Week Two of the 58th New York Film Festival

The haunting In the Mood for Love, which received its 4K restoration for its 20th anniversary

Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois)

Image from the Harvard Crimson

He’s arrived to a prison for a crime we are not privy to, and even before he gets there, his fate is sealed. From inside, a behemoth of a man watches, waits, and plans to turn this boy into his successor whether he wants to or not. Philippe Lacoste’s movie takes place in MACA, an overcrowded prison in the Ivory Coast, where guards have no power and the system is run by the inmates. MACA’s leader, Black Beard (Steve Teintchieu), is sick — dying, actually — and wants to secure that his power continues since there are several inmates at the wait to their claim. When he spots Roman (the aforementioned boy, played by Bakery Koné), Black Beard has made his choice. Roman will extend Black Beard’s rule for a short while longer by telling them story after story in order to cause a distraction from the immediacy.

Philippe Lacote creates two distinct worlds with this film. One is the oppressive MACA facility which, already overrun with inmates, seems to be teetering on the edge of explosive violence. The other one comes from Roman’s stories. At first Roman, unfamiliar with his own role, fumbles and doesn’t quite know how to make his way around oral fiction, but as the night progresses, he becomes more confident, spinning tales of a war between a princess (Laetitia Kye) and her brother which mirrors the conflict at MACA and Roman’s own. descriptive essay outline click here cheap dissertation introduction ghostwriter site online follow url pharmacy thesis https://cwstat.org/termpaper/academic-writing-essay-introduction/50/ http://www.safeembrace.org/mdrx/cialis-and-premature-ejaculation/68/ editorial reviews for books https://fotofest.org/solving/i-need-help-with-maths-homework/5/ automobile research paper topics viagra canada samples sample essay ib cas cialis generico 10 mg samples professional resume https://idahohighcountry.org/college/essay-writing-tips-and-format/30/ sildenafil soft tablets https://naturalpath.net/natural-news/blague-avec-du-viagra/100/ dynamo paper qual o concorrente do viagra https://teleroo.com/pharm/comment-prendre-cialis-5mg/67/ tips on writing an essay on a book is it safe to use viagra without ed essays analysis quality by john galsworthy annotated bibliography writer service uk https://heystamford.com/writing/art-essays-online/8/ how long after stop taking propecia go site watch best american series https://sacredwaters.net/citrate/personne-qui-prend-du-viagra/60/ https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/movabletype/papers/apa-research-paper-guidelines.html evaluation essay examples for students Night of the Kings is a thoroughly intricate story of adventure and politics that doesn’t exactly make any reference to actual events but manages to mirror that of countries under oppression searching for a savior. [B]

The Chess Game of the Wind

Image courtesy from The Guardian

Pity the poor family at the center of Mohammed Resa Aslani’s chamber drama about the class struggle between members of a wealthy family. Even if you didn’t know of the historical events framing The Chess Game of the Wind, you would understand what the power of greed does to corrupt a family from the inside out.

Following the death of the family matriarch (off-screen), the paraplegic daughter Ashdgas (Fakri Korvash) finds herself pitted against her stepfather, his sons, and her own fiancee to see who will stand to inherit the property. The only sympathetic person who Ashgdas has any support from comes under her own maid (a young Shorhesh Ashgladoo) with whom she has an intimate relationship with. Tensions reach an ugly high and Asgdhas is forced to commit an act of violence to preserve her own self and interests… but destiny has something else up its sleeve.

Resa Aslani’s movie seems to film everything under a constant sense of dread. The house, which is huge offers no sense of security for anyone under its roof. The camera films its scenes with tones of gold and brown reminiscent of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis but adding elements of deep shadows and discomfort. The only moments of levity occur every so often when the action moves outside to show washer-women commenting on the family’s corrupt past, but this only augments the tragedy that is to come. [A]

Isabella

Image from Cineuropa

It’s safe to say that Matias Piñeiro is not the most accessible of storytellers. His work, which often (always?) relies on the works of Shakespeare (to be exact, in the Shakespearean comedic heroines), doesn’t seem to really add much to what those female characters were all about unless I am missing something crucial hidden in plain sight in his narratives. I just find that his dramas seem devoid of real conflict and dilute any tension to the point that I wonder if perhaps maybe his version of conflict is something verging on the abstract, to be read on paper, like a transcript, or the art installation that figures prominently in his latest, Isabella. Isabella tells the story of an actress trying to get her life together who uses an audition for a Shakespearean play to get financial help from her brother. At the same time, she meets a friend, who it turns out, is also auditioning for the part. The meeting of these two women would indicate some type of tension but all they do is have conversations that really don’t add up to much more but suggest competitiveness and maybe, subtle hints of professional envy. It just doesn’t feel like a movie I would want to watch and the jumping back and forth in time, an arbitrary choice, reveals nothing spectacular. Perhaps it’s time to throw in the towel and move on to another, more interesting pool of inspiration, or make a movie that has no jumping-off point riddled with abstractions. [D]

Nomadland

If you were to call Fern homeless she’d immediately, with a wry smile, correct you and state she’s not homeless but “houseless”, and you’d believe her, because something in the deeply lived performance that Frances McDormand delivers conveys a message of living the moment, taking every chance, pause in between flight.

Chloe Zhao is truly a revelation and quite simply, the best thing this year’s festival has offered. Take a cue to develop narratives along with the book of the same name, Zhao and McDormand create something truly brilliant and poignant in Nomadland, a movie that delves into the topic of those who have been left behind to fend for themselves due to choice or circumstance and equally, those who have decided that possessions are a hamper to live a fully lived life in which the entire world was a home full of marvels to see, sense, experience, taste, and finally, leave behind to spin on its own.

A victim of the housing crash of 2008, Fern (McDormand) travels the country in her camper van she names Vanguard, working odd jobs here and there if there is a need for a person like her, and she is okay with it. In the interim, she befriends a group of people who for their own reasons also decided to leave it all behind and search. One of these turns out to be a potential romance for Fern (played quietly by David Strathairn), but Fern, whom McDormand inhabits as a woman unyielding to tragedy and to old age itself, is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Simply perfect. [A+]

Days

If I were to describe Tsai Ming-Liang’s new movie Days, I would have to say that it is essentially an art installation comprised of stills that through its images tells a story of loneliness, alienation, and the need for human contact.

The two men in the movie, frequent collaborator Kang-sheng Lee and newcomer Anong Houngheunagsy are presented back to back as they move about in solitude, separate from each other. It gets revealed that Kang-sheng’s nameless character suffers from chronic back pain for which he goes to an acupuncturist. The scene, in which Kang-sheng sits in stoic silence, enduring what must be an excruciating session as his body tenses against the wires and steam emanating from them, is long and tortuous.

Equally long, and the crux of the movie is the sequence in which Kang-sheng and Anong, who we learn is a sexual masseuse, meet in a sterile hotel. The scene is the sole occasion in which both men wordlessly open up to each other and where Kang-sheng experiences the magic of human touch which in turn releases him from his pain which hints at his loneliness. And then, Days turns into something purely magical. Once the two men resort to a less sensual, more businesslike demeanor, Kang-sheng gifts Anong a music box. In a world in which these kinds of situations would start and end as mechanical as the needs propelling them, Ming-Liang takes this encounter and turns it into one of connection and sharing. Even when the men leave for a night on the town, the camera remains in the now dark room, lingering over the restrained moment of sexual release that continues to float, unacknowledged, in darkness.

For newcomers to Ming-Liang’s cinema Days may take a while to warm up to. This is not a director interested in the more familiar aspects of the narrative. His shots, minimalistic to a fault, express merely what is happening at a bare-bones level. An opening scene in which Kang-sheng sits in silence gazing out into his yard while the rain pours (and reflects onto his body) suggests a lifetime of living like a monk. Another, rather late in the film, where Anong sits by himself listening to this wonderful little gift he has received — such a payment for a moment’s service! — you can almost sense the excitement, the private joy, that he experiences in such a moment. Ming-Liang’s movie Days is like that –a living still life, in which the essence of a scene is delicately played out on screen, delivering its filtered emotion through the wordlessly visual. [B]

The Human Voice

Here we have a miniature by Spain’s Almodovar, a director who has devoted his entire body of work to the female psyche, light or dark, fragile or steely. In his Human Voice, all the elements of his previous work find themselves reduced to their bare essentials: female desire, the horror of abandonment, the abuse they have received, the tragedy of a love that has died, the ultimate need to perform an act of exorcism in order to move on. Who better would embody these characteristics for his English-language debut than Tilda Swinton, an actress severely underused in a starring role, who often gets the smaller part where gives her no other option than to steal the picture by proxy alone.

For Almodovar’s third incursion into Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, he focuses solely on the play itself. [Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown begins in almost the same manner but from the moment the call ends, the story becomes a wild farce with a spectacular ending.] From the moment the Bernard Hermanesque score opens and we see a rain of tools over a background of sea-green that then segues into two shots of Tilda, dressed in fire engine red and ashy black, we have entered the unleashed emotions that Almodovar loves to navigate through, Buckle up.

The Woman receives the foreboding call from her narcissistic boyfriend who’s been breadcrumbing her, holding her hostage emotionally and physically for four years. He will not be making an appearance to collect his items and his dog (who also has noticed his absence).

This final act of cowardice sends the Woman right over the edge. During her conversations she will resort to a dramatic attempt at self-destruction, every note of exaggerated emotion not devoid of manipulation, and fire, all in the name of both getting her unattainable man to pay attention to her or else. Tilda’s Woman is a primal scream that she carries along from the moment her character steps onto the stage to when she abandons it with her ex-lover’s masterless dog, a woman dressed in tones of equal parts mourning and healing.

The Human Voice is, for anyone still not yet familiar with Almodovar, a way to get a glimpse of his universe, his women, and their complicated desires. [A-]

In the Mood for Love

“Feelings can creep up like that. I thought I was in control.” This is the line that can basically summarize the subtle events that transpire during a short stay within cramped quarters in a Hong Kong apartment.

The time is 1963, a time when Hong Kong society was much more conservative. A man and a woman (Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), both married to other people, move in next door to each other, and other than making diurnal polite exchanges, neither of them would have any need to meet. Due to the fact that their spouses are almost always absent on business trips, this leaves them by themselves. A pattern of loneliness starts to emerge within the two, a thing that leads them to venture out to eat alone, sometimes passing each other by without acknowledgment, and on other occasions, a slight, polite but strained hello.

It soon becomes apparent that both of them are victims of infidelity, and the movie is extremely clever in the way it drops clues. Eventually, their paths intersect, and this begins a tentative, restrained approach to a friendship that starts to take shape between both Mrs, Chan and Mr. Chow. From here on, In the Mood for Love starts developing an intoxicating scent that like the Nat King Cole song that continually teases in the background, threatens to push the both of them to the moment we, the audience, are waiting for.

Any director might have taken a less impressive turn, or might have even delved into slight overtones of predictable romance. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love takes a different road while sticking to the “will they won’t they” formula. It is all about anticipation and voyeurism draped in gorgeous, pregnant sensuality aching for release. His camera moves stealthily, sometimes from a distance, or behind lush curtains, maintaining a sense of the clandestine that could still be uncovered at any time. A sense of fragile privacy is always present, keeping them together within the frame, longing, and yearning. It is a potent approach because we as an audience are already hoping for someone to crack the ice.

When I saw In the Mood for Love 20 years ago I was not ready for this level of eroticism playing out where the actors never once show more skin than what is already visible. Kar-wai lets us into a world of narcotic but safe greens in the first part and then lets red explode over as if dressing both his characters with the feelings they themselves cannot confess. And then there is Maggie Cheung’s doll-like face, luminous like no one ever, her eyes speaking volumes even when her posture remains poised. She is the perfect foil to Tony Leung’s restrained yet smoldering desire that hints at intensity (and will color his stories which he writes in room 2046, a hotel room that will become the basis of the sequel).

In the Mood for Love boasts some of the most pristine restorations I have seen and it shows: a copy of the movie that came out 20 years ago is still sharp, but the 4K restoration must be seen, sensed, experienced. If there ever was a movie that I would call essential for anyone venturing into film, it would be this one.

A 2016 restoration is available on Criterion Channel for subscribers. [A+]

Week One of the 58th New York Film Festival

Image from IONCinema

Malmkrog

It never disappoints: one movie will somehow not make it through translation and will probably be seen as a director’s incursion into creating work only meant for a few instead of a larger audience. Cristi Puiu’s latest movie Malmkrog, which made its debut at the very beginning of the 58th New York Film Festival, is that movie. A 200-minute conversation, Malmkrog takes place mainly indoors and with the confines of an elegant manor house for which the movie is titled. In that manor, five upper crust individuals drag their thoughts and opinions on everything from Christianity’s stance on war to the Antichrist, all in the favor of some intellectual exercise. In this conversation, we see subtle animosities flare up, talkers attempting to one-up the other in order to dominate the table, and the possibility that the tea prepared for them might have been poisoned by an unknown servant. Progressively, as one conversation segues into another, and yet another, we do start to observe a pattern emerging. One of the women (there are three), Olga (Marina Palii), who comes across as the least intellectual of them all, tends to get prodded by her guests. Even her husband Nikolai (Frederic Schulz-Richard) at the movie’s climactic moment actively squares off with Olga, almost as if attempting to silence her simple rationale. What I was able to surmise is that in every party there is always a need to perform, to show one’s position on a topic, and that no matter how refined we may be as individuals, that need to demonstrate cultural superiority becomes unleashed at the face of a modest stance. Olga, in that respect, becomes a form of Saint Sebastian, or for the less religious, the Tess in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The verbal stoning she essentially buries her until she is barely in the background, merely accepting her fate and position amongst these pseudointellectuals. Still, Malmkrog will only be for strict admirers of Puiu’s work, or those familiar with the original source material… not anyone else. [C]

Fauna

Nicolas Pereda is a newcomer to me, and like most newcomers, to the art-house scene, his work announces a director who is willing to play with the very concept of narrative and what is real as opposed to what is performed. It’s an extremely short piece (although not by much; Hong Sang-too often makes 60-minute movies) but even in its brief running time, it manages to deliver some interesting scenes. Spit into two, Fauna concerns Luisa and Paco (Luisa Prado and Francisco Barreiro) en route to see her parents.

Not much happens along the way. Once there, Luisa has a conversation with her mother about a part she is rehearsing, leading to both women acting out the part in different, yet poignant ways. Paco gets invited by Luisa’s deadbeat brother Gabinio (Gabino Rodriguez) to Luisa’s father’s bar. Once there they ask Paco to reenact a scene from Narcos, a series where Paco plays out a small part. As it happens with people coming into contact with celebrities, they then ask him to pull out a part from thin air and act around it. It’s that scene that ends the sequence with a slight but plausible punchline.

The second part sees Gabino coming into the forefront the following day. He’s been reading a book, and his narration of that book builds the fantasy section of Fauna in which he, Luisa, and Paco play out the roles assigned to them in the book. Fauna, if it ever gets released in the US, might find its way into a small niche of arthouse movie lovers who upon giving Pereda’s movie a view will want to dissect it down to details. I personally see Fauna as an exercise in performance and role-play that somehow gets connected by a barely-there plot and a slight hint of sadness. [B]

Time

It’s not an ovrerreaching statement that prison has become a modern conceptualization of slavery and does not and will not ever benefit African Americans, Garrett Bradley’s documentary focuses on Sibyl Fox Richardson, a Louisiana native who, back when she started a hih-hop clothing line with her husband Rob, made the unfortunate mistake of staging a robbery in order to support her business. The reason is never revealed, but we get the idea that the Richardsons were struggling and just didn’t know another way out. Keep in mind that this is not a country made for the struggling poor, especially those of color or a “non-White ethnicity.”

While she Sibyl took the plea, Rob did not and was sentenced to a 60-year term. During that time we meet Sibyl, who now goes by Fox Rich (as a form of honoring Rob) we get to meet her as she raises her six children and slowly rebuilds her life back together, always waiting for that day that Rob would be let out. She is allotted two visits a month, which takes a toll on her and her growing sons. Through it all, it is her strength and her faith not in the system but in her own will that keep Fox on her feet, and Bradley’s film, beat by beat, starts to reveal that what’s needed here is social justice.

Time is available on Amazon Prime and is a must-see. [A-]

Smooth Talk

If there ever was an analogy to a snake coming into the garden (and mind you, I don’t read or care for the Bible), Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, based on the Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” is it. It tells the story of Connie (Laura Dern), a bored, privileged, and maybe mean girl living out her days in Small Town, California. Her interests are as simple as they are pedestrian: boys, and looking pretty. Her home life is a bit more problematic as she has a rather contentious relationship with her mother (Mary Kay Place) who constantly berates Connie. In a nutshell, Connie is anxious to grow up, and her mother would rather she not (and take care of their house).

Connie will get a chance at getting her first glimpse at the real world when a stranger, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) crosses her path. His entrance in the film comes rather late although he can be seen at the fringes of the story early on, simply observing her. When he finally arrives, he oozes a menacing sexuality that is so pregnant with the personality of a psychopath that Smooth Talk morphs into something more Gothic — closer to David Lynch’s sensibilities as a matter of fact. Arnold’s dance of anti-seduction with Connie is as tense as anything I’ve ever seen and continues for a full half an hour before it fades into the distance with Connie in tow. I can see why both writer and director chose to leave it this way; when you see Williams and Dern, both about thirty feet apart with him at the door in a suggestive pose, you realize what will have to occur so Connie can wake up. It is a devastating reality only hinted at but never shown; however, that scene alone is enough. This is a deceptive little movie that will linger on with its bad aftertaste for days, but it is worth a view for its presentation and both Dern and Williams.

Smooth Talk will come back to virtual cinemas in November, 2020. [B+]

El tango del viudo y su espejo deformante (The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror)

Valeria Sarmiento’s restoration of her husband Raul Ruiz’s experimental movie The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror is one of the strangest films I have seen this festival. The backstory of this movie goes back to when it was completed as a short in 1967 but left without a soundtrack. An exhausting procedure of voice restoration that led to the transcription of the actors’ lines then led to the hiring of voice-over actors to play the parts out. Even then, Sarmiento was left with too short a movie. However, due to having been aware that Ruiz had often wanted to make a film in reverse in order to play with the fabric of time, she made the decision to, at the film’s exact center, unspool it shot by shot, adding snippets of voice over to the existing sound, and the result is this: a movie about a haunting that doubles in on itself and reflects its haunting back to the haunted person. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we first encounter Clemente Iriarte, the widower in question, tormented by his spectral dead wife who seems to believe she is still alive and very much in his personal space. Her haunting reaches a fever pitch until Clemente commits an act of violence against himself… from which a second Clemente emerges, one who knows the ending, but has now come with the omniscient power of self-erase it. One could easily state that the wife who emerges from the mirror could be embodied by the ghost-Clemente, but the film doesn’t give you any concise answers. The Tango of the Widower, thus, remains an interesting, intriguing incursion into surrealism in which whatever was on the other side of the looking glass was always observing the observer, and that ghost could be death itself. [B-]

MLK/FBI

Prepare to be outraged. Sam Pollard’s blistering documentary MLK/FBI paints a vivid snapshot of where we were as a nation when Martin Luther King was then considered the nation’s prime enemy, one that the FBI, headed by then J. Edgar Hoover needed to be destroyed by any means necessary.

From the Freedom of Information Act we can now get a clearer glimpse at the tactics the FBI as an agency held up to a higher standard got involved in. [Of course, they as a whole practically had a file on anyone and everyone deemed an enemy or a Communist, and Dr. King is not the only victim here but he is one of the most salient.] From Dr. King’s association with Stanley Levinson, a known Communist, Hoover’s focus on King progresses into truly frightening and frankly, disturbing territories.

Perhaps because Hoover, born and raised in the South, had never experienced a Black man who was this verbose and eloquent, and it certainly didn’t matter that King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963. It speaks glaringly at the attitude of the times in which Blacks had still no rights other than to barely exist, so King as an icon of peace now became an icon of anarchy for the White majority who feared a revolution. This attitude was just the type of environment that Hoover and Wiliam Sullivan needed to exploit in order to disclose anything that could besmirch (assassinate) Dr. King’s character and reputation, and the lows that they stooped to will make anyone’s book boil.

Pollard’s documentary wisely treads some familiar terrain in keeping an objective point of view. It would be problematic to present Dr. King as a saint. Instead Pollard also dives into the ugly rape allegations that Dr. King participated in, but of course also adds that the agents conducting surveillance and listening in to Dr. King living his pwn life came with massive biases against blacks (a bias that still exists even today if you just turn on the news).

Suggestions are made by retired agent Charles Knox, who turns in late in the documentary, that nothing good would come of having access to these files, set to be released in seven years. I disagree: we are owed an explanation of what exactly a prestigious agency was up to. For a nation to heal it must look at its wound. To deny the infliction of such a wound — which incidentally, continued to be inflicted upon Coretta Scott King even after King’s murder in 1967, is to give in to the perpetuation of a culture that continues to glorify a police state that does nothing to protect its own and needlessly diminish those not deemed “white enough” (and by that I also include all other non-Anglo races, LGBTQ people, etc.). [A]

Damnation

Bela Tarr’s Damnation should have been a noir film. The movie’s esthetics, so drenched in noir sensibilities, practically demands it. Picture this: a man lives in the middle of nowhere. His view is of buckets of coal being pulled alongside a cable, the sound they make is purely industrial. This man, hopelessly in love with a woman that does not love him although she says she does. This man is so enamored by this woman that, when offered a smuggling job in which there is money, he would rather give that opportunity to the woman’s husband in order to get him out of the way. The woman, only because there is a promise of money (and a way out of this overwhelming desolation), offers to give the man a little bit of sex. The sex, mind you, is passionless. When the husband returns with cash in hand, things go back to where they were, and the man, now alone, realizes he’s been used in the worst imaginable way. Something has to give.

If Damnation were to get the Hollywood treatment it could possibly be something straight out of Jacques Tourneur or James Cain, with gritty femme fatales betraying the poor schmoes drawn to them. Damnation, however, goes well past the narrative limitations of noir and sends Tarr’s antihero Karrer (Miklós Székely) straight into the bowels of insanity. It is a powerful glimpse into a life wasted by alcohol and despair and the lack of love, magnified by the constant presence of rain and gloom that grabs onto the narrative and never lets anyone breathe. [A]

Fifty Years and Several Æons Later: Fellini’s Satyricon

Image from Criterion.

It doesn’t matter what critics tell you about what they consider the masters; you may acknowledge that they indeed continue to exist via their body of work, but if their body does not call to you right away, then what’s the purpose of engaging in what would be two hours of your precious time in a tenuous affair with a man or woman you will never meet?

I’ve been enamored with the art of cinema since I saw (a rather truncated version of) Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis in 1977 at the tender age of seven. I felt that a movie such as that, which depicted a strange world where the mighty few consume the Earth of its pleasures and the millions of slaves toiled, unseen, in the Underbelly, serving the voracious God of Industry, Moloch, had a striking, haunting appeal that lingers on almost 100 years later and has actually come to represent today’s world of the one-percenters and the masses who — including yours truly — have not.

Fellini has always been on my radar. I will openly say that I admire him wholly and unabashedly — the way he is able to construe sublime energy out of a ball of what is, essentially, his chaotic mind. However, in a world that throws so many new releases, film festivals, and the occasional big-budget independent feature, his body of work, which I have in my queue, continues to elude me even now with the exception of 8 1/2 and Amarcord, a film that I have a personal attachment to for its loving depiction of memory. The rest, Fellini’s body if you will, is waiting for the moment when I finally acknowledge it and like the characters in Satyricon, come to feast and dance and have sex and be merry.

Fellini Satyricon precluded Amarcord by a few years but it follows on the same theme initiated in 8 1/2: The persistence of memory, funneled through a chaotic mind. Loosely based on an ancient tome believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, Fellini’s version follows its own logic, keeping some of the basic plot threads alive but preferring to present his own vision of what may have happened to these characters. Dear Reader, even if you see this twice (as I did; I usually do this when a movie presents itself a bit obscure or saturated with details and Fellini falls under the latter), you probably won’t get it all. Don’t.

Image from Pinterest

This is a world that exists only in fantasy. Satyricon is as close to a fever dream borne from hallucinogens as a written document. Even when the document presents actual characters of all sorts of social standing, they blend together into a pastiche of color, pomp & circumstance, and essentially become more part of the background than semblances of people.

At the core, there are two gladiators: Encolpius (Martin Potter) and Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), and the underage boy Giton (Max Born) caught in between them, less a person than a cipher for pleasure. Their misadventures, which also includes Encolpius having to prove his manhood by both bedding a woman and battling a Minotaur, is the only thread that gets any prominence during the movie. I wish more time had been devoted to what made these two men tick, but this is, of course, wishful thinking, and Fellini had his own logic. Never would he have been able to zoom into one single character. If he could have told something called “Il Mundo” he would have.

Waving in and out are a multitude of them, in which beggars get their hands chopped off and replaced by a gold one. Noblemen perv on younger boys who are invited to the feast of debauchery for one purpose only. Stories within the narrative get told to a rapt audience feasting voraciously on the delights presented. Magic, sex, death, and little love converge into one giant melting pot in which everything whirls, and nothing exists as a whole.

It takes a keen vision to present this layered of a movie. Could Satyricon — complete with its incursions into the risque — have been done by an American? I would say not. Not in the daring 70s, in which the anti-hero rose to prominence, the glum ending became almost necessary, and Woody Allen introduced us to neuroses on camera. Satyricon is a deeply reverent Italian movie that honors its Ancient story, warts and all, and isn’t afraid to present it to the world in a feverish tornado, untethered to any conventions, any resolutions, and even a proper ending.

Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Image from BFI

It’s a shame that Michael Powell is known in the US for what seems to be basically only one movie — The Red Shoes, a mainstay on TCM’s programming. Or that in 1960, Powell released a movie that many have stated “killed” his career, the bloodless psychological horror movie Peeping Tom, which scandalized anyone who saw it but now… seems mostly a case of “WTF were these people scared of?”

What many of us — me included — did not know is that aside from the fact that Peeping Tom did not “kill” Powell’s career (it may have caused quite the stir, but he still made several pictures in both the UK and Australia; they just weren’t the massive hits that Powell had enjoyed in previous years), Powell had a directing partner in Emeric Pressburger for the most of his time in movies. Their production company was known as The Archers, Powell & Pressburger and both produced movies from 1943 to 1957, when the partnership was dissolved. However, both men would reunite for a few more movies that enjoyed limited success outside of the UK.

Let’s just say that Peeping Tom would not be the first time Powell and Pressburger would cause a stir when trying to make a film. When they focused on Colonel Blimp the newspaper comic strip character by David Low, guess who came calling and not with good news: then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Him. It seems that his ego was bruised; the strip was known to mock those in higher positions of office and that was a matter that Churchill did not take lightly to. Powell and Pressburger deflected by stating that their movie had no relation to the strip but Churchill was undeterred. It seems that Churchill would make it his mission to stop funding, production, and the acquisition of actors of the stature of Sir Lawrence Olivier all in the name of what Churchill deemed an offensive movie.

But there’s more to the story — there always is. The screenplay that became the movie called for a friendship to develop between a German soldier and a British soldier during the Boer War. Such a friendship would last 40 years. England was smack in the middle of a war against Germany and of course, Churchill not only verbally attacked the film but the actor playing the German (Anton Holbrook).

The film prevailed, but not without the long arm of censorship which forced the movie to be trimmed down considerably and not released to the US public until after the war. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as a matter of fact, did not get restored in its entirety until the 80s, and today, thanks to the efforts of Powell’s third wife, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, Criterion Collection now can show the movie in its full glory, as it was intended.

Anyone who loves British movies ought to experience Colonel Blimp. It is a hoot and a holler in its first sequence reminiscent of what Monty Python would later do, but as its story moves forward in time, it starts revealing its true face, and what emerges is an exercise in altruism in both the central friendship of Charles Wynn Candy (Roger Livesey) and the German officer (Holbrook) who becomes his lifelong friend. In the middle we see Deborah Kerr, right before her arrival in Hollywood, playing three parts. She is, at least for two-thirds of the movie, the glue that holds the men together. In the first vignette, she is the woman who falls for Candy, but because his German friend has also fallen for Kerr, he gives her away selflessly… and never forgets her. In the second vignette, Candy will marry Kerr again as another character during the First World War but during the Second World War, Kerr plays Candy’s driver, and a spirited young woman with a passion for defending her country.

Viewers of Luis Bunuel’s cinema might see a wink thrown at his direction at casting the same actor in several roles but this may have been incidental; Powell had wanted Wendy Hiller to play the role that ultimately went to Kerr in the final installment, but Hiller was unavailable, so Kerr remained on set.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is now available in its full running time in both physical DVD and via Criterion Channel and I suggest you take a look into it. This is quite a remarkable film, one of historic value, and if Churchill would be alive now he would probably have to agree.

The Death of Innocence: Elem Klimov’s Devastating Come and See

There probably will never be a war movie quite like Elem Klimov’s traumatizing Come and See. No amount of hero-worship, no amount of action set pieces, pyrotechnics, or simple wartime nostalgia will replicate the horror of innocence lost to time and devastation. I saw Come and See through the suggestion of a friend and while I don’t shy from difficult pictures I almost wish I hadn’t seen this. That is a compliment, not a complaint. This is not a movie for beginners or people with weak stomachs. This is the movie Spielberg saw before filming his own Schindler’s List and even that movie had a few moments where the audience could breathe before the horror would pick up again.

I’m not sure I want to write anything too detailed because at one point I was so disturbed by what I saw that I had to stop the movie — thank goodness for DVD remotes — take a break, get settled, and tackle the rest of it, even when I knew that the worst was yet to come.

In a nutshell, Come and See is about a young Belarussian boy of fifteen, Flyora Gaishun (Aleksei Kravchenko), who wants to join the partisans during the Nazi occupation of Russia in 1943. The event that seals his conscription is the finding of a rifle buried in the sand, but once he joins the partisans he is left behind due to an unfair exchange of footwear. He encounters a young girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova) and becomes smitten with her, not before they undergo a blitz attack from German bombers that leaves them both disoriented. Once they arrive home Glasha realizes Flyora’s family — indeed, the entire village — has been killed. Flyora, convinced they are still alive, states he knows where they are located and attempts to walk through a bog while a terrified Glasha follows. The actions result in Flyora reconnecting with villagers who now see him as the cause of their miseries, a thing that basically makes Flyora lose the last of his mind.

However, survival still remains, and hunger sends Flyora and a small group of partisans in search of food. In a scene that has to be experienced to be believed, there is an exchange of machine guns that basically leaves Flyora again, alone and destitute. If you thought that things are about to get better, think again. Come and See dives into the abyss and right into the face of the Fuhrer himself in an agonizing shot of reverse chronology that pulls the rug off of you and leaves you speechless.

Last year I saw a Romanian movie called I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians, and while that film was mostly comedic, its finale and that of Come and See are inextricably linked through the massacre of a people by the hands of the military. Come and See has a much longer and cringing sequence, and itself was the moment I had to stop viewing the movie due to the sheer level of horror that leaped from the visuals. All the anguish, all the agony gets carried out in a young boy’s face as it morphs from that of a teenager with dreams to a rictus of pain and fear. This is not Empire of the Sun. This almost qualifies as a documentary — it’s that horrifying. Klimov, if he wished to make a commentary on how barbarous this event was in which 628 Belarussian were slaughtered by the Nazis needn’t worry.

On the 30th Anniversary of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… Country: USA. Director: Rob Reiner. Screenwriter: Nora Ephron. Language: English. Cast: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan,, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Harley Jean Kozak, Steven Ford, Lisa Jane Persky. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rating: CLASSIC.

Jane Austen once wrote how difficult it is for a man and a woman to establish a relationship not based in sex with her timeless classic Pride and Prejudice. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, or plain skipped every literary assignment you were given in high school, you’ll definitely know at least the bare-bones premise of the story and the development of its characters who for the most part remain blind around the fact that they love each other.

Flash-forward almost two centuries later and Nora Ephron, an author known for her acerbic, razor-sharp wit, developed, in conjunction with director Rob Reiner, a movie based on themselves to a degree (even when neither of them had been in a relationship with each other, which makes me wonder how that would have ended). The result… well… it’s made cinema history, thirty years later, as it gets re-released to either new audiences who might walk into theaters and watch it out of hearsay or moviegoers suffering from a case of nostalgia who, like me, saw it when it came out on cable in 1990, and want a shot at experiencing it — love in New York! oh, so romantic — on the big screen.

Who would have thought that this little movie which was a surprise hit back when and would have garnered more had it been considered for Oscar nominated performances by its two leads (who anchor the movie with their chemistry and those lines written by Ephron), would by now have entered our lexicon with that the line, “I’ll have what she’s having?” If only anyone knew back then, what comedic material they had in their hands. This is why you owe it to yourself to experience this movie. Rent it, buy it, or go check it out again in any retrospective near you. It’s that good of a film, you can watch it over and over and the entire film feels fresh and up to date. Much of what was true then rings true now, as men and women continue to circle each other and attempt relationships with each other.

[Heck, entire series have been created based on this “let’s be friends only” rule. Most of “Friends” was angled at this type of dynamics, and “Seinfeld” offered yet another example of a woman and a man being friends with no interest in each other whatsoever. “Sex and the City” brought this setup to the late 90s and the start of the new millennium, and “Will & Grace” took it a whole other direction by flipping sexuality and establishing a solid friendship with hints of sexual tension not just in its two main leads (Will and Grace) but in its two other leads (Jack and Karen).]

In short, When Harry Met Sally is timeless and the best movie Woody Allen never made (although it does bear some slight relation to Allen’s Annie Hall). With not only Carrie Fisher and the criminally underrated Bruno Kirby on board to produce a solid foursome, but also, as I mentioned earlier, the brilliance of New York City a its own character, to provide ample scenery for the clueless couple at the center to fall in love. And with a killer view of the Empire State Building (as seen in Harry’s character’s loft apartment), or with those walks both Harry and Sally take throughout the Upper West and Central Park, who wouldn’t want to meet someone and fall in love?

ON DVD: A BRIEF VACATION (1973)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

desica1

People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.

The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.

This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.

Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.

1973 - Flo-Bol_ UnaBreveVacanza- 1973_V de_sica (13)

The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.

It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.