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Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (1972)
One of the best giallos
One of the best giallos (the peculiar police/terror genre made in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s). In an upscale all girl catholic high school in England, Enrico, a handsome Italian gym teacher, in marital trouble with his frosty wife Herta, a fellow German teacher at the school, has an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo). While they are making out in a park, Elizabeth witnesses one of her fellow girls at the school being stabbed. Soon a number of other girls at the same school are killed one by one, stabbed by the same apparent killer in their genitalia. Enrico becomes the center of the suspicions of the police. But who is really the killer? Could behind this be a terrible secret held by the girls?
Set in London, this nicely plotted film is an Italian-German coproduction with mostly German and Italian actors. There is a final twist (which of course I'm not going to reveal), but the good thing is that it was unpredictable but it makes sense and it actually makes the film better, nicely connecting all the loose threads. With a nice color photography and a jazzy score by Ennio Morricone. The beautiful actresses playing the students in various states of undress add to the appeal of this (be calm, they are and look a bit older than the high school students they portray).
Comme des garçons (2018)
Crowd pleasing film
I saw by chance this French crowd pleaser on a long distance flight, I would otherwise not have seen it, as it was barely released anywhere. It is very enjoyable and entertaining. In 1969, Paul, a lothario sports journalist in a local newspaper of the French city of Reims, decides to organize for publicity reasons a women football team. And his secretary, the shy but beautiful Emmanuelle, will turn out to be one of the team's stars. The main actress, the very pretty Vanessa Guide, is a revelation. Nice period recreation also. A letdown is that the journalist's character is quite grating. Based, with a lot of liberties, on a true story of the first female football team in France.
Entertaining if historically inaccurate
The best thing about this flashy Russian miniseries is that is quite entertaining for most of its running time (it bogs down a little in the middle episodes). Not only it has lots of sex, but also Trotsky travelling around in a steampunk like train, hallucinations, bizarre dream sequences and even Matrix style gunfights. Clearly, the dour Russian cinema of Soviet times is long past.
The bad thing is that is quite inaccurate historically and downright invents a lot of stuff: for example, the central conceit of the series is the absurdity of Trotsky in 1940 telling the history of his life to his would be murderer, Frank Jackson (the alias of Ramon Mercader). Another absurdity - there are many - is an encounter between Trotsky and Freud in which the latter diagnoses fanaticism in the former.
On the plus side, the narrative structure is complex, with the story going back from the Russian revolution to Trotsky's youth to his exile in Mexico in 1940. We have many characters in the movie (including some real but obscure persons), and the plot at times is quite complex. The filmmakers obviously read a lot of history before doing this (even if they then distort it).
Trotskyists will complain about the portrayal of Trotsky, but I find it a compelling character, much more than Lenin (who is shown as a scheming opportunist) and Stalin (who is shown as an uneducated thug).
L'ora legale (2017)
Very funny political satire
This Italian film is a very funny political satire. Directed by a comic duo well known in Italy, it is set in a coastal small town in Sicily. As the movie starts, its corrupt mayor is voted out of office, being replaced by a younger guy, who is a very honest professor. Because people are used to the corrupt old ways, when the new mayor starts trying to clean house (like, for instance, demanding people pay traffic fines) he will soon face the opposition of the village (including the local priest, and eventually, even some of his own family) who will start demanding the old mayor returns. The movie is very funny and it allows one to understand why people sometime prefer a corrupt political system if they believe they can benefit from it.
Yawar Mallku (1969)
Classical example of politically charged filmmaking
In an Amerindian community in Bolivia, the peasants realize that their women have more and more problems in getting pregnant, and many seem unfertile. Soon they realize that the blame lies on a Western humanitarian organization (obviously modeled after the Peace Corps) who under the guise of family planning had been sterilizing Indian women against their will, and decides to take revenge (the idea that the West is actively involved in sterilizing third world women against their will is a very common conspiracy theory and paranoia in the developing world, but as far as I know there has never been real proof that this has been the case, in Bolivia or elsewhere).
Director Jorge Sanjines is one of the few directors in the world that has concentrated on what you might call "Indigenist Cinema", that is cinema that deals with the lives of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas (though Sanjines is not visibly Amerindian himself). This low budget film from 1969, spoken in Quechua and Spanish, is perhaps his better known film in a long career with not that many movies (he probably had many political and financial difficulties in raising funds for his movies throughout the years).
The movie extensively uses flashbacks, moving frequently from past to future and back. Though the movie's plot is not difficult at all to follow, apparently when Sanjinés showed the movie to Indian audiences they criticize this sort of non lineal narrative. Sanjines took their criticism into account and in his following movies used a simpler narrative structure.
At times amateurish, but nonetheless compelling, this is a good example of charged political filmmaking. Remarkably, this movie is one of the few films ever to have a real political impact: just a few years after its release, the Peace Corps were expelled from Bolivia.
Rosa Chumbe (2015)
Despite some good scenes, a disappointing film
Despite some good individual scenes, I wasn't terribly impressed with this film from Peru. Is about Rosa Chumbe, a forty something policewoman working the streets of Lima. She is a mediocre police officer, often dozing in her office. Her superior warns her several time that this is her last chance, and if she continues like that she will be fired, yet one minute later he asks her to escort his trophy wife to a shopping trip. Rosa lives in a tiny apartment with her young daughter, who has a baby and has become pregnant again. Rosa can't get along with her daughter and they often fight, and has often to take care of her baby when her daughter is out of the house. No man, either for her of her daughter, is around in the house. The inarticulate Rosa only laughs when watching an awful live show on TV in which a comedian tells horribly unfunny jokes. The ending, suggesting a religious miracle to get her out of her predicament is the worst thing in the film. There is nothing wrong in making films about poor, downtrodden people, but one has to avoid wallowing in miserabilism.
As Bodas de Deus (1999)
Not for every taste, but Monteiro's vision cannot be denied
Portuguese director Joao Cesar Monteiro (deceased in 2003) was one of the most original and controversial directors working in European art cinema during the late 20th century. In his subversion of traditional culture (especially right wing politics and the Catholic Church) which he sees as extremely hypocritical, through nonsensical scenes, he can be compared with Luis Buñuel (but unlike the Spaniard, Monteiro was willing to put himself in front of the camera with the persona of an old, perverted lecher that was repugnant but also strangely affecting). Another fruitful comparison can be made with some of the later films of Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, though Monteiro's wit is far more subversive.
To retell the plot of this movie doesn't make much sense, since the situations are deliberately absurd. Monteiro plays the same character of his previous films, the lecherous Joao de Deus, and we see him getting a suitcase full of cash from a heavenly messenger, rescuing a drowning young lady and putting her into a nearby convent, and meeting a dubious couple that claims to be members of the nobility. The central gimmick of the movie is a very long, extended sex scene, in which old Monteiro himself (showing his nude, emaciated, cadaveric body) makes love to a luscious young nymphet. I found the whole scene unpleasing, and thought the movie would be better without it, but there is not denying its shock value.
Even if you find Monteiro's vision repugnant, there is no question that his absurdist scenes can be very funny. His preference for slow moving action and a static camera though is more of an acquired taste.
Maha samut lae susaan (2015)
Art film from Thailand doesn't make much sense but is watchable
In this Thai art film, we have three young people, a woman and two men, going on a car trip from Bangkok to Pattani, in the south of Thailand. They are Laila (played by the beautiful Heen Sasithorn), her brother and a friend, and their plan is to visit her long-lost aunt. However, strange things start happening in their trip, while in the background we listen through the news about some violent incidents in the country.
I don't know much about ethnic politics in Thailand, I do know the south of Thailand has an important Muslim population, and that there are ethnic tension between them and the country's Buddhist majority. Here the Muslims are seen as strange and ominous, and that is a bit unsettling (but it is implied that Laila herself is Muslim, though she has Western clothes and outlook).
Nothing much happens in the movie, except at the end, when the friends reach their destination. Not much is explained. Still the movie is watchable, it did hold my interest, even if it was not clear what was going on. The beautiful photography and the locales help.
Romanian film holds some interest despite scenario that strains credibility
Warning: there are some spoilers in this review.
This supposedly shocking Romanian film starts with a long, extended verbal fight during a family reunion, at which point I thought I was really going to hate this movie. The film, though, gets a bit better as it goes along. Victor is a widower with six grown children, three men and three women in their twenties and thirties. His offspring includes a set of twins, Romeo a boy and Sasha a girl. The fight gets started when, at the reunion, Sasha learns indignantly that her father, who is an obstetrician, during the Ceasescu regime, a period in which abortion was banned, denounced to the authorities women who were seeking to end their pregnancies. Victor replies to his daughter that his opposition to abortion allowed her to live, since her mother wanted an abortion at the time. Anyway, the fight ends, and as we learn more about the different characters, we get the central gimmick of the film: the two twins are lovers, and eventually she gets pregnant by his brother. This situation is seen as only slightly out of the normal. During the film, we see several scenes where one of the family members gets indignant on learning that the twins are lovers, but five minutes later, seems ready to accept them.
Despite all the talk we listen to, the film doesn't have a lot of interesting things to say about either abortion on incest. Still, the movie holds some interest even if the scenario strains credibility. A great performance by Alina Grigore is Sasha, the twin who gets pregnant, is a plus for this so so movie.
Sri Lanka, is a country that does not appear a lot in the international news, but it had a brutal civil war in the last two decades between its two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese (who dominate the central Government) and the rebel Tamils. There was a peace settlement in 2009, and this is where this French movie begins. The protagonist is a Tamil guerrilla and we see him destroying his weapons along with his comrades and preparing to migrate to another country. In a refugee camp, she meets a woman and a young girl (they are not mother and daughter), and they decide they have better chance to get to Europe if they pretend to be a family. Eventually they get into France landing in a dilapidated housing project (in the so called banlieus) where immigrants (mostly Arabs) lives. He finds a job as the janitor in the building where they live, she makes some money by caring over an old person. If the protagonist was looking for peace in Europe, he finds himself now in a crime infested neighborhood where gangs fight each other. On the other hand, this is a place where his skills as a warrior might find value.
I find the milieu believable and the story sometimes interesting, despite its unpleasantness, but I find hard to believe the central conceit of the story in which three unrelated people keep living together pretending to be a family long after this seems necessary to get into France. And I find the film at times ponderous and pretentious. The ending, full of gratuitous violence, is a major letdown. All these flaws are no fault of the mostly amateur actors, who do well considering the circumstances (I like the woman playing the false wife, Kalieaswari Srinivasan). A surprising winner of the 2015 Cannes film festival.
Well made adventure film
This film is set during World War I in what is now the country of Jordan. Theeb is a young boy living with his Bedouin family. Their traditional nomadic lifestyle has probably been the same for the past several centuries, but the world around is rapidly being changed by the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. One night an English military officer (obviously modeled after Lawrence of Arabia) arrives at the Bedouin camp and asks for help in getting to a certain well. The presence of bandits makes such a trip dangerous, but the Bedouins felt compelled by traditional hospitality rules to give him an escort to get there, and Theeb goes along others (including his elder brother) for the ride. When things soon get sour in their trip, Theeb has to rely on only himself to survive several adventures.
Arab films don't get much exposure in the rest of the world, even in the festival circuit, but this movie, along with the previous Wadjda, suggests a new wave of Arab art cinema, that is intelligent, professionally made and accessible. Nicely shot in the beautiful Jordanian desert. Most of the cast are Bedouins themselves who have never acted. One of the few exceptions is British actor Jack Fox who plays the English officer.
Slow paced but Rewarding
This Romanian movie has a plot that might sounds ridiculous at first sight, but with time becomes more and more engaging. The movie starts with one of the two protagonists, Costi (Toma Cuzin) telling his young child the story of Robin Hood. Suddenly, there is a knock in the door. It's his neighbor, Adrian (the other protagonist of the movie, played by Adrian Purcarescu). He tells Costi he is risking losing his apartment as he is late on his mortgage payments, so could he please lend him 800 Euros. Costi tells Adrian he sympathizes with him, but can't lend him anything as he is under heavy money problems himself. Eventually, after a long talk, Adrian tells Costi what he needs the 800 Euros for: he wants to hire a metal detector operator so as to see if in the garden of an old property of his family there might be a treasure buried by his grandfather when the communists took over Romania. At least that is what the family legend says, but no one is really sure there is really a treasure buried in his property. After some hesitation, Costi agrees to help Adrian on that search in exchange of a half of the prize.
So the rest of the movie is basically Costi and Adrian pursuing this treasure, with the help at times of an old, slightly corrupt metal detector operator (played by a real professional in that job). This being a Romanian movie, the film is slow, deadpan, and deals quite a lot in bureaucratic detail (Romanian law states that any treasure holding historical value should go to the state, and the discoverers should only get a 30% of it, and Costi and Adrian try during the movie several times to see how to get around that law). Considering Romanian movies have some reputation for dourness, I thought this was going to end in tears, but it happily has (without obviously revealing too much about it) a very satisfying ending.
Intriguing Estonian film starts well but it loses momentum in the second part.
Based on a true story, this Estonian film (directed by a Finn) the film is set on 1952, when that country was under Soviet occupation. A man named Endel (Mart Avandi) arrives to a small Estonian town from Leningrad. He is obviously on the run from Soviet authorities, though we never get to know much of the back story. He presents himself to a school asking for a teaching job. He is given the physical education class, only problem is the school has no sporting equipment for the children. One day he finds in a drawer at the school a fencing sword and he starts playing with it. A girl sees him and asks him to train her in fencing. At first he refuses, but eventually announces in the school board there will be a fencing class on Saturday. To his surprise, a lot of students appear on Saturday, wanting to learn fencing. Despite his lack of charisma, the fencing classes are successful, even though they are disliked by the school director who see the sport as a remnant of a feudal past, but is outvoted by the school's parents. Eventually, Endel is so successful in training the children that he is invited to a tournament in Leningrad. The problem is that going there could blow his cover.
This is not a perfect film, it starts well, but it loses momentum in the second part. The Russians and their collaborators in Estonia (like the school director) are caricatures. And in parts of the movie, the story seems undeveloped, as when Endel starts a relationship with a woman teacher in the school.
There is a cameo as a politically persecuted grandfather of one of the boys in the school of Lembit Ufsak, who starred in the more interesting Oscar nominated Estonian film Tangerines.
Very fine courtroom drama from Israel
This Israeli film is the final part of a trilogy dealing with the life of a middle aged Orthodox Jewish couple, Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz, who also co directed with her brother Shlomi) and her husband Elisha. Unfortunately, I haven't seen the two previous movies, so is possible that I missed some of the background story, though we do get a lot of information about the characters in this long (almost two hour) film.
In this third part, Viviane has already left her husband Elisha for some years and is now asking for a divorce. In Israel, though, there is no civil marriage or divorce, and all this matters are handled by a rabbinical court. In the movie, the three judges handling the case are generally unsympathetic with Viviane's arguments (all the action in this movie, that takes place during several years, happens in a small courtroom, except for a few scenes that take place in the adjacent waiting room).
Viviane no longer loves Elisha, but in the view of the court, this is not enough justification to grant a divorce. Especially, since Elisha is a devout Jew, has never hit her, never cheated on her with another woman, and has always provided for her. She can only get a divorce if Elisha agrees to one, something he is unrelentingly opposed to give.
Though the movie sides with Viviane, it gets points for not making Elisha (nicely played by Simon Abkarian) an obvious villain. He is silent and taciturn. His reasons to reject a divorce are not obviously clear in the movie. He could be doing out of spite, or it could be just male pride, or perhaps, as a pious believer, he simply believes he cannot grant her a divorce if he hasn't broken any traditional marital commandment.
I did like this movie a lot, but in my opinion there are a few scenes which strikes false notes. One scene has a neighbor of the couple, a middle aged housewife testifying in favor of the husband. Viviane's lawyer, in the cross examination, makes clear she did so because she is afraid of her husband, a rude shopkeeper. Another false scene (in my opinion) has Elisha''s brother (who is also his lawyer) accusing Viviane's lawyer of having an affair with her client.
At times, Viviane argues with Elisha in French. Though this is not explained in the movie, I think this is because both are Sephardic Jews from Morocco, and French, and not Hebrew, is their native language.
Very interesting courtroom drama from India
An enthralling courtroom drama from India. Set in Mumbai, the film is about a 65 year old folk singer and social activist accused of inciting a suicide after one of his songs performed in a street festival apparently cause a sewerage worker to kill himself. The singer denies the charge, and in fact it is not even clear whether this was a suicide or an accident. A long trial, full of arcane procedures and where the activist has all the cards stacked against him, ensues.
Interestingly, all of the characters in the trial come from different classes. The judge, a particularly distasteful individual, comes from the highest class milieu (we get this only from a coda at the end), the defending lawyer comes from what in India would be an upper middle class (he clearly has taken this case for idealistic reasons, not monetary gain), the female prosecutor from a lower middle class, and the folk singer himself belongs clearly to the working class. On the bottom of the social ladder are the dead janitor and his widow, which are almost certainly illiterate.
Perhaps one of the few flaws in the movie is that we did not get to know enough of the accused. He has a life long history of social protest and radical activism, but is not clear in the movie, at least to a non Indian, what are the views he has held that the Government finds so offensive. Is he an advocate of Dalit rights? Of regional separatism? (the prosecutor accuses him at one point of endangering India's integrity). The movie focuses more on the other characters in the trial (we also see part of their daily life) than in the singer.
The Gardener (2012)
Interesting, thought provoking
One of the first surprises of this documentary is director Mohsen Makhmalbaf defining himself right at the beginning as not (longer) a Muslim. The once militant filmmaker has lived for quite some years now outside Iran, clearly disillusioned with its politics and the use of religion by the regime.
In this film we see him in Israel (Iran's number one enemy, no less) exploring the subject of religion, looking in particular at the Baha'i faith, which was originally founded in Iran in the mid 19th century, but after being persecuted in its native country has now its headquarters in Haifa (the movie will give you a good overview of the history of this religion). Baha'is are famously pacifist, and have many positions, regarding the environment, the position of women, etc. which would be considered progressive. So Makhmalbaf wants to show us that not all religions are oppressive, and that since religion has an undoubtedly powerful hold on many humans, it is better to use its power for the good. The position of his son is the opposite, he believes all religions are oppressive, so we should better get rid of all of them. From this debate between father and son, the movie gives us a good point/counterpoint.
Intercalated with their debates about religion, we have interviews with Baha'i followers who have come to the World Center from all parts of the world (there is for example a gardener working in the beautiful gardens who is from Papua New Guinea). The close-ups of flowers, trees and other elements in the gardens gives a nice pantheistic feel to the movie.
Third Person Singular Number (2009)
Starts well, but ends up disappointingly
This film from Bangladesh has an interesting first half, but it goes down dramatically in the last half. When the movie begins, we see a young woman named Ruba (played by the beautiful, charming Nustar Imroz Tisha) walking aimlessly at night in the streets of Dhaka. This naturally catches the attention of local people as well as the police. After the police detains her, we get to learn her story. Her husband has been arrested for homicide and potentially awaits a long detention, and her parents in laws have expelled her from the house, never having approved her marriage with their son in the first place. Now homeless, after the police let her go the next morning, she goes around trying to rent a room to stay, a very difficult task for a single woman in conservative Bangladesh. The few men willing to rent to her expect sex in exchange.
This first half is very interesting and well filmed. Unfortunately, after about an hour of running time (I'm sorry, I'm giving a key plot point now, you can stop reading here if you wish) there is a ridiculous twist that acts as a sort of Deus ex Machina: she meets a childhood friend, who happens to be a very famous and rich pop artist, who is so noble that he is willing to help her no strings attached. She slowly falls in love with him, but on the other hand she can't forget her husband, especially after he is released from prison. And thus, just when we thought we were seeing a hard hitting film dealing with social issues about poverty, loneliness, the status of women in conservative societies, we end up instead with a bad soap opera.
Atomic Power (1946)
Fascinating curio if you are interested in the history of nuclear weapons
Interesting short length documentary (with a running time less than 20 minutes) made in 1946 by the March of Time series about America's Manhattan Project with the nuclear scientists reenacting the scenes of their momentous work just a year after the Hiroshima bomb. We see Einstein, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, Lawrence, Compton, Urey, Rabi, Vannevar Bush, General Groves and others playing themselves. One memorable scene has some of the reputable scientists reenacting a scene where they duck to the ground for cover when the Trinity test bomb is about to explode. And also reenacted are some of the administrative maneuvering needed to get the bomb project started. If you are interested in the subject of the history of the atomic bomb, this is an interesting curiosity for this fact, not for the scientific stuff that is more or less elementary.
Not perfect, but interesting
In a rural village in present day Bangladesh (though sometimes the village seems to have frozen in time, at times only the presence of cell phones tell us we are in the present), a strict religious elder, called the Uncle by the scared locals, has banned the presence of television, among other things, as he believes the Koran bans the creation of images. This is not well taken by the local community, who seems less bothered by the coming of modernity than he is. A subplot has the tentative, clandestine and obviously chaste romance between a pretty vivacious girl called Kohinoor, that seems to represent a more modern face of the country and the cowed son of the Uncle.
Since I have never been to Bangladesh, I don't know how realistic this film is. The movie is interesting and never boring, though it sometimes goes over the top. A more subtle approach would have served it better. For instance, the village leader is almost always portrayed as an ignorant thug, a petty tyrant over his fellow villagers. A sign of his ignorance is that his desire to go to the Hajj crashes down when he realizes that he needs a passport, yet taking a photo for it is a big no no according to his beliefs. Only in the final scene, we are able to empathize a little with him.
In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Great movie, stunningly filmed, surprisingly compelling
A terrific adventure movie directed by Ron Howard, whose movies I generally don't like. Here, though, he has come up with a very entertaining film and a nice, intelligent take on Moby Dick.
The movie's ingenious framing device has a young Hermann Melville (played by Ben Whishaw) in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1850 trying to interview an initially reluctant old shipwreck from a whaling boat, expecting he will give him some interesting material for his new book. The shipwreck (played by Brendan Gleeson) finally is enticed (a bit by money and a bit by the pleadings of his wife) to tell Melville the haunting story of the Essex, which really happened some thirty years earlier. The movie then goes, in a flashback that lasts for the rest of its running time, to tell that story: Chris Hemsworth is Owen Chase, the temperamental first mate, who comes from a working class background, has a lot of experience in successful whaling and wants to become a captain for the next mission. But the whaling company decides to give the captaincy to the young, snobbish George Pollard (played by Benjamin Walker, who looks a lot like a young Colin Firth), who happens to be the son of one of the owners, and will soon shown himself to be insecure and inexperienced. As the old, wooden boat weathers its first storm in the Atlantic, it is clear that Pollard' seafaring abilities are no match for Chase. The Essex then crosses to the Pacific to hunt whales, but the whaling grounds are depleted. On advice from an old sailor they met at a stop in Ecuador, Pollard decides to go 2,000 miles west of South America, a very remote place far from any regular ships at the time. There they will eventually find a large shoal of whales, but also more than they bargained for (I won't reveal more about the plot, but being a take on Moby Dick you will probably imagine which way it will go).
Entertainingly and stunningly filmed (Howard had the benefit of a large budget), the only drawback is that the constant moving of the camera during the sea scenes might make you a bit dizzy at times.
Travellers & Magicians (2003)
Beautiful movie with a message
In Travellers and Magicians, Bhutanese director Khyentse Norbu (The Cup) tells us two parallel stories that deliver one message - happiness is usually found in the simpler things in life.
The protagonist of this gentle film is a man called Dondup, a young, highly Westernized civil servant, who works in a small village in the Himalayas and dreams of migrating to America (as indication of his westernization, we see him listening to rock music in a portable stereo). One day, he receives a long expected letter, indicating a visa to the US is waiting for him in the Bhutanese capital of Thimbu. Unfortunately, he just misses the bus (which appears in the village only sporadically) so he decides to hitchhike to the capital. Along the road, he meets people representing a simpler side of life: an apple seller, a Buddhist monk, and a maker of traditional rice paper and his beautiful teenage daughter.
To pass the time, the monk starts telling the group a story, which is the framework for the film's second, parallel story: a fugitive finds refuge in a remote forest, in the house of an elderly woodcutter. The woodcutter has a far younger wife, to which the fugitive starts feeling increasingly attracted, and this attraction is reciprocated by her. The fugitive's attraction for the woodcutter's daughter is the mirror of the increasing feelings of Dondup towards the paper maker's daughter in the first story. Eventually, Dondup will realize that the simpler things in life are usually the best ones.
A homage to visionaries
This two and a half hour German film released in 1982 is one of Werner Herzog's best movies. It reads mostly as a homage to crazy visionaries, people whom Herzog clearly identifies with. Based on a true story, but taking considerable liberties with the truth, this film tells the story of one Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski, who is terrific), an opera mad Irish entrepreneur living in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon in the late 19th century. Fitzgerald was called Fitzcarraldo by the locals, who found his original name difficult to pronounce. A plan by him to build a railway crossing the Andes had failed, and his next project of making ice wasn't going anywhere. After a talk with a rubber baron, he came up with a new plan: to exploit rubber in a very remote part of the Amazon rain forest and with the profits made from the venture build an opera house in Iquitos. For that purpose, he buys a river boat with money from the madam of a brothel (played by Claudia Cardinale) who sympathizes with him. He hires a rowdy crew to accompany him in his boat to his jungle tract, including a nearsighted captain, a drunken cook and a giant Indian called Cholo. Now, the area where he had the concession to exploit rubber trees could only be accessed through a river with impossible rapids to cross. But a navigable river ran nearby, and he came up with the idea of carrying the whole boat between the rivers with the help of nearby Indians. Only problem, those Indians were hostile head hunters, known to kill previous trespassers in the area. And to make things worse, the terrain where the portage of the boat took place was not plain but was rather a steep hill (apparently, the real Fitzcarraldo did carry a boat through a hill, only he disassemble first into pieces, and later assemble it back in the nearby river).
In a superb extender scene, Fitzcarraldo manages to get the Indians to carry the boat to the other river, but after wards, things start unraveling badly. But just when the film looks like is going to have a downbeat ending, Herzog pulls out a surprisingly heartwarming finale, which I won't reveal here but in which Fitzcarraldo partly fulfills his dreams - though some reviewers find it anticlimactic compared with the scene of the boat going up the hill.
Originally Jason Robards was going to play Fitzcarraldo, with Mick Jagger playing his sidekick. Eventually, Robards got a tropical disease during the filming and had to bow out on medical advice, and Jagger also abandoned the shooting due to his musical commitments with the Rolling Stones (by the way, there is some footage around the Internet showing Robards and Jagger playing their characters and is clear that they would have been dreadful in the movie). Herzog decided to call Kinski, who doesn't look Irish at all, but had the right crazy intensity for the character, while writing off Jagger's role. By casting Kisnki, the movie turn into a German speaking film, which looks incongruous in a film set in the Peruvian Amazon, though you will eventually suspend your disbelief.
Entotsu no mieru basho (1953)
Interesting and fluid movie from the classical period of Japanese cinema
An interesting film from the classical period of Japanese cinema, the 1950s. The action takes place in a poor neighborhood around Tokyo (which seems almost a slum) during the hard years of the early postwar in Japan. Near the neighborhood are located four giant smoke spewing chimneys. A motif in the film is that depending on where you are located, a chimney can cover other one, so you only see three, or even two of them (this is alluded in the Japanese title).
In a modest house in the neighborhood lives salary man Ogata (Ken Uehara), with his long suffering wife Hiroko, a war widow (played by Mizoguchi regular Kinuyo Tanaka). In the second floor, two tenants live in different rooms, a young man and a woman (she is played by the great actress Hideko Takamine), who slowly seems to be falling in love. Though they are quite poor and struggle to make ends meet, Ogata and Hiroko live a seemingly tranquil life, only interrupted by his jealousy when he learns that unknown to him, and in order to earn a few more yens for the household she has taken a job as a seller in the bicycle race track stadium. Their seeming happiness is suddenly interrupted when someone, apparently her former husband she has claimed died in the war, leaves a crying baby in their house. The couple not only has to deal now with the baby but also with her seeming dishonesty about her past.
The cultural mores and some melodramatic flourishes of the movie seem dated now, but the film is interesting, the direction well paced and the camera-work fluid. Directed by Heinosuke Gosho.
Orchestra Wives (1942)
Great for the music, the story is OK
After the unexpected success of Sun Valley Serenade in 1941, 20th Century Fox tried the next year with the same formula, a romantic comedy with Glenn Miller's music and the great jazz man himself in a speaking part as the leader of a traveling jazz band touring small town America. The film is less fluffy, we have no Sonja Henie here, and a more serious script, yet the film is not as successful, in my opinion. The best part, naturally, are the musical numbers. I've got a gal in Kalamazoo closes the film but there are many others (At Last, People like you and me).
The story of the trumpet player (George Montgomery) marrying an ingénue (the sweet Ann Rutherford) he met as his fan in some small town and the reactions and jealousy this causes in other members of the band is interesting up to a point. Amusingly, the scene of the seduction of the ingénue, with the trumpet guy basically forcing a kiss from her, would never be shown today in a contemporary film, unless the guy was a clear villain. Archie Mayo directed. Also with Cesar Romero, Tex Beneke, the luminous Marion Hutton and Lynn Bari.
Important, timely film - and very well made, too
Given the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East, with the rise of militant Jihadism, this film (a nominee for the Foreign Language Oscar) is quite timely. It tells the story of the occupation of the famous North African city of Timbuktu by a Jihadist group in 2012. The militants are cruel, ignorant and narrow minded but are also something of a bumbling crowd. They ban all sorts of things like music, playing soccer, smoking cigarettes, not wearing socks or women selling fish without wearing gloves, promising whiplashes or worse for those who disobey these rules. They are also hypocrites since they themselves smoke when no one sees them or comment on European football teams. The inhabitants of the city are afraid but on occasions some of them, like the local imam, talk back to the militants accusing them of distorting Islam (would they do so in real life?). The central story (there are many peripheral ones) has a cattle herder in the area got in the eyes of the Jihadists when he ends up killing a fisherman in a dispute that gets out of hand.
The beautiful photography is a major plus. The exotic locations (at least for those who have never been there) also adds interest to the film. Set in Mali, produced by French investors, but filmed in Mauritania by Mauritanian born, Russian educated Abderrahmane Sissako. In Arabic and other languages of the area (like Bambara).