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Get Out (I) (2017)
Jordan Peele's Directorial Debut "Get Out" Is an Unprecedented Shock
3 December 2017
Many a cinephile might have lost all interest and hope in contemporary American films in recent years, but it turns out they might have just been looking at the wrong places. As the award-winning films of the country have become duller and duller, packed in a stale, tight corset, the most interesting auteurs have found their way in popular genre films which do not resonate that well with the businessmen who give out awards but which strike a deep chord with the general public. Long- time comedian, Jordan Peele's directorial debut "Get Out" (2017) is a perfect example, and it has already garnered well-deserved critical praise in France. Alongside the Safdies' "Good Time" (2017), another genre film which might go over the heads of the critics and award-givers who are used to the stale flow, "Get Out" is definitely among the best American films of the year. It should be seen by everyone not only for its social significance but also for its cinematic freshness.

An African-American photographer, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) travels to his white girlfriend Rose's (played by Allison Williams) parents to visit them for the first time at their secluded estate somewhere in up-north countryside. The friendly atmosphere of this mundane meeting starts to crack and reveal something more sinister beneath the surface.

The basic set-up of the plot echoes the classic civil rights era film, Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967) where a white woman introduces her African-American boyfriend to her liberal parents whose tolerance begins to show its limitations. Peele cleverly uses this inter-text as a backdrop, giving an undertone for the main theme, but essentially develops his film into something utterly original. Many spectators will leave the film with the thought that they have never seen anything like this. Never have the monsters of horror films felt so abstract and so concrete at the same time.

Peele is able to derive from his comedy-background the ability to build up tension in a fashion which often borders the line of humor without directing the spectator to laughs but rather to flinches in terror. Although "Get Out" does not come across as a self-aware meta-film dealing with the genre of horror like "It Follows" (2014), Peele's film does have a self-awareness to it which, however, never interrupts a scene or the development of suspense. Peele might use genre conventions with an ironic twinkle in his eye, but they are never subjected to any comprehensively genre-critical discourse. On the contrary, the self-aware genre conventions enhance the deeply felt structure of the film whose narrative power pushes the spectators tightly into their seats.

"Get Out" begins with a serene shot of a wealthy American suburb where an African-American man is ambling, looking for the right street. This image in itself, mundane as its setting may be, already invokes feelings of horror because we have heard of so many stories where black men end up dead in innocent places such as these. It sets up an impressive and frightening sensation of not being welcomed which characterizes the film throughout. Peele's structured and disciplined mise-en-scène of precise compositions beautifully articulates and exemplifies the impression of a seemingly "post-racial" society where everything seems to be in order, but which conceals secrets underneath.

Overall, Peele's "Get Out" is a real cinematic treat and most likely will acquire a following. Whether the film skyrockets Peele to cinematic success or not will remain to be seen, for it is always the second film which shows if the director's first hit was just a stroke of luck. Yours truly is very confident -- as well as interested and hopeful for the future of contemporary American cinema.
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Moral Clarity in Plurality
12 February 2017
Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki has successfully established himself as a respectable auteur in world cinema. When it was announced after the release of Kaurismäki's last film "Le Havre" (2011) that it would be followed by another film covering similar topics and themes, audiences have been anxiously waiting for his next effort. Thus, six years later, comes "The Other Side of Hope" (2017, "Beyond Hope" literally), a film that Kaurismäki wanted to get out before it was too late. One should not be surprised by such openness about the film's political agenda given Kaurismäki's usual tendencies to do so. Nor should one be surprised by the fact that "The Other Side of Hope" is everything one could expect from Kaurismäki: an immediately recognizable film belonging to the canon of his oeuvre. While some Finnish critics have been disappointed by the lack of innovation or regeneration from Kaurismäki, they have failed to appreciate that often the best artists keep doing the "same" over and over again -- think of Ozu and Hawks, for instance, both of whom Kaurismäki adores tremendously.

Like "Le Havre", "The Other Side of Hope" also tells the story about a refugee encountering a European local. The small port town of Le Havre in France has been changed to Helsinki in Finland and the North-African refugee to a Syrian. The film follows Khaled's (played by Sherwan Haji) day- to-day activities in the red tape of immigration policy, his attempts to track down his lost sister, and his conflicts with locals as well as a parallel story about a Finnish man (played by Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) who leaves his wife and starts up a restaurant which eventually leads him to meet Khaled.

As mentioned above, one can recognize the film as Kaurismäki's instantly. The cinematography is often static by nature (even camera movement is rather mechanic), the acting is deadpan and the actors' delivery is laconic to the bone, there is nostalgic popular music, and mise-en-scène is characterized by vintage elements from old cars to type writers as well as classic Hollywood lighting. These cinematic means often give an ironic impression which, nonetheless, never reduces the film to a parody of itself; it manages to take itself seriously while joking around, so to speak. They also constitute an extremely economic narrative where a wordless act such as the placing of a ring on a kitchen table can say more than a thousand words. In terms of tone, Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between of tragedy and comedy, cynicism and humanism, melancholy and laughter.

In this world of deep contradictions -- not only in tone, of course, but also in, say, the co- existence of vintage elements in mise-en-scène with modern technology -- Kaurismäki's characters often find themselves to be strangers. They are strangers essentially in two senses. First, they are strangers of society; they are thugs, loners, divorced, unemployed, homeless, and refugees. Second, they are strangers of existence; their being in the world is twisted in the sense that they talk absurdly little, do not notice the absurdities of the fictive world with its contradictions, stand still for long periods of time, and can suddenly announce that they will move to Mexico City for a change of scenery without giving rise to any trace of astonishment in their interlocutors.

It seems to me that Kaurismäki's phenomenology of strangeness, if I may give it such a hasty word, has gained significant new dimensions in his contemporary cinema of global ethics. The strangers of "The Other Side of Hope" find comrades in each other without a need to announce it. They are the global working class with no nation. They are a plural bunch whose shared humanity overcomes individual differences. In a key scene echoing "Le Havre", there is a moving montage of human faces as the refugees in the reception center listen to a wordless ballad by Khaled. It is a very Kaurismäki-esque moment of cinematic personality, but here the strangeness seems to articulate heavily moral meanings in particular.

While the film is unapologetically moral and political in its message and agenda, it also comes across as a good piece of cinema with a poetry all its own (that is, the cinematic poetry of Kaurismäki's cinema in general, to be precise). Like many other films by Kaurismäki, sea is an essential element, which might represent the film's success in finding a place between poetry and politics. "The Other Side of Hope" begins with a beautiful shot of the Baltic Sea. To Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film critic and historian, all cinematic images of sea are masterful. The beauty of the sea is easily captured in a way which makes everyone a master. Yet, in order for us to care about these images, something has to happen -- either in terms of story, theme, or aesthetics -- in their appropriate contexts. In this sense, Kaurismäki delivers. The other side of hope, or its vague image in the world beyond, finds its elusive face on the surface of the sea. When Peter von Bagh passed away in 2014, Kaurismäki promised to dedicate his next film to von Bagh's memory, adding that "only if it is good enough." He did.
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To the Images Themselves
30 December 2016
"You don't have to understand everything," explains Apitchatpong Weerasethakul about his Palm d'Or winning, enigmatic and ambiguous "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (2010) in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. This remark by the author of the film is very simple but even more relevant as such since it is, I believe, precisely the unconscious demand for clarity and unity, a rational need to understand which leads many spectators astray when it comes to Weerasethakul's cinema. The torment of understanding is what ruins the viewing experience for far too many, making it harder for them to see the simple beauty of films like "Uncle Boonmee".

In all its simplicity, "Uncle Boonmee" is a story about a dying man. His family and other close ones take care of him as he requires daily doses of dialysis. On one night, his dead wife appears as a ghost to chat with him and his caretakers at a serene veranda only to be followed by the unexpected arrival of his long lost son who has now turned into an ape with glaring red eyes. A surprisingly calm discussion between those involved takes place, including a few flashback sequences, which slowly lead the way to a new day, a journey to a cave, and finally a detachment from this story to another.

There are no spoilers here because they do not exist in the Weerasethakul canon. His films are less about stories and more about images. The gulf between those who love Weerasethakul and those who despise him begins in this division: one tries to find a coherent and consistent story in the images, explaining objects in the screen space as symbols for something much clearer and less vague, while the other tries to embrace the images themselves not as symbols but as what they are, images. One could think of it as cinematic music, a peculiar language of the rhythm which does not call for conceptual understanding but a pre-reflective reception.

In addition to Weerasethakul's style, consisting of long takes, slow editing rhythm, large shot scales, lack of non-diegetic music, and a relentless use of ellipsis, which might create discontent in some spectators, there is also a more thematic, or "content-oriented," explanation for this discontent. "Uncle Boonmee" is about crossing boundaries. Halfway into the film, one is ready to accept a dialogue between people and ghosts as natural or a sexual encounter between a princess and a fish as nothing out of the ordinary. Conceptual distinctions into categories such as past and present, man and woman, animal and human, nature and culture, reason and emotion, dream and reality coalesce and disappear. This is why they will not serve a spectator trying to find a conceptually understandable story in the pervasiveness of the images. One could see the circularity of the narrative as a reflection of reincarnation, but even this seems too categorical. To me, there is only a fragmented narrative without clear boundaries unfolding like a beautiful poem without the burden of words.

Hopefully this has not come off as an attack. The foregoing discussion has been nothing but a modest attempt to open streams of curiosity. I have tried to explain the division between those who admire and those who despise "Uncle Boonmee". I have located the latter's discontent in Weerasethakul's unique style (using slowness and serenity to create cinematic lyricism which challenges our conceptual understanding) and the film's thematic treatise on crossed boundaries (combining purported conceptual distinctions into one to create a non-linear narrative which challenges our conceptual understanding). Clearly this is not everything, but it is "everything" in less than one thousand words. To Weerasethakul, the discontent of some means nothing but the success of his cinema: "if I make a film that divides the audience, I feel like that's a certain level of success," Weerasethakul tells The Guardian. In the spirit of this remark, there is nothing left to say other than a request to give Weerasethakul's cinema a chance rather than condemning it on the basis of one's own purported categorical distinctions. Like in the films of Ozu or Bresson, the objects in the screen space are not symbolic; the images themselves are what count -- and it is those images where Weerasethakul's cinema returns to.
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Unapologetically Political, Openly Moral
21 September 2016
After Ken Loach's latest film "I, Daniel Blake" (2016) took home the most prestigious film award of the year, Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this summer, there has been a lot of discussion or at least anticipation of discussion on the film. The Guardian, for one, published a long article where people from all walks of life shared their differing opinions on the film. As a fierce story of social relevance, telling about an ailing carpenter whose life goes to pieces in the vast sea of bureaucracy, "I, Daniel Blake" is bound to be criticized for being didactic and demagogic as it hits the commercial screens. Some will fall in love with the film for its honest authenticity, while others will be put off by its unapologetic directness.

The film begins with the title character, Daniel Blake going through an assessment in the unemployment office after his doctor has deemed him unfit for work due to a heart condition. Unfortunately, Daniel ends up in a paradoxical position, the likes which Kafka could have devised, where he is not concerned unhealthy enough to apply for sickness benefit and has to therefore apply for job seeker's allowance, coercing him into a pointless cycle of searching for jobs he cannot really take. In the middle of this absurd jungle of gray offices and red tapes, Daniel befriends Katie, a single mother of two in a similar situation. Daniel's cardinal sin in the bureaucratic world is his refusal to play by its rules, to fake and to pull the strings where needed.

Loach is known for his simplicity in both style and narrative without ever coming close to minimalism. His simplicity is of a different kind, a simplicity of the heart on the level of the subject matter which is often social by nature. This simplicity gives room for the unfolding of story and character in their natural state which is of the utmost importance for Loach's intentions. At times warm and funny, at others raw and brutal, the story of "I, Daniel Blake" is hard to be dismissed for its authenticity. It will likely speak to most people as do the great realist novels of the 19th century. It is a simple voice with real thought and emotion behind it, saying something of relevance, straight out and loud. While the title of the film might pave way for quasi-libertarian interpretations of Loach's critique of the social benefits system, his intentions could not be clearer to those who have seen the film. The titular character is merely someone to carry the torch of solidarity; to Loach and others, he represents a mass of millions. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote that the film "intervenes in the messy, ugly world of poverty with the secular intention of making us see that it really is happening, and in a prosperous nation." This is the simplicity which gives Loach's cinema its moral aura.

Although many may feel put off by the film's direct social message and strong moral pathos, which can feel didactic or even demagogic at times, and it will not find its dearest fan in yours truly either, I think the film deserves acclaim for its integrity. The film does not hide its rhetoric or its message. After all, its "leftist agitation" may not be stranger than the ideology of upper middle class family life propagated by contemporary popular culture. The way I see it, "I, Daniel Blake" is more a personal expression of worry and concern rather than manufactured propaganda with an impersonal agenda. At worst the film might be preachy or sentimental, but at best it is the most authentic thing Ken Loach has done since "My Name Is Joe" (1998), a parallel work in the truest sense of the word. To put it bluntly, I am glad that "Jimmy's Hall" (2014) did not end up being the legacy Loach left for cinema; but "I, Daniel Blake" could very well be just that.
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Toni Erdmann (2016)
To Act, to Mask, to Break Free
28 August 2016
Maren Ade's third feature film "Toni Erdmann" (2016) has received an equal amount of tears and laughs at many film festival screenings ending with standing ovations. A maturely crafted and emotionally thought-through psychological treatise on the enduring theme of child-parent relationships, "Toni Erdmann" tells about an obsessive jester (Peter Simonischek) desperately trying to reconnect with his estranged, dead-serious daughter (Sandra Hüller) who spends more time on the phone and business meetings than with friends or family. This attempt turns into a strange play with the father devising a character called Toni Erdmann to help his daughter which will potentially result in the daughter taking off her social mask. The film is a welcome surprise from German cinema, which has lacked international acclaim for a few years, and a pleasant viewing experience as an eccentric combination of the absurd and the mundane as well as the tragic and the comic.

The brief synopsis given above might already reveal the gist of the humor in the film, but Ade's comedy does not fall short of insight. The main source for the humor is, of course, the dynamics between the father and the daughter as well as the father's awkward maladjustment to his daughter's professional habitat. This humor, relying on the superb performances of the two leading actors, is essentially supported by Ade's restraint style varying between such opposites as a tranquil continuity created by longer takes and more classical editing of shots with reverse shots, a hand-held camera as a realist denominator and a stripped soundscape as a stylized denominator where distant and quiet off-screen sounds are almost as conspicuous as a traditional music score is by its absence, spaces characterized by cold sterility (the daughter's apartment in Bucharest looks more like a hotel room than a home) opposed to blue-collar spaces with warmer light and color. Overall, a big part of the humor takes off from the fact that Ade's ironic narrative seems to keep its distance to the father's jests and jokes. There is a seeming coldness to Ade's approach. The jokes might make the spectator laugh or chuckle, while remaining to dangle in the void against Ade's stylistic program which gives no response to their echo of quietude.

Such subtlety is perfect for Ade's themes which require both duration in time and width in space. The secrets and untold memories, the many repressed feelings and desires, covered longings and missed opportunities are psychological phenomena which by their nature do not disclose themselves which is why Ade's decision to make a longer and less obvious film is, to put it simply, brilliant. It is as if Ade's narrative picked up by chance a recurring cycle in the human life resulting in unhappiness over and over again. This cycle is treated, above all, through the theme of acting from the daughter's constant need to play someone else, so to speak, in the business world while losing her true self to her father's corresponding need to put on a show which, however, can also work as an opportunity for breaking free from the act for the daughter.

While all this might make some accuse Ade of abandoning the social world at the expense of discussing the petty life crises of the upper middle class, it should be noticed that "Toni Erdmann" never falls short of recognizing social themes of a topical nature. The capitalist business world of the daughter's everyday life appears as distant and bleak where people lose themselves into the rat race of planning a career and the superficial mastery of the constantly changing languages (German, Romanian, English, French). The linguistic plurality correlates with existential emptiness as the words, which have been learned by heart a few weeks before important business meetings, fail to realize something real, causing one to become more and more distant from the timid shadows of one's identity. The social themes are there, but always filtered through Ade's main point of thematic focus.

In terms of both the question of the society and humanity, Ade refuses to give us answers. If the father's fictional creation of Toni Erdmann appeared as a parody of contemporary self-help and life coach culture, Ade's "Toni Erdmann" would remain a creation without self-assured help. There is act and emancipation but no absolute resolution. Instead of such an outcome, Ade looks at life in all its, both comic and tragic, absurdity without shielding a private part or averting an eye.
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Allen Tackles His Usual Themes in a Tongue-in-Cheek Shakespearean Comedy
31 July 2016
Falling between films such as "Manhattan" (1979), "Stardust Memories" (1980), "Zelig" (1983), "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984), and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (1985), "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" (1982) might come off as a mediocre minor work in the oeuvre of director Woody Allen. The film presents the director's usual themes, style, and narrative without developing them into anywhere near the insights of, say, the subsequent "Zelig". Nonetheless, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" offers a pleasant viewing experience for any Woody Allen fan as well as those who appreciate subtle comedy which puts more emphasis on the matters of the heart and the intellect rather than those of mere physique.

The story, lending little more than the idea of blending relationships from William Shakespeare's most-celebrated comedy "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1590-7), concerns an inventor (Woody Allen) and his wife (Mary Steenburgen), whose sex life has been suffering recently, who invite two couples to their summer residence: a professor who despises metaphysics and theology (Jose Ferrer) and his wife-to-be (Mia Farrow), who had a budding relationship with the inventor in the past, and a physician who is more open-minded when it comes to philosophical questions (Tony Roberts) and his young expendable sweetheart (Julie Hagerty). This simple set-up offers many directions for a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, and changes of heart which Allen develops in his usually amusing and stimulating fashion.

Although the story and its events may not bear that many resemblances to those of Shakespeare's play, one is enticed to look for them from the moment one hears the music of Felix Mendelssohn, who composed the most famous music for the play in question in the 19th century. The most striking similarity is that both the film and the play portray characters who escape into nature where they are subjected to the powers of the heart or, alternatively, of the subconscious. What is more, both the play and the film juxtapose reason and emotion (or imagination) in the drama. In Shakespeare's play, the city which the lovers escape from represents reason and its domination over emotion, whereas the forest with fairies and magic represents emotion and its freedom from or, possibly, domination over reason. In Allen's film, this juxtaposition is captured by the character of the arrogant, naturalist-minded professor (whose counterpart in Shakespeare's play might be Egeus or Theseus), representing reason, and the other characters and the surrounding natural milieu, representing the powers of emotion. As Allen's narrative playfully takes sides with the latter, the spectator witnesses the inventor's discovery of a machine which allows to peek into the super-sensible world with spirits from the past. Above all, Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" tackles the ancient theme of lust versus love. Other characters contemplate whether love without lust is possible, others whether lust without love is. This theme can, obviously, be seen as a development on the theme from Shakespeare's play.

One of the film's greatest strengths is its subtlety which is a common denominator in Allen's comedy. Allen's extensive use of the off-screen space, the long take, and the mobile camera constantly imply that there is more than the eye can see. This gives elegance to the cinematic expression while also articulating the central theme of the film.

Overall, like Shakespeare, Allen is able to use multiple sources, ideas, and themes to concoct an amusing and intellectually as well as emotionally stimulating piece of cinema which lasts with its viewer. Maybe not as sharply and distinctly as "Zelig" or "Manhattan", but it can be dug up every once in a while.
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Circus World (1964)
An Extravagant Elegy
31 May 2016
"Circus World" (1964), a grandiose Cinerama film directed by a Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway, is a paradoxical case. The film was a big production, it had great stars, an acclaimed director, a highly appreciated screenwriter (Ben Hecht), and an even more celebrated writer behind the story (director Nicholas Ray), but yet the film has been, for the most part, forgotten. This is arguably justified since many do not feel that the film has the quality one might hope for. To my mind, the film's peculiarity is mainly due to its strange nature where the elegiac longing is combined with an extravagant approach. The story is very simple (an untold past tragedy casts its shadow on the present as a circus director, played by John Wayne, tries to create a successful show in Europe where he is reunited by his former lover, played by Rita Hayworth), but there's more than that to the film.

By this I do not mean that Hathaway had elaborated a subtle subtext to the film in question or anything like that. I am merely talking about the art of history. First of all, "Circus World" is a film directed, written, and starred by old Hollywood legends. It was also made half a decade after the old studio system started to crumble. Many contemporary critics have later felt that films such as "The Searchers" (1958), "Rio Bravo" (1959), and "North by Northwest" (1959) were the last ones of a kind. "Circus World", on the other hand, is as though a posthumous legacy, in a somewhat similar sense as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1961). Moreover, the film takes place in the early 20th century and dives into the nostalgic world of the circus which often represents a carefree existence of play and work (closely studied in the film of Federico Fellini, for one). While the historical setting seems to echo the film's own production time in this sense (reminiscing about the good old days before the world wars, semi-analogous to the good old days of Hollywood), the film's melancholic tone is further enhanced by the fates of its leading stars. It is well-known that "Circus World" was not only the last film John Wayne made before his lung cancer operation but also the first film where Hayworth's alleged Alzheimer's disease started acting up, causing numerous problems with production. It is as if everyone involved had been through their best days, inevitably casting an impact on the quality of the film in question as well, but still came together to perform in the wild circus world.

This is why, in my opinion, the film's slow pace, effortlessly simple style, and naive story seem appropriate. It all seems to speak to the spectator on another level, so to speak. The film begins with emptiness and ends with fullness. "Circus World" is a film where an old world is softly breathing with modesty and ambition combined.
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Les Girls (1957)
Rashomon in Hollywood
17 April 2016
An old school Hollywood filmmaker, George Cukor dives right into the most profound questions of humanity in "Les Girls" (1957), an MGM musical from the golden days, with an arguably tongue-in-cheek mentality which is, however, too often and too quickly taken as a loss of ambition and artistic devotion. The film discovers its peculiar place in between of conventional romantic comedy and philosophical tragedy. It consists of three flashback sequences linked together by a trial concerning a defamation suit. While all of the testimonies try to tell about the same time, place, and events in Paris around springtime when three female dancers were working for an American dance producer, the things the camera witnesses in each of the stories are wholly different from one another. The grandiose mise-en-scène, the Cinemascope aspect ratio, and the mobile camera as well as the complex narrative give the story an almost epic quality, thus creating poetry out of pulp prose.

"Les Girls" is a very modern film. It has inter-textuality and its narrative shows signs of self- awareness. Although a concept laden with many meanings, modernism is often associated with something called perspectivism, meaning that all of events are filtered through the subjective perspectives of the characters which, in modern fiction, are juxtaposed with one another. "Les Girls" presents the spectator with three stories about the same time and place -- that is, they are intentionally directed to a same spatio-temporal point in the past -- but actually contain different events. This is due to the fact that all of the stories are, as all intentional experiences for that matter, about something from a perspective. "To see is to see from somewhere," wrote the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau- Ponty. Although the final testimony offered by the man involved at first seems to be the most plausible account and a certain final truth on the subject matter, it is very soon questioned by the third girl whose point of view was never heard. To see is always also to avert, and to uncover is always also to cover.

This theme of the subjectivity of truth, and the integral role of perspectival perception in understanding and knowledge, connects "Les Girls" to the masterpiece of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" (1950) which also consists of different stories about the same event from different perspectives. All the characters have experienced things from their own point of view -- which is both physical and mental, one might add -- and give a different account of them to the judge and the jury. Understanding is further problematicized in one scene where a Spaniard in a train compartment cannot linguistically understand the English dialogue between the main characters; yet he, too, arguably has his own point of view to the events. Cukor even seems to joke about this in the title of his film (deriving from the musical act the girls and the man are performing), combining the French definite article with an English word in a satirical slur (which never takes itself that seriously, however) towards Hollywood films where French people cannot speak their mother tongue -- only English in a French accent.

In the end, as in "Rashomon", truth remains an issue. "Truth can make lovers of enemies, but lie can make enemies of lovers," one of the girls summarizes. Lie, in this sense, might be closer to primordial truth than truth itself; or, "art is a lie that makes us realize the truth," as Pablo Picasso once expressed. Truth remains a very concrete issue in the sense that the characters (quite literally) keep stumbling upon the immortal question "what is truth" carried around the courthouse by a man as if he was carrying a billboard for the latest scoop, an ironic comment on the capitalist modifications of truth, perhaps, working also as a certain chorus of Greek tragedy, making Cukor's "Les Girls", once again, a very modern film. The final beauty of the film lies, I suppose, in its brilliant courage to mix things, to throw outrageous comedy with poignant tragedy, menial stories with intelligent insight in the same pot of pondering humanity.
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Departing Borders and the Flux of Change
19 March 2016
Jia Zhangke is a prominent figure in contemporary world cinema as one of the leading directors of the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers. He has become known for his personal films which discuss social transition in modern China through the experience of the individual. Zhangke's latest film "Mountains May Depart" (2015) continues this in an essential, if not exactly surprising, fashion. Like "A Touch of Sin" (2013) and "Still Life" (2006), the film has an episodic structure, but narrative is much more conventional and straight-forward. While there is a lot of change in narrative focalization, "Mountains May Depart" is strongly structured around the protagonist Tao, played by the director's muse Tao Zhao, whose life unfolds before us in three distinct periods: 1999, 2014, and 2025. Thus Zhangke takes a look behind, reflects on the present, and anticipates the future of the Chinese society.

As a social film, "Mountains May Depart" studies the individual in the grip of a changing world. It tackles the difficulty of communication to the extent where parents need interpreters to talk to their children. Globalization, capitalism, and the new freedom of the 21st century do not offer comfort or help, but rather appear as rootlessness, alienation, and solitude in the lives of people.

All of Zhangke's films are, more or less, about change, but in "Mountains May Depart" this theme manifests itself clearly on the level of style and narrative. Zhangke's narrative includes a modernist combination of perspectives, creating a simple complexity which is never disorienting, as different characters are followed throughout the film, enhancing a pluralist sense of multitude and change. While Zhangke's style has been known as consisting of long takes and complex camera movement, "Mountains May Depart" presents a greater variety in style. Zhangke's camera keeps a short distance to the characters, mainly on the level of the medium shot, but there are also memorable establishing extreme long shots which highlight the minuteness of the individual in a vast landscape. The camera does move a lot, though perhaps subtly, but the editing rhythm is not strikingly slow. One of the most conspicuous stylistic elements of the film is the changing aspect ratio. The first episode is shot in the letterbox 4:3 ratio, the second in the contemporary standard 16:9, and the last in the widescreen format 2.35:1. This constant widening of the aspect ratio of the image reflects not only the globalization of the Chinese society and the characters moving outside of their homeland but also a more primordial experience of change that is constant in human existence. It embraces the Heraclitean flux.

Thus Zhangke poeticizes the experience of change in a cinematic fashion; that is to say, he utilizes cinematic means to articulate a profound, existential experience of change. This he does by combining features that change (the aspect ratio, the focalizing perspective) with perpetual elements such as recurring songs ("Go West" by Pet Shop Boys), dramatic motifs (the dog, the keys), and the intimate cinematography. Like the characters, Zhangke's style and narrative seem to be searching for a red line, something that gives meaning and coherence in a world of change.

While "Mountains May Depart" might feel like a minor work in Zhange's oeuvre, it does redeem itself for a patient spectator. Like Zhangke's other films, it too looks at the contemporary Chinese society, the inevitable transition from the perspective of the individual, and modern identity in an ever-changing world. Although there certainly is sadness to all this, Zhangke's film is also quite optimistic and bright in comparison to his previous, darker film "A Touch of Sin". Mountains may depart -- the very borders of the image may broaden -- but something will endure. It is, in fact, as if higher levels of discourse were trying to find unity amidst variety: something that remains in the perpetual flux of change.
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Ingeborg Holm (1913)
An Exceptional Beginning
12 February 2016
Victor Sjöström's early feature film "Ingeborg Holm" is not only considered by many the first film in the golden age of Swedish cinema lasting from 1913 to 1924 but also the real beginning of Swedish cinema in general. A film scholar, Peter Cowie, for one, claims that the film marks the highest achievement of the seventh art before David Wark Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) which was to follow two years after. Although "Ingeborg Holm" is not as well known as many of its contemporary films, it surely stands out from the crowd to anyone who has seen more than a few films from the period. "Nothing like this was being made in 1913," writes Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film historian, capturing the historical importance of the film. The film's authenticity, realism, and moral seriousness have even been seen to bear far-reaching connections to Italian neorealism.

As many of the films of the Swedish golden age, "Ingeborg Holm" is also based on a literary source. It is based on a play by Nils Krok. The story concerns a married woman, Ingeborg Holm whose husband dies just after earning credit for establishing his own business. After the death of her husband, Ingeborg falls to the bottom of the society, loses her children to foster parents, and eventually ends up in an asylum.

The film is very raw and poignant in showing the grim consequences of social actions. It never, however, turns its back on the individual. Although it can be seen as a story of one woman's abasement, it grows into an intimate treatise on the sickness of a society that lacks humanity and tenderness. The shot of Ingeborg losing her children as a bureaucratic official calmly signs the documents in the background is definitive to say the least. The social reality as well as the psychological turmoil and suffering ignored by the society are relayed in a stark and riveting fashion. The scene bears a visual parallel to an earlier scene in which Ingeborg's husband dies in the foreground, while their children are innocently playing in the background of the image -- in another space, almost as if in another time, too.

Already the first film of the movement gives us its basic lessons: acting is more realistic than theatrical (to as large an extent as one can imagine given the film was made in 1913), moral themes are presented with the utmost seriousness, and emphasis lies on the simplicity and careful precision of mise-en-scène. Above all, the power of light is vital which was to be consummated in Sjöström's subsequent films such as "Terje Vigen" (1917) and "Körkarlen" (1921). In the beginning of the film, Ingeborg tries to continue her late husband's business, but fails, and we see the darkness in the grocery store almost swallowing her whole from the scarce source of light in the space.

Overall, and quite surprisingly, "Ingeborg Holm" lacks a sentimental or overly melodramatic tone. Sjöström's tone is subtle and restraint which once again reminds one of Italian neorealism. Although the film has no drama of nature which one so closely associates with the golden age of Swedish cinema, it uses a lot of outdoor on-location shooting, and its grimness, sobriety, and artistic excellence bring the style of the movement to mind very vividly. All in all, the film stands as a perfect instance for Peter Cowie's seemingly exaggerated claim that "there is no more stirring feat in the entire history of silent film than the Swedish achievements between 1913 and 1921." Sjöström's "Ingeborg Holm" is precisely this to any film enthusiast: something utterly stirring.
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