riots at the time. Although the film features plenty of antagonism between white law enforcers and black criminals, Wiseman is careful not to perpetuate stereotypes on either end, best summarised by the touching sequence where a white policeman comforts a lost young black girl.





Monday, 24 May 2010

FANTASMA (ARGENTINA/2006/LISANDRO ALONSO)

A middle-aged man looks longingly through a window, a stiletto in his hand. A black screen, accompanied by soaring post-rock guitars, occupies the screen for the next minute, before returning us to the man, who is now pottering around an empty events venue. It is this tantalisingly languid style which Lisandro Alonso uses in his short feature Fantasma. Words are scarcely uttered, if ever – the narrative comprises unnerving silences and pregnant pauses, told in rigid shots which invite the audience to take in the dimensions of each scene. The man eventually meets a young female student at the cinema, where the two are the only attendees to a screening which seems to show the man as some sort of explorer.

Naturally, a patience for long takes is crucial to get through Fantasma, but even then there is no solid guarantee of enjoyment. Like Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn and Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, Alonso gives us a literal cinematic experience, transforming the darkened screening room into a stage wherein performance is unadulterated by dialogue. The scenes surrounding this nucleus of reflection offer a slight narrative more led by possibility than certainty, and while the man is an interesting sight, his slick black hair belying his true age, his story just doesn’t feel interesting enough to pursue. The introduction of the student promises a connection between the two characters, but teasingly doesn’t deliver. It isn’t that Fantasma has little to say, rather that it is perhaps too subtle for its own good.





Wednesday, 19 May 2010

ABOUT CHILDREN (SPAIN/2003/JOAQUIM JORDÀ)

In this introspective documentary about the judicial system in Spain, five people accused of molesting children are put on trial in Barcelona. The scandal, named the Raval case after the neighbourhood in which it took place, rightfully shook the nation to its core. Xavier Tamarit, a soft-spoken schoolteacher who stands accused of prostituting several children under his care, appears disturbingly unaffected by the charges launched against him, explaining himself without emotion. Director Joaquim Jordà compiles news reports, interviews and even performance art related to the case to illustrate the impact of the case on the media.

By subject matter, this sits alongside Capturing The Friedmans and Paradise Lost, but in opposition to these films, About Children presents the facts without breaking the fourth wall, as if not wishing to sensationalise the case any further. In some ways however, Jordà’s work trivialises aspects of the case – the film is as much about the Spanish judiciary as it is about paedophilia, and while the theatre pieces and acoustic soundtrack may help to form filmic interludes, they are discordant with the serious nature of the trial and appear insensitive. This is not to say that the film doesn’t take its subject seriously. The cameraman seem to be everywhere in the courtroom, absorbing natural reactions from attorneys and jury members, as well as profiling the accused without interfering with procedure. Shocking, challenging and thought-provoking, About Children is a hard-hitting analysis of an abhorrent crime, an incisive study into the darkest side of human nature.





Monday, 17 May 2010

HARPOON: REYKJAVÍK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE (ICELAND/2009/JÚLÍUS KEMP)

As if economic collapse and the untimely eruption of Eyjafallajökull weren’t enough, Iceland is now receiving mixed attention for their first contribution to the torture porn genre. Featuring something of an alternative ‘all-star’ cast – Gunnar Hansen of Leatherface fame, Nae from Inland Empire, an extra from The BillHarpoon: Reykjavík Whale Watching Massacre takes place aboard a whaling ship, where a dozen international tourists are hoping to see the giant creatures in their natural habitat. But when the ship’s captain mysteriously dies, it is up to a spooky lank-haired individual to come to the rescue. At his suggestion, the passengers relocate to his family’s rickety old ship, little knowing that this is to put them in further danger.

From the film’s subtitle alone, it is clear that director Júlíus Kemp was planning to take more than just Gunnar Hansen from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite some superb photography of the Icelandic landscape, Harpoon is no different from any other slasher flick. Its top priority appears to be reminding its audience that the film is Icelandic – we hear references to Sigur Rós, a passenger singing Björk over the intercom, an older woman translating insults into Icelandic. Additionally, the film’s light-hearted attempt to show a cross-section of international holiday-makers actually ends up insultingly simplistic, as seen in Hostel. But in all fairness, Kemp was never going for the Oscar, and all things considered, the film is quite a fun little jaunt with enough blood and guts to keep your average gore-whore entertained.





Sunday, 16 May 2010

THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON (FRANCE/2007/ÉRIC ROHMER)

Set in rural Gaul in the 5th century, French directing legend Eric Rohmer’s swan song concerns the love between shepherd Celadon and shepherdess Astrea. The young lovers are blighted by the disapproval of Celadon’s parents, but when Astrea mistakes Celadon’s use of a pretend girlfriend for infidelity, the relationship buckles under the strain. Having witnessed Celadon run into the river, Astrea believes that he has drowned and finds herself inconsolable. However, Celadon is kept alive by a group of nymphs who give him the confidence to return to the village in the hopes of finding Astrea again and winning back her heart.

In essence, it’s a simple Romeo and Juliet story in a bucolic setting. Rohmer presents his youthful protagonists as victims of circumstance, their core emotions otherwise unshakable. But as pure as its message is, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon takes a long time to say ver little. Too much of the film is afforded to characters literally reading poetry. What frustrates most however is that the romantic hysterics see no representation in the mise-en-scène – with the beautiful sweeping backdrop of a verdant valley, it’s a disappointment that the battle of emotions is left entirely up to the young cast, who appear a little wet behind the ears. To put it bluntly, one could just as easily be watching an amateur production in the woods. An undercooked, inflated melodrama which often feels like Shakespeare manqué, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon should only be seen by Rohmer completists.





Friday, 14 May 2010

HIGH SCHOOL (USA/1968/FREDERICK WISEMAN)

Opening to the soulful voice of Otis Redding, documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s High School studies the lives of students at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. A typical day in the students’ life is shown through short vignettes of lessons and break times, the camera occasionally catching their faces in naked close-up. Wiseman frequently makes connections by juxtaposing similar clips. A Spanish teacher coaxing her pupils’ enunciation is compared to a music teacher mouthing the beat of a timpani. A gymnastics lesson, voyeuristically shot, rhymes with a later shot of girls preparing for a fashion show. The school day neither begins nor ends clearly, the activities within it in a haphazard order.

Wiseman is known for his unflinching cinema vérité manner, and High School is a brilliant example of why this works so well. The editing could almost have been pre-determined, short snippets of drama only staying moments on the screen. Occasionally, the subjects appear conscious of the camera and change their behaviour accordingly (the teachers in particular), but whether this impedes or ameliorates the role of the film is up to the viewer. What is most significant about the film is that the students are almost entirely unheard beyond chatter and laughter. It is not entirely clear as to whether or not this was deliberate, but needless to say the effect is a little sinister at times. Interestingly, the film was banned in Philadelphia for this reason, although its subjects later claimed it was an accurate depiction. An unusually gripping watch.





Thursday, 13 May 2010

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (USA/2008/JAMES NGUYEN)

Birdemic: Shock and Terror tells the story of a San Francisco town plagued by bird attacks. Our protagonist is Rod, a software salesman who falls for a model he passes in the street. The two hit it off and end up in a motel for the night. The next morning, the couple is woken up by eagles squawking outside the window. In fear, they join forces with another couple in the adjacent room, driving across the city in a bid to avoid further attack by the birds and rescuing two young kids along the way. On their travels, they encounter an eco-warrior who helps them understand the birds’ antagonism. But even with their newfound bravery, the group is unable to rid themselves of the avian infestation.

From the above description, Birdemic might sound like a rip-off of Hitchcock’s The Birds, but it’s clear from the beginning that the Hitchcock estate has no reason to be concerned (asides from Tippi Hedren inexplicably making a cameo). Shot on a budget of $10,000 (that much?), this third feature by salesman-turned-director James Nguyen defies belief with its shockingly poor photography, acting, screenplay, sound and special effects. It is the latter attribute which pushes this film from Z-movie to abominable cult classic – the CGI eagles are often seen aimlessly flapping in a fixed position, completely defying scale and proportion and presenting no real threat. An unintentional belly-laugh from start to finish, Birdemic is a new category of bad film, and should be seen by everyone.


If I haven't convinced you, check out the trailer





Tuesday, 11 May 2010

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) (NETHERLANDS/2009/TOM SIX)

An exhausted trucker, defecating on the roadside after a long haul, is shot soundlessly by a trench-coated man in sunglasses. So begins Tom Six’s notorious horror film, modelled in the manner of Hostel or Saw but ending up much more like Videodrome. Our main characters arrive in the form of American tourists Lindsay and Jenny, two naïve gal-pals trying to navigate their way across Western Europe. Broken down on a Landesstraße in Germany, the girls are taken in by the enigmatic Dr. Heiter who spikes them with Rohypnol. The addition of Japanese tourist Katsuro allows Heiter to begin his experiment and fulfil his twisted dream – to make a human sewage line.

It is hard to know how to react to The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Clearly, the main goal of the film is to repulse, which it manages in abundance thanks to lingering shots of the centipede in ‘motion’. What makes the experience incredibly uncomfortable is the inherent comedy in Heiter’s mission – it’s hard not to laugh at Katsuro’s confused anger. While it is never explained, one can assume that Heiter’s goal has an erotic outcome, but the campy acting makes it hard to take seriously. But while to many it may just be a juvenile gross-out movie, The Human Centipede is at least an interesting exercise in suspense, and the next logical step in torture porn. A sequel of sorts is on its way, leading one to ponder what other dastardly schemes Heiter has in mind (a digestive ouroboros?).