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.

Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978)

21 03 2008

Chantal Akerman’s career occupies a very secluded space, perhaps shared only with Tsai Ming-Liang and Jacques Tati. This is fitting, I suppose, considering the inner seclusion felt within all the characters in her universe. The overall mood obtained in her films is much different from Tsai and Tati (just for reference, there are more similarly rigorous directors), though. Tati (perhaps only reaching this “group” with Playtime) is above seemingly all else, interested in observing potential comedic material. Tsai works with this too, but the humor coexists with a more poignant and/or painful string. Akerman is just plain bleak for most of the time. Humorless tends to imply a negative connotation but in this particular case, it completely works. In fact, it makes the  small glimmers of happiness seen towards the end that much more rewarding.

Anna Silver is a film director who is out of town, somewhere in Germany, to introduce one of her films. She is lonely so she picks up a business man. Despite his very tender and caring approach, she eventually rejects him. He invites over the next day before her train ride home. She accepts, but after their meeting, their relationship is over. At the train station, Anne happens upon an old friend, Ida. It is revealed to us that Ida is the mother of Anne’s one time fiance  and she desperately wants to see her son and Anna back together. She meets a curious man on the train, spends the night with her mother, and eventually meets up with Daniel, her lover and Ida’s son.

While there are some long stretches that eventually seem to lead nowhere, most of the film is based around non-dramatic occurrences in which pieces of Anna are revealed. Calling this a character study would be an understatement since each scene is presented almost like a vignette and each scene is like a part of a puzzle that when fully put together, makes the movie. Okay, so perhaps I am reading into it a bit too much? Well, if it seems that way then it’s just proof of how useless words are when describing this film, and also how ineloquent I am as a writer. Whatever the case, the depth Akerman attributes to her protagonist is quite remarkable.

The acting obviously plays a big role in making these character so engaging. Even when they occasionally ramble on, they at least do so in a manner that feels sort of spontaneous. When these “rambles” do occur, Akerman makes it a habit to have the camera linger on Anna because the viewer should be concerned with what the words do to her, emotionally, rather than what the actual words mean. Perhaps this is why the film is so talkative in comparison to the other Akerman films that I’ve seen. Within all of her meetings, Anna remains fairly reserved but still so captivating. It is not easy to get use to the excessive dialogue but it still serves a purpose that isn’t completely limited to exposition. Instead, it’s role is much more profound, providing an opportunity for Anna (and the audience) to reflect on life.

Boarding Gate (2007)

20 03 2008

Despite no western distribution, this has already gained somewhat of a reputation as being horrendously bad. This reputation has mostly been formed by people expecting something closer to the genre it’s obviously playing off of. This is nothing new, or nothing bad for Assayas fans. Another aesthetically accomplished film, but I do wish he would stop confining himself to a certain genre in every film. Clean is great, but on paper it’s pretty much a Hallmark movie and demonlover is equally good, but reeks of David Lynch’s influence. Boarding Gate files itself under Hong Kong action, which is basically an excuse for emulating the big city, neon lights mood envoked by directors like Fruit Chan and Wong Kar-Wai. Thankfull, Assayas is pretty good on it’s own, but the act might be wearing a little thin. He’s far too good to be wasting his time making movies like this.

Sandra and Miles reunite after a long time apart, but their time together is anything but blissful. He’s a business tycoon and she’s a prostitute: they talk of the time when they were together, reflecting on what they as a couple use to be. Sandra has another love, Lester, who is a contract killer and he hires Sandra to kill Miles. She does so, and flees to Hong Kong where she is trapped into a corner by a group of gangster led by Kay (played by a Cantonese-speaking Kim Gordon) and Lester’s wife, Sue.

Assayas proves again, that he’s probably the best when it comes to editing. The whole steadicam and jump-cuts feel is becoming a bit of cliche but he’s pretty much a master of it. Oddly enough, he’s not working with Eric Gautier here, which proves that he can obtain the look he wants, no matter who the cinematographer is. It’s also nice to see urban Hong Kong since Fruit Chan seems to be drifting more and more away from that feel. Really, with Assayas, there’s no room to complain when it comes to pure filmmaking talent.

However, that leads right up to my main problems with this. The story is just way too simple and way too unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely something more complex going on here than in a John Woo film. It’s just that I still can’t help but wonder why a director as talented as Assayas, would want to confine himself to silly genre conventions. That sounds sort of stupid: “it’s not conventional…but there’s conventions” but it just seems that while the film is plotless (in the best way) it’s also influenced by a three-act structure. It’s most likely just a subconscious thing that Assayas has gained from watching some silly Hollywood movies, but it certainly taints his abilities as a filmmaker. For example, the opposite of this would be Werner Herzog, who never saw a film until he was ten and that makes sense in the context of his films.

It should be noted that this doesn’t completely ruin Assayas’ film, just cuts it short of being really special. For what it’s worth, his next film, Summer Hours, looks/sounds a bit more personal. This is a good movie, though, probably not as good as his previous two. I’ll be optimistic and say that all great artists struggle at one time or another and considering how Assayas has mastered the technical side of filmmaking, it’s only a matter of time before he makes something shall we say, more emotional profound?

Godspeed You Black Emperor (1976)

19 03 2008

A pretty good idea executed in a pretty uninteresting way. There’s a few moments, early on, that do obtain a fairly remarkable sense of chaotic spontaneity but for the most part, it seems as though the filmmakers tried way too hard to create conventional drama. There’s a sequence towards the end in which the characters just talk back and forth. Sure, it’s plotless and I’m always one to embrace an avoidance of arch structure, but the characters decide to talk in this really phony interrogating way. There’s some worthwhile sequences here and there, but ultimately too sporadic to be particularly great.

The film examines the lives of the Black Emperor motorcycle gang members. Almost all of them are in trouble with the law and they all deal with this in their own way but the main focus is this: don’t let the cops win. These guys are really tame by today’s standards. In the opening sequence, the camera whips around every which way implying some very violent event, but it’s just some guys running around. The opening isn’t really that bad, though. In fact, some of the character exposition is actually sort of cool, but it’s once Yanagimichi starts detailing the mundane that the film loses any grip. I mean, I’d like to think the movies I tend to watch are slow and mundane, but a documentary of people selling dolls isn’t really the exact same thing as long static shots of Lee Kang-Sheng. The latter is rivetting, the former is the final thirty minutes of this movie and it made me want to die.

Now, with that said there are some genuinely great Korine-esque moments, in fact there’s even a scene where a kid shaves his eyebrows that is eerily similar to a scene in Gummo. It’s hard to recall a lot of them since they’re not overwhelmingly amazing and they’re muddled in between dumb scenes of people talking, but still worth it just for stuff like that kid playing music while his mom is praying. Still, in the end, it feels almost as silly as a after school presentation on the bad effect gangs have society, but I guess times have changed. Interesting at first, but the novelty wears off. Pretty disappointing considering it’s “legendary” status.