Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Traveler, The (1974)

Review #1,397

Director:  Abbas Kiarostami
Cast:  Hassan Darabi, Masud Zandbegleh, Mostafa Tari
Plot:  A school boy, neglected by his parents, lies, cheats, and steals to accumulate enough money to afford a bus ride to a large city and a ticket to see his favorite soccer team play.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  71min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG)
Source:  Kanoon

This rarely-seen film (or according to Abbas Kiarostami, his first authentic feature) is a joy to see because it shows us, in retrospect, what a fine filmmaker he would turn out to be.  The title of the film refers to a schoolboy, Qassem, who wants to fulfil his dream—to travel by bus to a famous stadium in Tehran to watch his favourite football team in action. 

He is, however, a terrible and irresponsible son to an ignorant father and a helpless mother, a compulsive liar who tries to talk his way out of things, and accepts punishments without remorse.  With no motivation to study—skipping classes and failing tests is his modus operandi—he seeks solace in football, playing street soccer with friends and harbouring the aforementioned dream, which he will seek to realize in the most crooked of ways—stealing and cheating to obtain enough cash to pay for his ‘secret’ trip.

Kiarostami's neorealist style captures the stark reality of ‘70s Iranian suburban life.  It is a simple town, made up of stone walls and countless alleyways.  At its busiest, we see traders, fruit sellers, men skilled in tools plying their trade.  Kids run about with great enthusiasm, forgetting that their lives will be one of toil and hardship.  Most families are in the lower bracket of the economic class, and the local school seems to be the only beacon of hope. 

The film is at once a privileged glimpse at an ethnic community distant from us, certainly a source of fascination (as is nearly all of Iranian cinema), yet it also tells us a human story of perseverance and hope.  Discounting Qassem’s rotten-kid attitude, which ironically propels him out of his stasis into a new world of strangers, sights and sounds, his is a character who is adaptable, street-smart, and incredibly determined.  This is someone who can—and will—survive in the real world, and the brilliance of Kiarostami is that he doesn’t make us feel guilty for rooting with his protagonist all the way. 

The Traveler is still in good shape, though more work needs to be done to restore it completely.  Part of the Close-Up Criterion Collection Blu-ray supplements, it is an interesting though not highly essential viewing for fans of Kiarostami.  The limitations of a first feature are there for all to see, but the director has fashioned a modest and entertaining film, the first major stepping stone that would chart his path as one of cinema’s foremost chroniclers of the human condition.

Verdict:  A neorealist-inspired first feature by Kiarostami, charting his path to become one of cinema’s foremost chroniclers of the human condition.


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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Man Escaped, A (1956)

Review #1,396

Director:  Robert Bresson
Cast:  François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
Plot:  A French Resistance fighter named François Leterrier attempts to escape a Nazi occupied prison while he awaits a death sentence.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Director and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  99min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
Source:  Gaumont

“I think my courage abandoned me for a moment and I cried.”

You haven’t seen a jailbreak film until you have seen A Man Escaped, one of the greatest pictures of its kind, masterfully envisioned and compellingly constructed by Robert Bresson, one of the medium’s most revered of filmmakers. 

Based on a true story, but loosely adapted to the tune of Bresson’s trademark style that emphasizes not on actors’ performances, but the ‘performance’ of cinema, A Man Escaped tells of Lt. Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), a French resistance officer captured and imprisoned by the Nazis.  As he awaits the verdict, nothing less than a death sentence, he plots a daring and improbable escape from his cell.

Bresson’s film, only his fourth feature, and coming after Diary of a Country Priest (1951), is a work of pure technique, using largely sound (in its various manifestations) to tell the story.  Narration by Fontaine in an uncertain future recalls the events (we aren’t sure if they are his inner thoughts or if he is recounting to someone), which suggests that the film is not about whether he managed to successfully pull off an escape (well, the title says it all), but how he did it. 

You might wonder: how suspenseful could the film be if you already know how the story turns out in the end?  Very.  While narration gives a kind of descriptive quality to the proceedings, diegetic sound effects like bells, door locks, a passing train etc. paint an audio-visual (in this sense aural as visual) of the environment that Fontaine's (and our) eyes aren’t privy to. 

Intricate in its attention to minute physical and aural details, A Man Escaped also sees Bresson inserting excerpts of Mozart’s ‘Mass in C Minor, K. 427, Kyrie’ at certain intervals, creating a solemn mood, and giving us a sober reaction to the human condition under suppression. 

On one hand, the film is an examination of a man’s detailed plan of escape using sharp and precise cinematic techniques of sound and editing.  On the other hand, Bresson’s work embodies echoes of spirituality, a depiction of a disciplined journey in search of self-enlightenment, that in its Christ-like manner hopes to inspire faith in others. 

Bresson would continue to refine his austere style in the spare and economical Pickpocket (1959) and the moving and compassionate Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).  However, it is in A Man Escaped that he finds not just a story with resonant themes, but one that provides him with a constricted physical and psychological space (the prison and imprisonment) to experiment with the cinematic power of sound vis-à-vis the image, and hence broadening our perception of what cinema could be. 

Verdict:  One of the greatest ‘prison escape’ films of all-time, masterfully constructed through the sharp and precise cinematic techniques of the incomparable Bresson.


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Friday, January 13, 2017

El Topo (1970)

Review #1,395

Director:  Alejandro Jodorowsky 
Cast:  Alejandro Jodorowsky, Brontis Jodorowsky, José Legarreta
Plot:  A mysterious black-clad gunfighter wanders a mystical Western landscape encountering multiple bizarre characters.

Genre:  Drama / Western
Awards:  -
Runtime:  125min
Rating:  M18 for mature content
Source:  Abkco

“You are seven years old.  You are a man.  Bury your first toy and your mother's picture.”

Although Alejandro Jodorowsky made waves of controversy with his debut feature Fando and Lis (1968), it was only in 1970 with El Topo that he broke out as one of the medium’s most bizarre filmmakers, and then cementing his early reputation three years later as a cult director with The Holy Mountain

After the shattering disappointment of not being able to make ‘Dune’, the subject of the fascinating Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), one would have to wait till 1989 for Santa Sangre for a Jodorowsky-esque film.  Bookending Santa Sangre were two inconsequential movies—Tusk (1980) and The Rainbow Thief (1990).  He would make a better-late-than-never comeback after more than two decades with The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016).

El Topo, the film that left John Lennon raving madly about, is one of the progenitors of the ‘midnight movie’, sparking the phenomenon that would later see such works as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977) embracing a similar reckoning.  Often considered a counter-cultural Western, or even labelled as an acid Western, Jodorowsky takes familiar iconography associated with the genre, and spins a surreal tale of shocking violence and mystical themes. 

Opening with a gunfighter on a horse, played by Jodorowsky himself, together with his bare-bodied son (literally his very own son) who tags along with him, the film sees the duo encountering a series of strange lawless fighters, all wielding some sense of false authority. 

El Topo is a picture of two parts—the story of the aforementioned God-like gunfighter who dishes out his brand of vengeance, and years later, in a peculiar turn of events, becomes sympathetic to the cause of an underground community of maimed dwarves.  The two-parter story doesn’t quite work coherently, with the second half operating as a Jodorowsky-meets-Tati scenario of dark slapstick humour, but what is consistent are the themes of perversion of religion, race and power dynamics. 

Fuelled by Christian allegories and Eastern religious symbolisms, El Topo is a wild concoction of ideas related to self-enlightenment and redemption, though in the director’s outlandish, even aberrant, world, there is no surprise that the path it takes is both taboo and disturbing.  It is not a particularly great film, but it is certainly one of the most important cult films in history.

Verdict:  Jodorowsky’s breakthrough film is one of the progenitors of the ‘midnight movie’ phenomenon, and has since become one of the most important cult films in history.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Arrival (2016)

Review #1,394

Director:  Denis Villeneuve
Cast:  Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Plot:  When twelve mysterious spacecrafts appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Sci-Fi
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 2 Golden Globes - Best Leading Actress, Best Original Score
Runtime:  116min
Rating:  PG13 for brief strong language
Distributor:  Sony Pictures

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

If Incendies (2010), Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) have established Denis Villeneuve as a consummate filmmaker, Arrival ratifies his status as one of the most consistent and truly fascinating directors working today.  Some have called it a dress rehearsal for Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and if Arrival is any indicator, do expect huge things to come from this guy.  It has been a privilege seeing such a talented filmmaker grow into his own in the last five years. 

Arrival is as much a science-fiction film as it is a humanistic drama that eschews action for a more existential spread of ideas and ideals.  It is a dialogue-driven film, not surprisingly as it is also a linguist's wet dream.  Amy Adams (in a remarkable, sensitive performance) plays Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is tapped by the US military to partner physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in an attempt to translate and make sense of alien communications. 

Why are the aliens here, housed in their humongous, vertical ‘spaceship’ (there are many such objects in other parts of the world) that mysteriously floats above the ground?  It may be the main question on everyone’s lips, but Arrival is more than just seeking rationalisation and answer; it is a film about the need to connect—between human and alien, between human and human, and between nation and nation (such a sensitive and divisive issue moving into 2017). 

Through Villeneuve’s assured direction, and a superb screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’), Arrival is rich in atmosphere, marked by its themes of love, loss and self-discovery, which are often expressed through a mix of melancholy and disquietude.  The ‘look’ of the film, according to the director, is also intentionally dark and murky (lensed by the up-and-coming Bradford Young), as if the entire movie was a bad dream on a rainy morning. 

It is also tense when it needs to be.  The first time Louise goes up into the ship is why we go to the movies—it is a sequence where Villeneuve has perfectly summoned the power of imagery and sound.  Composer Johann Johannsson’s work is crucial, straddling between music and sound design, and is without a doubt my favourite score of the year (its disqualification from Oscar contention is an extremely sore point).

The nature of time has always been an unending source of inspiration for sci-fi films.  In Arrival, it is treated rather originally.  Man has grappled with past, present and future for many centuries.  The film asks of us to see time as unbound from itself.  It sets us thinking in uncommon ways, and with uncommon depth. 

Godard once said that a movie should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.  Time, as it seems, ought to be reconciled in that manner.  After all, as replicant Roy Batty had said with profound wisdom in Blade Runner (1982), “…all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”   This is one of 2016’s finest films.

Verdict:  You are in the hands of a consummate filmmaker bringing both science-fiction and humanistic elements seamlessly together in a film that is one of 2016’s finest.


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Monday, January 9, 2017

Julieta (2016)

Review #1,393

Director:  Pedro Almodovar
Cast:  Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao, Imma Cuesta, Dario Grandinetti
Plot:  After a casual encounter, a brokenhearted woman decides to confront her life and the most important events about her stranded daughter.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  99min
Rating:  M18 for some sexuality/nudity 
International Sales:  FilmNation Entertainment
Singapore Distributor:  Shaw Organisation

Gosh, I miss the work of Pedro Almodovar.  It has been six years since I last saw a film of his—Broken Embraces (2009).  The newest addition to his filmography, Julieta, is certainly a better-reviewed film than the comedy flop that came immediately before it, I’m So Excited! (2013). 

But his latest is nowhere near as substantial and emotionally dense as some of his greatest pictures like All About My Mother (1999) or Talk to Her (2002).  Still it earned Almodovar another shot at the elusive Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, but the buzz surrounding it at that time was rather muted, and it’s easy to see why. 

Julieta is a minor mystery-esque work with a strong Hitchcockian sense of tone and foreshadowing, largely due to Alberto Iglesias’ ominous if beautiful score, and the use of strong, unsettling colours.  The way the narrative is constructed, told in flashback with twists and turns, also hides and reveals certain vital information. 

Starring Emma Suarez as the titular character, who looks back at her younger self (played by the ravishing Adriana Ugarte) in a bid to recount in writing what actually happened to the relationship with her estranged daughter, Julieta is the kind of film that already knows its back story, but Almodovar wants to unspool it for you, through a down-memory-lane path that suggests a search for truth or redemption of some sort for the lead character.

All these sound tantalizing for audiences accustomed or new to Almodovar’s work, but Julieta while spellbinding and sensually-crafted at times, is marred by a weak and abrupt denouement.  It is such a waste of an ending, certainly disappointing, but that doesn’t make it a bad film, because much of Julieta is effortlessly executed with an assured hand.  The brisk pacing and careful misdirection are touches of a master, and there are moments when you feel like you are seeing something great. 

Perhaps a mix of over-confidence in his material as well as the uncharacteristic mellowing of his usual daring and uncompromising forays into the dark, mysterious recesses of female neuroses has led Almodovar to become a slighter filmmaker than before.  You should still see this, but let’s hope his next outing is a more fervent and impassioned reminder why he is Spain’s most acclaimed filmmaker since the late Luis Bunuel. 

Verdict:  A minor mystery-esque work by Almodovar, spellbinding and sensually-crafted at times, but marred by a weak denouement.


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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Age of Shadows, The (2016)

Review #1,392

Director:  Kim Jee-woon
Cast:  Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Lee Byung-hun, Han Ji-min
Plot:  Set in the late 1920s, the film follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. 

Genre:  Drama / Action / Thriller
Awards:  -
Runtime:  140min
Rating:  NC16 for violence
Distributor:  Warner Bros

One of the more anticipated South Korean films to hit our shores from last year, The Age of Shadows is Kim Jee-woon's feature-length return to his national cinema since the ultraviolent vengeance thriller I Saw the Devil (2010), and after his English-language debut with Schwarzenegger in The Last Stand (2013). 

It dives into the exquisite period detail of the late 1920s, and the intriguing double-crossing world of spies, all set against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Seoul that would see resistance fighters for Korean independence attempt to transport explosives from Shanghai to blow up key Japanese government facilities.

Song Kang-ho plays Lee Jung-Chool, the man in the thick of bloody action and suspenseful deceit, who leads us into this dangerous world.  He is at the crossroads himself—a Korean who holds a high position in the Japanese police force whose mission is to track and eradicate the Resistance. 

The film will no doubt force him to take sides, but that decision is not the raison d’etre of Kim's work.  It forgoes a rich sense of history or politics for a more gleefully straightforward exercise in genre filmmaking, with his trademark dash of gory violence (those who have seen the far more explicit I Saw the Devil would find this tolerable).

From the outset, Kim shows us the thrills you can expect in a splendid prologue action set-piece that gives the film enough energy to wade through some of its more expository segments later on.  The characters are for most parts well-developed, and the acting uniformly excellent.  The pacing, however, could have been tighter, and even though the film is largely entertaining, there’s a sense that it is a good fifteen minutes too long, and feels overdrawn to work powerfully. 

Nevertheless, Kim is at his best when prolonging the suspense—a brilliantly-devised set-piece in a moving train that sees the Japanese police trying to weed out resistance fighters in disguise pays homage to both Hitchcock and Tarantino.

The Age of Shadows may be crafted with operatic scale and striving for an epic-ness that its subject matter necessitates.  However, it doesn’t quite achieve the grand canvas that combines style with a deeper psychological connection to its time and historicity, in a way that, for example, Melville did in what I think is his finest film, Army of Shadows (1969), about French resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France. 

The use of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ music in the climactic set-piece of The Age of Shadows is perhaps the best example of Kim’s flawed indulgence in trying to create cinematic magic, but falling short.  Go watch it though, because you need your Korean fix, and this should rightly satisfy you.

Verdict:  Crafted with operatic scale and striving for an epic-ness that its subject matter necessitates, but ultimately feels overdrawn to work powerfully.


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