Sunday, 27 February 2011

Cinema Strange #13. Blind Beast (Môjû) (Yasuzo Masumura, 1969)

Eiji Funakoshi and Mako Midori in The Blind Beast (1969)

Yasuzo Masumura, though still underrated in the West, is often labeled by critics as the kick-starter and leader of the Japanese New Wave, which also featured Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade Of Roses, 1969) and Nagisa Ôshima (In The Realm Of The Senses, 1976) - boldly distinctive filmmakers who challenged the social norm with exposé's of the throbbing underground movement, debauched sexual inhibition and starkly violent imagery. All of this can be traced back to Masumura and Blind Beast (also known as Môjû), which seems to directly prefigure the work of Ôshima. However, if there is truth to the fact that Masumura kick-started the wave we can partly credit it to his time in Rome, absorbing the culture of the Neorealist movement...

"My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and
passions of living human beings. In Japanese society, which is essentially
regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist. The theme of Japanese
film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live
according to the norms of that society... After experiencing Europe for two
years, I wanted to portray the type of beautifully vital, strong people I came
to know there." Masumura, speaking of his time in Rome.

Masumura studied filmmaking in the early 1950s at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico, and soaked up Italian culture in the midst of the Neorealist movement - which was, of course, partly inspired by the great Ozu - but these pictures were much more raw and honest, tapping into the psyche of the poor and working class with a freedom of speech unheard of in Japan, and often using non-professional actors to draw authenticity from the picture. One of the names associated with the movement is Fellini, whose I Vitteloni (1953) would likely have been viewed by Masumura, and whose pictures became more stylized, dreamlike and sexy as the years went on - his (1963) was released the year before Masumura's pink lesbian drama, the dangerously erotic Manji (1964).

Fast forward to 1969 and Masumura had served as an assistant director to Japanese legends such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Ichikawa Kon. He'd broken from what he saw as the confines of his country's cinema early in his directing career and this feature, based on the novel of the same name by Edogawa Rampo, was to be his most daring and provocative thus far. It tells the story of an artists model named Aki (Mako Midori) who is kidnapped by a blind sculptor named Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) in order to create his ultimate masterpiece - and convince the world that touch can be an art form. It begins as a quietly sensual film; the first ten minutes are largely without dialogue and mostly consist of voyeuristic scenes of Aki and Michio; at first she watches and derives pleasure from him fondling a sculpture of her at a nearby exhibition and the next scene sees him posing as a masseuse, and sensually rubbing her body for real. Straight away a link has been made between art and sex; Michio touches both his self-made and living subjects with the same passion and intensity - growing up under the domineering care of his protective mother (Noriko Sengoku), he does not know the touch of a woman, and has sealed himself off from the world in a dangerously hermetic cave where his sculptures of women - arms, legs, breasts, lips - protrude from the walls, and two giant models take up the floor space. Upon her capture Aki makes a note that the reason these figures are so large is because Michio made them from the point of view of a baby - his mother is the only woman he has ever known, so the models are in her image - and his perception of her links back to childhood, and being soothed and rocked in her arms. To say there are Oedipal undertones at play would be an understatement, but Aki is no innocent herself - after all, it was her who got turned on by the sight of somebody sexually embracing her even in the form of sculpture; scopophilia via narcissism, if you will. As the movie descends into debauched, psychosexual hell it could be said that Michio (who knows no better) has done nothing but unlock urges that were already present in Aki from the beginning. After all, why was she at the gallery in the first place? Her narration tells us it is for a meeting, but no such event is evidenced and how trustworthy any narrator is - especially when they're the protagonist - is up for debate.

Of course Aki does at first resist her captor and tries to escape - but she soon learns that in order to stay alive she must deceive him. She learns of his vulnerability and virginity (indeed, Michio is not a bad guy - just a psychologically damaged one who can't socially interact) and begins to seduce him - revealing her breasts in one chillingly erotic scene. Soon her deceit is exposed by Mother (whose relationship with her son also recalls Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960) and a violent argument ensues, resulting in the accidental death of Mother. As revenge Michio rapes Aki again and again until she enjoys it and falls in love with him for real. They make love day and night in the darkness of Michio's artistic dungeon and soon she begins to go blind too - her eyes atrophy with no natural light or beauty to stare upon. Eventually orgasm is not enough for her and she wants for more dangerous fulfillment, with the film ending in flagellation, vampirism, sado-masochistic torture and finally ritualistic, ecstatic double suicide. What's most interesting is not the build up to these events (claustrophobic stockholm thriller becomes philosophical drama and ends up as a full-on horror movie) but how Masumura portrays that final intrinsic link between art and death. Aki decides that she wishes to die at the hands of Michio by him chopping off her arms and legs - he fulfills her wish but just as he brings the hammer down on the knife below her shoulders and thighs we see not her body falling apart, but that of her sculpture. She has become one with her image. It's also fitting that the aesthetic of the film is completely captivating - shot with a painterly composition by DoP Setsuo Kobayashi, the framing and colour texturing is always impressive and creates a suitably gothic-inflected tone - surrounded in darkness, the film is intoxicating, titillating, terrifying and repulsive. Not exactly Mizoguchi then...

Cinema Strange #12. Container (Lukas Moodysson, 2006)

Moodysson channels Warhol for his experimental art flick Container (2008)

It's hard to say what Lukas Moodysson was thinking when he made Container. After being dubbed 'the new Bergman' after the release of his 1998 feature debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Åmål), Bergman himself stepped up to the plate to proclaim the film "a young master's first masterpiece." Quite what the auteur behind Winter Light (1963) would have to say about this almost insufferable mess is probably closely in line with what the rest of us are thinking: what on Earth happened Moodysson? Show Me Love was a tenderly human film, and the directors following two features expanded upon themes and ideas to form the beginnings of a distinctively heartfelt oeuvre. This was soon abandoned, however, in the name of 2004's art-horror-experiment A Hole In My Heart which, among other things, contained detailed vaginal surgery and intense scenes of vomiting. Container may be a cleaner film, with avant-garde roots in the worlds of Stan Brakhage (Sirius Remembered, 1959), Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures, 1963, is directly referenced) and Andy Warhol (Chelsea Girls, 1966), but it is also demonstrably inaccessible - indeed, anyone stumbling into this nightmarish magic box because of the presence of Jenna Malone as narrator ("I'm an American actress") will be not so much surprised by what they find as positively flummoxed and repulsed. Stream-of-consciousness dialogue puts porn star Savannah (who after a drug-induced car crash shot herself in the head in 1994) in the same sentence as the Holocaust, and Chernobyl (where some of the film was shot). One line reads "Bloody pissant, stop pissing in my stomach", and is shortly followed by childish dreamlike fantasies of stopping nuclear war with yoghurt. Some of the dialogue is admittedly poetic, and read in a seductive whisper by Malone it can be quite intoxicating, but it's also dreadfully pretentious and alienating - seemingly as much an experiment in endurance as anything else.

That's the overriding question that kept hitting me during Container. Is this genuine or a joke? Does Moodysson seriously believe the images he presents have depth and meaning, or is he playing with the cinematic arena afforded him by the critical success of his first three features? He has since gone back to narrative storytelling and a focus on human relationships with 2009's Mammoth, starring Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal. So what was this? More to the point, what is it? Malone got the part of narrator after she wrote a fan letter to Moodysson, so perhaps he built the script around her, from her point of view? Or is the monologue more internal - the confessions, desires and bitter resentments of "a girl in a boy's body" - represented by two protagonists (Peter Lorentzon, Mariha Åberg) who may or may not be the same person. Or perhaps it is the director himself, essaying the cruel, invasive age of celebrity (one scene speaks of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the paparazzi stalking the stable trying to get "a shot of the Virgin Mary's tits"). But there is also considerable time dedicated to essaying loneliness and the desperation and depression that arises from such a fractured state. I mentioned before that some of the dialogue is poetic, but it's also emotional; sometimes the causticity and cynicism can sting and leave a mark that's hard to ignore. The screenplay is the star and highlight of the film, and certain choices of words and metaphors are still rolling around in my mind. This is never better exemplified than in the disturbingly personal essay on gender and sexuality, discomfort and internal disturbance - the film is at its most interesting here as a kind of arthouse body horror, examining fear through dialogue and obscure cross-cutting of images, rather than the more explicitly literal genre pics of David Cronenberg (The Fly, 1986). Also present in the film are discussions of war and nuclear attack (especially Chernobyl and its devastation), and an account of the dangers of voyeurism. This may all sound very interesting, but it's also meandering, unfocused and without any point - and Moodysson's seeming pretensions of artistic grandeur fall flat in some of the more confrontational images that recall his last mistake.

He describes the film as "a silent movie with sound", and the tone of that overambitious and pompous remark pretty much sums up the entirety of Container. It's not totally without merit, but its merits are lost in a sea of been-there-done-that poseur ideas; even the interesting camerawork feels rehashed from artists previously mentioned, especially Brakhage, whose compositions seem to be a clear influence on the cinematography and editing employed by Moodysson for this picture. The schizophrenic framework of the film just doesn't feel fresh enough to hold the weight of its thematic 'substance'. He may be trying on big boots but Moodysson is not yet fit to wear them, and while Container is not quite the cinematic equivalent to somebody setting fire to their career the flames still feel a little too close for comfort... ostentatious and pseudo-intellectual, this shambolic art flick impresses in the screenplay department but falls over itself everywhere else. As Sight&Sound's Henry K. Miller highlighted, it's a much more interesting note in Malone's career than Moodysson's, as she challenges her star persona and power with some unflinchingly dark material. I think she's far more aware of herself than her director, and as an actors experiment Container might hold something of note after all...

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto) (Kon Ichikawa, 1956) DVD Review

A search for spiritual enlightenment in the midst of wartime violence is the crux of The Burmese Harp (1956)

A few weeks ago I posted a review of Kenji Mizoguchi's Musashino fujin (1951), which charted the lives of a family in the wake of WWII, when Tokyo - a rising utopia - had been bombed to hell, forcing citizens into other districts including the marshes of Mizoguchi's melodrama. The reason I mention this is that early on in The Burmese Harp Captain Inouye (Rentarô Mikuni), after being taken prisoner as the result of Japan's surrender, notes that life in Japan is no longer the same. "All of Japan has been heavily bombed. Many are dead. Many are homeless and starving. Our country lies in ruins..." To me his words recalled the opening scene of Musashino fujin, which finds an impoverished couple hobbling away from the rubble and ash of their beloved Tokyo in a stunning tableau that sees death, rising in the form of smoke, overpowering the frame and belittling the characters. It was as if that image were a memory of my own experience. For a moment the emotion simply overwhelmed me, as the soldiers under Inouye's command resigned themselves to an unknown fate, thousands of miles from home. More and more in my mind it's becoming clear that the Japanese were masters of evoking the feeling of life during wartime - whether it be the family-based melodrama of Mizoguchi, or the poetic minimalism of Kon's spiritual adventure.

Ichikawa began life as an artist and his film career in animation - his first feature was a puppet short entitled Kachikachi yama (1934) and it wouldn't be until he made The Burmese Harp for the Nikkatsu company (part of a three-picture contract) that he would become a respected figure on the international stage. The film, adapted from the novel Harp Of Burma by Michio Takeyama, was originally to be shot in colour on an old three strip system (all that was available to the company at the time) but as Ichikawa was planning to shoot on location in Burma the huge cameras would have been too cumbersome and impractical. The crew would eventually end up shooting in Japan, capturing the locations in a stunning black and white courtesy of DoP Minoru Yokoyama. Ichikawa's beginnings as an artist would serve The Burmese Harp immensely - indeed, the painterly composition and attention to shading, as well as the attention to colour in the dialogue, help to make the film as gorgeous as anything from the period.

The film has two central narrative threads that run parallel to each other. Captain Inouye is a former music teacher who has taught his unit to sing chorally; additionally a young solider named Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) has learnt to play the harp. This also comes in useful during tactical situations - Mizushima can scout ahead, for example, and play the 'all clear' song if there are no enemy traces to be found. It can also be a diversion - the unit can prepare arms while singing, to give the enemy the impression that they are unaware of their position, while they actually prepare to attack. It is soon discovered that Japan has surrendered and the Pacific War has come to an end - therefore the men are taken to a British POW camp, where Mizushima is sent on a special mission by the British (with Inouye's consent) to force a unit in the mountainous regions to surrender. The unit are all older, classical military men - in fact, they reminded me of Col. Blimp - who are non-defeatists and feel shamed by their country's decision to surrender. They decide to stand their ground in a suicide offensive; a stand of pride, and just after Mizushima tries to stop them with the waving of a white flag, the unit is bombed and killed. Everyone dies except for Mizushima, who attempts to make his way to the POW camp to rejoin his captain. Before long starvation and fatigue set in, and he encounters a pack of vultures feasting on the bodies of fallen soldiers.

It is here that the film makes a radical departure from the novel and Ichikawa's natural storytelling abilities come to the fore. In the novel Mizushima (after weakening and fainting) is saved by a group of cannibals who, after nursing him back to health, plan to eat him alive. Such nonsense is not suitable for the naturalistic and humanist tale Ichikawa had his sights set on (although he was a fan of the book) and the plot was changed to Mizushima being saved by a Buddhist monk whose clothes Mizushima steals when he is bathing. At first the solider merely poses as a monk and teaches a young boy to play harp, but this is the key element of the film. Music is salvation for the soul, an expression of deep feeling without words, a way of building bridges with enemy opponents (which is literally represented in one obvious scene) and a way to neutralize conflict. Inouye's unit are first seen singing to relax themselves; perhaps to find harmony in the midst of war. Next we hear the harp on the defensive; a deterrent to the advancing British soldiers as the unit prepare arms at a stronghold. Music will next be used to form a silent bond between a mentally fractured soldier and a lonely young boy. Finally, the harp is played in a moment of heartbreaking beauty, as Mizushima serenades his ex-comrades, as he is now on a journey to bring peace to all those who fell without a grave. Music in The Burmese Harp originates from violence, emerges as a mediator and ends on a simplistic moment of transcendental grace - a communication through barbed wire that says more than a thousand words. It's not just the soul of the film; its truly a representation of the soul.

Lets backtrack slightly, to highlight the double narrative. The first strand concerns Mizushima, who at first only steals the monks clothes as to disguise himself, but the guise soon starts to take an effect on him. As he sees the corpses littered on the beaches of Burma - the charcoaled remains of brave men that he could have fought beside, he comes to the realization that nobody will put these men to rest. Our world is an unjust one, and one without compromise. The young boy whom Mizushima teaches to play harp takes him to the burial of an unknown solider. A soldier with no name. His identity, like his body, is soon to be lost to the ground and never known again. The war now exists internally; shall Mizushima deny his true calling or rejoin his men to go back home? He does, of course, choose the former - but in a beautiful letter to his comrades at the finale he expresses with great honesty the hardship of that decision and how he longs to be with them, and see home once again. He learns (or perhaps never learns, but willingly accepts) that the task he has accepted is bigger than him. Truly his destiny is a divine one. The second narrative concerns Inouye and the imprisoned unit as they struggle in claustrophobic confines and worry for the well-being of their comrade. Some accept him as dead but Inouye won't quit until he's found the man he feels responsible for. Mizushima does indeed appear to the men at the barbed wire fence, but they do not recognize him as a monk (they do suspect it is him, however). The two stories occasionally mesh with one another, but they are equally powerful individually. Scenes of Mizushima dragging charred soldiers into their graves are devastating, as is the scene where Inouye locates a small box that he had seen the monk carrying. Reduced from 143 to the current 116 minutes every scene is vital, and the narrative journey is perfectly constructed; in fact, not a single scene feels out of place in the context of the whole piece. One of the final shots in the film sees the warm orange sun radiating over an oil-black ocean; light illuminating the dark. It comes after the reading of Mizushima's letter and could be seen as a sign that he is still with the unit in heart, watching over them. Either way the souls of these savaged, war-torn men - who have seen horrors no man should see - have been salvaged by the monk, and by the soothing strings of his harp, which sing a universal language. I don't think I've ever seen a film where music is so instrumental (excuse the pun) to the narrative in the sense that it doesn't just underscore the film, but it is the film.

The Burmese Harp, as well as being anti-war and pro-faith, contains a journey totally in touch with the human spirit. Indeed, its transcendental beauty defies description and an attempt would be useless - the presence of soul and compassion here cannot be described with words. It reaches places within me that I didn't know I had, and that's a level of filmmaking that disregards the need for cerebral analysis or critical poking. Forget everything you think you know and believe me when I say that this is one of the best films you'll ever see... because it really is.

Extras: Typically informative for a MoC release, there's a 40 page essay booklet with rare black-and-white production stills, a video interview with Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (who also provided Criterion notes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer. The image and sound have also been remastered for this edition and the English subtitles are more accurate than ever.

The Shortlist: 10 Most Egregious Oscar Make Ups

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tangled (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010) Review

Romance and adventure mix for Disney's retelling of Rapunzel, Tangled (2010)

Somebody shoot the marketing team. For their 50th animated feature in the Animated Classics canon Disney have struck gold with co-directors Greno and Howard, who have performed a minor miracle - essentially they've made a revisionist fairytale that never slips into parody and is equally an action adventure, musical, romance and comedy. And despite the godawful trailers that represent none of those factors it has gone on to become the second highest grossing Disney film of all time. How did they do it? Simple. With straightforward storytelling, lots of heart and some of the most beautiful animation of recent years...

In order to appeal to both girls and boys the title has been changed from Rapunzel to Tangled, which in my eyes is a terrible mistake, placing it into the same cheesy category as the recent Hoodwinked! (2005) - desperately trying to hide its source material in order to appear hip and contemporary. I think titles are very important to a film and Tangled just doesn't do this tale justice - it's a really sad attempt to hide the classical roots of this warm-hearted story, and before you even go into the cinema it just feels... well... cheap. I made a note of saying the film was revisionist - but revisionism is smarter than mere showboating, which is all the obvious and stale Hoodwinked! was. That said the film does a lot in its early stages to ease us into the tale and establish a familiar yet fresh tone. If that sounds contradictory, allow me to explain. The "Once upon a time..." opening narration would normally be read by a voiceover artist, gently setting the scene of a fair maiden who is imprisoned and one day must be rescued by her prince. Except in this tale the opening narration is delivered by Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) - not so much a prince as a narcissistic thief who as well as informing us of his own death, American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) style, also skips vital narrative exposition with "blah blah blah", in order to get to his part. Indeed, he really has no interest in rescuing princesses - he's too busy dreaming of riches. This also acts as a wonderful comic device, ensuring that the first laugh arrives in the opening minutes. And Levi's excellent performance means that there are many more to come...

The element that Disney seem most scared of is the fact that Tangled is a musical - probably for the fact that they marketed The Princess And The Frog (Ron Clements, John Musker, 2009) as one and it flopped - but that's actually the strongest element. I'm generally not a fan of musicals but I found myself humming these tunes on the way out of the cinema and its all thanks to the genuis of Alan Menken, who essentially scored my childhood with Beauty And The Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997) - all featuring brilliant songs that I loved in my youth (he also wrote the original score for The Little Mermaid, 1989, a guilty pleasure). Here he provides the soul of the film - all of the songs are catchy (especially the upbeat pop opener When Will My Life Begin) but they're also very funny - anyone who doesn't burst a little bit during I've Got A Dream should probably see a Doctor. The comedy, both in the lyrics and the accompanying visual gags, is spot-on. But the best song comes in the form of Mother Knows Best, sung by the incredible Donna Murphy, a star of musical theatre on the stage. Put simply, the song is an instant classic, and the rest of the score by Menken swells and tinkles with pulse-pounding action and heart-melting piano. The gentle guitar plucking on Waiting For The Lights is also lovely.

I feel like I've already praised the film enough but here comes some more - the animation in the film is absolutely stunning; especially the lighting. The film has a yellow/orange glow in the scenes with Rapunzel (Mandy Moore, a delight) which just illuminates the frame. It's aesthetically pleasing but also informs so much about her character, and adds a classical Disney flavour. There is also real threat to the pitch-black shadows and creeping mist that accompany the scary scenes, and the crisp visuals mean that the exciting action sequences are all spritely and arresting. The most impressive scene comes with Flynn and Rapunzel sailing as lanterns are set into the night sky - honestly, it's hard to think of much in the Disney oeuvre that can match it. But I've saved the best aspect to last - the aforementioned performance by Donna Murphy. Dangerously overprotective and obsessed with her own beauty, Mother Gothel is halfway between Carrie Bradshaw and Margaret White - a true monster who you'll genuinely hate and want to see punished. I can't remember the last time I despised a Disney villain so much, or believed in and cared about the central relationship to the same degree that I did here. Maybe I'm just more of a sucker than I thought, and on the right day a romantic musical is all I need. Or maybe, despite the marketing teams best attempts to convince you otherwise, Tangledreally is just that good. As much as a revelation as the former would be, I'm inclined to go with the latter. Tangled is Disney back on top form. Happy 50th...

Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010) Review

Monday, 21 February 2011

Three Shorts By Barbet Schroeder

Bulle Ogier in La vallée (1972)

Last week I reviewed the new BFI release of La vallée, a spiritual odyssey through the Papa New Guinea jungle by underrated Gallic filmmaker Barbet Schroeder (More, 1969). The DVD has the usual strand of extras; trailer, original ending and an accompanying booklet of essays. But what really drew me to the package was the inclusion of three ethnographic shorts shot by Schroeder and cinematographer Néstor Almendros, comprised of footage filmed while scouting locations in 1971. They were shooting footage of tribal ceremonies and the day-to-day lives of the clans that live in Mount Hagen and the surrounding area, and when they returned home Almendros persuaded Schroeder to edit the footage into three short films. The footage became Le cochon aux patates douces (1971), Maquillages (1971) and Sing Sing (1971). Filmed in the same year as Nic Roeg's Walkabout (1971) - itself a fascinating foray into unknown tribal territories, except in the Australian bush - the films provide a beautiful glimpse into a lost way of life...

Le cochon aux patates douces opens with a Hagen tribe killing pigs in order to offer them as compensation for a murder of a clansman from another tribe - the murder happened when a fight broke out at the cinema, at a screening of a Louis de Funès picture. The pigs are beaten over the head and then skinned over fire. Bamboo is sharpened so that the women of the tribe may cut away the organs in the animal (the narrator tells us that sharpened bamboo is "sharper than any knife") as the men put together a huge oven. For this a hole is dug in the ground, layered with banana leaves and then heated rocks are thrown into the pit along with the meat, wrapped in leaves tied by string. It's fascinating to see the entire community band together and spend the whole day preparing a meal that would only take a few hours for us - and they won't even get to sample it. This says a lot about jungle politics, poverty and currency, spirituality and its attachment to animals - and peculiarly highlights the fact that Mount Hagen has (or had) a pretty good distributor of French cinema, yet the people can't even afford a lighter to better start the fire for their compensatory meal.

Maquillages documents the importance of art and expression in the Hagen area, especially during two important ceremonies - the mourning of a deceased tribal member, and a celebratory victory dance in Gokora (a village near Hagen). For the commemoration clansmen cover their bodies in yellow clay, and for the victory dance the clansmen choose grey clay. We spend most of the 12 minute film with the mourners who chant, sing and pray around a fire. Music is played, and we are told this is the only form of art in the Hagen area, along with jewelry and makeup - the latter of which is a form of true expression and each tribe member may create their own patterns and designs to reflect their feelings. Again, what may seem like a simple observational document actually says a lot for the way the tribes approach culture and appreciate beauty as a form of purely individual declaration. It shows a fair society and one where everybody is involved in the passing of a member - they are tightly knit, and stronger for it.

Sing Sing is the shortest of the films (5 minutes) but no less profound. It opens on a special ceremony that sees tribe members performing a dance, wearing makeup and beautiful headsets of colourful feathers (which would be adapted in La vallée; they are the reason for Viviane's (Ogier) presence and a symbol of her Westernized greed). The latter half of the film is most interesting, however, as it sees the gift of a pig offered from one tribe to another, as they do not speak the same language. This exchanging of animal again displays the importance of deep roots in nature, but it is also somewhat an insight into trader politics in Hagen; several years later a gift shall be given in return. It's an act of goodwill one might say, a peace offering - and all without the burden of language. The films are beautifully photographed by Almendros and edited by Denise de Casbianca, providing yet another reason to buy the new edition of La vallée - a true forgotten gem of world cinema.

Cinema Strange #11. Celia (Ann Turner, 1988)

Terror lurks among innocence in Ann Turner's cult horror Celia (1989)

Also known as Celia: Child Of Terror, Ann Turner's 1989 debut is currently marketed by Second Run as a full-blown horror picture, but it's actually a sensitive coming-of-age tale fraught with the complexities of youth, set against a backdrop of rabbit plague and roaring communism in 1957 Australia. It tells the story of 9-year-old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart), a disturbed and anti-social young girl with a powerful imagination. The film opens with the death of her Grandmother, and the young girl grieves as she also fears the monsters known as Hobyahs, which she reads about in a fairytale at school. Soon she befriends new neighbors (the Tanner's) but family tensions rise as it is revealed that the parents are communists. The children form a strong bond and have rock fights with a rival gang, while Celia longs for a pet rabbit. As you can see, for such a small film there's an awful lot going on...

I previously called Second Run out for bad marketing but Celia is also an effective horror film; it's just that most of the horror is internally psychological, cannily mixing familiar under-the-bed (reds?) monster mechanics to act as allegory for political paranoia. A scene of children burning voodoo dolls, chanting "take them, take them, take them" would seemingly be more at home in Village Of The Damned (John Carpenter, 1995) than a domestic drama, but it fits perfectly into the haunted mid-50s period evoked by Turner. Ten years into the Cold War and at the end of the second Red Scare (1947 - 1957), the film finds us in a turbulent Australia. Conservative Prime Minster Robert Menzies invaded the homes of citizens with paranoia and suspicion, even of friends and neighbors. Communists were painted as the enemy while hermetic seculars were formed on suburban blocks. As the film is largely told from Celia's point of view this adult nightmare that she suffers at the hands of becomes a reality when her pet rabbit ("vermin, like snakes and rats", according to her father) is marked by a burning poker at the hands of bullies. It's a scary and emotional sequence shot in the dead of night, where a rival gang lock Celia and the Tanner kids in a small shed and brand the rabbit with a cross so "they know which one to take" - in reference to government officials and police officers, who plan to rid the town of the rabbit plague once and for all by banning even pets.

Celia may not know it but her wide-eyed innocence provides the films voice of reason. We often laugh at the things children say, or write them off. But children can also be incredibly perceptive; they don't see the world according to law books and politics. For Celia a person isn't represented by their beliefs but by their character. When her father confronts her, labeling the Tanner family "communists" she replies simply with, "they're my friends." This black-and-white simplicity actually works, and paints her - without resorting to cliché or beyond-her-years insight - as a thoughtful girl growing into womanhood, albeit with all the confusions that brings. She understands not the reason for her father burning Grandmother's Marxist books but simply that they were Grandmothers, and therefore should be treated with respect. As Lenin blazes in the Carmichael's backyard the young girl's imagination drifts to her dead Grandmother, resulting in a chilling scene that sees her ghost scratching on the window of Celia's bedroom. The fractured relationships and mixed messages of unfounded antipathy that surround her begin to morph with her own fears, and Uncle Burke (the Police Inspector who threatened to take her rabbit away) takes the form of a Hobyah.

Eventually Celia's emotions become uncontrollable and without a guiding force she takes drastic action... reaching for her fathers shotgun. When she shoots down the Hobyah (Burke) she is somehow liberated. She lives in greater fear, sure, but her understanding of the world is more pronounced. She streaks lipstick across her cheeks to become animal; reduce herself to the state of hunter. When she fires the shotgun it's her coming-of-age. This is her primal scream; her standing of ground as an individual and not a collective. It's interesting that I should watch this film directly after Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970), another film that finds a girl blending reality and fiction when faced with the hardships of the world; of course Valerie is a fairytale in the tradition of Czech surrealism and finds its home in their 60s/70s New Wave, whereas Celia is effectively a sociopolitical creature feature, where the creature plays second fiddle to character dynamics. The key comparison is that they're both movies about young girls going down the rabbit hole and finding there a darker reflection than they were expecting. It all comes back to 1 Corinthians 13, although Valerie's transition is into womanhood and sexual liberation, and Celia's is a journey of defining confidence, independence and strength. The closest Celia comes to pure fantasy is in its visualization of the Hobyah story - with the creatures stalking a forest and burning down the quaint patchwork house of an old man. Ultimately Celia has to be sold for what it is - a dark drama with elements of horror. The performance by the young Smart, as the awkward Celia, is absolutely terrific and is the icing on the cake of an unsentimental and emotionally devastating film. Truly, Celia is the definition of a lost classic.

For another (excellent) take on Celia, check out my friend and fellow critic Sam Inglis' piece over at MultiMediaMouth.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Cinema Strange #10. Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970)

Jaroslava Schallerová in Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)

The Czechoslovak New Wave, while not exactly short on surrealist eccentricity, is currently represented as a movement led by a group of avant-garde auteurs such as František Vláčil (Marketa Lazarová, 1967). The truth is that the movement actually produced more oddball idiosyncrasies from filmmakers such as Jan Švankmajer (Alice, 1988), Věra Chytilová (Sedmikrásky, 1966) and Vojtěch Jasný (The Cassandra Cat, 1963) than it did arthouse drama and medieval poems. And perhaps the crowning achievement of this cultish strand is Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970), a sensual and ghostly voyage into womanhood and sexual awakening that recalls Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice In Wonderland, and its 1871 sequel Through The Looking Glass.

The film is based on Vítĕzslav Nezval's 1935 novel of the same name; a Gothic-Romantic fantasy written at the peak of Czech surrealist literature. Alice In Wonderland is an obvious influence on the text but for his peculiar adaptation Jireš and co-screenwriter Ester Krumbachová also turned to cinema of the past, including F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) for the design of the vampire who haunts Valerie's (Jaroslava Schallerová) life and dreams. A plot synopsis is futile because the jagged, dislocated succession of images that make up the film are bound to be interpreted by each viewer in a slightly different way; the basic narrative, however, finds Valerie dawning upon womanhood after her first period and finding herself drawn to a performance act entering town - but her pursuit of pleasure only finds darkness, vampires and monsters, as well as sexual debauchery and Freudian nightmares. Valerie, who is 13 years old (Schallerová was also 13) discovers her sexual being at the hands of men and women, and is seen nakedly bathing in natural light on more than one occasion.

I can't claim to have fully understood every aspect of the film, but I have my interpretation. What impressed me most on a cinematic level was just how equally absorbing and terrifying the world created by Jireš was. DoP Jan Curík (Zert, 1969) captures the folkloric town, burgeoning sexualities, lurking evils and mythic demons with an alluring aesthetic beauty, bathing the film in white angelic lights on the surface and oil-black shadow in the caves below. He also complements Ladislav Bacilek's makeup work, which is almost theatrical in its extremes; Valerie is imbued with a naturally attractive pink and her ravishing brown locks frame her face in such a way as to allow light to filter through and illuminate her pale complexion. The vampire is incredibly theatrical - his swooping black cape serving the OTT white makeup that makes him hauntingly ghost-like and other-worldly. Makeup artists often go unsung but there's no way of reviewing Valerie's Week Of Wonders without mentioning the stunning work accomplished here. The photography also frames the landscape on some peculiarly disorienting angles, bringing season to the heightened world with crisp autumn greens and yellows, which evoke feelings of warmth, therefore making the thematic darkness all the more profound. Spider webs litter attics and barns while fire plays a dominant part in most of the narrative, and it's all captured with a confidently foreboding elegance.

The music by Lubos Fiser & Jan Klusák is also achingly beautiful, mixing star-like lullaby, children's choir, folk acoustics and music box tinkling to starting effect, giving the fairytale a genuine sense of wide-eyed innocence. Music does so much to enhance the feeling of a world, and there's no doubt that the score to Valerie could be listened to on its own as a soothing berceuse; it's with the images that the sounds gather an erotic dread. Some of the symbolism is a little overbearing and obvious; for example a scene which sees Valerie in a white robe laying herself into a room of pure white, indicating innocence and purity. The virgin finds herself in several Christ-like poses and her distant stares through cross-framed windows, light pouring onto her body, can become a little grating. But overall this tale of fruit and blood is a wonderfully sensory experience, delicate and ravishing with Schallerová providing a gorgeous lead. The film provided a clear influence on Neil Jordan's The Company Of Wolves (1984) but its roots are in the distinct past...

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I
thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly.

Cinema Strange #9. Beyond Image (Mark Boyle & Joan Hills, 1969)

Mark Boyle and Joan Hills were experimental filmmakers in the 1960s whose humble beginnings started in the kitchen sink, playing with light projects normally involving objects such as sweet wrappers and animals. They put together light shows and short films for exhibitions, each one as different as the last but conceived by the same means - theirs was a deconstruction of art, as well as a presentation of it. Beyond Image is a recorded show of pulsating fluids and vibrant light filters rather than a live exhibition, so it also plays with the medium of the camera, employing cinematic trickery ahead of its time that looks even better on DVD, and can now be interacted with by the viewer. Played in reverse, at ½ speed or in 32x fast-forward the film takes on different meanings and shapes; the light is affected differently and you can see new images in its living, almost microscopic landscape.

Beyond Image looks like the opening credits sequence to a James Bond movie, albeit one where the tales of the British super-spy are re-imagined through a hallucinatory, psychedelic lens. It falls directly, and fits into, the middle of the British art scene prominent in the late 60s and early 70s - somewhere between Herostratus (Don Levy, 1967, soon to be reviewed) and Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg, 1970, also up for review). 14 minutes of bold colours and shifting shapes, it greatly resembles the patterns that are today displayed on coffee tables and bed-side units in the form of lava lamps, but the film has lost none of its power. It's a hypnotic, dream-like show set to the sounds of jazz-rock band The Soft Machine, a largely forgotten group who are, in my eyes, the English contemporaries of the different-sounding but equally experimental American band, 13th Floor Elevators. The Soft Machine provide the rhythm of the film, their crescendoing track merging with the images and becoming one with them- so much so that it's impossible to listen to some of their music without thinking of the work accomplished by Boyle & Mills. As it is though, the art duos work is sadly forgotten - indeed, I couldn't even find a still of the film to accompany this review. A shame, as their work is of considerable interest - enjoyable and admirable, their oeuvre is a key part of the British art movement.

Beyond Image can be found as a DVD extra on the BFI release of Jack Bond's Separation (1968), which will be reviewed next week.

The Shortlist: 10 Worst Movie Aliens

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cinema Strange #8. Temenos (Nina Danino, 1998)

One of the many landscapes in Temenos (1998)

There are few things in the world that I have absolutely no tolerance for, but self-important experimental art is one of them. When I read the BFI synopsis for Temenos I thought it sounded interesting: 'The film Temenos explores the phenomenon of visionary experience, taking the viewer to locations where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, including Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje in Croat-occupied Bosnia where the visions continue. Nina Danino films the landscapes that have witnessed these transcendental appearances, imbuing them with a sense of the sacred.' It sounded like a quasi-religious tone poem, somewhere between Herzog's Fata Morgana (1971) and the recent The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah, 2010), itself an elegiac mood piece which used Homer's Odyssey to tell the story of immigration into the UK in the 1960s. If only...

The film flits between black and white and colour sequences, presumably to give the impression of time and space that the rest of the film refuses to acknowledge, but it also provides a confusing contrast. The black and white imagery gives a sense of timelessness; that these are captured moments of past encounters with the divine. But the the colour sequences (overhead shots of lived-in cities) contemporize the film for no particular reason; if a distinction is to be made between time and place would it not have been better for Danino to address the matter in one of the hair-tearing sequences of black static, which take up entire stretches of screen-time? Moreover the photography isn't even very good, with the limited frame not giving a true sense of landscape and the camera angles often distractingly off-kilter. Of course shooting the locations like they were in a Malick film would have perhaps been shallow and disingenuous - but the film has nothing to say anyway, so it might as well have looked pretty. The Nine Muses is by no means a perfect film - in fact it's a labored and unfocused one - but it did engaging things with its subject, had something to say and had immersive visuals to boot. Temenos looks like it was shot on a decades-out-of-fashion student video camera and that hinders our engagement with the theme.

But the most damning flaw of the film is simply that it has nothing to say of any substance or value, and the demented screams, tortured cries and soul-invading opera on the score may be equally disconcerting and evocative, but it's to no actual avail. Those sounds and pieces of music would have had that effect on their own. The film quite literally just consists of an other-worldly soundtrack playing over protracted and ugly images of spiritual places where the Virgin Mary is said to have been sighted - although nothing is ever spoken of this phenomena and it is never explored. If the film wishes to exist purely on the level of a tone poem or experimental piece then it at least has to provide us with questions, or use symbology or metaphor to force us to look closer and draw conclusions from the images. But this doesn't. There's absolutely no narrative to speak of in the film, no sense of pace or location - no sense of spirituality that can be found in fictional works such as Ordet (Carl Dreyer, 1955) or Loong boonmee raleuk chat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010). I didn't look inside myself or feel anything when watching Temenos, except for boredom. I was really looking forward to the film but have left with very little to say that is positive. People of faith might be rewarded somehow although I can't imagine in what context. I found it insufferably pretentious.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cinema Strange #7. The Valley (La vallée) (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)

Viviane (Bulle Ogier) embarks upon a journey in La vallée (1972)

Although their most famous contribution to cinema may be 1982's The Wall (Alan Parker), my favorite Pink Floyd work is still the score they contributed to Barbet Schroeder's underrated voyage into paradise, La vallée. An array of mystical space-like sounds and echoing vocals, the score would later be re-shaped into the bands seventh and most underrated studio album Obscured By Clouds (1972). A track on that album, Burning Bridges, contains the lyrics:

Ancient bonds are breaking,
Moving on and changing sides.
Dreaming of a new day,
Cast aside the other way.
Magic visions stirring,
Kindled by and burning flames rise in her eyes.

In many ways those lyrics sum up the journey undertaken by Viviane (Bulle Ogier), a French Consul's wife who finds herself in New Guinea searching for rare exotic feathers to trade back home in Paris. Along the way she encounters a group of travelers seeking paradise in la vallée - a place high in the mountains, obscured by clouds, whose spellbinding beauty is said to be so powerful that all who have ventured there have never returned. Viviane joins the group in search of feathers but soon becomes stranded and falls into her own spiritual rapture, forever entwined with the voyagers she has taken up with.

Although Schroeder remains an underrated presence in world cinema the real unsung hero of La vallée is master cinematographer Néstor Almendros, whose attention to natural beauty and the rich greens of paradise are always beautiful. It's much the same as his work on Le genou de Claire (Eric Rohmer, 1970), which is one of the most sumptuous visual portrayals of Summer I've ever seen, but it never feels false or manipulative; the greens and yellows underscore the action and provide a resplendent backdrop. Also remember his work on Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), with the crisp seasonal shades evoking an autumn of discovery, with the yellow/orange shades adding to the warmth of the growing father/son relationship without ever explicitly force-feeding images of aesthetic beauty that overtake the substance of the film, or the human relationships.

Much like Schroeder's previous feature, 1969's More (also featuring a Pink Floyd soundtrack), La vallée is a film about self-discovery and destruction - in that film it was through chemical intoxication whereas this film is a spiritual voyage into the natural wilderness. This is why Almendros' cinematography is so brilliant and important. It would have been all too easy to over-shoot paradise as a spiritual utopia but Almendros has the sense to let the lush surroundings speak for themselves. The way his shots are framed and the way in which he employs colour and lighting are not objective - they do not tell of paradise. His visuals simply allow you to be captivated by this world, and to be enraptured by the lifestyle of the tribes the trekkers encounter. This is also why, come the denouement, Olivier's (Michael Gothard) speech about freedoms, the pretentiousness of escape and the self-absorption of pleasure-seeking is all the more poignant. We see the film from Viviane's point of view; we are as new to this journey as she is and her personality - the Westernized consumer who lives by schedule - is instantly relatable. Almendros is documenting her discovery, and ours, and it's to his credit that he doesn't show off when he has the chance, but servers Schroeder's vision and enhances the sensory experience through shots of vast landscapes, rolling mountains and the clouds which obscure them.

For some the discovery may feel a little force-fed and clichéd - it's no surprise that Viviane also finds a sexual awakening with this band of hippies, and scenes of her making love in the woods may border on the comical. It never descends into melodrama or farce though - the combination of photography and music, as well as Schroeder's controlled eye ensure that there is a focus, even if that is a deconstruction of the pursuit of freedoms. The film has surely dated, but the BFI remaster makes it look glorious and some of the previous critical nitpicking (it was not well reviewed upon release) is exposed as exactly that. The film is not a masterpiece, nor is it ahead of its time, but it confronts ideas and truths that an audience in 1972 wasn't quite willing to accept yet, and remains largely misunderstood.

To some the ending is still ambiguous, but the celestial light filtering onto the tired, aching bodies of our protagonists suggests something much more conclusive - that they have found paradise. Their nirvana is in the heavens; no man came back from la vallée because he died in the search for ecstasy. Schroeder himself saw the characters journey as "alienation disguised as liberation" and in cutting themselves off from the (Western) world these spiritual voyagers find what could be the ultimate liberation - the touch of God...

True Grit (Coen Brothers, 2010) Review

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (2010)

Undoubtedly their most mainstream film since The Ladykillers (2004), the Coen Brothers latest takes us into territory that fans had long wished for them to explore - the Western. They'd played with its tropes and themes in 2007's Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, a stunningly bleak thriller that is called to mind on more than one occasion in the disappointing True Grit. Let me also say, however, that it's far from a bad film - just something of a step down after the mightily strange and funnily profound A Serious Man (2009), one of my favorite films of recent years.

There are plenty of merits to be found, and as usual with the Coens' they lie in the script and performances. Their (excellent) adaptation is full of dark witticisms and biblical dialogue, with all contractions thrown to the wind in favor of bold declarations such as "I do not know this man", in the presence of a hanged soul. It's a smart, sharp script (apart from the awful narration by an older Mattie), and the best scenes come early on - especially in Mattie's quick-talk barter with a slimy horse trader. The highlight though (apart from Roger Deakins' brilliantly cold photography) are the performances - especially the young Steinfeld who deserves every bit of that Oscar nomination. Matt Damon is effective in his brief screen-time but the star of the show is Bridges, who excels at being both a repulsive, trigger-happy veteran and an engaging heroic presence. I didn't warm to him in the way many others have - he's pretty much an ass for the entire running time - but I did enjoy every incomprehensible second of his rambling, one-eyed turn, and was thrilled when his one-on-four battle came around.

The major problem is that for a film whose central theme is that violence which begets violence can never end well, and that the cycle of violence and revenge provides not satisfaction or conclusion, but more bloodshed, is one that the Coens' stark adaptation abandons in the final frames. Cogburn (Bridges) is a lawman who is in himself lawless - an obnoxious drunk, he would rather shoot a man than go through the hassle of arresting him. It's telling that the first time we see him (he is previously heard in considerable discomfort in an outhouse at the back of a saloon) is being challenged in a courtroom. All of his stories are of ex-marriages and murder and his dry wit ("Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer") is darkly world-weary. He's a dirty reprobate who provides a strange moral anchor for the 'hero'. Laboeuf (Damon) is broadly painted as the comic relief - a bit of an arrogant oaf, he's more than a little creepy and seems to be the real innocent who is ultimately drawn into Cogburn's games and suffers for it. Chaney (Josh Brolin) is of course a hunted man - for his crimes of cold-blooded murder he is to be either caught by Laboeuf to be hanged, or killed by the young Mattie (Steinfeld). There's a moment at the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT) where Cogburn is unaccounted for, Chaney is dead, Laboeuf is possibly killed and Mattie is stuck down a hole, injured, being approached by snakes. For a second it's actually feasible that the Coens' are going to complete the cycle, and that their bleakly classical Western is going to end as it began - on a note of fatal violence. Death, after all, has lingered throughout the whole film - from the early hanging to the bear-suited man who trades in bodies and practices dentistry on the dead. Mattie even spends her first night in town among the deceased, sleeping in a funeral parlor. That - along with the epigraph 'The wicked flee where none pursueth' - surely foreshadows her demise? But the Coens' don't end it that way, with a P.O.V. shot of Mattie staring up from her possible grave, alone in the silence and unaware if Cogburn and Laboeuf are dead or alive. I know I'm very alone in feeling this way, as we're meant to be rooting for Mattie - and I like the strong heroine very much - but I think the story would have been stronger and better served by her death. Maybe I'll change my mind upon a re-watch, but my heart was in my mouth at the prospect of the film just... ending, on a mind-blowing sucker-punch.

I'm something of a hypocrite though, because I'm about to praise that exact moment in the film. In fact my favorite scene was Cogburn's desperate dash along the western trail, across the blazing sun and dream-like night, to get Mattie to a doctor. Set to Carter Burwell's lovely score (derived from 'Leaning On The Everlasting Arms'), Sight&Sound's Ben Walters describes it as "a swooning fantasia through which sweep stars and knives and bodies in the dirt." And that's a perfect summation, for the beautifully photographed sequence is incredibly emotional and actually shows a lot of good in the character of Cogburn, who had earlier kicked a child several times just for fun. Am I allowed to both slam the film for its ending, but also celebrate its artistry and depth of feeling? Am I allowed to accuse Cogburn of being a violent drunk and yet be uplifted in the moment where he shows such true colours ("I have grown old") and heart? Probably not, and I accept full criticism of my criticisms, but that is the way it is. Of course, there will also be those who don't even agree on the theme I have allocated the film, and they will find other ideas at work. True Grit may not be as perfect as some claim but the major problems only set in toward the end - plot contrivances can be accepted but the antagonists almost felt tacked on and I'd have really loved to see more of Barry Pepper. He does more in five minutes of screen-time than some actors do with entire films. My advice? Wait until you see Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt) before you start labeling this as the best Western of 2010...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010) Review

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole (2010)

Dramas about grief aren't especially new to the cinema, especially those about the loss of a child. Think of Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980), The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988) and The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997) for starters. But none that I can recall deal with the loss of a child quite so intimately and personally as Rabbit Hole. I was worried going into the film, not just because of the peculiarly allegorical title and Mitchell's film history, but because these are movies that can so easily fall into mawkish sentiment, preaching or patronizing soft-peddling. With a 12A rating in the UK there was no telling how it would work out. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a mature, smartly scripted and profoundly emotional meditation on loss and the dynamics of a marriage put under strain. The script is honest and occasionally shocking, layered with depth of character - but most deserving of praise are the central performances by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.

There was a rather prickly review by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle which slammed Kidman's performance for her looks. I quote: (in reference to her character Becca) "She is a very particular type of no-nonsense, real person, and it's distracting to find oneself wondering why such a woman would have had lip injections and a forehead that looks like porcelain." Now I'll admit that after the trailer I had some concerns too, as it's clear that Kidman has had some work done - which Becca simply couldn't afford, and would less likely even want given the normality of her existence (which is meant as a compliment). But I've always liked Kidman as an actress - she takes on consistently challenging roles in a great variety of films. Think of her work in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) and Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) for example. And it's a testament to the talent I always knew she had that her performance here has depth beyond the shallow nature of image. I was completely invested in Becca as a real woman suffering a great loss and her performance has been richly awarded with an Oscar nomination. But then that begs the question: where's Aaron Eckhart's nomination? Because without him Kidman's character just doesn't work. They're a family - a unit of grief trying to survive; two sides of the same coin. It's a believable relationship because the two actors are both totally invested in every moment. It seems absurd to nominate one and not the other. For my money it's his best work and it was his portrayal of Howie that actually made me misty eyed a few times. It's a raw and intense performance that never showboats, and it's criminal that he's not nominated.

Elsewhere the script by David Lindsay-Abaire (adapted from his own stage play) shines. One scene sees Becca arguing with her mother Nat (a superb Dianne Wiest) about the place of religion in healing. Nat asks her daughter (and I'm paraphrasing) "What if you're wrong? What if there is a God? What would you say then?" Coldly and bluntly she replies "I'd say he's a sadistic prick." It hit me like a knife to the gut - I can't think of another film so forward about disbelief in God, especially considering how many of these movies cheaply resort to faith as a mere plot device. In fact it recalls for me that famous moment in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) where Ed Avery (James Mason) loudly declares "God was wrong", which was a hugely controversial scene in its time. There's some more beautiful dialogue, especially in the final scene between Becca and Jason (Miles Teller), the young boy who accidentally killed her four-year-old son. Together they discuss parallel universes and a comic book he has designed, called Rabbit Hole (this likely holds all sorts of allegory, but it matters little) and Becca confronts the idea of there being multiple versions of herself in different universes, living different lives. "We're just the sad version" she says, coming to terms with her lonely life. "Somewhere out there I'm having a good time." It is a lovely thought, and without ever condemning the notion or saying those who believe are wrong, provides a refreshing alternative to religion. There's a lot of unexpected bite to Rabbit Hole, and that made its impact all the more powerful. Beautifully shot and scored, the film is ultimately a deeply moving triumph. It doesn't provide any answers; to even try would be pretentious. But the questions are important, and realised with heart. I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Look Closer: Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009)

Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni in Dogtooth (2009)

Following my first viewing of Dogtooth yesterday I was left with dozens of unanswered questions, and certainly as many emotions. In my closing paragraph I stated that this is a film which demands to be re-visited often, in order to become familiar with its world, explore its themes and pick up on finer, subtler details. So that's exactly what I've done, and here are some of the more definite conclusions I've made...

The first thing that occurred to me was the chain guard which barricades the house off from the outside. It seems to be located in a remote region, considering how far Father has to drive to work each day, and the one exterior shot of the car - speeding along a barren hillside path - makes it clear that the family demand privacy. But the barricade signifies something bigger. It is made quite clear that Mother and Father don't want the children to escape, but there would be no need for a chain guard that far on the outside, as anyone walking - or running - away from the house could easily maneuver it. A car coming in from the outside, however, would have more difficulty. It seems that Mother and Father also want to keep people from coming in, and considering the few scenes with side-characters (the dog trainer, for example) we could conclude that outside life is, in our sense of the word, normal. Certainly the family lie about who they are. Why? It seems a stretch, and an unfounded one, but are the children perhaps some kind of experiment? There is certainly a strict regime that needs to be followed. For example, nobody must be awake past 11pm.

This led me to speculating about Father's job, as his unspecific workplace is only visualized by towering blocks of warehouses on what looks like an abandoned industrial estate. There are a lot of exterior shots of the factory but very few from inside, and the product being manufactured looks (from what I can tell) like pipe and stone. This could be further confirmed by a discovery I made while playing the film in slow-motion. When Father is talking with his colleague (who seems to be using a Windows XP system) we can glimpse the man holding a black pamphlet, with a purple pyramid on the front and the word KEOPE. One Google search later and I find a website for KEOPE, with the matching symbol. Some of the site seems to be unfinished, but it looks to have something to do with construction and land development. They have lots of affiliates, some of them green environmental companies. The sites do look decidedly amateur, however, and reveal little information... or do they? Given we now know what Father does for a living, and we have seen very little else of where the family live, could it be safe to assume that the town itself is under construction? It's a quiet, desolate place, and as I stated in my previous review, Godless. I was very careful to look out for religious imagery or conversation on my second watch but the film is totally void of it. The only creators are the parents - they are changing the rules of evolution and falsely re-establishing language. The metaphor here still exists with the dog trainer, who says to Father: "Dogs are like clay. And our job here is to mold them... every dog is waiting for us to show them how to behave... do we want a guard who will respect us as his masters and do unhesitatingly whatever we ask of him?"

Then there is the idea that violence begets violence; that the mental torture exercised by the parents is the direct cause for the children's physical violence - for example, the youngest son hitting his knee with a hammer and blaming it on a cat. The parent's lies and manipulation give the kids a scapegoat, and something to hide the result of their impulses behind. This ultimately demonstrates that their closeted system of protection doesn't work, and hiding the outside world doesn't make the inside any safer, or healthier. The film's political allegory is probably an extension of this idea, but for me the film is far more engaging when experimenting within its own hermetic world. I enjoyed Dogtooth much more this time, although I'm not sure I'll ever feel comfortable with it. Actually, I'm not sure I'm supposed to...