Friday, September 25, 2015

A close to my quest

I'm stopping my foreign cinema quest at 20 movies. For now, at least. It was a great run, and I want to do it again, I love doing cinematic quests of any kind. But for now, I'll take a break. Hope you enjoyed reading about it!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Mood for Love

This is Wong Kar-wai's second movie on my world cinema quest. His Chunking Express is often called one of the great movies of the 90's, and I just thought it was good not great. But even higher praise has been heaped on his 2000 movie In the Mood for Love, which was named in a critics poll by Sight and Sound magazine as the 2nd best movie of the 2000's (only behind David Lynch's brilliant Mulholland Dr.). And at the Korean Busan International Film Festival this year, In the Mood for Love was named the 3rd best Asian movie ever made, only behind Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Yet in a repeat of my feelings, I think this movie is very admirable and good, but not great.

The star of Chunking, Tony Leung, again stars here, this time alongside the great Maggie Cheung, as two people who move into neighboring rooms in a cramped Hong Kong apartment building in 1962. They both move in with their (unseen) spouses, who through the course of the movie we find out are having an affair with one another. So our stars begin spending a lot of time together, but remain platonic, so as to not stoop to the same level as their cheating spouses. This is despite the fact that both have developed feelings for the other, but they also are both going along with the other saying they shouldn't act, even though they both want to. The main theme of this movie is really the things that go unsaid, in every way possible.

Both actors are terrific. Leung has a face of instant empathy. He feels like a genuinely good person and we want him to find love, which he doesn't have with the wife he rarely sees. Maggie Cheung's face is harder to read, though her body language in the beautiful but restrictive clothing of the time is surprisingly expressive. The movie is also gorgeous to look at, with smoke and rain and a wonderful playing of shadow and light from Wong, even if he still uses a subtler version of his shutter stop slow motion he used in Chunking that I'm not a fan of.

I love bittersweet love stories. Times when you're genuinely not sure whether the leads will end up together or not, and you ache and yearn for those moments when you wish they'd ask one more question, or just turn around to see something or whatever and things would be different. I think my problem with In the Mood for Love is that it doesn't seem like these people have to be together. It doesn't seem like they're meant for each other or would even necessarily connect to one another if not for their circumstances and location. The characters are not very sharply drawn, and don't have even the kind of hinted at character traits I felt in Chunking Express. So the whole thing felt like an exercise in style more than character, and I think it could've used a little more balance.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Talk to Her

Life. There is so much LIFE in this movie. This movie reminds us how perfunctory and utilitarian most movie characters are. They say things only that advance the plot or maybe because they sound cool, but those character aren't real. They don't exist even in our imaginations. They exist on screen and then disappear immediately once the credits roll. Their actions are, ultimately, boring and inconsequential. This movie makes other movies look bad, because this movie is filled to brim with the energy of life. There is a plot, sure. There's also high drama, sensuality, pain, love, beauty, romance, plus dick and poop jokes.

The movie concerns the relationships of Benigno (Javier Camara) and Alicia (Leonor Watling), and Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Lydia (Rosario Flores). Both women, eventually, are in a hospital in a coma. Benigno is the nurse who works exclusively on taking care of Alicia, and loves her with all his heart. Lydia and Marco are just a few months into a relationship, both coming off of long term previous loves.

The people are connected contrasts of each other. Alicia a ballet dancer, Lydia a bullfighter. Both strong, athletic, emotional. Alicia delicate and elegant, Lydia bold and beautiful. Both end up in the care of their men. Benigno is caring, loving, also a bit doughy and possibly gay. Marco is more world weary, masculine in look, and a bit cynical. But they bond over the care of the women, which mostly consists of Benigno trying to get Marco to do more than just show up. That's where the title comes from, as Benigno tries to get Marco to further his connection with Lydia, even if she can't respond to him. I won't go into what happens plot wise beyond this point, but it was unexpected yet never hit a false note.

This is the third movie I've seen from Pedro Almodovar, and while I liked the previous two a lot (his Penelope Cruz collaborations in 2006's Volver and 2009's Broken Embraces) this one is truly, deeply special. Made in 2002 after his international success All About my Mother, Almodovar won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this movie and he thoroughly deserved it. It's sharply drawn in its writing, but the movie is so much more than that. Almodovar's camera movement and framing, his famous bold coloring, and especially the performances he elicits from his actors are all deeply moving and extraordinary. Many consider this Almodovar's high point and I'll say that this is the best movie I've seen on this world cinema quest. I love love love this movie.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

This is my first trip into the oeuvre of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with his powerful Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Taking place in Munich, it tells the story of the scandalous relationship between Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). The relationship is scandalous for a couple of reasons, mainly because she is in her 60's, he is about 40. She's German, he's Moroccan. But they share in common that they're nice people. They're also very lonely people. She is long widowed, with kids whose lives she's not an active part of. He's an immigrant mechanic who doesn't speak the best German, and spends his time either working or drinking away his loneliness at the local Arab friendly bar. They find each other by accident almost, as she ducks into the bar to get out of the rain, and he's taunted by some of his fellow Arabs to dance with "the old woman". They do, and immediately connect with each other.

Soon, they're being confronted with all the post-WWII racism that still exists, with many people considering any dark skinned foreigners "filthy swine" and any woman who takes up with them a "whore". These reactions aren't totally unexpected to Emmi and Ali, but they just want to be together because they make each other happy. But society does its best to spit on them and their relationship, even to the point that her 3 children disown her when they find out about it. Emmi says she wishes they were alone in the world just the two of them and didn't have to deal with that behavior. But we see subtly how as their relationship settles a bit, and people start to accept them more, she unconsciously takes on some of the same qualities of others, even at one point showing off Ali's muscles to her friends like he's just an object. And when Ali complains that he'd like Emmi to make him couscous sometimes, she says irritably that she doesn't like couscous and he needs to assimilate into being a German now.

Not knowing anything about Fassbinder's sensibilities, I had no idea where this relationship would go. Is he a romantic? A cynic or fatalist? From what I've now read a bit about him, he seemed to almost consider love a weakness, or at best a distraction. But here, he made a movie about two people coming together out of shared kindness and loneliness, ceding into truly being in love, falling a bit into complacency, and eventually, hopefully, dedication and more love. It's an astounding movie, powerful and striking right to the core. Simply and realistically acted by our two leads who I was really rooting for by the end of it.

This movie definitely makes me want to check out more from Fassbinder, who made something like 40 movies despite dying from a drug overdose at the age of 37, in 1982. Despite being only 29 when he made this movie, it's a remarkably mature and deep work that I'm sure I'll return to many times over the years.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Night Train

Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Night Train is a very low key movie. It's mostly about a man Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk, making his third appearance on my world cinema quest, after The Saragossa Manuscript and Knife in the Water) and a woman, Marta (Lucyna Winnicka) as they share a room on a long, overnight, train ride to the Baltic Sea. We meet them as well as some of the other passengers, like a flirty neighbor and Marta's love sick ex-boyfriend (Zbigniew Cybulski, also from The Saragossa Manuscript). A murder has taken place somewhere in the city before the train departs, and as the journey goes along we wonder if the murderer has taken up passage on the train, or if he might even be one of our main characters.

It's a good movie, but I'm not sure why exactly it was included in Martin Scorsese's Masterpieces of Polish Cinema series alongside The Saragossa Manuscript, Ashes and Diamonds, and The Hourglass Sanatorium, all of which are masterpieces of varying degrees. Granted, Jerzy Kawalerowicz's reputation was that of making politically charged movies, so maybe the seeming low-key blank slate-ness of this movie is actually a kind of allegory for post war Poland. If it is, I'm unaware of it, obviously. That said, this is still an engaging movie, even if it feel slight outside of the context of the time.

The Conformist

The Conformist was a frustrating movie. Director Bernardo Bertolucci has such impressive command of the camera, and along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro created one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. There are scenes here that make you ache from their beauty. But I personally found the story lacking. The story is set in 1930's Fascist Italy and concerns Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a cowardly man letting others control and influence his behavior in a lifelong effort to fit in. But having a lead character who doesn't question himself, is kind of a blank slate, and having a backdrop of such extreme behavior of the times, I felt it didn't quite work as well as a total piece of drama as I wanted it to.

I understand the metaphorical way that Bertolucci, as the writer (adapting from Alberto Moravia's 1951 novel), constructs the film as showing what could lead to someone becoming a Fascist and leading to the rise of Fascism as a whole, but Clerici, as our protagonist, is not a compelling character. But actually, now that I think about it, he's not really a blank slate either. That could've worked better. We get senses of Marcello, sketches of him and his past. But in the Wikipedia page entry for the novel it says:

"Marcello spends the entire novel in a search for what he perceives to be a normal life - normal activities, a normal appearance, normal emotions, and so on. However, he confuses normality with conformity, and in his quest to conform, subjugates his already-repressed emotions. When the natural course of his life presents him with ethical dilemmas - the assignment to betray Professor Quadri, his attraction to women other than his wife - he is ill-prepared to deal with them."

That sounds like a fascinating character, and we get all of that in the movie as well. So why didn't I find this movie very interesting to watch? Certainly I was tired when I watched it, but that hasn't stopped movies from enthralling me before. I often found myself overwhelmed at this movie's beauty, but bored by our main character. And I'm not really sure why.

Certainly, the visuals of this astonishingly high level kept my interest. You can see a lot of influence here on Coppola's work in the Godfather movies. From the clothes and sets, to some of the camera placements and movements. Bertolucci's camera seemed to be ever moving, ever expanding and always fascinating.

Perhaps this movie needs a revisit some day. I feel like I gave it a fair shake, but as I'm writing this I feel like maybe this was deeper than my mind is giving it credit for and I just wasn't seeing it during viewing. Only time will tell.

Chunking Express

Wong Kar-wai's 1994 film Chunking Express is an odd movie to look at 21 years later. Obviously influenced heavily by the French New Wave films of the 50's and 60's, it feels now very much a product of the 90's. Kar-wai's use of a kind of stop motion action photography that is something you'd see in a cheap Lifetime movie as a flashback tool or something, makes the movie feels painfully dated. It's a relief when we're brought back to our normal 24 frames per second. The movie is split into two parts, both about a local Hong Kong cop dealing with the breakup of a relationship, trying to move forward, or maybe being pushed forward. I like the second more than the first, but both are engaging and interesting.

The first story shows Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) feeling heartbroken over his girlfriend leaving him on April Fool's Day. He gives her 30 days to come back, until May 1st, his birthday. He eventually meets a drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) who helps him, perhaps unintentionally, move on. The second story stars a cop only known by his badge number, 663 (Tony Leung), and his moving on from a breakup with the (unknown to him) help from Faye (Faye Wong). Faye tries to give him a letter from his previous girlfriend, presumably detailing why she left, but more importantly, returning her set of keys to his apartment. Faye takes the keys and begins breaking into his apartment to help clean up, get away from her work by saying she's out paying bills, and generally just kinda let loose to sometimes touching and often hilarious results.

Chunking Express was a huge hit upon its release, and has a reputation now as one of the best movies of the 90's. In 2002, Sight and Sound magazine named it the 8th best movie of the previous 25 years. Although I liked it, I wouldn't say it was that good. It was sweet, always engaging, stylishly filmed, but ultimately I don't know that it made much of an impact on me. Perhaps that's seeing it removed from the time it came out, perhaps not. I'm very glad I saw it, I particularly like the ending. It was my first movie from Wong Kar-wai, as it's a good movie. I have his possibly even more acclaimed 2000 film In the Mood for Love up soon, so it'll be interesting to see if that one connects to me more, less, the same. I love exploring the catalogs of new (to me) filmmakers.