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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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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Aventuras de Juan Quin Quin (1967) aka The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin

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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Chemi baba (1929) aka My Grandmother


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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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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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Kurotokage (1968) aka Black Lizard

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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O Testamento do Senhor Napumoceno (1997) aka Testamento

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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Keshtzarhaye sepid (2009) aka White Meadows

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 no injû (1977) aka Beast in the Shadows

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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Alias ‘La Gringa’ (1991)

Germán Gonzále, alias “La Gringa”, because he once escaped from prison disguised as a white woman, is a master jailbreaker. During his most recent stint in prison, La Gringa meets a university professor, falsely imprisoned on charges of terrorism. The Professor is locked in the wing with hundreds of members of the ultra-violent, psychopathic, Maoist guerrilla group, the Shining Path, that has fought a bloody and protracted war with the Peruvian government since the 1980s. It is not long before the two men strike up a friendship. When The Professor saves La Gringa from being killed by an old friend turned enemy, La Gringa is forever indebted to his friend and savior; when La Gringa escapes, he has an attack of conscience, and decides he must return to save his friend before it is too late. This decision, however, turns out to be a tragic one. Shot with all the hardboiled style of a gripping prison drama, Alias ‘La Gringa’ is also a probing portrait into the fractured Peruvian society of the 1990s, where the people were squeezed between the authoritarian right-wing presidency of Alberto Fujimori, and the unrelenting terror of the Shining Path. The Professor acts as a kind of moral compass, rejecting both the state and the rebels, and instead devoting himself to a path of understanding. La Gringa, despite being a common criminal, lives by his own code of honor as well; he refuses to kill, and ultimately wants to publish his journals to show the people the deplorable conditions the prisoners face. The dynamic between the two men forms the heart of the film, it is surely a beautiful portrait of male bonding. In the end, the political is personal, because it is everyday people that lose out, despite supposedly being the subject of all conflict. Shot with passion and conviction, Alias ‘La Gringa’ is a film that deserves wider exposure and recognition.

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Countries I Have Seen Movies From

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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La Mémoire Courte (1979) aka Short Memory

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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Prikosnoveniye (1992) aka The Contact

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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Få meg på, for faen (2011) aka Turn Me On, Goddamit!

Over the years there have been plenty of comedies made about horny high school boys desperate for sex with hot girls, but not so many about horny high school girls desperate for sex with hot guys. Turn Me On, Goddamit, is probably one of the few (and it was made by an actual female, no less!). Alma is a fifteen year old girl living in small town Norway, who really, really wants to have sex. She passes her days masturbating to porno magazines and the sultry voices of phone sex operators, and fantasizes about almost everyone around her. When the object of her desires, Artur, pokes her with his erect penis at a party, she quickly tells everyone about it, only to be shot down and not believed. Naturally, her life becomes an adolescent hell as her friend Ingrid, who also likes Artur, turns her whole high school against her. What is so refreshing about this film is how honest it is in its portrayal of adolescence. Director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen does not fall back on the usual cliches and sentimentality, and her young actors actually look and act like teenagers. It perfectly captures the awkwardness of those painful years, but without overdoing it, or falling into the knowing smarminess that so dominates independent cinema today. Balance is the key word here; the various emotional and thematic elements are carefully held in a perfect balance, keeping the film from spilling over, and it is because of this, that Turn Me On, Goddamit is more easy to relate to than other films exploring the same topic, because it does not spill over. Easily one of the best teenage comedies in recent memory.

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Crónica dos Bons Malandros (1984) aka Thick as Thieves

This is one odd film. Imagine Monty Python meets Jean-Luc Godard as written by Thomas Pynchon on acid and you come close to grasping what Fernando Lopes’ Thick as Thieves is all about. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating, but there really is no other word to describe this one than “odd”. The bare-bones plot is about a gang of thieves who only carry out robberies using peaceful methods. They have been contracted by the “Italian” to rob one of Protugal’s most famous museums of priceless works of art. To execute their plan, they will release a swarm of bees to foment a general panic before making off with the artwork. While meeting in a Japanese-themed bar the members of the gang all recount how they entered a life of crime; these vignettes being presented in forms ranging from a puppet show to a movie trailer. Dripping in psychedelic colors and fantastical set pieces, Thick as Thieves is certainly a visual treat. It is like a Saturday Morning Cartoon come to life; there are even wacky and wild car chases straight out of your average Hanna-Barbera show. The actual robbery is presented as a surreal music video of abstract animations and bizarre, sexual drawings, and shots of bees against a black background. It is perhaps one of the most transcendent moments I have seen in a film recently. But the movie really does not work, or maybe it did in 1980s Portugal, but the years have not been kind to this outing; it lacks a tangible human dimension, and there is absolutely nothing to stimulate an emotional connection with these characters. It revels too much in its knee-slapping postmodern antics, but it is intriguing. Much of the humor is also lost in translation, reading the subtitles it is obvious many of the jokes do not translate into English. Thick as Thieves was really made for a domestic, contemporary audience; made a decade after the Carnation Revolution, the satire is aimed at the state of Portuguese society in the eighties (in one scene, a campaign poster for then-President António Ramalho Eanes winks at the camera). Still, there is enough silliness to go around, but this one has not aged well.

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Iguana (1988)

 
Set during the nineteenth century, Iguana tells the story of Oberlus, a deformed harpooner, who has been branded the “Iguana” by his drunken and sadistic shipmates, who revel in torturing and abusing him. When Oberlus jumps ship, he sets himself up on a deserted island, and declares a “war on humanity”. Making himself king of the island, he captures anyone unlucky enough to wash up on its shores and makes them his slaves. But when a tempestuous and independent woman winds up on the island, the Iguana may have met his match. Monte Hellman is certainly one of the more underrated of the wave of American filmmakers that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies. Like Scorsese, Hellman’s favorite subjects are men living on the fringes of society, who are both struggling to be a part of the social order, while also at odds with it. But Hellman’s direction is a lot less “Hollywood” than Scorsese’s. His films are shot in a low-key, sometimes gritty, sometimes poetic style; they are very down-to-Earth, and very much in tune with their character’s psychology. On one level Iguana is this sweeping adventure, with elements of the thriller, romance, and even horror (in a possible reference to Herzog, a man gets his head chopped off, and continues to move his mouth for a split second afterwards), but it is also very much not sweeping, it is insular, there are a lot of ellipses; scenes fade into one another without much warning as to what is coming next, a dramatic event is succeeded by one that is very ordinary. But that is where the charm of Hellman’s filmmaking lies, it is raw, sensual, but most of all accessible. It is very proletarian in nature, but also romantic in the best sense of the word. Iguana is brutal and disturbing, at times funny, and it is a searing character study. Few directors have approached the topic with such an unsentimental eye.

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