Thursday, September 16, 2010
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The ironically titled Danish film 'Terribly Happy' is the tale of a cop sent to serve as local Marshall in a remote border town in South Jutland called Skarrild that doesn't need cops or have much use for them. It's a place where nothing much happens. Ha! Well -- that's what they say. This part of the country, you don't know if you're coming or going. People use the same monosyllable, "Mojn" (pronounced "moyn") to say both "hello" and "goodbye." Men of few words, they are, these boozy locals, who like to settle scores their way, not "by the book." Klepto kids are just boxed brutally on the ears and sent packing. There's a bog that swallows up junk, sometimes a cow, maybe some darker secrets. This place is insular, mysterious, and weird. And a bog, like a pistol, once introduced, must be used.
'Frygtelig lykkelig' (it sounds funnier in Danish) has its own rhythm and momentum, and a snappy style including a sound design that's sometimes explosive, sometimes ironic. The film's consistently effective, and has a unique feel, though at times its hodgepodge of genres and stylistic borrowings evokes Coen brothers (especially 'Blood Simple') and David Lynch work as it would be if the American auteurs had filmed in Danish in consultation with Aki Kaurismaki. A mix of psychological thriller, horror story, and neo-noir, it moves fast but also manages to take the time necessary to also be a mood piece in which the town vies with the cop for the role of protagonist.
Here are the outlines, but the details have to be omitted because it's all in the surprises and twists. Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) is the policeman from Copenhagen sent out here because he's had a mental breakdown some time ago. He has, shall we say, anger issues. "You're working your way up?" somebody says. Again: ha! He's in serious limbo. He looks convincing in his police uniform and has a modicum of leading man looks. But then again there's something a bit fuzzy about him too -- something a bit lost. He misses an estranged or divorced wife back home, and repeatedly tries to call her and a little daughter, but without results. He has messed up in some way, and this is a punishment assignment.
Like many noir heroes, Robert comes on the scene already in trouble and immediately gets into more. A pretty but dicey blond called Ingerlise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), appears, saying her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) has beaten her. She barges in on Robert the way many a dubious babe has appeared on a hapless noir detective's doorstep. It's not so much a domestic squabble complaint as an attempted seduction -- and instant jeopardy for Robert. He can't ignore Ingerlise but there's no safe way to deal with her. The local rule against outside "by the book" punishments is compounded by the fact that Jørgen turns out to be a scary dude, the town bully; also a man said to have fathered a number of children around town.
The only kids we see are shoplifters corralled by the local grocer, whom Robert learns to smack as instructed rather than book (the kids, that is, not the grocer). And then there's the well-dressed Dorothe (Mathilde Maack), Ingerlise and Jørgen's little girl, who's often seen creepily pushing a big baby carriage around the town's empty, haunted streets with her teddy bear inside. It seems when bad stuff begins at home, she escapes by pushing the carriage. Funnily enough rumor has it she's not Jørgen's. You just don't know, around here.
Genz toys with the unexpected in ways that transcend the film's various genres. These include the Western too, since Jørgen wears a ten-gallon hat and, as odd and menacing at times as Dennis Hopper's bad guy in 'Blue Velvet,' he winds up in a "shoot out" against Robert. Only, in truly Danish style, the shots exchanged are of whiskey, alternating with chugged bottles of beer. (Another bar regular's face is a dead ringer for Hopper's.)
Robert's an outsider but it's never fully clear whether Skarrild wants to exclude him or lock him in forever as one of theirs. His tarnished rep appeals to them because the town's own morals are generally shaky. There's a running card game of the self-declared "quack" Dr. Zerlang (Lars Brygmann) and other local fixtures want Robert for a fourth at the card table. "Everyone knows everything but says nothing" about you in this town, is the rule, and so they know Robert's secrets when he arrives and soon know more in the nightmare Ingerlise and Jørgen force upon him, which he may eventually resolve, or make worse; he must let the town decide. The town has the last laugh, but so do we.
Adapted from a novel by Erling Jepsen,'Terribly Happy' has been richly rewarded in Denmark for its skillful direction, cinematography, writing, and acting. Henrik Ruben Genz obviously had fun making this. It probably didn't hurt much that both he and Erling Jepsen are from the South Jutland region.
Roman de gare is a complex film that begins almost too convoluted, but ends on a perfect note of closure. A story about a man on a journey for research on his next book becomes a visualization of the same suspense aspects he is manifesting in his head for the novel. We as an audience are hard-pressed to decide whether this man is truly a writer, a teacher who has left his school and family behind, an escaped serial killer magician, or, yes, God himself. Much like the soon to be lead role in his latest masterpiece of fiction, he actually becomes each one, playing the parts at just the right time until we finally see how everything that occurs has been orchestrated by his actions. It is not that he meant for it all to happen, no, chance and fate played a part as well. However, when all is said and done, Pierre Laclos has put his hands to the dough and molded a series of events in the real world to mirror the freedom he has in his mind when composing his thrillers. An unlikely God, Laclos takes himself seriously for once and decides to step out of the shadows that have been shrouding him for too long. The ghost is ready to take shape.
The first twenty minutes or so of this film can be quite disorienting. Timelines jump and characters appear and disappear making way for a completely different set of people to take center stage. What is shown becomes so oddly juxtaposed that I began to think this was to be a sort of Lynchian piece, showing multiple planes of reality, maybe even visualizing the novel in conjunction with the author's search for inspiration. The fact that we are introduced to the celebrated writer Judith Ralitzer straight away, talking about her new novel God, The Other, yet are soon whisked to meet Laclos as he travels just after the release of her previous book, confusing us as to where we are in time, begins to make us question what is real and what is not. Allusions to a killer magician and the disappearance of a woman's husband plant the seeds that our hero Laclos could be some sort of nefarious creature, playing a role with the young woman he kindly drives home after her blowup with her fiancé. Maybe this is the man that abandoned his family, or maybe he is the killer that murdered said man and took his identity, or maybe still he is neither and just a pawn in the hands of the filmmaker. My mind was racing trying to work out what might be happening, but thankfully as the story progresses, these questions are answered, every single thread finds a connection to each other—and not in the simple ways you assume they will—and the tale hits its stride as it sticks to one present time until finding its way back to the beginning of the film, which in reality is the end of the story.
That last convoluted paragraph might have your mind reeling now before you even experience the film itself, but rest assured, it all does make sense. Roman de gare isn't some trite piece with its only goal being to manipulate and confuse, no, it does have a place it wants to go to and eventually reaches that destination. Every move is carefully orchestrated and infuses a lot of humor with the dark subject matter being portrayed. When you hear the description that will be used for the back of the book jacket of God, The Other, just remember it because I could have probably copied those words down here and it would have served perfectly as a review of the film. Because in essence, the novel being written as the movie goes on is the movie itself. Like that scene in Spaceballs when they decide to watch the movie they are in and eventually find themselves on a live feed as they fast-forwarded too far—that is this film. What is shown to us is what is written in the book, even that which happens after its publishing. It is the perfect crime in double.
Writer/director Claude Lelouch has crafted a very special thing here, always keeping the viewers on their toes, surprising even when it is obvious what will happen next. I will admit to never having heard of this former Oscar winning screenwriter, but suffice it to say, he has been added to my consciousness to try a seek his previous and future work. The story is what really succeeds, but it couldn't have done it without a really well versed cast. Fanny Ardent is great as Ralitzer, conniving and persuasive, you can never tell what she is capable of and in some instances aren't given the opportunity to find out as other characters are one step ahead of her; Audrey Dana is gorgeous and affecting as Huguette, the heroine of the film and novel alike; and Dominique Pinon is wonderful as always playing Laclos, stealing the show with his affable charm and kind heart—no one plays the ordinary man alive with life better. A common face amongst the work of auteur Jenuet, Pinon shows that he can carry a movie and hopefully will continue to do so in the years to come.
Thursday, September 02, 2010
Central Station begins with a shot of several large groups of people pouring out of train carriages and onto the platform at a local train station. The shot is linked to the next scene that takes place on ground level of the station, that being a pouring out of emotions that happens when several people partake in dictating letters to a woman they've never met but entrust to write down what they've said before mailing them off to the chosen address' of loved ones. Just in the opening, director Walter Salles foretells the spilling out of emotion the characters will go through in this film whilst, some might argue, bringing to attention the illiteracy problem that he believes plagues his native Brazil. The opening also goes a long way in establishing the protagonist of the film, a certain Dora (Montenegro), and how she is 'before' the film develops her. Central Station is, essentially, a road movie but it is one of the better road movies that I have ever seen. It is a humbling and thoroughly interesting piece that studies two people of binary oppositions in a situation that consistently pushes weight down on top of a delicate mindset that is possessed by the protagonist.
As a character, Dora is initially unlikable. She spends her days writing out letters dictated to her by illiterate people but rarely posts them to their respective addresses. She is friendless, bar a loose woman named Irene (Pêra) whom visits from the apartment downstairs, and does not have any family or pets. But what makes Central Station so memorable is the gradual changes Dora undergoes in order to become a better person and this is accomplished through the time she spends with a very young boy named Josué (de Oliveira). So the film is a character study, made in a language that is not of the English variety and stretches out to a little bit under two hours. But what brought it its success, I think, is its familiarity in regards to structure, a constantly shifting film that moves on down its single strand arc, effortlessly gliding from location to location and setup to pay-off. The beginning of Dora's transformation occurs not so far from her own door given how many miles she must travel in this film. She witnesses a young boy steal something from a stand before he is chased by security and mercilessly shot in a desolate area near the station.
The initial incident from the outside that interrupts Dora's life, which itself could constitute as the set up, is her acquiring of Josué, when a tragedy befalls him. She figures he is helpless and may need to steal to live, similarly to what the prior, now dead, youth had to do also. The centre of the film revolves around Dora delivering Josué to his father, an address that she acquired a few days earlier when the boy's own mother dictated a letter to her. The character's goal is in a very remote and far off place, too many bus rides and truck lifts away to be reached in a relatively quick time. But complications to do with people having moved on or being missing equate to the two having to trek on to the point where it would be wiser to continue into the unknown rather than just turn back, since a certain point as been crossed. During this time, Dora will undergo a transformation.
The ideas behind the film are perfectly captured by a truck driver, whose words double up as the film's entire study, something the author(s) wants to make quite clear. At one point, whilst driving flat out on the open road, the trucker exclaims that 'the open road has changed him'. Not only this but 'many times' when discussing his job and his experiences with Dora. Principally this is exactly the point. Central Station, being the 'road movie' that it is, allows two or slightly more persons to learn more about themselves as they travel on a continuous route of no return. This is the crux of the film as explained by an individual who is helpful for as long as he needs to be, states what he needs to state before being removed from the text once his kind-natured spirit is brought into repute for aiding in some shoplifting. Additionally, the boy Josué himself brings to both our and Dora's attention Dora's flaws.
If the demonisation of Josué's father is very much present as this uncaring and far away individual, who enjoyed being under the influence of alcohol, then the boy points out Dora bears a similar mindset with her attitudes to alcohol. The statement draws on parallels with the father, as this uncaring and quite solemn individual who doesn't see job through. Then we remember Dora's attitude to all the letters she wrote and to the people she took money off of, while she insulted them in the process. Is Dora any better than the boy's father? Did she ever stop to think of this? Perhaps the father is a better person for at least he, as pointed out by the boy, could mould wood and earn a living out of a skill. While thoroughly engaging and always interesting as interactions and situations are played out, Central Station takes time to develop exchanges and studies like all great, slow-burning character studies do. The film is rewarding in a spiritual, dramatic and emotional sense and it could quite feasibly be labelled as one of the better films to ever come out of South America.
Is it actually possible that the Coen brothers, while in the process of scripting a movie like, say No Country For Old Men or Miller’s Crossing somehow got lost in a village in Spain, trading their way out in return for one of their scripts, and that script has made it out today into a brilliant thriller, so reminiscent of their style, only this time at the hands of an unknown Spanish filmmaker, in fact his very first directorial venture?? Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo seems very denying, though. He could have, with such a prized script approached any big production house and claimed fame to someone else’s ingenuity. Why then, did he decide to start his work from where he finds himself at home, i.e. rural Spain? Why cast a bunch of unknown actors into a promising script? And what on earth made him venture so far out into the desolateness that he claims, is the becoming of the smaller villages within Spain? Perhaps, there lies an ulterior motive in this brilliant script. And perhaps he did, after all script the movie himself. It’s an insult to any American cinephile, who has no conceptual idea that countries across the Atlantic also make movies, and better ones too.
Night of the Sunflowers is not necessarily a character study. We simply have here, a series of unfortunate events that results out of a meeting by chance, between a rapist and murderer, and his next victim. The rapist will try to victimize a young woman, and who she is and where it all takes place play a decisive part in the violent events that will ensue. So this movie has several strong points. One of them is showing how someone completely unrelated to the rest of the main characters of the story, someone who meets one of those people (the young woman) by chance, can be the trigger for all we're about to see. Then, the structure is very attractive too, as the director tries to make full portraits of each important character and show us, not only what they're doing there, but where they come from, in every sense; he shows us what that person is like, their personality and motivations, and what they want, basically; then he drops that character into the spiral of events that have been started by the attack to the young woman, and so comes this suspenseful story, involving two speleologists, the girlfriend of their leader, a very honest and stern old cop and a dishonest, corrupt young one, and two old men who live in an otherwise derelict village.
Jorge Sánchez’s script takes us on a trail of deceit and murder, edging us to rationalize the circumstances in which these incidents take place. We somehow do exactly that, with no remorse as to the consequences, in the light of what we think is significant or obscure. All that rationalization later makes us feel guilty in a brilliant epiphany towards the end. Somehow, the source of all the evil here is shown as what comes with the arrival of outsiders into an otherwise placid village life. The difference between the natives and the townsfolk is so apparent; it’s literally chalked in black and white. On a later introspection, it is exactly this difference which boils down the series of crimes -unknowingly committed- to what is right and what is wrong. Somehow, we find ourselves at the receiving end of a basic moral instinct which we uphold when faced with a more societal setting. And that, according to Jorge Sánchez is a more obstinate, impervious and obscene act than the real crime we see here.
Even as you start watching "Walk on water", a few apparent cues can reveal to you the true nature of the film's purpose. The film's title is biblical, the lead actor doesn't look like a villain he purports, there will be some sort of transformation in his outlook, and almost every other movie that comes out of Israel preaches peace.
Therefore, it doesn't take long for the curiosity to wane, and the questions of what and who turn into when and how. Eytan Fox applies almost all of his focus on the characters, adhering to strict, tested and tried formats of storytelling: initial depiction of principal character, bring about a new channel of action, apply his potentials to the plan of action, which would eventually affect him, take a toll on him, and finally render him changed..
However, the importance of this film cannot be denied a place amongst the handful of films that offer solutions instead of lamenting, to generations scarred by war and conflict. Here we have, a film examining the compromised relationship between Jews and Germans in a contemporary, modern society that is potentially thorny enough: a political thriller-cum-gay/straight-tolerance-fable examining the relationship that appears downright daunting.
Only a month since his wife's suicide, Mossad master assassin Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi) insists on taking on a new mission: finding the whereabouts of an aging Nazi, who has hid for decades in Argentina but has suddenly disappeared. The Israeli intelligent service suspects he may be trying to contact his family in Germany. The man's atoning granddaughter lives in an Israeli Kibbutz where her lanky brother Axel (Knut Berger) is due for a visit. Posing as Axel's tour guide, Eyal becomes his confidant and wiretaps his sister's apartment, gleaming information from "Hansel and Gretel," as Eyal derisively calls them. Axel - a Berlin teacher of immigrant children who also expresses sympathy for the Palestinian cause - is a loopy peacenik in Eyal's eyes. But the men do have something in common, ghosts in their closets: for Eyal, his murderous past; Axel, his family's involvement in the Holocaust.
And with the sexual tension blooming both ways between the two men, as well as between Eyal and Axel's sister, it's only a matter of time before the skeletons hidden inside deep closets come out to dance. And it takes all of their emotional control to prevent that from turning into a horrible pantomime.
At the very beginning of the film, we see Lior soon establishing himself in our perspective, as an Israeli Ethan Hunt slash James Bond alias Jason Bourne. He doesn't seem to involve too much of himself during the first half of the movie, only reaching out with emotional outbursts during the latter half. Knut Berger is a surprise, having not seen him in any German film I've watched; this young man was a revelation. He acts his part with ease, and controlled anger.
The characters change in dissatisfying ways, through verbal exchanges rather than through any organic character growth. In the end, the film desperately tries to establish a visual through-line with one of those dreadful montages comprised of scenes from the film you just saw. However, Fox does handle the climactic confrontation with some flourish, and he may yet be a talent to watch.
Eytan fox knew he was treading dangerous lines here with his characters. He also knew the point where every single diplomatic enmity can be broken down into basic human emotion. It's only a matter of finding the right equation to the right variables, one that leaves no room for undesirable factors. The void of equanimity alone would symbolize peace.