From 1977-1992, Mozambique was embroiled in an absolutely brutal civil war between the socialist government, and right-wing terrorists, bent on bringing down the state. It is at the height of the war that we are introduced to Nelio, a young boy whose village has been razed to the ground by the terrorists. He is taken as a child soldier, but when ordered to kill his little brother, he kills one of the rebels instead and makes his escape to the city. Nelio soon finds himself the leader of a gang of street children, and earns a reputation for himself as a healer who is able to bring the dead back to life. Despite being a Mozambican co-production, Nelio’s Story was made by a crew mostly consisting of Swedes and Portuguese, and the novel it was based on was written by a famous Swedish crime writer. Because of this, Nelio’s Story often finds itself victim to the western gaze, and an unhealthy dose of orientalism. Africa is dirty, Africa is poor, Africa is full of witch doctors, and bongo music, pretty standard stuff. I am not dismissing this as a bad movie, because it actually is quite good, Nordlund certainly knows how to put together a good looking and well-crafted film, but it is obvious that she is out of her element. Sérgio Titos, who plays the titular character, gives a stirring and emotionally charged performance. One genuinely believes he is living through the horror on screen, and his face expresses a wisdom that seems beyond his years. This is one of the most rousing performances I have seen given by a child actor, and is really the lynchpin that holds this film together. After watching this one, I find myself only more excited to delve into the films made by actual Mozambican directors.
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A better title for this would be No Exposition. Because in Transcendence there is no exposition. Or at least no exposition when it comes to the characters, who they are, why they do what they do, how they know each other. My friend, with whom I saw the movie, said he just identified them by their actors, and expected them to act as characters played by these actors usually do. Morgan Freeman is the good guy, because he is always the good guy. Johnny Depp is mildly creepy, because he is always mildly creepy. And so on. Transcendence kind of plays out like a very watered-down version of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and eXistenZ in that it is about the dangers of the organic becoming too entwined with the artificial, but there is such an obvious lack of risk on the filmmakers’ end that the comparison is ultimately fleeting. Instead, we are presented more with a half-baked morality tale about why scientists should not play God. In the age of the NSA and Google Glass, this is obviously a relevant topic, and one that certainly draws in audiences, but it is handled in a way that predictable with a massive, glowing, neon-lit “P”. Visually, Transcendence recalls Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, in its use of bold blue-gray colors, and wide-angle, carefully crafted shots. For all its faults, this is a movie that is lovely to look at, even if shots of rain falling in slow motion make up about three minutes of the overall running time. There is a meticulous attention to detail, down to the little things like certain articles of clothing, and the markings on buildings that lend the film a certain level of realism, but director Wally Pfister also falls back on your typical cyber-age cliches; the room that houses the massive computers is very smooth and shiny, like the Apple Store. It already looks silly, because it is silly. This is a silly movie. Wally Pfister deserves credit for his visual sensibilities (at times), but he ought to return to taking orders from other directors.
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Recently, I have been binging on films adapted from the writings of Edogawa Rampo, Japan’s answer to both Edgar Allan Poe and Dashiell Hammett. Released in 1998, Akio Jissoji’s The D-Slope Murder Case in many ways represented an end to the highly stylized, colorful, and erotic horror that had defined Japanese horror films for the past several decades. In The D-Slope Murder Case, a young art forger is hired by the serpentine wife of a used book salesman to make copies of the erotic bondage artwork of Ue Shundei (a name Rampo also used in Beast in the Shadows). But the art forger finds himself increasingly aroused by the resemblance he bears to the woman in the pictures, and becomes obsessed with “replacing” her with himself. When he finds out his client was Shundei’s model, his mind snaps and he kills her. Enter Japan’s number one detective, Akechi, and his young ward Yoshio Kobayashi (who is played by Hitomi Miwa in drag). What follows is a game of cat and mouse, as Akechi tries to slip the young art forger up, and get him to admit his crime. However, despite the trappings of gumshoe fiction, The D-Slope Murder Case spends very little time on the more traditional elements of the plot, and instead focuses on the complex psychosexual motivations of the characters. Much of the film also consists of watching the actual artistic process, but these scenes are so sumptuous and sensual, one hardly cares that very little is actually “going on”. The world Jissoji has built in this film is heavily populated by symbolism of a rather Jungian variety. However, some of the symbolism is left undeveloped, the most prominent being the role of Akechi’s ward, who makes a very powerful impression. There are so many ideas on display here, one cannot help but wonder if Jissoji was just too ambitious here. However, this is such an inventive and lush and stunning work, that what is here really shines.
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Hollywood tends to be bastion of trendy liberalism, but every now and again, they make a film that is just so blatantly a fascist’s wet dream that I seriously wonder what sort of thought process went into making it. However, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also something of a libertarian’s wet dream. It manages to straddle this strange line between being incredibly jingoistic and chest-thumpingly militant while also promoting the virtues of freedom from oppressive state power and espionage. There is even a jab at Hugo Chavez, in which he is portrayed as a minion of a Nazi conspiracy, to fully round things out. This is the type of movie that the guy my ex-girlfriend left me for, one of those guys that spends his time watching videos of soldiers dancing with Iraqi children, would (and most certainly does) love. Not to say that I completely hated this one; as a Hollywood blockbuster, it very much accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it is entertaining, and grandiose, and full of balls-to-the-walls action. And the film’s more upbeat tone is a welcome departure from the grim Nolanesque style that superhero movies have taken on recently, despite the fact that Falcon does not talk to birds, but is instead a guy with a jetpack. But ideologically, this is a very concerning movie. One certainly expects a helping of naive patriotism from a movie titled Captain America, and while the movie is more ambiguous and less flag-waving than I expected, the message here is extremely problematic. It condemns the military-industrial complex and police state while also celebrating a more mild version of it. And if Captain America really stands up for freedom and democracy, then he would support Chavez. Just like the country he is named after, Captain America is a contradictory hypocrite, but perhaps there is some consistency and righteousness left in there, if it ever existed to begin with.
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The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin was the most successful Cuban film of its time, and it is easy to see why; the director Julio García Espinosa
's takes the aesthetics of the French New Wave and combines them with absurd comedy and a strong “people power” message. But what separates Espinosa's film from the cinema being made across the pond, is that it was actually made to be seen by the people it champions. Throughout the film we see Juan Quin Quin's transformation from sacristan to bullfighter to circus performer to farmer to eventually a guerrilla fighter standing up against corruption and exploitation. Told through flashbacks and flash-forwards, and shot in sparkling widescreen black and white, The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin is a genuinely enjoyable and uplifting comedy with a serious edge to it. Pre-revolutionary Cuba, a country run by corrupt businessmen-cum-gangsters, is not a very nice place for anyone on the bottom of the pecking order, but Espinosa handles the material with a light touch, plus, we know the good guys are going to win. Though some of its cinematic tricks have not aged very well, The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin is still a very enjoyable and entertaining piece of cinema, and it makes up for its flaws and structural issues with a good nature and breezy charm.
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This Georgian silent film, made at the tail end of the early Soviet era is a forgotten classic if ever there was such a thing. Taking place in a world of stuffy bureaucrats, My Grandmother is something like a Soviet manifesto imagined by Buster Keaton and Fritz Lang. The unique blend of slapstick, expressionism, animation, and satire anticipates the works of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam by several decades. Basically, the protagonist is a lazy bureaucrat who loses his job after being impaled with a giant fountain pen hurled at him by the Communist Youth League. Out of work, and unable to support her lavish lifestyle, his wife threatens to divorce him if he does not immediately find work. And so he begs the man who took his position to help him out. His advice? Find a grandmother and pester her for a job. By grandmother, he means one of the higher ups in the corporation. Naturally things escalate and reach an explosively absurd conclusion. My Grandmother’s satirical treatment of the bureaucratic class is nothing short of acidic; the film even ends with the proclamation, “DEATH TO THE BUREAUCRATS!” But this is also one funny movie, full of bizarre visual gags, and gallows humor aplenty. Its mix of so many diverse elements is so startlingly modern that if it had been filmed with sound, it could pass as a modern film. My Grandmother is a landmark of comical cinema, and one of the last great works of the silent era.
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I have long held conflicting feelings on Wes Anderson and his films. In high school, he was one of the first directors I discovered, and I fell in love with his work, but over the years, as I have seen more films, I have begun to find him rather irritating, particularly his smarmy sense of self-awareness. However, this has not prevented me from going to see his films when they hit theaters, or from enjoying them on the level of pure entertainment. From this perspective, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a rousingly enjoyable and magical film full of life and color. On a visual plane alone, Anderson has outdone everything he made prior to this one. His fantastical vision of inter-war Europe is a dreamland that can only exist in the movies. He certainly has a touch of Lubitsch and later Truffaut outings, but he just cannot reach the level of his idols. For some reason, Wes really loves it when his actors come off as nonchalant and anachronistic, similar to something you would see in an amateur production where the actors are clearly reading their lines. And more often than not, it all feels like a torrent of whimsy colored vomit. Yet, I really enjoyed watching this one. One thing Wes really deserves credit for is that he is great at accomplishing what he sets out to do. Armond White has taken to calling Wes, and his contemporaries like Sofia Coppola the “American eccentrics”, a phrase which is both laudatory and derogatory. What he means, essentially, is that one cannot deny that Wes’s films are well-made and entertaining, they are good movies, but at the same time, they are blinded by a naivety born out of class privilege. It is a bit unsettling that he just whitewashes the tragedy throughout the film, especially towards the end, when his fictional Alpine country comes under control of a fascist military dictatorship. Lubitsch mocked the Nazis in To Be or Not to Be, yes, but the tomfoolery served a greater purpose whereas here Wes is incredibly detached from reality. Not that being detached from reality is a problem, but politically-tinged humor demands a certain attachment to the world. But as I have already said, I really loved this movie, despite its obvious flaws.
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Based on Edogawa Rampo’s famous pulp novel, as well as Yukio Mishima’s stage adaptation (Mishima makes a cameo in the movie), Black Lizard is certainly one of the most bizarre films from late-1960s Japan. The whole affair is about Japan’s number one private detective, Akechi, squaring off against the serpentine seductress Black Lizard, who is a jewel thief and serial killer. Black Lizard desires to kill the beautiful daughter of the jeweler Sanae, and turn her into one of her “dolls”, but Akechi is determined to foil her. This is camp at its highest apex, our dastardly villain is actually played by Akihiro Miwa, one of Japan’s most famous drag queens. Fukasaki brings the film to life in bright pop art colors and odd angles; there are car chases, daring escapes, surreal comedy, dancing midgets, necrophilia, and a rockin’ jazzy electronic soundtrack. But for all the antics, Black Lizard is not an especially engaging film as it falls victim to style over substance, or rather, almost all style and very little substance. It is very much a product of its era, but its ambiguous depictions of sexuality and gender bending are still refreshingly modern.
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When Senhor Napumoceno, Cape Verde’s most well-loved citizen, dies of old age, his nephew Carlos expects to inherent his vast fortune and import/export business. Instead, however, it all goes to Graça, the child of an affair between Napumoceno and his housekeeper. All her life Graça had believed her father to just be some dirty old man, but when she discovers his true identity, she becomes enchanted by his life story that is told to her through recordings he made for her, and the tales of his closest friends. The story of Senhor Napumoceno is one that spans the decades, it is full of intrigue and romance, and has the sweep of a Hollywood production. Produced by, and shot in Cape Verde, Testamento boasts some luscious visuals and beautiful scenery. However, this is not a particularly great film, and while it is entertaining and engaging, there are a lot of missed opportunities. The history of Cape Verde during the second half of the twentieth century was one marked by political upheaval as national liberation movements fought for independence against the fascist Portuguese state. By failing to connect the politics and history with the personal, director Francisco Manso missed the opportunity to create a truly stirring epic. There are also various plot threads that fizzle out into nothing, and the pacing is rather uneven. Ultimately, we are left with a film that is more of a what-could-have-been.
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Somewhere there is a sea of salt dotted by jagged islands that protrude from the Earth like spires. A man travels between these islands in a boat, collecting the tears of their inhabitants. He says that he will turn their tears to pearls, but no one really knows what he does with them. These islands are populated by people who live according to centuries-old traditions, untouched by the outside world; even unaware of it. Mohammad Rasoulof’s surreal fantasy is an odd film, it is one of those movies that takes place entirely in a sealed-off world, and is almost impressive just because of how detailed and painstakingly this world is brought to life. Like all films of this style, Rasoulof owes a debt to the great Parajanov, and like Parajanov, the world he creates is a reflection of the struggles his people face under an authoritarian dictatorship. Because he cannot directly criticize contemporary Iran, he must wrap it up inside of an allegory wrapped inside of an allegory. While White Meadows certainly works as an allegory, it is too far removed from any sort of grounding reality to really be successful.
The sea of salt is too alien. There is a lack of warmth and empathy here, and instead, we are left with a work that is very cold and unforgiving. It moves at a crushingly slow pace, and the characters, which exist as metaphors, fail to give the audience something to attach on to, thereby generating a lack of involvement. But perhaps what bothered me most about this one, is that it comes off as glaringly orientalist in some places. I could not help but feel that this was made more for a foreign audience than a domestic one. Or maybe my patience for this kind of “poetic” filmmaking has worn thin recently, as I crave material that is plucked right from the “real” world. If this is the case, then perhaps it is a matter of having seen this one at the wrong place and time.
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Edogawa Rampo is in many ways, Japan’s answer to Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler. But that description is also inaccurate, because while Rampo spent most of his life writing detective mysteries, his stories also contain elements of fantasy, horror, and erotica. Sadly, most of his work has not been translated into English. However, dozens of his stories have been made into films over the years, including Horrors of Malformed Men, Watcher in the Attic, and Black Lizard. My introduction to the bizarre world of Rampo, was Tai Kato’s Beast in the Shadows, which is widely considered to be one of the best adaptations. When a popular mystery novelist meets the beautiful wife of a rich industrialist, he is drawn into a tangled web of intrigue of sadistic passions and murderous intrigue. The woman, Shizuko, has been receiving threatening letters from an old boyfriend, promising to take his revenge on her for dumping him some years ago. This writer also happens to be the protagonist’s rival, and object of his frequent ridicule for writing lurid and sexually-charged stories. Taking a cue from giallo, Kato brings the story to life in bold, lush colors that pop off the screen, and frequent use of low-angle shots create a world of dread and arousal. Some of the sequences in this one are the sexiest I have seen on screen in a while, but it is that elegant sexy, the kind hidden beneath reserved and polite manners. Beast in the Shadows combines the suspense of Hitchcock and the fatalism of Lang to a startling effect; despite being based on a literary work, Kato’s direction of this tale is something that only the cinema can provide. He takes the voyeuristic nature of the cinema to an extreme here, the audience is a peeping tom, seeing things no one should be seeing, always eavesdropping, lurking were they should not be lurking. Beware.
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I like to make a map like this every now and again to catalog which countries I have seen movies from. For definition purposes, I consider a country to be a sovereign state, so dependent territories like Bermuda count as a part of the UK. However, Greenland, Puerto Rico, and the Faeroe Islands, I have counted as “sovereign nations”, because they are so loosely affiliated with their “mother states”, have made domestic productions, and can declare independence (or in the case of Greenland, will).
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I put off writing about this one for a few days, because it is a rather difficult nut to crack. This is not to say that Short Memory, directed by Argentine expat Eduardo de Gregorio (Gregorio previously worked on the scripts for Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating
, and Duelle; Rivette himself makes a cameo in this film) is a difficult film to watch; on the contrary, it is a labyrinthine and pulse-pounding thriller about hunting down ex-Nazis and their associates, but unlike many films of this distinct sub-genre, its heroes are just as morally compromising as its villains (and are they even really villains?). Judith Mesnil is a translator who works for UNESCO, and has just been tasked with collecting and sorting through the writings of a late writer, who was working on publishing a book about Latin American Nazi smugglers when he died in a mysterious car accident. She becomes curious, and decides to investigate. Soon, Judith meets Frank Barila, who also has quite the interest in tracking down these individuals, and it is not long before Judith is sucked into something that may consume her. Short Memory is a rather Borgesian film in nature, it has that lucid, yet distorted quality that many of Borges’ stories have, and much of the plot is revealed through various documents that Judith sifts through. Gregorio’s film is moody, sombre, and gray. The mood is Melvillian at times, but perhaps even more low-key. Bulle Ogier makes an appearance as the serpentine mistress and cohort of the ringleader of the Nazi smuggling gang, and is perhaps the most terrifying of the various characters, the only truly evil one. One reviewer described her as a kind of Eva Peron like figure, and she does indeed resemble Evita a great deal. It fits in with Gregorio’s indulging in the often-times true mythology of Nazis in Latin America. What haunted me most, though, was the morally compromising nature of our “heroes”, who are really fighting to avenge people just as bad as those who killed them. Many films feature complicated anti-heroes, but these characters are ordinary, everyday, common folk. That is far scarier.
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When a young woman kills her child and herself, Detective Andrey Konstantinovich is called in to fill out the routine paperwork and to try and establish some sort of motive. But when he meets the deceased woman’s lover, he tells Andrey to just let it go, and not to get involved. There are apparently supernatural forces at work that drove this woman to suicide. Soon enough, Andrey meets Marina, the woman’s beautiful sister, and falls in love with her, but with his newfound love comes newfound horror; the ghost of Marina’s father, who haunted her late sister, is also haunting her. It turns out her father is a vengeful spirit known as a frozie, whose only goal is to torment the living and drive them to suicide. His next targets are none other than Andrey, Marina, and her little daughter. Made on almost no budget a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Contact is a genuinely spine-tingling film. Slowly building up to an explosive conclusion, it is seeped in a quintessential Russian atmosphere; cold, grimy, oppressive, snowy, and gray. Very much Lovecraftian in nature, this is not a joyous or uplifting film by any means, it is full of sorrow and anguish, there is no respite for its weary characters. A review on IMDb says the director, Albert S. Mkrtchyan almost suffered the same tragic fate as his protagonist, and did not make another movie for almost two decades, right before he died. There are some problems here, though, dialogue heavy scenes tend to drag on, especially in the first half of the film, and the copy available is ripped from a shoddy VHS. This is a film in desperate need of restoration, as much of the visual atmosphere is buried under blur, grain, and bad contrast. But for fans of horror and Russian cinema, this one is a must-see regardless.
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