Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The White Ribbon: Blu-ray disc review

I am not going to review The White Ribbon itself beyond saying that Maria-Victoria Dragus is brilliant as Klara, the pastor's daughter, the Avenging Angel of Death.

The Blu-ray disc is a good production, as it can be expected from Artificial Eye. The film itself has been impeccably transferred to disc, maintaining its original aspect ratio, the subtitles being clear (the usual options being present).

As usual with Haneke's DVD and Blu-ray releases, the special features section is pretty strong, containing an enlightening interview with Haneke, a documentary on the making of the film (a very interesting overview of the efforts taken to find a manor house in Germany which could fit within the story; and the near military operation carried out to select the child cast from over 7000 children all over Germany, and beyond), the usual commentaries and testimonies on Haneke's hands-on approach to filming and directing the actors, and further enlightening remarks from the man himself on his approach to cinema.

It also contains a documentary (nearly an hour long) about Haneke's life, with testimonies from his long standing wife, and an overview of his happy childhood (for a change, what a relief!).

Revealing was the fact that the script was originally written over ten years ago for what was going to be a very long film (three and a half hours long), and his acknowledgement  of commercial pressures to shorten the film.

He also reveals the thinking behind shooting The White Ribbon in black and white. However, I am not going to tell you what were they, you will have to buy the DVD or Blu-ray disc to find out.

Glamour was also present in the form of a short review of Cannes 2009 Film Festival: I particularly enjoyed the child actors' (growing up) 15 minutes of fame under the camera flashlights on the red carpet.

The film's trailer is also included in this section.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Treeless Mountain: review

Why is it that a backwater place like Hull gets films such as beautiful as  
TREELESS MOUNTAIN so late? Why did take so long for it to come to Britain, when it was shown in the USA a year ago? Questions, questions, questions...

Treeless Mountain. Piggy bank. Empty. Mother gone. Piggy bank full. Mother supposed to come back. Piggy bank drops an eye. Omen. Piggy bank full. Mother did not return. No more piggy bank. Elderly grand parents' farm: two little sisters singing "Grasshopper... grasshopper..." as the credits roll down.

Korean-American So Yong Kim's second feature film is a quiet and lingering study of two little sisters learning to cope with disappointment and enjoy their young lives as they are shifted from relative to relative as their single mother is no longer capable of sustaining them, after being evicted from a soulless tenement building. She disappears in search of her estranged husband, we do not see her any more during the rest of the film

Several critics have dismissed Treeless Mountain as being pretty but empty, even boring, as nothing seems to happen. How  wrong they are! No car chases or shoots out are in sight, so what? Déjà vu. At times the camera lingers on the face of one of the girls for what seems too long, then there is a subtle change in her expression, in her mood, little elements of dramatic tension that keeps the linear story rolling... The story is told from the point of view of the girls, the actions rolls on their faces, the camera follows them. The adults are mostly disappointing, not cruel or purposely neglectful, but incapable of seeing them as who they are. The cinematography brilliantly conveys a world view from their point of view, and not that of the adults. Panoramic scenes are present, but always as if they were seen by a child.

The enigmatic title is, well, an enigma. I do not pretend to know why it was called Treeless Mountain, at least not beyond saying that a soulless life is like a treeless mountain.

If anything, this film is almost Zen in its cinematic minimalism, its simplicity, in  its ability to convey the gradual transformation of the "I want" girls to "I have" girls (the older one offers to buy her grandma new shoes from their piggy bank, in spite that they needed winter shoes themselves).

Treeless Mountain -  Dir. So Yong Kim South Korea 2009 89 mins 
Starring Hee Yeon Kim & Song Hee Kim

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Tony Manero

We follow, through the camera which is our eyes, a man walking rapidly into a TV studio, just to find out he is one week earlier for the Tony Manero look-alike competition.

This is how Pablo Larraín's film Tony Manero starts, setting out the pace and the mood from the very beginning, and the amorality of the main character, Raúl Peralta (played by Alfredo Castro), in the Pinochet's Santiago of Chile of 1978, as we seen him constantly trying to butt his way in, although he is openly out of order.

This exceptionally good film, a thriller, kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its duration, clearly indicating that there are other ways for art-house works to go apart from the dichotomy of "slow" and Hollywood movies, currently being being discussed in the cinema world, slow films which had followed Tarkovsky's visual tradition without the Russian's philosophical discourse (the 19th Century's Russian novel transferred to the cinematic world is how his films have been described by some critics and theorists).

There is none of that slowness, of that languid visual imagery so characteristic of so many contemporary art-house films in Tony Manero. That agile hand held camera we see at the beginning and extreme close-ups gives it a paranoid mood, becoming a very unsettling film indeed where nothing is what seems to be: Peralta, a middle aged head of a troupe of dancers based in a seedy café, is obsessed with Saturday Night Fever to the point of smashing the head of the projectionist of the local flea-pit when the film was changed with Grease - and stealing the film reels,  the ticket seller also having been murdered (we presume, as all the violence happens off camera), is bent not only to stage a show based on Travolta's character, but to actually become Tony Manero; yet Goyo, the boyfriend of his girlfriend's daughter, is a much better dancer than he is (and with the age and the looks to make a much better parody of Tony Manero). 

Peralta's presumed sexual charisma and powers are proven to be as vacuous as his dancing skills in one of the most embarrassingly bad sex scene in the history of cinema when he tries (and this is the correct word) to seduce a willing Pauli, Cony's (his girlfriend) daughter, who has the hots for him (as his ageing right wing landlady also does), just to find out that there is nothing behind that façade of sexual prowess: she ends sexually satisfying herself on her own while a pathetic Peralta collapses on the bed at her side after he too masturbates, the camera focused on his face while Pauli's is slightly out of focus. This scene generates a chain of events which we presume ends with the death of the whole troupe with a bullet on the back of their head delivered by Pinochet's secret police henchmen as Cony denounces his own daughter Pauli for her left wing activities: leafleting against the dictatorship. 

Did she do so as revenge for her pathetic peccadillo with Peralta? As a Chilean and a survivor of the Pinochet years, I saw on many occasions people denounced to the secret police not because they were communists involved in subversive activities, but merely to settle petty scores such as Pauli's crush on his mother's boyfriend, without realizing the consequences of such denouncements.

Yet Peralta, who has already committed a series of murders to get his Tony Manero impersonation on stage, and building on the café  the illuminated glass dance floor shown in the movie, presents no interest for the police: we are talking about a society where the authorities could kill anybody they disliked  with total impunity on broad light, as we see in the film. The crimes committed by the state exonerates those committed by the individual, as long as they do not pose a threat to the state: this is the amorality of not only a dictatorship, but of politics even in democratic societies. The final scene of the film is really creepy, when Peralta (a man able to murder an old woman, the widow of an Air Force officer, after rescuing her from a bunch of thugs  because she said that Pinochet had blue eyes - Peralta's eyes being anything but blue, yet he fed her cat before fleeing the scene of the crime with her new colour TV set which he subsequently sells to pay for his dance floor) follows the winner of the Tony Manero competition on the bus... the camera cutting short, blackness replacing his murderous eyes...

Much has been said about the scene where Peralta actually shits on the new white suit that Goyo has bought when he learns that he is also going to enter the Tony Manero competition, an excruciating scene that I barely could bring myself to watch and which could be read as a metaphor for the abasement of innocence and purity (white being the colour of purity in the Roman Catholic lexicon) in the pursuit of a vain chimera, as we seen in his empty eyes in a expressionless face; a representation as well of the military government (Pinochet was himself a very vain man, with his blue eyes he believed himself to be above this land of dark Indians).

Tony Manero, Sight & Sound film of the month for May 2009, may be situated in an specific place in time and location, however, the issues raised go far beyond it. When Peralta watches Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" in the emptiness of an afternoon screening, he repeats what is being said on the screen word by word, like if it were a sacred text, yet he does not understand or speak English, a yearning for a fantasy reality beyond our means and comprehension so characteristic of a consumerist society, celebrity obsessed, such as our contemporary world. The camera is focused on his face in a close up, his eyes devoid of any light, his features devoid of any expression, as if he were in a trance, dreaming in a world he pathetically tries to reproduce in his seedy life.

Alfredo Castro's portrayal of Raúl Peralta is exceptional: as he was no longer acting, as he actually became Peralta.

A truly exceptional film, up there on a level with Haneke's The White Ribbon and Audiard's A Prophet. Tony Manero is out now on DVD. It is a shame that it was never shown in Hull.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Manchurian Candidate

John Frankenheimer's 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate could well be one of the most unsettling films of all times. I originally saw it as a young man, probably no more than a teenager, back in the 60s, and it did stayed in my mind all this time. Shot at the peak of the cold war, and released at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, it gets its strength from, and fed, the red paranoia of those years. Nothing in it is what it seems to be. Even the last scene, its climax, whilst on one side I could see it coming, on the other hand I was not so sure, as all the expectations were confounded throughout it.

One of most unsettling scenes of all times is at the beginning of this film, as Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a soldier captured by a Russian squad during the Korean war, responds to a white haired woman in what seemed to be a kind of tea party political event; although it is not, the white haired woman being a Russian officer, and the audience composed of gentle women are, in fact, Russian and Korean military personnel. The camera pans and pans, hallucinating, every time, the scene is different. Raymond Shaw returns to the USA as a decorated soldier who heroically saved his platoon under the fire of superior enemy forces; yet the two men lost in that action were murdered by him under the command of the Russians, after having been psychologically programmed.

After his return to the USA, he abruptly distances himself from his mother, an extreme right wing political activist (reminiscences of McCarthy here) who, in fact, is a Russian operative. His assassin's rifle is on his intended victim, a presidential candidate: will he?

It is highly improbable that our times' paranoia can ever generate a film this intense and unsettling: this time the "enemy" are not necessarily in our midst, and, even if they are, they can be "easily" be identified as those aliens with brown skin and a funny religion.

This film shows that pretty boy Frank Sinatra could actually act, Laurence Harvey strongly conveying the unlovability of Raymond Shaw, one of the central themes in the film.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Down with the Oscars!!!!

It's about time that the cinematic supremacy of the Oscars should be challenged. After all, this is not a ceremony rewarding films, but a ceremony rewarding American films, with the odd British one thrown in sometimes. This, year I was bitterly disappointed that Carey Mulligan's powerful performance as Jenny in "An Education" led to nowhere. On the plus side, this year the Oscars made history by giving the award to a woman as Best Director, it was about time, anyway. However, masterpieces such as The White Ribbon, A Prophet were relegated to that second class category of film not in the English language. Do that mean that only those people who have English as their first language can make good films? Almost any other film festival in the world celebrates film in any language, from anywhere in the world.

It is time that the American realize that they do not longer are the only people making good films in this times. After all, film was not an American invention, although they would believe it is, as they are so adept in rewriting history.

The Oscars is no more than a cultural imperialist relic which should be confined to the pit of history.

Down with the Oscars!!!!
Down with the Hollywood crap!!!!!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A Prophet

This film is probably the best I've seen this year, Audiard shows a mastery of the medium that is hardly seen in British, and American, filmmakers. The film itself is very cerebral, it is difficult to have any emotional sympathy to the main character, Malik, or, indeed, to any of the other characters in it. A set of nastier characters like this lot  has rarely been seen in cinema, certainly not in American or British cinema, as far as I know. I do not pretent not even for one second to know what Audiard intended to do with this film (I know that he has indicated that he only makes films, not sociological treatises, or something on those lines), however, I could not stop thinking that this story could well be a metaphor for a runaway capitalist society, with dealings and counter dealing, and every body crossing everybody else, back stabbing: constant movement and tension throughout the whole of the film, the camera handling contributing to the sense of unease that permeated it.

Truly, A Prophet is a great film, a clear demonstration that French filmmakers has not lost the knack for making good stylish thrillers.

My first and only crush in a celebrity actress...

When Whistle Down the Wind came out back in the early sixties, I fell in love, desperately in love, with its young actress Hayley Mills. I was then a young boy myself, probably about the same age than Hayley, but separated by half the world and a language. I was then still living on a land that shakes... The film stayed in my mind for years, until BBC2 screened a few years ago and, presto, I got my video copy of it. I watched it again last night, my boyhood's crush on Hayley still vividly present in me, as the autographed photos she sent me over the next few years (two, actually), and a letter from her agent thanking me after I pointed out (I've been all my life a pain in the neck) that tigers do not exist in Southamerica, as shown In Search of the Castaways, just to find out that in the original English copy of the film there no reference to tigers, but to a jaguar (a case of the wrong translation in the subtitles in the Spanish language print). Still, I got the photos, which I kept for years. They were left back in Chile when I came to England... together with my childhood...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Watch the first ever "Alice in Wonderland" on line!

"Alice in Wonderland (1903), the first-ever film version of Lewis Carroll's tale, has recently been restored by the BFI National Archive and premiered at a celebration of the history of the classic story at the British Library." - BFI

Follow the link to watch it: