Monday, April 30, 2007

Loneliness & the Stasi - The Lives of Others

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
I started writing what I expected to be a fairly decent length review of The Lives of Others a couple of months ago, but my schedule didn’t allow me to complete it in time for its Australian release. By then, it had surprisingly won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and so, of course, there were lots of reviews out there. With limited time to write, I feel more inclined to put my energy into films that get less media coverage - to champion the underdogs, so to speak.

Nonetheless, there was one important point in particular that I wanted to make about this not insignificant film. I describe it in this way, because though it’s not a perfect film per se, it is an exceptional debut by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that has significance in today’s political climate.

By chance, I saw the film a second time after our plan to see Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt was thwarted. We arrived at ACMI our customary 30 minutes early to find tickets had sold out two hours earlier – most unusual for ACMI! Being a Saturday evening, we phoned the Westgarth ahead to book tickets for The Lives of Others, which Zoe hadn’t seen. And just as well – when we arrived, there was a huge queue and the session booked out.

Something that overwhelmed me on first viewing, and confirmed on the second, was the theme of loneliness. Whether it’s fascism, communism or any variety of political extremism, a climate of fear and distrust ensues that serves to isolate people. The result is loneliness.

At every step of the film, whenever people related, whoever they related to or whatever their status, all seemed chronically lonely. Wiesler goes home to an empty and austere apartment – his only intimacy is a quick fuck with a Stasi prostitute. Minister Hempf is shown alone in his apartment. Grubitz is never seen relating to anyone other than as a miserable weasel. Stage director Hauser feels ostracised, and Jerska’s black-listing forces a loneliness that drives him to suicide. Everyone in the bar is drinking alone. Underscoring all these cold relationships are an austere lighting and muted blue and grey colour scheme.

People became reclusive within their own homes, as depicted by Dreyer’s neighbour, Frau Meineke, having been threatened by Weisler to have her daughter removed from university if she spoke a word to anyone. When Dreyer innocently asked her to help him with his tie, she was terror-struck and couldn’t retreat to her apartment quick enough, like a turtle to its shell.

Even our main protagonist, Georg Dreyer, whose home was depicted in warmer tones and is in a relationship, always seems alone. He tells his partner, Christa-Maria that he always feared two things: being alone and not being able to write. But now the thing he now fears the most is losing Christa, who is being secretly pursued sexually with vigour by Minister Hempf (which is really the reason Dreyer is put under surveillance).

Towards the end of the film, Weisler is in another post (pun not intended), presumably for the previous five years, steaming open letters in a dark, lonely office devoid of natural light, almost like a dungeon. Who do we see behind him? None other than the goofy Stasi underling we saw joking about Honecker earlier in the film.

Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Weisler is still working with the post office, depicted as a broken and solitary man, quietly delivering letters as a lowly servant of the state. Dreyer by chance is shocked to discover that he had been under full surveillance but that he had had an unknown guardian angel, code named HGW XX/7.

People don’t change, Hempf snorts earlier in the film, and apparently this is so. Because even when Dreyer learns who his benefactor is and tracks him down, they do not meet. Despite Dreyer's gratitude, disjunction - still. It is only two years later, upon publication of Dreyer’s novel “Sonata to a Good Man” that he gets to thank Weisler from afar. The second viewing really confirmed the significance of this drawn out aspect of the ending.

I only want to briefly mention the political significance of The Lives of Others. Of course the title refers to the obsession of the Stasi – its stated aim was “to know everything” and was chiefly concerned with the lives of others. Weisler, when he’s at the theatre is spying on others. When he is in the elevator and a child talks innocently about his father, Weisler is extracting information that could put his father behind bars. No-one was safe.

The Stasi and the GDR were an extreme that had occurred before and has occurred since. The current ‘War on Terror’ is the latest chapter of political extremism from so-called liberal democracies that are abusing their power to subvert civil liberties. These powers may be used today or they may be used in the future. But various fascist-like powers are now in place that can be used to isolate people and deny them their human rights. And that’s as much as I want to say on that subject for now, though I welcome any input.

See also: The Evening Class Interview With Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Week in Review

  • Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel, 1972)
  • Le fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel, 1974)
  • Offset (Didi Danquart, 2006)
  • Hui Buh – das Schlossgespenst (Hui Buh - The Goofy Ghost, Sebastian Niemann, 2006)
  • Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
  • Die Bluthochzeit (The Wedding Party, Dominique Deruddere, 2005)
  • Klimt (Raúl Ruiz, 2006)
  • Crime Story - "Top of the World" (60min, Michael Mann, 1987)
  • Almodovóvar on Almodovóvar (Revised edition, 2006, Frédéric Strauss)

Luis Buñuel double

These screenings at the Astor were my first exposure to this prolific Spanish director whose output was produced mostly in Mexico and France as a result of his exile from fascist Spain. He first came to my attention when I read that David Lynch's favourite film was his Un chien andalou (1929), a short silent film that I have yet to see in its entirety. I noticed from Buñuel's biography on IMDB that many of the quotes attributed to him sound very similar to the view of Lynch. They seem to share a similar world view, at least artistically, and especially in terms of surrealism.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty are considered part of Buñuel's trilogy (the other being That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) which parody the middle-class. Being new to Buñuel, I didn't know what to expect and it took me a while to acclimatise to his style. Consequently, I think I didn't appreciate them fully, especially Discreet Charm, though I think Phantom is a more engaging film.

In retrospect, I feel I tried to hold on to too much of what Buñuel projected onto the screen, as if there were some necessity to, rather than just go with the flow. There were so many interesting characters, that went off on so many tangents, and I couldn't absorb everything - which we are often tempted to do. Buñuel is a very observant and intelligent individual and he tells unusual stories. I think I'll be more qualified to write about him in better detail after further viewings. I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Crime Story - "Top of the World"
Michael Mann produced the Crime Story series for NBC television, but Top of the World was the only episode (21 of 44) directed by him. It depicts a Chicago police detective's determination to thwart a gangster's ruthless ambitions and bring him to justice. Scorsese's Casino seems to have borrowed heavily from the narrative of this episode, though the plot was hardly original.

In the same way that Melbourne Cinémathèque's season of Kieslowski brought together a selection of varied works by one artist that demonstrated a common theme and evolution of style, the screening of Top of the World gave an insight into an auteur's contribution to a different medium (television). Despite the episode's being full of clichés, there was still had a freshness and vitality about it, in much the same way as under Don Siegel's direction, Clint Eastwood brought pizazz to his hackneyed character of Inspector Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971).

There was a darkness (both visually and narratively) to the episode, and was more gutsy than the average television police show. I found it highly enjoyable.

The Festival of German Films finished today, and this was my last viewing there. I don't have much to say about it, so I'm not going to do a separate FoGF posting. According to Peter Krausz, who introduced the film, the literal meaning of the title is The Bloody Wedding, and it really was the wedding from hell. As Peter describes it: "this is a film with escalating tension as a dispute is presented between the owner/chef at the reception centre and the father of the [groom] at the wedding reception. What ensues seems like a combination of Assault on Precinct 13 and Robert Altman’s A Wedding, with no prisoners being taken".

The film is a comedy and well-made for middle-of-the-road audiences. The characterisations are good all around, especially the father and the chef. The film looks good but is maybe a little long. It would probably do well at the box-office if it got a distribution.

I saw the film at the Como and once again I sat close to a couple of Toorak matrons who treat the cinema like they're sitting in a Toorak Rd. cafe, chatting the whole film through and giving a running commentary about what's on screen. At one stage I turned around and suggested they go home and watch TV, and at the end, another woman chastised them saying "you should watch DVDs at home if you're going to talk all the way through".

It's hard to know where to start describing this film. It's a Raúl Ruiz film, and I suppose if you've seen his films previously, you might have some idea what I mean by this. I haven't (seen any previously), and he clearly takes some getting used to. Like Buñuel's films, there is a strong surrealist bent and the film is not delivered with a standard linear narrative.

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (John Malkovich) is lying in a hospital bed and the film represents his memories of his life as he approaches death. I've always felt that Malkovich was a stunning actor, but often he accepts hackneyed or caricatured characters that don't do him justice. His performance in Klimt is almost understated and perfect for him. It is well-measured and nuanced. It was also interesting to see Saffron Burrows after her performance in Reign Over Me.

I didn't know who Klimt was, but his art is so recognisable, so now I know. The film looked terrific with beautifully authentic cinematography and great use of lighting and shadows. I am confused about much of the film, and I go away feeling a need to learn more about the artist, more about the film, and keen to see it again (as well as anything else by Ruiz). This can be either very satisfying or very frustrating, depending on what you look for from a film.

Klimt is probably not the kind of film to go to if you like everything explained and in a linear manner. But if you like subtlety, ambiguity, mystery and coming out of a film not fully understanding what you've seen, don't miss it. It really is unconventional, daring and original film-making that is visually stunning.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Festival of German Films 3

The Festival of German Films closes tomorrow. I saw Hui Buh yesterday, can't fit anything in today and am hoping to see the 'surprise film', Bluthochzeit, tomorrow.

Hui Buh – das Schlossgespenst
(Hui Buh - The Goofy Ghost, Sebastian Niemann, 2006)

It may come as no surprise that Hui Buh - The Goofy Ghost is aimed at children. I think it's generous of the Festival of German Films to have applied for an OFLC classification - it costs money, I believe - making the film accessible to children. It has a G (General Audiences) classification, and is very much like a Disney film, suitable for pre-schoolers and primary school-age children.

It consists of actors who interact with various computer-generated characters, mostly ghosts of a fairly cartoonish type. The look of the film was great, the cinematography, sets, lighting and costumes used both lush colours and a darkness that would depict a faux scariness without freaking out the little 'uns.

While Hui Buh is not a stand-out film in any way, it is very enjoyable for children but perhaps a bit stereotypical for adults. For me the fun came from watching the effect on my six year old son who laughed aloud regularly, as did other children in the audience. He wanted to see it again. To the credit of the festival, they've made world cinema available to children on the big screen, which we don't often see from film festivals.

Previous posts: Festival of German Films 1 & 2. List of films screened.

Old Joy release date

In case you haven't heard, Old Joy has a Melbourne release date of May 3, running exclusively at the Nova Cinema. Old Joy is distributed by Accent Film Entertainment and had a short run at the Chauvel Cinema in Sydney from March 15.

As described in my review of Old Joy, it's not for the average film-goer. It is a slow-moving 'contemplative' film that, like Half Nelson, is a lament for the loss of liberalism under the current conservative government in the US. I highly recommend it (4.5 stars). Quiet, ambiguous films like this (think Gus Van Sant's Gerry) usually only get a small run (if they get a release at all), and is the type of film one goes to the Melbourne International Film Festival to see. In the interests of film diversity, it behooves cinephiles to support films like this. Don't just wait for film festivals, let's support good films all year round!

SYNOPSIS (from Accent Film Entertainment)
OLD JOY is the story of two old friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who reunite for a weekend camping trip in the Cascade mountain range east of Portland, Oregon. For Mark, the weekend outing offers a respite from the pressure of his imminent fatherhood; for Kurt, it is part of a long series of carefree adventures. As the hours progress and the landscape evolves, the twin seekers move through a range of subtle emotions, enacting a pilgrimage of mutual confusion, sudden insight, and spiritual battle. When they arrive at their final destination, a hot spring in an old growth forest, they must either confront the divergent paths they have taken, or somehow transcend their growing tensions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Festival of German Films 2

Offset (Didi Danquart, Germany, 2006)
By a fortunate twist of fate, I won tickets to Offset on Tuesday evening, which started soon after my first French class. The former was in Brighton and the latter in St. Kilda, so it was all very convenient. And the film turned out to be quite interesting and enjoyable, which has got to be a good thing.

Offset is set in Bucharest, Romania and is a French, German and Swiss co-production. It really is a curious film and uses German, Romanian, English and French dialogue. A young German-speaking Romanian woman (Alexandra Maria Lara as Brindusa) is marrying a German man (Felix Klare as Stefan) and they plan to move to Germany. But it is a complex plot - complex in terms of plot, culture, relationships and emotionally.

Right from the start I noticed that the cinematography was beautiful in an understated, naturalistic way - just the way I like it. I was tentative for much of the film, as it looked like it was setting itself up as a fairly stereotypical family drama/romance that could descend into comedy at a moment's notice. With confidence, the director completely steered away from just about every cliché and contrivance that could have been readily exploited at any time. This is sophisticated film-making.

The chemistry between the various characters was full of authenticity and their interactions were both natural and original. There was a language barrier between the respective parents of the young couple and the film captured their unease at dinner very effectively. Characters were mostly shades of grey, so that even the beauty of Brindusa did not eclipse her moral ambiguity.

The film appears to head for a certain direction, and when things turn dark, it becomes genuinely suspenseful. It was at this point that I realised this film was much more than just another mediocre story. It was intelligent, culturally complex and I highly recommend it, though I don't believe it will be commercially released in Australia. That's a real shame, because it's well-made and could easily have wide appeal. It's vastly superior to most family dramas that make it to our screens.

Previous post: Festival of German Films 1

Official website (German-language only) / IMDB

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Inland Empire release date

[Update: Inland Empire to screen at MIFF]
[Post update:
Inland Empire release has been delayed]

Just a quick one - Dendy Films has finally announced (about a week ago) that David Lynch's much anticipated Inland Empire has a release date for Australia. June 21 is the date slated, and hopefully that won't move back at all. I am both keen and nervous. It's 172 minutes long (nearly three hours!) and I'm a little concerned about the picture quality, being shot entirely on a relatively small digital camera.

Dendy Film's short synopsis reads: "Laura Dern stars as Nikki, an actress signed to star in a new movie, an adulterous love story, directed by Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) and co-starring the womanizing Devon (Justin Theroux). The film is actually the cursed remake of a project that was abandoned after its two leads were murdered."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Week in Review

During the past week, France makes another appearance via Michel Gondry's latest as well as my first exposure to Jean-Luc Godard. Unfortunately I had no time to get to any further screenings at the Festival of German Films, but intend to rectify that on Wednesday (being the Anzac Day holiday) and next weekend. ACMI's Focus on Guillermo del Toro finished today, and I caught two more films from that during the week.

  • La science des rêves (The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry, 2006)
  • Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
  • Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)
  • Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997)
  • Italianetz (The Italian, Andrei Kravchuk, 2005)
  • The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
  • Scénario du film 'Passion' (53min, Jean-Luc Godard, 1982)
  • Almodovóvar on Almodovóvar (Revised edition, 2006, Frédéric Strauss)

Scénario du film 'Passion'
Showing as part of the Centre Pompidou Video Art 1965-2005, on exhibition at ACMI until 27 May. Not having seen any Godard films yet, I don't have contextual appreciation of this documentary, but am keen to catch them when possible. The following is from the ACMI website:

Scénario du Film Passion (1982)
Videotape, colour, sound, 53:24 min
Retraces the writing and production of Godard's controversial 1982 film Passion.

Jean-Luc Godard produced Scénario du film Passion as a commentary on the creative process behind his 1982 film Passion. As he retraces the writing and production process, viewers are offered a fascinating glimpse into the world of one of cinema's most innovative artists.

Jean-Luc Godard is renowned as one of the key members of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), the influential group of French filmmakers, theorists and critics in the late 1950s and 1960s. Although widely known for his feature films, Godard is also the author of approximately thirty videos, many of which were produced specifically for television.

The Science of Sleep
Michel Gondry, himself a native of France has both written and directed his first feature film set in France using French, Spanish and English languages. While he has produced some fantastic music videos, and his previous Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a big success here (The Nova Cinema had a phenomenal six-month run with it), I don't find The Science of Sleep up to the standard of his previous film.

Gael García Bernal is a tremendously talented actor and I've loved every performance I've seen from him in films such as Amores perros, Y tu mamá también, El crimen del padre Amaro, Diarios de motocicleta, La mala educación, Babel and especially The King (which I ranked my second favourite film of 2006). His performance is fine in The Science of Sleep, but I think that the film is adversely affected by Gondry's writing. He is not as good a writer as he is a director. And comparing the film to Eternal Sunshine is perhaps not fair as the earlier film had the brilliant Charlie Kaufman as writer (as did the earlier Human Nature). After all, it's rare that a film is celebrated for its writer (as is anything by Kaufman) rather than its director.

Bernal's character as a Mexican in France (who speaks little French) just doesn't seem quite right. It feels almost like the director likes the actor and wants to include him in the film, even if he isn't the best choice. The casting would have worked better in an English-language film.

The story in The Science of Sleep shows a style similar to Eternal Sunshine - a weird and quirky convergence of thoughts and reality which often collide, but there is a thread of coherence lacking in the current film.

Still, there are many positives in the film - the casting generally is good and the concept is inventive and bizarre. The cinematography is appealling, though some might find the animation too similar to the style of music videos. It will appeal to some and not others - I don't think it was completely successful. The film is overall quite entertaining but not as engaging as it could have been. I found it worth-seeing, at least for its originality.

I haven't really thought much of a Danny Boyle film since his sublime Trainspotting, so I didn't go into this with high expectations. I was prepared to suspend many of my critical faculties, but still the film disappointed. It starts off with promise, though the heavy-handed use of sound and music, as well as the hip-look and 'over-abundance of manliness' of the space travellers were distracting. The lack of the lack of gravity I was also prepared to overlook. I could even overlook the gold-coloured space-suits (gold is heat-absorbing, whereas silver is heat-reflecting). These weren't the main problems, unfortunately.

Around half way through the film, it goes off on a tangent from a 2001-wannabe (and borrows heavily from that great film) to an Alien-wannabe. Not only did this stretch credibility beyond the tolerable, but the film then employs the MTV school of editing technique where cross-cutting becomes almost epilepsy-inducing and fails to disguise the poor plot. I found the film a waste of time.

Until now, The Insider is the only Mann film I'd liked - I found Heat ridiculously over-the-top and Collateral ridiculously contrived and visually unappealing. I didn't see Miami Vice because it held no appeal (especially after Heat and Collateral) and I didn't see Ali because (1) I'm not a big fan of so-called biopics, and (2) I remember what Mohammed Ali looked like and it was nothing like Will Smith.

So I went to Melbourne Cinémathèque with fairly low expectations but was pleasantly surprised. I didn't know that this was the film that was virtually remade as Silence of the Lambs, which I liked a lot. Manhunter has dated more than that film, particularly the music and clothing. However, I found it very chilling, and some of the characterisations more interesting than the remake. Brian Cox's Lektor and William Petersen's Will Graham were both excellent. Hopkins' characterisation seems almost cartoonish in comparison to Cox, though the journalist's role was a bit cartoonish in Mann's film. There were a few contrivances (like Graham jumping through the window) that I could easily overlook because the film was so effective in keeping me on the edge of my seat. The film could also have benefited from a bit of tighter editing as the end seemed a little drawn out, but that's a small criticism. I found the film edgier than Mann's more recent work and compelling viewing.

I wasn't planning to see this, but changed my mind after a strong recommendation. I was one of only six people in ACMI's larger cinema 2. I love empty cinemas (mind you, I love full ones too, but that's a different experience). And the film wasn't too bad at all... for a Hollywood horror film.

Mimic was the next film del Toro made after Cronos, and he used various themes in common with that film. A grandfather and his grandchild, warm orange tones, religious icons, objects wrapped in plastic bags and insects (including one that attacks a protangist's hand). In fact, some of these seem to appear in later films also (remember the insects in Pan's Labyrinth?). As does his meticulous attention to detail. I found the film genuinely scary, and there were times I felt like leaving the cinema. I do get emotionally involved in the cinematic experience, and maybe that's why I'm not a big fan of the genre.

Mind you, there's always exceptions. What is interesting about Mimic is that it is made by a serious director of that genre who has made his own mark right from the start. Seen in that context, even though this specific film is clearly a studio film, it retains del Toro's style and vision. Seeing it has definitely enhanced my appreciation of del Toro, though I still stand by my criticisms of Pan's Labyrinth, his most celebrated film to date.

Perusing online, I couldn't have worded better what David Greven writes at 24LiesASecond: "
Examined individually, each of his films seems deeply flawed and even failed. Yet when taken together—arranged and assembled as a vast quilt of images—they achieve a nightmarish splendor that demands recognition."

The Italian
After Jump Street Films previous The King (which made it into my top 10 films of 2006) and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, I was expecting to like this film more than I did, particularly as it has reputedly won more than 30 awards to date.

It's the tale of a six year old boy left in an orphanage who decides to try to find his birth mother. The film looked good and the characters were generally quite good, especially the young boy. A couple of characters seemed a little caricatured, and maybe the target audience in the film is quite young. My six-year old boy liked the film a lot, though I covered his eyes for a violent scene at the end.

The film didn't engage me greatly, and I found the plausibility stretched with what the boy was able to achieve.

The Night of the Hunter
This is the last of the three films selected by Guillermo del Toro as films that have influenced him for the ACMI season ending today. It was great seeing Robert Mitchum playing such a role of pure evil and terror in the form of a preacher. Check out the tattoos on his fingers.

Shelley Winters was also convincing as the insecure middle-aged mother, similar to the character she depicted seven years later in Kubrick's Lolita. This was the only film directed by Charles Laughton. I find it both surprising and disappointing that nothing followed Hunter, which apparently was not successful at the box office.

The film is very theatrical and largely predictable, but that doesn't detract from the its enjoyment. If anything, it increases the dread. And it looks great in black and white.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Festival of German Films 1

[Edit: link added to later post - Festival of German Films 2]

The Goethe-Institut Australia Festival of German Films opens this Thursday in Melbourne* at Palace Cinemas (Como and Brighton Bay) and runs until Sunday 29 April. In addition to the screening of eighteen films (including two unannounced 'surprise' titles), Melbourne special events include a Q&A with Valerie director Birgit Möller and others, and discussions with director Dietmar Post after each screening of the music documentary Monks - The Transatlantic Feedback.

At a preview screening of Reign Over Me, I had the pleasure of meeting at Peter Krausz, who co-presents a one-hour film program on community radio 3CR (Saturdays 11am - 12pm) and is the chairman of the Australian Film Critics Association. Peter contributed to the curation of the festival and is also co-hosting the festival blog.

* The festival is also screening in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. Check the festival's website for details.

Wut (Can - His World Has Its Own Rules, Züli Aladag, 2006)
Director Züli Aladag was born in Turkey, but moved as a child to Germany. Wut is a confronting look at some of the social issues faced by migrants, their children and the host country – issues that are relevant across the western world, including Australia.

Can (pronounced something like Jahn) played by Oktay Özdemir, is the son of modest but honourable Turkish immigrants who live in multi-rise government housing. He hangs out with a gang – all apparently children of immigrants – selling drugs, stealing and extorting from others.

Co-student Felix is intimidated by Can and his gang, but negotiates co-existence as best he can, though usually inadequately. Felix’s father becomes involved when Felix arrives home barefoot one day – without his expensive new trainers.

Özdemir is completely convincing in his role and had me sitting on the edge of my seat for all of the hour and a half of the film. He gradually insinuates himself into the life of Felix and his parents, instilling terror into the family (and at least this member of the audience).

The film is ambitious in attempting to not just depict a thriller narrative, but also to tackle the issues that exist behind real social ills. Prejudice, social disadvantage, family tradition and honour, contemporary liberalism and Germany’s coming to terms with its unresolved Nazi guilt complex are all dealt with and various degrees of success.

Can is an angry young man, hence the original title Wut, which means rage. For me the most poignant moment occurs when Can stands at his loungeroom cabinet holding various family photos. It’s virtually a carbon copy of a similar moment when he looked on at Felix’s family photos. Despite different backgrounds and different current circumstances, the two families are more alike than they may realise.

For me, the film started off with great promise, and works best as gritty social drama. The strength of the narrative peters as the film evolves into a more conventional thriller. Then much of the realism becomes diluted and the narrative seems contrived. The film was made for television, and this shows in the second half. Yet somehow it remains gripping to the end.

Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot (Grave Decisions, Marcus H. Rosenmüller, 2006)
Hopefully a local distributor will pick this up, as it is quite a charming and feel-good story suitable for families/children. Sebastian learns at age 11 that his mother died while giving birth to him, and takes on guilt for her death. Both dramatic and comedic, the festival calls it a black comedy.

The film follows Sebastians exploits, including various purgatory imaginings and match-making for his father. It’s not something that I find of much interest to adult audiences, though some will find it enjoyable for a light evening’s entertainment.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Week in Review

Everything I saw this week was at ACMI, namely the Melbourne Cinémathèque and Focus on Guillermo del Toro screenings. There's a few films* on theatrical release I'd like to catch, but I'm in no particular hurry.

* Currently on my list of 'to see' are: Sunshine, Death of a President, The Good German and The Lives of Others (which I've already seen, but would like to take the missus).


  • Beau travail (Good Work, Claire Denis, 1999)
  • Jacques Rivette - Le veilleur (Jacques Rivette - the Night Watchman, Claire Denis & Serge Daney, 1990)
  • Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993)
  • Martin (George A. Romero, 1977)
  • La maschera del demonio (Black Sunday: The Mask of Satan, Mario Bava, 1960)
  • Almodovóvar on Almodovóvar (Revised edition, 2006, Frédéric Strauss)
Beau travail
Sensational cinema. The tension is so well measured, the cinematography and music are stunning, the plot is so elusive and the end is amazing. Looked fantastic on the big screen. This short appraisal doesn't really do the film justice. The person sitting next to me was seeing it for the sixth time and I can understand why. Possibly the best film I've seen this year, and probably makes it into my all-time top 20 or so.

The focus on masculinity was intense, erotic and poetic. Denis Lavant is such an amazing performer. The physical performance under the conditions was remarkable. The use of music gave the feel of some kind of Roman or Greek epic or opera.

Apparently the film is based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which I'm not familiar with. Beau travail depicts a company of the French Foreign Legion in Africa. The outcome reminded me of a scene in a very different film, Fight Club (I'm deliberately not giving details away). The salt plain reminded me of Gus Van Sant's Gerry. The austerity of the film recalls Van Sant, but the overall style was quite different.

Jacques Rivette - The Night Watchman
I'm not familiar with Rivette's films - I only know him by name. This two-part made-for-television documentary gives an interesting perspective on the director who is clearly an austere and modest man, dedicated to his craft. It includes mostly a conversational-style of interviews with Rivette, as well as interviews with others who have worked with him.

Claire Denis was an assistant to Rivette before becoming a director. The interviewer is film critic Serge Daney. I'll be sure to check out the Rivette films screening at Melbourne Cinémathèque over three weeks from May 23 to June 6.

This is quite an impressive first feature, screening as part of the focus on Guillermo del Toro at ACMI as I previously reported. Despite a bit of heavy handling of music, it turns out to be a well-measured piece that doesn't overdo gore like modern horror flicks, and the humour is also relatively subdued. The film uses an older style of horror, good characterisation, nice attention to detail and special effects that are generally quite good but aren't always completely successful.

Ron Perlman has a face that looks good for the role, plays the dope, and is basically there for comic relief. Like some of his later films, there is a child, but she plays a small but critical role.

It's interesting to see this after The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. There is a real consistency to his vision of horror film-making which appears to borrow from the genre, but avoids many of the peurile traps that Hollywood insists on repeating. Neither I nor my partner are fans of the genre but both enjoyed this film.

Obviously, Pan's Labyrinth is a major step forward for del Toro in terms of visuals, but I don't think the writing has progressed much further, which is a little disappointing for me, but then most fans of the genre don't expect anything too deep.

A creepy cult film that del Toro selected as one of his inspirations, though del Toro's work is far superior. The music and sound is often over the top, the acting is pretty mediocre. Martin may or may not be a vampire, sharing a common theme with Cronos (ie, not a genre stereotype). While clearly a B-grade film, it's to the credit of Romero that he pursued his vision on limited resources. I found it only of interest in respect to del Toro.

Black Sunday
Another cult horror film selected by del Toro. It will be appreciated by fans of the genre and is once again interesting mostly from the GdT perspective. Because the film has dated so much, it can't really be taken seriously, and garnered much laughter from the audience when not intended. Very camp and melodramatic, and labours a little with the typical (for Italians) dubbed voices. It does look nice in black and white, though the shooting in mostly studio sets adds to the overly theatrical performances.

As a point of interest, the film is based on a short story written by Nikolaj Gogol, the namesake of the protagonist in the current release The Namesake by Mira Nair.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Getting serious about French

Today I finally succumbed to a twenty-year itch and enrolled in French language classes at Alliance Française in St. Kilda. Faxed my application form and credit card details. CAE in the CBD would have been more convenient, but I can be impetuous and wanted to strike while the iron was hot - CAE's classes started about a month later than AF.

I have a certain personality-type. When there are lots of options, I find it hard to make a decision, because deciding on one means excluding the others. At different times I've also contemplated German, Spanish and Greek. German, because I learnt it at high school and liked the well-structured and phonetic nature of the language. Spanish, because of all the languages I've encountered, I've found it the easiest to pick up (I spent 17 days in Panama in 1987). And Greek because my partner speaks it fluently and could assist me.

Ultimately French won because of all countries, French (and French-speaking) have been my favourite overall. The culture really appeals, and I'd love to at least visit the place and be able to go to a cinema without subtitles. The recent French Film Festival and screening of Paris, je t'aime probably added to my decision. And just tonight, I saw Claire Denis' sublime Beau travail (1999) for the first time at Melbourne Cinémathèque. It just confirms why I want to learn French.

Classes start from 23 April and I'm just hoping I can remain committed. I've since found a free online resource and have adjusted my keyboard settings so I can type all those accents. As if I had plenty of spare time up my sleeve... sheesh!

Oh, and somehow or other I've managed to make it to 50 posts - they've snuck up on me. I'm pretty happy I've made it this far. That's about 10 posts a month. Now I just need someone to pay me for my writing. Anyone?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Paris, je t'aime

[Update: added short commentary to each segment's synopsis]

Paris is known as the City of Lights…A city of culture…of fine dining and magnificent architecture. Paris is a city for lovers: lovers of art, lovers of history, lovers of food, lovers of…love.” So declares the kitsch Paris tourist guide that Steve Buscemi’s character reads while waiting for a train in the Metropolitan subway at Tuileries, at the start of the Coen brothers' hilarious contribution to Paris je t’aime.

Paris je t’aime is more than a collection of short films. Twenty directors from around the globe offer their individual takes on contemporary relationships, with one segment filmed in each of eighteen of Parisarrondissements (districts). While one could justifiably expect a patchwork product, the result was surprisingly cohesive. It was not dissimilar to an ensemble film with simultaneous stories occurring in different parts of the city.

The producers appear to have gone to great lengths to provide guidelines for the directors and then assemble the each segment in a way that maximises continuity. There was a fairly consistent visual style throughout many of the segments, very much in the naturalistic style often seen in French cinema. Grey/faded blue tones dominated, highlighted throughout with a rich dark yellow - it looks great. In many segments, there were props and wardrobe using the same yellow tone. Despite multiple directors, cinematographers and editors, this continuity owes its success to the use of a single production designer (Bettina von den Steinen), set decorator (Sébastien Monteux-Halleur) and costume designer (Olivier Bériot).

Adding to the continuity was the assembly of the segments in a way that was visually consistent. Segments often started at a time of day that appeared to be around the time that the previous one ended. To maximise the sense of the segments making up one film, transitions were inserted between each segment to smoothly join them. It’s often not clear when one segment has ended and the next has started. And finally, the end brings together many of the characters in an unashamedly sentimental conclusion that was surprisingly moving.

This remarkable tribute to a city was born from an idea by Tristan Carné and developed into a feature film concept by Emmanuel Benbihy (who also filmed the transitions between each segment). Tom Tykwer’s award-winning segment was the first produced (shot in 2002 and completed in 2004) and was used as a proof-of-concept from which the project grew. Fans of Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) will recognise many devices in common with that film, that perhaps haven’t been used in anything Tykwer has made since.

The Coen brothers were next to come on board followed by the others. By depicting the city of Paris from the perspective of many directors not native to France, and by setting them in each of the arrondisements, Paris is depicted in a way not usually shown on film. Not only do we see some of the postcard views like the Eiffel Tower (in Sylvain Chomet’s comedy of mime), but also cemetries and housing estates, working-class and affluent areas.

The segments are each of about five minutes duration, but vary from just over four and a half minutes (for Alfonso Cuarón’s segment which, borrowing from his Children of Men, was filmed in a single take) to nearly seven minutes for the first segment by Bruno Podalydès, in which the director takes the lead role.

In a point of interest, Gena Rowlands appears in the segment she wrote, Wes Craven plays (uncredited) the vampire’s victim in Vincenzo Natali’s segment and Alexander Payne appears as the ghost of Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s segment.

There are stories of grief, of love, parental love, conjugal love, unrequited love, failed love. It’s perhaps unfair to single out one, but Christopher Doyle’s absurdist Asian-style comedy was the only segment that didn’t quite fit in for my taste.

As a big fan of French cinema, the segments that appealed most to me were those that had a moving social or emotional message. The highlights were segments by Gurinder Chadha, Walter Salles, Nobuhiro Suwa, Oliver Schmitz and Alexander Payne. I found each of these quietly profound in various ways.

Chadha’s beautifully nuanced segment deals with young love and infatuation, society’s prejudices and stereotyping of Islam.

Salles’ segment uses the wonderful Catalina Sandino Moreno. She has the same wonderful presence she displayed in Maria Full of Grace and Fast Food Nation, displaying irony and melancholy in a role virtually without dialogue.

Suwa has Juliette Binoche portraying a mother grieving the loss of her young son, reminiscent of her role in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue. This was my favourite segment.

Just as powerful was Schmitz’s segment about a paramedic who attends to a scene to find someone she met earlier in the day. When the senior paramedic arrives to see her with tears in her eyes, he assumes she’s new to the job.

Payne’s segment initially seems incongruous, with a frumpy looking Margo Martindale playing the quintessential American tourist speaking clumsy French as voiceover. As her narrative develops, her words combine with the visuals (including an aerial 360° view of the city, perhaps atop the Eiffel Tower) to produce a moving finale and fitting tribute to Paris.

I found virtually all the segments noteworthy, but those mentioned above are the most outstanding. Short films often work like teasers, and it would be interesting to see if any of the segments are further developed into feature length films by their respective directors.

Paris je t’aime is an innovative project and took big risks that have worked artistically. Hopefully it will pay off at the box office. The film screened in competition at Cannes and according to IMDB, similar projects have been planned for New York and China.

First with the recent French Film Festival, and now with Paris je t’aime, I feel inspired to enrol in French classes that I’ve been contemplating for a long time.

The following details for each arrondissement, the director, country, a previous work, writer, cast, synopsis and comments.


Written & directed: Bruno Podalydès (France); Cast: Florence Muller, Bruno Podalydès

As a frustrated man wonders why he can’t find love, a passing woman faints by his parked car. An interesting (very) black comedy or wry drama.

Quais de Seine

Directed: Gurinder Chadha (England, Bend it Like Beckham); Written: Gurinder Chadha & Paul Mayeda Berges; Cast: Leïla Bekhti, Cyril Descours

François goes to the aid of a Muslim girl when she trips over and wonders whether this is the girl of his dreams. Nuanced social commentary with humanistic perspective.

Le Marais

Written & directed: Gus Van Sant (USA, Elephant); Cast: Marianne Faithfull, Elias McConnell, Gaspard Ulliel

An unconventional story of miscommunication and young love. Looks French, looks Van Sant. A strange story. Not among my favourites but added to the overall film.


Written & directed: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (USA, Fargo); Cast: Julie Bataille, Steve Buscemi, Axel Kiener

Classic Coen brothers bent humour as an American tourist learns Parisian etiquette the hard way. Very enjoyable and clever. Without subtitles, we shared the tourist's confusion, relying on body language to understand the dialogue.

Loin du 16ème

Written & directed: Walter Salles (Brazil, The Motorcycle Diaries) & Daniela Thomas; Cast: Catalina Sandino Moreno

A young woman relinquishes her baby to day care in order to take a bus and train across town to care for another woman’s child. Life really can be a struggle and this is portrayed poignantly and virtually without dialogue.

Porte de Choisy

Directed: Christopher Doyle (Australia, cinematographer for 2046); Written: Christopher Doyle, Kathy Li & Gabrielle King; Cast: Barbet Schroeder, Li Xin

An absurdist story about a travelling salesman, a hairdresser and a Buddhist monk. Consistent with the sensibility of Asian cinema with which Doyle has been long-associated with. OK, but my least favourite.


Written & directed: Isabel Coixet (Spain, My Life Without Me); Cast: Javier Cámara, Sergio Castellitto, Miranda Richardson, Leonor Watling

A man abandons his plan to leave his wife when he learns she is dying of leukaemia. Slightly comedic, perhaps a dark parody of a romantic drama. The astute may recognise the doctor from Almodovóvar's Hable con ella (Talk to Her).

Place des Victoires

Written & directed: Nobuhiro Suwa (Japan, Un couple parfait); Cast: Juliette Binoche, Martin Combes, Willem Dafoe, Hippolyte Girardot

A woman seems unable to resolve her grief over the loss of her son. Beautifully framed and photographed with a sublime story. My favourite segment, and a nice contrast to Un couple parfait (screened at MIFF 2006, which I didn't like).

Tour Eiffel

Written & directed: Sylvain Chomet (France, The Triplets of Belleville); Cast: Yolande Moreau, Paul Putner

A sweet story with visual references akin to David Lynch in which a boy explains how his mime parents met. Not overly original, but and interesting take on a known genre using the Eiffel Tower as a gorgeous backdrop.

Parc Monceau

Written & directed: Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico, Y tu mama tambien); Cast: Sara Martins, Nick Nolte, Ludivine Sagnier

A heated conversation between an older man and younger woman conceals the nature of their relationship. Cuarón uses some of the skills he picked up on Children of Men to good effect. Nice characterisations.

Quartier des Enfants Rouges

Written & directed: Olivier Assayas (France, Irma Vep); Cast: Lionel Dray, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joana Preiss

An actress is disappointed when her drug dealer sends a substitute to deliver a deal. Nicely nuanced and naturalistic.

Place des Fêtes

Written & directed: Oliver Schmitz (Germany, Turkish for Beginners); Cast: Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga

A young man and young woman cross paths for the second time in one day, under tragic circumstances. I found it profoundly moving - one of several segments that could be extended to make a great feature film.


Written & directed: Richard LaGravenese (USA, Freedom Writers); Cast: Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins

A game of cat-and-mouse between an older couple whose relationship may be at the end of the road. Sharp and witty dialogue, ascerbic comedy.

Quartier de la Madeleine

Written & directed: Vincenzo Natali (Canada, Cube); Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Elijah Wood

A gothic story of love-at-first-bite between a young man and a beautiful vampiress. A horror film with a touch of humour that somehow slips easily into the anthology and adds to the rich overall texture of the film.


Written & directed: Wes Craven (USA, Scream); Cast: Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Rufus Sewell

A change of pace for Craven in a contemporary story of love and conflict as a young couple seek the grave of Oscar Wilde. Subdued and enjoyable observational drama with a slight witty bent.

Faubourg Saint-Denis

Written & directed: Tom Tykwer (Germany, Run Lola Run); Cast: Melchior Beslon, Natalie Portman

A tale of lament as a young blind man recalls how his initially joyful relationship has deteriorated. Seems a little derivative from Run Lola Run, using several devices in common with that film, but moving and enjoyable nonetheless. Nice characterisations (I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman who always looks naturally gorgeous).

Quartier Latin

Directed: Gérard Depardieu & Frédéric Auburtin (France); Written: Gena Rowlands; Cast: Gérard Depardieu, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands

Sharply written and well-delivered lines as an older couple meet to discuss divorce. A great two-hander from these classy Hollywood veterans.

14th arrondissement

Written & directed: Alexander Payne (USA, Sideways); Cast: Margo Martindale

A lone American tourist finds peace within herself and connectedness to a foreign city in which she struggles with the language. Beautifully brings the film towards a close in a very natural and moving way.

Useful links

Plot summary by Emmanuel Benbihy
Arrondissements of Paris

Paris je t’aime at Cannes

Office website / IMDB

Monday, April 09, 2007

New links added

As mentioned in my previous post, with the school holidays, there's not a lot of action on the big screen. With the Easter long weekend, I've got a little more time on my hands and taken the liberty to add some links to the sidebar. Long overdue, I know. Thanks to those who have linked to here.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Week in Review

School holidays are here, the French Film Festival is over, Melbourne Cinémathèque screened a number of shorts rather than feature films and there's not much of interest in the new releases. What do you do? Well, I checked out theatre, re-watched Paris je t'aime (on DVD) and basically had a bit of a break from film this week. Feel free to offer any comments.

  • Wittgenstein Tractatus (35 min, Péter Forgács, 1992)
  • Meanwhile Somewhere... 1940-43 (52 min, Péter Forgács, 1994)
  • Parallel Space: Inter-View (18 min, Peter Tscherkassky, 1992)
  • Almodovóvar on Almodovóvar (Revised edition, 2006, Frédéric Strauss)
  • Rabbit Hole (Writ: David Lindsay Abaire, Dir: Naomi Edwards, Red Stitch Theatre)

Melbourne Cinémathèque

The short films above screened as part of this week's Cinémathèque programming. I didn't stay the whole night as I was still recovering from the sleep deprivation that the previous week's film count of eleven produced. And I couldn't justify another late night with films that didn't grab me (with the exception of
Meanwhile Somewhere... 1940-43, a compilation of home movies that depict the horrors and inequity of fascism).

The Namesake
While dealing with the emigration to New York from Calcutta, this film deals with the fairly universal themes of dislocation, isolation and alienation that accompany a move to a new country. It is an accessible film of some substance, as you'd expect from the director of Monsoon Wedding.

The family depicted was fairly liberal, both in terms of the members remaining behind accepting the migration, as well as the migrating couple's acceptance of their children's American traits. They retain traces of their culture, associating with other Bengalis, but accept that their children are Americans.

It must have been a new experience for the Indian cast members to weather the US winter, and it certainly looked severe for them on screen. Emotionally there was much warmth and various difficulties were well-depicted.

Though the themes of this film were in some respects less 'light' than Monsoon Wedding, the finished product wasn't quite as successful. The second half seemed to struggle with maintaining consistency and didn't engage as well as the first half. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable film that would appeal to fairly mainstream audiences, and especially those of migrant background or anyone interested in ethnicity.