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
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
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
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 Amelie, Dog Days, and Almodovar'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
“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
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
While there are about a hundred reasons why this is one of my top five favorite films, it is one of those underground gems that might never be discovered. For this reason alone, it is difficult to choose which aspects of it to praise. So instead of simply stating why you should hunt down this particular movie, I’d like to cross-reference other Brazilian films from the same time. Hopefully this will inspire others to get a glimpse of a few rarities that are amazing, but unfortunately only on VHS or very hard to come by. Surely the most popular films from Brazil, made with much better technology, are Elite Squad and City of God. While these still attract a lot of attention, their popularity has not unearthed any sort of general fascination with the cinema of Brazil’s past.
Brazilian films, in general, have always fascinated me. Many of them deal with poverty, violence, political exposure and, oddly enough, satires. Bye Bye Brazil is another from the ‘80s that is definitely worth seeing. When I think of these two films, the style of them can be compared to a blend of Jordorowsky (particularly Santa Sangre), Fellini (La Strada) and David Lynch, more so in the line of haunting characters and the use of color. The early cinema of Brazil suffered from financial setbacks and were made on the lowest of budgets. Yet, the aforementioned films were made in the peak of Brazil’s cinematic exploration. The financial crisis of the nation explains the lack of archives and preservation of films done decades earlier. Brazil also imports a large amount of films from America and other countries, which blows most of the low budget ones out of the water—assuming they even make it into the theater.Continue Reading
Have you ever anticipated something, like a promotion at your job, and then done something irresponsible? You know, spend money recklessly or boast about your new status. And then, the promotion doesn’t go through and you've not only exposed an ugly side of yourself, but because of the money and support you wasted, you find that you're in a terrible situation. This is where this film begins.
Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) is a teenager in Soviet Russia who has a bit of good news to share amongst her small group of friends. Her mother met a Russian-American on an internet dating website and he has arranged to have her and Lilya accompany him to the States. So Lilya prances around her squalid town rubbing this good news in everyone's face. She behaves as if nothing matters now that she is escaping the bleak future that most of her peers will meet. Just as she has packed her things and made a complete fool of herself, her mother informs her that she and her new boyfriend will be going without her. She makes a shaky promise to send for her after they are settled. Though Lilya is only a teenager, she knows the feeling of being abandoned quite well. After her mother leaves, she must say goodbye to her former comforts and experience the same hardships as everyone else.Continue Reading
Filmed over the course of three summers in Austria, this is one of the rare films that uses weather as a means to accentuate emotions. It is therefore what I consider to be "cold cinema." I coined the term to apply to a filmmaking technique that is not "warm" - or rather, one that doesn’t pull at your heartstrings or target a certain emotion from a general audience. I don't even think that cold cinema expects an audience but, when found, it always seems to leave a lasting impression.
The key to this kind of movie is the emphasis on characters and secondary elements of the story, such as weather. Foreign films tend to use this technique a lot, and for a while films like There Will Be Blood and Doubt were sort of recent American equivalents. They are movies that demand no particular response, and therefore every viewer takes away something different. Many of them don't have soundtracks. I think it's a wonderful technique because it forces you to figure out why you were impressed with or disliked a movie. Dog Days is an introductory accomplishment for Seidl (Import/Export, Models) and is a marvelous example of the roles we take on as human beings, and the conditions that make some of us exercise power over others. Figuring out that this is what the film meant to me was far more rewarding than having a definite interpretation.Continue Reading
Stroszek is the story of a man living in a world where he doesn't fit in. The film’s lead character, Stroszek, is a 45-year old German street musician who lacks the common everyday living and social skills that it takes to get by in life. At the beginning of the film Stroszek is released from prison after serving time for flagrancy and public drunkenness. With his new found freedom he goes straight into a bar and orders a beer. This is where we first meet another social misfit and friend of Stroszek, the prostitute Eva. As Stroszek adjusts to his new life he begins to encounter the harshness of the outside world. Eva’s pimp begins to terrorize and abuse her for what appears to be the mere fun of it. Stroszek, Eva, and Stroszek’s senile neighbor Scheitz, unable to defend themselves, decide to leave the country and sail to America, the land of opportunity.
With the promise of work and a place to live the three of them make their way to Wisconsin to live with a long lost relative of Scheitz. The journey is exciting and promising as they arrive in New York City, and their arrival in Wisconsin is even more joyous. Stroszek gets a job working in a mechanics’ garage, Eva gets a job as a waitress at a local truck stop, and with a loan from the bank they buy a deluxe mobile home with all the modern amenities. All is happy in the world for the moment, but Stroszek soon begins to worry when bank payments they can’t afford start coming in. The situation then goes from bad to worse for Stroszek who eventually reaches the end of his rope in a dingy diner located on a small Indian Reservation. This is where the film reaches it emotional and bizarre conclusion.Continue Reading