Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Dragon Arrives!, A (2016)

Review #1,342

Director:  Mani Haghighi
Cast:   Amir Jadidi, Ehsan Goodarzi, Homayoun Ghanizadeh
Plot:  An orange Chevrolet Impala drives across a cemetery towards an abandoned shipwreck in the middle of a desert landscape.  It is the 22nd of January, 1965.  The day before, the Iranian prime minister was shot dead in front of the parliament building.

Genre:  Adventure / Mystery 
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  105min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be NC16)
International Sales:  The Match Factory

You haven’t quite seen how Iranian cinema can be mutated until you have seen A Dragon Arrives!.  In competition for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film is unclassifiable and difficult to explain.  It is one of those head-scratchers that is puzzling not just in its content, but in its form and very existence.  So let me try to articulate what you can expect from the film, without revealing anything substantial. 

A Dragon Arrives! is a political mystery wrapped in some kind of meta-structure that privileges a fusion of genres and realities.  There’s so much going on that it is easy to be confused, not to mention that the film has no qualms in torturing you in that way.  The rewards are not exactly enlightening, but it is a stylish and one-of-a-kind journey worth taking. 

It starts off with an interrogation sequence, presumably the aftermath of a political assassination that allegedly sparked a suicide from a prisoner.  As the film unravels, director Mani Haghighi gives us a surreal flashback trip to a huge, rusty ship stuck in the middle of the desert.  The film also intercuts with documentary footage of Haghighi speaking about how his grandfather's film—The Brick and the Mirror (1965), a landmark Iranian work by Ebrahim Golestan—is linked to aforementioned events. 

The blend of fiction and reality, reenactments of the past, and the constant probing for truth and closure do echo such Iranian films as Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), but A Dragon Arrives! plunges headfirst into unchartered territory with its playful, even subversive treatise on genre. 

In particular, Haghighi's picture is a rare Iranian film that references elements of the Western (the desert landscape is no less harsher or spectacular than Monument Valley), while doubling up as a pseudo-detective movie (a character wears a hat and suit like a hardboiled investigator in an American noir).  Perhaps most prominently, the central characters travel in a bright orange Chevrolet Impala. 

If all these aren’t symbolic of the film's conscious embracement of Westernized aesthetics, and a complete overturn of the social realist ideologies and raw aesthetics that have grounded what we have come to know as Iranian cinema, then its all-too-obvious contextual irony would have been lost.

Backed by thumping, energetic, almost heavy-metal-ish music, A Dragon Arrives! will leave you fascinated and perplexed in equal measure.  This is no doubt a sheer oddity of contemporary Iranian cinema.

Verdict:  There’s so much going on in this stylish fusion of genres and narrative styles that you will be left fascinated and perplexed in equal measure—what a sheer oddity of contemporary Iranian cinema.  


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Saturday, August 20, 2016

BFG, The (2016)

Review #1,341

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Cast:  Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall
Plot:  A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kind-hearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Genre:  Adventure / Family / Fantasy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  117min
Rating:  PG for action/peril, some scary moments and brief rude humor
Distributor:  Walt Disney Studios

“Your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.”

Steven Spielberg had wanted to make The BFG for more than twenty years, so it is indeed a dream come true for him.  It is also his first feature film for Walt Disney Studios, and a long-awaited reunion with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial scribe, the late Melissa Mathison. 

At nearly 70 years young, Spielberg rekindles the innocence of childhood with his latest effort, a nod to good old-fashioned storytelling and the magic of movies.  After several years dealing with more serious historical themes of war, freedom and politics in such films as War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015), Spielberg the fabulist emerges once again to meet with Roald Dahl's fascinating prose. 

The result is a tale well-told, but perhaps told too well and too conscientiously that it loses any genuine sense of free-spirited wonder.  Through the marvel that is performance capture technology, Mark Rylance (from Bridge of Spies) is transplanted into the body of a giant, with a full range of movements, mannerisms and expressions. 

His character accidentally meets Sophie (Ruby Barnhill in her feature debut) one night, snatches her out of the orphanage and takes her to ‘Giant Country', out of fear that she might spread the rumour of giants lurking in the night to the human world.  An awkward friendship forms as the reserved and mild-mannered BFG struggles with language, while the brave Sophie wants to return home.

Spielberg develops their chemistry pretty well, and they share numerous moments of emotion and mutual trust.  This is important because ‘Giant Country’ is a very dangerous place to be in with all kinds of human-chomping giants out for Sophie’s flesh and blood—but to be honest, do we really feel that?  The place doesn’t really seem as threatening as it should.  There’s no sense of suspense, other than the thrill of seeing Sophie escape unharmed from one scenario to another. 

I think there is something uncharacteristically lacking in Spielberg’s work here—the film’s propensity for narrative and character propulsion, or the lack thereof.  The movie may be beautiful and aesthetically top-notch, but it feels like the pacing is consistently off by a heartbeat.  All in all, The BFG comes across to me as a somewhat inconsequential entry in the director’s illustrious filmography. 

Verdict:  Spielberg the fabulist meets Roald Dahl’s prose in this light-hearted, old-school tale that is somewhat an inconsequential entry in the director’s illustrious filmography.


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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Guilty of Romance (2011)

Review #1,340

Director:  Sion Sono
Cast:  Makoto Togashi, Megumi Kagurazaka, Kazuya Kojima
Plot:  A grisly murder occurs in a love hotel district.  A police officer is called to investigate on this case.  She will discover the story of two women who, despite appearing respectable on the outside have all manner of darkness hidden away.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery 
Awards:  -
Runtime:  112min (international version) / 144min 
Rating:  R21 for explicit sexual content, graphic nudity and disturbing images.
International Sales:  Films Boutique
Singapore Distributor:  Shaw Organisation

The films of Sion Sono, a preeminent enfant terrible of contemporary Japanese cinema, don’t get screened in Singapore as readily as they should be, but when they do, it’s worth a pop, even if they aren’t necessary great movies.  Guilty of Romance fits that bill in what is a film loaded with explicit sex and (what seems like) contentious misogyny, all to the tune of a stylized mystery thriller that satisfies inconsistently. 

Told in a non-linear fashion in Tarantino-esque chapters, Sono’s film follows a woman investigator as she uncovers a gruesome crime scene in a notorious district with ‘love hotels'.  The investigation is unimportant and takes an unceremonious backseat.  Instead, we plunge head-on into a largely riveting story about a woman's descent into prostitution, not quite in the Vivre Sa Vie (1962) sense, but certainly much more depraved and disturbing. 

It starts off slowly, almost too innocuously as Izumi, a shy and innocent wife to an erotic writer of a husband who expresses little intimacy, gets entrapped by a modeling agency to do sensual—and then sexual—photography and videography.  She is played by Megumi Kagurazaka, who is not just Sono’s spouse, but also an adult video star.

Izumi’s spiral into hell is as shocking as her nonchalance towards selling her body to men, and her soul to an older career woman—an inspiring university professor by day, but a nymphomaniacal prostitute by night—whom she meets at her lowest moment, having been raped by a man with a fetish for balls that splatter pink paint. 

We get excellent, daring performances by the two women, who have no qualms baring all of their bodies and engaging in an almost never-ending array of sexual activities.  Dramatically, Guilty of Romance works to some extent, with several moments of suspense and revelation.  But I wished the entire film was more gripping—it kind of sags in the middle and the pacing could have been tighter.

Sono’s work, part of his ‘Hate’ trilogy that includes Love Exposure (2008) and Cold Fish (2010), is ultimately a study on sexual degradation, reverse-engineered to counter the objectification of women by having their bodies objectified—and commodified—to the extreme, leading to the embracement of feminism through the politics of the (female) body. 

Guilty of Romance treats the act of sex as the final nail in the coffin for men’s lecherous dominance.  For once, or perhaps in Sono’s world—once and for all, the woman has the last laugh.   

Verdict:  Loads of explicit sex and misogyny wrapped in this study on sexual degradation and the politics of the (female) body, but wished it was more gripping.  


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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Review #1,339

Director:  Tsai Ming-liang
Cast:  Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Kiyonobu Mitamura
Plot:  On a dark and wet night, a historic and regal Chinese cinema sees its final film.  Together with a small handful of souls they bid "Goodbye, Dragon Inn".

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize (Venice).
Runtime:  82min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  HomeGreen Films

“No one goes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.”

Anyone who is new to the works of Malaysian-born Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang would be hard-pressed to find a palatable entry point to his canon.  Many of his films are inaccessible in every sense of the word—boring as hell to the common folk, perhaps even too arthouse for purveyors of world cinema, and quite literally a tall order to find a copy with decent transfer, especially for his earlier films. 

So in that context, Goodbye, Dragon Inn presents itself as a welcoming sight.  It is about an old cinema coming to a close, screening its last film, King Hu's swordfighting classic Dragon Inn (1967), to an empty theater on a miserable rainy night.  A few people bother to turn up, including an old man and (presumably) his grandson, and a wandering Japanese tourist likely to be seeking refuge from the downpour.  Surely a movie about the movies would be the best place to start with Tsai?

In many ways, yes.  Goodbye, Dragon Inn is not just an elegy to the demise of the ‘cinema’—both films and spaces—of the 20th century as we had experienced it, but through its pedestrian if oddly haunting pacing, it is also effective as a ghost movie.  

The Japanese dude has benign encounters with apparitions, and with Hu's film playing in the background, we bear witness to how films are essentially spectral images of the past, and how the cinema hall is an appropriation of the cemetery, a communal if also cultural space for both living and dead to reconnect, remember and nostalgicize. 

Yet Tsai also laments the inevitability of decay and death.  And he does so delicately through his craft of slow cinema, giving us time to orient ourselves with the space and its two main inhabitants—the projectionist of 35mm film reels (played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) whom we see sporadically, and the lonely box-office lady (played by Chen Shiang-chyi) who has a bad leg that I suspect was from a terrible fall from the myriad of stairs she has to climb every day. 

All in all, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a minimalist film with stark but poetic long takes, and rather peculiarly, doesn’t have a line of spoken dialogue till the 45th minute.  It also captures a fading memory that yearns to be reclaimed.

Verdict:  An elegy to the demise of the ‘cinema—both films and spaces—of the 20th century as we had experienced it, all to the pedestrian if oddly haunting pacing of Tsai’s delicate craft.  


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Friday, August 12, 2016

Jules and Jim (1962)

Review #1,338

Director:  Francois Truffaut
Cast:  Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
Plot:  Decades of a love triangle concerning two friends and an impulsive woman.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Nom. for 2 BAFTAs - Best Film from any Source and Best Foreign Actress
Runtime:  105min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  MK2

“We played with life and lost.”

So many positive things have been said about Jules and Jim that, without seeing it, one sometimes feels left out of any conversation on director Francois Truffaut.  I have finally seen it, and despite being universally regarded as one of Truffaut’s greatest, and a cornerstone of the French New Wave, the film left me disappointed.  It did not resonate with me as much as I'd hoped. 

One reason is that the film is too full of itself, trying to pride itself as a free-spirited entity that has no rules, flip-flopping its way through the complexities of love and life.  Headlined by Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, who is emblematic of the film's shifty nature, Jules and Jim might be considered bohemian—perhaps even anarchic—in the context of its period setting.  Perhaps this is also a reason it remains a beloved classic of French cinema.

Set through the course of a few decades, Jules and Jim brings the two title characters together, embodied by Austrian actor Oskar Werner and French actor Henri Serre respectively, firstly as the best of friends, and later chasing the same woman of their dreams.  That woman is of course Catherine, whose infectious energy and almost nonchalant attitude towards marriage and love would seduce and frustrate both men equally. 

Truffaut gives us performances that range from the sober to the stylized, though his characters are far too removed from society to earn any form of sympathy from us (or is it me?).  I have to admit that I found the film emotionally stifling, which is curious and ironic because Jules and Jim is as exuberant and expressive a movie as Truffaut has ever made. 

Shot by the legendary Raoul Coutard, the poster boy cinematographer of the French New Wave, Truffaut's work is not short of creativity and vitality, with fascinating 360-degree pans, floating aerial shots, and the use of superimpositions of two images together in unexpected ways.  Georges Delerue's beautiful music also works its magic. 

Jules and Jim must have been a wonder of its time, seemingly refusing to accept the conventions of cinematic storytelling, and dealing with its themes radically.  It is a love story for the ages—and for some, the greatest love triangle ever put on the screen. 

Adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, Jules and Jim is fiercely feministic—Catherine makes her own decisions and toys with the archaic notion of gender conformity.  Some may argue otherwise though—for every blip and downfall, she is seen to actively lead the destruction of any union.  Jim and Jules, of course, remain the best of friends. 

Verdict:  Overrated and perhaps too full of itself, but one can’t deny the vitality and creative spirit of Truffaut’s early work.  


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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fire at Sea (2016)

Review #1,337

Director:  Gianfranco Rosi
Plot:  Capturing life on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the European migrant crisis.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  114min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Doc & Film International

Gianfranco Rosi has accomplished something of a rare feat, and for a documentary filmmaker no less, by winning the Venice Golden Lion (for Sacro Gra in 2013) and the Golden Berlin Bear for his follow-up, Fire at Sea.  While I had reservations towards his overrated and underwhelming previous film, his latest is every bit deserving of top honours. 

A remarkable work that is also tremendously urgent, Fire at Sea documents the troubling migrant crisis from the vantage point of the Italian island of Lampedusa, home to laidback fishermen and their families.  It is, however, also at the receiving end of hundreds of overcrowded boats that arrive at the island in search of refuge. 

Many do not survive during the journey, and nobody really knows how many of these boats have been lost in the fire of the sea's belly.  This is heartbreaking and distressing for some of the townsfolk, particularly its marine rescuers and doctors.  The rest, including a boy who wanders the island's natural habitat with a self-made catapult, go on with their daily lives—learning boating, cooking, and dedicating songs to their loved ones through the town's only radio deejay. 

Rosi’s paints two disparate pictures, seemingly unrelated except through geography.   He gives us shots of the island’s terrain and shots of the sea, juxtaposing their tranquility and imagined terror respectively, all without giving us any semblance of narrated context. 

The closest we come to having some kind of background—to the migrant crisis—is a painfully-felt sequence of a man singing-lamenting their journey of exile.  It’s one of the documentary’s most emotional moments.  Rosi’s camera also doesn’t shy away from the dead bodies that come with the boats.  It doesn’t prolong on them, but we see enough to be devastated. 

But perhaps what is most telling—or perhaps most symbolic—of the never-ending migrant crisis comes from the actions of the aforementioned boy.  In a number of scenes, including the final shot, he imitates holding a machine gun and firing at will into the horizon.  That’s the reality—somewhere beyond that horizon, massacres are happening, people are fleeing, and boats are coming.

Verdict:  A deserving Golden Berlin Bear winner that powerfully documents the troubling migrant crisis from the vantage point of an Italian island and her life-goes-on inhabitants.  


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