Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings (1996, Leon Gast)

Of all my weaknesses when writing about cinema, my greatest is undoubtedly my lack of experience and ability to analyze documentaries. Part of the reason is that I watch far too few. Another explanation is that I find it far more easy to criticize a piece of fiction, someone’s writing and direction of a made up story. There is a wall of separation, no matter how powerful the product, between myself and the story being told. With a documentary, I’m watching a director show me bits and pieces of reality. What he or she chooses to show and to hide and in what order he or she chooses to show these bits of reality make for interesting debate. Is it as objective as can be? Is there clearly an agenda at stake, etc? Yes, I can discuss those matters, but even when being beaten over the head with a commentary, I hesitate before crying: ‘Well that was a documentary and it was just plain bad.’ Was it? Does the intentional passage of a political agenda make that documentary ‘bad’ (Oxford: 1.Poor in quality; well below standard. 2.Unpleasant)?

It’s with great trepidation therefore that I write down these thoughts on the film ses was gracious enough to dictate to me this month at Filmspotting, When We Were Kings. Being about as knowledgeable about boxing as I am about medicine (I was a political science major), I knew next to nothing about the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ that so many Americans, and in particularly, boxing fans, remember fondly. I did of course know who Muhammad Ali is was somewhat aware of George Foreman (he’s the chap who cooks steaks, right?), but overall, my knowledge of the event was hazy at best. Having watched the film last night, I can say for sure that I understand it a lot more now: it’s significance within the boxing community, for many Congolese, for African Americans, Americans at large. It was, for the lack of a better term, a spectacle, a once in a lifetime kind of event.

When We Were Kings doesn't spend time on the life story of either heavyweight boxers involved. The strict necessary is shared. I can confidently say that, for those who know little about both titans, the movie still does a suitable job at showing the curious viewer how highly anticipated the matchup was. Ali, the Black Muslim American who refused to wage war in Vietnam, thus hated by mainstream Americans, and George Foreman, the Goliath, the champion, the destroyer, were to butt heads and fists in Africa, in an outdoor stadium, in front of perhaps a hundred thousand spectators (and so many more on international television). B.B. King and James Brown were invited to play some music in the festivities leading up to the mouth-watering confrontation. All this in the land of Mobutu Sese Soko, the leader of Zaire (as the Congo was known back in the 70s), a leader so ruthless and unsympathetic to democracy as well as many of his own people, it makes one pause before spitting yet another anti-Bush quip.

As I was saying, the focal point of the film is the event and the preparation leading up to it. Much archival footage featuring interviews and press conferences attended by Ali himself are featured. What I found interesting was how director Gast didn’t merely leave the archival footage to itself. While that could have been effective in the sense that the viewer would be invited to conclude his or her own judgements regarding Ali, Gast has invited several journalists to comment on what they saw. Each has smart and sometimes colourful comments and memories to share (the ‘Are you still with that old man!?’ story had me laughing pretty hard). Ali was often, well let me correct that, always quite confident and quick witted when in front of the cameras. It was widely known that Foreman was an absolute monster in the ring. The size of his biceps (shown frequently throughout the film) were more than a little intimidating and the man’s technique was practically second to none. But Ali, never letting down his fans, remained cocky and witty during the months, weeks, days and minutes leading up to the fight. Some journalists praised his courage, while others believed that perhaps this was his way of hiding an underlying fear of his opponent. Who was right, who was wrong (personally I think Ali was too talented/insane to be afraid of anyone at all, but that’s just me) matters little in truth. It was this storytelling through various anecdotes and eye witness accounts that added a lot of charm to the film. I won’t divulge my full thoughts on the sport itself, but I won’t deny that I was... swept in the spectacle of it all. The people involved, the bizarre setting (not that it was done in Africa per say, but more that it was done in Mobutu’s land),etc. Every interviewee pitches in with comments about Ali, Foreman, Mobutu, the anticipation, the preparation, James Brown sweating on stage and then looking high as a kite during an interview, Spike Lee not hiding his pride (which never bothered me particularly, although I know he gets on some peoples nerves), Don King's tireless effort but devious nature, the delay that occurred when Foreman was cut during a practice session, the context of the fight, and much more. The movie isn’t about boxing in general, but more about this one boxing match. It obviously meant very much to a lot of people and, their passion for the subject matter spilled over onto me as I listened and watched. Even their account of how the battle was won and lost was compelling and filled me in on some interesting boxing tid bits.

Through it all however, I felt a little bit sorry for the eventually loser of the match, George Foreman. Praise is given to both participants for their technical and physical prowess, but actual affection is provided to Muhammad Ali, the charmer, the joker. Virtually none is afforded to his opponent Foreman. Perhaps this was more due to both personalities involved. There is no question that both were supremely confident in their abilities to emerge victorious from battle, but while Ali displayed a certain flair and dare I say friendliness in his boasting, Foreman was the more introverted of the two. A mammoth of a man, he did, in essence, come away much more as the ‘villain’ between the two, if only because of his posture, tone and choice of words, which were few. So much ‘Ali boom-ba-yay!’ that there are no left over for the man who, from what I gather, turned out to be a pretty decent bloke in his later years. Oh well.

I think, since I wasn’t alive at the time, that the film captures the peoples feelings and the general mood leading up to the fight. The anticipation and festivities surrounding it were as titanic as both competitors involved. I certainly got that sense from the sounds and images in the film.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Satyajit Ray Marathon: Aparajito

Aparajito (1956, Satyajit Ray)

Aparajito, the middle chapter in the Apu trilogy, sees the Ray family, now minus Durga, settle in the busy town of Benares after their country home was destroyed at the end of Pathar Panchali. Harihar is now a preist at the ghat (longing the Ganges river no less). Apu starts school in the afternoon while learning the skills of priesthood in the morning and the mother, Sarbojaya, does her usual house duties, only this time with frequent interference from the upstairs neighbour and stray monkeys.

To put it bluntly, without having seen Apur Sansar yet, Aparajito is thus far the best chapter in the cannon. The sets are far more lively than in Pathar Panchali and additionally, we do see the character of Apu grow this time around, a key element which I always felt was lacking in the previous instalment. Another impression as the movie rolled along was that the scope of the story was bigger this time around. Not only is there a significant time shift but the locations shift as well. At about the 40 minute mark, Sarbojaya is encouraged to move back to the countryside with Apu, but the latter wants to go to school in Benares, which leads to a lot of traveling back and forth in this episode.

Regarding Apu, we see him grow both in terms of character but also literally. He is played by two different actors this time, Pinaki Sengupta being the 10 year old version and Smaran Ghosal interpreting the adolescent version. I simply felt like I knew him more this time around. That may have to do with the fact that I am not that far removed from adolescence myself and thus remember those years clearly or, as I suspect, Apu just wasn’t given enough to do in PP. Regardless, here we see him slowly take over the narrative. There is even some conflict between himself and dear Sarbojaya. The latter sees no problem with him following in his father’s footsteps and earning a living in priesthood (neither does his great uncle apparently, who makes a brief and not terribly memorable appearance) whereas the former envisions a better future by remaining a student and broadening his knowledge (something one of his teachers tells him when still a child). Conflict, if well written, can be an attribute to growth of character and I felt the scene in which Apu and Sarbojaya argue is a particularly strong one. Apu is fascinated by much of what he learns and we see him offer some of that knowledge to his mother as he reads from his books. I liked this Apu, particularly the adolescent one, more than the one in PP. We just see him do more now, the viewer gets to spend a significant amount of time with him and the movie, at least in my humble opinion, benefited from that. At bit like in the first film, there are several scenes which show the flavour of the location, here being Benares, rather than driving home a straightforward narrative, but it’s precisely those little moments that director Ray captures so well. When they’re captured well, that in turn helps enrich the film with hints of what is going on and what the characters are experiencing. The weightlifter scene, the days at school, the trips back to his mother’s place when on holiday, playing hooky with his friend (I don’t think we ever learn his name even though he has about 2 or 3 scenes), all these and more set a compelling mood and tone to the overall experience.

It may be the city boy in me, but I felt the scope and imagery of this film was massive when compared to PP precisely because so much of it occurs in Benares. The cinematography is very, very memorable. I’m not trying to argue that PP was unimpressive from a visual standpoint mind you, but I was blown away by Aparajito. The hustle and tussle of the city, its architecture, the shadows of the narrow streets, the priest’s calling (at least I think that’s what the first scene in the movie was supposed to be). There are many shots of the ghat, which is the term to designate the steps in a city which lead down to the bank of a river or lake, which caught my attention. I’ve never travelled to the region even though it is one that has me rather intrigued, but I must say that the footage here was a fine substitute for the time being. There is a poignant shot somewhere in the middle of the film when Apu returns to the countryside with Sarbojaya. They have just moved into their home and Apu hears a train pass in the distance. He runs to the doorway in glee and watches the locomotive ride on the horizon. The expression on his face suddenly turns rather solemn. The fact that Ray doesn’t make the reason for Apu’s shift in expression explicit was intelligent. The train is too closely associated to a memory that not only remains with Apu, but the viewer as well. I felt a brief moment of sadness as well while watching that train go by. Excellent camera work and editing.

Something I overlooked in my PP review was the music. My general, North American musical knowledge is ridiculously limited, so just imagine what I know about traditional Indian music. Having said that, I think that, as long as it sounds great and feels appropriate for the scenes playing out, then I’m happy. I have no freaking clue what instruments are being played but it sounds marvellous. It’s such harmonious, beautiful music. I think this is the uncultured, unsophisticated North American in me speaking, but it really made the movie sound great.

Random notes: Sarbojaya seems much more mellow here than she did on PP. Ironically, Durga, who caused a lot of havoc for her in the previous instalment, is not a factor anymore. Hint? (I know worm will find some kind of reason to disagree however). The weightlifter scene near the beginning when Apu is waling along the ghat was really impressive. I don’t think the subtitles called them weights at all, but that’s essentially what the man was doing, if in a more dramatic way. I really thought the upstairs neighbour in Benares was going to be more involved than he turned out to be. He looked like a jolly fellow after all.

My only significant complaint would be that Harihar kicks the bucket far, far too early. He was such a great character! Even in his limited screen time, he left a significant impact on me. I was kind of ‘down’ for a minute or two following his passing. I wonder if Apu has a bright future ahead of him. I would hope so at least, as it seems as if since his birth, a lot of people around him whom he cherishes seem to drop like flies. Auntie, Durga, Sarbojaya, Harihar. There’s basically nobody left now. Well, only Apur Sanar can answer that question now…

Friday, February 20, 2009

Satyajit Ray Marathon: Pathar Panchali

Pathar Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray)

Often revered as the greatest Indian filmmaker of them all, Satyajit Ray is a director I am was greatly ingnorant about. Some fellow film fans at Filmspotting decided to embark on a marathon of the director's work, I happily joined along.

Pathar Panchali (or, Song of the Road)is the first chapter in what is known as the Apu Trilogy. Panchalie is set in a rural area of Bengal sometime in the 1920s and tells the story of a family's life in the forest. Life is, to put in bluntly, rough. Money is hard to come by as is good fortune. A mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee), and a father, Harihar Ray (Kanu Bannerjee) struggle to earn a living for not only themselves, but for their two young children, Apu (Subir Bannerjee) and his elder sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), as well.

Director Ray paints a thoughtful portrait with this film. What struck me was that this portrait performed several great tasks at once. First and foremost we have the privilege of seeing the life of this family. While the film does posses a narrative, its true strength lies in the depiction of how these people interact amongst themselves and with neighbours and more distant relatives. The story is dominated by quiet, insightful chapters into their lives. Rather than pounding the movie with dramatic beats, it gives a lot of room for these characters to breath. Understandably this makes for a slow pace, but because of the rich, layered qualities of each individual moment, the movie rarely, if ever, feels as if it drags. By the end of the film, the viewer has come to know many of these people rather intimately.

Sarbajya is half pessimist, half realist. She toils day in and day out to cook and clean. In an important sense, she is the commander in chief of the household. The family's social and economic status frustrates her, but she certainly isn't one to ask for handouts. Even when things are at their lowest for the family, she steadfastly refuses any economic aid. It's an admirable trait in the sense that she does toil and sweat so much, has her familt not earned any good fortune? She couldn't possibly give in to easy help after investing to much effort. Harihar, the father, is quite different. He is ever the optimist, a playwrite, with a grin on his face far more often than a frown. For whatever reason, he remains hopeful and positive in attitude. Durga, the elder sister, is mischievous and sneeky. 'Spoiled' by her Auntie (another colourful in her own right), Durga has grown into some nasty habits, most notably theft. She steals her friend's collor of beads and steals fruit from the neighbour's garden (which angers her mother to the upmost degree). In a life of stark poverty, Durga has adopted some nefarious qualities. In a world where no one possesses very much, she wants more than she arguably should. Interestingly, the one family member I had the most difficulty understanding was the man of the hour, Apu. His first appearance in the story is at about the 20 minute mark, and even then he is merely a new born. He is more an observer, a spectator of the proceedings than an active participant. The movie gives a few glimpse into his psyche, but by the end of the film, I wasn't yet sure who Apu was. Will he take after his mother? His father? God forbid, his sister? Given that this is the first chapter in the Apu Trilogy, I take it that it functions as the setup. I'm expecting more of Apu in the sequel.

The second great task director Ray's portrait accomplishes is the depiction of this world. Where they live, what the ecosystem is like, what the living conditions are, what the possibilities for advancement are, and the pressures that each of these indivdual factors add to the people who live in this world. The film pays a lot of attention to the details of their habitat and its surroundings. The paths the children take through the forest, the heat that they suffer during the day, the terrible storms that said heat generates, the existence of more modern technology for the region in the forms of either the locomotive or electricity wires, etc. Pathar Pachali is a captivating, historical look into this corner of the globe. By the end I felt as if I had been privy to a intimate look into a land very foreign to me.

The movie is filled with memorable scenes. The terrifying storm at night late in the movie, Durga and Apu's search for the lost calf which leads them to witness the passing of a train for the first time in their lives, the mother's discovery that Durga has stolen from her friend, the brief moments of prayer, almost anytime Auntie is on screen... Pathar Panchali is immensely watchable for the great character moments and for how it depicts this very specific culture and lifestyle.

Next: Aparajito (The Unvanquished)

Disney Marathon: Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand, supervising director)

Adapted from the Brothers Grimm tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells the adventure of a young and beautiful princess, Snow White, the fairest of them all, and how she encounters seven remarkable dwarfs in the kingdom’s forest after being made an outcast by her treacherous and overtly jealous step mother, the queen. First things first, this is a fairy tale story with a, if I may use the term, children-friendly flavour to it. The dark and brooding quality readers have come to expect from the Brothers Grimm won’t be making any significant appearance. I say significant because there a few moodier scenes in the film after all, albeit far and few between.

I’ve never been a very big admirer of fairy tales. That isn’t to say I specifically dislike them, only that I have rarely in my life given them the time of day. This meant that by watching Snow White, I had to be wary not to roll my eyes at some of the, let’s just call them ‘magical moments’, as I would normally be prone to do. While there are moments that I had trouble digesting (I will get to them shortly, fear not), I won’t deny that overall, I could see where the foundations of the mammoth that Disney Animated Studios has begun emerge. Fun, interesting and generally well written characters, an impressive display of top quality animation, catchy, easy to follow songs, and a plot that really isn’t difficult at all to follow but that nonetheless carries enough narrative weight and character moments to sustain a running length that, while can it be officially deemed ‘feature length’, isn’t too long either. The movie clocks in at 83 minutes after all. Return of the King this is not.

I imagine that I can speak for several, although not everyone perhaps, in claiming that the titular seven dwarfs seem to steal the show. I was never as entertained in other scenes as I was when Doc, Grumpy, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful and Happy were working, singing and having fun. Or doing anything for that matter. Just as long as those seven men were on screen I was content. I found it quite remarkable how, even though none individually earn that much screen time, by the end I was under the impression that I knew each one fairly well. Well, I suppose that means little given that each is provided with a single trait to distinguish one another. Still, I thought it was impressive how the filmmakers rose to the challenge at making seven interesting, entertaining dwarfs. They could have drawn seven and only spend meaningful time with 2 or 3, but no. Each one gets at least a few moments to shine and shine they do. I think the kicker is that they never separate. Seeing Sleepy on his own for 15 minutes I imagine would become tedious after perhaps 5. This is a case in which the sum seems to be greater than its individual parts, which must certainly count for something. There is a marvellous level of detail to their home as well. If one pays close attention to the furniture, staircases and doorways (which admittedly is easier upon repeated viewing, perhaps not the first time), you can see how the shapes of animals are carved into the wood every where. I though that was a really nice touch, that there was a nice symbolism to it. They live in the woods among the animals, have cut down some of the trees (which the animals use) in order to build this house and therefore decided to honour nature. They are far more destructive creatures than the animals and the trees and therefore wanted to remind themselves of the ecosystem they live in, to not forget what they are a part of. I don’t know, just some weird thought that came to me.

Snow White is a bit of an oddity however. There are moments when she clearly appears as witty, compassionate and possessing possibly even leadership qualities. She becomes a mother for the dwarfs, showing them a proper, sanitary way of living. She engages with them in a playful (I love how she guesses who Grumpy is when she meets them. It’s quite sweet) and respective manner. A fine princess indeed. And yet every now and then the film pulls a joker on me and makes little lady White seem… I’m searching for another word than ‘juvenile’, but I might as well stick with that. Her reaction when the witch queen, then masquerading as an old woman, offers her a magical apple runs false for me. She was so competent and mature 5 minutes ago, what in blazes happened? Equally puzzling is her behaviour at the beginning of the film. The story book intro reads how Snow White was being kept in the castle as a ‘scully maid’ by the queen. I don’t know about you, but she seems quite perky and cheerful for someone who is essentially a slave to Satan’s daughter. Repressing those brooding emotions through song? Completely oblivious to her situation? I’ll you decided that one. I don’t want to come off as disliking her per say, which isn’t true. However, I felt the writers didn’t find an adequate balance with her character.

The Queen, despite her short screen time, is really, really effective, both when displaying her natural physical traits and when disguised as the crusty old fart. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that she’s scarier before the transformation. She slender and seems fit, but has a crazy voice and look in her eyes. She comes in small doses but I thought she really packed a wallop of a punch.

The film, to its benefit I should say, invests time both in the narrative and the character driven moments. From what I understand, the majority of the story appears to transpire over the course of a day and a half, if that (notwithstanding the final few scenes which of course occur several months later). For all intents and purposes there isn’t much of a story at all. It’s all rather simple and easy, but what the movie does to save its skin is spend quality time with Snow White and the dwarfs. There are stretches during which the narrative halts and takes a back seat to let the viewer enjoy funny or simply joyful moments with the inhabitants of this world. Those moments are both successful and important, and I believe the reasons to be twofold. First, they’re entertaining. There is rarely a dull moment when the story takes a rest and it’s rewarding to get to learn about these people. Second is that when the queen tricks Snow White, the moment is all the more effective. Her fait, as well as the sadness it brings upon the dwarfs is earned. I know that, a few paragraphs ago, I explained how conflicted I was regarding the ease with which Snow White falls prey to the queen’s trick. I still am, but that didn’t prevent me from, after it had taken place, to feel sorry for the dwarfs and Snow White. Essentially, the film does an admirable job at juggling both narrative and character moments.

It isn’t perfect however as some would claim. I suppose I shouldn’t make such a statement given how all these reviews we write here on the boards are subjective anyhow, but I couldn’t prevent myself from being a bit ill at ease on a few occasions. Immediately following Snow White’s horrific dash through the woods (a superb sequence by the way), the forest animals come to her aid. They are curious about this odd person lying on the grass and approach. Okay, fairy tale land, I can let this slide. A few minutes later, after apparently putting them under a spell with her voice (I’m exaggerating obviously, but hear me out), they escort her to the dwarfs home. Hmm, either these animals are particularly friendly or Snow White has greater sorceress powers than the queen. It doesn’t stop there of course. Shortly after inspecting the dwarfs’ home (they are still at work at this time) she gets the animals to clean the house. And they accept! Now, I’m not stupid, I know this is a kids cartoon and I am aware this is an adaptation of a fairy tale. But there was something underneath all of this that irked me. She was being held captive essentially by the queen to work as a slave, and now she has figuratively enslaved the forest animals to do her bidding. I don’t know… I’m probably over thinking this sequence, but I’ve watched it 3 times now and I still can’t get over those sentiments. It’s just weird for me.

Another sequence, albeit a briefer one, that rubbed me the wrong way was the finale (final spoiler warning. I swear, stop reading this now if you have yet to watch the movie). Poor Snow White (I know I’ve bashed her more than I’ve praised her but I still like her), is caught in her sleeping death with the dwarfs mourning here. Well, along comes the prince to give her the kiss that shall break the spell and revive here. Where did he come from? Why does he want to kiss a corpse? Does he have inside info and is therefore aware that Snow White is under this particular spell and knows exactly what it is he’s doing? Earlier, the queen was laughing at the thought that the dwarfs would not recognize that Snow White would be merely under a spell. She expected them to think her dead and burry her alive. I’m guessing 6 feet under ‘burry’, not practically outdoors except with a thin glass shield ‘burry’. Wow, that gamble didn’t pan out for her.

The animation quality is absolutely superb when once takes into consideration when this was created. The filmmakers made use of the multiplane camera, which allows for several drawings, or pieces of artwork, to glide past the camera. This is used on a few occasions, most notably when the picture seems to zoom in on the queen’s castle. It really looks as tough the tree branches are closer to the viewer than the castle is, rather then merely draw large and the castle small. Several branches glide past the frame at different places and at different speeds. Very nifty. The animators also captured real life human movements when putting the pencils to the paper. Snow White, the queen, the handsome prince, all move with stunning grace. There are instances when I jerked my head back just because the fluidity of the character’s movements took me off guard. There are two or three very quick shots of Snow White looking down a well. The audience’s vision is from beneath the water’s surface level within the well looking up at Snow White, who is looking down at us. The ripples in the water are amazing and their effect on Snow White’s face and other object above the water. This isn’t Bolt here, this is 1937 2D animation. Even the drawn shadows and lighting is detailed and feels accurate to how they would behave in real life.

One can’t forget of course about the music in the film. The music that naturally springs to mind are the songs. ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, ‘Whistle While You Work’ ‘Heigh Ho’ and many others, I thought all were very catchy and suited the mood nicely. The score is also superb I felt. I’m not much of a music person and I think this review is getting a bit long, so suffice to say I thought the music overall was stellar.

That concludes my general thoughts towards Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I liked it to a certain degree. I’ve spent more time than I should have explaining why I didn’t ‘love’ the film, so forgive me if I’m not all goo-goo eyed and struggling to find more synonyms for the word ‘fantastic.’ Still, a lot of the essential, bread and butter foundations for the high quality Disney would chuck out for decades after this can be found here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)

With Hiroshima Mon Amour, the great Alain Resnais takes what, in another director's hands, might have been a flat, ordinary tale of lovers and infuses it with such passion, such a culture shock, and such a particular narrative style that it is small wonder why this project has been revered for decades now.

To put it simply (even though this is far from a simple film), Hiroshima tells the brief tale of two new found lovers, a French actress known only as Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) currently filming a project in Hiroshima, and the handsome Japanese man, Il (Eiji Okada) she has met there. The film opens with the couple lying naked in bed, arms wrapped around one another. Il reminds Elle that she still hasn't really 'seen' anything yet in Hiroshima, as Elle counters with all the museum visits and sites she has visited in recent days. She argues that she does understand, through what she has seen, what exactly Hiroshima has gone through in recent history (I'm sure most of you are fully aware of the climax to the Pacific front in WWII). Their conversation is accompanied by images of said museums and tourist sites, but also with extremely graphic images of victims, both dead and alive, of the nuclear strike. The images are stunning, the dialogue poignant in setting up the characters, and the music, a light, almost playful melody played by flute and other instruments, jarring. The opening 10 minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour are a superb example of storytelling and art house cinema, emphasis on the artistic aspect. Their conversation grows more casual, although no less interesting, as he presses her to reveal more of her past in Nevers (a town in France) and to stay with him in Hiroshima. She remains elusive and almost aloof in responding to many of his queries, which frustrates him to a certain degree.

From that point we witness Il begging Elle not to leave Japan once the filming of her scenes is complete. He has quickly, almost overnight, become infatuated with Elle and possibly fallen in love. Elle resists, although for reasons that she isn't fully elaborating on. Elle tries to stay away from Il (she is mightly attracted to him as well however) but he persists in seeing her again, always in an valiant attempt to seduce her more. Simple but well executed scenes ensue, but the real clincher, the master stroke painted by Renais is yet to come.

The film reaches newer heights still when, upon yet another invitation to see him before she leaves, Elle accompanies Il to a bar in the evening. It is there that she really opens up and tells her backstory in Nevers. Elle openly admits than during WWII she and a young German soldier a few years her elder, probably following the Nazi invasion of France, had begun a passionate affair. Given the circumstances, they naturally had to keep their love very secretive. However, they are eventually discovered. What happens after I do not wish to give away ( I have arguably given away enough already), but suffice it to say that the emotions of the characters, Il and Elle, as well as the methods Alain Resnais uses at his disposal to transmit them to the audience grow more and more intense, up until the story's climax.

Elle's telling of her love affair with the German soldier is the crust of the movie, but it cannot live without the reality of her current affair with Il, for as she recounts her tale, she substitutes the German lad for 'Il' when mentioning him. She was caught in a dangerous relationship back during the war, one that she arguably knew was dangerous and could not last long. More importantly, she was caught in a love with someone from another land, another culture. Perhaps other than the 'danger' aspect, Elle now finds herself yet again in a passionate affair with a man from a distant land, an affair that probably won't last. The parallels between these two relationships are gutting her insides. They are so gripping that she says 'you' to Il even though she is really talking about her former flame. She simultaneously fears and desires this new affair with Il. It has the potential to fulfill the love she once had with the German lad, a relationship with someone new and different, but certain elements of that past affair are discouraging her from embracing this current one. Everything, from the music, to the specific handling of the shots to the quality of Elle's narration, it all works sumptuously. Not only does Hiroshima Mon Amour have a strong story at its core, but it also looks great. Camera movements, angles and lighting were obviously chosen and executed with great care, showing us scenes and images in tantalizing and oftentimes teasing manner.

Both Emanuelle Riva as Elle and Eiji Okada as Il are stellar in their respective roles. Stuborn in her ways but hopelessly a romantic, Elle is a very multilayered character, and Riva derserves all the praise possible for bringing this character to life. Okada is very cool and handsome, but also, much like Elle, hopelessly romantic as well. Personally I'd like to give him special mention for delivering all his lines in a respectable French. It clearly isn't his native tongue, but he passes what must have been a very difficult test for him.

Anyone looking for a beautiful yet dark romance story need look no further. There are certainly others that would fit that description aptly, but Hiroshima Mon Amour, in this viewer's humble opinion, is certainly among the very best.

Review: Gojitmal

Gojitmal (1999, Sung-Woo Jang)

The English language title of Sung-Woo Jang’s Gojitmal is Lies, a curious title for a curious film. As the film opens, a director (Sang Hyun Lee) explains the theme of his most recent script. Spirituality, purity, fantasy, etc. All subjects that can grab people’s imaginations, satisfy their desires, and strike their curiosity, either through genuine teachings or, as is often the case, through lies. Intriguing, I won’t deny it.

From here Gojitmal becomes a film within a film to a certain degree. The director we saw at the beginning stars in his own film as an architect, J. He awaits at a train station for a girl, Y (Tae Yeon Kim), 20 years younger than himself. They had inadvertently begun a discussion on the phone a few days a go (J had originally wanted to talk to Y’s best friend) and found each other’s voices to be incredibly sexy. On the train, Y speaks to the camera and makes no attempt to hide the fact that she asked J if he would like to CINECAST! her and that as he spoke to her, she became more and more wet.

Their first encounter is a far calmer one that what follows. She is a virgin awaiting to be deflowered. J proceeds to do so (not before a quick cut to the actress portraying Y who explains her thoughts about undressing nude on camera). Pleasure and pain intertwine for the first time. Once the act has been committed, they embrace and leave for their respective homes. But that one encounter creates an greater spark between the two. They aren’t done with one another and neither is ashamed at admit it. Well, they aren’t ashamed to admit it to themselves at least. Showing in public the physical relationship between a 38 year old and an 18 year old is another matter altogether. We witness few scenes them in the midst of genuine conversations. Only once does this occur if memory serves me right, and immediately afterwards J tells himself what a boring and vapid conversation it was. With his wife living halfway across the world in Paris, all he wants is to devour Y, to have her body above all else, and she in turn wants to be devoured. Their sexual excapades go from innocent to violent, but in the highly stimulating sense. Yes, masochism becomes the flavour of the day, then the week, and then some more still.

All this transpires in the opening 30 minutes. For the remaining 75 minutes the viewer sees Y and J engage in a series of masochistic encounters, nurse their wounds and then intensify the dosage. Y’s friend becomes accepting of the relationship (she had wanted J to be her first lover, but alas, it was not meant to be). There are a few scenes thrown to mix the elements up a little bit. What happens when Y admits she has been unfaithful. What happens when J spends time with his wife in Paris, who wants nothing to do with masochism. What happens when the tables turn and Y begins to inflict erotic pain on J. Director Sung-Woo Jang, with some of those moments, adds a certain layer of complexity to this questionable relationship. Both become so obsessed with the mutilation of each other’s bodies that little else holds their relationship together. It’s like a couple whose attractiveness to one another rests primarily on the great sex they have and nothing else. That would seem quite vapid and prone to self-destruction, and yet here, it exists and consistently finds energy to fuel itself, whether it be by feeling the pain, inflicting the pain,

The ‘film within a film’ technique becomes almost non-existent in the final hour of the film, which brings me to question its usefulness in the first place. Or perhaps its noticeable absence (noticeable in the sense that we no longer have interview scenes or shots of the crew) relates to the obsessive sexual fantasy that these two creatures are living. Money, work, school, family members, none of these are of any importance anymore. Everything has become so obsolete that we, in fact, no longer receive any hints that this is a ‘film within a film’. Through the renting of hotels rooms and due to his absence at work, J’s funds begin to run out. The intensity of the relationship has overpowered everything else, even reality. The reality of the film world and the reality of the film’s ‘real world’ have disappeared into the background, they have been left shipwrecked out at sea with little hope of finding a way back. Not only have the characters in the story fallen into an abyss but they have taken the crew and the viewer with them as well. The poisonous flowers fruits can be the most beautiful at times. And now we have touched on the English language title: Lies. To the outside world, whenever they are in genuine contact with it, they are living lies. When together, they have, in their own sick manners, reached a state that to them is pure. Their fantasies, their desires have become not only the ends, but the means to those ends as well. Little else matters and they are consumed by it to an almost spiritual degree. They want it, then take pleasure in it, and then want some more. Is it the pleasure or the pain? The answer to that has become inconsequential for both have been fused together and are now tightly interwoven.

Gojitmal is a difficult film to assess. It seems tantalizingly complex and yet its complexity is protected, or perhaps hidden is a better word, by a fa├žade of soft and occasionally not so soft pornography. Anyone unwilling to think about what exactly transpires onscreen will surely, although I guess not necessarily, find little to chew on. I beg to differ. I think obsession, particularly in circumstances as dark discomforting as the one the viewer is invited to see, it always a fascinating subject.

I question whether Gojitmal goes deep enough into the road it embarks on. I believe some discussions between certain characters on the nature of masochism, discussions that could have been as little heavy handed as possible, would have made the exploration more compelling. Is there a way to write non heavy handed material dealing with masochism, a practice so disgusting and discomforting to many, a practice so explicit in its very nature? I haven’t the slightest idea and therefore I may very well be asking for the impossible for all I know.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review: Vidas Secas

Vidas Secas (1963, Nelson Pareira dos Santos)

A simple, very straightforward film about a Brazilian family and their search for land and work to survive a harsh and bitter life.

What I thought director dos Santos does well is set the mood of the film, as well as make clear to the viewer what kind of situation the family finds itself in. With the help of a fairly minimalist camera style, the suffocating heat of the region, the dryness of the region, and the desperation of the husband and wife are well set up. From the get go it was clear, to me at least, that this was going to be a rather bleak enterprise, tonally speaking (certainly not visually since the sun scorches the earth pretty much throughout with the exception of a couple scenes).

With knowledge that the plight of the ordinary peasant is a common theme that runs almost unanimously throughout 20th century Latin American history, I appreciated the hand held camera cinematography. It provided a documentary feeling to the film. This is an issue that comes up often I find these days when discussing film. Certain people are tired of that style, others like it. I've always been on the fence about it. I imagine it depends on what the story is, what the context of the film is. Here, because the film is set very much in reality, I thought the style did the movie a favor. I was easily caught up in this world, a world I'd never want to live in, but one that interests me nonetheless. I was very much into seeing the more simple moments. The family cooking, walking, hearding the cows and the goats and so on. Certainly there wasn't much occuring that took my breath away in terms of storytelling, but there was an authenticity to the simpler moments that worked well. Again, it comes back to this faux documentary style where everything is played very real and genuinely feels very real. Beila, the dog of the family that follows them almost everywhere they go, performs some really nice tricks near the end of the film after being shot. Therefore in terms of mood and cinematography, the film works wonders. Even the editing and the cutting from shot to shot is a bit rough around the edges at times, and that too added this bitter but ultimately convincing flavour to the material.

I mentioned earlier about certain heavy handed moments. Well, I didn't like too much the night sequence when the father is in jail while there is some kind of celebration happening simultaneously outside his jail cell. That moment felt a bit too forced for my taste ('Look, look at this awful juxtaposition between what the poor go through and what the more wealthy are privy to!' Yeah, that didn't quite work for me). Another maligned scene in discussions I've had about the film was when the father behaves like a simple minded fool and goes through with the brilliant idea of gambling with what little earnings they have. I know that it is the police officer that invites him to do so, but I still would agree that it's an unnecessary moment. There were probably other catalysts the writers could have conjured up to raise the stakes. This one felt a bit lazy for all intents and purposes.

There is a scene involving a young lad, one of the two sons, comparing the landscape to hell, that probably encapsulates how testing some of these scenes are for the audience in terms of adequate writing and competent storytelling. It isn't the greatest piece of cinema ever put to a film cell, but I'd hesitate before completely dismissing it. As is plainly established just before, the boy does not know what hell is. When his mother provides him with a brief, albeit poignant resume of what the place is, he steps outside to relax in the shade with the dog. It is then that he makes the connection between what his mother told him hell was and the region they work and toll in. It's a bit of a double edged sword. While I felt that for the character, the young boy, the scene was strong, I admit that for an audience member, one can just feel the director trying to spoon feed us a very obvious message that anyone with half a brain can pick up from the third frame of the film. Still, I liked the idea of the boy coming to this realization. Had it been the father or the mother who stepped outisde and murmured some mumbo jumbo about the region strangely resembling hell, then I'd probably really dislike that scene.

In conclusion, I'd say the film strengths lie in how dos Santos establishes the right tone for the story. The weaknesses lie in how that story is told. I'm forgiving those short comings however. Essentially there was more here that I liked than disliked, which is more than enough to satisfy me and make me recommend it to anyone else.

Review: Passage to Buddha

Passage to Buddha (1993, Sung-Woo Jang)

Sun-Woo Jang's Passage to Buddha is a unique piece of work. It starts out as a film which seems ordinary enough. A main character, a simple narrative, a goal that main character wants to reach, etc. But the director, who also wrote the script, has far greater plans in mind for his story. This is a case where a film becomes a vehicle for something else, something larger than a simple narrative. I don't mean such a comment as a criticism per say however. Jang isn't spoon feading his viewer with any political ideals of any sort. Rather, his film is in fact the telling, through characters and encouters, of a spiritual quest.

Following the passing of his father, a young boy named Son Je (Tae-kyung Oh) sets out on a quest to find his mother. He has no idea where she may be and how to find her, but he is quite the determined little lad. As soon as he meets a certain monk in a restaurant however, the nature of his voyage morphs into something different, more philosophical and spiritual in nature. The monk, after having offered some religious like doctrines which the young boy does not understand, suggests that he travel to the sea side, where a doctor lives and who may be able to help him attain his goal. As long as Son Je believes, he will eventually find his long lost mother.

Soon, it becomes clear that Son Je is not even on a quest to find his physical mother anymore, but rather has embarked on a journey of spiritual enlightenment. His journey becomes an educational experience that only the wise could fully comprehend. Knowing little of Buddhism, all I can say is that the film is meant to be a fictionalized telling of the Avatamsaka Sutra of Buddhism, which relates to the interdependent phenomena that makes the universe what it is, and of course the passage to full Enlightenment. Sun Je at first is seemingly devoid of any real personality, other than being said at the loss of his father. As the movie progressed, I began to see the young boy as a blank page, one that upon which those he meets along the way will imprint their thoughts and knowledge of the world. Feelings, goals, beliefs, the birth and death of the world as we know it, these are but some of the issues that are elaborated on. But the elaboration of those subjects is not done in very rudimentary ways. Instead, each conversation held with a new character, each bit of knowledge gained, is a little step towards Buddhism, or Enlightenment.

For these reasons, it becomes difficult to evaluate such a film. Does one criticize the story because its characters are nothing more than vehicles for forwarding Buddhist teachings? Does one fault the principle boy, Son Je, because he is somewhat devoid of any personality and whose existence seems restricted to intaking all this information? Perhaps, but I choose not to. For one, it becomes clear that, as the story progresses, Son grows more and more mature. By the end of the film, he is no longer the little boy we met at the beginning. He may share the same physical traits, but intellectually and spiritually he has grown exponentially. Director Sun-Woo Je also balances all these elements deftly. There is almost a fantasy, or dream like quality to the film that suited the journey well. Some of the boy's encounters are downright peculiar. While he does not grow physically, a girl he crosses near the beginning of the story grows into adulthood as she reappears throughout (he also plants the sees for her child). Another young lad about his age he meets at an observatory demonstrates a remarkable understanding for the nature of the universe and the planet we live on. With these scenes in mind, I wouldn't say there is necessarily a playful element to the picture, but there is certainly something fantastic about it, and I believe it prevents the movie from falling into ridiculousness. Not only is the director taking his character Son Je on this journey, but he is inviting the viewer join along. All in all, I was very pleased with how the film turned out and enjoyed the aesthetic and narrative qualities, unorthodox as they may be.

I was impressed overall by this piece of cinema. Perhaps I was simply drawn in and convinced of its qualities because I know so little about Buddhism and accepted what was said all too great an ease. Maybe someone more versed than myself in the Avatamsaka Sutra could refute what occurs in the film. When it comes to religion, just like in politics, there is always someone, somewhere, seemingly willing to rebuke another's expressions or thoughts. I'm therefore more than convinced that there are people who could rip this movie apart for all kinds of reasons, credible and non alike. However, I can only judge the film from my own limited perspective and I have to say that, as odd as the story is at times, it was a unique experience.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Review: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice (2004, Michael Radford)

For years no film adaptation of this Shakespear play had been attemtped. Once one understand what exactly goes on in the story, that becomes easy to understand. Set in 16th century Venice, which was then a powerful city state at the time, it tells an emotionally complex story that pits a Christian merchant, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) against a Jewish money lender, Shylock (Al Pacino) when the former discovers that he cannot repay the money lent as promised. The signed bond stated that if the correct amount could not be repaid, Shylock would take a pound of Antonio's 'fair flesh', but at no interest! Hey, hey!

The controversy stems from the cultural realities of the time. 16th century Venice, while not completing shunning off the Jewish community since they were able to make some kind of living, did for all intents and purposes segregate them and, to a great extent, thought of them as lesser people and lost souls in the eyes of the Christian God. Antonio took upon this behavior as well, much like his Christian bretheren. When his younger friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs funds to travel by ship and win the heart of the wealthy and well brought up Portia (Lynn Collins), Antonio, given his current economic situation, knows he must ask help from the money lender Shylock. Awkward doesn't even begin to describe what must Antonio must be feeling.

Regardless of the controversies, this is from 2004 and it is assumed that audiences are mature enough to take in the story for what it is and are not prone to thinking the film is merely a medium for Anti-Semitism, even though such racist feelings carry heavy weight for several of the characters involved. I must say the movie is pretty good. The language is not quite what Shakespear put on paper. It's modernized somewhat for today's audiences, while still retaining a very classical feel to it. That will frustrate purists and relieve those who don't want to hear, or who would probably be lost with old English, so take it for what it's worth. I should say right now that I have not read this play from dear Bill Shakespear, but have read several others. I strongly believe it can be argued that the filmmakers pull off a fine job at making the dialogue digestible for modern audiences while avoiding any real butchering of the language. Perhaps if you have absolutely never read any literature featuring old English, then yes, you'll most likely be scratching your head at times. For those who have even a minimal amount of familiarity with such a language, the dialogue poses no threats. For me personally, the story was more than interesting enough to keep me occupied for 2 hours. The tension between Christians and Jews, which is the backdrop, and the subsequent reliance of Anotonio on Shylock when the former needs money to send his friend to find a wife, is fascinating. Things become really intriguing when news arrives from sea that all of Antonio's commercial ships (the earnings from which he planned to pay back Shylock with) have sunk. Classic Shakespear. An unlikely, almost ridiculous event has occured to propel the story forward, but the characters have been so well set up by then that the viewer doesn't care how preposterous the catalyst is. It's the developping interractions between the two opposing foes that really matter.

The acting is uniformally good. I've always liked Jeremy Irons, but I think Fiennes, Pacino and Lynn Collins are all better here. Several scenes invest in the blossoming love between Bassanio and Portia. Their story might not be as intriguing as the Antonio/Shylock plotline, but the dialogue is handled deftly by both younger stars and they act out wonderful scenes together. As actors, they are indeed a perfect match, not merely as characters in the story. Their scenes feature a decidedly different tone than those with Antonio and Shylock, but I was never distracted by that reality. Pacino gives a measured performance as Shylock and really brought the character to life. He is given some very poignant and difficult things to say, and, like the old pro that he is, he delivers in spades. The audience his challenged by the character of Shylock. The situation of the Jewish community in Venice is rather depressing, which would encourage viewers to sympathize with Pacino's role. And yet, when Shylock becomes exasperated (his daughter has run off with a Christian boy, and the general lack of respect for the Jews), he clearly behaves like a dastardly villain. One minute we kind of pity Shylock, the next moment we are repulsed by his thoughts. It's fascinating to watch unfold.

I, as well as most of you surely, have been to the theater before and know what to expect. I was eager to see how director Radford would translate the story from stage to film in the visual sense. The result is fairly competent I'd say. Nothing earth shattering is done in terms of camera movements, cinematography or editing. Each scene is set up more than competently enough to not only let each one play out for the sake of the narrative, but also to capture the facial expressions of the actors. I'm a bit on the fence as to whether facial expressions play such a significant role in theater, especially when you consider there are poeple sitting way in the back row. Film has the advantage of offering close ups, and therefore not only does the dialogue speak for itself, but so do the actor's faces. Radford understood this and uses this advantage nicely. Having spent a few days in Venice last summer, it was nice to recognize many of the locations, although that doesn't make the movie better. The mere fact that it takes place in gorgeous Venice makes it better!

If you are familiar with Shakespear and are curious about some of the many film adaptations that exist, I would certainly say that The Merchant of Venice is one you should add to your list.