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.
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.