Friday, August 29, 2008

And The Ship Sails On (1983)

Director: Federico Fellini
Country: Italy

I'm feeling kind of nostalgic these days. This is probably because, for the first time since I can remember, I'm not getting ready for the big trip back to school like nearly everyone else around me. So, it's somewhat fitting for me to next write about a film by Federico Fellini, who a) is a master of depicting memories and nostalgia on film, and b) I first discovered in my first year at U of T (via the wonderful 8 1/2, which kept pleasantly cropping up in various classes throughout my later years of study and is still one of my favorite films). And The Ship Sailed On is one of Il Maestro's later efforts, and you can tell that this film is echoing a style that has already been constructed and perfected through his previous masterpieces.

This film is very much exemplary of the kind of work Fellini produced in the later half of his career. While these films were filled with eye-popping visual compositions and massive amounts of imagination, they just didn't have the same sense of emotional involvement or intimacy that his earlier films did. As Satyajit Ray once explained (paraphrased here), this late-career Fellini was still very admirable and inspirational, but only as a cinematic technician.

As with other late Fellini films, there are no real main characters to really grow attatched to. Instead, the film follows a strange (and, I have to admit, often downright creepy) assortment of passengers who are gathered on an ocean liner to scatter the ashes of Edmea Tetua, a famous opera singer, off the coast of the island Erino. They mainly consist of other prominent opera singers, pretentious intellectual types and the plump, medal-laden Grand Duke of Herzog and his entourage. As in Fellini's Amarcord, the audience is given a polite, well-meaning guide who frequently takes time to contribute his commentary on whatever is happening at the given moment. All of these curious people are amusing to behold; just don't expect to be given an intimate emotional profile or strong connection to any of them during the film. To many viewers, they will only appear as a bunch of goofy kooks and only remain as such until the final title card. Those seeking more well-written and sympathetic main characters will be more than rewarded by some of Fellini's earlier efforts such as La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and 8 1/2.

Of course, the artificial nature of the film is made obvious by the fact that Fellini shot it almost entirely on the soundstages of Cinecitta studios, as was also his regular practice throughout the later stages of his career. There's definitely a certain artistry to the ways in which Fellini would replicate settings and special effects in this way; everything has a unique, theatrical look to it. The sea is a rolling, twinkling blue canopy suspending immobile lifeboats. A warship that appears late in the film is a massive iron fortress with stiff black clouds perpetually surrounding its smokestacks (both it and the ocean liner are obviously models). The film's artifice is even directly revealed at the end of the film in a segment that shows us the machinery and crew within the Cinecitta studio behind all the fantasy. It's a move not too dissimilar from a magician suddenly revealing the secret of his famous optical illusion, but with Fellini, the magic doesn't come from being fooled, but instead from the effort and craftsmanship that went into his tricks.

And The Ship Sailed On, again, like Amarcord, has a fairly straightforward, episodic structure to it. Along with the ocean liner guests, the viewer is treated to a variety of spectacles along the voyage, including:

- A concert given entirely via water glasses.

- A singing contest between the various sopranos within the ship's furnace, showcasing not only the range of their voices, but also the cavernous insides of their mouths.

- A giant rhinoceros who is diagnosed as suffering from lovesickness.

- The surprise arrival of a group of Serbian refugees who occupy part of the ship's deck and give a musical performance of their own (and eventually attract the attention of the mentioned battleship).

All of these episodes and more show that Fellini may have gradually changed his filmmaking methods as his career progressed, but his imagination lost none of its wild inventiveness.

Throughout the film, the ship's guests constantly tell stories and anecdotes, very much giving the impression that their lives, albeit fictional, extend so much more beyond what Fellini gives us, which is a small, fleeting glimpse; a mere portion of the whole. Perhaps this is why his later films have been seen as more distant and unapproachable - in his earlier films, his main characters had well-written, fully-realized arcs that consisted of highly significant (if not the most significant) events in their lives. The sightseers of Amarcord and And The Ship Sailed On, on the other hand, go from episode to episode existing only as such, merely along for the ride with the rest of the audience, undaunted by emotional crises and moral dilemmas. In terms of film viewing, this method of storytelling is an acquired taste (when I first saw it, I didn't really think much of the carnivalesque Amarcord, but I'm gradually warming up to it bit by bit), but those who try hard enough or let themselves should certainly be able to take their share of pleasure away from it.

Though it's not one of Il Maestro's greatest films, And The Ship Sailed On is still a highly enjoyable ride through the weird and wacky world of his mind, and certainly worth checking out at least for long-time Fellini fans. More casual viewers can take their chances, but would most likely benefit from warming up to some of his other films first; La Strada, La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 would all be good places to start.

P.S. Something should probably be said about the music in this film. Sadly, Fellini was unable to work with his regular collaborator, the legendary Nino Rota, due to his death a few years previous. However, he made do with a smattering of well-known classical music, including Strauss' Blue "2001" Danube Waltz and a personal favorite of mine, Claude Debussy's Claire de Lune. Though it's a sort of "greatest hits" collection, it is nonetheless used fairly well throughout the film.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Schultze Gets the Blues (2003)

Director: Michael Schorr
Country: Germany

This great little film was recommended to me by fellow Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow contributor Bob Turnbull, whose own film blog, Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind, can be found here. It tells the simple story of a plump, gentle-natured man named Schultze who, after retiring from his job as a miner in his small German town, gradually takes up the fast-paced Zydeco style of music (originating from the American south) on his accordion, leading him on a journey far from home.

The movie is extremely simplistic in design and tells its story at its own steady pace - not unlike Schultze himself. The film's main strength lies in all the little details of character and everyday life that lie scattered throughout its frames, just waiting for the viewer to pick up on. It's not out to shove a great, lofty message down people's throats; it just follows Schultze on his travels (eventually finding him navigating through the waters of Louisiana) and invites you to come along. As with all proper adventures, he meets a wide variety of people and learns more about himself as a person than he ever would have back in his home town.

Horst Krause gives a wonderful, subtle performance as the child-like Schultze who doesn't talk too often, yet says so much about his character with the way he quietly takes in a given situation or politely lifts his hat to strangers (more often than not, he reminded me of a German Monsieur Hulot). As Bob reminisced, a particularly great scene is when Schultze first comes across Zydeco music on his radio. To simply watch Schultze react to this strange, new kind of music is a treat in and of itself, and the film is filled with these sorts of scenes: ones that mainly focus on new encounters and the ways that people (both Schultze and others) react to them. The results are often humorous and almost always quite touching.

The main message I got from this film is how important it is to have some sort of purpose in your life. The first part of the movie after Schultze retires shows him trying to cope with the quiet, empty life that lies ahead of him. He hangs out with his two best friends and drinks beer. He rides his bike through the town and rings his bell at the railway crossing guard who always takes too long raising the gate. He tends to his garden gnomes. He remains relatively inactive while the world seems to pass him by (best exemplified by the many trains that speed past Schultze and his friends). I really identified with these parts of the film as I myself am currently in a similar spot in my life, having just graduated from university (I know - pretty much the opposite of retirement, but still, both achievements are important milestones that signify the end of a life's chapter, not to mention the ambiguous, question mark-filled void more commonly known as the future which comes afterwards) and spent a positively bland and fairly uneventful summer doing...well, not much of anything, just like Schultze. However, with his new-found love for Zydeco music, Schultze finds a sort of liberation; something that essentially re-vitalizes him and his spirit (which leaves me considering taking up the accordion myself). As Schultze learns and proves as he embarks on his travels, sometimes the best thing to do is to keep going forward.

Many thanks to Bob for telling me about this one, and I in turn highly recommend it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean
Country: United Kingdom

While this might not be a hidden gem or discovery for most people (but then again, it was for me), this was a movie that I wanted to write about, as a) I really enjoyed it, and b) it was one of those "must-see" movies on my endless "to-see" list that I felt deserved some recognition. Plus, it's a more-than-worthy film made by one of the UK's finest filmmakers.

Anyways, here it is: one of the great, essential classics of cinema that I had neglected for the longest time. Now, after pushing myself to finally sitting down and doing it, I can finally say that I have seen Lawrence of Arabia.

This is a film that, by now, has a reputation that well precedes it, and for good reason. Made by the great David Lean (who also helmed The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago), it tells the story of real-life British officer T. E. Lawrence who was bold (and nutty) enough to gather together the Arab tribes and lead a full-scale revolt against the Turks during World War I. The absolutely grandiose and pitch-perfect way in which this story is presented on the screen is proof that great films are not only made with massive budgets and production teams, but also an invaluable degree of imagination and skill. A film without heart is an empty film, no matter how big it is, and Lawrence certainly has that heart.

It goes without saying that a film as mammoth as this one is completely lost on the audience if they don't have a strong main character to latch onto, and they certainly get one in Peter O'Toole (who, amazingly, was still a relative newcomer to film acting at the time he made this). He is just great to watch as Lawrence, exuding charm, eccentricity, sensitivity and a sort of indescribable, hypnotic quality, all at the right moments. His Lawrence is utterly convincing as a man who only ever belongs to the ideas and beliefs that he feels most strongly about, national loyalty and military conduct be damned. Though the film's giant set pieces will stick out most prominently in people's minds, just as important to the film and this character are those quiet, gentle moments when Lawrence sits or paces by himself, lost in thought, his blue eyes staring out into the desert wastes.

Accompanying O'Toole is a slew of legendary actors doing fantastic work in their own roles. Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali, besides having the great, rightly famous entrance scene in which he emerges from desert heat waves on camel, works alongside Lawrence as an ally, advisor and friend, though their relationship is not without its fair share of tension. Anthony Quinn is delightful as the larger-than-life Auda abu Tayi, the leader of one of the Arab tribes. He is a bombastic force of a man who has such great lines as, "Thy mother mated with a scorpion," and, to a sheepish British officer, "Be thankful that when God gave you a face, he gave you a fool's face!" Also turning up are Alec Guinness as the Arab Prince Feisal and Claude Rains as a sort of aide to the British generals whom Lawrence reports to throughout the film. Of course, these are merely the main players, and the film is populated with a cast of what must have been thousands of people in the battle and crowd sequences, doing their part to (believably) create the grand illusion that Lean envisioned.

Of course, a major part of what makes this epic film so, well, epic, is the stunning cinematography by F. A. Young. Besides being devastatingly beautiful, the majestic desert settings are presented as monumental, ultimately indifferent forces of nature where men and camels are shrunk to the size of fleas and death is often (but not always) as simple as a camel suddenly missing its rider.

One of the things that I particularly liked about the film was how well crafted and well edited it was. Something I often have problems with regarding classic Hollywood cinema is that it can be a bit too theatrical and distanced, making it hard to grow attached to the characters or be genuinely moved by the events unfolding onscreen. Not so with this film, which brings a sort of documentary/National Geographic-esque sensibility to the way it frames people within the settings, be they travelling caravans, camps set up under the scorching afternoon sun or solitary figures marching through the sand for survival. Also, there's a kind of sensibility to the way in which certain scenes are arranged and presented which you can't help but be impressed and moved by. A specific transition I'm thinking of happens near the beginning of the film, when a close-up shot of Lawrence holding a lit match close to his face abruptly cuts to an extreme long shot of the vast, empty red planes of the desert just as the sun emerges on the horizon. It's a bold, highly effective move; something that wouldn't be out of place in a Stanley Kubrick film.

While I definitely could (and should) have seen this film earlier, I'm simply glad to have enjoyed the viewing experience as much as I did, and that it more than lives up to its status as one of the greatest films ever made.

Monday, August 18, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Country: Romania

While I considered starting off this multi-cultural blog with a bit of patriotism (specifically the recent, excellent and Canadian The Tracey Fragments, which I'll most likely write about after a deserved second viewing), this highly celebrated pick is just as good a place to begin.

Winner of the Palme D'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is merely one of several critically acclaimed films to come out of Romania in the past few years, comprising what many are calling a Romanian New Wave. Among them are The Way I Spent the End of the World, 12:08 East of Bucharest, California Dreamin' (Endless) and the excellent, tragi-comic The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which I also saw along with 4 Months. Just from these two films alone, this looks like a very interesting and worthwhile bunch of flicks to check out.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set on a single day in 1987 when Romania was deep in the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. It primarily focuses on Otilia, a young student who helps her friend, Gabita, get an abortion - an act classified as illegal at the time.

A chilling sense of paranoia runs through the entire film. Nothing is straight-up explained right away, and the viewer has to gradually piece together what Otilia and Gabita are up to and why they are so nervous doing it. Even little things such as negotiations with hotel clerks and Otilia's promise to come to her boyfriend's mother's birthday celebration (a well-played sub-plot) are rendered as troublesome obstacles in the way of the women's plan. The final touch being the drab, gray world of stark streets and shadowy alleyways (particularly terrifying in the final moments of the film), 4 Months is positively Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish, and this Ceausescu-era Romania could just as easily be Winston Smith's Oceania, with agents of Big Brother lurking around every corner.

Cinematographer Oleg Mutu and writer/director Cristian Mungiu bring a cold, metallic look to this film, strictly keeping to a cool palette (with flashes of blue and green from Otilia's wardrobe providing the most color). Very often, still-life compositions are presented and maintained in long, rigidly-framed takes, with the camera patiently lingering on certain things and people as the drama unfolds before it (or just beyond its view, in some cases). This isn't show-off-y, Paul Thomas Anderson stuff, but simply smart camerawork which takes a step back and lets the film move at its own pace.

The film is anchored by a strong tri-fecta of performances: Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu as the two heroines and Vlad Ivanov as the strict-natured and ironically named Mr. Bebe whom they call upon to help them. Though it was written and directed by a man, 4 Months could easily be seen as a feminist film, as it tackles a distinctly feminine conflict as seen through the perspective of two women (and does it well). At the very least, it delivers a strong message about women and their relationship to the system (and men) regarding a topic as personal as abortion.

Though it's a bit of a downer note to start on regarding story content, 4 Months is nonetheless a gripping, well-made film which firmly reinforces my trust of the Palme D'or over the Best Picture Oscar (though less said about the time Oldboy was shafted in favor of Fahrenheit 9/11 the better).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Starting Up the Machine

Greetings, cinema lovers, and welcome to Subtitle Literate, my new (and first) blog! Seeing as how I watch a lot of different kinds of movies, I thought it would be a good exercise both for myself and for fellow film buffs out there in teh internets to regularly share my views on the stuff that I happen to be watching at any given moment.

As mentioned in the little description blurb, one theme I'm going to uphold throughout the review postings is to have no two films in a row that come from the same country. This will hopefully ensure a fairly diverse, across-the-map selection of films, in turn hopefully exposing people to new tastes and viewing experiences. Personally, I'm really looking forward to this. I already have quite diverse tastes in film, but this blog will provide a more regular pattern for expanding my exposure to the many, many great films that are out there while spreading the word to like-minded adventurous viewers. Yay sharing!

One of my favorite metaphors for film is, strangely enough, food. Like film, food can be a great way of experiencing a different culture. By trying a new dish from a different country, you are getting a unique impression of that specific culture first-hand - in this case, through taste. Likewise, a foreign film can provide for viewers a reflection of its given culture through style, story, content and character. There is so much to discover in the world through film, and yet, there are people out there who don't dare venture beyong their regular helpings of Quentin Tarantino (even though Kill Bill might turn people on to Asian cinema, as I can confirm from personal experience) or *shudder* Michael Bay simply because they are taken aback by the presence of subtitles and a language they don't recognize.

More than anything else, I'd like this blog to be a celebration of the different cultural experiences that world cinema can provide. The simple pleasure of discovering something new is the main driving force behind this blog, and besides giving myself a platform to express my opinions on certain films, I hope people read it and are themselves driven to try new things and expand their own cinematic tastes, regardless of so-called language barriers.

So welcome aboard and enjoy! I hope to get the first review up soon - stay tuned.