Thursday, October 29, 2009

Silent Light (2007)


Just when you fear all of cinema has succumbed to ADHD violent excess, a new generation of directors comes along who revel in quiet slowness. Filmmakers such as Weerasathakul, Ceylan and Eimbcke paint memorable portraits of everyday life from the most restricted of narrative palettes. These films literally force us to slow down, to contemplate, and most of all, to feel. To this list we can add Carlos Reygadas and this extraordinary and unsettling film. Silent Light examines the effects of infidelity on a Mennonite community in rural Chihuahua, Mexico.


Cornelio Wall – like the rest of the cast, a non-professional actor – is featured as Johan, a humble, middle-aged farmer who suddenly finds himself deeply in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz) and completely disinterested in his long time wife Esther (Miriam Toews) and their outsized family of adorable tow-headed youngsters. To his credit, Johan is not sneaking about; in fact he openly discusses the affair with his wife and practically everyone else, including the local mechanic and, in a heartbreaking and beautifully filmed scene, his father.


This underscores the depth of Johan’s emotions, and he makes it clear that he considers his life thus far to have been a dreadful mistake. Johan is squarely in a spiritual dilemma, as he tries to sort out whether his new passion is a satanic temptation, or a chance for happiness sent by God.


And the biblical allusions do not end there, as the story ultimately takes on surprising elements of the Jesus story. But underneath it all is an oddly absorbing dirge-like rhythm, as Reygadas and his editor, Natalia Lopez, never quite end a scene where they teach you in Film School; rather they sit on every scene well beyond its logical cut point.


This creates a discomfort at first, and then a total immersion as we are seduced by a magical sort of verite. The film may flow like January molasses, but its best moments are equally sweet.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe (1992)



Two young women from rural Hungary grapple with life, love and the New World Order in this mesmerizing romantic drama. Emma (Johanna ter Steege) and Bobe (Eniko Borcsok) are childhood friends who fled the drudgery of farm life for the bright lights of Budapest, where they promptly joined the Communist party in hopes of advancing their careers as school teachers.


But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the women find themselves in a confusing world of new freedoms and responsibilities, as well as the target of old resentments, as former party members are now ostracized and ridiculed. Under the restrained direction of Istvan Szabo, the story unfolds as a series of vignettes, with ter Steege as the main focus, and we see her meager, mundane reality in stark contrast to her hopes and dreams.


She harbors strikingly poignant delusions about her affair with the married headmaster (Peter Andori), a cowardly and callous man who has the power to either promote her career or destroy it. We do not become as intimately involved in the life of Bobe, and that at first seems an imbalance in the storytelling, but ultimately the drama hinges on this withheld information.


The DVD was mastered from a rather murky print, making the film appear much older than it really is but, in a way, this adds to the film’s subtext of Old World vs. New. Charismatic and sensual, ter Steege is one of those extremely natural talents who never hits a false note. She was poised to become an international star when she was cast as the lead in Kubrick’s “Aryan Papers”, but the project was abandoned when the director died prior to production.


Still highly active in the European film industry, ter Steege has not been in a widely released film in some time, and American audiences are the poorer for it. Her unique blend of innocence and wide emotional range makes this little-known film a strong addition to the cinema of Eastern Europe, and earn it a high recommendation.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Intimate Strangers (2004)



Fans of intricate, character driven dramas will enjoy this film by talented director Patrice Leconte. Fabrice Luchini is terrific as a tax attorney whose dully predictable life is turned upside-down by a new client: a beautiful woman (the always excellent Sandrine Bonnaire) who, instead of ledgers and receipts, brings him woeful tales of marital strife. She has mistaken him for a nearby psychiatrist, but before Luchini can correct her, he finds himself oddly intrigued by this woman, and more than a little smitten.


Their furtive sessions continue and, slowly and methodically, fascinating questions are raised as to who is actually being deceived and for what purpose. The mysterious story is spun like a spider web, with each bit of information adding to the strength and complexity of the entire construction and each new layer adding to the film’s credibility.


It is a credit to the acumen of Luchini and Bonnaire that the story remains squarely on track as, on paper, it seems a bit far-fetched, yet there is never a moment here that feels forced or manipulative. Leconte presents a number of interesting observations on the nature of therapy itself by having virtually every character in the film, at one time or another, offer help and advice, usually with results that are more amusing than beneficial. Bonnaire’s ham-fisted attempt to cure a claustrophobic man is a welcome bit of comic relief, and reinforces the idea that therapy should usually be left to the professionals.


Eventually, both Bonnaire and Luchini - patient and ersatz doctor - become intertwined on a course that will lead either to mutual healing or violent confrontation, and this reviewer was quite happy to follow the treatment to its satisfying outcome.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur at 50




Released in February 1965, this early work by Agnes Varda is ostensibly a cheery movie with bright colors, dappled sunshine and a beautiful, loving family. Yet behind this Monet-esque revery are ideas that may have you questioning some of the basic moral principles of modern society. The story centers on Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), a square-jawed cabinetmaker who gladly spends every spare moment with his lovely wife and adorable young kids (played by Drouot’s real life family).




Much time is spent establishing the family’s idyllic existence in suburban Paris, as we see them engage in relaxing country picnics and nature walks, as well as exploring the deep bonds of affection and sexuality between Francois and his wife Therese. One day, Francois emerges from his mountainous sawdust pile to send a telegram, and a chance encounter with a postal clerk (Marie-France Boyer) launches a series of profound and strangely disturbing events. There is little else about the plot that can be disclosed, but suffice to say that some very controversial sexual politics are presented. So controversial that if the film had not been directed by a woman, Le Bonheur probably would have ended up on the scrapheap of misogynist cinema.




The bonus material offers a number of interesting interpretations of the film, and is quite thought provoking. The disc itself is beautifully restored thanks to Thomson’s HD Spirit Datacine, a new generation film scanner that makes possible nearly perfect recovery of even badly degraded negatives (which was apparently the case here). In all, this is a film that sticks with you, albeit in a very odd and unsettling way.



Surprisingly for a film of this vintage,  2015 find all of the principles alive and kickin'. Agnes Varda - who has truly seen it all - is a couple years shy of her 90th birthday. The dashing Jean-Claude Drouot is pushing 80 but is busier than ever, having become a virtual fixture on French TV in recent years. Madame Drouet and Boyer are among the living as well, although their acting careers have taken a backseat to other interests. Wouldn't you love to sit at a Paris sidewalk cafe with this lot? Oh the stories they could tell….





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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Summer Reruns: La Commare Secca (1962)***


Fans of Bernardo Bertolucci will have a scholarly interest in this film; his first feature helmed at the tender age of 21. Here it is given the full Criterion treatment with a crisp, rich transfer and an informative interview with the director.


As a piece of entertainment, La Commare Secca is quite uneven, with some interesting scenes sandwiched between dull and tedious sequences. As Bertolucci admits in the interview, the narrative is similar to Rashomon in that it recreates the events leading up to the murder of a prostitute from numerous points-of-view. A brief thunderstorm is used as a device to tie the various eyewitness accounts together in time, and its an effective construct. We clearly see a unique cinematic sensibility at work here even though it is also clear that Bertolucci still had much to learn about the visual aspects of filmmaking.


There are some quite bumpy and distracting dolly shots as well as the heavy-handed vaginal symbolism of arches, caves and steep riverbanks. And yes there are some typical Italian Neo-Realism elements as well - basically overwrought Italians yelling at each other - but the sexually charged undercurrents that characterize the best (and sadly the worst) of Bertolucci's later, mature work can be found here in their infancy.


The acting is, at best, serviceable, and the revelation of the real killer raises more questions than answers, but Bertolucci was much more concerned with style in this maiden voyage than actual storytelling. The Italian film industry has long since abandoned personal, artistic cinema in favor of sentimental romantic comedies ans small scale dramas that feature the country's picturesque scenery. But for centuries the nation of Italy led the world in artistic innovation: in painting, in music, in design and, for a brief period, the cinematic arts. This film captures an intriguing flavor of those times, and Bernardo Bertolucci's unique contribution to the glory days of Italian filmmaking.

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This item originally appeared in October 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

Claire's Knee (1970)


Yeah its talky.

Sure its a little dull in parts.

But its also intelligent, compelling and absolutely riveting. This most "Rohmery" of Eric Rohmer films is the story of a man who thinks of himself as sophisticated and beyond middle-class morals, but soon learns that his emotions are a jumble of sexual attraction and paternal instinct.


Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), in typical male fashion, sees romance as a series of conquests but Beatrice Romand (who steals the picture as a precocious flirt) serves notice to him that the rules of the game have changed. Jerome spends much of the film going back and forth in his motorboat, an apt metaphor since the women in this story have him so confused he doesn't know if he's coming or going.


The film's idyllic mountain lake setting and languid pace perfectly evoke the feeling of being on vacation, and while we're relaxing, we get to have the fun of watching a man approaching middle age grow up a little bit.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Antares (2004)


During a cold, overcast weekend in Vienna, we peer through the drab concrete walls of a high rise apartment building and into the complicated lives its residents in this collection of three lightly interwoven tales of domestic strife. The first story concerns an attractive middle class couple (Petra Morze and Hary Prinz) whose opposing work schedules have caused their lives to become a grinding routine, and their marriage to slowly erode.


Next, we learn about a young grocery cashier (Suzanne Wuest) who is desperately trying to get pregnant for all the wrong reasons. Lastly, we meet a sociopathic realtor (well played by Alex Kiendl) whose emotions can range from smoothly charming to violently abusive in mere seconds, and we become involved in his pathetic attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife (Martina Zinner), as she bravely tries to rebuild her life.


The first narrative is the strongest, featuring a compelling performance by Morze (who is sort of the Catherine Deneuve of Austria) as well as some surprisingly graphic sexuality. Viewers may even feel a bit of a let down when the second story commences, but stick with it, as the momentum is soon restored and we are treated to an ending that ties up all the loose threads in a believable and satisfying way.


Talented auteur Gotz Spielman is clearly influenced by the work of his fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, but Spielman’s filmic stylings are more traditional, and, while there are moments here that will make you gasp, he wisely never delves full-out into Haneke’s brand of drastic, intentionally disturbing realism. “Antares” is reminiscent of an edition of well crafted short stories and if, for instance, John Cheever or Raymond Carver were from Eastern Europe, the results would look something like this.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Oyster Farmer (2004)




A charming quirkiness oozes from the sprocket holes of this relaxed Australian production. The quite fit Alex O’Loughlin stars as a seemingly aimless young man who manages pull off a very clever robbery, and then high tails it to a remote area of New South Wales to let the heat die down a bit and to await the delivery of a very important package.


From his redoubt on the Hawkesbury River, O’Loughlin becomes involved with an earthy and only semi-legal community of sun baked oystermen, the deep ruts on their faces filled with a black, gritty sweat. We learn much about the techniques of oyster farming, and the back breaking toil required to supply the world’s demand for these tasty bivalves.


And although O’Loughlin has wandered into an area of excessive testosterone, there are two female inhabitants who capture his interest. First, his boss’s estranged and sensual wife (Kerry Armstrong) who cleans his wounds after a dog attack in a scene brimming with eroticism, and a slightly nutty postal clerk (Diana Glenn), who he finds both suspicious and irresistible.




Writer/director Anna Reeves does a fine job of managing both the pacing of the film and keeping a consistent tone to the performances, as the cast features a wide array of character actors, including the familiar faces of Jack Thompson and Jim Norton. The film is permeated with a calm, easy going eccentricity, and in many ways is reminiscent of a National Film Board of Canada product. Recommended to those seeking an involving film, but aren’t in the mood for a challenging one.

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