City Of God
Carrying the torch for Brazilian cinema and then running ten miles with it, lugging it into the new century, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s epic masterpiece, City Of God, still stands as one of the best films of the 21st century so far. Picking up the torch from Hector Babenco’s 1981 film, Pixote, another film about children in Brazil’s crime-ridden ghettos, City Of God deserves ranking with the best of epic crime cinema. A shallow, but apt comparison may be a kiddie Godfellas with the razzmatazz style of Boogie Nights.
Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, spanning from the '60s through the early '80s, City Of God tells the story of the drug wars in the urban sprawl around Rio de Janeiro. Apparently based on the real life story of a Brazilian photographer named Wilson Rodriguez - here renamed Rocket (and acted well by Alexandre Rodrigues) - the story moves back and forth in time as we follow Rocket and the different young people he gets involved with over the years. Growing up in a more rural slum, Rocket’s brother Goose and his little crime posse get involved with a botched motel robbery that turns into a murder massacre when an 11-year old psycho named Li’l Dice gets his hand on a gun. Trying to escape with his girlfriend, Goose’s partner Shaggy is killed by the "shoot first" cops, while Goose is killed by Li’l Dice.Continue Reading
“The Clown is a mirror in which men see a grotesque, crooked, goofy image of themselves. It's the shadow within us. It will always be there.” — Federico Fellini The Clowns is Fellini's way of breathing life back into the circus. At once whimsical and sad, the lifestyle and acts of it are thought to be near extinction. Surely in America, France, and Italy, the lifestyle of a carny and the pleasures of the circus have dwindled. Fellini revisits a boyhood experience of seeing the circus come to town and being one of the few who were disturbed by the clowns featured there. He compared them to real people in his village: bums, alcholoics, and perverts who dress in rags and had terrible grins on their faces. Their dopey and mischievous demeanor reminded him, as a child, of the worst mankind had to offer. But as an adult, the director was given the chance to direct a film for television. The idea to do something for television intrigued him because he knew nothing about it and it posed a challenge. He gathered a team and explored France and Italy, filming a movie that is as much of a document about the art of the circus as it is a semi-autobiographical divergence into a world breached within almost all of his feature films.
Pulled by what the director deems to be a purely “subjective” and “emotion” attachment to filmmaking, The Clowns is considerably different than his other films, yet plays with the same familiar themes. Presenting the circus as a unique experience full of characters that mirror and mask the tragic and comical aspects of life, the movie is a great feat based on the thoroughness of this exploration alone. However, the movie goes deeper into the depressing and realistic side of traveling acts, as was done in one of my favorite of his films, La Strada. It also exposed the mystery behind every detail of circus acts, down to the development of costumes. My favorite among these is the story behind the White Clowns, known to most from their appearances in pantomimes and more regal circuses. Their embellished and extravagant costumes, supposedly designed by either the clowns' wives or fashion designers, brings a sort of avant-garde runway appeal to their beauty.Continue Reading
What is the message behind films that intertwine unrelated characters? Where does the relevancy of “six degrees of separation” show itself in such a story? There is a vast difference between the various methods in which this plot is used. Some directors, like Quentin Tarantino, used it for suspense. In Pulp Fiction, characters met at random intervals and changed the course of the action, or in some cases sequences were jumbled so that suspense and interest could be built. Many foreign films, including AmÃ©lie, Dog Days, and AlmodÃ³var's Bad Education present this technique as something cathartic and full of important lessons in love and life. There seems to be a touch of destiny leading characters to their fate, and thus these are a statement on humanity and inevitability. The effect can be either beautiful or hopeless, but they all have one thing in common: they rely on the presence of a person or series of people to start the chain of events.
Carnage is different in that respect. While it does open with a bullfighter in Spain, it is not his presence that begins the action. Facing him in the ring is a bull with a secret. It appears normal, but was born half-blind. This rare trait gives the beast an advantage. His adversary in the ring cannot notice that it's different until they've begun. All probability and familiarity with its movement is absent. The skill and experience of the fighter is no match for a bull that doesn't fit a general pedigree, and the man is struck by the beast. But the fighter was brave and very skilled; the bull suffered several blows and ultimately bled to death. Its body is butchered and, according to custom, certain parts are given to the fighter. Others are more valuable and sold around the world. The bull's limbs and bones are shipped to Belgium, France, and Spain until they find suitable markets. The people who take a part of the bull end up finding pain, redemption, death, and in some cases, each other.Continue Reading
Dillinger is Dead
The essay by Michael Joshua Rowin included with this film seems to approach the film's historical aspects, presenting its theme as an overflowing aggression from the director in the turbulent '60s. Rowin addresses the fact that Ferreri - unlike his peers Antonioni, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and Fellini - made films that went against the norm and were arguably ahead of their time. For Ferreri, the '60s meant the drastic change in the importance of politics and culture, which was replaced by materialism, technological stimulus, and constant protest. He claims that Dillinger is Dead is Ferreri's “angriest” work, and that its masculinity shines through its use of a war-friendly atmosphere, "weak" female characters, and phallic symbols. There is no argument that Ferreri was tackling the changes in his world in a way that requires some delving into and critique. My review of Dillinger is Dead is not to go against those made by Rowin and other critics, but to give a different understanding of the lead character. From someone who is familiar with the films of Ferreri's peers, and other Foreign New-Wave directors, there was something fantastic about this film that has nothing to do with political and social change—a quality that is a bit more universal and relevant.
The protagonist of the film doesn't have a name outside of the script, in which he's named Glauco. He manufactures gas masks and is dissatisfied with his work. A colleague gives a long metaphorical monologue on the need to protect people from a deadly society and the alienation that has derived from such protection. Glauco returns home to find a cold and mediocre meal left for him and a beautiful wife who would rather nod off on pills than join him at dinner. Glauco returns to the meal and refuses to eat it. He has a vision of steak and starts to make his own gourmet dinner from a cookbook. While searching for ingredients in the kitchen, he stumbles upon a pile of old magazines in a cupboard. He notices an object wrapped in a dated newspaper. Inside is an old and rusted gun, and the paper is the front page that announced the violent death of Public Enemy # 1, John Dillinger. The gun fascinates him, and it appears to belong to the notorious criminal. He starts to take it apart as he cooks, oiling every part of it and adoring its complexity. His maid, Sabina, enters the story as a lazy, but pretty young woman who doesn’t seem to do any housework. He watches television, soaking in a world that he's removed from—a world with changing technology and young girls who are interviewed on make-up and miniskirts.Continue Reading
It's not easy to heap praise on Mel Gibson. His apparent personal conduct and views are completely unappealing and, worse, totally offensive. On screen Gibson started out with a bang in the Mad Max films and was entertaining in the first Lethal Weapon movie, but otherwise his performances and choices of roles have not been very memorable. As a director, I couldn’t slog through his The Passion of the Christ; Man Without A Face was trite; and Braveheart was an overrated piece of hokum. All that aside, it’s easy to declare that his Mayan action adventure film, Apocalypto, is pretty damn brilliant, maybe even a sorta-whacked out masterpiece.
The film takes place in 16th century Central America near the end of the Mayan period, just before the arrival of the Spanish. It’s shot completely in the Yucatan Maya language with unknowns and non-actors, indigenous North Americans. In some ways the film is actually one long, exciting, and very brutal chase scene. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), low on his tribe's totem pole, witnesses his tribe being slaughtered and enslaved. He hides his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and child and goes on an adventure worthy of Playstation. After killing of some of the raiders he is captured by the psychotic Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and led to the Mayan city, a much more advanced and destructive place than anything the young villager had experienced before. Jaguar Paw manages to escape after much horrific torture and human sacrifices, and is chased as he tries to get back to save his family. It’s a delirious obstacle death course of horror, as he has to make his way through the jungle using all his survival skills to outwit his captors.Continue Reading
Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.
Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.Continue Reading
The Model Couple
The Model Couple is not science-fiction, though it does induce the same paranoia and anxiety about the future that some of those films do. And while it is a story about people whose lives are on display for the world, it in no way resembles movies like The Truman Show.
The film exaggerates the borders where privacy and personal freedoms are obscured, if not removed, by a totalitarian government. Set in 1970s France, The Ministry of the Future, an organization claiming to try and make "a new city for a new man," is executing an outrageous experiment. They've chosen a seemingly “normal” Caucasian married couple to be the poster-children for their efforts. Claudine (Anémone) and Jean-Michel (André Dussollier) have been married for a couple of years. Claudine takes care of the home and Jean-Michel is the breadwinner. The two are thrilled to be chosen to represent all of France. They are brought to a compound where they will arrange a new life with the help of the Ministry, in a place dubbed "The Model Home."Continue Reading
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
When choosing where to start in a director's filmography, I've always enjoyed picking at random. Recommendations tend to be fairly overwhelming and a total buzz kill. The themes of Fassbinder's films were always intriguing to me, and since I enjoy seeing filmmakers break down and interpret romantic relationships, I started with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The film surpassed my expectations in terms of human dynamics by exposing a character's relationship to the women in her life in such a constricting setting, from her lover down to her servant.
Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is as far removed from an overnight success as a person could get. As a fashion designer in Germany, she had to go through the process of constant rejection and a humiliating divorce before being taken seriously in her field. These experiences have turned her into a cynic in matters of work and love. Her daughter is away at boarding school and she lives alone with her servant/secretary/assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Marlene's role as a servant in her home goes far beyond the orthodox. In a sense, she's a broken extension of Petra, living vicariously through her disgrace and vanity. You get the feeling that she once aspired to be a self-sustaining fashion designer, but found herself tailoring not only Petra's designs, but her mess of an existence.Continue Reading
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.
The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.
What to Do in Case of Fire
Tangents are something I try to avoid, but this film brought to mind a certain phenomenon that helped me relate to and understand its energy. When a person gets their first tattoo or piercing, especially when they're young, they'll often be met with a patronizing lecture from an elder. The question, “Do you want that on your skin when you're old?” is usually the first of the interrogation, the second being, “Is what the tattoo means really that important?” Like many youngsters, I got my first tattoo and felt marked and personalized at the time. I was an individual who saw herself devoted to certain things; I wanted to carry them with me always. A few years passed and I became less outspoken and devoted to other things. By early adulthood, my piercings had been removed, my hair was no longer tousled and my subversive literature was donated to the Goodwill. There wasn't a loathing for the tattoos—the only thing I couldn't get rid of and the only thing linking me to my past self. The feeling towards them was more fascination. I learned to wear the markings with pride, though it had nothing to do with the symbols or what they represented. They have crystallized many feelings that I used to have; aggression, radicalism, passion, and overpowering self-love. I look at them to be reminded of that.
What to Do in Case of Fire is the story of punk anarchists who grew up and, for the most part, carried on lives that would have been considered "selling out" in their youth. The year was 1987, and a group of young people were fed up with their unsuccessful riots and the obscurity of their homemade propaganda films. They decided to make one final film, How to Make a Homemade Bomb, and, using chemicals, feces, and a cooking pan, they tell their non-existent audience how to assemble the bomb, dispose of the evidence and leave it in an abandoned building. The bomb didn't go off, though.