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A masterpiece by any measure, one of the deep, dark wonders of cinema
If there's any proof of god, it's "Satantango", Tarr's impetuous yet melancholic, beautiful and sublime, unforgettable and dark, dark, dark masterpiece which is one of cinema's greatest treasures -- rich with darkness and wonder. At 7 hours long, it is as if it were life itself, and it really is, as everything -- tone, pace, tempo -- is in real time; essentially, it feels, and is, a tango. Tarr, again, demonstrates his mastery through the long take, as it beautifully portrays its subject and feelings of them. It's just such a film one can not even describe in words; it's simple art. This magnus opum of cinema has changed the value of that very term to me. Not many films can do that. I will never forget this film until the day I die, for "Satantango" should be a required viewing -- for everyone.
Flawed, but not with out its merits
Gerardo Naranjo's sophomore feature, "Drama/Mex", is as unhinged as its protagonists. Essentially, the film plays out as an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu hybrid, dubiously trying to forcefully connect three stories uncoiling in Acapulco. The first is of Fernanda (Diana Garcia) who runs into Chano (Emilio Valdes), her ex boyfriend at a café; the next thing you know, they're already in bed. In this case, the drama here is that, as familiar as it may seem, she already has a boyfriend named Gonzalo (Juan Pablo Castaneda). At the same time, another tedious narrative thread follows Mariana, who, after just being hired by fellow prostitutes, spots Jaime (Fernando Becerril)a pretty damn old man who has such meaningless life that he essentially goes to the city to kill himselfand gets him to feed her, entertain her, and shelter her. Despite its grand, promising opening sequence filled with ambition and audacity, the main problem with "Drama/Mex", of course, is its callously exasperating narrative; jaundiced to its very core, it ends up going all over the place, as we now find Gonzalo attacking Chano, Jaime at the club, Fernanda running all over the place, and Mariana buying anything she can. Essentially, what starts out as a finely nuanced, audaciously handsome drama evolves into a frustrating imbroglio, as its familiar ending fails to unite its narrative threads, finally culminating happily yet with a profound feeland, as odd as it may seem, such disaster can be pliantly interpreted; even appealingly. Indeed, "Drama/Mex" is not entirely with out its merit: Naranjo's mesmerizing camera work fits its milieu perfectly, and the fact that he first studies his characters before sending them to ruin is proof of its boundless self-confidenceall of which are perpetuated by the miraculous cast that, indeed, beautifully portray their dubious situations.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
An observatory masterpiece
Around the seventies, when films like Annie Hall, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever ruled the age, Charles Burnett silently crafted Killer of Sheep, his thesis film for UCLA. Thirty years it has eluded usthat is, until now. The result, although aging those thirty-years, is a masterpiece; an authentic and one of a kind piece of raw American poetry that simply and silently observes life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles.
An unshakable and insightful study of citizens living right above the poverty level, Killer of Sheep is both open-ended and observatory. The magnificent fly-on-the-wall observes the life of a slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who grapples daily with poverty, misbehaving children, and the allure of violence. Stan is a simple guy, diligent, smart, and fatigued. He has a family including two kids, both entirely the opposite of the other. Stan's daughter (Angela Burnett, the director's childone of the most preternaturally talented performers I have ever seen) is the playful and learning type, while the otherhis sonis never home, discourteous, and always getting himself into trouble. The characterization in Killer of Sheep is both extraordinarily untouched, but it is meticulously observed and felt; every single characteralthough not all are importanthas an underlying purpose and reason for being where they are.
The camera work in Killer of Sheep, much like the film itself, is perfect, like if one could be observing the town through his/her DV camcorder. Shooting in 16 millimeter and operating it himself, Burnett's camera observes everything, and is seemingly everywhere. Everything is important too, because every close-up and tracking shot only brings us closer to the undistinguished characters themselves; the more the camera observes, the more one feels closer to them.
Burnett shot Killer of Sheep over a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of just under $20,000, using friends and relatives as actors. This needn't be a reason to demean the film; if anything, one must take it as a sheer pleasure: the acting of his family members essentially makes the film beautiful sans outside reason, making it truly fathomable. Yet again, Burnett's camera simply observes; much like the Italian neo-realism age, Killer of Sheep's milieu speaks for itselfone could even call it American neo-realism.
At its core, Killer of Sheep is masterfully comprised of evident economic denial, hidden desire, and pure living; in other words: untainted life. There are many scenes in Killer of Sheep that demonstrate this; the most memorable demonstrating the cruelty of Stan's son towards his sister: while Stan drinks coffee at his table with a neighbor, his son aggressively asks his daughter where his bee-bee gun is. The daughter, wearing an unforgettable dog mask, shrugs. The response from the brother is, of course, hurting her. Stan gets up and starts chasing the son; he's already out the door.
In 1990, Burnett's opus magnum was declared a national treasure by Congress. 17 years later, it has finally gotten a spot on the big screen, a DVD release date also due for later in the year. Easily one of the finest observational films ever made, Killer of Sheep more than lives up to its official designation as a national treasure: it lives up to life itself.
Die große Stille (2005)
Grace makes little noise
In 1984, novice filmmaker Philip Gröning asked the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse if he could film them. They said it was too soon, and thus, 16 years later, Gröning received a call: they were ready. A sublime mix of transcendence and cinéma vérité, the result, Into Great Silence, is a masterful trip inside the monastery, a 162 minute voyage that spellbinds, entrances, and makes you become one with the film itself.
Filming by himself on hi-definition video and Super 8 for only a few hours a day, using only available light and sound, Gröning was required to live and work among the monks, both observing them and becoming one with them. He structures the film in an unscathed and natural way, both accurately capturing the monks' daily routines yet also flowing by seasons. Each season has its own pleasures, which range from the playful walks of the monks in spring and summer to the moody yet harmonious mise-en-scene of the winter. Sublime to its very hushed core, Into Great Silence does take some getting used to, specifically because the monks hardly utter a word; the beginning of the film is a four minute opening shot of a monk praying in his solitary room. It is after this, however, that the film resembles true life itself: rarely have documentaries portrayed such an unhurried sense of time, yet all of the film passes faster than you wish it to, each minute counting to the very last.
Gröning's masterful shots of the Grand Chartreuse are let alone one reason that elates the film, yet more than a placed and planned camera, the shots almost resemble spying. It is undeniably true, as weird as it may sound, that the monks have gotten used to the camera. Months go on, and they blatantly ignore it, which only goes for the better. In what follows, Gröning takes us through more than just the random praying of the monks, but also of them playing (there's a scene of the monks going sledding), cooking, eating and sewing, all daily activities of the monks (excluding the playing aspect.) One need not be religious, or even agree with the existence of god and the fact of locking oneself in a monastery, to enjoy a film of this caliber. Nevertheless, Gröning has created a film of its kind: the type that will keep you thinking and enjoying its quiet pleasuresonly through simple imagesfor a long time, yet also one that could gratify film lovers without a limit to its quiet sense of aptness.
Love Letters from Flowers
A type-Shakespearian paean to the best in burst less color and exciting action scenes with a real purpose, Zhang Yimou's latest film, "The Curse of the Golden Flower", is at least compellingly watchable. While this is far from "Hero" and not the least masterful like "The House of Flying Daggers", "The Curse of the Golden Flower" does have its sly tricks and well made gimmicks. The annoying story-line, much like a Shakespearian play, is about two emperors who willingly fight each other for the power and the future of their sons. The story, like all Yimou precedents, is wrapped around small gimmicks and inner complications that are, like no other of his films, this time unnecessary. But these Shakespeare-like machinations are well-performed by all with an appropriately exaggerated theatricality to their expressions; Gong Li proves her masterful class acting yet again through a very good role. And, like all Yimou films, the harmonious and extremely alacritous mise-en-scene purposefully cancels out all the film's narrative flaws as well as the superfluous opening shots that made some people at the screening where I saw fall asleep. Most of these opening shots of the film pertain to the beautiful castle in which the emperors live. But instead of easily laying a premise in less than forty-five minutes, Yimou lingers on his ideas a little more than his previous films, already giving viewers a heads up to his experimentation. But through its mighty flaws emerges a beautiful experimentation of betrayal, intrepidity and love. His magic still remains.
L'ivresse du pouvoir (2006)
A long, slow ride down an all too familiar road
One of the main problems in "The Comedy of Power" is that, ironically, there is no comedy. If obvious little puns and predictable little jokes are comedy, then I am way out of it. This film, now playing at the IFC center, is Claude Chabrol in rotten 'fois-gras' and Isabelle Huppert in a rotten package of canned meat,and yes, it really is that disappointing. The film follows a chronicle that we all have heard of before, except this time, Chabrol thinks he can make magic out of Huppert. The story line, best as follows, is about a lazy french judge (A rotten Isabelle Huppert) who tries to bring down the corruption of a very powerful company. This one's a long, slow ride down an all too familiar road. One of the films main problems is the talkative dialogue; even though it's French, there are so many useless scenes of non stop talking, that you can go to sleep, wake up, and you would have missed nothing. While some of the scenes are easy to go along with, most of the film is pure familiarity. For Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert, however, this probably could be named the funnest movie ever made in between them. But, unfortunately, the viewer is the one that suffers for their fun.
Good Points, but Dubiously pitched and Aesthetizised
Bamako is more a PBS special than a flat out film. It chronicles a trial in which the World Bank is on trial itself. The film is quite anti Bush-era corporate interests (IMF, World Bank, and G8 are among the villains name-checked), but through the film (I don't even know what it is, a doc. or a film) comes the film maker's true anger which is surprisingly stimulated. In between the quasi-entertaining court-room arguments and the callous shots of town, there isn't much room to inhale pure film making. (There's even a bizarre mock-movie staring Danny Glover as in assassin in a haphazard African town.) And yet, despite the film's slog, there's something in Bamako that keeps it quietly vital, making it a true case of moral politics but pretty much a slog of a film.
The best thing about "Breach": It's not directed by Tony Scott
Billy Ray's dramatization of FBI upstart Eric O'Neill's (Phillippe) work to ingratiate himself with Robert Hanssen (Cooper) in order to suss out the man's history of espionage is told in an unpretentious manner of arrogance: despite it's ambition, the film is cocky, often pushy, and even quite boring. Eric's character is annoying; Phillipe himself, annoying as hell already, is quite possibly the most overly dramatic actor out there. He boggs the film down to a level of falling asleep.
The film relies on Chris Cooper's tour-de-force performance, which this time isn't annoying. It's his role and Cooper is aware of this, keenly acting with confidence. Ray's frame has been supremely edited, leaving out little riches in the actual mis-en-scene of Washington, (where I saw the film coincidentally). But despite Ray's shunning of action-movie clichés and dull pacing, in the end the film works with a symbiotic relationship: Ray's lazy storytelling and Phillipe's bad acting, and Cooper's great acting. It seems the latter takes over in the end.
Children of Men (2006)
A rare futuristic thriller: grim in its scenario, yet exhilarating in its technique.
There are many things that happen in our future: for those technological buffs out there, there will be large hi-def T.V screens and sophisticated wireless devices. But on the not so shinny side, and for those present day future predictors, women will become infertile, and eventually we will all vanish from Earth. It's difficult to establish such a premise in 114 minutes, and Cuarón happens to know this. So what he creates is more of a preview of it. Despite its astute sympathy for what-if film lovers, "Children of Men" does work, and rather effectively.
It's 2027, women are infertile, death comes everyday, migrants are a complex deal, rebellions arise all over the world, and there is a suicide drug named "Quietus." Motto: "You decide when." Shelled by the excellent Clive Owen as Theo, a lazy and mundane man who has lost his son to, yes, a flu pandemic in 2008. His first portrayal is a scene in which he is walking into a coffee shop, -the youngest person in the world, age 18, has just died- buying a usual cup of coffee, and putting a sip of rum in it. An instant later, an explosion. It nearly kills him. Cuarón lays clues and evidence all over the film, especially through vivid examples of people, mostly illegal immigrants, being locked up on the street, and random, but important advertisements. Theo really doesn't care much about the world, that is, until his ex-wife (Moore with no English accent), the leader of pro-immigrant rebels, presses him into retrieving a pair of illegal travel passes in the hopes of reaching a group of much-rumored, never-confirmed off-shore scientists called The Human Project. Their motives, tied to the well-being of a young immigrant (Claire-Hope Ashitey), will soon become clear, but only after the cost of failure has been made equally clear. Kee, played by Ashitey, is visibly pregnant, and after a serious of insolent truths about the rebels themselves, Theo is now bound to help Kee. They set off, and eventually reach their destination, which marks the end of the film.
Cuarón's graceful camera, the movement of characters across the frame, and the magnificent acting collectively evoke a genial sense of place. But while the film's exo-skeleton is a memorable and vivid one, the film does have its minor narrative flaws. But what ultimately saves the film from darkness (just imagine if it were Ridley Scott) is Cuarón himself. Without overemphasis, Cuarón beautifully bends gritty realistic scenes and predictable ones to his own canon; he changes the rules of the game, and he is very well aware that only he can do such a thing in a film with a what-if standpoint. He includes mettlesome action scenes (all which are masterfully detailed) with exuberant dialogue, and we truly realize what an brilliant director he is. While "Children of Men" is not his best film, his diversified directing is fluently proved in this piece work. His previous works, including the terrific "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien", have all spanned from drama to fantasy, and all over again with this rare and futuristic film.
There is a striking scene late in the film, after a serious of some major 'bam bams' and deaths, where Theo tries to find the newly-born infant that Kee had unwillingly exerted out of her young abdomen the night before. Everything but the young baby's cries fill the screen. He soon finds her, and he brings Kee along with the baby out of the decrepit building which they were using as shelter. Soldiers cease fire. People hold out there arms and cry. They all forget why they are fighting, and if there is any cause for it in the first place. It is evident that Cuarón has a gift only the greatest filmmakers share: he makes you believe.
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Eastwood Out-does himself
"Letters from Iwo Jima", which observes the lives and deaths of Japanese soldiers in the battle for Iwo Jima, similarly adheres to some of the conventions of the genre even as it quietly dismantles them. It is, superlatively and even humbly, true to the durable traditions of the war-movie tradition, but it is also utterly unpredictable in its own minor details.
Ken Wantanabe stars and undoubtedly gives an astonishing performance as Tadamichi Kuribayashi, a new and sympathetic Lt. General who has barely made his way to Iwo Jima. He is a simple and courageous man, the type of person most of us can connect to. After a quick inspection of the island, the inspired General now devises a war plan. In the viewer's mind their is already an ending planned and predicted, though not through previous war movie endings, but through the gritty history of this event. Eastwood cleverly manages to build confidence and sympathy only to shatter it with masterful action scenes in which they all, obviously, die. Also clever is the usage of a character even more of us can connect to, especially parents of a son. This character is Kazunari Ninomiya, a simple baker who deals in his mind about the philosophy of nationalism contra martyrdom. There is a great flashback while he talks to a fellow soldier, about whom and when he was recruited for the army. In this flashback, we see his wife, and we learn of his soon to be born baby. The film quickly transitions back into reality, and thoroughly creates a dream-like ideology for these flashbacks. Of course, throughout the film, there are more important ones, such as the Lt. General's dinner in America with several American commanders. Eastwood also proves his cinematography again; the frame sparkles at the sight of such beautifully pictured mountains and, ironically, the fire of the war.
It's hard to call this film a superlative masterpiece, even after Eastwood left us with high expectations from "Million Dollar Baby". Although barely evident and highly uncared for, there were some definite continuity errors, such as different clothing and quick changes from day to night. But regardless of political and family backgrounds, in the end the viewer sympathizes more with the Japanese than with the Americans. Eastwood manages to convince us about the two sides of the war through an unforgettable and wondrous diptych. The grace of the film is impeccable, and it is a stark reminder that neither a great director nor a great screenwriter has lost their visceral touches through expository reiteration.