Tuesday, March 27, 2007

French Film Festival 2

This post covers four films: Premonition, Orchestra Seats, Inside Paris and The Right of the Weakest. I found two impressive, one OK and one tolerable.

Le Pressentiment (Premonition, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, 2006)
Darroussin is perhaps best-known to Australian audiences as a regular member of the ensemble cast in the outstanding and thought-provoking films of Robert Guédiguian such as La ville est tranquille (The Town is Quiet, 2000). Like Guédiguian, Darroussin concerns himself with social issues. Premonition is an impressive debut as feature-film director as well as lead actor in which he portrays an upper-middle class lawyer who is dissatisfied with his bourgeois life, leaving his old life behind to the consternation of his family.

He moves into a poor area of Paris, inhabited with immigrants, single parents, unemployed, prostitutes and the like. Darroussin’s character has a Zen manner as he attempts to emotionally distance himself and yet redeem himself by assisting others according to his means. There are long stretches without dialogue which remind me of Kieslowski’s films and there is one visual salute to the great Polish director: a number of pigeons are fighting over a large piece of bread on a cobblestone gutter. The birds fly away, and we see the bread is within a puddle that momentarily reflects the French flag.

The film’s visuals and narrative are not quite as bleak as Guédiguian’s films but just as serious. The cinematography is pleasing, employing lots of natural lighting and capturing the raw beauty of urban decay. The ending is a little controversial due to its ambiguous nature. This slightly melancholy and subtly uplifting humanistic story is very satisfying – the type of film I go to the festival to see.

Orchestra Seats (Fauteuils d'orchestre, Danièle Thompson, 2006)
In spite of this film being a comedy (as previously stated, I’m not a big fan of contemporary French comedy) and its having a commercial release date (May 24), I went to see this film because it has an OFLC classification (and thus I could take my son).

It’s not a bad film, per se, but as far as I’m concerned is just a crowd pleaser that were it in English, would be completely in place at the cinemaplexes. Sydney Pollack plays a small role as a famous American director, but he is utilised clumsily. I was a little surprised to see that this film was France’s official entry as foreign language film for this year’s Oscars. Not my thing.

Dans Paris (Inside Paris, Christophe Honoré, 2006)
This was an interesting film that I found enjoyable enough, but didn’t fully engage me. I’m not sure if that’s the film’s fault, my not getting it, or just being too tired to appreciate it fully. There was a slight sense of whimsy at times, perhaps to lighten the tone, but mostly it was concerned with the dynamics of three adult males: two brothers and their father.

Romain Duris is an excellent young actor, though for me his best performance was in The Beat My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, Jacques Audiard, 2005) – and what a terrific and apt title that was! In Inside Paris, he portrays a depressed man who moves into his father’s and student brother’s Paris apartment after breaking up with his girlfriend. The family is fractured which provides different suspenseful elements and scenarios.

La raison du plus faible (The Right of the Weakest, Lucas Belvaux, 2006)
Having seen four films at the festival this weekend already, I risked pushing the patience of my partner and suffering further sleep deprivation by going to a late Sunday screening of this film. It was the only opportunity I had to see it, and it was a good decision. This was a terrific film.

It started off as a grim social drama with a The Full Monty scenario – a group of men in an economically depressed steel town play cards in the local pub and bemoan their struggles. Multi-story government housing blocks (whose lifts often break down) overlook the town, and are breeding places of despair. Think Mike Leigh, Ken Loach or, perhaps more aptly, the Dardenne brothers – the film is a Belgian/French co-production set in Liege, Belgium.

The film takes a grim turn when the idea of crime is introduced to alleviate their material conditions. With a rag-tag team that include a recently released criminal (played excellently by the director), an invalid, a not-too-bright worker and an unemployed university graduate, it becomes heart-in-your-mouth suspense as you wonder whether these guys can possibly pull it off.

The cinematography is consistent with the finest of social realist dramas and adds wonderfully to the strong character development and gripping narrative. There is so much heart-aching verisimilitude. Whilst I’m planning to see between two and five more films at the festival, this and Premonition are my pick to date.

My earlier report: French Film Festival 1

Matt Riviera's reports from the Sydney French Film Festival: 1, 2, 3 & 4

The Alliance Française French Film Festival 2007 is screening until Tuesday April 3 at Palace Como, Westgarth and Balywn

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Week in Review

I'll get another report of the French Film Festival up shortly (which has dominated the week), as well as some more comments about the sublime Kieslowski screenings.

  • Reign on Me (Mike Binder, 200)
  • Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colours: Red, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
  • Krótki film o milosci (A Short Film About Love, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
  • Le lièvre de Vatanen (The Year of the Hare, Marc Rivière, 2006)
  • Le Pressentiment (Premonition, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, 2006)
  • Fauteuils d'orchestre (Orchestra Seats, Danièle Thompson, 2006)
  • Dans Paris (Inside Paris, Christophe Honoré, 2006)
  • La raison du plus faible (The Right of the Weakest, Lucas Belvaux, 2006)
  • Murarz (Bricklayer, 17 min, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1973)
  • Dworzec (Railway Station, 13 min, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1980)
  • Gadające głowy (Talking Heads, 15 min, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1980)
  • Almodovóvar on Almodovóvar (Revised edition, 2006, Frédéric Strauss)

Friday, March 23, 2007

French Film Festival 1

[Edit: images added, links to Last Night at Riviera appended]

[This post has been largely re-worked]

The Alliance Française French Film Festival 2007 kicked off in Melbourne last Tuesday and runs to Tuesday April 3 (15 days). Screenings are at the Palace Cinemas at Como (South Yarra), Westgarth (Northcote) and Balwyn.

I have a strong proclivity for French cinema – I saw 27 in 2006, second in number only to films from the US. Contemporary names like Ozon, Cantet, Chereau and Guédiguian come to mind, though none of these names appear at this year's festival. My perception is that the festival is more about previewing middle-of-the-road light-weight films that are getting a commercial distribution than in showcasing the pinnacle of cultural and artistic excellence that French cinema is famous for. In other words, getting bums on seats.

What to do? I find with a bit of planning, research and consulting others, there are gems to be found. As far as planning, my priority is to see films that I know don't have a commercial release as I can always see those later. I know of at least three films (Hey Good Looking!, Priceless and The Singer) that open straight after the festival, so I'm in no rush to see these right now.

I'm also not a big fan of French comedy, as least not those that are released here. I find little to differentiate them from most Hollywood comedies. Francis Veber's Le dîner de cons (The Dinner Game, 1998) is a rare exception, though I've not thought much of anything Veber has made since. I tend to seek out the drama, which the above-mentioned names do so well. My pick at last year’s festival were Ozon's Le temps qui reste (A Time to Leave, 2005) and Emmanuelle Bercot’s Backstage (2005, which also screened recently at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival).

Out of the 25 films programmed for Melbourne, at least fourteen are comedies, so that narrows my focus considerably. I’m not ruling out comedy all together; they’re just not a big priority. Interestingly, at a recent French Film Festival in New York, only 2 of the 16 films programmed were comedies. That says a lot about the different markets.

For research, there’s always the invaluable IMDB, and word-of-mouth via blogs. This year I’ve also sought the opinion of a fellow blogger from Sydney, where the festival has already screened. Matt Riviera, himself of French origin, from Last Night at Riviera has recommended: Comedy of Power, Inside Paris, Private Property, Bad Faith and OSS 117: Cairo – Nest of Spies.

From my research, I’ve earmarked: Poison Friends, Premonition and The Right of the Weakest. The criteria: they’re all dramas, don’t have a commercial distribution and all have a reasonable average score on IMDB (around 7/10).

La faute à Fidel (Blame It On Fidel, Julie Gavras, 2006)
This is an interesting and well-made film. It depicts a 9 year old girl’s perspective of the changes in family life as her lawyer father and writer mother become involved in political activism. Set in the 1970’s, it starts against the backdrop of an uncle executed under Franco’s regime in Spain.

This is an interesting theme, and I have seen a number of films recently that connect to this theme: Salvador (Puig Antich) (Huergo, 2006), The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963), The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1972) and Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006). I even saw similarities with Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, in that both stories were filmed from the perspective of an innocent (Balthazar was, of course, a donkey). Pan’s Labyrinth and The Spirit of the Beehive also shared this perspective. It adds a different layer, because we get to experience or understand reality through a different filter. The camera work in Blame It On Fidel often takes the angles a child would see. At parties, we would see people from below looking up, and often cutting off people’s heads.

The lighting and cinematography are lovely, the acting is consistently good all round and the film is worth a look.

Je vous trouve tres beau (You Are So Beautiful, Isabelle Mergault, 2005)
The subtitled title for this film was You Are So Handsome. In changing the name for the festival, the film is perhaps more marketable but a subtle meaning has been lost. When an elderly farmer’s wife dies and he seeks a mail-order bride from Romania, the line of young female candidates all open with “you are so handsome” (which he is not).

Basically the film is a light-hearted romantic comedy and will probably be a crowd-pleaser. It’s the type of film I consider pretty much Hollywood in French language. It’s not particularly smart and not my sort of film, though I acknowledge there’s a strong market for this kind of film.

Le lièvre de Vatanen (The Year of the Hare, Marc Rivière, 2006)
Up until about one third of the way into this film, I thought it was reasonable as a children’s film. You know, the type of show kids might watch on ABC TV when they get home after school where a character (usually an adolescent) goes on some adventure with a cutesy animal.

In this film, it’s an adult protagonist but I truly thought it was a cheesy kids film until there was some nudity obviously not intended for a young audience. Then my worst fears were realised and I knew the remaining hour would be tedious (and it was).

Not really a French film (it’s a Belgian, Bulgarian and French co-production, set in Canada), it jumps between slapstick humour, cheesy humour and drama that just doesn’t work for me at all. I could have walked out at any time (but didn’t). I'm a bit disappointed that this film was advertised as drama/adventure. I suppose it is has some elements of that, but it really was comedic. The drama/adventure aspect was not what I call adult entertainment.

As an aside, I’ve noticed in the past that Palace Cinemas seem to attract a middle-age, upper middle-class female audience that loves to chatter, even during films. There was a distractingly high volume of chatter during the ads before the film by this demographic at the Westgarth. It didn’t go away when the film started. I identified at least three groups of women all chatting and laughing away. I figured it’s got to die down but after five minutes it was still as enthusiastic and showed no sign of abating.

This is a dilemma: do we suffer in our silence, or do we speak out and then feel self-conscious to the detriment of our enjoyment of the film? Well, enough is enough, and I decided to say something and not allow myself to feel self-conscious. I called out loud and firmly, “for fuck’s sake, will you all just shut up!!”. It worked, and everyone enjoyed (or not) the rest of the film. I figured most people wouldn’t know who spoke up, but a couple of women approached me later and thanked me profusely for having the guts to say what everyone else wanted to. I appreciated that. This tends to support the idea that the French Film Festival is more a social event for certain demographics rather than a serious cultural event for cinephiles.

See also Matt Riviera's reviews at the Sydney French Film Festival: 1, 2, 3 & 4

Reign Over Me

L-R: Saffron Burrows, Liv Tyler, Adam Sandler & Don Cheadle (courtesy: Sony Pictures)

Reign Over Me is about grief and friendship. At first glance, it concerns itself with one man’s grief. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) lost his wife and daughters (aged five, seven and nine) in one of the planes overtaken by terrorists on 9/11. Formerly a dentist, he has become a shadow of his former self and has taken to wandering (and motor-scootering) the streets of Manhattan, drumming in clubs with a heavy metal band, collecting vinyl records, playing computer games and constantly renovating his kitchen.

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) was Charlie’s college room-mate. Upon a chance sighting of Charlie, he reconnects with his old friend. By exploring the reawakening of friendship and, through it, the attempted healing of Charlie’s grief, we also become aware of the tribulations of others who may be indirectly affected by the events of 9/11.

Grief is an unpredictable beast. It is a lonely experience and affects everyone differently. No-one can relieve a person’s burden but friendship can be a catalyst for healing. There are many sub-plots and narrative diversions in the film (which work against it), but the heart and strength of the film is Sandler’s strong performance as a grieving man who is over the edge. Having lost everything dear to him, he rejects all who try to get close to him.

An important message of the film was that judgements may be made about people around us and their characteristics. But opinions should be reserved without knowing more about a person’s circumstances.

I’ve mentioned before that there are a number of actors who cut their teeth in comedy but appear more convincing in serious roles. This includes Robin Williams (Dead Poet’s Society, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting), Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Man on the Moon), Steve Martin (Grand Canyon, Shopgirl) and Kevin Klein (Grand Canyon, The Ice Storm).

As he did in Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler shows that he too can be more convincing in a serious role. Perhaps comics playing serious roles messes with our expectations. We expect a gag at any moment, and when it is not forthcoming, the seriousness of the situation has more impact. Maybe?

The film is a crowd-pleaser (or attempts to be) that uses various devices to make some serious issues palatable to a wide audience. I found many of the devices irritating. Some, taken on their own, are not a problem, but with so many, the cumulative effect couldn’t be ignored.

I had a problem with the link to 9/11. It felt exploitative, as if losing a family in that way would be a greater loss than say, a car accident. Of course, 9/11 is a valid issue to explore, but the cumulative effect of Charlie losing his beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters on that day all seems contrived for maximum manipulation of our heart strings (and mind you, it really does work at times). I’d have related better if it were a less sensationalistic scenario. Charlie’s loss and Alan’s apparent success in life both seem to be exaggerated and lack subtlety.

There’s no real comparison, but as I’ve seen several Kieslowski films recently at Melbourne Cinémathèque, his films come to mind as to how grief can be depicted with conviction and mastery. Perhaps Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995) is a fairer comparison. It is a much more effective exploration of male bonding and grief, largely because it is subdued and realistic (and well-written).


On at least two occasions, a character’s selecting a vinyl record resulted in a track from that record being played shortly thereafter in the film. It became too predictable. The music that Charlie listened to, such as Springsteen, seemed to be inconsistent with the heavy metal band he performed in.

At the start we see Charlie riding his motorised scooter around Manhattan. One moment it is day, the next night. It appears that the intention was to depict how Charlie is lost to himself and how he floats for hours through the city, a ghost of his former self. But the transition between day and night was abrupt and ineffective. While this could be overlooked, it annoyingly occurred a second time.

Alan’s receptionist was quirky and appeared to be used as a comic device to lighten the tone of the film. Sure, Binder found an interestingly different personality to project and she was funny enough, but the idea of a quirky receptionist has been done to death.

While Alan’s sense of alienation from his wife was believable, given her character traits, the dynamics between them lacked verisimilitude. They reminded me of the black couple in Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004), which also seemed too staged. Cheadle enjoyed the major screen time but his acting often seemed a bit hollow. Also, Alan’s sudden expression of dissatisfaction with his job seemed tokenistic and was emotionally unconvincing.

The main female roles (except the receptionist) were all played by beautiful women. The roles weren’t major, and the casting seems to be focused on ‘window-dressing’ rather than realism.

The most ridiculous scene involved Alan being confronted by one of these women while he is working on a client’s teeth. He encourages the conversation, because the girl is under a general anaesthetic and the nurse apparently speaks no English. The situation was embarrassingly silly beyond belief.

Another ludicrous scenario involved the same woman making a sexual proposition that was pure male fantasy. It completely conflicts with our expectations of reality. The consequences of this among the dental partnership were predictable and hackneyed.

A later court scene was similarly clichéd, in which Donald Sutherland performs well as a paternalistic judge, but was hampered by poor writing. Charlie’s father-in-law leaving photos in front of Charlie was implausible and should have extracted condemnation from the judge, but rather Charlie was dragged away catatonic.


Like the recently released Bobby, there were many parts of the film that showed intelligence but attempts at being too profound were to its detriment. At 124 minutes, it was over-long (20-30 minutes could have been cut) – it wasn’t engaging enough to warrant the length.

The visuals were generally up to scratch, though I noticed right away that it was filmed digitally. It reminds me of Collateral – the night scenes look very grainy. I’m not a big fan of the look – hopefully the technology will soon improve – though the person with me didn’t notice it at all.

New York was filmed beautifully, without being too picture-perfect. The scenes looked authentic and Charlie looked completely in place riding his scooter around the East Village and surrounding areas. More attention to detail regarding the scooter would have been more satisfying. Any visitor to Manhattan knows that in reality, Charlie would have taken the scooter indoors and not chained it up outside, as occurred on at least two occasions (anything left on the street would be quickly stolen or stripped).

As a point of interest, the film’s title is derived from The Who’s Love, Reign O’er Me, covered by Pearl Jam for the film’s soundtrack. The relevance of the film’s title is not overly evident, but is left to the imagination.

While there is merit to Reign Over Me, and Adam Sandler was surprisingly good, the film’s strengths were overshadowed by its many flaws. Many won’t have a problem with these imperfections and for them it could be a very enjoyable film. But not for me.

Official website / IMDB

Dir, Scr: Mike Binder Rating: M Duration: 124 min Genre: drama Language: English Country: USA Release: 22/3/07 Dist: Sony Pictures Releasing Prod Co: Mr. Madison/Sunlight Productions Prod: Michael Rotenberg, Jack Binder Sound Des: David Bach, Elmo Weber Phot: Russ Alsobrook Ed: Steve Edwards, Jeremy Roush Prod Des: Pipo Wintter Mus: Rolfe Kent Cast: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler, Saffron Burrows

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Week in Review

  • Running With Scissors (Ryan Murphy, 2006)
  • Trzy kolory: Bialy (Three Colours: White, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
  • Amator (Camera Buff, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)
  • Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006)
  • A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovóvar (Mark Allinson, 2001) - finished at last

Running With Scissors
I found Running With Scissors very disappointing, not that I went in with high expectations (mostly because I knew little about it). Like A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, it documents the dysfunctional life of a writer who depicts his own life on screen. While Montiel's film used gritty realism and is reasonably successful at conveying his personal struggles, Murphy's gets caught in a quagmire of (1) attempting (unsuccessfully) to be quirky like Little Miss Sunshine (which itself is mediocre), (2) emulating the wit of American Beauty (but not even getting close, even though Annette Bening is used in a similar role) and (3) in spite of reasonably good performances, suffering poor writing and direction. The film is over-long and fails to engage. But hey, I thought that about Little Miss Sunshine and it was immensely popular, so go figure.

Three Colours: White
It's been 13 years since I first saw Three Colours: White. I always remembered Blue as my favourite of the trilogy, so didn't have expectations as high as I did after seeing Blue last week. I still prefer Blue, but White is still a very impressive and totally absorbing film. The humour is more evident in this film, but contains all the moral complexity, subtlety and depth of any other Kieslowski film.

I noted links to Blue that I hadn't noticed on first viewing: Juliette Binoche enters the courtroom momentarily at the start as she did in Blue, the bent old person attempting to place a bottle in a recycling bin and the finger tracing the map similar to the the finger tracing the music score in the earlier film. Both films start with the death of a relationship and maybe that's incidental (but maybe not).

One thing I'm unclear about is the significance of the pigeon shitting on the protagonist at the start. That's a big blob of white, and perhaps it signals this guy's lot in life. We see pigeons at different times, such as the flashback to the wedding, but most times we just hear the pigeon wings flapping in the background. It seems to be a code for something, but I'm not sure what.

Janusz Gajos' performance as Mikolaj was outstanding and his slowly unfolding relationship with Karol was most intriguing and the most appealling aspect of the film.

While Karol's revenge against Dominique maybe considered the most obvious manifestation of the film's theme of equality, what struck me both at the start and the end was the lack of equality that migrants often experience. In court, Karol was disadvantaged in France and Dominique similarly so in Poland. It calls into question the ironic proclamation etched into the French courthouse at the start - Fraternité Égalité Liberté.

Camera Buff
There was a fresh honesty in this small yet complex film. Most fascinating to me was the parallels I could see in my own life. As a teenager, I also happened to end up with a camera (35mm SLR) that changed the avenues open to me. And more recently, I've found myself drawn more and more into cinema. I always carry a camera with me and try to capture things that may interest me. Others have suggested, and I've contemplated experimenting with a video camera. The film recalls Smoke (Wayne Wang, 1995) with Auggie falling into photography by chance, and it changing his life.

While the intent of the film is honourable (like Old Joy and Full Nelson, to highlight the loss of idealism Kennedy offered at the height of the Vietnam war), it lacks subtlety. It tries too hard to be profound, when understatement would have been more effective. It relies on lots of high profile names, which might appeal to some but holds little interest for me. I can't let the opportunity pass without saying that Demi Moore was well-cast as the egotistical stage performer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Focus on Guillermo del Toro

ACMI has today announced a Focus on Guillermo del Toro season from April 12-22. It includes all six films by the Mexican director to date as well as three features selected by him as his personal favourites: La maschera del demonio (The Mask of the Demon, released as Black Sunday, Mario Bava, Italy, 1960), The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955) and Martin (George Romero, USA, 1977).

I’ve attached ACMI’s synopses below. Having seen three of del Toro’s films (The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth) and not interested in his other Hollywood films (Mimic and Blade II), I’m particularly interested to see his first film (Cronos) and his selection. I enjoyed The Devil's Backbone when it was released, though I can’t say it left a big impression on me. If I find the time, I’ll see it again in light of his most recent film.

As I wrote in my review of Pan’s Labyrinth, I found it visually spectacular, but the narrative was inconsistent and flawed. As I recollect, The Devil’s Backbone had a nice understated ‘arthouse’ aesthetic and satisfying story without the breathtaking visuals of Labyrinth.

Focus on Guillermo del Toro - ACMI Screening Program

Cronos / La Invención de Cronos (Mexico, 1993) - Making its auspicious debut during Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, del Toro’s first feature is an elegant, sardonic and ultimately very moving reworking of the vampire and monster genres. Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), a mild mannered antiques dealer, accidentally discovers a curiously rapacious mechanical device that has the power to reverse the aging process if you let it suck on your blood for a while, the only catch is that you develop a taste for blood yourself.

Mimic (USA, 1997) - Del Toro’s first US-produced feature, Mimic is an environmental horror film about a mutant breed of insects that wreak their own form of genetic revenge on the human residents of Manhattan. With salutes to the original sci-fi creature-chiller, Alien, and taut noir of David Lynch (with production design by Lynch regular Carol Spier) Mimic encompasses several set pieces that del Toro considers his most accomplished, including the subway abduction of Dr Susan Tyler.

The Devils Backbone / El Espinazo del Diablo (Spain, 2001) - A supreme ghost story-murder mystery set in the dying days of the Spanish civil war, The Devils Backbone tells the story of 10 year old Carlos who, sent to a school shelter for orphans and abandoned children, soon finds himself by a pale spectre of Santi (Valverde), a fellow orphan who was brutally murdered.

Blade II (USA, 2002) - Sequels are rarely known to better the originals that spawned them, but del Toro managed the rare feat of inspiring unanimous praise for his hyperkinetic contribution to the Blade trilogy (based on the Marvel Comics’ hero). Wesley Snipes returned to take up the role of the conflicted part-human/part-vampire crusader in a film invested by del Toro with neo-noir atmospherics and edge-of-your-seat action.

Hellboy (2004) - Del Toro collaborated closely with Mike Mignola, the creator of the Hellboy comic to create this entertaining film that according to del Toro became “its own creature.” When a newly conjured demon child crosses into this world via a portal, the Nazi’s aim to exploit it to their sinister ends. Hellboy (Ron Perlman, in his third del Toro film to date) learns to temper the more destructive traits encoded in his DNA and sides with humanity.

Pan’s Labyrinth / El Laberinto del Fauno (Spain, 2006) - Set against the post­war repression of Franco’s Spain, Pan’s Labyrinth unfolds through the eyes of 12-year-old Ofelia, who travels with her mother to live at a rural military outpost commanded by her cruel new step father. In the real world, war-riven Spain, she discovers a fantasy underworld and must battle against the most twisted, nightmarish evils to survive.

Del Toro’s Pick > Black Sunday: The Mask of Satan (Mario Bava, Italy, 1960, B&W) - Cult film darling Barbara Steele debuts as a 17th century Moldavian princess, condemned to death for witchcraft and vampirism. The film sealed the directorial credentials of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava. Portraying perfectly executed images of cruelty and shocking torture sequences and visuals that are still impressive.

Del Toro’s Pick > The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, USA, 1955, B&W) - Adapted from the strange, brilliant, American gothic novel by Davis Grubb, the film follows Harry Powell, a self proclaimed preacher, on a quest to find the cash hidden by a deceased cell mate. Charles Laughton creates a powerful story of good versus evil, where both claim to have god on their side.

Del Toro’s Pick > Martin (George Romero, USA, 1977) - George Romero is acclaimed for his pop classic ‘living dead’ zombie trilogy. In Martin he turns his zeitgeist-attuned wit to the modern day perils of a young vampire trying to keep himself nice in the face of challenges that include a new generation of emancipated women.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Festival of German Films

The Festival of German Films screens at the Como and Brighton Bay cinemas from March 20-29. I have just received the list of films screening (and links to IMDB where available). If anyone has any opinions, recommendations or insight to any of the films, feel free to post your comments.

Like Australian films, I often find contemporary German cinema a bit patchy in quality, though there have been some notable releases such as Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006), due for release on 29/3/07, Lola Rennt (Run Lola, Run, 1998), Der UntergangDownfall, 2004) and Sophie Scholl - Die letzen Tage (Sophie Scholl - The Last Days, 2005). With eighteen films screening this year, it's hard to decide on what to see, and it's good to get any leads.

Note: the film synopses are as provided by the festival.

Schwere Jungs (Grave Decisions, Marcus H. Rosenmüller, 2007)
A quirky satire that centres on the life of a misguided 11 year-old boy, who tries to play matchmaker to his widowed father with near fatal consequences. This film was a huge box office success in Germany and played for 16 weeks in the top ten and sold more than 1.2 million tickets.

Schwere Jungs (Heavyweights, Marcus H. Rosenmüeller, 2007)
A sports adventure story about German bobsledder teams, featuring dazzling action sequences, at the first winter Olympics since the end of the war. Rivalry between the two German teams becomes intolerable as the sportsmen skid into a hornet’s nest of sports-political intrigues and erotic adventures.

Vier Minuten (Four Minutes, Chris Kraus, 2006)
An elderly piano teacher discovers a piano prodigy. Trouble is the pupil, a female prison inmate, likes to beat everything around her to a pulp just to amuse herself. However, with the teacher’s help she could win a prestigious piano contest, maybe..... This film has received 12 international awards and will be released by Madman in Australia. Lead actress Hannah Herzsprung will be in Australia in from 18th April.

Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback (Dietmar Post/Lucia Palacios, 2006)
An award-winning documentary about the band The Monks, who were five America GI’s based in Germany in the sixties. The Monks were considered the forefathers of industrial, heavy metal, punk and techno music and also the first marriage of art and popular music ahead of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground

Emmas Glück (Emma’s Bliss, Sven Taddicken, 2006)
A dying man attempts to escape his life to his ideal beautiful place Mexico. But instead finds himself on a pig farm with Emma, the sole occupant with a few problems of her own. Together they overcome challenges and find some happiness. Actress Joerdis Triebel received the Best Actress Award 2006, Munich for her role.

Sommer '04 (Summer ’04, Stefan Krohmer, 2006)
When 40 year-old Miriam’s son brings his 12 year-old girlfriend on summer holidays things begin to unravel when the brazenly sensual Livia begins flirting with a much older man. When Miriam tries to stop the inappropriate relationship she finds herself falling for the man, but it is Livia he loves.

FC Venus (FC Venue – Women With Balls, Ute Wieland, 2006)
An innovative challenge from a frustrated soccer widow Anna. She rounds up her fellow soccer widows and forms a team FC Venus, and challenges the men in the ultimate duel.

if the wives win the match against their men, is bye-bye soccer for the men, and if the men win, the women can no longer complain. Trouble is, none of the women can play soccer.

Ein freund von mir (A Friend of Mine, Sebastian Schipper, 2006)
A story about two very different friends: a stable mathematician Karl, and the man about town Hans. For Hans “friendship” means sharing everything, even the queen of his heart Stelle. This is too much for Karl, but you can’t get rid of a friend like Hans, and a woman like Stelle is unforgettable...

Valerie (Birgit Möller, 2006)
A model’s glamorous life takes a dramatic turn when she finds herself penniless and living in a hotel car park. As her situation deteriorates, her only hope appears to lie in developing a friendship with the parking attendant.

His World Has Its Own Rules (Züli Aladag)
Politically correct attitudes are stretched to breaking point when a father attempts to humiliate his son’s tormenter, the son of Turkish immigrants. A vicious and dramatic cycle of anger and violence erupts that threatens to expose the father’s not so politically correct affair with his student.

Madonnen (Madonnas, Maria Speth, 2007)
On release from prison for theft, Rita resumes her family life with her four children and Marc, a US solider. However, once Marc is transferred back to the US, Rita’s life is again thrown into turmoil.

Pingpong (Matthias Luthardt, 2006)
Secrets and suppressed truths are explored in this drama centred on a troubled sixteen­year-old Paul. After the death of his father he goes to live with his aunt and uncle. When Paul’s uncle leaves for a business trip, Paul’s sexual attraction to his aunt escalates to potentially dangerous proportions

Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)
Yella abandons her failed marriage for a new life in a new town with a new job where she finds everything she wants. But strange voices and sounds from her past begin to haunt her and she starts to worry that her new life could be too good to be true.

Hui Buh - Das Schlossgespenst (Hui Buh – The Goofy Ghost, Sebastian Niemann, 2006)
Hui Buh – The goofy ghost has been delighting German audiences for more than 30 years. Now, after haunting the halls of Castle Burgeck for over 500 years, Hui Buh is given the chance to prove his ghostly skills. Stars Heike Makatsch, a guest of the Festival of German Films, 2006.

TKKG und die rätselhafte Mind-Machine (TKKG and the Mysterious Mind Machine, Tomy Wigand, 2006)
More adventures from the young hobby detectives TKKG: Tim, Klumpling, Karl and Gabby, who discover a new prototype of the spectacular mind machine! It’s the beginning of an adventurous journey of discovery into a bizarre world of real and virtual surprises.

Offset (Didi Danquart, 2006)
Set in Bucharest, a city that has long lost its grandeur by a long reign of fear and repression, this is a tale of linguistic, cultural and emotional misunderstandings. When Stefan from Germany falls in love with a local girl and wants to take her back to Germany the fears and prejudices from the other players all rise to the surface.

Eden (Michael Hofmann, 2006)
When waitress Eden begins eating libido-enhancing delicacies served up by her boss, her sex love suddenly spices up. Her husband however, becomes very suspicious about the change to their love life, and the role of her boss, so he decides to take action. In a small town with no secrets, this unusual ménage-a-food take unexpected, bittersweet twists

Dresden (Roland Suso Richter, 2006)
Set in 1945 a young nurse mistakes a badly injured pilot taking refuge in her hospital as a German deserter and helps him. As the impending, Allied bombardment of Dresden nears and her relationship with the Englishman becomes closer, Anna is faced with physical danger and the fear she will be exposed as a traitor.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Week in Review, La Mirada

  • Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)
  • Przypadek (Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1981*)
  • El extraño viaje (Strange Voyage, Fernando Fernán Gómez, 1964^)
  • Alatriste (Agustín Díaz Yanes, 2006)
  • Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, 2005)
  • El verdugo (The Executioner, Luis García Berlanga, 1963)
* Premiered in 1987, delayed due to communist censorship
^ Premiered in 1971, delayed due to fascist censorship

  • A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovóvar (Mark Allinson, 2001)
It's been a week of extraordinary films, the highlight being the Kieslowski double as described in my earlier post. I'll be definitely seeing the remaining Kieslowski films on for the next three weeks.

Strange Voyage, Alatriste and The Executioner screened as part of La Mirada - Jewels of Spanish Cinema. I'd intended to see the Astor screenings of Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) and All About Eve (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950), but opted for The Executioner at the last minute, as I felt this would be my only opportunity to see it on the big screen. I'm interested to see Mankiewicz's film in the context of its reference by Almodóvar's All About My Mother. It'll have to wait for another Astor screening or else DVD.

Strange Voyage was fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fact that the fascist censors banned it. Quite lame by today's standards, it depicts a woman dancing the twist in a raunchy manner, a cross-dressing male, murder and more.

The film employs Hitchcock-like suspense and imagery with a blend of humour, frivolity and drama that clearly has been inspirational to Pedro Almodóvar's work. It looks like a film he would have made at the time. It was programmed by him for the festival, and La Mirada has posted his comments about its selection.

Alatriste is a major epic and Spain's most expensive film (a 20th Century Fox production), and stars an impressive and obviously multi-lingual Viggo Mortensen. At two and a half hours, I found the film overly long and the narrative was not well measured. I'm not a big fan of the epic war genre, and there's only so much killing and slashing that I can take - I was pretty restless for the last 30 minutes. It was, however, well made and fans of the genre would love it. And Mortensen wear a fantastic hat!

The Executioner is reputedly Spain's most critically acclaimed film of all time. It wasn't my pick of La Mirada, but is an entertaining and skillfully made dark comedy. It's about an undertaker who falls for an executioner's daughter who inadvertently and unwillingly follows his father-in-law's trade.

Employing gallows humour, it also appears to be a subtle critique of the Franco regime. Too subtle for the censors of the time, apparently. Fortunately, I had already seen Salvador (Puig Antich) at La Mirada last week, which showed in detail how a garrotting is performed (and it is damned barbaric - medieval in nature), so some of the implied meaning was not lost on me. Particularly poignant was the executioner looking at his son-in-law's neck and stating his shirt size.

For a small film festival, La Mirada has made an impressive debut. It has been exceptionally well organised, with several government and corporate sponsors, and the patronage of Almodóvar himself. At the beginning of each session there have been multiple audience prizes such as books on Spanish cinema, CDs, restaurant vouchers and more. The organisers have gone to great pains to receive feedback from audiences for further improvements. I've been very impressed with the festival and its organisation and look forward to the festival's return next year.

I had heard good things about Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation so was disappointed to learn that it wasn't getting a cinema release here. The Astor had a single screening of it this afternoon so I made a point of attending. Maybe I just didn't get it because I was, unfortunately, disappointed. It seemed inane. I also didn't see the point of filming in black and white.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kieslowski Double - 1

Last night Melbourne Cinémathèque screened the first of four weeks of films by Krzysztof Kieslowski. First up was Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue, 1993) followed by Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1981). The latter didn’t receive a release until 1987 due to state censorship (the film takes a dim view of politics in Poland).

I discovered Cinémathèque last year but rarely stayed for the second screening because of work the next morning. This year I’ve made a commitment to myself to try to get to as many second screenings as possible, and this week’s was surely the pick of the season thus far for me. The Kieslowsi double was completely sublime.

Three Colors: Blue
I started watching films as an adult in 1992. The first three films were Shattered (Wolfgang Petersen, 1991), The Doctor (Randa Haines, 1991) and Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991). I first saw Blue when released around 1993/94. It was the first ‘arthouse’ film I’d seen and struck me. It opened me up to the fact that there was a whole other world of cinema out there, other than mainstream Hollywood.

Thirteen or so years later and, though I knew basically what the film was about, both I and my appreciation of cinema have evolved and sufficient time has passed to the point that the second viewing was almost like seeing it for the first time. The film is emotionally powerful, confidently and competently directed, though I feel these descriptions to be understatements. For me, it must count as one of the best films I have ever seen.

The three colours in Kieslowski’s trilogy refer to the French flag (blue, white and red), and each colour represents liberty, equality and fraternity respectively. Kieslowski’s depiction of liberty is explored in the context of Julie, the survivor of a terrible car crash (Juliette Binoche) which claimed the lives of her husband and five year old daughter.

Grief is a terrible thing, and those of us who have experienced it first-hand know how disorienting it can be. It is also lonely – no-one else can relieve a person’s pain, and it must be worked through. Binoche’s depiction of a grieving person was a performance of a quality I have never seen her repeat.

Kieslowski delves into one person’s journey and offers tremendous insights. His sense of humanity without sentimentality is awesome. Though he is Polish, the film is in French language and filmed in France (mostly Paris). I can see now how this film on first viewing drew me into the darker French dramas, and each year I eagerly await the Melbourne French Film Festival (coming soon: 20/3/07 – 3/4/07). Films like Blue are, however, rare.

Blind Chance

La double vie de Véronique (The Double Life of Veronique, 1991) and the colours trilogy are the only Kieslowski films that received a commercial release in Australia. The Cinémathèque screenings are a rare opportunity for Melbournians to see one of the world’s great director’s films on the big screen.

Blind Chance recalls for me various films that I have seen that were made later. Like Hollywood film Sliding Doors (Peter Howitt, 1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow, it asks the question “what if?”. What if that train you’re running to catch: (1) you just get it, (2) you miss because the station-master obstructs you, or (3) you miss without incident? This seemingly innocuous incident has a profound effect on Witek’s life. But unlike the romantic pop story in Sliding Doors, Kieslowski uses the scenarios to paint three different stories for one man torn between his sense of moral obligations, personal ambitions, grief at the recent loss of his father and mental weakness. All this is painted in the context of political unrest and upheaval in communist Poland.

Each outcome is completely plausible, and tragically ends in pain of one kind or another. A conjugal relationship is formed in each scenario, but with different women and with different outcomes. Kieslowski here is refuting the romantic concept that there is a thing called destiny which predetermines who we end up partnering with. Even if we choose left over right, the popular mythology would have us believe, we will end up with our true soul mate.

Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, Tom Tykwer, 1998) was more like Blind Chance in content and theme than Sliding Doors. Tykwer’s energy-packed and unconventional romance thriller also used the ‘what-if’ concept to explore philosophical ideas and darker elements of society, though not with Kieslowski’s gritty realism. Tykwer had Lola and Manni die for each other in two scenarios, and a happy ending in the third. Kieslowski’s Witek joins the Party machine in one scenario, becomes a student rebel in another and struggling to remain impartial in the third. The film is profound and moving and the end is sudden and shocking. I sat agape for sometime while the credits rolled.

Based on week 1 of the Kieslowski screenings, I highly recommend the rest of the season at ACMI on Wednesday evenings, 7pm. On March 14 is screening Three Colors: White and Camera Buff. March 21: Three Colors: Red and A Short Film About Love as well as the short Bricklayer. March 28: 2 shorts: Refrain and Factory before two Sam Fuller features (The Naked Kiss and Park Row).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Week in Review

Well, it's been a busy week for cinema for yours truly. I had a number of invites to previews, plus I committed to seeing a number of films screening at ACMI for La Mirada - Jewels of Spanish Cinema. So I decided to take a couple of days off work, and I've seen more films in one week than I have for at least several years, if ever. The stand-out highlights of the week were The Lives of Others and Au Hasard Balthazar and Aunt Tula.

La Mirada is a compilation of Spanish films: 5 new releases, 5 classics curated by Pedro
Almodóvar, 5 documentaries and 2 sessions of shorts. I'm seeing 4 of the classics and 2 or more of the new releases. For me, film festivals are primarily an opportunity to see films that won't get a commercial release, so though there's lots of new releases at the cinemas that I haven't seen, I'm putting them on the back-burner for now.

I hit pay-dirt at La Mirada today. Miguel Picazo's 1963 debut, Aunt Tula, reportedly Alejandro Amenabar's favourite classic Spanish film, is powerful and significant
. Of particular interest to me was that many of the thematic, narrative and visual devices used in virtually every Almodóvar film can be clearly seen to have been influenced by this vastly superior film (in black and white).

I might be stating the obvious, but I don't have time to review every film I see, so feel free to leave comments in reference to any of the films here.

  • Becoming Jane (Julian Jarrold, 2007)
  • Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
  • Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
  • Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
  • Scoop (Woody Allen, 2006)
  • Azul Oscuro Casi Negro (Dark Blue Almost Black, Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, 2005)
  • La faute à Fidel (Blame It On Fidel, Julie Gavras, 2006)
  • Je vous trouve tres beau (You Are So Beautiful, Isabelle Mergault, 2005)
  • El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1972)
  • Salvador (Puig Antich) (Manuel Huerga, 2006)
  • Razzle Dazzle (Darren Ashton, 2007)
  • La Tia Tula (Aunt Tula, Miguel Picazo, 1963)
  • A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovóvar (Mark Allinson, 2001)