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Gatlif tackles the war
I've seen half a dozen or so of Tony Gatlif's films and I've enjoyed them all - in fact his previous film, Transylvania, was my equal favourite cinema release of 2008. While Gatlif's work documents the way of the Roma (gypsies), the themes are universal: celebrations of music, culture, ethnicity and so on. It's the dramatic and visual way in which Gatlif portrays these elements that has much impact for me.
Korkoro certainly doesn't disappoint. The visuals are beautifully rendered, and the frame is used wonderfully - sometimes with extreme close-ups, sometimes panoramic. Like Robert Guédiguian's latest film, The Army of Crime, the film is set during World War II. According to the end credits, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 of Europe's 2 million pre-war gypsies died at the hands of the Nazis. This story follows a wandering family of 15 of those.
The Germans in occupied France decreed a law forbidding the movement of itinerants and this family find themselves stranded in a town where they seasonally perform farm work, before they are imprisoned in a camp. The family has the sympathy of the town's mayor - who provides land for the family - and the local teacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze), who is based on the real-life resistance fighter Yvette Lundy.
I love this film. Not only does it have all the trademark Gatlif traits: wild depictions of gypsy life, wild music and spurts of insanity, but its presentation of the rarely depicted and tragic part that the Roma played in WWII combine to make this a lovely story.
Some of the visuals are amazing, like a sick horse and its gypsy treatment (it'll have you wondering how the hell they got animals to 'act'). The cinematography is superb. The acting is strong and Croze's role is especially beautifully understated. Well worth seeing.
Emotionally devastating - must-see cinema
I have only just learnt that Zvyagintev's The Return was his feature film debut. It really impressed me with it's sparse and elusive narrative, filled with mystery and ambiguity. It is visually spectacular, with a strong Eastern European aesthetic that one can't look away from. The Banishment is no less a film.
This is a much more ambitious effort than Zvyagintev's debut. Again he has crafted a story that is highly enigmatic. It stars Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the role of the absent father returned in The Return. Alex is a man with a shady past and his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) is of the same ilk. When Alex's wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), reveals she is pregnant and that he is not the father, a sequence of events unfolds that will have you on the edge of your seat. "If you want to kill, kill. If you want to forgive, forgive", says Mark.
The tension is palpable, magnified by the sparse dialogue. In one sense, words are not needed as the body language says it all. Yet in another, the inability of the protagonists to bring out into the open what needs to be said leads to unforeseen consequences. This is both thematically similar to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's similarly excellent Three Monkeys and stylistically they also share much in common. As in Ceylan's films, Zvyagintev shows great confidence in telling a story, taking his time to create a palpable ambiance. At 157 minutes, the film is quite long, but always engaging.
The cinematography is stunning throughout, with excellent use of the widescreen. There is one tracking shot in particular that left me breathless as the camera seemingly floated through space. I can recall only twice where the camera movement impressed me so: the caravan sequence in Noise and the various tracking shots in Soy Cuba. The use of darkness, light and shade are used to great effect. The music is haunting, reminding me of the Gothic sounds of the music of Enigma. It renders the film with a sense of tragedy of biblical proportions.
Zvyagintev is a magnificent talent that just can't be ignored. If you see only one Russian film this year, make it The Banishment.
Son of a Lion (2007)
This film is an impressive accomplishment by Gilmour. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges, but that also has its appeal, especially given the extremely difficult circumstances under which the film was made. Gilmour travelled to the North West frontier of Pakistan, where foreigners are not allowed. At great personal risk (and with ongoing risk to the local villagers), Gilmour filmed in a clandestine manner using nonprofessionals.
It's a simple story, not unlike many Iranian films. An eleven-year old boy, Niaz, works for his father, Sher Alam, an old Mujhadeen who fought against the invading Russians during the long war against Afghanistan. Sher Alam makes guns but Niaz just wants to go to school. I love the way the film assumes the child's perspective. Niaz doesn't want much, but he wants it bad. There's a heart-breaking struggle to achieve his seemingly unattainable goal, and the cultural aspect woven into the film is beautiful.
My seven year old also enjoyed Son of a Lion. There is one brief scene where an animal is slaughtered and we covered his eyes (and ours) for it.
All kudos to Gilmour for making this film. This is an example of world cinema made with passion and commitment, with respect for both the subjects of the film and the audience. Gilmour has no background in film-making. He spent time with these people and decided he wanted to tell a fictionalised version of their story. I highly recommend it.
Il resto della notte (2008)
Better than average Italian social drama
"Straight from the Director's Fortnight of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival comes this biting & poignant drama from Francesco Munzi, who displays a level of deft sophistication and power only hinted at with his debut prize-winner Saimir." So read the promotional notes to this intriguing film that is clearly a cut above most Italian dramas.
In one sense, it is three stories in one. The first is the story of an affluent upper-middle class family. The second is a story of some down-and-out struggling Romanian migrants, one of whom is fired as the maid of the family when she is suspected of stealing. The third is the collision of these two worlds. Each part has a different aesthetic.
The Rest of the Night is an ambitious film and Munzi is attempting to weave a web that will attract a wide audience. The affluent story is pure contemporary Italian cinema (at least, what we see of it here). There's the selfish and demanding husband, there's the beautiful but fading wife and the cute and spoilt teenage daughter. Perhaps Munzi's intention is subversive, because this aspect of the film acts like a hook for a conventional audience.
I say "hook", because the migrant story is more in the realm of social realism á la 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Indeed, Laura Vasiliu (Marja, the maid) played the pregnant student seeking an abortion in that film. Dismissed at short notice, Marja in her desperation returns to the low-life. This part of the film is effective, though perhaps there is a lack of subtlety in differentiating the high- and low-lives. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the bleakness is a welcome change to the bland and mostly middle-class stories that Italy exports.
These two worlds collide in the film's third act, and the film's tone changes to one of a crime drama. For my taste, I don't think Munzi has been wholly successful in weaving these three stories together. I'd have preferred that he stick to one aesthetic or another. But then, perhaps this is not intended for an art-house audience. I think it works best as a film for mainstream audiences who like quality drama, with a few surprises. As I often say, I prefer a film to take risks and not be completely successful, than one that aims low and succeeds. Munzi has taken risks and this film is worth a look.
Celebration of life!
As far as I am concerned, cinema exists primarily to watch films like Tony Gatlif's Transylvania. It is full of life, love and loss, pain and sorrow, music and dance, culture and superstition. No-one with a heart can help but be moved by this ode to life and the Romany way.
Gatlif has made a career of showcasing the Romany, the culture of the gypsies. Credited with writing, co-writing and arranging virtually all the music in Transylvania, he clearly has a love of music that is infused within his films. This latest effort depicts a woman (Asia Argento) who leaves France and travels to Romania in search of her boyfriend, a gypsy musician.
The infusion of music and dance into the story is pure cinema magic. The cinematography, use of light and use of imagery are all magnificent. The choice of actors, both professional and non-professional, is excellent. Their comings and goings within the film are unpredictable, adding to the believability of the story, as crazy as it gets at times.
Asia Argento really is the star of the film. Her passion, strength and intensity are at the core of the story. Her rendition of gypsy womanhood as Zingarina is for me a landmark performance.
Gatlif showcases the bleak yet beautiful countryside and rural decay of forgotten lands, depicting a way of life that is slowly dying. His love for this culture and respect for those who are part of it is evident, and his depictions of it are electric, exhilarating and moving. The film's ending is amazing.
For me, this is close to as good as a film gets and is my equal favourite for the year so far. There is so much to like about it and I can't use enough superlatives. This is must-see cinema.
Paranoid Park (2007)
Van Sant's most moving film to date
Any mention of a Gus Van Sant film is nearly always accompanied by comments of being about disaffected or alienated male youth. While this is invariably both true and unavoidable, such superficial descriptions don't really do Paranoid Park justice. Van Sant's latest film is a profoundly intimate, moving and insightful meditation on the inner world of a youth in crisis.
Alex is sixteen and, aside from navigating the usual hurdles of adolescence, school, girls and life in general, his parents have recently undergone a messy separation. His escape is to hang out with his buddy Jared, and together they discover Portland's tough Eastside Skate Park. Known to the locals as Paranoid Park, it was built by the skaters themselves, and is a magnet for all kinds of dropouts.
Alex is a fairly normal kid but everything changes one evening when he goes to Paranoid Park alone and is involved in the death of a security guard. He keeps this toxic secret to himself, but gradually reveals all in his diary.
Of Van Sant's films, Paranoid Park is aesthetically most similar to Elephant. It defies a linear narrative, circling around the central facts which reflect Alex's state of shock and inability to come to terms with what has happened.
Other stylistic devices convey Alex's fractured state of mind, such as the use of a varied range of eclectic music. Similarly effective is the use of slow motion, creating a dreamy ambiance that complements the music at times, or contrasts at others, the music.
The film opens to the sounds of an ambient French track that matches the imagery of skaters floating through space, defying gravity. In fact, Paranoid Park is a French production and while the story and participants are clearly American, the film really has qualities reminiscent of French cinema. Van Sant seems to be revered in France more so that in his own country. His work has stark similarities to my favourite type of French cinema.
The depiction of grownups from a teenage perspective is fascinating. When in frame, they either have their backs to us, or cinematographer Chris Doyle's use of long lenses to strictly control focus means we mostly see them as a blur. They are not absent, but don't figure prominently in Alex's world. This is also subtly accentuated in conversations. "It's not like she cares", moans Alex about his mother when questioned about his movements.
We do, however, clearly see Detective Richard Liu. His strong presence shakes Alex out of his dreamy inner world and gives us a more grounded reference point within the story. His quiet intensity as he faces off with Alex at a crucial moment is as emotionally powerful as anything I have ever experienced on screen. This is when the true impact of Alex's ordeal, as well as Van Sant's genuine empathy for his characters is fully revealed.
In Paranoid Park, youth are disconnected from adults, but also parents are unable to engage with their children. Alex is in his own world that seems impenetrable to his parents, and they seem to struggle with words he can relate to. When Alex's father talks about inevitable divorce, his words have little interest to Alex.
Cast with mostly non-professionals, much has been made of Van Sant's casting call via MySpace, though apparently none of the main actors were found in this way. Van Sant has used improvisation with the actors, resulting in dialogue full of authenticity, light-years from the slick depictions of youth in contemporary cinema. His characters, both adults and youths, sometimes struggle with their words. The performances were terrific.
In fact, I find it hard to fault the film in any way. The cinematography is stunningly natural, the music is entrancing and the story is compelling. Technically, the most impressive aspect is careful construction of the story through editing (by Van Sant himself).
Starting with Gerry, this film caps off four consecutive films Van Sant has made in a minimalist style he is making his own. All four of them are concerned with youth and death. Life, death and what occurs between, these are all compacted within the framework of a Van Sant film. The films are not about death, but death is an event that provokes other dramatic elements. For me, Paranoid Park is the most touching of all his films, at least as good as Elephant and as good as anything I've seen in the last year.
La graine et le mulet (2007)
Moving human drama with subtlety
I have heard this film being compared to Eat Drink Man Woman, which is fair enough, if not slightly deceptive. Sure, there's a similar veneration for the art of cooking and how this draws and binds families. But the film casts a wider net than this may suggest. For me, it strongly resembles the humanistic and naturalistic stories of Robert Guédiguian, particularly La ville est tranquille (The Town is Quiet).
The actors are largely non-professionals. The use of long takes, including long stretches of dialogue, is very impressive and suggests that some of the script may be improvisational. I liked the chit-chat, the small details of daily life (like toilet-training a child), that films normally gloss over.
The film has a documentary look and feel and parts are like a fly-on-the-wall at a family gathering. For me, the importance of this is to convey how human this family is, with a rich and warm cultural heritage. In particular, it renders as impotent, irrational fears of Muslim culture.
The film works on multiple levels because it taps into the universal everyday concerns that potentially touch us all in one form or another: prejudice against immigrants, attitudes towards Islam post 9-11, globalisation, ageism in the workforce, the effects of poverty, family breakdown and more. Yet, importantly, the film is not preachy but merely presents life in a matter-of-fact way.
The female performances in the film are particularly affecting, especially the young Hafsia Herzi playing Rym, the daughter of Slimane's lover, and Leila D'Issernio who plays his Russian daughter-in-law.
At 148 minutes, the film is quite long, though this is not apparent until the final scene, which seems to be prolonged in real-time for a particular effect. On paper, the story looks like something we've seen before, but avoids all the clichés we might expect. I loved it.
Dr. Plonk (2007)
Excellent transposition of silent era film into the present
Rolf de Heer, in introducing Dr. Plonk, explained that there were at least three reasons he made this film:
* He found the stock in a fridge going to waste, and decided to use it. When I asked him about it later, he said it was about ten years past its expiry date. It was colour film that was converted to black and white in post-production.
* He wanted to make a film that was a tribute to the films he loved in his childhood, such as The Keystone Kops.
* After the difficulties of some of his earlier films, he wanted to make something that would be fun to make and fun for the actors to be involved in. As an aside, he mentioned that it was much more difficult than expected.
While I live in hope for Australian films, I can't say that I'm a big fan of much of our output. Rolf de Heer is an Australian director whose work does interests me. I've only seen three of them, but each was completely different:
* The Old Man Who Read Loves Stories (2001). I saw this in 2004 at the Nova cinema, with a Q&A session with the director. De Heer described some of the many problems he had making this film with an international cast in the jungles of French Guiana. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall and Hugo Weaving, it was both an unusual and an interestingly different film.
* Ten Canoes (2006). This is a really unique Australian film that tells an indigenous story in a way that these people voiced so publicly. It won the Un certain regard (Special Jury prize) at Cannes 2006 as well as 6 AFI awards (for best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and sound). It was also my no.3 favourite film for 2006 (after Em 4 Jay and The King).
* Dr. Plonk
I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Plonk. At first glance, the images promoting the film looked somewhat cringe-worthy. I was also a little skeptical at the idea of reproducing the silent-era style in a contemporary film.
De Heer told me that when he presented the film to a group of school children in Adelaide, the general consensus was positive, even though most of them didn't understand the concept of silent film. One student asked why no-one was talking. I think this is excellent family entertainment. Often the word 'family' is used in conjunction with children's films, but I mean it in the context of 'all-ages'. Baby-boomers and older will relate to the obvious homage to The Keystone Kops (which I also enjoyed as a child) and the early films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
De Heer has done a remarkable job of producing a contemporary film that is not only a faithful reproduction of the style and mood of these historic films (including classic slapstick, stunts and acrobatics), but also manages to fuse contemporary issues. Set in 1907, Dr. Plonk creates a time machine that travels 100 years into the future in order to gather proof that the world will indeed end in 2008. De Heer displays excellent judgement in subtly presenting political points in a way that doesn't detract from the mood of the film or offend people's sensibilities.
The casting was spot on. The three main characters were Dr. Plonk (Nigel Lunghi), his lowly assistant Paulus (played as comic relief by Paul Blackwell) and Mrs. Plonk (the always funny Magda Szubanski). South Australian premier Mike Rann appears in a cameo role as the present day Prime Minister Short, and Wayne Anthoney plays Prime Minister Stalk in 1907. The film also takes a humorous look at who our next prime minister will be.
Some of the classic devices of silent films used by de Heer include: humiliation of a superior towards his subordinate, lots of bum-kicking, a performing animal, altered film speed, a slight flickering look to the film as the light intensity varies (emulating the imperfections of the technique of the day) and absurdly simple devices (like a wooden box with a lever as the time machine).
There's a point around half way into the film where if gets a little flat, and I suspect some contemporary audiences - particularly those with little experience of silent film - may get a little bored. Having recently seen some Keaton shorts at Melbourne Cinémathèque, as well as Keaton's The General at the Astor a year or so ago, I thought this was still consistent with the films of that era. The music was enjoyable and appropriate, yet a little whacky - it was performed by the Stiletto Sisters.
All in all, I found the film a real treat, well conceived and executed. I intend taking my six year old son to see it and I'm sure he'll be laughing his head off at the good old-fashioned gags that leave most modern comedies for dead. This film is 83 minutes of refreshingly good old-fashioned entertainment.
A londoni férfi (2007)
Stylish, visually compelling cinema - an ode to noir
I saw this at a sold-out screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and was surprised at how good it was, considering I'd heard some negative or indifferent murmurs about it. It goes to show that you never can judge a film until you've seen it yourself. This is my first Béla Tarr film.
The Man From London is clearly a highly stylised homage to film noir of the 1940s. The lush black and white photography, using classic noir shadows and imagery is a feast for the eyes. The camera work is slow, fluid and dynamic, with very long takes in which little seems to happen. Combined with a mesmerising score slightly reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's sounds on Twin Peaks, a mood of ever-growing suspense and menace is created that powerfully engages from start to finish.
The basic premise of the film is that Maloin, a night harbour worker (played by Miroslav Krobot) witnesses some treachery between a disembarking passenger of a ship (the man in the title) and another man on-shore. A death may have occurred and when Maloin investigates, he becomes involved in an intrigue from which he cannot extricate himself.
Tilda Swinton plays Maloin's wife, though her voice is dubbed over in Hungarian. The film was part-English produced, so maybe a name known to English-speaking audiences was required to market the film. The role was small, and I always find Swinton an interesting actor, so it was a curiosity to see her in this role. In general the tired and worn-out characters looked terrific on film, with a timeless quality that matched the aesthetics of the decaying town.
This is not a film for everyone, as it requires some patience and appreciation for aesthetics over action, and there is not a whole lot of the latter. While the film's major strength is its visuals, they serve to subtly drive the slow-burn suspense. I was surprised when people started walking out of the film, first one by one, then after an hour about twenty or so walked out in unison. I estimate 60 people left, around 10% of the audience. I was equally surprised that so few walked out of Inland Empire (I counted only four, about 1% of the also sold-out screening a few nights earlier).
Still, what's a good film or a good film festival without walk-outs? Many of my favourite films have had them. I have read that this is not one of Tarr's best films. Well, I loved it and must seek out his others.
Mister Lonely (2007)
Something very different from Korine - must-see cinema!
In spite of mixed early reviews of Mister Lonely, the latest film by wunderkind Harmony Korine was not only one of the stand-out films for me at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but one of my favourites of 2007. My experience of his work to date is limited to the writing of Larry Clark's Kids and his directorial debut Gummo. The former I saw relatively recently and impressed me with its gritty realism, while the latter surprised me on its theatrical release with its bleakness.
Mister Lonely is a much more colourful film than anything associated with Korine. Its visuals (such as set design, camera angles and cinematography) are very pleasing, accentuated by its seemingly unrelated parallel narratives and absurdist premise. A Michael Jackson impersonator in France meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, who introduces him to a Scottish commune full of various impersonators. While superficially the film appears to be frivolous, clearly it has deeper social comments to make about identity, loneliness and alienation, issues the director has been reportedly grappling with personally.
The other narrative relates to a group of missionaries in Panama, with Werner Herzog portraying a priest, Father Umbrillo, delivering food aid by plane, assisted by various nuns. While the connection between the dual narratives is unclear, this story is strangely surreal, visually alluring and entertaining.
There is a small flat spot towards the end of the film, but for most of the film's 112 minutes, I had a big smile that was hard to wipe off my face. Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood, Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, The Three Stooges, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna and Buckwheat are all there.
The humour and irony are used with a clever and skillful blend of under- and over-statement. There is an underlying subtle sadness to some of the characters who, in spite of their eccentric alter egos, remain ordinary people that an audience can relate to. The film is intelligent and emotionally honest. One part is particularly close to the bone for me and brought tears to my eyes. This is Korine's most accessible and enjoyable film. It is full of originality and I highly recommend it.