Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Caotica Ana (Chaotic Ana) A Film by Julio Medem

Like a malevolent fart criss-crossing three continents, Julio Medem’s latest opus manages not only to soil a great filmmaker’s reputation, but also cause immense embarrassment to viewers who passionately embrace ‘visionary’ cinema, such as this particular writer.
As I watched Medem’s leading lady make stunted facial expressions, while the soundtrack swelled into a worried, multi-ethnic crescendo, I wondered whether the title of the film, ‘Caotica Ana’ (Chaotic Ana) was given to it after it was finished in a bid to alley the viewers’ concerns regarding the director’s state of mind during its making.
Medem, who is widely recognized to be one of the most significant cinematic voices to come out of Spain in the last two decades, is no stranger to sweeping, fable-like narratives that often revolve around his pertinent obsessions on identity, spirituality and fate.
Here, he pushes these obsessions to front and center, composing his film like a fairy tale about a young, beautiful painter from Ibiza (Manuela Velles in her debut) whose artistic talent is spotted by a mysterious patroness, Justine (Charlote Rampling). Justine invites Ana to Madrid to take part in an artist’s residency that looks almost like a parody of Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’. The emotionally open and pure Ana loses no time in connecting with another sexy resident, the Berber artist Said. Even before she can have her first ‘deep’ orgasm, Ana senses a ‘deep’ connection with Said (including his parents and his country), which invades her consciousness like ghosts from his past or to be more precise, like shaky POV footage from a handycam.
Inexplicably, Ana gets hypnotized by one of Justine’s cronies who insists that she is a reincarnation of an ancient spirit or spirits. The trouble is that the freewheeling spirit has a nasty tendency to die violently when she reaches the age of twenty-two. After Said suddenly (lots of sudden things happen in this film) disappears, Ana becomes increasingly concerned about the possibly grisly fate awaiting her. Thus she makes a desperate attempt to run away from her destiny, which naturally only leads her back to the “where it all started” – an ancient Navajo cave… Once at peace with her omnifarious selves, Ana can finally fulfil her ultimate calling as an indomitable being by throwing a very ‘in-your-face’ challenge to Western Capitalism or American Imperialism or God knows who… This penultimate scene must have been directed by John Waters while Medem was on his lunch break since none of the other explanations quite worked out…
When previously attempting a New Agey marathon such as this, Medem had very wisely confined his horizons to very specific locations (usually the Basque region of Spain) and time-frames, precisely fine-tuning the fragile, incandescent connections between his sexy (here is that word again) protagonists and their doppelgangers/past lives/spiritual mates/etc/, insuring that we were never thrown out of the sweet daze of his beguiling stylistic euphorias by some jarringly crude decision.
It would not be an inflated claim to describe all these previous works such as ‘Vacas’, ‘Red Squirrel’ and ‘Lovers of the Arctic Circle’ as major achievements, with ‘Tierra’ sporting such breathtaking mastery of the medium that it begs to be called a masterpiece. All these films are stylistically and structurally baroque to the extreme, rivalling Veronese in the ultimate skill of narrative and retinal mind-games. But even the ludicrously fanciful narrative coils and knots of ‘Sex and Lucia’ are somehow pinned firmly in place, grounded in the gravitas of the performances and a naturalistic script. And this ‘mortar’ is exactly what is missing from ‘Caotica Ana’. It’s not that Manuela Velles doesn’t try her utmost to render Medem’s thematic obsessions into palpable emotions that the audience can connect with or that Charlotte Rampling doesn’t do her best in order to suppress the urge to laugh hysterically while mouthing some of the clumsiest dialogue in recent memory – they simply aren’t fully invested in their roles and it shows. At one point Medem perhaps forgot that it was Velles who was supposed to be acting, not her breasts.
Hence, I couldn’t help but pine for the majestically effortless presence of the director’s ex-muse – the glorious Emma Suarez, whose mere smile in ‘Red Squirrel’ was enough to make me want to move to the desolate Basque country and grow wine.
By constantly operating on the level of metaphors and robbing his characters of their right to exist as something other than mere ciphers, Medem unstitches his clothing to reveal something utterly naked, blatant and somewhat unhinged. The sight, to say the least, is not pretty. The lack of critical perspective exhibited here usually points to a highly personal, confessional nature of the film and sure enough, Medem dedicates the film to his deceased sister (whose paintings are used in the film) and daughter – both of whom are called Ana. It is almost as if the director has attempted to convince himself of soul’s immortality by creating this cinematic ode to the female spirit. But what should have been poetry ultimately has come out looking like a training video for a fanatical occult society. Naturally, I’m somewhat alarmed that Tom Cruise might have seen this film…  
But of course, the underlying problem is not the philosophy or the thematic concerns of the filmmakers – otherwise Leni Riefenstahl wouldn’t be in the collection of Museum of Modern Art. It always comes down to aesthetic decisions and the execution of the idea. And Medem’s fatal mistake is the foolish attempt to tell this fairy tale in a relatively straight-forward, linear manner resulting in a film with an acute case of mistaken identity. Had the director pushed his hyperboles further and more outward into that dangerous twilight zone populated by filmmakers such as David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowski and Guy Maddin, he just might have gotten away with a Spanish ‘Inland Empire’, which surely isn’t as bad as having a particularly painful case of cinematic diarrhoea.
‘Chaotic Ana’ (in its English translation) is released on DVD courtesy of DV1, who have provided an almost pristine transfer of the film. The 16x9 enhanced, progressive image looks very crisp indeed, only occasionally lacking detail in darker scenes. Since the film was shot on high definition cameras there are no film artifacts to speak of. The subtitles are thankfully removable and very easy to read. There are no worthy extras to speak of. Medem had shot a short film with his daughter Ana prior to embarking on this feature and it would have been nice to see it included.  But this being only the second English-friendly release of the film so far, we’re not complaining (about the DVD that is).
Vigen Galstyan 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sydney Film Festival 2009: Three Monkeys

The beacon of Sydney’s film-life is back in its 56th year. Until its arrival, it was difficult to imagine how film-starved this city has become. Devoid of proper cinematheques and with the local art house theatres playing ‘Angels and Demons’, Sydney can not even remotely be called a film-friendly city.
Alas, this year’s festival is a lot leaner, slimmer and, unfortunately thinner… Unlike the stupendously overloaded 2007 edition, the 56th outing of the festival offers a collection of gems that barely make a mark on the radar.
I found it somewhat ironic that the festival’s promotional poster features a nerdy looking guy and a tired-looking dog sitting in an armchair in what supposedly means to a TV set. The logo? ‘Don’t try this at home’. ‘… or you might go to sleep’ should’ve been the punchline.
No no no. I’m not deprecating the standard festival fare that is featured here. It’s just, even I had to admit half-heartedly, there were going to be very few surprises this year. Yet, as I booked my twelve sessions (the only ones I could master up some enthusiasm), I was hoping for a miracle.

THREE MONKEYS: Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Before I begin the review of the following film, I’m going to indulge in a little digression.
It’s the 2009 Cannes film festival. The Jury has convened to make their final decision. Who’s going to get a bite of the small prize pool? While the only prize that really counts at Cannes is Palm d’Or, it’s better to go away with at least a small paper certificate than without anything. It is an unusually good competition this time around, which some commentators had already dubbed ‘the battle of the auteurs’. The Palme d’Or was probably a foregone conclusion with Hupert as the president and Haneke presenting his strongest film in years (so we hear). The rest of the prizes would have proven difficult to distribute considering the exceptional standard of most of the films. One prize that is almost as equally coveted is the best-director gong. Various jury members present their choices ‘Almodovar. Campion. How about Von Trier? No, that would be too much for him. Audriad has made an amazing film. Isn’t it time one of the greatest French filmmakers received a prize here – Alain Resnais. Yes, that would be perfect, he’s at the death’s door and he’s made such a beautiful film…’ But from a corner comes a quiet but dignified voice “I think the prize should go to Brilliante Mendoza…” The voice belongs to Nuri Bilge Ceylan – a Cannes darling who was the lucky recipient of the said award in 2008. The jury stares at Nuri in stupefication (except Isabelle Hupert, whose astonishing face NEVER changes its expression). “Yes… I think he made an amazing film… it’s a really challenging and enigmatic movie with a unique style”. “But you can’t see anything in it” pitch in a few of the members. “Well… it is a very dark film, so the director has found the appropriate treatment for it”… “But the material… it’s like a B-grade Hollywood thriller dressed up as a snuff move”. “… it’s a brilliant treatment of a B-movie. Just like my film from last year, for which I won the best director prize”. Since nobody in the room had seen Nuri’s film and were too ashamed to admit it, the jury unanimously decided to give the prize to Mendoza’s film – the worst film in the history of Cannes according to the press.
This is of course a big load of conjecture and I can not confirm Ceylan’s attitude to Mendoza’s film (which I haven’t seen). Yet I couldn’t help but think about it while watching the latest film in the Turkish director’s cannon – ‘Three Monkeys’, although I much prefer the sound of its Turkish title , pronounced ‘Uch Meymoun’.
The story tastes like badly aged wine. An influential politician, just before the elections, runs over a pedestrian on a dark, isolated road. His plate number is recorded by another driver and in desperation, the politician seeks the help of his driver, Eyup. He asks Eyup to take his place and give himself up to the police. He’d only have to sit it out for a year and upon release will receive a large sum of money for services provided. Eyup, considering the odds, takes the offer. His wife and son are strangely unmoved about the arrangement. The beautiful Hacer goes on about her routine as always, fretting over her handsome, adolescent son Ismail, who has failed his school exams and prefers to loiter about. Ismail is also bored and being stuck in a small coastal town does not help. Soon he’s pressuring his mother to ask the politician for an advance so he could get a car. The mother reluctantly complies, but when she meets the man decides to get something for herself too. No, not money. Just a good lay. In the tradition of those great Hollywood noirs, the plot thickens into a black pool of blood, but slow enough that you could say ‘Preminger, Hitchcock, Visconti, Chandler and Tarkovsky’ before the next scene comes.
Mixing Tarkovsky and Chandler (or most likely Cain - the references are too generalised here) is a great idea on paper and Ceylan makes a very strong attempt to bring this gimmick to life. Yet, essentially the two aesthetics are not just incompatible, they are mutually exclusive. Chandler’s characters inhabit a universe that is driven by dialogue, wordplay and language. You could probably film an entire Chandler film in a dark closet and still get a pretty good picture. Tarkovsky on the other hand requires not so much dialogue as poetry – to accompany the powerful images he conjures up. The free associative way that Tarkovsky constructs his films, full of ellipsis’s, off-screen dialogue and negative spaces, is diametrically opposed to Chandler’s focus on human psychology and semantics. So Ceylan’s film never really knows where it wants to be. It is a very reluctant thriller. The mechanical plot clicks its way through an almost too pat a conclusion. But it is not really the airport novel plot that is at fault here. Trashy material has made the basis of many a good film – just look at any Godard adaptation. What is problematic however is Ceylan’s off-handed, simplistic and at times offensively stereotypical treatment of his characters. At times I thought I was watching a really corny 70s Turkish melodrama, which happened to be photographed by Christopher Doyle. None, and I mean none of the main characters come remotely close to being complex. Complexity is suggested by the loaded imagery, but immediately dissipates when the characters so much as open their mouths or make a predictable plot movement. They are driven by the customary characteristics that define a typically ‘Eastern’ patriarchal unit. The one to suffer most is of course the woman. Not only is she presented to be morally dubious, but is also a weak creature in thrall of the man. It is possible that Ceylan is making a non-too subtle critique on the way men abuse the women in their lives. But I don’t buy it. There’s just a way that Ceylan photographs Hacer, with her twisted mouth and a desperate look in her eyes that suggests some kind of primal instability – a madness that is just brimming under the surface of her finely etched features.
Ceylan is obviously much more concerned with the way the light falls on the actors, the furniture and the landscape, than he is with philosophical musings on guilt and redemption (themes that are central to his work). Had he attempted to even slightly move away from the formulaic narrative, he might have achieved something resembling the iconographic grandeur of Tarkovsky or Antonioni for that matter. For Ceylan has a truly astounding eye: his images are mercilessly detailed and at times overpoweringly monumental (take for example the brilliant last shot). Looking back at his previous film, ‘Climates’ I understand why I enjoyed it so much. By taking out the narrative out of the equation, Ceylan had given his images the possibility to tell thousands of stories instead of just one. His new film on the other hand reveals only one story – that of the director’s very significant shortcomings.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Belated end to a failed reporting career: The last few days of Telluride 2008

The insignificance of it all…
I don’t envy the journalistic masses who have to shuttle from one film festival to another like constant refugees in search of happiness.
After two intense nights of film viewing and writing I quickly gave up on 'reporting' in Telluride. No wonder. There was no one paying me for it after all. Could there even be a choice between writing a blog that no one reads and late-night drinking amidst the romantic setting of Colorado mountains?

Fast forward two and a half months (and then another four months) and I get the strong desire to finish off the job with one (actually two) massive chunk of post-reportage. Aha. And that’s only because I have absolutely no desire to work on the film I’m supposed to be working on.
So how did it go in the last three days of the fest? I don’t remember much actually, so I’ll avoid the chronology of the events as much as I can.

Looking in the crystal ball, I see David Fincher - sitting only slightly regally as the newly crowned
king of American cinema (at least that was the insinuation of the leaflet published by the festival). The man was humble and funny in a way that is only too correct for an autocratic director such as him. “It was all Darius Khonji” or “the amazing talent of Jodie Foster transformed the film” and so on. Well good for him! As a visual stylist Fincher is yet to be surpassed in contemporary American cinema and the selection of segments from his best music videos and commercials proved it. Yet the twenty minute segment of the latest instalment in the Brad Pitt trilogy also proved that he will never truly achieve a cinematic nirvana that he COULD have delivered had he worked outside of the studio system. Even in its unedited form, these loosely connected scenes displayed a brilliant visual sensibility, yet overall, the whole thing was just… a literary adaptation. There was something old and heavy about the whole affair, like a film made by a director in his twilight years (Funny and Alexander comes to mind). It was all Capra with technicolor sugar-coating and I really think that American filmmakers should get over Mr. Smith. Watching Cate Blanchet do another Meryl Streep transformation (this time as a ballerina) I kept thinking where is the man who put those cones on Maddonna’s tits gone?
Rather more fascinating encounter awaited me in old library hall where an unkempt-looking man with dirty long hair and a pot belly pranced about nervously with a pile of papers in his hand. Slavoj Zizek. The great, enfant terrible of post-everything philosophy took up the stage to explicate the astounding wonders of a soapy Nazi melodrama called… oh god… just a moment while I check the title on IMDB.

Found the title, but I’ll have to take a coffee break.

Right... it was called 'The Great Sacrifice'. Do I need to go into the plot? Well, alright then. A young man comes back from his travels in Asia and decides to marry the virginal daughter of a local historian (or maybe he was a philosopher). It is all very upper-class with readings of Nietzche in an enormous mansion with darkened rooms and performances of melancholy pieces by Bach. This intellectual potpourri is not really to the liking of our hero, who likes the outdoors and “healthy thoughts”. He doesn’t have to search long to find his ideal in a Finnish neighbour who likes to swim naked in the lake and ride horses through the countryside, in between arrow shooting practices and frequent sex sessions. We don’t get to see much of the last bit alas – Nazi filmmakers proved to be surprisingly conservative when it came showing bodies in action, other than when they prance around half-naked in water or on horses.

Zizek was a nervous mess as he sprouted forth ideas on the aesthetics of fascism and how closely it relates to the aesthetics of contemporary cinema. The philosopher is famous for contradicting himself and one couldn’t escape the notion that he was frequently coming up against his own remarks. “We should believe in cinema because it’s more real that reality itself” and then “the truth is on the outside, not inside the soul – which is fake”. Considering that the film he was showing was busy depicting the melodramatic ‘soul’ of fascist ideology, it was certainly a complete lie. What are we to believe then? Frankly Zizek’s theories spouted during this mini-lecture and in the extended (and quite brilliant) documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema’ (which I managed to see only recently) engage on a visceral level, but after a close scrutiny don’t hold up very long. Maybe that’s why he’s so open about his contradictory nature… However, I’m too cautious about attempting to unravel any of his philosophical dictums – I’m not ready to go completely mad just yet.
An important occasion of the festival was the screening of the restored print of Lola Montes, which glowed and glistened like a polished diamond. Yet, somehow, it failed to generate the emotional charge of Ophulse’s other masterpieces. Only in the last few scenes does the pathos and irony of the situation register its power. For me, the film remains first of all, an astonishing feat on a purely artistic, aesthetic level. The camera turns into a crafty magician, rising up and down, pirouetting around time and space. Genius, even if a tad boring.
Amidst all the archival, retrospective screenings, it was a distinct shock to find oneself seated at the surprise, world premiere of Danny Boyle’s kinetic take on Bollywood cinema – ‘Slamdog Millionaire’. Like most of Boyle’s work, ‘Slamdog’ runs fast and think later. It has a complex structure that encircles the entire life of the lead character from childhood to adulthood. The scenes depicting the children of Mumbai are truly terrific, shot with a demonic energy that immediately sweeps the viewers into their cinematic reality. While Boyle keeps his eyes open on the most despicable conditions that children face in contemporary India (in particular children with no families and homes) he still manages to cover it all with a saccharine coat that dilutes the hopelessness of reality. Which is why I guess the audience screamed ‘Oscar’ in ecstasy after it all finished. How easy it is for people to digest shit when it is served with plentiful of chocolate.

Talking about shit… Despondent at being unable to see anything at the ‘Opera House’ I dragged myself (very reluctantly) to a screening of …. ‘Hunger’. Despite its multitude of prizes and rhapsodic reviews I really didn’t feel like sitting through a film about an Irish terrorist who starves himself to death in a British prison. Especially since hunger was a constant presence in my stomach throughout the five days of the festival (food being expensive and all). Sitting in the most uncomfortable seat imaginable, which was perched on the balcony of the tiny theatre, I looked at the most moving and powerful images that blinked on Telluride’s screens. Even while the prisoners smeared their shit all over the walls of that horrific prison I could barely look away. The astonishing precision and clarity of each scene and shot was breathtaking. Not to say anything about the extraordinary real transformations of the actors who turned from handsome young men into blue corpses covered with cuts and bruises. At times, the film recalled images from Francis Bacon and Leucian Freud and even at its most horrific had a tangible poetry about it.

The hyper-kinetic Korean ‘Noodle-Western’ by Kim Ji Woon made no apologies for recycling the over-chewed remnants of Sergio Leone’s films. The title says it all of course: ‘The Good, The Bad and The Weird’. Revolving around three highly divergent characters (a hero, a villain and a fool) who rush through the film in order to get their hands on some treasure, the film basically is concerned with staging as many spectacular and comical shoot-out scenes as possible.
Ji Woon, whose previous efforts include the Korean hit ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ and an exceptional segment for the horror trilogy ‘3 extremes’, made a solid Pop-mash of various film references, in-jokes and some inventive physical comedy. Unlike Takeshi Miike who also attempted an idiosyncratic ‘Noodle-Western’ recently, Woon is primarily concerned with surfaces and their immediate, visceral effects. The movie works horizontally and does not dig deep, it spreads out wide across different periods, styles and themes, brushing past all that historical bric-a-brac like some 2-D animated character from ‘Sailor-Moon’.
Ji Woon was present at the screening as a sparse group of film-nuts huddled under plastic covers and umbrellas while sitting on dripping fold-out chairs in the open air cinema as heavy rain poured mercilessly in the bitter cold. It was surreal and otherworldly and very appropriately Ji Woon bubbled on saying absolutely nothing of consequence. I loved it…

Quite a contrast really to the somber and wrenching mood that the Austrian film ‘Revanche’ was radiating in one of the small cinemas across the street. I seriously suspect that Austrians have developed only one aesthetic movement in cinema and are desperately sticking to their guns – whatever anyone else might be doing. How might one categorise this ‘movement’. Is there a term that I don’t know about? I’d call it the ‘lancent’ or ‘morgue-table’ cinema. Well, why not? The British have their ‘Kitchen Sink’ don’t they?
The thing about the Austrians is their Arian precision and coldness, which reminds me of a lancet-cut in the flesh. It bleeds and is horrific, but somehow you are meant to remain detached and analytical. The emotional response is always akin to a deadening shock and speechlessness. Now, Gotz Spielman’s film about revenge is nowhere near the harrowing terror unleashed by Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, but in its brutal clockwork mechanism and unflinching look at human fallibility, it makes for an uneasy viewing experience. What Spielman does however in the end is effective because he has been so uncompromising throughout the rest of the film. He mellows his existentialist angst and gives the characters a ray of hope (and by default – the audience too). Its transcendental resolution does not ring fake, because it is as powerful as all the horror that has come before it.
Overall, I think the film is a much more balanced and successful work than its more extreme and fetishist counterparts by… say Ulrich Seidl.

Finally, THE film that had everyone talking and lining up in the long queues. ‘I Loved You So Long’ was the filmmaking debut of the French writer Philippe Claudel and somehow it had become the word-of-mouth sensation of the festival.
Starting Kristin Scott-Thomas in what could only be called a ‘performance of a career’, this Bergmanoid film developed through a brilliantly tuned structure. It pits the audiences with a character that is a cross between Joan Crawford and Hanibal Lecter – at least that’s how it seems in the beginning – and tells us that we must sympathise with her plight. Juliette (Thomas) has just been released from prison and her younger sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) is there to meet her. They haven’t seen each other for 15 years. Juliette moves in with Lea and her family and tries quietly and desperately to adapt back into society. Of course, the moment anyone hears of her horrific crime, they reject her instantly. You see, she has murdered her son.
Scott plays her character almost like a Sphynx come to life. Her face is a mask; impenetrable, mysterious and at times frightening. Every time she’s around children you see her facial muscles jerk just a little. You know she’s in absolute agony, but never fully trust her. The director brilliantly builds the tension by giving clues and hints – much like Chabrol does in his bourgeois satires of the 60s and 90s, yet ultimately he can not avoid the final act of ‘disclosure’. And what a let down it is… Instead of a sensational tale of alienation and rebellion we get a snivelling TV movie by the end. The brilliance of the best Chabrol films lies in their lack of release. The pent up frustration and confusion gets exacerbated by the end. We leave more anxious after his films are finished than we got there. Claudel pussy-foots the real issues of his film by giving us a reassuring pat on the back. We get the Bergmanoid hysterics and ethical/moral issues I hinted about, but Bergman would have made EVERYONE face the issues – not just a single character that we can feel sorry about and think “thank God THAT hasn’t happened to me”. I had a layer of disgust and disenchantment over my whole body when I left the theatre as I looked at all the happy, exorcised and cried out faces of nice little old ladies and their rich husbands.
Other films I witnessed were: some Scottish kitchen-sink drama about two children who run away from home (we’ve all seen it before so I won’t even try to remember its name), a mildly amusing Hitchcockian thriller with the beautiful Jean Simmons called ‘So long at the fair’ (made in 1950, featuring the exact same story that appeared as an episode in 'Alfred Hitchcock presents', which is much better in my opinion) and a portion of the epic ‘The Emigrants’ - starring Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow - by one of the greatest of all Swedish directors, Jan Troel.
Troel was there to give a talk and I just loved listening to this exceptionally grounded, humble and fascinating director. I immediately wanted to see everything he’s directed, but then as things turned out didn’t get to see a single of his films in their entirety.
That’s one of the problems with Telluride. Too many films, too little time. You spend more time organising schedules than watching films. But… I’m not complaining. Other than the ‘Golden Apricot International Film Festival’ I have never been in such close proximity to so many amazing, talented filmmakers and never had a more ‘educational’ film-going experience. And once you get past all the self-congratulatory “we’re just here to celebrate film” bullshit, Telluride does start to weave its magic pretty quickly. No wonder the customary goodbye line at the end was “see you next year” … Well, maybe in a few years…

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Telluride - Day 1

Telluride is probably the most audience friendly film festival I've ever been to. Once you get past the exhorbirant costs associated with the attendance.

Take the opening night for example. No grand speeches, red carpets or swarms of paparazzi to spoil the mood. Instead, the whole main street was blocked to traffic and tables were lined up with plentiful of food and alcohol. You could even bump into Laura Linney or Mike Leigh while waiting to fill up your plate with salad.

The general aura of excitement was in the air and everyone seemed anxious to get started on the films. My first strike - to see Slavoi Zizek's 'Perverts Guide to Cinema' - proved unsuccessful as the tiny, make-shift cinema in the town library (seating only 50 people) was already packed.

Screenings proper started at around 6pm and the first film we were "almost" guaranteed an entry into was Sergei Dvortsevoy's 'Tulpan' - a remarkable film set in a remote Kazakh steppe.
While I'm not a huge fan of 'anthropological' films (that is films that are anxious to present on screen the lives and traditions of different, usually remote cultures) - Tulpan proved to be an exceptional achievement. The film focuses on a young ex-marine, Asa, who has returned to live with his sister's family in the steppes, where he helps he brother in law to heard sheep. Asa is determined to set up his own farm, but in order to do so, he has to get married, otherwise the 'Big Boss' will not allocate him a herd. The problem is that the only eligible girl around has absolutely no desire to marry him, claiming that Asa has big ears (but who actually simply wants to escape the steppe in order to study at a college).
From this simple premise, Dvortsevoy builds a magnificent tapestry that is so rich with delicate observations and unaffected emotions that it could almost be a documentary. The director's previous documentary works had paved the way for his contemplative style, with long, languid takes, anxious pauses, unexpected and sudden incursions of various elements into the frame. It's almost as if Dvortsevoy's camera is floating around, waiting for something to happen, to afraid to cut in case it misses something vital. And in the harsh landscape of the Kazakh steppe, every element gains a monumental importance - like a small tornado ominously circling the hut, a dead lamb lying in the dust, or the startling incursion of a Bonny M song in the windy landscape.
It's all perfectly calibrated and timed, even if Dvortsevoy occasionally indulges in an over-long pause, overstatement or not too subtle metaphor.
The director gave a humble but insightful interview after the film. Like Zvyagnitsev's and Ilya Khrjanovsky's astounding debuts, 'Tulpan' proves that the post-Soviet cinematic landscape can attain the same great peaks reached by Tarkovsky and Paradjanov even in a decidedly neo-capitalist environment. Must be something in the water I guess...

Right after, we managed to sneak into the tiny 'Nugget' cinema, which seats only 185 people to take a look at Ole Christian Madsen's 'Flame and Citron'. This is apparently the biggest budget film ever made in Denmark. I was more shocked to find out that the budget was only $9 million.

Based on the real-life events, the film tells the story of two Danish resistance fighters during WW2. Flame and Citron are a strong team that commit various assassinations on the orders of a man named Winther - a go between the British and the Resistance.
It doesn't take long for Flame to question some of these orders though as it becomes increasingly less apparent who the enemy is. Everyone seems to be leading double lives, including the alluring femme-fatale, Ketty with whom Flame becomes infatuated with.
'Flame and Citron' certainly has a very gripping story at its core, full of suspense and moral dilemmas, but somehow it never quite ac hives full flight. The film seems too weighed down by its own importance and it's not quite sure what it wants to be - an espionage thriller, a war movie or a moralistic diatribe. It wants to be all, but the parts never really mesh together.
Paul Verhoeven's very similar 'The Black Book' at least had the courage to be unashamedly entertaining and thus strikingly subversive. Madesen should have made more use of his Dogme beginnings to infuse more bite and cynicism in his story, instead he often goes for the obvious.
Still, the film has its moments of true suspense and heart-breaking tragedy and its excellent cast, in particular the always reliable Mads Mikkelsen and the revelatory Stine Stengade, make the [long] journey worthwhile.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Race to Telluride: The Film Festival That Didn't Want to be Seen

It's been almost... nearly... practically... well... over a year now since I last made a post here.

Well you know the saying - in [cyber]space no one can hear you scream!

So I guess there have been no disappointed fans craving for me to take up the keyboard again. And why should one write for a readership? I realized that the blog is ultimately just a personal diary that I was too lazy to keep and the knowledge that someone, somewhere might [accidentally] access it, only makes it slightly more titillating.

But back to the main reason for my "comeback" - Telluride Film Festival.

Where do I start?

A couple of months ago a friend of mine whom I hadn't seen for months called me out of blue and asked me if I wanted to take trip to US to attend the notoriously high-brow TFF. "They've got Zizek as the guest director", he said breathlessly. "Wow! Amazing! I would so love to hear him" I replied (last time I've tried to read Zizek I took three coffee breaks by the time I'd reached the second page). Of course David had no idea that I'd already decided to quit my job and take another extended working holiday in Europe and Armenia. The major festival I wanted to attend was Venice of course, but... Telluride is so off the beaten track that I'd probably never even think of going unless something like this happened. So I said yes.

Flash forward two months and a few unexpected twists and turns, and I found myself packing for the trip, even though I had tried to quit, change the ticket to Toronto and grew desperate at the huge cost that was looming ahead.

Even though we decided to go to Telluride nearly three months before it started, we found out that it was still quite late for getting things organised.

We barely managed to buy a 'Cinephile' pass for $350 - which had a suspiciously vague description, then accommodation (affordable accommodation) proved to be an impossible dream. Telluride doesn't even hostels. Everything was booked for the season. Fortunately I was able to find a nice girl by the name of Rebecca who was willing to share her room with us for $500 apiece.
That settled, another problem presented itself. How the hell do we get there?
Dave suggested we drive from Albuquerque to the town, but I was against the idea, so... from LA, I took a plane to Phoenix, then Albuquerque, then hang around the flat expanses of this non-descript town until 1.50 am, met Dave (who had come ahead of me) and then took a bus to Durango. At 9.30 am the shuttle bus from Telluride picked us up (for a cool $60) and drove up very slowly up the mountain passes, stopping at the Durango airport to pick up more passengers.
We got there after three hours, checked into our hotel and started exploring the town. The landscape is of course stunning, with high mountain chains circling the few tiny streets of the old town. The locals seem to have struck a perfect balance with nature, they know how to enjoy its delights while respecting its mighty power and purity.
All in all, it's quite an awe-inspiring sight, but I soon found out that the rapid changes in temperature, lack of sleep and the blasted air-conditioning in the mini-bus had made me lethargic and on the verge getting sick.
David seemed to be fine and was already making plans for a two-hour hike up the mountains, but my poor, office-bound body was refusing to go anywhere but the bed.
The added pressure not to snore at night (so as not to wake up my two companions) made for a truly torturous night.
Next day, I found myself enjoying the space more and really getting into the festival mood. The program was out so it was time to plan which films were going to be on the menu for the next four days...

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Competition Heat in Venice

Well, well, well...

Four of the major films at VIFF have already been screened and there seems to be a leader already. While the opening night film - 'Atonement' garnered very strong reviews, another film has blown into town to sweep everyone away - De Palma's 'Redacted'.

"Harrowing", "Emotional", "Cathartic", "Shocking", "Sensational" and simply "Great" are just some of the laudatory remarks coming from the media. The film apparently stunned the audiences with its extreme power and gut-wrenching depiction of explicit violence. Reports of a ten minute standing ovation confirm that this is a clear front-runner for the prize. It also helps that this is perhaps the most politically edgy film among a whole bunch of very politicized pics in Venice. If one were to look at the winners of Golden Lion for the past decade a clear pattern emerges. Films with a strong agenda and relevant "messages" had won the day and this year can't possibly be any different. De Palma is also one of the few great filmmakers in the world who has never won a prestigious festival prize in his career, so maybe Venice will be able to "atone" for that come next week.

Regardless of the relevance of De Palma's film, I'd still like the festival to award the most artistically ambitious picture in the competition. Greenaway and Haynes? Maybe not.

Ang Lee's film has fallen behind for some reason. The reactions have been strangely lukewarm. Kenneth Branagh's new version of 'Sleuth' is a reportedly a mild, if accomplished, entertainment. Then there is the George Clooney starrer 'Michael Clayton'. We know what suit George was wearing at the premiere but we couldn't find anything on the film itself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Venice... oh... Venice

It seemed only yesterday when I stepped off the train and stood in front of a mirage known as Venice. Perhaps no other city in the world can sustain an image of a fairy-tale with so many tourists swarming through its every single crevice. The fact that it is also home to the world's oldest film festival is only apt - its like living a dream within a dream...

It helps of course, that Venice International Film Festival has consistently showcased the very best in world cinema, putting art one step ahead of scandal (the reverse is certainly truer for Cannes). While it might be slightly conservative in its tastes, VIFF's selections are always reliable for their high quality and supreme merit.

This year is no exception with a slate of 22 pictures from some of the greatest filmmakers around the world.

Here's the list.

Atonement by Joe Wright

The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson

Sleuth by Kenneth Branagh

Heya Fawda by Youssef Chahine

Redacted by Brian de Palma

The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford by Andrew Dominik

Nessuna Qualita Agli Eroi by Paolo Franchini

Michael Clayton by Tony Gilroy

Nightwatching by Peter Greenaway

En la Ciudad de Sylvia by Jose Luis Guerin

In the Valley of Allah by Paul Haggis

I'm Not There by Todd Haynes

The Sun Also Rises by Jiang Wen

Help Me Eros by Lee Kang Sheng

la Graine et le Mulet by Abdellatif Kechiche

Se, Je by Ang Lee

It's a Free World by Ken Loach

L'ora di Punta by Vincenzo Marra

Sukiyaki Western Django by Takeshi Miike

12 by Nikita Mikhalkov

Il Dolce e l'amaro by Andrea Porporati

Les Amours d'Astree et de Celadon by Eric Rohmer

It's a fascinating mix... everything is here from the token Italian films that never seem to go anywhere after the festival and the big-budget, high-concept American morality tales that sweep the Oscars come February (remember Brokeback Mountain?). The presence of so many
major American films is a sign that Hollywood prefers Venice to Cannes for launching some of
its prestige titles. Venice is not exactly known for breaking careers, so its a relatively safe choice, yet it can considerably boost the profile of a film because so many major critics attend it and actually GET to see the films.

It's always hard to predict what can win at Venice because of the very high standard of the entries. But I'll make a go of it.

Considering that the president of the jury is Zhang Yimou (twice a winner at the festival) and that Ang Lee had only recently triumphed with Brokeback, that would discount "Lust, Caution" (and probably every other Asian film) which will not need any prizes to sizzle on every critics top ten list by the end of the year. The trailer promises a noirish delight the likes of which we haven't seen since Body Heat and I know of no other filmmaker who can be relied on to produce a near-masterpiece every time he makes a film.

The de Palma film, on the other hand, gives us a cause to worry. I love Brian's work, but the plot of his new opus sound dangerously similar to his previous war drama - 'Casualties of War'. He's always strayed too close to plagiarism and here he could be seen to be cannibalising his own work. But then, he's got a reputation to keep - he is the preeminent postmodern filmmaker after all. I just wish he kept making his escapist thrillers that fuel so much analytical literature in film studies (witness the magnificent 'Femme Fatale').

I won't even bother talking about Wes Anderson's new film... He's quickly proving to be a one-note wonder.

Much more exciting amongst the English-language contingent are Todd Hayne's and Andrew Dominik's new films. Haynes has been a consistently fascinating filmmaker, always surprising with his choices. 'I'm Not There' could be his most radically experimental work which finds six actors portraying Bob Dylan at different stages of his career. Of course, like most tricks in cinema, this one is also old hat. Another Tod (Solonz) made the highly controversial 'Palindromes' using the same device which of course was originally put to brilliant use by Bunuel in 'That Obscure Object of Desire'. Still, I'm holding my breath in anticipation and think that its likely that Haynes will walk off with the gold (or silver).

The long awaited second feature by Andrew Dominik is quietly accumulating steam. Word is that it is a philosophical meditation on masculinity and violence a la Kubrick and Mallick and the trailer gives us hints of its possible magnificence. I've got a hunch that it just might put a spell on everyone - including the Golden Lion - courtesy of Brad Pitt's strangely hypnotic gaze in this film (is it me, or is he doing a Robert Redford impersonation?).
Another strong candidate that has the potential to sway the judges is Nikita Mikhalkov's '12'. A harrowing (I'm sure) war film set in Chechnya this is actually an adaptation of '12 angry men' (!!!) This might be a great Dostoevskian yarn in the line of classic Soviet cinema of the 50s or it could be a turgid, PC dud in the line of well... most big-budget Russian films of recent years. But I've always admired Mikhalkov's ability to marry serious subject matter with populist sentiment and it might just prove to be a winning formula this time around (it did in 1991 with 'Urga').
Then there's Eric Rohmer's whimsical fantasy film based on a 17th century novel. If it's anything like his 'Marquise O' or 'Perceval'... I'll give it a big miss. I could never understand how his limping, terribly theatrical 'historical' adaptations could garner so much acclaim. Rohmer is a director of modern morality and when he goes for broad strokes and symbolism... well it just turns ugly.

Youssef Chahine seems to be the only thing to remind us that there are films made in Egypt, but I doubt it'll help him win a key prize at any of the major film festivals. This one sounds like a typical potboiler that could've been scripted by Mahfouz - it's all good v evil, sexual frustration sprayed with a heavy dose of morality. Chahine's preachiness never quite appealed to me despite the very liberal outlook his films unfailingly possess and I don't think the festival judges are going to care for it either.

The one and only true outsider in this year's festival is the dauntingly creative and unstoppable Takeshi Miike. The man, who'll surely make films even after he dies, comes to Italy with a Japanese "western" set in the 11th century. Well, we all know that Venice IFF was responsible for opening up Japanese cinema to the West. They always did love them here, yet Miike is a director that can challenge even the most unethical, immoral, unscrupulous and jaded audience member in the world (I know what you're thinking, but no... I still have a thin coat of ethics to shed). So his presence at Mostra is surely meant to be an electrifying aphrodisiac to help digest all the other politically loaded dishes. I don't care. He's hands down the most imaginative director on the menu and the biggest risk-taker of all. How can you not be excited by a film with a title like Sukiyaki Western Django and starring Quentin Tarantino anyway?

Yet, in the presence of Peter Greenaway's latest art-work (I don't dare call them films anymore) all else pales in comparison. This time, Greenaway has adopted a PAINTING into a film. That's right, a painting. It's a hefty masterpiece too - Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch'. From the vague descriptions I've read, the film revolves around the mystery surrounding the painting's conception and if one were to be absolutely literal
we might call it an 'art historical thriller'. I know that Greenaway's reputation has suffered seriously in recent times, but that just means that he's a filmmaker who is somehow outside time and taste. This one is doubtlessly going to be as challenging and textually loaded as 'The Baby of Macon' (I'll have to make sure to re-read Simon Schama's great book on Rembrandt). But the injection of pure aesthetic pleasure comes like a warranty note with any Greenaway film and 'Nightwatching' has an irresistible combination of art, suspense, philosophy and a sick sense of humour. I'm drooling all over the computer as we speak.

I'd like to think that the festival jury will be able to grace Greenaway with a much deserved top prize. But its a long shot...

Right now, I'm putting my two dollars on either Dominik or Haynes...