4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Watching my first Romanian film called for a background of Romanian history, which I will impose on you shortly. It is very important, especially when watching foreign films, to have a sense of context within history. If you know that there will be a controversial or historical aspect breached within the film, I suggest you find out what constituted it. This will not only enrich your experience (not to mention free education), but it will allow you to not ask intellectual questions that are brought up while watching the movie. In short, you'll be able to suspend disbelief better.
According to my research - which is not entirely reliable because it's solely Internet based - Romania's pro-life policies became radical while the communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was president. In efforts to raise Romania's low birthrate, several extreme measures were put into effect. The legal age for a woman to marry was lowered to 15. Men and women, regardless of whether they were single or married, were taxed between 10-20% of their income if they remained childless after they were in their mid-20s. Married couples were questioned about their sex life if they had not had children yet, and those with children received a "family allowance" from the government for each child. Contraceptives were no longer manufactured or imported, and of course abortion became illegal, with only a few rare cases allowed. Miscarriages were investigated, and illegal abortions led to a prison sentence, both for the expecting mother and the doctor or person performing it.Continue Reading
Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Dense tropical jungle, violent river rapids, hostile natives, hundreds of screaming monkeys, and one man's decent into megalomania and madness. Aguirre, The Wrath of God, is one of Herzog's most hallucinatory and disturbing films. Filmed in the remote Peruvian rainforest Aguirre, The Wrath of God was Herzog's first collaboration with the notoriously volatile actor Klaus Kinski.
With Kinski, Herzog created his greatest and most anarchic rebel of them all. Aguirre is a Spanish Conquistador who travels down the Amazon River in search of the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Over the course of the film, Aguirre assumes command of the expedition by murdering and manipulating his fellow conquistadors. As they drift further and further down the river, Aguirre descends further into madness eventually becoming obsessed with power and claiming himself the 'Wrath of God'. It's Aguirre's descent into madness and megalomania that propels his obsessions with power and domination to reaching god-like illusion.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
Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) went back to his native Holland to make this stylish and subversive action adventure movie about a WW2-era Jewish spy who lives by her wits as a member of the Dutch resistance as she navigates a treacherous world of sympathetic enemies and dubious allies. As usual with Verhoeven there is a layer of social commentary to Black Book that lies beneath the glossy surface. This is old Hollywood spectacle with depth. Best movie of 2006!...Continue Reading
Blood of a Poet
Jean Cocteau, one of the great multi-talented artists of the 20th century is given free reign in his first film. His approach is whimsical and free improvisational; a childlike freedom hangs in the air of this film, even as it addresses rather dark subject matter. The result is a series of powerful images that still seem fresh nearly 80 years later.
Experimental and surrealistic in nature, Blood of a Poet is not a film for individuals who seek clear and definite story lines, to say the least. Rather this is a film that should be considered as a work of art, and not as a traditional movie. That is not to say that these are a series of meaningless images - this is essentially a poem in the form of a film. A series of Cocteau's own reflections...as Cocteau puts it ,"a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body."Continue Reading
With his 2005 film Caché Michael Haneke established himself as the most viciously insightful critic of the liberal educated class and he identified the demons that lurk beneath the surface of even the most enlightened and attractive among them. Seeing as his movies play to a pretty discerning worldwide audience it seems that the kind of people who love Haneke might also be guilty of having a serious masochistic streak. He does not soften the blow. Instead, he refuses, almost sadistically so, to cater to the expectations of the audience by following conventional genre ideas about how to construct a psychological thriller. Haneke is more interested in the deconstruction of why we feel it so necessary to have our impulses for “entertainment” rewarded. With the disorienting glitches that he throws into his film throughout —such as scenes that improbably begin to rewind out of nowhere—it’s as if he’s surgically removing the audience’s comfort zone one layer at a time until you are left with what he considers to be the truth of the matter. His films have a dry, suffocating, almost clinical feel that can give them the ambience of an extended lecture. He is a provocateur but he has his reasons.
Caché is a politically charged thriller but it might make sense to forget about what “politically charged thriller” typically means. This is not the Manchurian Candidate. Caché is about a well-to-do Parisian couple with seemingly perfect lives. The husband Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) are the toast of the Parisian literati. They live in a townhouse. They have a teenage son on the swim team.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
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