Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Moolaadé (2004)

While I acknowledge that celebrated filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni passed away today, I decided not to make a post about his passing, as has been my usual habit, simply on the basis that I've never seen any of his films. There are four of his films on my "Films to Watch in 2007" list, but I didn't get to them in time. So, I will just acknowledge his passing, and I will comment on his legacy at another time.

However, prior to starting this blog, another important figure in world cinema passed away in June, so I would comment on this film from the late Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene.

Another reason for this decision is that Moolaadé has not yet been available on DVD from New Yorker Films, despite having been released in 2004. While it mostly stayed within the film festival circuit, which is where I saw it, it did enjoy a tremendous amount of critical acclaim, and deservedly so. Well, through some resourcefulness, I managed to track down a Canadian copy of the film, and it arrived over the weekend, and since I was between Netflix movies, I decided to rewatch it tonight.

This film perfectly symbolizes why I love foreign cinema as much as I do: it gave me a glimpse into a culture that I never had any exposure to and likely never will. And it takes an important issue from that culture with which I was unfamiliar and makes it feel so important and urgent.

The story takes place in a village, where they are governed between Islam and some of the tribal beliefs that predated their conversion to that faith. And one of the outdated beliefs they still hold onto is the "purification" ritual.

The one who rejects this is the central character Collé, played by Fatoumata Coulibaly. Long ago, Collé endured the "purification," which we come to learn is female circumcision (through later research, I learned what exactly this entails: they slice off the clitoris and labia). However, Collé was terribly scarred through the procedure, and in adulthood, lost all of her children except for one, which they managed to deliver through caesarian, but leaving further scarring across her stomach. When the time comes for her daughter, Amastaou, to be "purified," Collé steadfastly refused. In doing so, she remains a "Bilarako," which I think would mean that she is an impure woman, and based on tribal culture and the rules of the patriarchal hierarchy in the village, she will never be married.

Seven years after Collé's initial refusal, some of the young girls escape the purification ceremony and turn to Collé for protection, knowing that she refused to have her own daughter cut (the ceremony takes place every seventh year). She offers them protection through a "moolaadé," a spell that grants them protection from harm, and from what I understand, this term roughly translates to "sanctuary."

She ties a cord made of yellow, red, and black ribbon across the entry way to her home, signifying the boundry which keeps the girls safe. Tribal lore scares away anyone who tries to take the girls, but it also keeps the girls trapped inside, for if they venture past the rope, they are no longer safe.

And what follows disrupts everything in the village. By granting the girls the moolaadé, Collé turns everything upside down in the village: a woman's place in a patriarchal society where women don't dare disobey men, the local customs that they clung onto despite how antiquated, unsafe, unsanitary, and deadly the purification is, and even how a Bilarako is viewed.

Although it does seem to end a little too cleanly for my taste, it is still a fascinating film showcasing an issue I really didn't have any exposure to or understand. While this may seem like such a barbaric and unheard of practice in our society, the fact remains that this still goes on in other parts of the world, and it's wonderful that Sembene, in his final film, managed to bring this issue to world's attention.

While I hope they finally do bring this out on DVD in the States to wider distribution, I suspect only a handful of cinephiles will watch. But even for those few, it will make you see the world, or at least one small corner of it, in an entirely different light.

Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

I keep wondering which film or films I should write about next, but it seems fate is pretty good about curing my indecisiveness. I learned this morning that director Ingmar Bergman passed away at the age of 89.

While Bergman has one of the most impressive filmographies imaginable, I've only managed to catch 6 of them so far, something I would like to remedy in the not too distant future if I can help it, but of the ones I've seen, he was a ridiculously talented director. His films are very stark and bleak, at least the ones I've seen are, but they are so fascinating, that I push through them.

Sadly, it has been awhile since I've seen any of these films, so I don't know that I can expound upon them in any great detail, but I can share my thoughts and reactions to them, as I recall them.

The first Bergman I saw was The Seventh Seal (1957), and while it is arguable his most iconic work, it was the one that resonated with me the least. I can't offer a reason why, it's just sometimes that films can get under your skin and affect you, and at other times, it's inability to creep in leaves you with a sense of indifference. It's entirely possible that had I seen it another day, my reaction mihgt be different, but as it stands, I was a little uninterested in it.
Chronologically, the next film in his canon was Wild Strawberries (1958), which I enjoyed far more. It's a somber, largely meditative piece about an old man confronting his pending mortality. Very dark, the nightmare scenes in particular, but I loved it.

Following that, I saw Bergman's "Trilogy of Faith," which was made up of the films Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963). Depending on the day you ask, one of the former two would be considered my favorite Bergman. I love both immensely.

Through A Glass Darkly involves a young mentally ill woman who eventually sees God through a spider, while her father has been exploiting her illness for finanical gain through his writing.

Winter Light, probably Bergman's most bleak film, involves a clergyman who endures a crisis of faith after a man comes to him for help with his depression and he is unable to save him.

The Silence is a film I don't honestly recall that well, but it is a sexually provacative film involving two sisters -- one sickly, one very sexual -- who are traveling through Europe and in a foreign country seemingly on the brink of war. They vie for the attention of the sexual one's young son, ultimately tearing apart their bond.

Cries And Whispers (1972) also tells a tale of sisters. Two sisters come to the aid of the third sister, who is dying of cancer. However, they come with ulterior motives. Again, it has been so long since I've seen this one, I sort of mentally filed it away "really loved it," but the specifics now escape me.

The final film I saw was also probably Bergman's most personal, Fanny and Alexander (1983), which is an epic film about the Ekdahl family through the eyes of 10-year old Alexander, in turn of the century Sweden. Probably his most sweet-natured film despite the usual melancholy.

There are so many other Bergman films I need to see, and while it was not entirely unexpected that he would pass away, it's not any less saddening to see one of the greats go out.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

2007: A Mid-Year Update

I've been busy this weekend, so I haven't had much of an opportunity to put a new entry up tonight, and I haven't given much thought about what film I'd like to write about next, so I figured I would just put a brief blurb up about what I've seen from 2007. Nothing too in-depth, just a quick thought on each...

After The Wedding (Efter Brylluppet)
This was the fifth and final foreign-language Oscar nominee, and it was okay, though I would have preferred to see Volver or Ten Canoes make the cut over this, Water, or Days of Glory. It just got a little soap opera-ish for my liking.

Avenue Montaigne (Fauteuils d'Orchestre)
This was a nice French romantic comedy. Cecile de France softens up a bit, and she has an undeniably charming screen presence. Saw this at a film festival last November, and I can't say I remember it all that well now, but it was cute.

Away From Her
Sarah Polley's directorial debut was a strong one, and while I can't call it a flat-out masterpiece, it was a valiant effort and one helluva starting place. A couple of moments rang a little false for me having dealt with Alzheimer's in my family, but overall a wonderfully acted, well-intentioned film that showcases a lot of depth and maturity from Polley.

Boy Culture
This was the closing night film at the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival last year, and quite frankly, after having sit through so many movies over the course of that week (I was on the jury, so I kind of had to be there), I just didn't give a damn. It was going to take a great movie to keep me interested at that point, and this wasn't the movie to do that. Nothing special

I think this is one that was largely misunderstood by the public. If you're attuned to the black comedy, you'll finds a lot more enjoyment out of this than you will if you look at it as a straight up horror flick, which I think Lion's Gate foolishly marketed it as. Can't say that I found it entirely successful, but far better than the public consensus would seem to imply.

The Host (Gwoemul)
I know a lot of people loved this and found it groundbreaking and wonderful, but I didn't. Just seemed like your run-of-the-mill monster flick to me. And while it was often lauded for incorporating a family drama in the middle of it, that didn't seem like a new concept to me. Mildly entertaining, but nothing more.

Hot Fuzz
I loved Shaun of the Dead, the filmmakers' previous film, and I love their sense of humor. But I think this one suffers a bit since it doesn't come close to the predecessor's freshness, and a lot of the same gags seemed to be at play. I still enjoyed it a lot though. Just didn't love it.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
By no means a great movie, but not nearly the offensive pile of trash I anticipated. Saw it at a critics' screening for free, and I think I liked it more than I should have based on my abysmal expectations going into it.

Knocked Up
An enjoyable romantic comedy, which is equally as enjoyable as Apatow's previous flick, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Smart and enjoyable.

A Mighty Heart
Wonderfully acted account of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder. I think Jolie did a great job and finally reigned it the wild-child persona she seems to bring to most roles, and Michael Winterbottom did a great job here as well.

Absolutely fell in love with this one. Sweet, wonderful, and concise. Reminded me a bit of Lost in Translation and Before Sunrise, but in no way a knock off of those films. And the soundtrack is addictive.

Paris Je T'aime
Interesting project, featuring 16 six-minute shorts, each directed by someone different. Some stories are wonderful, some fall flat, but overall a very worthwhile film.

Reno 911: Miami
I like the TV show for all it's ridiculousness. I guess it just taps into my sense of humor. Just like the show, it's hit or miss, but there are some very funny parts, and I enjoyed it.

Rescue Dawn
Damn, I hated this one. Overacted to the extreme by Christian Bale and Jeremy Davies, some fatal script problems, and nothing that hasn't been done by Chuck Norris in the Missing in Action series. Love Herzog, but not this time out. Steve Zahn is the film's only saving grace.

Another strong documentary from Michael Moore. His approach isn't always to my liking, but he certainly knows how to make a compelling argument. One of the few filmmakers that makes me feel grateful for pissing me off.

The Simpsons Movie
I loved the show while at its creative peak, it sort of stumbled a few seasons back, and I fell out of the habit of watching it, but this was pretty amusing. The chief problem I had is that with so many memorable side characters to work from, I wish they'd have used them to better effect. For me, they, not The Simpson family, made the show as funny as it was. here, very few of them figure into the film in any significant way. But it's funny and entertaining.

Talk To Me
Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Taraji P. Henson are all pretty great here. And while I think she struggles in the second half of this film with some things, I think Kasi Lemmons is a very gifted director. And I have to applaud her for making films, like this and 1997's Eve's Bayou, that don't appeal to the lowest common denominator, especially when I think the black community is largely underserved with intelligent films aimed at that demographic.

Ten Canoes
Absolutely wonderful and unique film, the first film shot in Aboriginal language. Just well made in every regard, entertaining and well worth your time.

Charming as hell and Keri Russell does a great job carrying the film. It's tragic that director/writer/co-star Adrienne Shelley was murdered before the film's release and never got to enjoy the accolades the film has garnered, but I doubt she could ask for a better reception to end her career on.

Year of the Dog
While I started out liking this one a great deal, it descends into stupidity in the second half, which kind of killed what came before it. Disappointment.

You Kill Me
Entertaining story, Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni are quite good with humor, and while I wouldn't rush out to see it, it's definitely one worth adding to your Netflix queue.

A mixed bag here. The story of the Zodiac Killer is far more interesting than what comes across on screen, in Fincher's overlong but well-made police procedural.

12:08 East of Bucharest
The first half is rather aimless, but it comes together well in the second half. Not enough to totally redeem it, but enough for me to have enjoyed it.

28 Weeks Later
I think the first one is the best horror movie to come out this decade, and while this doesn't touch the original, it's actually not half bad for a summer sequel. The allegory and the action aren't quite as involving this time out, but you can do far worse. And I'd see this again any day over any of that ridiculous "torture porn" genre.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Capturing The Friedmans (2003)


I figured it was high time to throw a documentary into the mix, and I could think of none better to write about than this one. I think the 2000's have produced a lot of fascinating documentaries, and it makes me happy to see that there is a growing acceptance of documentaries in the marketplace these days. I think if reality television has yielded anything positive, the public's willingness to watch more documentaries would be the first thing I would think of.

This documentary has an interesting backstory, which I think would be a great place to start when discussing this film. Initially, director Andrew Jarecki set out to make an innocuous documentary about children's birthday entertainers. Through interviewing his subjects, he discovered one of them had an intriguing past and scrapped his original plan to focus on this man's story and the tale of his family history.

The Friedmans were an unremarkable, middle class Jewish family in Great Neck, NY. They had a passion for recording home movies, which makes the story all the more compelling.

While everything was seemingly normal, everything came crashing down when the father, Arnold Friedman, is arrested for molesting young boys, and the youngest son, Jesse, is arrested as his accomplice.

What follows is nothing short of phenomenal. Through the testimonials from people directly involved, you get multiple viewpoints: you hear stories from the abused, you hear stories from other people discrediting the victims saying that things were either completely fabricated or at the very least, embellished. You hear from law enforcement officials directly related to the case who speak of the overwhelming evidence against Arnold and Jesse, while you also hear from people who discuss the shoddy police work, the leading questions directed at children, who tend to make questionable witnesses that are susceptible to the power of suggestion.

While hearing the various people speak, I found myself getting mixed emotions. Just as soon as I thought they were damned, something came to light that seems to exonerate them. Then once convinced that Arnold and Jesse are victims of the system, I'd find myself convinced again of their guilt. I felt the cynical and idealistic sides of me fighting for domination while watching this.

But what made the documentary even more absorbing was the home movies. While you see them in happier times, you slowly watch a family disintegrating, while battling between what their heads think and what their hearts feel, yet the change in emotions comes at different times for all of the family members, which leads to some of the most brutal, hateful things coming to the surface about one another.

Have you ever been over to the home of a couple you know, and they get into an ugly argument, where bitterness, resentment, and lowblows are tossed around, and you almost feel like you are hearing things that you shouldn't hear, and every impulse in your head is telling you to leave, but you also feel like you should stay? That is how I felt while watching these home movies.

Yet, with all of those feelings of anger within the family, 20 years has not done much to restore those old wounds. All of those feelings of betrayal and hurt come bubbling back to the surface in the present-day interviews.

I recall watching this film in the early summer of 2003 at the Tampa Theater, and when the credits began to roll, I couldn't leave my seat because my knees were almost shaking from the tension the past 1:47 had put me through. Such a range of emotions during that time. The film, probably more than any other documentary I've seen, covers so much ground so efficiently. It raises so many questions, not only of the Friedman's guilt or innocence, but also about police procedure, about society's reaction to accusations of pedophilia and the groupthink and hysteria that comes with it. While I've watched a lot of fascinating documetaries this decade, none of them has stuck with me or had the effect that Capturing The Friedmans had on me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

R.I.P. Ulrich Mühe (1953-2007)

I've been trying to make an effort to skip around with times and genres lately; however, upon learning today that German film star Ulrich Mühe passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 54, I decided to post about some of his films today instead.

Fact is, I've only recently become acquainted with Mr. Mühe's work over this past year. I saw two of his films, both of which made me excited to see where he would go next and how these recent opportunities may open some new doors for him. Sadly, that will not come to pass.

The first of the two films of his I watched was a film I knew nothing about when making my film selections for last November's Cineworld Film Festival. I only know that there was a film playing that was going to be Germany's submission for the Best Foreign language category, called The Lives of Others.

I'm glad I saw the film with no preconceived notions about what it was about, because this one blew me away. I distinctly remember sitting there, having to use the facilities, but holding on for dear life because I didn't want to miss anything or disrupt the flow.

The story is set in 1984 East Germany, where the Stasi have complete and total control of their citizens -- more than they even realize. The Stasi is keeping many people under surveillance to monitor their activities, unbeknownst to them. Their apartments are bugged and big brother is listening in on every conversation, every argument, every movement, and ready to move in at the first hint of subversive activity.

Mühe plays Gerd Wiesler, one such Stasi officer. He is one of their most by-the-book officers, and not someone to be fucked with. He is assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland. Through monitoring their lives, he becomes drawn in and fascinated by them, and begins to have a moral crisis about what he's doing, and from there, he becomes dangerously too involved, and things go spiraling out of control with tragic consequences.

Once I left the theater, I knew that this was the film that needed to win the Oscar. I figured it had a good chance as the material would play well to the Academy, despite their often questionable taste. However, it didn't seem to have the momentum that Volver and Pan's Labyrinth had going for them at the time.

And a big part of my love for the film laid squarely with Mühe. He gave an amazing performance. Just his facial expressions and eye movements were fascinating.

Luckily, the Academy saw through the hype and awarded this the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. This will be released on DVD on August 21, and if you have not seen it already, do yourself the favor. It's well worth it, and hopefully, you will get to see how brilliant of an actor Mühe was.

Trailer for The Lives of Others

The second film in which I saw him was actually a Netflix choice from 1998 called Funny Games, which was directed by Michael Haneke, who later went on to direct the brilliant Cache. The film is rather sadistic, and despite some flaws here and there, it's utterly captivating in many ways, though, I've also heard it referred to as "the best film I would never recommend to anyone."

Basically, a family goes off to a resort town, and find themselves held hostage and terrorized by a couple of young men, who come over at first to just borrow some eggs. What follows is quite harrowing. In this film, Mühe plays the patriarch of the terrorized family. Mühe is quite good, as is the rest of the cast. This is a hard film to discuss without giving away anything that may shock or surprise later, but if you like your thrillers dark and unflinching, this one might just be for you.

Trailer for Funny Games

One thing that is important to note is that BOTH of these films are being remade for American audiences, so please catch these now, as it may just wipe out any notoriety Mühe holds. I'm less concerned about Funny Games, since Michael Haneke, the original director is also directing the remake, which is to star Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (in Mühe's role). However, The Lives of Others remake (set for 2010 and directed by Sydney Pollack) is something I'm just saddened by. I just see them fucking it up royally. (complete side note, but I'm even more concerned about the other Haneke film I mentioned, Cache, which is being remade by Ron fucking Howard, which is just a recipe for disaster.)

But I digress... I was really saddened to learn of Mühe's passing today, and hopefully, people will discover how brilliant of an actor he was before the original films are passed over for inferior remakes.

R.I.P Mr. Mühe. You will be missed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Taste of Cherry (1997)


Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (Ta'm e guilass) was the first Iranian film I'd ever seen, or the first film from anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter, but I fell in love with it immediately. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and though I'm not extremely well versed in Iranian cinema, nothing else I've seen from that region has matched this one.

Truth is, I have a hard time recommending it to most people. I don't want to sound condescending, but I really think this one won't appeal to most people's tastes: it takes place in the desert, so the landscape is sparse and it doesn't lend itself to any particular visual flair. The film is largely shot within the confines of a car, and it's mostly a philosophical piece. It's not exactly the kind of thing you bring to your buddy's place for movie night. For the film to truly reach you, it's something for which your full attention will be required.

The basic premise is this: Mr. Badii has a plan that requires the assistance of a third party, but in order to carry out his plan, he needs to find someone willing to help. We first see him driving around sizing up the day workers along the side of the road, and at first, one would almost think he is cruising for sex. Finally, he picks up a young soldier, and after some small talk, he lays his proposition on the young man.

Mr. Badii's intent is to dig a hole in the earth far away from the city. He is going to the hole in the evening and he is going to attempt suicide, and he wants the third party to come in the morning. If the suicide attempt is successful, he wants the stranger to bury him. If it's not, he wants them to rescue him.

The young soldier balks at this idea, and so Mr. Badii continues his quest for someone to help him. Through his attempts, there are some very interesting discussions, not only about his plan specifically, but about life and death.

For those seeking easy answers, Taste of Cherry will be particularly frustrating, for there are few to be found. One of the most genius things about the film is that it never explains why he intends to kill himself. We don't know anything about his life other than what we learn in the car. But in doing so, it robs the viewer of judgment. You never learn if it's because of something through which we can relate or if it's over something trivial.

Particularly infuriating or intriguing, depending upon your feeling toward everything that proceeds it, is the ending. It's very cryptic to the point where some may throw their hands up in exasperation, and others may find it a cop out.

Yet, for me, I think it's partially what intrigues me. I think the director had a very specific intent on ending the film in the means he does, and I think it's just that I've yet to ascertain what that meaning is. I can only imagine too that working within the Iranian film industry, there are likely some censorship issues at play, so I think that's partially what fuels my speculation that there is some meaning behind it that perhaps a more astute viewer than I may pick up on. It's almost as if Kiarostami is challenging us to piece together what happened without coming out and saying it. (It's a little difficult to discuss a film's ending without revealing too many specifics).

So even though I've watched this film a handful of times, I just feel like I have an unfinished jigsaw puzzle waiting in the other room, and though I haven't touched it in ages, I have this nagging feeling when I think of the film that there is some unfinished business I need to figure out.

Monday, July 23, 2007

M (1931)


When I look back, I think M is one of the very first foreign films I ever saw, and thank god for it. I know I became much more willing to seek out foreign films after I saw this for the first time in a film class my freshman year of college. If there's anything I really took from that class, it was this film.

Through that class, we watched a number of films that are well regarded, but hold very little appeal to me specifically: Citizen Kane (I think anytime any collective calls something the best film of all time, you've got your guns out a bit, but frankly, I found it dull), Written On The Wind, Johnny Guitar, and a few others I barely remember. Generally, me and my little group of folks from that class positioned ourselves against the wall and napped.

But right off the bat, M just felt different. I wanted to know where it was going to go. While I owe it to myself to see more Fritz Lang films, this was his first film in sound, and I can't imagine how groundbreaking this one must've been at that time. Just the beginning with Peter Lorre's character whistling the song from Peer Gynt, it sets an ominous tone for what is to follow.

A figure, only seen from behind, buys a balloon from a blind man, and hands it to a little girl. A few minutes later, when her mother is frantically searching for her, we see that same balloon floating into the power lines. The man, Hans Beckert (Lorre), is one cinema's first serial killers, and we learn that he has killed little Elsie Beckmann.

However, this film is not quite like the usual serial killer - there is no mystery about his identity. We know right off the bat who the killer is. But what makes M so fascinating is not the killings themselves, but what transpires in their wake.

The police are desperate to capture Beckert before he kills again. However, the increased police presence disrupts the criminal underground's activities, meaning that they cannot function until Beckert is caught. And with that, Beckert is pursued by both the good and the evil, making him a bizarre antihero of sorts. Lang makes the film a bit more interesting in that by showing us the two groups pursuing Beckert, we see that there isn't all that much difference between the two.

It's interesting to learn too that the film was seen as anti-Nazi, and looking back, I can see how it could be looked at in that way. The film was actually banned in Germany from 1933-1945, and since Peter Lorre was Jewish, they used footage of his final speech in the film in Nazi propaganda films to show that Jews were inherently evil. I suppose we can just chalk that up to one more difference of opinion that I have with the Third Reich.

While I often hear of so many films that get credited for kickstarting or influencing one genre or another, it seems M is usually left out of those discussions, for reasons unbeknownst to me. While people are usually tempted to cling to the new release wall when at the video store or stockpiling their Netflix queues, don't forget about the films that started it all.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Crying Game (1992)


This is one of those films that it seems most everyone knows about, not to mention that it sports one of the infamous and most talked about twists in the history of film. However, since someone who reads this might not have seen it or be aware of the twist, I'll refrain from discussing it specifically.

However, I think one of the most noteworthy aspect of the twist is that, with most films, using a device like a surprise twist has almost become a gimmick, and once you know the twist, the movie doesn't quite hold up as well. (M. Night Shyamalan, I'm looking squarely in your direction, Mr. One-Trick Pony.) However, what elevates The Crying Game above so many other films that employ the surprise twist is that even after you know what the twist is, this film still holds up, an it's still really friggin' brilliant.

I also hold some personal reasons for treasuring this film like I do. I had the benefit of seeing it opening night, on Christmas evening 1992. I really had no awareness of what was to follow other that it had amazing reviews. I went with my parents to see this one, as I was only 15 and couldn't get in on my own. For all the shit you give your parents at that age, I always did appreciate their willingness to foster my little hobby.

But, all that aside, I really credit The Crying Game for turning me into the cinephile I've become. I recall walking out of that theater, not only feeling that exhilaration you get (or at least that I get) when you've just left an amazing film, but I was also left with this feeling that okay, now THAT is what film can be. It made me curious about what else was out there. It made me abandon all interest in seeing all the bullshit that gets released and seeking out the smaller independent films that I never really showed much interest in before. Had I not seen it under those circumstances, I don't know that I would have sought out so many of the amazing films that I've since discovered.

While Neil Jordan remains somewhat of a hit-or-miss director, when he's on, he's really quite good. Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair, and Breakfast on Pluto are some others that I particularly enjoy (and I do owe The Butcher Boy a revisit). With Mona Lisa, it's particularly interesting, since watching it now, it almost seems like a blueprint of what was to follow 6 years later with The Crying Game. Rather than having another director come along and recycle the same story, he took his own film and perfected it.

The film really can be divided into two halves. In the first half, we see Fergus as kind of a fuck-up within a small sect of the IRA, and his forging a relationship with a kidnapped British soldier, Jody (Forrest Whitaker), and then the second half is when he disappears, abandoning the IRA, and reemerges in London with a new life as Jimmy, who seeks out Jody's girlfriend, Dil (Jaye Davidson), and embarks on a relationship with her, albeit, a very unusual one. When the two worlds collide, the film kicks into high gear and becomes fascinating and unpredictable.

I don't know that there's much else to say here. This film has been discussed to death, and I don't know that I can add anything particularly insightful that hasn't already been said countless times before. But beyond being just a fantastic film, it's a film that will always hold a special place for me.

Talk To Her (2002)

I've been a huge fan of Pedro Almodóvar's films for some time now. And while I love his 80's films like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Law of Desire, it's his four most recent films that have really solidified his place as one of the most exciting directors working these days. While each summer, we get inundated with so called "event" films, like Harry Potter and The _____ or Transformers, Almodóvar's films are the true events for me. I look forward to them even before they open in the U.S., and I will generally travel as far as Sarasota to catch it as soon as I can.

With All About My Mother (1999), which was my first Almodóvar film, it was love at first sight. However, his three subsequent films, Talk To Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Volver (2006) took a little more effort. This isn't to say they're difficult to watch. It's more that I have so many personal expectations in place that I'm always left a little disappointed at first. However, time taught me that with any new Almodóvar film, I owe it a second viewing.

It's on that crucial second viewing where my expectations are in check, and I pick up on the details I missed the first time around. But Talk To Her, has managed to work its way to the top of the list for me... not just in terms of Almodóvar's films, but even as one of my favorites, if not the absolute favorite, of the decade.

This offbeat story centers on two couples: Benigno and Alicia and then Marco and Lydia. The two couples are linked through unusual circumstances: Both of the men meet at the hospital where both women lie in comas. During the present, you get to know the two men, and it's interesting to see how differently they handle their respective love interest's predicament. Benigno is a doting caretaker who attends to Alicia's every need and everything he thinks she needs in hopes of a miracle. However, Marco sits by Lydia's bedside, more out of a sense of duty. He views the situation very realistically while Benigno is an unabashed optimist about Alicia's chances for recovery.

Through flashbacks, we learn the true nature both of the romantic relationships, and through these flashbacks, we get a whole new perspective on what's really going on, which sets the film onto a whole new track. Truths are revealed and lies are exposed.

What makes this Almodóvar's crowning achievement, for me at least, is that I've watched this film countless times, yet I still manage to find something in it I didn't catch before, and more and more layers unfold. Another thing that made this film notable in terms of Almodóvar's filmography is that his previous films largely concerned themselves with the camaraderie amongst women and the bonds they share, and his gift for writing female characters. However, Talk To Her showed that he was equally as gifted when exploring the same bonds between men.

The performances from the four principal actors are all quite good, and the film within the film was a genius metaphor. It may seem out of place at first, but when put into context and you figure out what the mini-film Shrinking Lover signifies, it's a pretty bold and inventive approach.

While my preference lies with Talk To Her, this doesn't discount my love for All About My Mother, Bad Education, or Volver. They're all incredible films, each worthy of a later post on here. I guess this is just the one that just worked for me the best and the one that continually amazes me. If I were to have a guest over, and they were interested in seeing an Almodóvar film for the first time, this would be the DVD I would first gravitate toward of the four.

I think anyone familiar with his films has one of the four that they completely adore. I really do adore all four of them, but for me, this is the one that just stands slightly above the rest of them.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite film of all time is, in truth, it's not an easy answer. Honestly, there are so many films I absolutely love and feel passionate about, and I can't easily compare most of them against one another. They're just so different. Yet, rather than going into a long monologue about it, I find myself usually defaulting to Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 film about the French/Algerian conflict.

The rationale behind this is that, well, first and foremost, it's an excellent film. But for me, I think one of the true hallmarks of a great film is that it holds up and passes the test of time, which this one achieves in a way that very few films before or since have been able to. It got a small rerelease in 2004, and I think those unaware might never have guessed that it wasn't a current release. I'd have loved to catch this on the big screen, yet sadly, these revivals rarely make it to this neck of the woods.

It also remains incredibly relevant today. It's almost eerie how closely the events from the French/Algerian conflict mirror the current situation in Iraq. Say what you will about the French, but the saying "those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it" comes to mind. While the U.S. could stand to heed that message, in watching the film, and with a little hindsight, it's pretty easy to see why the French were so adamant in their objections to the current war.

One of the most incredible things about this film is how even-handed it is. While I think it would be misleading to say that Pontecorvo was completely objective in presenting the film, he does show both sides of the conflict: the destruction each side faces, the innocent lives lost, and the retaliatory measures each side takes to exact revenge.

The film has a documentary feel to it, and there really isn't a great deal of character development to be found, though each side has a central figure. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), is one of the Algerian leaders, while Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) is the military commander on the French side. Both men are hellbent on victory and very little will deter them from their goals.

In one of the most notable sequences, three Algerian women dress and style their hair to pass themselves off as French, and sneak into the French side of town where they obtain explosive-filled purses to detonate in populated areas. These women stash their bombs in cafes and airport terminals. But what really sinks in during these sequences is that while carrying out these plans, the women study the faces of the French civilians being targeted. They are completely oblivious to what is to occur, and they are simply going about their daily lives. Yet the women look at them with the foreknowledge that these innocent people are about to die or be injured. And it's difficult to read their expressions... is it hatred or guilt behind their eyes?

You'll note that in that trailer (as well as in the opening of the film), it offers a simple title card that reads "containing not a single frame of documentary or news footage." While that might not seem that remarkable at first, it becomes rather impressive when you look back at the time when this was being filmed. There was no CGI involved in these explosions. The riot scenes were all shot on the Algerian streets using thousands of people. These scenes were all recreated with such realism without the aid of today's technology. While the violence is rather bloodless, I kind of like that it doesn't have to shock us with gore to still appall and interest the viewer.

It is somewhat interesting that there has been a newfound interest in the French/Algerian conflict these days with films like Caché and Days of Glory (with the former showing us the tensions that still exist, while the latter showing us how some of those tensions were born). Yet, I still think it was pretty remarkable that Pontecorvo covered the story so soon afterwards with as much objectivity as he did (which may be some of the reason I respect Paul Greengrass' United 93 as much as I do).

While this is just one of the many, many films I absolutely love, I do think The Battle of Algiers is the best war film ever made, and one of the most important films ever made, and simply, one of the best films ever made, regardless of genre. While the Criterion DVD set is pretty pricey (it retails for about $49.99, though you can pick it up for cheaper through an online retailer), I'd also recommend watching the special features if possible. There is a great 18-minute feature called "Five Directors," which has Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, and Julian Schnabel all discussing the film, how it influenced and inspired them in their works, and just how much this film is revered.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Secret Life of Words (2006)

I decided to pop this film on again this evening, rather than watching something new. For me, I have a strange adoration for Isabel Coixet's films, or at least the ones in which she has collaborated with Sarah Polley in the lead role.

I've been a huge fan of Polley's ever since I saw her in 1997's The Sweet Hereafter, and I've followed her career ever since. Along with The Sweet Hereafter, I think I'd place Polley's performances in this film, and the previous collaboration, 2003's My Life Without Me as my three favorite.

Both of the Polley/Coixet collaborations have really gotten to me. Neither is perfect, they're both a little on the quirky side, but not in an unbearable way. They both have some rough edges, but in many respects, I love them for these flaws and idiosyncracies, rather than in spite of them.

The Secret Life of Words could hardly be described as a "fun" film. The story is slow going, but rewarding for the patient viewer. To reveal the film's secrets would undermine the emotional wallop they pack when they come to light, but the film is about a Czech immigrant named Hanna(Polley) who goes off to an oil rig at sea to care for Josef (Tim Robbins), who was severely burned in an accident on the oil rig while trying to rescue his best friend.

The two characters couldn't be any more different. To the outside eye, Josef is abrasive, intrusive, yet personable. Hanna is quiet, closed off, and emotionally distanced from anything and everyone. But as time goes on, and they are forced to deal with one another, they forge a common bond through the scars of their respective pasts. And with time, Hanna gradually opens up, while Josef eases up as he finds himself drawn to Hanna and curious about her life.

Both of the characters have a little tit-for-tat in revealing personal details. But while Josef uses Hanna's visits to feel her out in an attempt to confess his sins, Hanna desperately avoids getting to close or revealing too much. But like Josef, knowing that Hanna has a backstory is what draws us into her. We want to know what Hanna's past is and how it shaped her into the cold, mysterious woman she has become.

Adding another dimension to the story is that Josef has been temporarily blinded due to corneal damage sustained in the accident, and Hanna is deaf, though she can hear through the use of a hearing aid that she turns off when she wants to shut everything else out.

Once Hanna's devastating and deeply personal confession comes, it's delivered in a remarkable 12-minute monologue that exposes us to the unimaginable. But this scene is also just an outstanding specimen of acting. Polley remains so focused, emotional without going for histrionics, while Robbins silently reacts to everything he is hearing. Just a remarkable scene. In their lukewarm review of the film, Entertainment Weekly basically pans the film as a whole, but states that this scene pretty much saves it, ultimately getting a B- from them.

Polley, as implied earlier, is completely brilliant in the film. She commits so fully to this character and it shows. Robbins, an actor who I typically have very mixed feelings about, is equally as impressive. I think this is the best he has ever been, and though I disagree highly with Oscar win for Mystic River, this is a performance that makes up for that.

It is also worth noting that Julie Christie delivers a brief but phenomenal performance in a very limited role. Her character appears sporadically, and it's unclear for most of the film exactly how she is connected to the story, but once you know her involvement, and her one big scene comes, it's very powerful. The rest of the supporting cast, including Javier Cámara, is all quite good as well.

The cinematography in the film, like Hanna, is beautiful yet dreary, and the backdrop of the oil rig, which has been rendered inoperable since the accident, provides a perfect setting to relate to Hanna's self-imposed isolation. The soundtrack is nice, yet never intrusive (Antony and The Johnson's "Hope There's Someone," in particular, suits the film well).

I think what connected me to the film the most is how it shows the dichotomy between how Hanna and Josef deal with their past tragedies. Josef seems to be seeking absolution from his sins, while Hanna hides any emotion to keep her secrets and her shame safe from the outside world. And as each of the characters develop, you grow increasingly more involved in each of them and their relationship with one another. And though the core story is quite grim, Coixet is pretty adept and interspersing light humor throughout, just as she did in her previous film.

Additionally, what I love about it is that the film leaves a lot of blanks to be filled. Because it's clear that Hanna disassociates much of what happened to her, it isn't completely spelled out what she endured herself or what she simply witnessed. The few moments of narration provide an interesting dimension to the film that also require interpretation on the viewer's end - I've heard varying accounts on how people view the connection.

Most others with whom I've discussed the film either love it or are indifferent to it by not connecting to it, despite acknowledging the wonderful performances and scenes found in the film. It seems that one's enjoyment of the film ultimately depends upon whether you get hooked in by the mystery of Hanna's past and the ambiguities Coixet leaves you to ponder. Since seeing the film initially in May, I've watched it several times since, and I've come to view it as one of the best films 2006 had to offer, and I hope more people discover this film and fall in love with it as much as I did. It's a shame that this film didn't get a proper release and find the audience it deserved, yet I hope that this provides people with an opportunity to discover this film without any preconceived notions based on the hype that usually accompanies most films.