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
Au Revoir Les Enfants
The great director Louis Malle is so often overshadowed by his cultier French New Wave colleagues. His The Lovers and Elevator to the Gallows, both made in ’58, preceded Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by a year. But while both directors were heavily inspired by him, their film debuts are always much higher ranked by film historians. After Malle’s first two near-classics he had some hits but didn’t start making timeless films until the '70s, with his fearless Murmur of the Heart (still cinema’s best coming-of-age incest flick) and Lacombe, Lucien (about a Nazi-loving French kid). Malle went on to do something none of his peers did; he made several American masterpieces, his quick trilogy from '78-'81 including Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre. They were some of the best films of the era. He also married American actress Candice Bergen (though his woeful follow-up, Crackers, with Sean Penn, is thankfully forgotten). Finally, after a few documentaries, he returned to France for one of his best films, the apparently autobiographical WWII youth drama Au Revoir Les Enfants (“Goodbye, Children").
Malle’s younger self can be seen in the hero of the movie, the twelve-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). This is the kind of three-dimensional child character that cinema rarely gets right; he’s certainty an equal to François Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. He’s cool, he’s kind of a rebel, but he’s also an observer, a reader and a thinker. These are traits that we are never told about, but we are able to see with small gestures. And to make things even more complicated, underneath his confident class clown act he’s also a deeply sensitive mama’s boy. He slowly befriends the new kid at their Catholic boarding school, the shy but obviously very intelligent Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), whom it turns out is actually Jewish (posing as a Protestant). He’s one of three students being hidden by the priests from the occupying Nazis. They develop an interesting bond and the usually selfish Julien comes to empathize with Jean, but like many young people, he still has to overcome his own issues and insecurities before it’s too late.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
It’s not an overstatement to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s noiry, crime-romance Breathless(À bout de souffle) may be one of the most important films of a very important film era—a game changer. For the film critic turned filmmaker, Breathless Godard’s first feature and it helped to define an exciting new cinema movement that was brewing among young cinephiles in France now known as The French New Wave. With its hand-held photography, jump cutting, improvised script, and natural lighting, it carefully broke many rules of formal cinema. Inspired by American crime films, mostly the B-movies that that generation of the French critics came to appreciate long before their American counterparts, it romanticized the underworld, without the moral lessons of so many similar American movies. The film also gives a shout-out to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, another film inspired by American Noirs. Playing the film’s lead, a small-time crook with a death wish, Breathless put actor Jean-Paul Belmondo on the map. His gripping and charismatic performance reeks of his influences, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. Like so many filmmakers to come, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino (who both cite Breathless as a major influence), Godard’s work, and Breathless in particular, was a tribute to the movies that came before that the director admired.
After Michael (Belmondo) steals a car and then shoots a cop, he finds himself on the run. Still always playing it cool, he hides out in Paris with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), a New York Herald Tribune street vendor. Like the best of French couples they smoke a lot of cigarettes, have sex, and talk philosophically about themselves. She is in love with him, but he is selfish and utterly self-obsessed, as he makes Bogart-like faces in a mirror always trying to perfect his gangster...
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