Vidas Secas (1963)

30 03 2008

Perhaps not the best Cinema Novo film, but undoubtedly the most striking. It plays out sort of like the missing link between Ozu and Herzog, even though it doesn’t contain everything that is great about them. Understandably, the characters are never quite as fleshed out as they are in an Ozu film, and the visceral, sponteanous energy of Herzog’s work is never quite present, either. Still, this is pretty impressive company to place Nelson Pereira dos Santos with, especially after only one viewing. The film is far from perfect, but considering it’s ambitions, some flaws are expected.

A family of four drifts into a small town in 1940s Brazil. The father makes his living as a cowhand, his wife works around their “house” and the two children run around chasing sheep and other various things. They continue to existence day in and day out but with many conflicts, never coming close to being secure or as the mother puts it “like real people.” Instead, their lives are constant struggles involving nature, the police, and themselves.

It’s hard to watch this and not think of the similarly barren landscapes found in Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small. Because of the visual similarities, it’s a bit of letdown when the film begins to drag towards the middle. Ironically enough, the early sequences of the family just walking are riveting but some of the forced drama just feels dull. Really, there was no way for the film to live up to its dialogue-less 15 minute opening, which begins with a five minute static shot of the family walking from a fairly large distance. Going off the strength of the first section, though, is enough for me to pretty much love the rest. It never quite feels as spontaneous but it is still very interesting to watch, if one is the type that is interested in this type of Herzogian cinema.

Where the visuals do reflect what Herzog would eventually do, it also feels like the family-driven character drama of Ozu. This doesn’t work out quite as great for the film, though, as it never really decides on it’s intentions. This leaves a lot of room for sequences that are meant to be visceral but also reveal a lot of insight and for the most part, they come off rather stagey. A perfect example of this is when one of the brothers goes outside and repeatedly says “hell” as he plays with his dog. On paper it’s easy to see why I’ve used the Herzog comparison so many times, but on film, it comes off as being an attempt to inject insight into the character. Yes, this “attempt” is admirable but it seems that the film Santos wanted to make is more grounded in the visceral, he should have realized this and focus on more scenes like the one when they brand cows. Still, this is a very impressive film, especially since Herzog had not even begun making full-length features. A huge step in the right direction with only some minor drawbacks.

Port of Shadows (1938)

29 03 2008

The first Jean Gabin-Marcel Carne, and just as great as Daybreak, the only other one I’ve seen so far. Again, there’s a certain set of inherent flaws that just goes along with the style of filmmaking at that time period. The fades and dissolves, along with that “glowing” look, remain, but so does Carné and Prévert’s exceptionally deep characterization. The writing still seems insightful 70 years later and at the same time, it is cleverly worked in to a conventional “noir” plot, which explains why it was still somewhat accessible to moviegoers in the thirties.

Jean runs away from his Army life, and finds himself in Panama’s, a shack located in the middle of nowhere. There, he plans to begin a new life but the conditions aren’t so ideal. Almost immediately, he meets Nelly and falls in love. She has retreated to Panama’s to get away from her overbearing guardian, Zabel. Jean and Nelly (and a dog) have another obstacle, though: Lucien, a gangster and friend of Nelly’s missing ex-lover Maurice. Ultimately, Jean is forced to leave town and head towards Venezula, without Nelly, but this plan is prevented by Zabel and Lucien, as well as by the lovers’ own feelings for each other.

From the start, the film casts a perfectly fit sense of dread. The moments of happiness are plenty, but still seem to be missing something, but this is intentional as the film is essentially a would-be romance, not unlike David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together. Much of the film’s emotional thrust comes from the short time Jean and Nelly spend together, doomed for sure, but engaging as hell to watch unfold. Their seems to be a reoccurring “predictability” criticism that this film is tagged with, but that makes no sense. To assess this film for it’s narrative is to completely miss the point. If it were merely a plot-driven film, then what would be Carné’s point in making what is essentially a pulpy film noir? The thing is, he wouldn’t and the film isn’t. The characters are exaggerated, sure, but that doesn’t make their feelings untrue, or their trials any less painful. It is actually quite an accomplishment that Carné and Prévert could work in so much substance into a genre that relies so little on it. Really, this is only film noir from a completely superficial viewpoint, beneath it is one of those lost souls finding each other-type films that I love so much.

Silence (1971)

27 03 2008

As Masahiro Shinoda’s career progressed, he seemed to further and further away from his New Wave peers. Where as, Oshima and company began more socially and politically conscious filmmakers, Shinoda focused his attention towards Japan’s historical events to place the country’s current events into some sort of context. He started this with Assassination in 1964, and continued with Double Suicide in 1969. Silence, made in 1971, is perhaps the most extreme representation of his historical interests. An adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel, highlighted with wonderful visuals brought down by an overbearing but understandable ponderous sensibility.

Two Portuguese priests travel to Japan in an attempt to spread the gospel and also find a colleague, who had ventured to Japan years prior but never returned. It’s important to mention that Christianity is illegal in Japan so the priests build their congregation on the outskirts of town, but eventually word of their settlement gets around, which leads to their persecution. However, through these events, they begin to probe deeper and deeper into the whereabouts of their lost brethern.

Ponderous, gloomy, melodramatic, and made with the laziest excuse for sound design I’ve ever heard, Silence‘s only saving grace is its beautiful and the admirable, albeit unsuccessful, attempts at being poetic and profound. Perhaps a story about two Jesuit missonaries should have been a warning sign that I was in for something too philosophical, but it still the film takes itself way too seriously. It comes off even worse when the characters not only articulate their thoughts far clearly, but also seem to be dubbed when they do so. Not to mention, the completely random decision to have characters hold conversations in two different languages. Oddly enough, it’s only when the American actors speak in English that they sound like they are being dubbed. The Japanese people speaking English is more convincing, but most of the time it’s hard to understand them anyway. Obviously, I can’t discredit the film based on the incomprehensible dialogue, but it is another very basic cinematic factor that seems to drag the film down. Like I said, the visuals are more than enough to make up for the mess, but it seems like if Shinoda spent as much time developing characters, he’d have a much more engaging film. Truth be told, the final hour and the half is really just people being tortured and it’s not like in a character-driven purpose like in say, Life of Oharu. Instead, the torture just demonstration in the most unsubtle of ways, just how evil the Japanese government was three-hundred years ago. The problem is, why is this relevant at all? Call me naive, or uneducated but the injustice being depicted occurred in another lifetime and it’s not like the characters are fleshed out beyond superficial stereotypes to actually make them worthy of the audience’s concern. That said, it really is quite nice to look at, enough so that I can genuinely say that I enjoyed once I got use to fact that basically it’s built around the most didactic and uninteresting of stories.

Le Doulos (1962)

24 03 2008

Not one of Melville’s better efforts, but still decent enough. It never really sheds it’s film noir sensibility which prevents it from becoming anything genuinely great. Instead, it works as a well-crafted piece of escapist entertainment. It drags on occasion but that is more than likely due to my inexperience and lack of interest in film noir. If you’re a fan of Melville and the cast (which includes a cameo by a young Phillipe Nahon from I Stand Alone) then this is a must. At the same time, don’t expect any high art, it’s purely “time-passing” entertainment, but pretty good at that.

Recent released from prison, Maurice Faugel attends to some unfinished business, which means killing an old buddy, Gilbert Varnove. Back home, he is visited by Silien who provides him with some tools for the robbery he is planning. Silien is actually a police informer and the robbery ends up being a bust, which results in the death of a police officer. Maurice escapes, at least for the time being, and Silien (for whatever reason) is brought in for interrogation. Maurice is placed back in prison, and Silien escapes to reunite with an old flame, Fabienne, who helps him frame the officer’s murder.

There may not be a purpose in pointing out flaws here, since by default, the film’s plot-driven, one-dimensional characterization is enough to ride it off completely. But taking it as mindless entertainment, it still has some problems. For one, the plot, essentially is too complicated. Not to mention that almost every dialogue sequences is shamelessly expositional and seem to go on for far too long. Perhaps these are just elements of every “film noir” but they are still intrusive, even when not taking the film 100% seriously. On the positive side, this is a bit more humorous than Melville’s norm, which would indicate that perhaps he isn’t taking this 100% seriously, either. The film is quite a bit of fun, but it’s frustrating knowing that Melville is a director that is capable of doing more. At this point in his career, he had already done plenty of light film-noir homages.

Casa de Lava (1994)

24 03 2008

At the risk of sounding trendy, cliche, and stupid, it seems like Pedro Costa has become the recent film festival favorite. This is my first encounter with his work and I’m quite impressed, but also befuddled. The later brought on more by intial reaction to the film than the film itself. It’s a minimalistic (cliche count: 2 now) but also romantic film reminiscent of Herzog, Tarkovsky, and (as a result) Carlos Reygadas. Yet, the actually viewing experience was pretty unique. There’s a heavy, ponderous feeling but the film moves along so viscerally almost like some bizarre hallucination. My restless state probably helped out a lot but still, this is pretty crazy. At the moment, no clear cut decision has been made.

Leao, a construction worker, falls into a coma which leds him to Mariana, a worker at the hospital in which he has been placed. He is discharged and forced to go back to Cape Verde, but he is still unconscious so Mariana tags along. Unfortunately, no one is there for his return and Mariana is forced to find her way around town. Eventually she stumbles upon the hospital and afterwards, she wanders around town meeting a wide variety of characters. Leao awakens and in spite of many obstacles, the two try to start a relationship.

The film’s opening sequence is absolutely stunning. Droned out humming accompanies footage of volcanoes errupted, which is then followed by a close-up of many faces. Simple and perhaps pretentious on paper, it’s an absolutely perfect introduction into the Costa’s world. The rest doesn’t quite live up to this great sequence and it does sort of drag at some points. I mean, after all, the main character is comatose for the first half of the movie! That said, this is really quite an impressive film and it’s probable that Costa has improved upon it. Plus, I’m sure another viewing of this is needed if only to clear up my head. For now, it’s a technically proficient odd romance that definitely fits my cinematic ideal.

Under Your Skin (1966)

23 03 2008

A major staple of the Finnish New Wave and also, most likely a result of Finnish hippies getting their hands on a camera. And yet, I couldn’t help but totally love this. It’s quite an achievement for the film to shed it’s “gee shucks, look how silly and self-reflective we are” image (a la the overrated Daises) and become such a oddly moving masterpiece. Considering it’s ambitions, which are quite large, it’s not perfect per se, but it does capture everything that cinematic capabilities could do up to that point in time. Similarly, there are some minor narrative-related flaws but ultimately, they don’t taint the wonderful visuals. A wonderful film with some self-indulgent excess, but I guess most great films technically have some of that.

The “plot” revolves around two urban intellectual couples, both of which are going through awkward stages. Santtu, who tends to become the film’s main character, is going nowhere with Riita, a seemingly naive girl with dreams of marriage. Timo is a bit more carefree (and in all truth, a bit annoying at times) and is in a relationship with Leena, a quiet girl with severe emotional damage. All four take a trip into the forest and with a little help from alcohol, fun times are had. Bored by his current relationship, Santtu soon takes an interest in Leena, which is for the most part what the film is centered around.

There’s a few silly lapse of simple logic that damage my overall admiration for the film, such as the really bad musical interludes, which are on occasion, sung by the actual characters. Dumb scenes like that further advance that Daises-esque silly sensibility that I’m not extremely fond of. There’s another really just terrible in which Timo and Santtu reenact how they meet that just oozes smug self-conciousness. In fact, the Timo character is sort of annoying and wasteful: a giraffe shaped goof ball meant to provide comedic relief. Thankfully, his role in the film is downplayed considerably.

I’d go as far as to say that everything else in the film is perfect. There are some sequences that ultimately try to push the film into a “lighter” realm, but the amount of poetic images is just simply too overwhelming. There’s actually more than a few signs of that weird Herzog-type surrealism. A perfect example being when the farmers chase that pig around or when horses randomly run around in the forest. The attention towards textures is pretty much unheard of in 1966, with a few small (and equally great) exceptions. The accusations of a Godard rip-off seem completely off-base since the visual style is built upon a completely different focus. Sure, there’s some Godard style editing, but for the most part, this is a completely unique aesthetic. Like Bertolucci’s great Before the Revolution, it’s a product of Godard’s influence, but one that is not limited to his boundaries.

For what it’s worth, I also quite like the relationship setup of Santtu and Leena. He is a alienated rebel, and she’s reserved but deeply hurt. I guess I’ve seen such things enough in cinema to classify this as a relationship “structure” that I’m quite fond of. It certainly doesn’t hurt that whenever they are together, the film produces it’s most poetic moments, i.e the scene where Santtu touches Leena’s face. Their scenes also seem the most non-physically dramatic. There’s a type of complexity in both of them that prevents them from articulating their feelings, an Antonioni touch you could say. Though again, it should be reinforced just how unique this is compared to the other art films of the time period. It’s a shame the Finnish New Wave is so underexposed. Judging only from this film, it’s a movement that may not be as defiant as the new waves in Japan or France, but in all truth, probably more substantial. Whatever the case, this film is just really fantastic. More people should see it.

Drunken Angel (1948)

22 03 2008

I’ve voiced my indifference to Akira Kurosawa on here before, most notably in my review for The Idiot which had, until now, been my favorite effort from the man. Similarly, I’m not too big on film noir, either. Yes, shadows and hats are nice but the genre seems to be built almost entirely around exposition. And yet, Kurosawa doing noir is really fantastic. Drunken Angel is far from a perfect movie, mind you, but it maintains the good intentions of The Lower Depths and The Idiot, while still resulting with something a bit more distinct and personal.

One night, Doctor Sanada is interrupted by Matsunaga, who claims to have a nail in his hand. Sanada realizes that Mastunaga is most likely a yakuza, or in his own words a “hooligan.” This theory is proven when the nail turns out to be a bullet, a discovery which sparks a passive-agressive conversation between the two men. Eventually, the topic of tuberculosis is brought up and Mastunaga is convinced to get checked for it. Doctor Sanada suggests therapy right away, which leads to a very complicated relationship.

The above description pretty much sidesteps all the specifics. Rest assured, this is not a “bonding” movie but more just a examination into the two main characters lives, their differences, and their similarities. This sounds like a simplification in characterization but the characters themselves are quite deep. Especially when you compare them to Kurosawa’s usual “good vs. bad” technique. It seems that instead of having separate beings to symbolize good or bad, he had both good and bad exist inside both of the characters in Drunken Angel. I suppose it helps that the performance are better than one usually expects from Kurosawa, but in all honesty they are still a bit too expressive for my taste. The argument could be made that they have a campy charm, but that couldn’t be said taking the rest of the film into account.

This is probably Kurosawa’s best looking film as well. If not, then it’s certainly his most “visually interesting.” The swamp located in the middle of town has a particularly enigmatic feel to it and acts as a perfect set piece for the film’s transition sequences, all of which are highlighted by very atmospheric music. I suppose other noirs create this type of feeling, but it tends I guess it just becomes irrelevant when your film is so focused on plot development. Drunken Angel is distinct and stylish but still contains something beyond the superficial coolness. There is now right and wrong here, this is just people. Sure, it’s dramatic, even for it’s time, but it represents Kurosawa at his most honest.