Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)

28 04 2008

Considering the obvious limitations that come with film making from the time period, Tabu really couldn’t be any better. It is narrative diffuse and free-wheeling in the best possible way and anticipates the more frantic cinematic style found in filmmakers like Werner Herzog. In addition, Murnau has Robert Flahtery helping out and he is probably responsible for the exquisite visuals. On the other hand, Murnau himself seems to be the one responsible for the more conventional dramatic touches that prevent the film from being great.

Lovers Reri and Matahi are separated when Hitu comes looking for a new virgin to sacrifice to God. The couple’s situation is tragic but soon cured as Matahi rescues Reri and the two explore the sea to find a new place to live. They stumble upon an island controlled by, as the intertitles eloquently put, the white man. Their conditions are no longer ideal, but they are now free and things begin to look up for the two as Matahi discovers a talent for diving. This bliss is short-lived, however, as Hitu quickly discovers the whereabouts of Reri and attempts to reclaim her. Meanwhile, Matahi’s language barrier is being exploited by the town regulars.

I’d be lying if I said I was completely emmersed in it, but it does still maintain a very strong atmosphere, which draws upon Flahtery’s experience as a documentary filmmaker. Visually, things are in top form as well. Much has been mentioned of Murnau’s dislike of intertitles and it’s very apparent here as no spoken dialogue is translated into intertitle form. Instead, the narrative relies on shots of written documents for exposition. For the most part, the story is downplayed in favor of a much more visual-driven style, which, if I haven’t made obvious already, is Tabu‘s greatest strength. As great as all that is, there isn’t anything for one to latch on to, emotionally. Certainly the couple’s fate is tragic and Anne Chevalier is extremely captivating. By the end of the day, it all seems inconsequential, even considering just how tragic the story is on paper. I suppose this might be a sign of the film’s age but I can’t really fault it for something explicable especially when it does take a lot of risks. A beautiful and influential film, but not mindblowing on its own terms.

Flower in the Pocket (2007)

27 04 2008

Hands down, the best movie of 2007. It doesn’t earn any points for originality since its ultimately just a textbook example of Tsai Ming-Liang’s more accomplished aesthetic, but still it is really funny and completely truthful. The two young leads are perfect, brilliantly anti-cute when they could have easily been the opposite. Their story is pretty much a “best-of” tribute to many of Ozu’s silent films with Tomio Aoki. Ultimately the film feels a bit more influenced by modern Asian minimalism, which of course is not problem by my standards, but it also is more than willing to take a trip down memory lane with a boyish type of playfulness. The story with a father is a bit more romantic (by comparison) with a somewhat surrealistic edge. At times, I did get a sense that the director was laying it on a bit thick with the humor, especially since the audience didn’t seem to have a problem with the otherwise “slow” approach, but the film still provides a veracious punch. Definitely the best of 2007, so much more so than There Will Be Blood or whatever other prestigious American film.

From the Ground Up (2008)

27 04 2008

A tedious, albeit admirable effort from Su Fredriech. Those expecting an “essay-film” should look elsewhere because this is an examination of how coffee is produced. Despite shooting on DV, she does capture some nice images. The highlight is probably the never-ending shot early on of bean farmers staring into the camera. From there, it is pretty much downhill. Thankfully, this is not an average “social commentary” documentary so there isn’t any Michael Moore-esque hitting the audience over the head, but still, this is not that exciting. It certainly doesn’t help that the most nauseating song is repeated every three minutes. At least it was short, though. Better luck next time, I guess.

Silent Light (2007)

27 04 2008

It seems that, once again, everyone is either praising or condemning Carlos Reygadas. Despite his long list of “cinephille-approved” influences, which he wears openly on his sleeve, he is seen as some as an overeager naïve man wanting to provide a bunch of Tarkovsky references. In other words, he is a snobbier version of Quentin Tarantino. Make no mistake; these assessments are completely false, especially in the context of his latest effort, Silent Light. A huge leap forward in maturity for Reygadas even though the film itself is not without some outstanding faults.

The narrative borrows heavily from Dreyer’s Ordet (which I have yet to see) which gives plenty of ammunition for Reygadas’ critics. Considering how influenced he is by directors such as Herzog and Tarkovsky, I have a hard believing he actually cares about the “plot” of his films. In its very best moments, Silent Light is a visceral and poetic examination of family life. All the images that are captured tend to lean on the “ugly” side at least in a superficial sense, but within their sensory-driven context, they are undoubtedly beautiful, not unlike the images in Harmony Korine’s Gummo. In fact, one of the film’s greatest sequences features the children taking a swim in a nearby pond; many visual cues are taken almost directly from Korine’s film though there are obvious connections with Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo as well. The way in which Reygadas has crafted his film is perfect and is innovative in its own right, despite all the aesthetical comparisons he is likely to receive. This is a film that hopefully, people will look at, and see it as a huge technical inspiration. It is a concoction of Tati deadpan humor and Ozu playfulness, all presented in a manner reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Such comparisons are not intended to downplay the originality of Reygadas’ work because I have yet to see a film that is as visually astute as this is.

With all of its cinematic innovations, Silent Light falls on its face when it comes to drama. The visceral, spontaneous, and wordless sequences work perfectly but things begin to drag when more conventional “character-building” tactics are used. In all honesty, all the relationship stuff here is uninteresting. Are we suppose to even care about this preist and his wife is she even someone that Reygadas intends the audience to have concern for? In other words, why don’t we have more sequences like the tracking shot of the priest walking the grass? That is far, far more profound than some B-movie-esque relationship turmoil that is sprinkled into the film accordingly. It seems almost that every scene in which a conversation takes place, it loses its tone. It’s like if Herzog threw in a sequence where someone talks about their sadness in Even Dwarfs Started Small. This shift in tone is overwhelming.

In the end, these problems don’t outweigh the film but they do indeed dilute all of its innovations. I feel obligated to reinforce just what a splendor it is to watch this film unfold, in a visual sense, even if the dramatic stuff is forced. Cinema, like all arts, is constantly progression and Silent Light represents a huge leap in cinematic capabilities. To describe the film’s opening sequence would give away too much but rest assured, you’ve seen nothing like it before. Breathless wasn’t the greatest movie ever, but the introduction of jump cuts changed the face of cinema. Even though such a comparison is over the top, I see Reygadas’ film going down a similar path.

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

23 04 2008

Bardem’s film will more than likely gather more than enough critical responses amounting to nothing more than Antonioni and/or Hitchcock comparisons, and rightfully so. For all the technical similarities with the great Antonioni, there’s a silly plot contrivance reminding one of Mr. Hitchcock. It should go with out saying that this is a bit of a mixed bag. A minimalist thriller could work as a categorization but then what becomes of the terrible Twilight Zone-y music. If one is looking for something Antonioni-esque than they have to accept the fact that the film is built more on occurrences than it is on character psychology. Similarly, if one is looking for a conventional mystery film, they’ll find something a bit more aesthetically complex. A decent movie, but the less believable elements are overwhelming; no matter how well they are photographed.

Maria and Juan’s affair hits a bump, figuratively and literally, when they kill a cyclist in a car accident. With no witnesses in sight, they flee, to avoid leaking their relationship to the public. However, they quickly develop overwhelming feelings of guilt. When a family “friend” begins to act suspiciously around Maria and Juan, feelings of paranoia set in with the couple. It seems that Maria can never get quite back on track with her home life. Meanwhile, Juan’s gig as an assistant professor is creating more inner friction. Eventually, both reach their breaking point but both deal with it in a different way.

Once again, Lucia Bose is a joy to watch. It is unfortunate that I have yet to stumble upon a truly great film featuring her but still, her presence is enough to engage even the least attentive of viewers. I will admit this film ultimately becomes too bogged down in plot details. An irritating scenario considering there is so much more room to flesh out the characters. However, we never get to know them beyond their initial reaction to the murder. There are attempts at being “deep” but it ultimately is just an excuse for melodramatic non-sense. On the other, such stuff is downplayed for most of the film’s running time but at the expense of completely unnatural writing. The dialogue is simply far too expositional, expressive, and frequent to feel true. In other words, this is sort of like if Eric Rohmer made a detective movie. Okay, maybe not that bad. Most of Bardem’s “cinematic” elements are more than admirable, especially considering that this predates Il Grido by two years. Still, this is a far cry from the “real thing.” With that said, I would like to take the time to commend Criterion for their efforts in releasing a, shall we say, “classic” film from Spain. Hopefully, within the next couple of years, more will be made available.