Saturday, September 27, 2008

Landscape in the Mist (Topio Stin Omichli) A Film by Theodoros Angelopoulos (1988)

If there's ever a Greek director worth looking into, it's Theo Angelopoulos. Upon my first viewing of his 1988 film Landscape in the Mist, I was thoroughly mesmerized. It's a shame that he seems under-seen and under-appreciated, outside of some dedicated niches of film critics. Perhaps Ulysses Gaze is his most well-known piece, but there's no denying that Landscape in the Mist is a shattering masterpiece. Michalis Zeke and Tania Palaiologou, who carry the film with leaps and bounds, portray two young children traversing a war-torn Greek landscape in search of an indistinct father figure. Their main goal, which as the film progresses becomes shrouded in (as the title suggests) mist, is to find the father whom their mother told them about but they've never seen. When they do escape from their home by catching a train early on in the film, they inevitably begin a downward slope towards disillusionment.

What keeps them going is faith, although it is not clear in the viewer's mind what they're really searching for, and judging by Voula's (Palaiologou's character) requests to the people who drive her and her young brother Alexandros, "far away" means they don't know either. A lack of a proper parental figure for these two children results in the heavy handedness of life that they are propelled into. Hitchhiking on the side of a soaked and windy highway, it is evident that these two vagabonds have been forced into adulthood far too quickly. Like the donkey in Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, Voula and Alexandros are witness to the cruelties of man. In two of the most harrowing scenes of the film, the two must encounter a horse being dragged across the snowy ground of a market square and a greedy malicious truck driver. There is no doubt in my mind that Palaiologou and Zeke handled these performances with incredible professionalism, something that's unheard of at their ages.

The film holds certain parallels to a Fellini film, specifically La Strada, in its continuous use of travel and underbelly accordion and violin performers amidst chaotic times. However, it's stylization is not far off from a Tarkovsky or Tarr film. Georgia Brown of The Village Voice noted that the film had "some of the most exquisite compositions you'll ever see..." - I wouldn't disagree. The imagery ranges from majestically beautiful to powerfully absurd, and the long, expertly choreographed takes are breathtaking. You can never tear your eyes away from the magic that is on the screen. An intriguing aspect of this film is its frequent exposes of heartbreak or turmoil and casual or celebratory moments. During the two scenes I already cited as being heartbreaking, the camera slowly moves upward to reveal events in the near background that seem oblivious to the terrors of the story. As Angelopoulos sees it, this is the inevitable sadness of life. People will play out their own hopes and dreams at the expense or disinterest of others. In Voula and Alexandros' case, they may still being playing out their hopes and dreams, even if the ending of the film perhaps suggests otherwise. With this, Angelopoulos shows he is interested in what is not seen on screen, or what's in the mist. Landscape in the Mist is a staggering work of art.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Late Spring (Banshun) A Film by Yasujiro Ozu (1949)

Without the contribution of Yasujiro Ozu to the landscape of art cinema, a lot of the current trends in Asian cinema would not be the same. Filmmakers like Tsai-Ming Liang, Apichatphong Weerasethakul, and Abbas Kiarostami have taken great lessons from one of the most understated masters in the history of the medium. With Late Spring, Ozu proved to have just reached the pinnacle of his grip on the art, a level of talent that was maintained more or less for the rest of his career. The story is simple: Noriku, a women in her twenties, lives pleasantly with her widower father Shukichi until one day her Aunt and friend begin to suggest strongly that she should marry. Noriku does not have any interest in such a commitment, for she is more than content with the plain life she leads, resulting in a moral dilemma.

However, her dilemma is not portrayed with a heavy existential weight, much like most of Ozu's oeuvre. His films are easy-going, and transform the mundane into the sublime, one of the many transformations that are undergone in this picture. The film kicks off looking almost like any other Japanese bourgeois film you've ever seen: a scene with a group of women dressed eccentrically in a room with gorgeous interiors. Noriku's personality throughout the first 30 minutes left me feeling skeptical; she seemed like a very flat character because her cheek-to-cheek smile was unrealistically resilient. However, her depth is compiled gradually and believably. In the end, although the narrative is set directly across the globe from me, I felt completely at home with its themes. Ozu speaks volumes about the pressures of societal norms, the vicissitude of change, and the bittersweet symphony of familial love. As a film aesthete, what struck me on a gut level the most was Ozu's incredible focus on the structure of his cinematic language. His dedication to still shots is impressive throughout; only one pan is exhibited in the film and it was necessary. Often times he will place the camera on a dolly, but it nonetheless feels forever contained in its powerful prism of side-to-side immobility.

I can't think of another film that finds such a perfect harmony with its camerawork and the lifestyle of its characters; in a sense, Late Spring has a literal physical level to it. Because it is everyday Japanese tradition to sit on the floors in their homes, the camera often times looks as if it was placed directly on the ground. Interestingly, the film relates its physical positioning (grounded) to its plot's moralities (grounded/realistic). With another type of camera approach, this film would not be the same. Of course there are also what Roger Ebert calls the characteristic Ozu "pillow shots". Basically, these are simply photographic cutaways that immerse the viewer in the atmosphere of the film and allow for somewhat of a reflection period on what was just seen. Naturally, this places Ozu in the realm of a simplistic mood setter. However, this is one of his great strengths. He has the ability to encapsulate what is so holy about cinema: its utter simplicity and complexity working in symbiosis. When the final shots grace the screen, I defy any film connoisseur to watch closely and not be moved tremendously.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Screening Notes Archive

From my introduction to #1:

"For a while now, I've aimed to find a solution to the endless pile-up of movies I see and don't end up writing about right away. The problem has increased exponentially the more work I have to do outside of blogging, and it just so happens that I'm in the thick of pre-production on a new short film right now, so matters have become worse. Less time to write, less time to commit myself to thinking about a movie for four or five consecutive hours. So the ideal way to solve this is to do quick-and-dirty write-ups on all these stray films, making sure I don't forget my primary thoughts on them by the time I do a formal essay. Therefore, I present "Screening Notes", an idea heavily indebted to Ryland Walker Knight's "Viewing Logs" over at his blog Vinyl is Heavy. I like the off-the-cuff quality to his work, and I find myself reading it (and other work like it) with more frequency than long-form essays simply because I don't have as much time to devote to them. This is not to say that I will be eschewing my common approach at all; I just hate to find myself abandoning films because I forget what I wanted to say about them in the first place. Here's the first entry in what will likely be a continuing journal of notes, and as you'll see, my notes will refer to both full features I've seen and other various media clips (single scenes, short films, youtube videos, etc.)."

(Click the number to be taken to the notes.)


Lost in Translation (2003), Leon the Professional (1994), Marie Antoinette (2006), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King) (2003)


Secretary (2002), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Trash Humpers (2009), Some Like it Hot (1959), Another Year (2010), In Bruges (2008)


The Others (2001), Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave (1995), Arrested Development (Season 1, Episodes 1-9, 2003), The Conversation (1974), Minority Report (2002)


Summer Hours (2008), Adaptation (2002), Arrested Development (Season 1 9-22, Season 2 1-5), Certified Copy (2010), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Hadewijch (2009)


Cold Weather (2010), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Tung (1966), Apricot, Some Static Started (2009, 2010)


Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and 2 (2010, 2011), Louie: Season 2 (2011), Mars Attacks! (1996), 500 Days of Summer (2009)


Scarface (1932), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Baxter (2005), Rango (2011), Louie (2011), Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 7 and 8)


Not One Less (1999), Mouchette (1967), Khabi Kushi Khabi Gham... (2001), The Clock (2010)


Tokyo Sonata (2008), Last Life in the Universe (2003), Paprika (2006), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), The Big Chill (1983), Ring (2007), Starsky and Hutch (2004)


Luck (Episode 1 and 2) (2012), Skinflick (2002), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Beats Being Dead (2011), Bergman Island (2004)


Sarabande (2008), The White Rose (1967), New York Portrait: Chapter 1 (1979), Passage à l'acte (1993), No Country for Old Men (2008)


The Conformist (1970), Ashes (2012), Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters (2012), Street of Crocodiles (1987), Jabberwocky (1971)


Phone Booth (2002), Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959), Desistfilm (1954), Girls (Season 1 Pilot) (2012)


It Happened One Night (1934), The Thin Man (1934), Design for Living (1933), Days of Heaven (1978), Grand Illusion (1937), The Last Bolshevik (1993), One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), The Exorcist (1973), How The West Was Won (1962)


The Loneliest Planet (2011), His Girl Friday (1940), Midnight (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Argo (2012), Saraband (2003), Magic Mike (2012), Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011), Mean Girls (2004), Rise of the Guardians (2012)


The Hobbit (2012), Skyfall (2012), Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012), Flirting with Disaster (1996), Lolita (1962), Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), Silent Mountains, Singing Oceans, and Slivers of Time: Six Films by David Gatten (1998-2010)


Promised Land (2012), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Epizootics! (Music Video, 2012), 2 Days in New York (2012), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Damsels in Distress (2011), On Spec (2012)


The Day He Arrives (2011), Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Keyhole (2011), Unstoppable (2010), Faust (1926), China Gate (1957), Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Go! Go! Go! (1962-64), Geography of the Body (1946)


Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971-1972), Plumbline (1968), Letter to Jane (1972), Reflecting Pool (1977-79), Mondomanila (2012), See You Next Tuesday (2013), From Up On Poppy Hill (2013), American Movie (1999), Mud (2012), It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve: Masao Adachi (2011), Night Across the Street (2012), Time Regained (1984), Utamoro and His Five Women (1946)


Leones (2012), The Inner Scar (1972), The Searchers (1956), Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Almayer's Folly (2011), The Act of Killing (2013), The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase (1997), Blue Jasmine (2013), Museum Hours (2013)


Backyard (1984), Of Time and the City (2008), Carrie (1976), Duck Soup (1933), The Mother and The Whore (1973), The Evil Dead (1981), Black Sabbath (1963)

22 (2013 Year-End Catch-Up Blurbs)

Stories We Tell (2013), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

23 (2013 Year-End Catch-Up Blurbs)

Nebraska (2013), Dallas Buyers Club (2013), The Last Time I Saw Macao (2013)


Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (2009), Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), Gremlins (1984), Taken (2008), Taurus (2001), Faust (2011), The Color Wheel (2011)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Days of Heaven (1978) A Film by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick's sleek period piece Days of Heaven is brimming with subtle denials of convention. Set in the heavenly wheat fields of Texas during the early 1900's, the film follows (and tries hard to keep up with) a group of adult laborers as their lives unfold problematically. Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) are at the heart of the story as a young couple trying to make their way in the world, starting in a tense city environment from which they want to escape with the young Linda. Eventually they do and land a meager job in the wheat fields, where they meet a wealthy, savvy young farmer with eyes for Abby. Abby is certainly not your typical 1800-1900 Keira Knightley-esque "glowing beauty under a veil" woman; she is a rough-around-the-edges laborer. Interestingly, the film is voiced over by the naive, droll accent of Linda, a decision which succeeds in clumping all of the marginally central characters into one level of static importance.

In a film where the textures, sounds, and rhythms are of paramount emphasis, defining a plausible "main character" becomes nearly unnecessary. It seems that the film, which develops over three different settings, a hefty amount of time, and loads of plot upheavals, has a strong focus on the cycle of life in these turn-of-the-century times, whether it be in terms of each particular character, the habitat in which they live, or their respective communities as wholes. Given that the film ends on a spoken wish laid out for a suddenly introduced character, the latter seems to be true; there are several portrayals of the ripple that each character has on their surroundings.

Unlike most period works which are known for having a languid compiling of details and an attention to the "accessories" of the mise-en-scene, Malick's film has a swift, lyrical feel to it that is in a way Bressonian. Conversational scenes that one would expect would go on romantically for what seems like ages are chopped up to short episodes of simplistic exchanges. There is an admirable quality in the matter-of-factness with which the scenes are seamlessly integrated. That being said, it does sometimes push aside the humanistic aspect of the film and bring to the forefront the poetic and visual. Nestor Almendros, the cinematographer, won an Oscar for Days of Heaven and rightfully so. Almendros cites early cinema and monet paintings as being his source of inspiration for his tendency toward natural lighting in the images. Apparently the Hollywood crew would get annoyed by his refusal to use the arc lights they had set up before the shoots. However, the right decision was certainly made, as the interiors and exteriors shine with authenticity and rapturous colors. At times the images are slightly grainy or dark due to the drastic lack of artificial lighting on the set. This film had some trouble reaching wider appeal because it has the ability to abandon its humanistic themes for the pleasing tones of the internal story, which includes the horses, the pastures, the mansion, and the wheat. If a thinner character compilation seems displeasing, this film may not be for you. If you think you'd enjoy a refreshing period film with a climax that is just short of brilliant, Days of Heaven is the right match.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

La Strada (1954) A Film by Federico Fellini

In a century of cinema that has certainly seen its share of decadent personal visions, few reach the radical extremes of Italian icon Federico Fellini's films. His embellishments of Italian culture have detached me from his themes time and time again. His obsessively recurrent motifs (circuses, raucous town centers, zany lunatics) have led me to believe he is one of the most self-indulgent filmmakers in history. However, there is a childlike grace and compassion that shines through these criticisms which is unmissable. Surely his films have the capacity to enchant and captivate, but the universal themes he attempts to evoke are often times shrouded in the quirky dynamics of his films, which I think are anything but fluent. A recognizable characteristic of Fellini's films is Nina Rota's scores, which are constantly circus-like and rambunctious, and serve to toss your attention around wildly. Surprisingly, up until seeing La Strada, his most personal film, Amarcord, was my favorite of his. I discovered soon enough that the rewards of his tale of love and cruelty are plentiful.

La Strada is the story of the self-deprecating but generous vagabond Gelsomina who is sold to the hulking traveling performer Zampano to work with him in his circus acts. When Gelsomina gives her heart continually, Zampano violently orders her around. Along the road, a possible metaphor for living, Gelsomina and Zampano encounter various postwar celebrations such as weddings and performances until finally they join up with another circus troupe, one which contains Zampano's longtime enemy The Fool, a tightrope artist of giddy passion. When emotions stir up between Zampano and The Fool and eventually take a turn for the worst, Gelsomina is left to fend for herself in a world she has learned is unforgiving. Zampano realizes in a powerful ending where he has gone wrong, and through this epiphany Fellini shows he can empathize with human beings of all types, no matter how monstrous.

At times the imagery is extremely enticing, such as in the scene where Gelsomina first escapes and jaunts around in the windy, barren market square after the tight rope display. The compositions can be very striking, but could benefit from being on the screen longer. La Strada is Fellini's most coherent film, and in my opinion his most masterful achievement. I just wish that at some point in his career he could have broke free from his artistic handcuffs and explored some slightly different areas.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Distant (Uzak) A Film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

Another exciting director has sprung from the festival circuit producing simplistic yet profound films on a low budget: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With a number of awards under its belt, Distant, Ceylan's third and most widely distributed film, transports the viewer into a wintry Istanbul where its burnt out protagonist Mahmut lives. Having been left by his wife, he clings to his habitual small apartment life where he continues to work on his craft of photography, however distant it's becoming. His relative Yusuf spontaneously arrives to stay at his place, claiming to be in search of a job. Yusuf recently lost his working at a local factory because it closed down.

Instantly, there is a broad contrast between the two men; country life vs. city life, and gradually more personality differences make themselves known. Yusuf is unaware at first of the challenges that the big city presents, and seems to be in search of a female companion more so than a job. He also scoffs at the Tarkovsky film that Mahmut shows him only to be entranced by the comedy and action films that are elsewhere on TV (in a scene containing an ingenious statement on instant gratification vs. artistic consumption). In this sense, Yusuf is a sensualist whereas Mahmut is a colder-hearted intellectual. Slowly but surely, the film does just what the title states; it further distances its two main characters to the point of emotional isolation.

Ceylan handles this situation with fascinatingly articulate poetic realism. He puts us into the world of the characters as if it were our own, resulting in extended observant camera takes. Working as the director, cinematographer, writer and producer, nearly all of the fine tuning of Distant can be attributed to Ceylan. He displays his natural eye for photography, his understanding of the nuances of mundane living, and his touch for deadpan comedy that withers away into full-blown emotional explosiveness. The bleak Turkish landscape shown on the screen has never, to my knowledge, been photographed with such elegiac purpose. The snowy harbor setting is transfixing and evocative, and the interiors are deliberately humdrum. The growing tension of the story swells to an intentionally decrescendo yet contemplative finale. With Distant, Nuri Bilge Ceylan solidified his position as a world-class filmmaker in the realm of Abbas Kiarostami or Cristian Mungiu. I'm looking forward to his recent Cannes contribution, Three Monkeys.
(Also check out the imaginative Koza, Ceylan's debut short film. It's on the same disc as Distant.)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo) A Film By Andrei Tarkovsky (1962)

Make no mistake about it; if one is to assess the work of iconic Russian artist Andrei Tarkovsky, the first stop is unavoidably the spectacular poetic imagery that permeates each and every one of his films. In Ivan's Childhood, his stunning and promising debut feature, nearly every shot is a breathtaking black and white composition, showcasing and introducing Tarkovsky's propensity towards natural elements such as water, dirt, trees, and leaves that persistently evoke a spiritual clarity stronger than that of all filmmakers. The film follows a youthful boy named Ivan who connects with three Soviet officers during World War II after he successfully shows he can cross enemy lines unnoticed. Like most living during wartime, Ivan has been influenced heavily; he feels that he can serve the country with dignity as a spy, against the wishes of the officers to send him off to Army Camp.

Unlike most war films, Tarkovsky is uninterested in the battlefield and politics. Instead, he delivers a fusion of dreams and reality to portray the outstandingly potent nostalgia towards childhood that was forged in Ivan when his family was murdered. The film is loaded with bittersweet dream sequences-lucid as ever to avoid sentimentality-that are brimming with creativity, mesmerizing photography, and a sincere personal inflection. The heartbreakingly simple world of Ivan's mind is contrasted with the austere reality of wartime that he is thrusting himself into. This is certainly no groundbreaking idea, but its the uncannily haunting presentation of it that makes it so memorable.

Ivan's Childhood has been said to be not your average Tarkovsky film, but I felt that the film holds many parallels with his distinct visual style, his references to religion, and his anti-war and nostalgic attitudes. The story however is not told as naturally and fluently as most of his other works. There are some oddly inconsequential plot points such as the story of Masha, a female Soviet worker who is pursued by one of Ivan's soldier companions in a dense birch tree forest. Despite the dreamlike mood of the scene, it is nonetheless one that detracts from Ivan's story. There are also minor technical flaws in the film, like the slightly clunky camera movements at times, or the sharp shadows that fall in odd places during some of the conversational scenes. These are forgivable though, given the low-budget that was being worked with. Ingmar Bergman once said that Tarkovsky's art was film as a dream, and this film is precisely that; it's also one of the most potent portraits of wartime's influence and lost childhood.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Into the Wild (2007) A Film by Sean Penn

Somewhere within the 148 minute film roll of Sean Penn's Into the Wild is the groundwork for a sharper, more realized film, perhaps even a documentary. Given that the story is a true one told largely in narration of a college graduate seeking freedom from systematic life, it already has the feel of a documentary. Where the filmmaker is way off target is in his mish-mashed, underdeveloped presentation of the story. In reality, the film is part enlightening narrative, part retelling of life lessons, part modernized On the Road, and part L.L. Bean commercial.

Emile Hirsch plays with a touch of staggering realism and a touch of exaggerated ideological views the 23-year old main character Chris McCandless, who disappears from the life he has grown up with around his sister and parents to embark on a journey in search of freedom and peace among man's primordial habitats. Unfortunately, we never develop too much of an affinity with Chris, for the story is told less in real-time events and more in montages accompanied by the narrating voice of Chris's sister. She speaks of her worried state due to his disappearance, but validates that with anecdotal stories of the family's past, one which supposedly caged up the venturesome Chris. She reveals her beliefs on his intentions in the wild while also stating blatantly a couple of times the basic messages of the film. This is one of the problems of the film; it can't seem to avoid obviousness and sentimentality.

Another main fault is the confused stylistic choices of the visual presentation. At times there is a purposely shaky cam, attempting to portray reality, a useless split screen effect that has worked well in some films but was too clunky here, and a quick bout into jump cuts and frenetic freeze frames. Without these shallow attempts at dramatizing the film, it had the potential of being something more meditative and magical, which it did show it could be in a few scenes. That brings me to the advantageous choices and successes of Into the Wild. Without a doubt, Eddie Vedder's soundtrack was suited perfectly; it meshed into the film to become one with it, as necessary an element as the free-spirits Chris forms a bond with towards the beginning. There is also an unflinching approach to some of the drama, to the point of getting up close and personal with the grisly slaughter of a large moose.

All boldness aside, the film couldn't get away without one typical shot of the protagonist with his arms extended up to the vast windy landscape while Vedder croons in a sort of African-esque acoustic ballad. So in truth I believe that the film would work marvelously as a documentary, perhaps directed by Herzog or the Discovery Channel, more so than it did as a drawn-out narrative that could have spent boundless extra time in the cutting room. This is not to say that the film is not reasonably touching; it builds a cumulative enchantment that presents itself for the better part of about 45 minutes from a scene where Chris reunites with his early friends at a trailer park to the end. And although I saw its ending from a mile away, I was nonetheless fairly moved by it.