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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Spirit of the Beehive

Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive is an interesting movie, but not one that fully connected with me. It's about two young sisters, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Telleria), and their parents, in the post civil war Spanish countryside, somewhere around 1940. The whole town goes to see a traveling exhibition of the classic Frankenstein with Boris Karloff. The younger Ana is unable to sleep much that night, but it's more because she's curious about this creature than she is frightened. She also takes as gospel her sister insisting that Frankenstein doesn't really kill the little girl by the river, everything in movies is fake, and that was just a body Frankenstein took for a bit, he's actually a spirit that you can talk to if you close your eyes and say "It's me, Ana."

It's an interesting look into sibling relationships, as even though there's not but a couple of years between the sisters, Ana looks to Isabel as though she knows all the answers. It doesn't help that Isabel is a mischievous, slightly malicious, young girl. Ana is innocent and open to the spiritual possibilities of seeing and feeling spirits. She wants to talk to Frankenstein, with no hesitation or trepidation. Young Ana Torrent's dark brown eyes lend her a certain earnestness and seriousness that makes her feel like the more mature, deeper, person, even as she's taken in by her sister's flights of fancy.

It's a gorgeous movie to look at, full of open countryside, sun bathed fields, honey colored interiors, and beautifully shot contrasts of light and shadow. But I also felt a certain distance from everything, which may or may not have been intentional. The family is never shown together, even when they're all around the dinner table, each is only shown in single shots, visually showing us their isolation from one another. And there's a distracted, passionless, almost hypnotized quality to the performances. I can't imagine the distance I felt was unintentional, but I didn't like it. The movie has a dream like quality I enjoyed up to a point, but ultimately I felt like I was chasing smoke, I could never get my hands around anything.

But the movie is often called the greatest Spanish movie ever made, so I'm sure I'll give it another go some day.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Yi Yi

Taiwan's Edward Yang was one of the most respected filmmakers of world cinema, and most often cited as his masterpiece is his 2000 drama Yi Yi (sometimes translated as A One and a Two). A nearly 3 hour human epic focusing on the Jian family living in Taipei. It starts with a wedding, and a visibly pregnant bride, and ends with a funeral, in between containing everything life could contain: joy, pain, anger, regret, love, and the constant search for the whole truth of it all. It's a truly great movie.

We mostly follow NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), the father of the family, as he struggles with money, disagreements with his partners in the failing business he runs, and a chance meeting with his first love, 30 years after he'd run away from her, making him contemplate his choices and direction in life. We also see Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), NJ's teenaged daughter, struggle through the mess of being a teenager. Making friends, hanging out, discovering boys (and boys discovering her), her relationship with her elders, and more. We see a bit of the mom in the family, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), but mostly the other person we follow is Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), the 8-year-old son as he navigates being a kid, a curious, sensitive kid. Writer/director Yang manages all of this and more with an author's sense of detail and character building. Like John Sayles's Lone Star or Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, this is one of the few movies I'd describe as novelic. It is so richly made, and with such care. I've rarely felt closer or more curious about the fates and futures of movie characters than this family.

Yang was a member of the Taiwanese New Wave, alongside one of my favorite filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He even cast Hou in his third movie, Taipei Story, in 1985. Nien-Jen Wu, the father NJ, is a celebrated writer/director himself (his 1994 movie A Borrowed Life was named by Martin Scorsese as the 3rd best movie of the 90's), and worked as an actor and writer for both Hou and Yang throughout his career. And he's tremendous in the lead role here, playing a thoroughly good man who contemplates his life while trying to be a good dad, and a good and ethical business man. The kids, neither of whom had ever acted before or much since, are both tremendous. Especially little Jonathan Chang as the son searching for truth in the world. It's a beautiful trio of performances in a beautiful movie.

Sadly, Yi Yi was Yang's last movie, as he contracted colon cancer around the time of its release and fought it for years before finally succumbing in 2007. Though his movies tended to be long, his other most famous movie A Brighter Summer Day is 4 hours long, this movie is so filled with depth and attention and soul that I will definitely be checking out more from yet another towering figure in world cinema that I have found in this wonderful quest I'm on.

Monday, September 7, 2015


Werner Herzog is unlike any other filmmaker. His movies couldn't have been made by anyone else, so singular of an artist is he. 1977's Stroszek is one of the odder movies of his I've seen. Roger Ebert described it as "one of the oddest films ever made", but it's not THAT weird. He goes on to use the word I'd use to describe the movie, which is peculiar. It's not "quirky", it may be eccentric, but peculiar feels right. Much of that credit goes to the movie's star, Bruno S, a former mental patient with whom Herzog made 2 movies, this and 1974's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I haven't seen. Bruno gives an extraordinary performance of great focus and intensity, playing a man for whom the world may be a little overwhelming.
Herzog, not from the movie
We start off in Berlin, with Bruno getting out of a kind of mental institution (there's a lot of autobiography to his character), promising the warden he'll not touch a drop of alcohol again, and while carrying all of his possessions before he even gets home, stopping at a bar for a beer. Bruno isn't an alcoholic, and that's not what this movie is about. It's just kind of a funny little thing. He hooks up with prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes), who after evading her abusive pimps and along with friend and neighbor Mr. Sheitz (Clemens Sheitz) moves away from the troubled world of Berlin and to Sheitz's nephew's place in Wisconsin. The movie follows them as they come up against the expected language issues present to immigrants (though helped by Eva's English speaking ability) and also against the facts that maybe America isn't any easier of a place to live than Berlin was. "In Berlin they physically kick you down. Here, they do it to your spirit, and that's worse" Bruno says to Eva.

There are a lot of metaphors and themes and issues you could look at if you wanted to, Herzog's movies never hurt for their ability to be read into. There were the usual Herzog striking images, whether the rising buildings above Bruno as he plays his accordion in the streets, Bruno standing watching the empty lot where his mobile home used to be, or a doctor cradling a prematurely born baby as Bruno looks on with a look of intense and impenetrable depth.

Herzog has said that despite Bruno's past (being in mental asylum's from 3-26) Bruno wasn't mentally ill, and he certainly doesn't appear to be here. He seems peculiar, but not "weird". He seems particular. There was only one of this guy made, and he's infinitely fascinating to watch. There's a laser like focus to his every movement and look, he's completely magnetic to look at. I really liked this movie a lot, mostly because of Bruno and Herzog's particular brand of Herzog-ness. I feel like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser must be added to the list of this foreign film quest because I want to see what else these two did together.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Andrei Rublev

Legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's biopic of legendary Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev is a most unusual movie. Epic, but intimate. Lengthy, but not overlong. Insightful, but enigmatic. Tarkovsky set up the movie as an 8 sectioned look at the monk's life at different stages. There are 2 versions of the movie, the original 205 minute version (which is what I watched) and the 186 minute version Tarkovsky was forced to cut down due to studio pressure, and which ultimately Tarkovsky said he preferred. But either way, Andrei Rublev is a fascinating movie that is often cited as one of the best ever made.

I won't bother with a plot synopsis, since the movie isn't exactly plot driven. But Tarkovsky explores a lot of things here through Andrei's journey. Andrei ponders the place of the artist in society a lot. What is the point of painting religious icons when there's so much violence, death, chaos, and sin around us? Andrei has that crisis of faith, even taking a years long vow of silence at one point in his life. But Tarkovsky also views things through the lens of some of the other people in Andrei's life, including the monks that are his mentors in his early years, as well as a Greek painter who served as a later mentor, and eventually a young man taking on the huge task of casting a bell for the Prince. This movie is populated with fascinating characters more than just our title protagonist.

It's also, like Tarkovsky's other work, visually wonderful. Tarkovsky just had a special way with framing, camera movement, and meditative narrative. This movie is long, there are extended periods of silence, and often episodic movies lost their steam as inevitably some episodes are more interesting than others. But not here. Because Tarkovsky gives us snapshots of these times, most of the sections are in the 20-30 minute range, none outstay their welcome, and something about the way Tarkovsky shoots it, I was always interested by what was happening on screen.

Weirdly though, I don't think it's an out and out great movie. I liked it a lot, but I didn't love it. I was interested in each section, but I wasn't fascinated. I don't find anything about it bad in any way, but it's not exceptional either. I suppose it is exceptional that Tarkovsky made a 3 1/2 hour movie that I don't think was too long, but I also don't wish it was longer. An odd reaction, but we'll see how this one grows in my mind.