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A Conventional Though Compelling Discourse On A Long-Practiced Form Of Abuse
In veteran African film-maker Ousmane Sembene's final feature, the viewer is transported to a remote village in Burkina Faso, where one woman has dared to stand against the long-held local tradition of 'purification', the euphemistic term for circumcision in prepubescent girls. Giving sanctuary to a group of children due to undergo the often fatal rite of passage, and with seemingly the entire village against her, the woman's only recourse is to enact the moolaadé, or 'magical protection', which none dare oppose. Then her troubles really begin. While the film's anti-circumcision stance will certainly be preaching mainly to the choir and its construction fairly conventional both in terms of storytelling and production, 'Moolaadé's subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a custom that still affects the lives of many today.
Burkina Faso is not the only country where the practice continues (nor is it a practice exclusive to some Western African nations), however a 2006 study by the World Health Organization found that approximately 72.5% of Burkinabé girls and women were circumcised, making the Senegalese director's choice of location a highly valid one. In the film, the 'purification', carried out by an elite group of women in the tribe importantly underscoring that proponents of the tradition are not wholly defined by gender is seen to be highly traumatic and physically damaging to the victim, and frequently fatal.
The term 'purification' speaks volumes of the perception of females and sexuality held by those in favour of the custom. Other arguments supporting the practice as expressed in 'Moolaadé' speak of a long-held tradition traveling so far back into the mists of time that no-one seems able to explain the actual reason for it, and finally, that it is a requirement of Islam. Certainly there will be many Muslims who will take issue with this, and Sembene makes a point of showing Burkina Faso's complex cultural potpourri. On top of its indigenous animist roots, the society also shows traces of its French colonial past, as well as being a melting pot of many religions, the lines between which are heavily blurred. Add to this the increasing influence of modern technology and it is not hard to comprehend how beliefs have played a steady game of Chinese Whispers.
Indeed technology is seen as the greatest threat of all to the preservation of the strongly patriarchal society, with the village serving as a microcosmic stand-in for many cultures the world over. With the dreaded radio spewing forth subversive ideas from distant (and not-so-distant) lands, the local women find themselves increasingly able to articulate a 'worrying' desire for independence and opposition to values never-before challenged. A perhaps inevitable scene reminiscent of 'Fahrenheit 451' comes in answer to this rebellion, though in a wonderful display of irony, the most celebrated man in the village is the only one to have swapped the illiberal world of the tribe for the free market corridors of corporate France. Those responsible for challenging the status quo fight their corner in the flickering shadows of burning torches, mob rule and genuine fear. Not all, however, are so easily cowed into submission.
'Mooladé' has an excellent and believable cast to bring this turbulent society to life, from star Fatimouta Coulibaly as the brave Collé Ardo, to Ousmane Konaté, playing her husband's unpleasant and hardline brother, Amath. Joseph Traoré, as the victorious homecoming son Doucouré, skillfully depicts the mild-mannered success story increasingly caught between the values of two very different worlds, and special mention goes to Lala Drabo, who, though only in a supporting role, conveys the raw anguish of loss caused by the purification.
For all this 'Mooladé' is constructed in a fairly simple and conventional way. The narrative is robbed of complexity by the strong stance against female circumcision by its writer, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting the viewers decide. Instead, the protagonists and the villains are clearly drawn, and, sympathetic to the cause, the viewer takes no journey through the story they have already arrived from the outset. How the film is perceived in nations where female circumcision is common would presumably be an entirely different matter, and it would be interesting to find out if it has altered any viewpoints.
The foreign viewer will also pay more attention to the cultural depictions of the colorful appearance of Burkinabé culture, of its tribal nature, its sounds, and the different behaviour of its people. It is as much a window into another world as it is a commentary on the struggle against a dangerous custom. This though is brought to the film by its overseas audience: its director does not go out of his way to highlight the culture as a spectacle in its own right. It perhaps does not matter therefore that on the production side, 'Moolaadé' is not an adventurous foray into film-making. While I would have preferred a less-biased and therefore more confident approach, it is not as if I didn't go into the film with a firm view on the subject of female circumcision myself. Taking a stand on the issue is ultimately, what 'Mooladé' is all about.
For this reason above all, I highly recommend the film, and of course, foreign viewers like myself will also discover one of the multi-layered cultures of Western Africa within of which it is such an ingrained part. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, 'Mooladé' is a very moving and very human drama that I hope will continue to get its point across in places where that message needs to be heard most.
Iztochni piesi (2009)
A Strong and Powerful Story Somewhat Marred by the Delivery
The long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world is the premise of 'Eastern Plays', a Bulgarian film that comments as much about that country's society as it does about society in general. The story is told from the perspective of two brothers, Christo and Georgi, one in his thirties and recovering from drug addiction, the other young and impressionable, yet both staring into the abyss with only impenetrable darkness staring back. By turns, they fight and fall into meltdown as the chaotic world around them offers little meaning to guide them toward happiness and purpose. The premise of Kalev's tale is certainly sound, however in practice, I found the delivery fairly disjointed and listless. It is peppered with touching and thought-provoking studies of human frailty, but ultimately does not really pull together as an entertaining whole.
One of the principal difficulties I had with 'Eastern Plays' is its lethargic beginning, and a fairly rudderless one as well. A raft of characters is introduced; all pursuing their own paths to destruction, but there is no real clue as to either whom the story will principally focus upon, or what that story really is. Possibilities include a young man's descent into gang violence, nationalism and politically-supported anti-immigration riots, family breakdown, and the generation gap. Then there is Christo, an unpleasant, self-loathing, chain-smoking artist, staring oblivion in the eye and desperate to pull himself away from it yet lost as to how. Ultimately, it becomes clear that 'Eastern Plays' is his story, and as he battles his inner demons, the many layers of his character come to the fore and a more sensitive, highly-pensive character is revealed.
One could certainly argue that there is no reason why a film couldn't contain all the above elements with multiple character arcs lightly intertwined with each other and the sum of the parts being a comment on some aspect of the human condition. The Bolivian film 'Sexual Dependency', to name but one, manages this sort of approach fairly well. However, whereas 'Sexual Dependency' triumphs because all the parts slot into place within the greater commentary, 'Eastern Plays', attempting to do the same, fails because the result is hazy and the various sequences somehow more drawn out and dull in the process. In hindsight, it seems far clearer that Kalev's approach to the first half of the film was to fill the canvas with the wider problems of society so that the viewer will see Christo's pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Seemingly germane, there is however too much of this, thereby causing narrative incoherence: is the film about him or is it about Bulgaria? It is in the second half, when Christo's story becomes the dominant narrative, that things begin to pick up. Love interests and family become soundboards for attempts to make sense of everything, and these prove to be the more interesting sections of the film. It is the character interactions themselves rather than merely the occasional philosophical debate that shows humanity finding understanding and balance that are especially touching, although those brief philosophical debates do sum up the themes quite nicely.
There is much to recommend on the acting front. Ovanes Torosian as gang member-wannabe Georgi does a very good job of portraying the confused adolescent whose inner turmoil is more evident in his eyes and quietude than his dialogue. Highly memorable also is the lovely Saadet Aksoy, a young and intelligent woman able to bridge the gaps between worlds despite fear and who is able to put voice to the social discord. The scenes between her and Christov are among the most engaging of all in Eastern Plays, save for some other touching moments where Christo puts voice to his fear and aspirations, and a scene near the end where he encounters an old man filled with the tranquility of understanding that Christo so desperately yearns for. The late Christo Christov is eminently believable as his namesake: bored of social expectation, longing for something more, and frustrated when it fails to materialize. It's a great shame that 'Eastern Plays' is both Christov's debut and finale to the acting world, and an even greater shame that the film's narrative disarray can't fully match up to his performance.
The character of Bulgaria itself, as depicted, is cold, lifeless and bleak. It is violently insecure as it struggles to define its own national identity, its citizens borne of both the Soviet nation it once was and the unsure republic it is today. The elderly cling to the orderly past, the young embrace the chaotic present, yet neither are happy. A line from Georgi, however, implies that the changes are for the better, implying that the Bulgaria of today is perhaps simply experiencing the birth pains of a new nation, though a generation will be lost to the uncertainty of transition as a result.
All of which brings us full circle: there are plenty of great and interesting themes explored in 'Eastern Plays', with the actors more than able to realise them within their believable and fragile characters. The lack of a tighter, more focused narrative, which dulls the pacing and fogs up the intent of the piece, is the biggest culprit. That Kalev is passionate about the subjects presented is very much in evidence, as is the fact that when it comes down to really exploring them through his characters, he is quite skilled at doing so. Here though, he tries to say too much at once, enshrouding the result in fog as a result. When he masters clarity and restraint, however, there is much to suggest his work will be something memorable indeed.
Cidade dos Homens (2007)
Entertaining and Visually Memorable, But Chiefly for Fans of the TV Series
The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio's enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as 'favelas', often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In 'City Of Men', the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.
The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle 'Dead End Hill', concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as 'Midnight' in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film's two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.
One of 'City Of Men's strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or 'Morro da Sinuca' in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.
Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.
It was not until after viewing the film that I learned 'City Of Men' is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, 'City Of God', which apparently sets many up for disappointment. 'City Of Men', it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.
Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, 'City Of Men' offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, 'City Of Men' will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn't work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.
I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on 'City Of Men' until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.
Actual rating 6 1/2 out of 10.
Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010)
Whistle and I'll Rewrite You
I think it's important to begin by saying that the BBC's efforts to bring the classic ghost stories of M.R. James to the small screen have, over the years, been a continual source of joy for lovers of old school horror such as myself. While not every adaptation has been as accomplished an approach to film-making as Jonathan Miller's iconic 1968 realisation of 'Whistle & I'll Come To You' and Lawrence Gordon-Clarke's memorable interpretation of 'A Warning To The Curious', even the comparatively more pedestrian entries have evoked not only the much-anticipated foreboding and supernatural atmosphere of the source material, but a good degree of faithfulness to their underlying themes. This, however, cannot be said for 2010's apparently necessary remake of 'Whistle And I'll Come To You', wherein the terms 'remake', 'intuitive understanding' and 'source material' are applied with the same degree of dubiousness as any arguments in support of the production's validity.
For those unfamiliar, as indeed many still will be after watching the new Whistle, the plot of the original centres around the cocksure academic bachelor Professor Parkins (Parkins in the original text), who takes a vacation during the off-season at a remote Norfolk seaside village for golf and exploration, the latter prompted by a colleague's request that he inspect the remains of an old Templar preceptory to determine its archaeological worth. This he duly does, and within the crumbling ruins, discovers an ancient whistle, unable to resist putting its practical function to the test. From that moment on, Parkins is never alone, having awoken forces beyond description and quite beyond all human understanding. The heart of the story is the folly of arrogant presumption, that there will always be realms of understanding beyond mortal man, and to believe you can quantify existence is to invite downfall. James's overconfident scholar and protagonist is the perfect vehicle to deliver this message, and an archetype that the writer, who was himself a highly-accomplished academic, knew better than most. The rapid destruction of Parkins's self-assured, almost autistic world is almost as disconcerting as the unknown forces he has unleashed, for which we are given only fleeting glimpses and very little explanation.
All of which clearly flew over the heads of the 2010 production team, who presumably felt that the core elements of the story were its beach setting, the university professor more inclined to the rational than the superstitious, and the general bleakness of his existence. So long as some vague continuity with these components was maintained, it seemed perfectly reasonable to completely rewrite both story and characterization to the point where the result was a pale shadow of its former self yet could still be legitimately broadcast under the same title.
The Neil Cross teleplay, in which the action is relocated to the present day, sees a Professor James Parkin committing his wife, apparently suffering from advanced senile dementia, to a care home before taking a long overdue vacation on the Kentish Coast in order to come to terms with his loss. The seaside resort also happens to be one of their old stomping grounds, and the discovery of a ring in the sand dunes brings to life more than mere memories for Parkin. Something seems keen to communicate with him on the deserted coast, and it may not be as unfamiliar as it first appears.
Cross's script quite spectacularly manages to miss the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance. Gone is the arrogant, antisocial university mandarin of the original. In his place is the more socially-capable doting husband whose rational worldview is in no way extreme and borne of great personal tragedy again entirely caused by the most intimate of social interaction (the original Parkins wouldn't even know what to do with a woman). The character's ultimate fate is seemingly more extreme, yet far more simplistic and obvious, undercutting the psychological ramifications of his plight.
The 'ghost' of the story is equally less subtle and, by the climax of the tale, extremely more quantifiable than its antecedent, of which one understands no more by the end than they did when it first appears. Its intangible mystery is precisely the point of its existence, being something so alien that not even the well-read professor can define it.
The whole dramatisation is, in short, comprehensively dumbed down. The rapid departure from the original narrative is, according to those behind the camera, because Jonathan Miller had already dramatised the story so well that there seemed little point in retreading the same ground. The creative reigns are firmly in the grip of Marshall McLuhan's prophesied generation wherein the televisual medium has become the message for those who work in the industry. Television is its own reference point and must now be the source material for rehashing plots with diminishing returns. Heaven forfend that the book be the wellspring of inspiration instead. Telling the same story is surely the point of the exercise: if there is little point in retreading ground well-covered in the past, this, surely, is proof that the endeavour was unnecessary in the first place.
Cashing in on a popular title is perhaps the greatest offence and indeed irony, since the Cross script under the direction of Euros Lyn does deliver its own chilling moments. Add to this the very capable cast headed by John Hurt and Gemma Jones and some excellent location shoots, and there is much to otherwise praise. More damage is done to it by being arrogant enough to masquerade it as something it is not, whereas a more favourable analysis would be quite easy if it were touted as a new work in its own right. It isn't, however, being instead an unwarranted 'Disneyfication' of a far darker psychological piece that a new audience will mistakenly equate with Britain's greatest master of the macabre. It is the same blind egotistical behaviour that Hollywood is typically blamed for. With them, however, such silliness is expected.
Go West (2005)
The Price Of Hatred
My initial impressions of 'Go West' were that it would primarily be a fairly damning commentary on the Yugoslav war a harsh, but sobering drama that would leave the viewer in no doubt as to the futility of ethnic and religious hatred, and indeed war itself. Which indeed it us, but it is also a condemnation of homophobia, while at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the fleeing couple's predicament elevates 'Go West's discourse into black comedy and farce something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina - without one theme compromising the other.
Horror and madness must come before absurdity of course, and there is definitely nothing to laugh at during the opening sequences, where the two protagonists carry on with their lives in Sarajevo before they are overwhelmed by the turmoil. Director Imamovic weaves genuine newsreel footage of the conflict into his specially-shot sequences of Serbian militia terrorising the locals and gunning down the Muslim population (with soldiers forcing men's pants down in search of tell-tale circumcisions). As Milan and Kenan's lives are quickly overturned, forcing them into flight, the audience is given a street-level snapshot of how the conflict might have been experienced firsthand.
Fuelled by such life-or-death desperation, I found myself wondering if indeed the real-life Muslim homosexuals might too have disguised themselves as married women in order to escape execution. As Kenan himself states at the beginning, "On the Balkans, it's easier to bear if someone in the family is a murderer rather than a faggot (sic)." Under pressure from all sides, much of the tension in 'Go West' therefore derives from we the audience wondering just how long he will be able to maintain his disguise while besieged by threats on all sides (some not necessarily malicious) to expose the truth. Actor Mario Drmac plays the would-be transvestite with great skill, giving Kenan a quiet strength, though portraying him on a knife-edge as the drama escalates. 'Go West' is ultimately his story, showing the lengths the natives must go through in order to survive the war: humiliation, desperation, and above all, loss, leaving only courage or madness to dictate how one lives their remaining life.
The writers are also keen to point out the ridiculousness of the predicament, not only through Kenan's constant struggle to ensure his 'breasts' appear convincing or the stubble from his face, but in the whole cast of villagers whose world ranges from witchcraft and superstition to the local priest more concerned with political rhetoric than the salvation of the soul. Some of the characters are obvious comic relief, while in other cases, the humour creeps up on you with the forced jollity of the inhabitants that causes events to spiral further out of control. Ljubo is perhaps the strongest example of this. Wonderfully played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija, the one-time Texan rancher fights daily against resignation and melancholy in the face of so much loss, unable to see that his good intentions are making things harder. His son Milan, played by Tarik Filipovic, sits somewhere between the two people he cares about most: warm and all-embracing, yet feeling as though only he truly understands the sacrifices that must be made. In contrast, Ranka, in a strong performance by Mirjana Karanovic, has far baser desires, which threaten to unravel the entire social fabric. Tragically, only the viewer is ultimately able to see the lighter side of their predicament.
While I think the blend of drama and black humour hold together well, there are some aspects of the script that don't entirely work as well as they could. The witchcraft element, for example, seems to be there simply to build up the potential threat of certain characters, yet ultimately doesn't seem to have any other meaning beyond this. Elsewhere, the murder of certain antagonists seems out-of-character for those enacting them, and done simply to pull the writers out of a hole during the all-important climax. This may sound a little odd in a film where senseless killing would be considered inevitable, but perhaps readers will know what I mean when they watch for themselves.
Ultimately however, these elements do not cause serious damage to the film's central premise, nor fear and madness of one of the 20th Century's most brutal civil wars. It does not try to be universal commentary on the fall of the republic, but instead 'zoom in' to a snapshot of the personal tragedy and persecution of those perceived to be socially abhorrent, which of course, they were not merely ordinary people trying to survive. It reminds me of similarly-themed Albanian film, 'Slogans', also a drama/black comedy exploring the absurdity borne of a society descending into madness and painting itself into a corner. In 'Go West' however, there is a much higher body count.
This, and the many twists and turns of the plot, may cause the viewer to wonder if anyone will ultimately get out alive. In the end, 'Go West' delivers a bittersweet conclusion and a very poignant message. Hope survives, though many will have to die first a not incongruous ending for film with war as its subject. Definitely recommended.
Dependencia sexual (2003)
A Strong, Unsettling, and Above All Real Portrayal Of Humanity
In 'Sexual Dependency', writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by their sexual urges, desires, and fears. Reduced to animals, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.
So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn't dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work.
Another function of the anthology is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout 'Sexual Dependency', the young girl's unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment. By the end of the film, the dominated males are no less numerous.
The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the ways in which they remain leader of the herd and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.
In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of 'Sexual Dependency' goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence.
Full credit must go to Bellot for choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. I can't think of a single actor present who didn't deliver. The subtitles also were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn't distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way the film was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen, leading to a rich and layered experience as a result.
The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself was shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of 'echoing' effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama's chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary.
Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, 'Sexual Dependency' is a title both of and within the film. It doesn't dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally 'exploited', although perhaps I simply didn't see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.
The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. Two hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can't escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn't always work for me, 'Sexual Dependency' is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.
Road Train (2010)
Four youths camping in the Australian outback are nearly killed when a road train turns their car into a spinning lump of metal. Licking their wounds, the unwitting group discovers the driverless vehicle parked near the scene of the accident and decides to commandeer it. But the road train has other plans for the four and survival isn't necessarily among them.
Every so often, one comes across a film that truly defines the horror genre. It rises above the formula of B-grade horror to really delight the senses with astounding ideas, a bulletproof script, brilliant practical effects, and an irresistible moreish quality that makes it an instant classic you'll want to come back to every couple of years, marveling at how deep is its rewatch value.
'Road Train', however, does not have such rewatch value, being about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips. The script is about as bulletproof as a KFC refresher towel, while the only formula it adheres to is that of a Molotov cocktail, bombing as it does with unsanctioned alacrity not long after the opening credits. It is the true definition of mind-numbing ineptitude, and projects an obvious contempt for the audience by its conceptual laziness.
Characterisation is probably the key offender. Certainly, it would be ridiculous to expect a Camusian exploration of behavioural absurdism in the face of demonic supernatural transport, but we should at least like the people on screen. In 'Road Train', the writer seems to be going out of his way to ensure this doesn't happen by enmeshing the loathing and betrayal of recent infidelity with the inadequately explored mood swings supposedly brought about by otherworldly possession. There is the murky implication that the road train is a sort of Amityville House on wheels, but its effect on all who go near it is sloppily handled and way too immediate, resulting in characters flying off the handle with mystifying, unexplained regularity. This completely undermines any attempts at character conflict, since the viewer is unable to determine whether their problems are caused by said possession or a manifestation of their down-to-earth guilt and loathing.
Within this disjointed narrative, we also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent. Thus, whether from psychosis or incredible stupidity, the viewer is robbed of any real chance they may have of caring overmuch for the so-called protagonists. Devoid of empathy, they have little left but their curiosity as to what the vehicle truly represents. In this, 'Road Train' stays fairly mute: as with 'The Car' 33 years earlier, the viewer is encouraged to guess, with clues in the form of a snarling three-headed dog and surreal sequences of otherworldly descent. This approach works best, however, when the major characters speculate on the horror that has befallen them. We may never know who or what Michael Myers is, but the speculation of Dr Loomis that he is the embodiment of evil sets the ball rolling, leaving space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The internal dialogue not only gives them something to work with as they piece the puzzle together, but faith in the characters, who have behaved as anyone would by asking such obvious questions. Yet in 'Road Train', the hapless victims are seemingly too narcissistic to even notice the madness of their situation until the climax, by which point most of them are beyond redemption. How this encourages us to care is yet another mystery.
This in turn leads to the great revelation of how the road train operates: an admittedly unusual and horrific idea that on closer examination makes no sense whatsoever within the internal logic of the film. In 'Road Train', we are encouraged to simply accept the improbable existence of the antagonist without question, for questions lead to the punishment of frustration.
If anyone may be absolved from this nonsense however, it should be the actors, who are simply performing as required by the script. The Australian film industry is not especially large, and actors there have far less opportunities for prominence. Morley, Lowe, Haig and Samuel join the likes of Melissa George, for whom the comparatively superior 'Triangle' may just keep her in orbit long enough to attract attention. Praise too goes to the setting: the wilds of the South Australian outback make for the perfect horror film backdrop. The isolation and desolate dryness, properly utilized, can lend themselves to a truly claustrophobic drama. A shame therefore that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.
Such then is 'Road Train', a horror film for the reality TV generation and no less disposable. If the challenge had been to outdo 'Houseboat Horror', then it would leapfrog over the competition into first place. There was, however, no such challenge and I would urge everyone to take inspiration from the film's U.S title and run over any copies they may come across.
The Burning (1981)
Highly Unoriginal, But Gives The Genre Fans What They Want
A group of summer campers decide to play a trick on Cropsy, the drunken caretaker of the local lakeside dormitories, only the prank goes horribly wrong and the victim is burned beyond recognition. Five years later, a new group of campers are picked off one by one in the forest near the old site. Cropsy's back, and he's got a score to settle.
Barely a year following the release of the smash-hit slasher 'Friday The 13th', the clones began to fill up the assembly line, and in tune with the genre's trademark lack of subtlety, 'The Burning' makes little attempt to disguise its roots. The isolated world of the summer camp, a lake by any other Crystal I mean name, and counselors murdered at the hands of a silent psychopath who was himself a victim. The characters are drawn from the same canvas as well: the tight-shirted alpha male, the aggressive misfit, the goof-ball, the sniveling weed, and the usual bevy of young women cursed by an unseen virus that eats all their clothes whenever a camera zooms in. In other words, it's a rose by any other Jason sorry, name.
None of which will be too painful for fans of 80s slash horror, and I certainly do include myself. The film studios of the time had rightly identified a popular niche, and people like me are suckers for it. Nonetheless, comparisons with the pillars of the genre are therefore inevitable, and 'The Burning' is simply too much of the same to match its competition. The end sequence seems to invite hope that Cropsy will headline his own franchise, but Jason Voorhees had already beaten him to it, having in 1981 made his first proper appearance in 'Friday The 13th, Part II'. The source material had already cornered the market.
Put all that aside though and 'The Burning' is entertaining enough for what it is. Writer/director Tony Maylam and co-collaborator Harvey Weinstein have clearly paid close attention to the trend-setters and like the first 'Friday', are careful to build up the suspense, peppering the drama with numerous false alarms and both appreciating that they can play the Cropsy card only so many times before tedium sets in. There are welcome departures from the source material as well. Conflict between the protagonists is built up to higher levels, with Brian Backer's character Alfred (the aforementioned sniveling weed) a disconcerting loner getting on everyone's nerves, yet with classic irony, the only one to see the killer ahead of time. The setting too is slightly different, with many of the murders not taking place in and around the camp site itself.
Maylam also builds up suspense very well in certain key scenes one involving a mysterious lone canoe reminded me so much of what would end up being a deleted scene in 'The Ring' (US) that I felt sure Gore Verbinski must have been a fan. The final reveal of Cropsy's burnt appearance is also wisely kept to the very end, especially given that the prosthetics don't quite live up to the hype something that allowed the actor a little more facial movement would have been nice and not, I think, beyond the capabilities of the time. Full credit however, goes to Lou David, the man behind the mask, who otherwise plays a very convincing relentless killer of unsuspecting teens. Elsewhere, the practical effects are quite respectable and given that Cropsy's weapon of choice is a certain sharp gardening tool, they are if anything very restrained.
Slightly different also is keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman's synth-powered soundtrack. Having long been a fan of the Wakeman sound, the musical motifs were very recognizable, but more than that, it had the feel of a soundtrack constructed not by watching the rushes, but by producing mood music to suit different levels of drama. Either way, the polished movements of the master help to give 'The Burning' its own unique character less about the dramatic stings of 'Friday' and more to do with simply creating a foreboding atmosphere, apart from the cheerful hyperactive banjos during a canoeing scene and occasional appearance of a Hammond organ.
Yet the true way to date a film is not by its synthesizers, but by how much hair Jason Alexander has. Even here, the fringe is retreating, but the youthful Alexander turns in a very memorable appearance here as the happy-go-lucky Dave whether or not it's memorable because he'll one day become a certain much-loved New York neurotic is something I'll let the viewer decide.
Ultimately, 'The Burning' will not fail to disappoint fans of 80s horror. It is highly derivative and suffers therefore from the law of diminishing returns, placed in the shadow of the memorable contemporaries it unashamedly ripped off for a quick and easy profit. Then again, many will argue that 'Friday The 13th' had the same relationship with 'Halloween'. It's unoriginal, but fun, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a remake before too long. I'll certainly be watching it.
Generally Enjoyable Adaptation of Ancient Tibetan Myth
"If you are many, make war. If you are few, make sorcery!" 'Milarepa' is a film adaptation of one of Tibet's most famous ancient legends, based loosely upon the life and teachings of a Buddhist yogi and poet (in his youth known as Thöpaga) who lived in the 11th Century. Born to wealthy parents, Thöpaga's father dies young, allowing his greedy siblings to spirit away the family inheritance. Near-destitute, Thöpaga and his mother struggle to eke out a living until the mother eventually snaps and compels her son to learn sorcery so as to inflict revenge on their malefactors. However, the boy quickly discovers that revenge comes with its own price. This film chronicles the early years of this now-revered figure, and is very much within the fantasy genre, playing as it does with the myths and the melodrama surrounding the character, though his principal teachings sit at the core of the plot, which have been a source of inspiration to generations. New to the tale of Milarepa, I found myself generally enjoying this big-screen retelling, despite certain issues I had with its execution.
It seemed fairly apparent that this is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story, but a little too rushed for anyone else. To those unfamiliar, the early sections of the film in particular seem like edited highlights that required more time and build-up to achieve maximum impact. For example, the introduction where Thöpaga's father dies and the siblings show their true colours is a very few minutes in length and family ruin consequently achieved at a whirlwind pace. Storywise, the key elements are intact, but the sometimes choppy pacing and rapid jumps forward in time prevent sufficient character development, an essential process in lending believability to what is after all pure fantasy. It's clear that director Neten Chokling is keen to get to the sorcery element, thereby relying on several sequences of over-the-top melodrama within the family to sell the desire for revenge. Again, if you're familiar with the story and know what's coming, this is doubtless not such a problem.
Indeed, once Thöpaga does set off on the road on his voyage of discovery, the fantasy element really takes over and the adventure begins in earnest. All throughout 'Milarepa', the audience is treated to some truly breathtaking Himalayan scenery surely one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. Here at the Roof of the World, it truly does seem as though magic could determine the fates of man, and the backdrop does much to sell the story. Yogic strongholds sit precariously atop mountains and seem to dominate the magnificent valleys below. Here, Thöpaga must travel to seek the otherworldly skills that will let him inflict revenge, which his masters seem quite keen to impart. It almost seems irresponsible, yet Buddhism is after all about passing on knowledge rather than judging how the beholder will use it.
After all, while mastery of the self is the Buddhist philosophy, 'Milarepa' is very much about karmic retribution, which its central character painfully learns must flow in both directions. The 'sorcery' of the film is realised through a surprising amount of cgi that takes the film very much into cartoon territory, but this is after all a retelling of the legend rather than a biopic, and if you're going to delve into the mythology, you may as well go all the way. Perhaps because the earlier scenes had been so 'comic book' in structure, I found myself very much in the right frame of mind when the visual effects appeared and if anything, this is where my enjoyment properly set in.
It does mean that those hoping for a deeply spiritual Buddhist epic on the folly of conflict will be disappointed the message is there intact, but in very much the same way that it was in 'Monkey Magic'. Whether or not this makes Jamyang Lodro's portrayal of the young Thöpaga a little too close to Hayden Christiansen's Anakin Skywalker is up to the viewer to decide, as is the question of whether or not Chokling's approach to his subject matter is out of a desire to make 'Milarepa' into Tibet's answer to Tolkien. Either way, Lodro plays the troubled youth convincingly and is helped by several other good performances, most notably Orgen Tobgyal, as his willing yogic master - apparently also the film's art director.
Thöpaga's real-life alter ego would famously recount years later that he had been very foolish in his youth and faced a long path to wisdom ('How senseless to disregard one's life by fighting foes who are but frail flowers'). His voyage to maturity and enlightenment is purportedly the focus of the sequel, which at this stage, is long overdue. This therefore means that 'Milarepa' does not have a strong ending - so much of the story is yet to be told, and hopefully Chokling will succeed in bringing it to light. In that event, 'Milarepa' will doubtless be better evaluated as simply the opening chapter of a much larger tale one of reckless youth, in which mistakes are made that lead to wisdom in the wise. This does not absolve it of its cartoon fantasy leanings, but as my introduction into the world of this highly celebrated Tibetan spiritual leader, it was an entertaining enough ride.
The Bermuda Depths (1978)
In Memory Alone
A young man returns to Bermuda hoping to discover why his father died 13 years earlier and becomes entranced by a mysterious young woman who turns out to be the childhood friend who disappeared into the sea that same day. Somehow, she is connected to his father's strange fate, but the answers lie out there, in the Devil's Triangle.
I first saw 'The Bermuda Depths' many years ago and while the plot had faded from memory long since, there was something about it that remained with me. A recent reviewing went some way toward explaining this, although it also suggested that my tastes were probably less demanding back then. What I see now is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of Valium. The nonsense of the Bermuda Triangle too was perhaps more alluring in 1978, but seems painfully artificial now, perhaps because the coast guards of the region have been trying to get it through to people that nowhere near as many ships disappear in the area as pop culture would maintain, and those that have did so with a far more mundane explanation than some want to believe.
Others may suggest I'm missing the point of course, and 'The Bermuda Depths' rides high on the wave of piffle the previous decades have built up surrounding this supposedly supernatural island chain. Throw in an emotionally-damaged young man, a family tragedy, an attractive siren in a black swimsuit and legends of archelonian leviathans, and herein is the tale intended to ensnare us from the distractions of logic. Well-done, these elements should come together to form an intriguing mystery and a haunting story of star-crossed love, but the delivery is off both before and behind the camera.
The central character of Magnus Dens, for example, is potentially the most intriguing. Dens, we learn, is an aimless drifter, orphaned by the tragic loss of his parents and direction-less as a result. Upon returning to Bermuda, he finds himself entranced by a woman invisible to everyone but the local 'wise woman' who places her existence within the framework of a centuries-old curse. Rejecting the madness of the one person who believes him, Dens is treated with pitied sympathy by his friends, certain his crumbling psychological state is torturing him with the hallucinations of an imaginary friend. This, to me, demonstrates wonderful scope on the part of the lead that should lend true anguish and drama to the conflict. Unfortunately, actor Leigh McClosky brings this complex character to life with all the energy of a deflating balloon, his languid stares and lethargic movement interrupted at times by over-the-top aggression meant to signal an unleashing of his inner turmoil, but coming across as two-dimensional over-excitement. While I have no problem with the supporting cast, their efforts cannot make up for McClosky's inability to act. Even the lovely Connie Sellecca's superior performance as the almost spectral seductress Jennie a subtle miasma of innocence and eternal regret can only do so much when this is whom she must play against, although it's likely no coincidence that it is with her that McClosky gives his best performances, Sellecca seemingly bringing out in him capabilities elsewhere hidden from view.
That said, William Overgard's script clearly isn't interested in being the character study it ought to in favour of a shallow pastiche of 'Moby Dick' vying for time with the elements of unrequited love. There's no reason we can't have both, but efforts to champion one direction come at the cost of another, perhaps in a desire to provide spectacle. This unfortunately is where the film's low budget really becomes evident, with some very cheap and unconvincing model shots, special effects and atrocious day-for-night shooting , which admittedly I don't recall being such glaring problems 20 years ago. 'The Bermuda Depths' is one of those films that holds together far better not simply in the distant past when it was made, but in that hazy distance of memory, which over time smooths out the inconsistencies. It's a little like being reunited with your first love and finding that much of what you recall about it has been rose-tinted in the years since.
The soundtrack too is an odd mish-mash of styles reflecting the shifting, unevenness of the plot. A haunting period theme song suggests temptation and seduction, giving way to a recurring (and indeed familiar) classical guitar motif, both of which must coexist with a strange retro thriller score that reminded me at times of orchestrations Malcolm Lockyer was creating in 60s sci-fi matinées. The final element of what one today might call 'muzak' fills out the dramatic downtime. The overall lack of coherence suggests the differing perspectives behind the scenes and a loss of clarity.
One thing that has not suffered from the passage of time, however, is the location itself. All exterior scenes were shot in Bermuda and its sleepy urban landscape, powder-white beaches flanked by picturesque rocky outcrops and azure sea go a long way toward compensating for other deficiencies. The local government, credited for assisting in the making of the film, would doubtless have seen it as an enticing travel promotion and deservedly so it certainly worked on me. The natural landscape lends itself perfectly to the storyline and ultimately, it is only the artificial enhancements of post-production, weak plotting and character development that don't stand up to scrutiny especially to a modern audience.
Ultimately, these are the dangers of revisiting the past and the way it is often defeated by the ravages of time and the changes we undergo as a result. Ironically, this mirrors 'The Bermuda Depths' rather well. The film itself is the beckoning siren, luring the rose-tinted memories of an ageing audience toward potential heartbreak, and like the ancient mariners, I failed to lash myself to the mast in time.