…the walls wouldn’t have to do it for them. That could be the moral of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s second feature film, The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2009) in a nutshell.

Never since Werner Herzog shot films in Peru have the actual, real surroundings been characters in a film. Each scene is carefully composed and shot to perfection, without seeming composed or fake. The colors are breathtaking without being obvious or striking. In both rural and urban settings, this exquisitely photographed film effectively speaks, thinks and breaths in images. It threatens with long shots of empty hills, it meditates on death with the strange church and the cemetery on the hill, it suffocates with the large remains of a soviet factory, it mourns and goes mad by following a rain puddle, and so on. Also, apartment and house interiors are alive, even if sad and dim and grey. They express more than the people who walk around and live in them, people who on the surface seem related to each other but in reality are strangers mimicking furniture. A boy says he cut open a doll’s head to see what was inside. He found nothing. So his mother smilingly asks: “What did you expect to find?” The director has clearly seen too many Tarkovskij films (for example, when rain flows through junk, you cannot help but feel in Stalker’s Zone), so you’ll have to be patient with him in terms of plot. A family drama unfolds slowly, painfully, with too many things left unsaid. While it seems that the hills and houses and wooden bridges and trains talk, the characters cannot seem to communicate with each other, which inevitably will lead to tragedy. The director seems to have chosen to express their bonds or connections or estrangements by mechanical sound (that of a phone ringing or a train passing by) rather than by genuine dialogue.
This is the second film of director Andrei Zvyagintsev after the excellent The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003). I wonder how Norwegian beauty from Reconstruction, Maria Bonnevie ended up in this one. No complaints though, first class acting from all actors.

Japanese writer, photographer and inventor Kōbō Abe has often been compared to Kafka and Camus for his existential explorations of human individuality and freedom. But being a photographer and having an eye for surreal images, his texts are often very visual, detailed and overwhelmingly vivid, basically begging to be made into films. Along comes fellow Japanese renaissance man Hiroshi Teshigahara, a master of avant-garde filmmaking, and makes literary history into film history by retelling Kōbō Abe’s existential stories in such a cinematic language that is rarely equaled, never surpassed. Teshigahara not only understands Abe perfectly, but also seems to have a special sensibility for finding just the right frame, just the right image and just the right face to translate existential anxieties to the screen.
Their first collaboration is also the least known, Otoshiana (Pitfall, 1962). A miner and his young son drift from one workplace to another dreaming of security and earning a place in the world. Contracted for a promising new job, the man walks towards his violent death on an abandoned road, and “wakes up” as a ghost, eager to find out why he was killed. The answers, however, are not comforting and cannot bring peace. And most importantly, his death, just as his life, seems to lack any trace of individuality. The thought of sharing a face and of sharing the life and fate of others emerges here for the first time, but it will come back more elaborately in The Face of Another. Here is the official trailer of the film.
Sunna no onna (Woman in the Dunes, 1964) is the unquestionable masterpiece of the Abe-Teshigahara collaborations. A teacher and amateur entomologist is trapped by some villagers into sharing the endless struggle of a woman living among all-invasive sand dunes. The suffocating atmosphere created by the sand, the seemingly useless work of shoveling it every night and the man’s resistance, revolt and ultimate acceptance all allude strongly to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, but with several other layers added to it, such as desperate sexuality, sense of community and endless inventiveness. Here is a video essay instead of a trailer, although you should definitely watch the film first.
Finally, Tanin no kao (The Face of Another, 1966) completes the trilogy with a change of scenery (to the city) that allows for a shift of perspective on previously depicted existential questions, as well as for certain previously untouched issues to emerge (as, for example, that of nuclear war). A man is badly injured in a work accident, his face destroyed and his sense of self shaking. A psychiatrist makes him a mask, copying the face of a random man (incidentally, the actor who played the miner in Pitfall, and who, even in that first film, had his face duplicated) and they start experimenting with the idea of being someone else, free of oneself and of moral standards that come from individuality. This is my favorite of the collaborations, firsts, because the urban context makes the story less allegorical and more easy for me to relate to, second, because of the sheer beauty and complexity of both story and image, and third, because of the much more nuanced female characters who in my opinion sometimes overshadow the male heroes.
Here is the haunting German waltz from the pub scene. All of the three films feature incredibly powerful soundtracks by composer Tôru Takemitsu.

Discovering Guy Maddin

Posted: December 22, 2010 in 3x, Directors, My Preciuos
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Shame on me for not discovering him before! This Canadian director uses a technique similar to silent films and/or early talking films, adorably sad and strange characters in stories as far from clichés as one can get in storytelling. His films are so unique that once you’ve seen one you will recognize the others and want to see them all. Here are just three recommendation, these are also his most famous and accessible films:

The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

This is the story of a crippled beer factory owner who sets out to find the nation with the saddest music in the world as, but ends up reliving loves and traumas of her past. It features two of the most strangely beautiful women, Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rosselini and the unforgettable image of glass artificial legs filled with beer. Also, possibly the funniest line in a film: “I am not an American, I am a Nymphomaniac.”

Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters (2006)

The director returns to his childhood home, a Canadian Island where his parents ran an orphanage, and sets out to repaint the lighthouse while remembering/inventing his tormented and comic-like childhood. No few lines can make justice to the richness and innovativeness of the story. This is also Maddin’s most successful blending of film technique and narrative, as his jumpy, fragmented, blurry images fit perfectly with his stream of consciousness-type memories that mix reality, detective stories, psychosis, sexual awakening, abuse and nostalgia. With the help of this film language it also becomes impossible to tell how much is true and how much is imagination in the hero’s memories.

Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands (2003)

A truly coward hero thrown around by a few beautiful women, especially the vengeful Meta, who wants her dead father’s hand transplanted onto her lover. Since I found no trailer, here is a short film made by the director about the audition.

Enter the Void. Exit Noé

Posted: December 14, 2010 in Directors
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While it looks amazing, bold and unique, Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Enter the Void is very disappointing for a complete lack of things to say. It seems like Noé once again skipped over the scriptwriting phase of movie making (in spite of being listed as co-writer with his wife, I suspect they were doing other things while they should have been writing the script). But this time, unlike in Irréversible, this resulted in a weak story, even for a short film, not to mention a few hours of psychedelic images with some ridiculous rambling about reincarnation. It’s a complete triumph of form and style over content, Noé’s masturbation in film technique performed just for the sake of it, just because he can (for example, the first-person perspective achieved is masterful). Which would be no problem, really, for a short film made by a film student who is eager to show what he can do if given some equipment (it seems that Noé had the idea for this project way before the other films). However, for the director of I Stand Alone and Irréversible it is simply not enough. And in addition to skipping the writing part, Noé obviously also skipped casting and editing. Acting fluctuates between bad and terrible, while editing is basically non-existent, it seems that there were absolutely no directorial decisions to it.

The “story” is of a guy being shot by the Japanese police while dealing drugs (and on drugs) in a club and subsequently floating around and above his sister and friends. Although the film sometimes seems to suggest that this is his “soul” visiting and revisiting his life until conveniently slipping into another body, but knowing Noé’s very much insisted materialistic stance, and taking into consideration the title too, it can (and probably should) be viewed as just the drug-dipped visions of a dying man, in which past and present diverge with The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which the guy was reading when he got shot.

I would say this is only for fans, but I suspect, from my reaction, that it would disappoint them more than others.

3x allegories

Posted: September 14, 2010 in 3x
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Cube, 1997,Vincenzo Natali

This is the ultimate allegory, as it can be interpreted to be political, religious, social, psychological, and so on. Very Kafkaesque.

Punishment Park, 1971, Peter Watkins

An allegory of how some establishments treat difference that threatens their existence.

District 9, 2009, Neil Blomkamp

Aliens representing unwanted immigrants forced into a ghetto. Too bad that the creators couldn’t decide between a powerful social commentary and a boring, conventional action flick.

3x utopias

Posted: September 14, 2010 in 3x
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Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang

The classic utopia, this is such an unbelievably great film that there’s basically nothing else to say about it, just that everyone should watch it at least once.

Brazil, 1985, Terry Gilliam

The bureaucratic utopia.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1984, Michael Radford

The communist utopia, Orwell’s disturbing warnings made into equally astonishing film images.

+ an animated utopia of life underground after it becomes almost impossible above the ground:

Metropia, 2007, Tarik Saleh.

Fortunately, this is not one film. Moreover, this time the annoying is not even a film, but a director and at least two of his films. I am talking about Ken Loach‘s Family Life and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Wow, it must be so nice to be this clear on complex issues, to know exactly who’s right and who’s wrong… So, things are quite simple: Loach seems to possess some sort of magic device that renders him The Truth, but – darnest thing – there are other people who claim another or the opposite view, but these latter people are idiots anyway, so the audience should not worry about them, as long as they (we) pay attention to Loach explain it over and over again, in as many clichés as possible (for, obviously, the audience in just as incapable of thinking and deciding as a bunch of two-year-old children). Consequently, in The Wind that Shakes the Barley the bad guys wear uniforms and scream all the time, nothing intelligible, just utter violent noises… The good guys are sensitive, reflective, eloquent (though a bit maybe too repetitive), and attacked by the bad guys. But, oh, lord, then the good guys turn on each other! Nobody panick, Loach has a clear-cut opinion on this dispute too, and immediately dresses the guys he doesn’t agree with in uniforms, and they also seem to forget to speak for themselves or have arguments (earlier in the film, when they were still with the good guys, they could speak in full sentences…) and just scream and kill the good guys for no reason whatsoever. Top this all with the biggest cliché of brother killing brother, and you have a memorable guide into how to treat complex matters as simplistically as possible.

The other film, Family Life, basically follows the same pattern, but shares with the eager to learn audience Loach’s views on psychological treatments. While I happen to agree with his stance, it just seems ridiculous to me how the “other opinion” is portrait: those doctors, specialists or parents have no arguments at all, they are just mean and stupid, and out to hurt the main character, for some unknown reason.

To be clear, I don’t think I have seen any other Loach films, and I know he has lots. So I admit the possibility that all of his other films are wonderfully balanced and/or posing some questions rather than showing down some answers on the throats of the audience. It might be.

And, to come to the most disturbing film I have seen lately…Oh, my, A Serbian Film! So it’s supposed to be a political allegory? Might be, but it also features some of the most extreme forms of violence ever to attempt at our retinas. I would strongly suggest everybody to stay away from it. I was actually wondering who the target audience of this film might be…There’s  not much to gain intellectually or aesthetically by watching it (although the cinematography is good), so people looking for a political allegory and just a good film, will be disappointed and definitely disgusted. Then again, if someone just wants gore-snuff-porn-violence, then it might be too much story for them to pay attention.