Tuesday, 22 January 2008

On The Silver Globe (1987, Poland, Andrzej Zulawski)

I really liked the two previous Zulawski films I'd seen; 'The Third Part of Night' (1971) and 'Possession' (1981). Both are incredibly radical and interesting films with a great deal of psychological depth and just that ounce of lunacy about them. But this can't prepare one for watching Zulawski's most ambitious film; 'On The Silver Globe', which you watch puzzled and dumbfounded for much of the time, but always hooked. The film famously had a problematic production, starting in the mid 1970s, then filming was halted by the Polish Ministry of Culture. The film was only completed some ten years after. Originally 80% or so complete, Zulawski was unable to use the same sets, costumes or actors, so the viewer has to forgive the odd continuity issue. Where gaps in the narrative exist, Zulawski narrates the lost 'action', interspersing it with what almost seems to be contemporary footage of normal life.

Based on a series of science fiction novels by Zulawski's grandfather, 'On The Silver Globe' starts with a group of astronauts leaving Earth for freedom and to create a new civilisation. They land on what appears to be the dark side of the Moon. The group then procreate (though there's only one female, so let's overlook the iffy gender politics which reduces her to baby making machine then) before dying. The generations of children they have spawned become primitive tribes, placing great importance on strange ceremonies and rituals, worshipping fire, turning to violence even. Their 'religion' places these astronauts as Gods; the sole survivor is revered, and there is a prophecy which suggests this Old Man will one day be reincarnated, which they believe is the case when another astronaut arrives alone after the Old Man has died. This 'reincarnated' figure is supposed to free them from the winged monsters who have enslaved them (yeah, I know), before meeting his own destiny.

So far, so nuts. Even by Zulawski's standards, this is a total "what the hell?" experience. The technical dimension though is flawless, as much as the film exists as planned. There's the typical mobile camerawork for the director; swooping from great heights, most notably when focusing on a number of men being sacrificed (?), impaled by long wooden poles up their anuses dozens of feet in the air. There's the muted colours too. The whole film seems to be shot in a grey-blue palette, giving a washed out effect. There's the elaborate constume design and make up as well. Given the hardships the film faced, it's to Zulawski's credit that he's managed to looks so technically and visually accomplished.

Nowadays, science fiction relies on an emphasis on special effects, but not here. 'On The Silver Globe' is all about psychological depth and religious parallels. It's a shame we never got to see the version that Zulawski intended. It does feel as if you're watching an uncompleted film. It's certainly disjointed and inconsistent, and even taking into account all the strangeness of proceedings, it's never off-putting. 'On The Silver Globe' needs to be seen to be believed; it has much in common with Jodorowsky at his most demented, I'd say. It's never short of ideas but given the shape it's in, might be reduced to cult viewing or considered a film oddity. 3.5/5

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Interrogation (1982, Poland, Ryszard Bugajski)

Set in early 1950s Poland, this account of the ruthlessness and barbarism of the Polish secret police was famously banned upon production, which coincided with the introduction of martial law. Whilst it may have been set in the past, a number of parallels would become obvious. Despite being suppressed, the director was able to smuggle the film out of the country, and it was even shown domestically on video. It's been said that the authorities simply overlooked the political content of the film by mistake - it's certainly unthinkable that anything so unflinchingly critical of the Communist regime at any period might have been permitted.

Tonia (Krystyna Janda), a cabaret singer goes drinking with two 'admirers' to spite her husband after she suspects him of cheating with her best friend. These men are of course part of the secret police, who then imprison. When she learns where she is, she assumes it is a bureaucratic mistake - that they simply have the wrong person and that the error will be rectified. She has no idea why she has been arrested or what she is supposed to have done. As one of her fellow prisoners says "they don't make mistakes" and she encourages her to plead guilty to whatever she is accused of to make life easier. Refusing to, the authorities try to break her, forcing Tonia undergoes a systematically brutal series of interrogations. She has coffee thrown at her, forced to strip, given cold baths (that is sprayed with cold water until she collapses), and sees a man shot dead in front of her as a threat of what might happen should she not co-operate. Despite both physically and mentally disintegrating, Tonia maintains an innder strength and refuses to tell them what they want to hear. She knows it involves General Olcha, a man she had an affair with, who has been spying for the West, but she maintains she has no involvement.

Interrogation is an incredibly difficult film to watch - to get through it you need to be able to withstand a series of increasingly brutal methods of torture. The success of the film rests on the staggering central performance of Janda, who was recognised with the best actress award at Cannes in 1990, when the first was finally released. Appearing before us originally as a flighty woman of simple pleasures, she acquires a steely resolve in the face of all that is thrown at her - a staggering transformation. Interrogation fits in well with the work of the movement known as "the films of moral anxiety", which includes work like Man of Marble and Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda - exectuive producer here) and the early work of Krzysztof Kieslowski, which also coincided with the rise of Solidarity, which sought to awaken social consciousness and represent the truth of life in Poland under Communism. Unflinching, but important, another superb release by Second Run. 4/5

High Fidelity (2000, UK/USA, Stephen Frears)

OK so I've seen it like a million times already but.....howls of derision accompanied news that Hornby's chick-lit for men novel was going to be updated to Chicago turn of the century. I don't know, it's hardly the same as giving Dickens or Austen a contemporary twist, and music snobs who know nothing about love and romance are hardly unique to Islington, are they? No doubt the success of this Americanisation of Hornby's material encouraged the remake of 'Fever Pitch' also known as 'The Perfect Catch'. I've not seen this, but you have to understand that romantic comedies starring Jimmy Fallon are hardly going to jump out at me as a "must see" film.

It's not often do you get romantic comedies aimed squarely at men as much as women. 'High Fidelity' follows Rob Gordon (John Cusack), who breaks up with his latest girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) and then reminisces over his entire love life in what is described as a "what does it all mean?" phase, whilst running a record store that's not doing so well at present. Are you supposed to sympathise with Rob - he's certainly portrayed as a pretty decent guy if you overlook the reasons why his latest girlfriend left him in the first place. Maybe when he listens to cool-as-fuck music like Belle and Sebastian, Stereolab and Ann Peebles (hand picked by Cusack and the other producers - certainly only the latter warrants a mention in the original novel), you like him a little more. And he appears as normal as it is possible to be compared to the other male characters; Barry and Dick (Jack Black and Todd Louiso), his exceptionally polar opposite employees and Ian/Ray (Tim Robbins), whom Laura left him for, but is clearly a creep of the highest order.

But nevermind, because Rob does learn a lot across the duration of the film about himself. It's pretty flimsy and superficial stuff, I guess, maybe no more perceptive than the kind of guff peddled in whatever the latest novel for twenty or thirtysomething middle class women is, some might say, but this is seriously funny; whether it's Jack Black berating some guy for not owning 'Psychocandy' by Jesus and Mary Chain, or John Cusack dreaming about beating the shit out of Tim Robbins. You wonder why these great and glamorous women dig him (he even sleeps with Lisa Bonet's singer-songwriter), but you know, it never aims for realism with it's talk-to-the-camera approach inspired by 'Alfie' and it's aforementioned dream sequences. Whilst I realise the novel and the film have their flaws, namely a degree of shallowness and simplification, but I can kind of identify (more with the music nerd side of things at least) and a modern romantic comedy that makes you laugh rather than groan at it's sheer ineptness is a godsend. 4/5

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Shop on Main Street (1965, Czechoslovakia, Jan Kadar)

The Prague Spring allowed Czech film makers to discuss the issues and ask the questions they would never have been permitted to at any other time. Much like The Cremator (previously reviewed), The Shop on Main Street considers the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and how the passivity and complicity of the population maintained it. Kadar explains just how simple it would have been to just go along with the momentum of things, to remain a bystander, but not everyone can remain impassive; sometimes you have to make a stand.

The first half of the film works almost as a farce. Antonin Brtko (Josef Kroner) is a poor carpenter, who just wants a simple and easy life - walking his dog and remaining apolitical and free from the growing horror around him of the Nazi occupation. His wife harasses him for never earning enough and for not sharing the ambition of his brother who has thrown his lot in with the Nazis and forms part of the Fascist guard that is running things. His brother changes Antonin's fortunes, by arranging for him to become "Aryan controller" for a textile shop run by a frail and senile Jewish woman, Mrs Lautmann (Ida Kaminska). Much humour derives from their misunderstandings - she is unaware of the war or the Nazi occupation. Soon though, events take a much darker, and ultimately tragic turn.

The second half of the film charts Antonin's change from apolitical bystander to someone who has to make a stand. Though weak willed, he resists Nazism, and risks becoming the "Jew lover" his brother warns him is a worse crime than being a Jew itself. He does all he can to ensure Mrs Lautmann is not caught up in trouble, even when other Jews in the community are beaten and arrested. He opens the shop on Saturdays, and ultimately attempts to hide her when the Nazis ominously call names of Jews being deported to labour camps.

Filmed and set in Slovakia, which aligned itself pretty comfortably with the Nazis, The Shop on Main Street considers just how easy it is for people to become complicit with totalitarian regimes. Antonin's wife is happy because he is earning more money, yet only he considers the moral implications of this, and only he has the backbone to try to do something about it. If one considers it an allegory that might be applied to ANY dictatorship, then this film could only have been made during the Prague Spring, the few years of artistic freedom in the 60s. The film was banned shortly after the Soviets installed order again.

Wonderfully acted by the two leads and posing many ethical questions, The Shop on Main Street is needless to say, another unqualified masterpiece from the Czech New Wave. 4.5/5

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Cremator (1968, Czechoslovakia, Juraj Herz)

In 1968, Alexander Dubcek became party secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and announced "We shall have to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness." The Prague Spring ushered in a period of artistic freedom, which coincided with an exceptionally fertile period of film making in Czechoslovakia. The Cremator is one such film, and one of the best of that era, easily the equal of The Ear or The Party and the Guests. Like these films, it has a political dimension, although it's critique of the abuse of political power is aimed at the Nazis rather than Communists, unless Herz also allows for an allegorical interpretation that regards any totalitarian regime as bad as another.

Kopfrkingel (Rudolf Hrusinsky - imagine a creepier Peter Lorre if you can) runs a successful crematorium. It's obvious something is amiss by how he regards his work; using Buddhist philosophy to wax lyrical about reincarnation, he considers death as an end to suffering and unhappiness and the afterlife one's transformation into something better. A man proud of his work, he boasts that he can burn a body to ashes in just 75 minutes. He gradually becomes swept along by the rise of Nazism, which is gaining a foothold in Czechoslovakia, which is about to be invaded prior to the outbreak of war. He considers Germany a huminitarian state with excellent laws on cremation. He obviously thinks he could perform his job more efficiently under the Germans; a horrifying thought. His seduction by Nazism takes on a shocking dimension, for his wife is half-Jewish, thus his children are one quarter Jewish, and believing Jews to be unhappy and in need of having their souls saved, he embarks on a gruesome means of doing so.

Herz's background was in puppetry, and he was a contemporary and friend of the great Jan Svankmajer (they were born just days apart). The influence of this form of art on the film is immeasurable. Take the carnival scene, which amuses because Kopfrkingel takes his family along, doesn't enjoy it, until he finds a waxwork exhibit which is incredibly gruesome. His family are disgusted, whilst he relishes it. The surreal opening credit sequence too bears all the hallmarks of his origins - the title caption is in between where Kopfrkingel's head is split in two. Black humour is very much at the heart of the film, not that this detracts in any way from the horror you witness. Herz also throws in a number of inventive tricks - distorting Kopfrkingel's voice, adding echo, using an eerie and disorientating soundtrack and unique camera angles - all to symbolise the madness which the cremator has succumbed to.

Released by Second Run, who can never be praised enough for the sterling work they do distributing cinema from neglected regions of the world (they have released numerous Eastern European new wave masterpieces), The Cremator is a chilling and shocking account of one man tipping over the edge into insanity, when seduced by a totalitarian regime which would use his talents for their nefarious ends. Herz, clearly a gifted film maker, gives The Cremator the right visual stlye to create the mood he's going for. An essential film from an astoundingly creative era. 4.5/5

Monday, 7 January 2008

Paranoid Park (2007, USA/France, Gus van Sant)

Now that he's signed onto direct 'Milk', the story of California's first openly gay public official, it appears that Gus van Sant has completed his loose quartet of minimalist 'death' films (which included 'Gerry', the Palme D'Or winning 'Elephant' and 'Last Days'), which marked possibly the most creatively period of his career. Van Sant's mainstream films have alternated between the very good and the very poor; one might argue his low-budget efforts are what he excels at, and 'Paranoid Park' is certainly one of the better Van Sant films to date. Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a teenage skateboarder, who is inadvertently involved in the death of a security guard, but what interests Van Sant is the fallout from the death and he concentrates on the unravelling of Alex's life thereafter.

Much of 'Paranoid Park' is familiar from the previous 'death' films, most notably 'Elephant'. There is a preference towards non-linear narratives, use of non-professional actors ('Paranoid Park' advertised for castings on Myspace), sparse and seemingly improvised dialogue, and little explanation of events. Van Sant clearly understands the teenage milieu he films; their fashions, their language, the whole awkwardness of their flirtatons with romance (witness the amusing scene where Alex has sex with his girlfriend for the first time, who then calls her friends from the toilet boasting), and his approach to this is so understated. What 'Paranoid Park' also shares with 'Elephant' is an extended shower scene of a naked teenage boy, with the camera lingering on the boy's torso for several minutes, which can only make you think that Van Sant has something of a fetish in that area.

Van Sant is also reunited with ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who also has a small cameo as Alex's uncle), with whom he collaborated on the unfairly maligned remake of Psycho (1998), and he provides a suitably dreamlike and hallucinatory look to the film to accompany Alex's state of numbness and denial after the tragedy he is involved in. Much like the previous films in this cycle, 'Paranoid Park' is certain to alienate some viewers; it really has the same appeal as the other films that have been alluded to. This is cinema without answers or resolutions. 3.5/5

The Wayward Cloud (2005, Taiwan/France, Tsai Ming-Liang)

Showing as part of the Tsai Ming-Liang season at BFI Southbank, 'The Wayward Cloud' is a semi-reprise of his 1998 film 'The Hole', which I've reviewed in the past on this blog. Much as in 'The Hole', two characters attempt to connect during a dystopian Taipei, though rather than incessant rain, the weather phenomenon which Taipei finds itself in, is a drought, which makes the price of watermelons skyrocket. Watermelons are used as sexual props as well, including the incredibly bizarre opening scene of a porn actress with a watermelon half between her legs, which is then "aroused" and penetrated by Hsiao-Kang (TML regular Kang-Sheng Lee).

Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi (Shiang-Chyi Chen) are the two protagonists, who much like their counterparts in 'The Hole', struggle with issues of intimacy and the need to make a connection. Their frustrated emotions convey themselves in elaborate and giddy song and dance sequences, like in 'The Hole' but much more frequently, which are in stark contrast to the sombre tone of most of the time. You won't see a merman emerging from a rooftop pool of water or wearing a pink dress with a umbrella designed with a watermelon in any other film.

'The Wayward Cloud' has received a degree of notoreity for the extreme sexual content, most notably during the film's climax, where Hsiao-Kang, a part-time porn actor, has sex with a semi-comatose Japanese actress, watched by Shiang-Chyi from a distance. Much has been written about this final scene, with an excellent commentary on the Rouge journal (http://www.rouge.com.au/rougerouge/wayward.html). Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi finally connect during this sexual scene in a way that's actually pretty difficult to watch, literally leaving a bad taste in the mouth (sorry). The article at Rouge offers a more eloquent interpretation of this final scene than I ever could.

Though I've mentioned how closely 'The Wayward Cloud' parallels his earlier film 'The Hole', it doesn't feel that Tsai Ming-Liang is repeating himself. Sure he usually explores similar themes in all his films; lack of human contact/connection, furtive sexual encounters, social outsiders, he does so so inventively from film to film. Combining humour, explicit sexual activity and emotional impact, 'The Wayward Cloud' is a unique cinematic experience. 4/5

The Edge of Heaven (2007, Germany/Turkey, Fatih Akin)

One of the most promising young European directors, Fatih Akin made his name with 2004's 'Head On', one of the most prominent examples of the renaissance of German cinema this decade. What separated it from the likes of 'Downfall' and 'The Lives of Others' was not just that it looked at Germany from a contemporary angle, but that it considered Germany as a multicultural and multiracial perspective, most notably the relationship between Germany and Turkey. They share close historical, political and economic ties, and 2.5 million people of Turkish descent live in Germany, but 'Head On' was one of the first films to genuinely explore this relationship. Akin examines this relationship once more in 'The Edge of Heaven', which traces two very different storylines across both countries, but are inextricably linked.

Ali (Tunsel Kurtiz) is a lonely widow who offers a prostitute named Yeter (Nursel Kose) a relationship of convenience when she is intimidated by two Turkish men who inform her she is bringing shame upon her people and religion, much to the disapproval of Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak). Upon learning of Yeter's daughter, Ayten, in Istanbul, Nejat travels there to look for her, not knowing that she is fleeing to Germany herself after she is involved in a riot with the police. He uses this search to consider his own existence as a university professor and also to reconnect with his Turkish heritage. Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay) meanwhile meets a student in Hamburg, Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska) and they become lovers, much to the digust of her protective mother Susanne (played by Fassbinder veteran Hannah Schygulla). The narrative then criss-crosses between the two storylines, which include a couple of desperate near misses between Ayten and Nejat, who of course do not know exactly who each other is.

'The Edge of Heaven' is a remarkably assured film, certainly one of the best of 2007, with political bite aplenty, considering the frustrating asylum policy of the German government and the heavy handed internal security of Turkey. One might suggest that aspects of the narrative are somewhat contrived in order to keep the central conceit of the film intact, but it ultimately works. The performances are universally terrific, the cultural differences and similarities are well handled by a director who obviously understands both cultures, and the Best Screenplay award the film received at Cannes is testament to Akin's ability to flesh out fully rounded characters and keep the dense narrative together. Akin will surely be considered one of his generation's finest directors. 4/5

Silent Light (2007, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, Carlos Reygadas)

Much like 'The Banishment' (reviewed below), infidelity is the main theme of the latest Carlos Reygadas film, and much like the former, the acts of infidelity as less important (though they are shown here) than the implications of them, and the reactions of those involved. 'Silent Light' is set in a Mennonite community in North Mexico, a rather old fashioned and simple group of Christian Anabaptists, who speak a language known as Plautdietsch, a hybrid of German and Dutch (as this was where they emerged from). Reygadas focusses on the fallout one family faces when the father, Johan, commits adultery, and is torn between his family, to whom he is fiercely devoted, and his mistress, Marianne.

Whilst those he confides in consider it to be the devil's work, Johan realises that it is he who is weak, but he cannot help himself. The pain is too much either way, whether he tries to stay away from Marianne or whether he gives into temptation. Their relationship is equally shown to be sad as it is ecstatic, as if they are always aware of the implications of their adultery. Whilst Johan is open with his wife, Esther about everything, he probably doesn't understand that she won't accept it. Privately, we see her desperately upset, even though she keeps up appearances in public. The consequences of this relationship take a distinctly tragic turn eventually.

Though I've not seen Reygadas' two previous films, Japon and Battle in Heaven, much is made of the director's open and explicit attitude towards filming sex and nudity, and he doesn't shy way from things here, though I suspect it is filmed far less sensationally as the sexual scenes of his previous films reportedly are. When he films them making love, his camera is always held on Marianne's face to discover her reactions, and never Johan's. Reygadas also is a master of the long take, starting and ending with extended shots which run for several minutes, firstly of dusk turning to a pitch black night against the countryside backdrop, and secondly of this in reverse, of night turning to dawn. Contemplative and slow in pace, 'Silent Light' encourages patience, an stick with it because the film's denouement is literally miraculous (though it requires a massive suspension of disbelief). 3.5/5

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Banishment (2007, Russia, Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Zvyagintsev's 'The Return' (2003) was one of the finest films of this decade to date, a fable infused with religious imagery and allegory about a returning father bonding with his two sons, with tragic consequences. The director follows this with another fable with grand themes and impending tragedy at every turn. Whilst on holiday in the countryside, Alex is told by his wife, Vera, that she is expecting a child and that it is not his. Zvyagintsev then considers Alex's reactions and moral dilemmas to this discovery and the tragic consequences of his subsequent actions.

Konstantin Lavronenko, so powerful in 'The Return', picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance as Alex, a man devoted to his family whose motives become desperate and selfish upon hearing the bombshell his wife has dropped. The performances generally are as good as you'd expect, but 'The Banishment' remains
a flawed but intriguing film which perhaps suffers from trying to over complicate the plot in order to resolve loose ends, which also results in a running time which is longer than necessary. I'm never the kind if viewer who wants films to be neatly tied up of course, but Zvyagintsev creates a 150 minute epic from this material, with numerous instances where you think he could, and should, end the film, but fails to. A more concise film would have been more rewarding, but providing you have the patience to persevere with it, it still has it's definite merits. 'The Banishment' is very much in the Tarkovsky style, which some may find 'difficult', but even though it's uneven for much of the time, it's never any less than intriguing. 3.5/5