Uzak (Distant)

Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002. Starring: Muzaffer Özdemir, Emin Toprak. Foreign/Asian Cinema.

Everyone’s paying homage to Tarkovsky nowadays, it seems, albeit often losing something in the translation. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the few directors (along with Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, Malian Souleymane Cissé and Iranian Abbas Kiarostami) who thankfully picks up not only on Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, but also his humanism and subtle humor.

Ceylan makes no attempts to hide his most obvious cinematic inspiration; using Bach in a library scene, referring to the Soviet director in a speech among artists, and in one scene even using one of the master’s films to bore his unsophisticated house guest into going to bed so that his host can watch porn in peace. In the special features, Ceylan also professes a debt, not surprisingly, to Anton Chekov and Yasujirō Ozu. A short film included on the DVD, Koza, is even more overt in its aspirations to reflect Tarkovsky.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2010 2:32pm

Control

Dir: Anton Corbijn, 2007. Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara. Drama.

When 24 Hour Party People came out, I overheard a lot of dour Raincoat types leaving the theater expressing their wish that whole film had been about Ian Curtis and not those awful acid house Blue Tuesdays or whatever was going on after Ian Curtis' death, at which point their lot zoned out 'til the credits. I thought of how awful that would be - a film about Joy Division. Biopics are always so suspect. Myth-making, made-for-cable garbage with chest-beating and hammy impressions instead of acting... you know, the kind of thing the Oscars are made of. Thankfully, Control is not like that.

Control is directed by Anton Corbijn, which I didn't know till the end. Whatever you think of the guys videos, he has an eye for arresting (if sometimes comically dour) imagery. He's also Dutch and therefore a natural fit for Joy Division’s world which is black and white and eternally wintery, even in the summer – like World War II movies.

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Eric Brightwell
Feb 14, 2009 1:12pm

Tagebuch einer verlorenen (Diary of a lost girl)

Dir: Georg Wilhelm Pabst. 1929. Starring: Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, Edith Meinhard. Silent/Foreign Film.

Had Tagebuch einer verlorenen come out before Die Büchse der Pandora, it would possibly be regarded as the superior film. The reasons filmschoolies seem to champion the earlier film are usually contextual. It had the first onscreen depiction of lesbians, it was the first collaboration between Pabst and Louise Brooks and it is, unquestionably, an amazing film. If you need further proof, the always safe and predictable Criterion released the first and Kino the latter. Viewed side-by-side, there’s little between the two films and the relatively lower stature of Tagebuch einder verlorenen seems to stem more from underexposure than under-appreciation.

With this film, Pabst presents one of the earliest (possibly the first) example of the Women in Prison film. Although technically not set in prison, the reform school setting is a common variation of the subgenre and allows for the same sorts of exploitation – sadism, lesbianism and repression of an innocent forced to endure cruel conditions. Pabst is, somewhat ironically, often praised for his sympathetic portrayals of the plights of women, but here (as with his earlier work) he seems to revel in the lurid situations he creates. Beginning with Die freudlose Gasse (1925) and continuing with Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927) and Büchse der Pandora (1929); Pabst’s heroines are variously unloved, duped, raped, forced into prostitution and murdered. The relentless brutality, at frequent instances, approaches camp in that Teutonic manner where comedy and horror comfortably co-exist.

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Eric Brightwell
Sep 8, 2008 4:03pm

Herr Arnes pengar (Sir Arne’s treasure)

Dir: Mauritz Stiller. 1919. Starring: Mary Johnson, Richard Lund, Erik Stocklassa. Silent Film/Foreign.

Subtitled “a winter ballad in 5 acts,” Herr Arne’s adventure is a bleak and beautiful masterpiece of Swedish Cinema. In the 16th century, a gang of conspiring Scotsmen are banished from the country except for their leaders, who’re locked up in a tower. They promptly escape, disguise themselves as journeymen tanners and go on a murderous rampage, looting the titular treasure from the kindly Herr Arne’s vicarage.

When they try to beat the retreat, the bellicose rogues find themselves iced in and forced to wait out the harsh winter. In the process of checking the ice, one of the evildoers (Sir Archie) falls for the sole survivor of their rampage, the young, adopted daughter of the vicar, Ellasil. She falls for him too and, before long, they figure out where their lives have intersected before. Haunted by ghostly visions, Sir Archie even recalls stabbing his beloved’s sister in the heart. And yet, their new love proves unassailable – though they’re understandably wracked with guilt and sullenly accepting of their inevitable ends.

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Eric Brightwell
Sep 6, 2008 6:09pm

Schatten: Eine Nachtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows)

Dir: Arthur Robison. 1923. Starring: Fritz Kortner, Ruth Weyher, Gustav Von Wagenheim. Silent Films.

Schatten begins with a five minute introduction to the film’s players, who are trotted out like the foils in a police lineup onto an actual stage where they’re identified with intertitles. After this lengthy prologue, the film abandons the use of titles altogether and embraces the purely visual ideal of silent films (predating Murnau’s efforts which are usually credited as the first to do the same.)

In the 19th century, a slightly touched travelling illusionist performs shadow puppetry for the assembled guests at a wealthy baron’s dinner party. The host’s wife is pursued quite unashamedly by four otherworldly effeminate guests who openly and continuously wink and purse their lips. This effrontery quite rankles the woman’s husband (who looks like Orson Welles crossed with Kelsey Grammer). In one scene, the fops appear to grope the baron’s wife in a public ménage a quatre, but it turns out to be shadowplay. If this seems like bad behavior, it’s because it is. And the moral of the puppeteer’s story is brutal. Already confused and disoriented by phantasmagoric shadows, reflections and misleading silhouettes, the puppeteer’s curiously timely tale pushes the partygoers over the edge and the viewer is pulled along with them.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Aug 30, 2008 1:50pm

俠女A Touch of Zen

Dir. King Hu. Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Roy Chao. Mandarin. Asian Cinema/Martial Arts/Fantasy.

A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.

Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.

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Eric Brightwell
Aug 22, 2008 9:46pm

Sword of Doom

Dir: Kihachi Okamoto.1966. Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune. Japanese. Martial Arts/Asian Cinema

大菩薩峠 literally translates to “The pass of the great Buddha” which is a much more evocative and memorable name than the calculatedly generic “Sword of Doom.” Despite being one of my favorite films of all time, I usually get it wrong as it’s so vague and unmemorable. In my (and many others’) opinion, it’s the greatest example of the martial arts sub-genre of chanbara which are Japanese period films focused sword fighting.

The film is based on the serialized, newspaper-published stories written by Buddhist author Kaizan Nakazato beginning in 1913. Over three decades he wrote and published new segments until his death. Sword of Doom isn’t the first time the stories have been adapted for film, but it is the most highly regarded.

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Eric Brightwell
Aug 22, 2008 9:40pm

Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)

Dir: Zacharias Kunuk. 2001. Starring: Natar Ungalaaq, Sylvia Ivalu, Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq. Inuktitut. Foreign/Fantasy.

Atanarjuat is set roughly 1,000 years ago in the Inuit village of Igloolik. The plot is based on an ancient legend about a community under the curse of an evil shaman and torn apart by human failings. One man, the heroic Atanarjuat, goes on a Homeric quest and offers change.

The screenplay came from writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s interviews with eight Inuit elders whose stories he combined and fleshed out and added personal touches. Sadly, he died of cancer during production. The film, shot on digital cameras, takes a Dogma-like approach that places the viewer in the middle of the action. The affect is akin to watching a pre-millennial episode of COPS set in the tundra.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Aug 9, 2008 3:34pm

Beshkempir

Dir: Aktan Abdykalykov. 1998. Starring: Mirlan Abdykalykov , Adir Abilkassimov, Mirlan Cinkozoev. Kyrgyz. Asian Cinema/Foreign.

Beshkempir is a simple entwicklungsroman set in Bar-Boulak, Krygyzstan in 1960. It begins with a scene in which an infant is passed between women over a colorful rug. The women ritualistically intone, "This is not my son, this is not my son, but may his path in life be full of joy!" He is swaddled and placed into a cradle alongside a wooden bowl and a set of asiks (dice made from the knee bones of a lamb). They name him Beshkempir and he is taken in by a childless couple. From here on, we witness a world dominated by women and focused on children. The possible implication is that many of the Kyrgyz men died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. What few men are present usually are engaged in solitary activities like fishing or drinking vodka. The different generations of women seem to preserve the link to both the past and the future.

The film then jumps ahead 12 years to Beshkempir’s onset of puberty and is from here on is mostly shot in stark, poetic black & white. Beshkempir’s adoptive parents are strangely distant and reserved. Only his grandmother is openly affectionate. As a young man, Beshkempir’s attention is now divided between work, his friends and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. He and his friends eagerly spy on a woman bathing. Beshkempir and his best friend become interested in their neighbor, Aynura. Tempers flare and during a fight Beshkempir learns that he’s adopted. His father hits him for his role in the embarrassing situation and the boy runs away. He returns following a death in the family and is thrust further into adulthood as he is put in the position of settling the deceased’s earthly affairs.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:37pm

Dolls

Dir: Takeshi Kitano. 2002. Starring: H. Nishijima, M. Kanno, K. Fukada, T. Mihashi, C. Matsubara. Japanese. Asian Cinema/Foreign

Takeshi Kitano’s directorial works are often separated into two strains where the considerable overlap is conveniently ignored in favor of an artificial dichotomy. On the one hand we have the explosively violent yet introspective crime dramas like Sonatine (ソナチネ), Hana-bi (花-火), and Boiling Point (3-4X10月). Less widely seen (and therefore wrongly characterized) are his quiet, contemplative mood-pieces like A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海), Kikujirō no Natsu (菊次郎の夏) and Kids Return (キッズ・リターン). Dolls is usually placed in the latter camp or as an anomaly as its mixture of familiar ingredients (watching the ocean, yakuza, explosive violence, stoic acceptance of tragedy) from both strains is impossible to ignore.

In the first story, Matsumoto spurns his girlfriend Sawako to marry another woman, at his parents’ insistence. Sawako loses both her mind and ability to take care of herself as a result. Matsumoto attempts to fix things by binding himself to her with a red cord. Together they wordlessly wander through stunning, artificial landscapes of amazing beauty steeped with sadness.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jul 7, 2008 3:16pm
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