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India: Matri Bhumi (1959)
Perhaps it was the incredibly washed-out, virtually monochrome print. Perhaps it was the non-stop painful soundtrack of bird noises. Perhaps it was the overbearing, condescending ceaseless narration.
But mostly this supposed masterpiece reminded me of schoolroom educational films. The camera work is not particularly great; we learn little about actual (as opposed to staged) life in India; though closely immersed in local settings, there is virtually no geographic, historic or temporal overview to guide us; and the staged sequences come across as forced and distancing, most alarmingly with the monkey sequence at the end (it verges on flat out cruelty). Other sections have sudden and jarring outcomes that work entirely against the drawn-outness of the rest.
I can't think of a film that has aged less well than this basic documentary. Just because it's by a master doesn't make it a masterpiece. And yes, I watched it closely, understood its structure and themes and so forth. There are good sequences in the film (the elephant logging and dam building in particular evoke a clearly dichotomous relationship with nature) but it could have been well-trimmed, better contextualized, and shorn of its irritating narration.
What we have here is an outsider's, deastheticized, desaturated, scattershot, only slightly empathetic view of India. Let the images speak! And, most of all, let the Indians speak for themselves. It's taken 50 years to realize we should give them the cameras (Born into Brothels comes to mind.)
This is an extremely well made, often beautifully shot documentary about the incredible pressure of high-school baseball and team spirit in one public and one private Japanese school.
However, it seems to offer no criticism or external perspective on what is going on; in this way it is fetishistic of baseball pyjama uniforms and team pride and moreover seems to reinforce every stereotype about Japanese culture and team conformity (especially the weird transplantation of American school rituals, themselves insane to begin with).
The scene where the coach cries in tandem with his charge, asking to be a part of his future life is the one moment where the story is nicely humanized.
Perhaps it could be read a primer on how fascism works: Triumph of the High-School Basesball Team Will. And I mean this with respect to the quality of film-making at work.
Chernobyl Heart (2003)
It says a lot for the ignorance of mainstream film culture that this Academy Award Winning Doc Short has generated only three user comments on IMDb and zero external comments. Has anybody seen this film?
It is also bothersome in a way that the film is in HBO distribution because of the context of exploitative fare HBO deals in---all the sex documentaries Sheila Nevins puts out. And then this, sandwiched in-between.
The imagery is beyond exploitative; it so far over the line and yet obviously true. You could find these birth defects almost everywhere in the world but only in isolation. Here, they are in terrible concentration and the kids are suffering in terrible conditions in terrible state hospitals, mental wards and orphanages. All you Ronald Reagan boosting Americans who think 'freedom' won the day, 'won' the Cold War, look at what you have reduced Russia and its sister states to, just look at this and think what massive Lies you grew up under in the 1970's and 1980's and what they have brought about and become.
The next Chernobyl might be caused by internal terrorism in the US, but it will likely be, as the film says, Chernobyl itself. 97% of the radiation is still concentrated there, says the film.
If I seem angry it is from watching the film, the fallout, pardon the ugly metaphor, from the film. Why this is not a full-length film I do not understand. Why are their no officials interviewed, why is there no government response and responsibility? Why is no one from the UN interviewed? Why is the scope so small? Because the film telescopes to discuss the living conditions and medical defects only, it is 40 minutes of nothing but suffering and the small attempts to curtail it, to fix one problem, the 'Chernobyl Heart' defect that seems so tiny a victory in its symbolism.
It is one of the hardest and most necessary pieces of film I've ever watched. But the content is far too important to be compressed into such a painful frame, so stripped of context.
Think of how much the world could change if all the major TV networks in the world agreed to show this in prime time, simultaneously, without commercials.
When I was growing up in the hippiefied 70's, all the grade seven kids in my school were made to watch "Do You Love This Planet?". (Somehow, I don't think it was on the curriculum.) The most lasting, and sensible, propaganda experiment of my childhood. It stuck. There is no reason for this film not be similarly shown.
I've never been a fan of short films for their 'art-school' and 'experimental' qualities. Simply being a product of those two is not enough. They are almost always too personal, too opaque, and too much obviously serving as 'stepping-stones'.
I was therefore happy to see Lynne Ramsay's short films as the chrysalis for her superb feature films. I was also impressed to learn that she won the Cannes short-film prize, *twice*. And now I can see what others saw in her, for _Gasman_ is the best short film I have ever seen.
Available on the Criterion DVD with _Small Deaths_ and the less good _Kill the Day_, _Gasman_ is a fully-fledged, visionary film that translates directly into the skill and grace of _Ratcatcher_.
_Gasman_ moves directly from the first piece of _Short Deaths_, with the distant father and Lynne Ramsay Jr. again taking centre screen. But _Gasman_ comes to a kind a fruition--a full story with many of the same themes and techniques of _Ratcatcher_: closely observed yet elliptical human behaviour, housing projects, slum-beauty, children's natures, a jumbled impressionistic world caught in partial body closeups and shots from behind people.
The film 'tells' nothing, but the story is dead clear and builds slowly to an emotional pitch that is almost unbearable.
This is a film of jaw-dropping beauty. Sounds trite, but that's how I feel. When the Da and two kids walk on the tracks, the camera is set to a partially closed iris which intensifies the available light and colour in an otherworldly sheen--one that is gone when they return on the same tracks at night, in disappointment. Beauty in service of story is the key.
This *is* the best short film I have ever seen.
Joyeux Calvaire (1996)
Unsentimental View of Homelessness
A kind of 'Waiting for Godot' in mirror-reflection--peripatetic, ambulatory, not hopeless.
Two homeless men walk from place to place in Montreal, one a good talker, one a good listener. We see the routine, the expectations and treatment of homeless people in this city. Nothing much happens to the main characters; rather, we see their connections to the people they once were via flashback and the connections they have now lost to society; we also see other homeless people who are in far worse shape.
Denys Arcand's directorial style is unsentimental and certainly unprepossessing. The camera generally follows them around not looking for pseudo-poetic moments; instead, it regards them. Many, if not all, of the characters really are homeless people, but this is done without an overt intention to re-dramatize as it is simply to hear stories told or see what people offer of themselves in a short space of time.
This is not a message movie but one that holds a mirror up to the way these two people and the people they meet live and talk. That, in itself, is enough. I suppose you could consider this as part of a genre of 'walking' movies, if you wanted to include Richard Linklater's work, and Gus van Sant's 'Gerry', but the tone here is neither philosophical nor introspective. It is simply put a day in the lives of these two men, with more pointed flashbacks.
Arcand's reputation took a bit of a hit with this film, in the sense that it was something to do between major fiction projects, and in the sense of 'so what', 'we know this already', but it is enough for me for this film to have captured a time and place and the people in it. One thing for sure, Montreal in '95, '96 was at the bottom of its economic cycle. The city is much improved since then, mercifully.
The Uncles (2000)
Nice little film
This is a well-crafted small Canadian film about a restaurant manager trying to juggle work, family and love, though the three are all unfortunate in one way or another. Chris Owens (yup, Agent Spender) is very good in the central role and manages to hold things together with his solid, careful performance. He obviously had his heart in this script and film. He took a good role in a small film.
Digital Video quality is not great, but the direction is efficient and understated. The script is good and manages to pinpoint the truth in its characters. The sound quality is also good (see Chutney Popcorn to hear how bad sound quality is worse than bad visual quality). What's best of all in the film is its eveness of tone and its recognition of limitations, in that it keeps the course without faltering from trying too hard. Sure, it won't change your life, but it is worthwhile. And no shaky-cam!
Two cheers to James Allodi for seeing his project through. It ain't Rohmer or Pasolini (silly comparisons) but it's honest and shows promise. Someone should give this guy a chance to make a film with a bigger budget for he has the tools and will impress. I kept on thinking how much more I would enjoy it on proper film.
Mike Geraghty Jr. says it all his review of this beautiful film.
And Ken C. from Hertford is a twit for calling this a British film. It's Scots, through and through, and beautiful.
Ramsay's 2nd feature, _Morvern Callar_ is also good, but go out of your way to see _Ratcatcher_. Well worth it.
The best film of the 1990's.
Dazzling and heartbreaking in every way imaginable.
Eccleston and Winslet give career performances, Hossein Amini's screenplay is judicious and honest, and Winterbottom's direction and cinematography capture everything there is in Hardy's greatest novel.
Unmissible, unparallelled, and devastatingly beautiful.
another winning film from france
A seemingly small but strongly rendered film. Sophie, 20, lives in the poor quarter of Paris but is a talented and completely understated pianist. She gains employment as the accompanist for wealthy and daringly honest woman, a professional singer who graces the film with lush performances from Massenet, Brahms, Mozart etc... Yet she is a woman beholden to her husband who is himself in 'import-export' during WWII, ie. playing off both sides as long as he can. He's outspoken, she's a songbird with emotional depth and secrets, and the accompanist is near mute--observing, spying, daring herself to act and to reveal secrets, yet always loyal to her master.
Over and over the film goes to Sophie's face, watching her reactions, gauging what she's thinking of and what she might do next. And always, Romane Bohringer is up to the task. This is a great performance by a young French lead, comparable to Elodie Bouchez in La Vie Revee des Anges, but here she is wholly deferring, only gaining enough courage to talk to herself in the mirror. Always on the precipice of action, her almost blank impassive face gives the film tremendous suspense and great feeling.
The metaphors of the film are simple and mercifully left unspoken: if accompianment subsumes the self to the master performer, collaboration is a marriage that cannot be tolerated. In this way, the film speaks to the French dilemma and guilt of WWII but does so through the lens of marriage and the distant observer who becomes wound closer around the marriage bond than even she realizes, with startling results. If the key moment is about misdirection, then the film as a whole is about whether we allow ourselves to be misdirected.
The focus is small, but the themes are large and subtlely drawn. Likewise, the production is top notch--clear and never showy. The direction is near flawless, and the music is bright and finely wrought. You'll watch it for the music, for Bohringer pere et fille, but the story is every bit as interesting and patiently rendered as it needs to be. This is neither avant-garde, nor epic as we tend to expect much French fare is; it is closer in spirit to Patrice Leconte's work, but even more muted, but no less honest and surprising.
Sumo Bruno (2000)
fat + fit = fun
The fun--if lightweight--fable of a 420lb German softie who toughens himself to go after the World Sumo Championship which coincidentally happens to be held in his hometown. Gentle performance by our big hero in a gently perfunctory script. Some good sight gags and an attractive love interest keep the movie bouncing along towards a fairly determined ending. We could have had more of the Japanese coach (where is the necessary philosophical doctrine, the mantra?) and a bit less of the mean ex-boyfriend. Real sumo fans may be disappointed with the fairly limited sumo action. Somewhere between a kid's movie and a fable for fattie adults, the movie is enjoyable on its primary level as a mild comedy. The opening and closing credits are a delightful treat. The Canadian lumberjack sumo was also a howler. Mike G. liked this movie even better than I did. The director also showed up at our screening in Montreal and he was the nicest guy imaginable and terribly funny.