Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Week in Review - 4/4/10

I haven't mentioned much yet about this year's La Mirada, one of my favourite local film festivals. I filled in a survey at the festival today at ACMI and for the question about what I like about the festival I put: [festival director] Rocio Garcia's passion and love for cinema (she introduces most of the films), the volume of door prizes, the atmosphere, the Almodóvar curated section and the pre-recorded intros by the respective film directors. That pretty much sums up for me why I go to the festival. A couple of years ago, I missed a real gem, In the City of Sylvia, which thankfully I caught at Melbourne Cinémathèque last year. Today I saw a similar gem, Paz Fábrega's Agua fría de mar/Cold Water of the Sea. More on this below.

During the week, I've been previewing some films for the Festival of German Films. I'll post a separate article on these films in the next week or two. Hopefully by then, I'll have my thoughts in writing on at least seven films, leading up to the festival's opening on 22 April.

  • Tesis (Thesis, Alejandro Amenábar, Spain, 1996)
  • Agua fría de mar (Cold Water of the Sea, Paz Fábrega, Costa Rica/France/Spain/Netherlands/Mexico, 2009)

  • *Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, France,1994)
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Judith Ehrlich/Rick Goldsmith, USA, 2009)
  • Big Fish (Tim Burton, USA, 2003)
  • Die Tür (The Door, Anno Saul, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Standesbeamtin (Will You Marry Us?, Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland, 2009)
  • John Rabe (Florian Gallenberger, France/China/Germany, 2009)


This film interested me because (1) it's part of La Mirada's Almodóvar Presents. For me, Almodóvar's films provoke much discussion, even though (as I've often mentioned) I am greatly ambivalent about the films - see my post on Volver for more on that. And (2) because this is the first feature film by Alejandro Amenábar, director of such celebrated films as Abre los ojos/Open Your Eyes (remade as the inferior Tom Cruise vehicle, Vanilla Sky) and The Others (with the then Mrs. Cruise, Nicole Kidman).

What an impressive debut it is. According to festival director Rocio Garcia who introduced the film, Amenábar was only 23 years old when the film was made, still studying at university. He wrote, directed and composed the music. It's no high art, but a fabulous homage to cinema, and Hitchcock in particular. A female film student is doing a thesis on violence in the media and stumbles across a snuff film, leading to a dangerous journey in which her life is seemingly put at risk.

This is B-grade film-making at close to its best, and I mean that in the nicest possible non-disparaging way. The plot is pure B-grade. It's predictable and cliched (like the best Hitchcock films are), yet the writing is strong enough to capture your emotions anyway and I remained in suspense for the film's duration, even if it is slightly overlong. Despite this simple premise, Thesis works on other levels, too, for example questioning the audience's fascination with violence in film (something Haneke does in a more oblique and intellectual manner).

Amenábar demonstrates a great deal of film literacy, especially at so young an age. Being about film studies, students and teachers, he infuses the film with technical aspects of film-making and there are many filmic references. It was a blast to hear an academic deliver a lecture about what was wrong with Spanish cinema and what it needed, mirroring recent introspective discussions here about what's wrong with our industry. For the record, the academic was promoting the need for films to appeal to audiences, to attract bums on seats. Very familiar, indeed. Bear in mind that this was made fourteen years ago. I let out a big laugh at the time, and I'm sure those that heard me had no idea why.

There's a roughness, a crudeness, about this film that gives it both a bite and immense appeal, an appealing aesthetic. It's great to see what an inexperienced but talented film-maker can do on the smell of an oily rag. Not unlike Almodóvar, for that matter. The subject matter - the making of snuff films - is also challenging at times. Fortunately, the horror aspects are brief, just enough to put the fear of god into us at certain times, ratcheting up the suspense as we ponder what might transpire. Again, this is no high art, but well-worth seeing as part of Amenábar's oeuvre, to see where he began. It demonstrates that his later successes were no accident.

Agua fría de mar
I was in two minds about seeing this film. There's few reviews online, which appear mixed. In the end, I went with gut instinct and thought I'd take a risk because the film also appeared to take risks. La Mirada director introduced the film, mentioning that the festival is screening films by eight first time directors this year, including Agua fría. This film was a last minute inclusion after the festival's programming had already been concluded, which caused much inconvenience for rescheduling. Now, this is not a mainstream film - think Jose Luís Guerin, Pedro Costa (without his bleakness) or Lucrecia Martel (La mujer sin cabeza/The Headless Woman) - so my already high regard for Rocio Garcia expanded to an increased respect for her selection in cinema after seeing this.

So, as you can probably tell by now, I was impressed by this film. It has a minimalist aesthetic similar to the films by the above-mentioned directors, an understated confidence in story-telling without gimickry or overt manipulation, and a lovely eye for visuals that added perfectly to a particular ambience - and all with little or no music, other than what appears organically within the narrative and a cast of largely non-professional actors.

The film employs devices consistent with the concept of 'contemplative cinema' with long static takes in which not a whole lot seems to transpire. One has to 'enter the zone', skip to the film's pace, so to speak, and one can't help but take notice of visual details and sounds. One near constant is the rolling thunder of the waves - sometimes near, sometimes far - which maintains a specific sense of place. The film combines intertwining stories of two families on holiday by the sea. I've not been to Costa Rica but imagine the climate would not be dissimilar to neighbouring Panama, which I visited in 1987.

The film was introduced via pre-recorded video by the director and lead actress, both incredibly young. Paz Fábrega mentioned that the theme of the film is about young people not really knowing what their path in life is. Of course, the same can be said for those of us who are twice her age, but point taken. That's one thread through the film, which is deftly portrayed with much nuance, understatement and ambiguity.

Part of the film's appeal for me is the loose ends - there's no tidying up of issues, or even explanation of issues, leaving much to the imagination. There's another element of contemplative cinema - we are left wondering, speculating, trying to join the dots after we've left the cinema.

The other family thread in the film involves a family with four children, and the youngest goes missing one night. The film has an almost fly-on-the-wall element as we observe the seemingly mundane details of their interactions, the way they relate to each other. There's a sort of frustration, watching some dysfunctional interactions that we are helpless to intervene with. There's no sign-posting of this, and unless one is aware of the issues in real life, one may not recognise the significance within the film. Isn't this what good cinema is about? We each draw something according to our own experiences or wisdom, possibly drawing different conclusions which may be equally valid.

The camera work in the film is superb: the blend of static shots and skillful use of hand-held, unconventional angles and some truly unique visuals, such as hundreds of poisonous sea-snakes washing up on the beach which is full of children playing in the water and digging in the sand. It's a pity then, that we only got to see the film in DigiBeta. I presume it's because it was acquired for the festival at short notice, but I'd happily see the film again if a 35mm print was available. Maybe MIFF will pick it up - it or Melbourne Cinémathèque would be perfect platforms for a film of this calibre.

While the film could be seen as boring to a conventional audience (not a real lot happens on the surface), the dramatic drive comes from the intersection of the family and the couple, involving a deception which we are aware of but the protagonists aren't. It's pure visual poetry and more. And, for what it's worth, Rocio Garcia mentioned that this is the first film at La Mirada from Costa Rica. It's also the only film from Costa Rica I've ever seen. Paz Fábrega - keep your eye out for that name.

Léon: The Professional
Released here as just The Professional, I enjoyed this film when it was first released and was surprised to recognise one of my favourite American actresses, the one and only Natalie Portman, as a teenager in her first film role. It adds a whole other level of appreciation. Of course the film is pure fantasy - a girl whose entire family is murdered seeks refuge with her hitman neighbour and conspires to avenge the killers, lead by a corrupt cop.

I have immense respect for Gary Oldman, especially after his directorial debut, Nil by Mouth (1997). His rendition of a corrupt cop is funny to watch but perhaps too whacky. The characterisation is presumably a Besson trait, considering the wholesale whackiness we see in his next film, The Fifth Element (1997). Yet somehow the film is compelling.

Set in New York City, it looks like an American film, but two things give away its European origins. First is Besson regular, Jean Reno in the title role, who's at his prime, both visually and performance-wise. And secondly the story, way too edgy for a mainstream film from an American director - a teenage girl falling in love with a man four times her age. While I'm not the target audience for a film like this, when I want a bit of blockbuster-style escapism, this is the type of film I like to see.

Big Fish
I first saw this film on New Year's day 2004 in New York and it remained one of my favourite films of that year. I think it demonstrates that Tim Burton is a fabulous story-teller, particularly in making the mundane fantastical. The film is a story within a story within a story, with a father-son conflict being the catalyst to unravelling what is truth and what is imaginary.

Charming is usually a code word film reviewers use to describe a film I wouldn't want to see. In this case, however, it's totally appropriate in a positive way. There's a heavy use of sentiment that just seems to work. The film doesn't affect as strongly on second viewing for me - perhaps it was the joy of surprise on the first viewing, or maybe my taste has changed. I'm inclined to think it's more the former.

Still, the bizarre array of characters who appear in both fantasy and 'real' variations are a joy to behold and Burton makes good use of them. This story is perfect material for him, with his ability to turn the normal into a twisted fairy tale (though his recent fairy tale doesn't seem to have made such a good transition). Burton makes fairy tales for adults, but Big Fish is a better children's fairy tale than the vast majority of films made specifically for children, largely because children's films mostly underestimate a child's capacity for understanding.


David O'Connell said...

Thanks for the heads up about Cold Water of the Sea, Paul. It sounds like a really interesting film. For some reason I was thinking the La Mirada festival was actually this year's Spanish Film Festival itself. Glad to find out there's still a wave of Spanish films ahead of us!! Here I was dreading the thought of missing much of it before I was even aware of its existence. With the German FF so close now we'll soon be swamped with choices.

Great to read your positive review of Big Fish too. Even though it's a slightly uneven film for me (and Billy Crudup is a fairly dull, anonymous type of actor) it still has so much to recommend it. And the finale itself is very moving I think. I like Danny Elfman's generally restrained score too. It's the kind of flight of the imagination that Burton revels in. I think it's a pretty underrated film amongst his body of work.

Paul Martin said...

David, unfortunately Agua fría only has one screening at La Mirada, so your only chance to see it might be if MIFF picks it up.

Each year, the French Film Festival seems to signal the start a long stretch of film festivals that doesn't seem to end until the end of MIFF. It gets pretty intense for me, because these festivals are important to me, even if many of the films aren't anything special. I've been pondering this as I've been previewing some films for the Festival of German Films.

Margaret Pomeranz has on more than one occasion said that when she goes to the cinema, she wants to hear Australian voices. I do too, and watching some of the so-called Ozploitation films - even if they're shit - they are often a wonderful document, a time capsule of Australian culture. But I also want to see and experience other cultures. So even if a film isn't a masterpiece or significant piece of work, there's still value to being exposed to other cultures: the sound of the language, the sense of humour, all the subtle differences between one country's culture and another.

But there's a price to pay for so many festivals. I saw 22 films for the French film festival (actually, now 23, because I saw Welcome today) and the Melbourne Queer Film Festival comes right in its wake. I wanted to see two or three films at least at MQFF but ended up seeing none.

Another price is a dearth of decent cinema releases. Is it just me, or has there been virtually no new films worth seeing?

I saw Big Fish before it came out here and loved it. I was a little surprised how little regard it had when it came out locally. I think I prefer Burton's contemporary stories in the style of fairy tales more than his actual fairy stories.

Jurguens said...

I have to be brief but here I go...

I saw Tesis when it came out in Spain, and I thought it was a really well made thriller. I haven't seen it since, but I remember thinking that the film showed a confident director and Amenabar would do well. He's done really well and I've never been disappointed with any of his films. Some are better than others, but all good.

I'm interested in Agua Fria de Mar, I love Guerin, and this sounds like an interesting film.

I love Leon, that's such a great film.

I think you've nailed with Tim Burton and Big Fish, his best films are the real films with fairy tale elements rather than the complete fairy tales, and like the best fantasy tales they do not under estimate kids. Tolkien wrote about this a lot, and how he hated people writing fairy tales for kids that were simply dumb. He gave kids a lot more credit.

Paul Martin said...

Jurguens, I take it you had the good fortune to see Tesis on its initial release. I find it fascinating to discover a director when they already have a body of work behind them, and then go back and find all these films that one initially missed. I agree with your assessment of his films.

I've not heard that comment about Tolkien but must agree, of course. I took 2-3 years reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my son and he loves it. I think that literature and cinema should overestimate a child's capacity rather than underestimate, so that one can grow and learn from it. Unfortunately, contemporary media aims for the lowest common denominator.

David O'Connell said...

I'm with you Paul, I'm at the stage where I have a hunger for as wide an experience in the cinema as possible, encompassing films from any country. At the same time I've probably never had a stronger interest in local cinema, predominantly from all the fantastic older films I've discovered for the first time and reviewed in the last year or two, as well as the overall increase in quality of our recent output.

You're right about what's out there in cinemas at the moment. School holidays, reliably, seem to be when things usually dry up. After being overseas for nearly 3 weeks I came back and realised Green Zone was about the only film I wanted to see of those released in that time. (I still haven't seen it either!!) Looking forward to these next couple of Festivals. It's even getting reasonably close to MIFF again. The past year has just flown by!

Jurguens said...

Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" discusses this issue. Also, in the book that was published of his letters, there are various letters where the issue is mentioned. He, for example, regretted having published The Hobbit in the form that we know it because he wrote it for his kids when they were very little, but he never thought it would be published. Then he got an offer to publish and since at the time he was having financial difficulties he agreed to the publication.

He disliked people who simplified stories, or used very common, general words, and poor language in children's stories. As a philologist and father, he understood that children knew a lot more than people gave them credit for, and had an enormous capability to learn. In Tolkien's view written stories should not be dumbed down and children would learn as the progressed through the story.

He also spoke many times of his hate of Walt Disney and the way they dumbed down children's stories seriously under estimating their intelligence. One of my favourite letters is in fact one he wrote to Mr. Zimmerman who was writing a script for an animated adaptation (that was never actually made) of The Lord of the Rings. The way he deconstructs Zimmerman's script, and his sharp critique of the adaptation is simply mind blowing.

I should stop now... Sorry for my Tolkien rambles - my friends have learned to stop me when they've had enough of it.

Paul Martin said...

David, fortunately new releases play only a minor part in my film viewing, because we're already over a quarter of the way through the year and there's only been one truly standout new release so far - A Prophet. There's been other films I liked a lot (like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and the about-to-be-released The Most Dangerous Man in America).

Obviously school holidays are a factor right now, but even prior to that, decent films have been really few and far between. I have zero interest in Green Zone. I dislike Greengrass' style and the film doesn't seem to be particularly well received by those who usually do. I also think the reported politics of the film is a bit disingenuous.

I maintain a film calendar (below, which you can subscribe to via Google Calendar) which is full most of the year. There are times when I have to choose between up to six or so different options. I also fine MIFF comes around very quickly.

Jurguens, it doesn't look like rambling at all to me. I appreciate the info. I never knew this stuff about Tolkien but partly explains why I loved reading his books to my son. We started on them when he was about 4-5 and finished when he was 7-8. I pretty much agree with what you're saying.

FWIW, We're now reading a similar set of books, The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon who is both a neighbour and who introduced me to blogging. She has a highly respected theatre blog, Theatre Notes. Her husband Daniel Keene was involved in different capacities with three films by my favourite Australian director, Alkinos Tsilimidos.

As for vocabulary - good point there - we use these books to learn new words, stopping on occasion to spell them. It's a lot of fun to be involved in playing and educating one's children simultaneously. It creates an environment where children want to learn.

On the subject of children, my son sees a lot of films targeted at adult audiences. For some strange reason, most parents will not take their children to such adorable and meaningful films as Persepolis and The Edge of Heaven, during which both my son cried his eyes out and gave them 5 out of 5 stars.

Several years ago, I took my two older children to an M-rated film at the Astor. I think it was Go Fish and my kids were about 9 and 11 yo. The ticket seller was aghast that I would take children to such a film, because it depicts drugs. I said I see that as an opportunity to teach my children the facts of life and that I would prefer they have exposure to material like that than dross like Disney's Beauty and the Beast which constitute much more damagaing subject matter. I absolutely stand by this point - I think all these seemingly innocuous Hollywood films are absolutely damaging to children, creating impossible expectations about the nature of relationships, leading to conflict and divorce. I've mentioned this in passing previously with my use of the term 'princess bitch syndrome'.

Jurguens said...

I should check out Alison's books, once I finish the uni course this year. But I shall take note. Nevertheless, as much as I love fantasy books, I'm very critical of them, and I only find two authors who have written truly meaningful fantasy with great depth: J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. LeGuin

About taking your kids to the Astor... that's a great story and I wish that more parents did that.

Paul Martin said...

The first book is called The Gift, then The Riddle and now we've just started The Crow. I've got to say that I've had my reservations - and still do - because it's impossible not to see the connections with The Lord of the Rings. But those reservations have dwindled during the course of our readings as gradually the story builds its universe of its own. I suppose it's a bit like cinema requiring the ability to suspend disbelief. The story is actually darker than Tolkien, more challenging for a young audience, and that's one way Croggon has differentiated herself. I recommend them.

I'm not familiar with LeGuin.

BTW, the usher at the Astor was aghast when I told him what I thought of Disney material. hehe

Paul Martin said...

Back to my guy at the Astor, my thinking was and is that a movie is a great 'in' to discuss serious issues with children. Obviously we want to protect them from inappropriate material, but drugs is something that comes up all the time in so many forms. By confronting issues in a movie, it's a great to come out of a cinema and be able to discuss contemporary issues in the context (or pretext) of the film than be seen to be lecturing in some sort of paternalistic manner. It's all about trusting them, trusting their intellect and being resourceful. And on top of that, learning to appreciate film!

thelittlestranger said...

Paul, I'm getting a little overwhelmed with film festivals too. I shudder to think of the number of good films I have to let slip by. A good incentive to work towards retirement faster! Oh well, at least I should be seeing a couple of La Mirada films in the coming days.

I join Jurguens and heartily recommend Ursula Le Guin - it should be part of every childhood. Start with The Wizard of Earthsea - I remember reading it as an 11yo. I have found few scenes in literature more moving in than its concluding pages. Le Guin's worldbuilding is of a different style to Tolkien's, and her purity of form is amazing.

I haven't read Earthsea aloud, but from my experience of reading aloud, I feel this would work well, and probably doubly so since you are practised at sharing stories with your son. The series is some 6 books all told, if I remember rightly.

Despite a rather middling movie, the His Dark Materials trilogy (although debatable if you call it fantasy - it's really sui generis) is also right up there. There's no talking down to children by Philip Pullman! They'd make a sensational read-aloud too.

Paul Martin said...

TLS, I pretty much indulge fully with both the French FF & MIFF and then just do what I feel I can with the others. Or if there's a particular Focus season at Melbourne Cinémathèque I might blitz it (like the Isabelle Huppert season for example). There are so many good films that come and go that I miss - c'est comme ça.

Thanks both of you for the Le Guin recommendation - I've just ordered the 6 Earthsea books and we'll see how we go with them. My son is a voracious reader, so if he likes them, I'll check out some of the others.

I recently bought the Golden Compass books, but we've not read them yet.

Jurguens said...

The Earthsea books are fantasy of the highest order with great depth. Absolute essential reading you won't regret it.