Best known in the west for his supernatural horror films, Onibaba and Kuroneko, filmmaker Kaneto Shindo’s career actually spanned six decades, and is most well known in Japan for his searing dramas about pressing social issues and injustice. Shindo’s 1986 film Black Board is one such film. Predating the hysteria over cyberbullying by twentysomething years, Black Board tells the story of a middle school student who is found murdered; when two of his classmates confess to the crime, they say it was to escape his constant bullying. Through the eyes of an ambitious reporter, the entire case is dissected, and the tumultuous lives of these adolescents unspools before our eyes. On one level, Shindo brings an almost documentary-like realism to the story, but he also indulges in purely cinematic stylization. During the staff meeting at the school, he constantly cuts to shots of the different teacher’s feet shaking; and some sequences feature melancholy and romantic pop ballads. The characters are well-drawn, and realistically reflect actual teenagers. Shindo avoids quick judgements of his characters, and prefers instead to remain an objective observer, only seeking out the truth. Compared to western films about the subject, Shindo’s film may seem quite low-key; as opposed to glamorizing the subject, he almost downplays it, focusing instead on the complicated relationships between the characters. Compare this with Larry Clark’s 2001 film Bully, also about a bullying-related homicide, which reveled in the hedonism of its characters, and Black Board may seem quite flat. But make no mistake, this is a searing and important film, in part because Shindo focuses on the psychological and sociological as opposed to just the events themselves. Not only is Black Board about bullying, but it is a larger expose of Japanese society, and more universally, life in an advanced capitalist economy. The murdered boy comes from a poverty-stricken working class background, and lashes out at society because of the hopelessness he feels when it comes to his own upward mobility. At its heart, Black Board is an indictment of a society that only begins to care when it is too late.
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Imagine a film which consists mostly of the soft-focus close-ups accompanied by lovely music found in giallos, and you have an idea of Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf. The most successful Argentine film of all time, Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf is about a young farmer who lives in a remote mountainous village. Nazareno’s six other siblings and father died tragically before his birth, and as the seventh child he is cursed with lycanthropy. However, the years pass, and Nazareno never turns into a wolf. But when he falls in love with the beautiful Griselda, he is visited by Satan, who informs him that his new passion will trigger the monstrous transformation; his only way out is to renounce his love for Griselda and accept Satan’s bounties of treasure. Nazareno refuses, and soon it begins; when the villagers discover that he is indeed a werewolf, his friends turn against him and begin to hunt him down. Leonardo Favio is one of Argentina’s most respected filmmakers, despite having made only nine films over the past four decades. Shooting in rich colors and soft-focus, Favio conjures up a luscious and erotic dreamworld. The costumes and colors fly by in a magnificent pageantry, much in the tradition of films like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. There is also a homosexual subtext involving the relationship between Nazareno and Satan. However, Favio pushes it beyond ridiculous in this film; it goes further than silly and amusing, and really cannot be taken seriously. This is surely a beautiful film at times, but there is a limit to such shenanigans. But it is worth watching, if just for the gorgeous aesthetics, but do not expect a masterpiece.
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More than anything else, The Image Threads is something new
. Vipin Vijay’s first feature film is in a class of its own, it is one of those films that will polarize even the most dedicated cinephiles, but no one can deny that this is a fresh and exciting new
vision. Vijay really has no contemporaries to compare to, and perhaps his only predecessor is Parajanov. The Image Threads is an elliptical narrative involving a computer science professor, the various women he has cybersex with, and his wicked sorcerer grandfather. The digital world is a realm of magic; Vijay draws upon traditional mythology and folklore, as well as metaphysical philosophies of reincarnation and rebirth. This fantastic romance plays out against some jaw-dropping set pieces. Vijay’s compositions are rich in color and exotic design, and nothing short of surreal. His combination of science fiction and fantasy is not altogether out of place; India is the birthplace of binary code, and has been at the forefront of the digital revolution, and the fluid and ever transforming nature of digital technology is very much in line with the nature of Indian mythology. But ultimately, this is a film about the human desire to connect, and the difficulties of doing so. There is genuine melancholic pathos here. But if there is one problem, it is that the film becomes bogged down in its own experimental nature at times, and is perhaps too heady and esoteric. Vijay sacrifices a certain level of emotional involvement to the film’s overall detriment. Still, The Image Threads is one of the most original and daring films in recent memory, and deserves wider exposure.
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Let me just state ahead of time that the Talking Heads are my favorite band ever. Now that my bias has been established, we can talk about Stop Making Sense. This is easily one of the coolest movies of all time. As an audiovisual phantasmagoria, Stop Making Sense is par excellence; the music, the lighting, the energy, the crazy dances and funky costumes, it is all just so intoxicating and magical. The only thing better than watching the movie would be seeing the Heads live (I did see David Byrne in concert last summer with St. Vincent, and it was quite the experience). There is something that is just so enjoyable about their music; I must have heard all of these songs dozens of times, and yet they never get old; in fact one could say they are even more enjoyable upon each subsequent listen. The Talking Heads were playful and satirical, but never cynical, and were also deeply emotional and poignant at times. I remember last semester, when I was going to a school away from home, I played This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) on a loop to combat the homesickness, because it made me think of warm nights curled up in my bed with my cat purring next to me. Seeing these songs performed on stage brings them to life in a way just listening to them cannot, they make you get up and sing and dance along with them. Certainly, this is one of the most joyous movies I have ever seen.
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A better title for this movie would be, “What Wouldn’t a Man Do for a Woman Like Shima Iwashita?” When a gruff mountain man kidnaps the widow of an official he murdered, he finds himself bewitched, and takes her for his wife, his life takes a turn for the bizarre as she begins to force him to procure fresh human heads for her screwed up sex games. Is this woman even human, or is she some sort of demon from the nether-realms? Masahiro Shinoda is perhaps my favorite of all Japanese filmmakers. His style is one that can be described as minimalist expressionism; his visuals are often stark and symmetrical, and make use of minimal camera movement, but there is this vibrant and energetic passion to it, too. Like all of his films, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees has the power of myth; it is a traditional Japanese horror story, yes, but Shinoda suffuses it with a thoroughly modern psychosexual outlook, very much in the Freudian tradition. The Demon Wife is dominating and sadistic, manipulating her lover with twisted and animalistic sex. This world of sexual and violent terror plays out against the backdrop of visually sumptuous images and an eerie Takemitsu soundtrack. Shinoda’s films are always less about plot, and more about the worlds he creates; by building a somewhat theatrical barrier between the proceedings on-screen and the audience, Shinoda actually more fully envelops the viewer in his fantastical constructions, but not at the sacrifice of characterization or a gripping narrative. If there is one fault this film has, it is the abrupt transition to the second act that is set in the city. The head hunting just begins without any prior explanation as to why the wife wants these heads. Perhaps this makes it creepier, but it is also disjointed. The ending, however, is easily one of the most spine-chilling in cinema; few directors have created such pure horror.
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Niger is not a country usually associated with homegrown cinema. It is the world’s second poorest country after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite being home to abundant uranium reserves (thank la France). Despite endemic poverty and corruption, Niger has managed to build a significant national cinema, and Moustapha Alassane was at the forefront of this development. Mostly known for his animated shorts starring toads, Alassane also directed quite a few live action features. Toula, or the Water Spirit, is one of his most well known, and one of only two available to purchase. Toula starts in modern-day Niger during a drought, and a young engineer has returned home from Paris to see his father. His father mocks the technology of the modern world, and proceeds to tell him a story from times long past. In a village of old, a drought had devastated the land, because the people did not pay their respects to the snake god of the lake. When the King goes to consult a fortune teller, he is told he must sacrifice his beloved niece, the most beautiful girl in the village, Toula to the snake god. Tragedy ensues. Despite being a narrative feature, Toula feels more like a documentary than anything else. More specifically, it is really a kind of ethnographic study, and while it succeeds in that area, it does not succeed at being gripping and compelling cinema. There is a barrier kept between the audience and the events on screen, and the characters are more archetypes than they are fleshed out human beings. Alassane at times hints at something deeper and more emotional; when Toula is told the snake god demands human blood, she speaks for the only time during the film in a kind of distorted echo. The fortune telling ceremony is rife with powerful imagery, and kinetic camerawork. One has to wonder which audience Alassane had in mind; was it his fellow countrymen? Or was it a western European audience? In a way, the frame story is more interesting than the actual film itself, because it touches upon the issues and challenges facing Nigeriens at the time, and their interpersonal relationships. Is the story a metaphor for colonialism (i.e. that the people have to “sacrifice” themselves to a cruel master)? Or is it just a simple fable? Either or, Toula very much fell short of expectations.
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Shûji Terayama was an artist whose work was, and remains, nothing short of visionary. His third feature film, Pastoral: To Die in the Country, based on his book of poetry of the same name, is perhaps the tightest, most complete, and most satisfying of his films I have seen so far. In Pastoral, Terayama depicts the world of his childhood in a series of fantastical and surreal episodes. Growing up in a rural village, having lost his father in the war, and perpetually isolated from the world-at-large, Terayama’s fictional counterpart delves into the realm of the magical and absurd. On a superficial level, it would be easy to compare Pastoral with Fellini’s Amarcord, but Terayama goes further than Fellini dared to; his images are artificially constructed, yes, but they are not artificial. The world he creates is bizarre, and at times disturbing, but there is a genuine bravado and love for life that exists in it; there are moments of sorrow and trauma, but also joy and exuberance. Always of note in Terayama’s films are the way he combines his images with the soundscape; sections of his films play out like dreamy music videos, albeit a decade before the music video became a fixed part of the culture. Collaborating as always with composer J.A. Seazer, music and sound plays a role that is just as important to the film as the visual elements. The soundtrack is a mixture of hard rock, dream pop, and traditional stylings, with the vocals evoking a melancholy for something out there, somewhere; the eternal cycle of life is contained within these ballads. Though much of Terayama’s work is very much rooted within Japanese culture, full of symbols and rituals whose literal meanings will be lost upon foreign audiences, the spiritual meaning is ever present, there is a universality to his work, and this film especially, that burns brightly.
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Made in the brief democratic opening after the Iranian Revolution, O.K. Mister is certainly one of the most bizarre political comedies ever made. Set in the “Land of Roses and Nightingales”, Sir William Knox D’Arcy has arrived to speculate for oil and bring western culture to the rural villagers. In tow are his minions: the American journalist Stanley, Cinderella, and the crooked archeologist Sir Henry. Hypnotized by Coca-Cola, cheeseburgers, and petrodollars, the villagers abandon their traditional way of life and throw themselves into the new hedonistic world with abandon. O.K. Mister recalls the best outings of Monty Python, the film is full of bizarre visual gags, bright colors, elaborate sets, and slapstick humor. Scenes of hapless villagers excavating archaeological treasures for the British are set to the tune of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soundtrack, Frank Sinatra plays during an English lesson given by Cinderella, D’Arcy gets himself drunk on oil; the satire is acidic and in your face. There is no such thing as subtlety here. O.K. Mister is a genuinely gut-splittingly funny movie, and its message is as relevant as ever in this age of unceasing globalization. If it fails in any area, though, it is its failure to show something deeper than just the colorful political comedy. Towards the end, when the villagers re-learn how to speak their native language again, we are given a hint of the true human element, but it just is not enough.
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Directed by novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Immortal is a film that very much belongs to the realm of heady European art-cinema, the type popularized by directors such as Alain Resnais and Ingmar Bergman. All the tropes are here: a fractured narrative, beautiful black and white cinematography, a sexy female lead, plenty of brooding, and a plot that does not make much, if any, sense. The Immortal is ostensibly about a Frenchman who moves to Turkey, and meets a beautiful, but mysterious woman with whom he has sex with, only for her to abruptly disappear and reappear. In the background are other figures that float in and out of the picture ranging from a silent, grungy child to a sinister man with dogs to a salesman with odd eyes sitting outside of a mosque. One really has to ask, though, would this film be worth watching if it were not for the intoxicatingly beautiful Francoise Brion who plays the female lead? The cinematography certainly is luscious, and the new restoration is absolutely marvelous, and the central mystery is intriguing, engaging, and frustrating, but what does it all add up to? Or, in layman’s terms, is there a point? Personally, I could not be certain that Robbe-Grillet was not screwing with me, but at least if he were, he did so with style. Of note is the impressive sound design. The Turkey of Robbe-Grillet is one of disembodied voices, dogs barking, and calls to prayer that reverberate through an empty echo chamber. Perhaps my problem with the film is that it seemed devoid of any genuine emotion; it is all intellect, but no heart. Intellect can be heartfelt, I have been moved to tears by Resnais’ films, because he recognizes that matters of the mind and matters of the soul are ultimately one and the same. Robbe-Grillet either does not recognize this, or just does not care.
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Edgar Neville is by no means a household name, even among cinephiles and fans of Spanish cinema. In fact, I probably would not have heard of him had I not stumbled upon this film while searching through Karagarga’s collection of Franco-era Spanish cinema. Taking place at the end of the nineteenth century, Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks follows the adventures of young loafer Basilio Beltrán, who spends his evenings wooing a cabaret dancer, and gambling. One night while playing roulette, he is visited by the ghost of a deceased professor of archaeology who implores Basilio to help him in saving his beautiful niece Inés from a deadly fate. Neville, who worked in Hollywood during the thirties helping with the Spanish-language versions of popular films, appropriates a great deal from the Universal horror textbook in his use of chiaroscuro lighting and luminous images. And like James Whale, Neville delivers a mash-up of horror and comedy (Napoleon’s ghost stumbles into the proceedings at one point), as well as elements of the detective story and magical realism. The highlight of the film is the journey into the mysterious underground city populated by the criminal hunchbacks; is an impressive set piece that serves for a thrilling climax. However, Neville’s genre-bending is not always successful; the comedy elements are rather cheesy and could have been thrown out completely. The ending is also a let-down, especially coming after such a climax, in its cop-out use of dues ex machina
. But Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks is worth seeing, if just for the underground city alone. The elements of magical realism and detective fiction are also more successfully incorporated than the comedy elements. Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks is a forgotten classic of Spanish cinema, one that deserves more exposure.
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I am no fan of J.J. Abrams. Lost is about ninety-five hours of bullshit, and his Star Trek movies are just typical action movies with a Star Trek gloss, like those old color televisions that just consisted of putting plastic wrap type material over them. But Super 8 is less an Abrams movie than it is a Spielberg one; it harkens back to the Spielberg of yore, before he started taking himself too seriously, the one who brought us movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Super 8 follows a pack of Goonie-esque adolescents who love making their own no-budget movies. One night while filming a scene for a zombie movie they are working on, their biology teacher drives himself into an oncoming train causing a massive explosion. Soon the military has moved in on their idyllic small town to clean up and look for… something. What is impressive about Super 8 is how well-drawn its teenage protagonists are drawn. They are refreshingly devoid of the usual juvenile potty humor that comes with the territory, act, shockingly, like real middle schoolers. The relationships portrayed are convincing, and evoke genuine pathos, despite falling into the usual Spielberg sentimentality trap. What works so well about Super 8 is how it balances its portrait of adolescence with heart-pounding science fiction. The conspiracy angle evokes the best of The X-Files mythology, and the choice of sinister military men as the antagonists resonates especially in the post-9/11 age. Less impressive is the big reveal, the actual alien itself. Clearly a product of Abrams, the alien looks like something out of a video game, and suffers from a disappointingly uninspired design. The climax of the film is also less-than-stellar, and lacks the magic of the preceding sequences. Super 8, however, is a highly enjoyable ride, and easily one of the best blockbusters of the past few years.
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Described by Susan Wloszczyna
as “‘Toy Story’ … spoofed by Mel Brooks after he ate magic mushrooms while reading George Orwell’s 1984”, The LEGO Movie is also equal parts Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, modern-day Monty Python outing, avant-garde animated feature, and fun family movie (albeit a family movie most of which will just fly over the kiddie’s heads). The LEGO Movie follows the adventures of everyman Emmet, a construction worker who is about as average as it gets, after he stumbles upon the magical “Piece of Resistance”, and discovers that he is the prophesied hero that will save the universe from being destroyed by Lord/President Business. A description hardly does the movie justice, because it is everything that cannot be described that makes it such a unique and enjoyable experience. Indeed, The LEGO Movie is about as mind-bending and trippy as a mainstream Hollywood feature film can get; a good chunk of the movie is a fantastical and stimulating audiovisual extravaganza, rendered in gorgeous animations that bring to life the wonderful world of LEGOs down to the minutest details. Pop culture references abound, ranging from an overly emotional Batman to Abraham Lincoln sporting a hovercraft. Even the 3D aspect is well done, and the creators make great use of the enhanced depth-of-field offered by the technology, and avoid all the headache-inducing pitfalls associated with it. Beyond the film’s entertainment factor, which is very much high, there is a great appeal in its gentle satire and working class protagonist. In an age where the media constantly celebrates and worships the “one-percenters”, there is something very refreshing about Emmet, a hero who is special precisely because he is not special. For a movie designed to sell toys, there is a strong moral backbone here (built with a sophisticated interlocking brick system), and plenty of smiles to go around.
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Sometimes in life you come across a movie that just leaves you so completely dumbfounded that any attempt to try and rationalize it into a coherent set of words is just impossible. This movie, Purana Mandir, by the Ramsay Brothers, is most certainly one of those films. One seriously has to wonder what sort of mind-altering substances were being imbibed during the making of this movie. The plot is simple enough; two hundred years ago, the King of Bijapur, Raja Harimansingh’s daughter is killed by the devil demon Saamri. His army hunts down Saamri, and as punishment for his evil deeds, his head is to be separated from his body so that he may never sin again. But before the sentence is carried out, Saamri curses Harimansingh’s bloodline; every female heir will die during childbirth. Two centuries later, the last descendant of Harimansingh now lives in the city, but is no less rich and influential. Nor has the curse been alleviated. When his beautiful daughter Suman begins to fall in love with the handsome pauper Sanjay, he attempts to forcibly separate the pair lest Saamri’s curse take his daughter. Determined not to allow the curse to come between their love, Sanjay and Suman set out on a road trip to Bijapur with their friends, the mustachioed Anand, and his girlfriend. They soon arrive at the old palace of the Singh family, and things take a turn for the worse…. Despite the plot being reminiscent of many great horror movies, Purana Mandir is anything but ordinary. In true Bollywood style, the film jumps from action to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical to outright terror. Near the beginning, Sanjay and Anand fight off a gang of thugs dressed all in red leisure suits, halfway through, the movie descends into a parody of Sholay without any warning or reason, and there are plentiful close-ups of mammaries. At three hours, Purana Mandir is mind-melting to say the least, but it is also just so invigoratingly entertaining and absurd that one just gets lost in it. This is an experience one must have firsthand.
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Set in a dismal and dusty village in the remote wilds of French West Africa right before World War II, Coup de torchon is about the life of the town’s bumbling police chief, Lucien Cordier. Endlessly abused by his wife, her simpleton “brother”, and constantly beat up by two filthy pimps, Lucien’s life is certainly not one to envy. But one day, after a particular nasty (and literal) ass-kicking, Lucien decides he has had enough and blows the brains out of the two pimps. Next up on the list is his mistress’s brutish husband. Soon Lucien finds himself caught up in a twisting game of deception and murder, as the once gentle buffoon who would not even hurt a fly turns into a sociopathic, self-serving killer. Despite being based on a pulpy crime novel (an American one, set in the deep south no less), Coup de torchon is more of a rambunctious and bizarre dark comedy than it is a hard-boiled crime drama. What is quite fascinating is how well French West Africa stands in for the deep south; racism and violence are endemic, and life is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short. Tavernier’s direction, however, is by turns graceful, energetic, and colorful. The film is certainly a pleasure to look at, and has a catchy soundtrack. Additionally, there is an all-star cast here, with Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert at the helm. Coup de torchon is essential eighties French cinema, and a wonderful discovery.
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In a remote Peruvian hamlet live two sisters, Madeinusa, and Chale. Every year, between Good Friday and Easter, the religiously fervent villagers believe that God is dead, and as such, they are free to do whatever they want. Incest, theft, even murder become the order of the day, and the girls’ father, who also happens to be the mayor, presides over the festivities as a veritable ring leader. But things are different this year, because a gringo from Lima has arrived in town en route to a geological survey for a mining company. The townsfolk, not trusting of strangers, lock him up in a cell, but Made, having never been with a man outside of her father, falls for him, and soon enough things begin to spiral out of control. More than once has this film been described as a kind of Peruvian Wicker Man, but that description does not really accurately describe this film. Madeinusa is certainly quite bizarre and colorful, but it is less scary than it is intriguing. Director Claudia Llosa (the niece of Nobel-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, and filmmaker Luis Llosa) brings a lot to her first directorial effort, and she certainly has her hand on the pulse of her subjects. But it does not quite work. One cannot help but feel that Llosa failed to truly bring her creation to life; there is a curious detachment, and a lack of intensity that one would expect from a film like this. It is as if she were reluctant to allow the viewer to approach the subject matter fully, and because of this reluctance, the film just does not work as well as it should.
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