Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The End of a Good 2010

Hello all. As promised, here I am with my final post of 2010 - which, overall, I found to be a pretty good year. Certainly two big highlights were the Nippon Connection film festival, which I attended in Frankfurt, Germany with my good friend and whip-crackin' editor Chris MaGee of the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, and the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which was co-programmed by Chris and Midnight Eye's Jasper Sharp. I was quite busy during Shinsedai this year, namely with two assignments. Throughout the fest, I reported on the films I saw with the VCinema Podcast's producer and host Coffin Jon Jung, which was a ton of fun (click here for links to the festival coverage episodes). I was also asked by Midnight Eye to do an interview with Gen Takahashi, who was in Toronto to present his excellent film Confessions of a Dog. The result was an informative conversation with a true maverick of Japanese independent cinema - and a very, very nice guy. Check out that interview here.

Confessions of a Dog writer/director Gen Takahashi at the 2010 Shinsedai Cinema Festival

Before finally signing off for the remainder of the year, I'll share my list of the 20 favorite films I saw in 2010. There are some noticeable films missing from the list - simply because I haven't had the chance to see them yet. Thus, you won't find The Social Network, True Grit, 127 Hours, The American nor Enter the Void. Plus, it should be mentioned that this list was arranged according to my own personal tastes - not what I believe to be the "best" films of the year. In other words, these are the 20 flicks that simply tickled my fancy the most.

1) Scott Pilgrim VS the World (U.S./Canada, dir. Edgar Wright)
2) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
3) Shutter Island (U.S., dir. Martin Scorsese)
4) Confessions of a Dog (Japan, Pochi no kokuhaku, dir. Gen Takahashi)
5) Wild Grass (France, Les Herbes Folles, dir. Alain Resnais)
6) Inception (U.S., dir. Christopher Nolan)
7) Live Tape (Japan, Raibu têpu, dir. Tetsuaki Matsue)
8) Film Socialism (France, Film socialisme, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
9) Oh, My Buddha AKA The Shikisoku Generation (Japan, Shikisoku zenereishon, dir. Tomorowo Taguchi)
10) I Saw The Devil (South Korea, Akmareul boattda, dir. Kim Ji-woon)
11) Autumn Adagio (Japan, Fuwaku no adagio, dir. Tsuki Inoue)
12) Our Brief Eternity (Japan, dir. Takuya Fukushima)
13) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (U.K., dir. David Yates)
14) Crime or Punishment?!? (Japan, Tsumi toka batsu toka, dir. Keralino Sandorovich)
15) The Red Spot (Japan/Germany, Der rote punkt, dir. Marie Miyayama)
16) Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (Japan, Kakera, dir. Momoko Ando)
17) Locked Out (Japan, Rokkuauto, dir. Yasunobu Takahashi)
18) A Normal Life, Please! (Japan, Futsu no Shigoto ga Shitai, dir: Tokachi Tsuchiya)
19) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden, Män som hatar kvinnor, dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
20) Kick-Ass (U.S., dir. Matthew Vaughn)

If you're curious, check Row Three within the next few days to see how my picks match up with those of the other writers for that site.

Well, with all that said, I hope everyone has a very happy New Years celebration, wherever you may be spending it! After my soon-approaching trip to British Columbia (which will take me away from the comforts of the GTA and into the rainy wilderness of the West coast for two weeks), I'll start off the new year with a gathered list of fond memories that truly made 2010 special. See you in 2011!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Youtube Finds

Hello all! It has been a long break between drinks, but I'm back to put up a few more posts before the end of 2010. Soon, I'll post my favourite films of the year, but for now I just wanted to share a pair of great fan-made movie montages that I've recently discovered and been digging a fair bit.

The first is dedicated to a Japanese filmmaker whose work I really need to see more of: Hirokazu Kore-eda. So far, I've only seen Nobody Knows and Maborosi - both stunningly moving films that clearly indicate his status as a true master. I'd most like to see next his highly acclaimed After Life and the more recent Still Walking, which will be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD this upcoming February. Youtube user Kornspel put together a great tribute to his filmography using carefully selected scenes and the music of World's End Girlfriend and Mew. Check it out:

This next video is a great tribute to the use of color in film over the years which covers many different genres and nationalities of cinema and puts to good use a couple of songs from Plants and Animals' album La La Land. It was made by none other than my good buddy and fellow Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow AND Row Three writer Bob Turnbull. After taking in Bob's impressive cutting handiwork, check out his blog, Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind.

Again, stay tuned for my inevitable end-of-year list of films. For now, though, I hope you enjoy the above vids and, furthermore, have a happy and safe holiday season and New Year celebration!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Stalker (1979)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Country: Soviet Union

Stalker is the fifth of only seven feature films master filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky made during his life. It represents one of many instances in which he used science fiction elements - other notable examples include 1972's Solaris, which is mostly set on a space station near a strange planet, and 1986's The Sacrifice, which is driven by the concepts of World War III and the end of all life on Earth. If one compares Solaris and Stalker, his two most sci-fi-oriented works, the latter seems more ambitious and transcendent, moving beyond the older film's confining sets and head-on (though still often cryptic) examinations of memory and identity. Instead, Stalker is a film structured around a spiritual quest, and consequently allows more room for open interpretations, metaphors and meditations on various subjects, with the characters' journey, as with most narrative journeys, having just as much to do with self-discovery as actual distances covered.

Stalker opens in a drab, depressing, sepia-toned world - unmistakably a post-apocalyptic dystopia. In this world, we learn that something - maybe a meteor, maybe an alien presence, though what it actually is remains ambiguous - reached Earth and affected an area  of land. Now fenced off and guarded by the authorities and referred to as the Zone, it is thought to contain at its center a mystical place simply called the Room that grants wishes - specifically, the one thing that a visitor wants more than anything else. Yet passage through the Zone is no easy matter, as it seems to possess a sentient awareness and protects itself from unwelcome visitors with terrible traps. Only certain specially-attuned people known as stalkers can bring people to the Room. The film follows one particular stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) as he leaves his protesting wife (Alisa Frejndlikh) and their daughter (Natasha Abramova) behind to bring a scientist (Nikolai Grinko) and a writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) into the Zone so they may enter the Room and have their innermost desires.

Throughout Stalker, the titular character and his two companions choose to refer to themselves only by their titles. As a result, they often act as archetypes for their respective fields. Of the three of them, this is especially true of the writer, who frequently speaks of the nature of being a writer, the importance (or lack thereof) of writing and the often overwhelming role the audience plays in the life of a writer. As a still-budding writer myself, I found these monologues to be extremely insightful and wise, and the great Solonitsyn's passionate delivery made them all the more resonant. Anybody who has taken seriously the idea of creating a meaningful output through writing or making a living off of the craft and the whims of the public will see part of themselves in the writer.

The three men's journey into the Zone is completely enthralling for several reasons. As they head further into the strange, ominous landscape, the stalker tosses nuts with strips of cloth tied around them to ensure safety from traps and instructs the others to walk in certain directions. Along the way, tension and distrust forms between them as a result of ego, pride, greed and frayed patience. Only the stalker has a solid understanding of the true nature of the Zone, which often seems more like another character than a place - one who quietly schemes and plans to tear the men's unit apart with their own dark, savage impulses. Also of clear interest are the exact motives driving the scientist and the writer to the Room, creating fascinating new dilemmas once they are fully revealed.

The Zone itself significantly appears in color within the film - being one of many elements that have inspired astute comparisons between Stalker and The Wizard of Oz. Yet there are no neat yellow brick roads or quaint Munchkin dwellings in the Zone - it is an eerily quiet, desolate place filled with green overgrowth, wind, rain and flowing rivers. Here, Tarkovsky, who made use of scenes of nature like no other filmmaker, captures some of his strongest imagery based on the natural elements - particularly water, a regular motif of his. Through things like a sudden gust of wind or the arrival of a rain storm (not to mention the incredible music by Eduard Artemiev), the Zone seems to express itself in subtle, mysterious ways. Throughout it, there lie abandoned trucks and tanks, crooked power lines and discarded guns, syringes and bottles - the remnants of human civilization rendered in profoundly lyrical passages of pure cinema. Thus, the Zone is not just a strange, fantastical realm, but a looking glass through which Tarkovsky and his audience beholds and considers such subjects as war, religion, art, sin and the folly of man.

Such intimidating subjects are presented in a manner that is extremely hypnotic and stunning in its sheer beauty. Stalker is at once a philosophical adventure, a revealing examination of human desire and an exquisite work of film poetry. Sadly, the film is also highly significant for the tragedy it brought about to some of its makers: it is believed that Tarkovsky, Solonitsyn and Tarkovsky's wife Larisa all died from cancer that was initially acquired during the Stalker shoot from chemically contaminated locations in Estonia. When you watch the film knowing that it literally cost the lives of some of its key artists, there is undeniably a strange potency added to it and its concepts - especially the Zone, which one could almost imagine extending its wavering, toxic borders beyond the realm of fiction to affect the filmmakers themselves. Also greatly warranted is an appropriate sense of appreciation for Tarkovsky's sacrifice for his art - which, with a film as brilliant and haunting as Stalker, is not such a hard thing to summon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Country: Thailand

After the tidy and at-times sterile spaces of 2006's Syndromes and a Century, which has been recognized by many as the best film of the previous decade, Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to the dark, mysterious depths of the jungles of Thailand for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It is the latest in a series of works that are part of his Primitive project, which is centered around the town of Nabua in northeast Thailand where government soldiers tortured and killed farmers suspected of being communists between 1965 and the early 1980s. Through an installation piece, the short films Phantoms of Nabua and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee and the feature Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has adressed the topics of memory, community and, in keeping with his ongoing interest in Buddhism, reincarnation.

Uncle Boonmee is inspired by the 1983 book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Buddhist abbot Phra Sripariyattiweti, who in turn based the book on the remembered experiences and reincarnations of a man named Boonmee. Along with elements from the book, Weerasethakul incorporated into the film memories of his own family (chiefly his father, who like the titular character, suffered from kidney failure) and bits of inspiration from old television shows and Thai comic books. The end result is yet another fantastically strange treat from one of the most original voices in contemporary Asian cinema.

The film follows kindly farmer Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) as he lives out his final days in a country house surrounded by dense wilderness. He is kept company by Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his sister-in-law, and Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), his nephew, and has his medical needs taken care of by Jaai (Samud Kugasang), a migrant worker from Laos. As the days pass, the group encounters a range of unusual beings. Most memorably, there is an evening dinner table sequence early in the film in which the family is joined by the ghost of Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), Boonmee's long-deceased wife, and Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), his long-lost son who transformed into a red-eyed ape creature after mating with another member of the same species. Boonmee converses with his wife about what awaits him after death and summons memories of his previous reincarnations. Eventually, Huay leads Boonmee and the others to an ancient cave where the sick man was originally born in his first form. There, he prepares himself for what is inevitably to come. 

Uncle Boonmee is possibly Weerasethakul's most linear narrative to date, as it noticeably deviates from the very clearly-defined two-part structures of Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. While there is a portion towards the ending that relocates the narrative to urban spaces, the film is mainly set within the jungle and, a few isolated episodes aside, devotes most of its running time to Boonmee and those around him. Weerasethakul very much seems to be revisiting territory he covered in Tropical Malady - primarily that film's prolonged stay in the wilderness, which immerses main character Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and audience alike in a rich, sensory experience filled with thick vegetation, natural phenomena and the sounds of countless unseen insects and other creatures. Uncle Boonmee provides a similarly overwhelming ambience taken from the flora and fauna of the Thai country, and, like Tropical Malady, freely includes some more overtly fantastical creatures and elements - though this time, it could be said that Weerasethakul has truly outdone himself. At certain points during Uncle Boonmee, I was reminded of a quote Jonathan Rosenbaum uttered regarding the African film Yeelen (Brightness): "...should make George Lucas green with envy..." Well, Uncle Boonmee takes that idea a few steps further, as some of its inclusions seem directly influenced by Star Wars (namely the ape creatures, which seem like a mix of Wookies and Jawas). Yet the traces of influence aren't direct or glaring enough to be called rip-offs. Instead, they give the impression that the film is a dream being experienced by someone who has seen Star Wars a few too many times - the raw ingredients are there, but they have been re-invented and mixed in with the filmmaker's other preoccupations, ideas, memories and creative wishes. In fact, Weerasethakul himself is quite the big fan of science fiction, having read a number of the classic authors (Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury) in his youth. Many times (including the career-spanning talk he gave at the Bell Lightbox during TIFF, which I attended), he has mentioned his ambitious dream project: Utopia, which would ideally feature actors from old science fiction films and television series (Jane Fonda and the cast of the original Star Trek show among them), the remains of the starship Enterprise and an eerie, snow-covered setting (Weerasethakul quite understandably  associates the color white with science fiction sets and environments). Even if that film is never realized (the director worries that it would be too expensive), there are many fascinating sci-fi touches in his existing works that certainly indicate an interest in the genre.

Uncle Boonmee is a film to savor and celebrate for the way in which it continues its maker's ongoing fascination with and reinterpretation of storytelling practices. His methods can be challenging to those not used to his particular way of relaying narrative, but if you approach his works with an open mind, you will find a grand wealth of strange yet wonderful riches. Like Weerasethakul's previous works, Uncle Boonmee is piled with several scenes and moments that ask you to enjoy certain pleasures: a honey tasting in a sunny tamarind orchard; the eerie yet relaxed dinner table meeting between human, spirit and ape-man; a stunning passage set by a night-shrouded waterfall involving a princess, one of her servants and a talking catfish; an unexpected photo montage; the cave, glistening with constellations of minerals; a karaoke stage aglow with colorful lights. All of these things and more are presented in a welcoming tone of curiosity, sincerity and happiness, and the weaving, unexpected structure in which they are presented simply adds to the fun, fascinating quality of the film. 

There is so much more I could write about (including the interconnected quality of all of Weerasethakul's works, including Uncle Boonmee - for example, the actress Kanokporn Tongaram from Blissfully Yours seems to reprise her character in the newer film's final scenes), but I think I've said enough. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is indeed different and mysterious, and it certainly helps if viewers go into it with some familiarity with Weerasethakul's work and methods. But the experience it provides is surely one to be contemplated and cherished in equal measure, and I can't wait to partake in it once again.

I'll leave you with a slew of Weerasethakul-related goodies:

-the blog Ruthless Culture has some very good pieces on Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady, but most worthwhile is a review on Syndromes and a Century that describes the unique approach to storytelling that the film and its director utilize, the literary tradition of said approach, and how the film goes about charting new ways in which cinema can be used to tell stories (and how critics should approach them).

-John Berra, editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and American Independent volumes and contributor to Electric Sheep, conducted a great interview with Weerasethakul for the latter in December 2009 that explores the Primitive project, the director's clashes with censors over Syndromes and that enticing Utopia film, among many other things. Check that out here!

-Finally, included below is a video featuring excerpts from the previously mentioned appearance Weerasethakul made at the Lightbox:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Film Socialism (2010)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Country: France

Quite fittingly, Jean-Luc Godard’s already-notorious Film Socialism was the last film I saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Having read reports of its difficult qualities (on top of being fully aware of his work’s striking transformations over the course of his career), I knew I was in for a rough ride when I walked into the theatre, and even had in mind the famous credits that accompany his 1967 film Weekend: “End of Film,” “End of Cinema.” Those words quite definitively marked the end of a remarkable run of films that at once reflected and defined the decade in which they were made. But anyone willing to follow Godard beyond then would have to turn away from Jean Seberg, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina and all other traces of romanticism from that phase of his work as he delved deeper into political theory, philosophy, video technology and an increasingly experimental style that tossed conventional narrative techniques out the window.

Depending on what you read, Film Socialism is reported as being either Godard’s final film or one of several final films. Constructed as “a symphony in three movements,” it begins on a cruise ship traveling on the Mediterranean Sea, which the filmmaker poetically portrayed in Contempt and Pierrot le fou. Here, it is captured in high definition video as a cruel place of crashing waves; a raging, terrifying void stretching as far as the eye can see. Using a variety of cameras that range from crisp and clear to crude and blurry, Godard and his film crew show the ship’s passengers as they engage in numerous activities: eating in decadent restaurant settings, playing in an on-board casino, visiting a crowded swimming pool. Godard’s disgust for the relaxed, unsuspecting people who pass before his lenses is detectable, as is his barbed critique of the realm of wealth and ignorance that they inhabit. Twice, he cuts away to a dance club comically rendered via pixel-strewn video as a chaotic, hellish realm of flashing lights and deafening noise – clearly a poke at what the young people of today’s age do for entertainment. At certain points, people clearly enlisted as actors (though it can’t be said that they are portraying actual characters) appear: a man who frequently snaps pictures, a woman who mournfully talks about Europe and points to something in the distance, a girl who contemplates an amusing Youtube video of talking cats. There are vague allusions to the Nazis, Spanish gold and the invention of Hollywood by the Jews.

At this point, I should mention one of the more daunting (and talked about) features of Film Socialism. At Godard’s request, the English subtitles of the film have been considerably modified to the point that each sentence only ever consists of a handful of words (mostly nouns). Apparently a form of Navajo English, this fragmented language is bound to be the final straw for many an already frustrated viewer – and it already has been at several previous screenings in film festivals around the world. Yet it also undeniably adds a game-like quality to the film as it asks – nay, forces you to decipher the images and selected words that appear before you while also inviting a deeper consideration of language and articulation – subjects Godard has been tackling throughout his entire career. Regardless of how you choose to react to them, the partial subtitles become much more problematic by the second movement, which shifts from the ship to a lonely country gas station run by a family currently being shaken by a number of politically charged occurrences. The mother is a candidate in the upcoming elections while her young son and teenage daughter demand a serious consideration of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and stop using the verb “to be.” The girl keeps company with the family llama (they also own a mule) by the gas pumps and determinedly reads Balzac instead of helping customers. Meanwhile, the blond-haired boy is centered amidst moments of humor and contemplation as he conducts an imaginary orchestra, paints a Renoir from memory and thoughtfully listens to a piece of classical music, a jazz piece and a political monologue whilst blowing bubbles in his milk. A white journalist and black camera operator (both women) document the family’s activities, questioning and recording them. This passage is the closest Film Socialism ever comes to being an actual narrative, and while some viewers have complained of it being monotonous, I found that an engaging quality emerged from watching these people (I again hesitate to say “characters,” and Godard himself has said that “the scenes stop before the people become characters”) as they interacted with each other – even if I couldn’t entirely understand everything that was said.

The final movement is a collage of images that has been drawing many comparisons to Godard’s lengthy film essay series Histoire(s) du cinéma. The main subjects are “six sites of true or false myths,” including Egypt, Palestine, Odessa (along with, yes, the stone steps where Eisenstein shot the famous massacre sequence for Battleship Potemkin), Hellas (Greece), Naples and Barcelona, all of which explored through scraps of both original and found footage. Two words not unlike those at the end of Weekend bring Film Socialism to a close: “No Comment.”

Understandably, I’m still finding it hard to sort my exact feelings about Film Socialism. At the very least, I can say that I somewhat disagree with all the critics out there who are flat-out rejecting it or simplistically summarizing it as merely a middle finger defiantly pointed at the audience. Yes, there is an undeniable quality of unfriendliness about the film, but that’s something Godard has developed and incorporated in his works for ages. Part of what defines Godard’s work is its intentional difficulty; its unwillingness to be easily defined or understood according to rules of conventional film spectatorship. You don’t have to like or agree with this mentality by any means, but if you’re walking into a late Godard film, you have to understand that this is what you’ll be subjected to for its duration. Additionally, while he is making these daunting choices about how Film Socialism will be viewed (especially for English-speaking audiences), the film is by no means entirely incomprehensible or without form or coherence – case in point being the three-part structure that takes you from floating pleasure palace to domestic setting to wind-swept shores of history. While difficult if not impossible to peg down the maker’s precise intentions, there is nonetheless a lot to think about and even appreciate. In the second category, one can easily include the film’s undeniably beautiful images of the blue and yellow ship, the vast expanses of sea and sky stretching beyond it and the different rooms and spaces of the family’s household. There is even something resembling a nice character moment when Godard lingers in extreme slow motion on the smiling face of the teenage girl.

In conclusion, if you’re considering giving Film Socialism a watch, it’s worth keeping in mind that there are challenging films, there are challenging films, and then there’s Godard. There are some films out there like Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Christopher Nolan’s Inception that require their audiences to think a little differently, but nonetheless can be extremely rewarding to those who approach them with an open, eager mind. Such films are closer to puzzles than stories, and in turn are more ideal for being played with than simply watched. Film Socialism should be approached with the same mentality, but with the crucial caveats that a) Godard’s considerations for his audience are pricklier than most other cinematic tricksters’, b) his particular rulebook for the film has intentionally had some of its pages ripped out, and c) his intended messages are perhaps inevitably going to be murky, unfocused and scattershot. Whether people have the patience or tolerance for such characteristics is entirely up to them. Personally, I am willing to accept (though not entirely embrace) the challenges of Film Socialism and approach it as an intriguing puzzle, but there are indeed far more pleasant ways to be engaged by a film. Take, for example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker who has thus far taken the film world by storm with an assortment of odd, unconventional “mysterious objects” that are also filled with a warmth that is extremely alluring and pleasing. Watching one of his films is like sipping a pleasantly intoxicating liqueur. Film Socialism, for all of its infinitely more hard-won rewards, is more like gargling vinegar. Take from that what you will, I guess. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and VCinema Podcast Unite!

Hello all. I wanted to squeeze in one last post before August comes to an end. A little over a month ago, I attended and saw many excellent Japanese independent films at the second Shinsedai Cinema Festival, which was put together by co-programmers Chris MaGee of the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and Midnight Eye's Jasper Sharp. Also in attendance was Jon Jung, who co-hosts the VCinema Podcast, which delves into Asian cinema on a regular basis. It was great to actually meet and hang out with Jon over the course of the festival - as well as record a few podcast episodes with him that cover the various films shown at this year's Shinsedai Festival. While these episodes went into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes run a bit on the lengthy side and were more than a little, erm, enhanced by a fair share of beverages, they were a great deal of fun to make and (I hope) give a fairly comprehensive summary of what the fest had to offer.

Click the links below to download the special VCinema Podcast episodes. Two of them also feature interviews Jon conducted with two of the filmmakers who were in attendance: Momoko Ando (Kakera: A Piece of Our Life) and Yasunobu Takahashi (Locked Out).

Shinsedai Special Podcast Report #1: Director's Spotlight: Momoko Ando

Shinsedai Special Podcast Report #2: The First Half

Shinsedai Special Podcast Report #3: Director's Spotlight: Yasunobu Takahashi

Shinsedai Special Podcast Report #4: The Second Half

Also, click here and here to check out my summaries of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival over at the Pow-Wow.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Amarcord (1973)

Director: Federico Fellini
Country: Italy

Amarcord is widely known as the last "great" film from Italian auteur Federico Fellini - that is to say, his last true masterpiece. This belief is perhaps voiced most clearly by Roger Ebert in his "Great Movies" essay on the film. I personally agree with him, as I think Amarcord marks the furthest that Fellini could go in the particular direction he followed in his career and aesthetic choices and still receive fairly wide acclaim, or without entirely alienating his audience, which, according to most accounts that I have read, is what happened with his later efforts (though I quite enjoyed And the Ship Sails On, reviewed here).

The specific reason why Fellini's later efforts pale in comparison to his earlier ones I believe has to do with how he created and used characters. It is certainly worth noting how he gradually did away with strong central protagonists that his audience could relate to and latch onto within the bewildering sights and sounds in his films. Part of what makes his earlier efforts so memorable are these strong characters: Zampano (Anthony Quinn) and Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) in La Strada, the down-on-her-luck prostitute Cabiria (Masina) in Nights of Cabiria, the journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) in La Dolce Vita and troubled director Guido (Mastroianni) in 8 1/2. Juliet (Masina) of Juliet of the Spirits could fit alongside these characters, though she was far too passive amidst Fellini's increasingly surreal images and events to exert the same sense of control and presence. Essentially, by the time Juliet came around, the dip away from such characters was becoming much more visible. Working in conjunction with this problem was Fellini's steady trajectory away from reality-based elements in his films and more towards outright fantasy and artifice. Try comparing the various "real" locations throughout Italy within the road movie La Strada with the completely artificial ship and sea where most of And the Ship Sails On takes place.

Thus with Amarcord, which follows the various inhabitants of a small coastal town during the rise of Italian fascism in the 1930s, there are few central characters to solidly grasp onto and, instead of a main narrative, a strictly episodic structure through which Fellini delves into one fanciful spectacle after another. One of the film's strongest points is the sense of community and comraderie amongst the town's people that is evoked. As a viewer, you feel like you are with these characters as they share anecdotes, memories and jokes with each other while gathered at whatever occasions Fellini chooses, be they small meetings at work or school or larger-scale events like the passing of the Rex, a massive ocean liner, or the giant bonfire at the start of the film that heralds the arrival of spring.

However, the drawbacks to such a structure are both the surplus of quirk and consequent lack of depth in the characters. Only two of them could be considered as proper central characters within Amarcord: the kindly lawyer (Luigi Rossi) who addresses the camera, but only ever to share certain historical facts about the town (often accompanied by unseen pranksters interrupting him with raspberries and snowballs), and Titta (Bruno Zanin), a blond-haired youth at the center of most of the episodic scenarios. As far as protagonists go, though, Titta isn't all that impressive: he is a mischievous, immature kid (as are his chums) who spends too much time tormenting his stressed-out father and being an all-around pest to properly win over viewers' sympathies. Much of the film's humor in fact is of the toilet variety, as Fellini indulges in a wide range of guilty pleasures and gags involving piss, shit, farting, masturbation, nymphomania and, perhaps most lovingly, obsession of certain parts of the female anatomy.

Overall, Amarcord's characters remain bizarre, clueless characters who are never really given the chance to fully transcend their presented surface traits. Going back to the nature of the film's dialogue, you rarely get anything more from them beyond the anecdotes that they trade, with the exception of a precious few moments that pass as contemplative, but nonetheless always feel very heavy-handed. Some examples include a flashback sequence that explores the past of the much-desired Gradisca (Magali Noël), the gradual ailing and, later, death of Titta's mother and one hauntingly beautiful moment in which a peacock displays its tail feathers in the midst of thick snowfall.

There is plenty of emotion shown onscreen throughout Amarcord: joviality, hushed anticipation, crazed frustration, grateful wonder, somber sadness. Yet whether you share such emotions with the characters is a different matter altogether, depending on how sympathetic you are to them. The film's vagueness could very well be an aesthetic choice of Fellini's, as he intended to make a film about his memories of his home town Rimini. The film's title in fact means "I Remember," thus inviting the possibility that the events, characters and emotions are meant solely to be striking, memory-like impressions rather than more nuanced depictions. Certainly one element that helps the film in this respect is Nino Rota's lovely musical score, which seems fashioned purely out of nostalgic longing and warm charm.

Personally, I find that Amarcord is a film that grows on you over time. As you become more accustomed to the film and its particular way of presenting stories and characters, you can better appreciate its other qualities - among them its fabulous visual design, hilariously satirical portrayal of fascist Italy and treatment of time as it unspools throughout the various seasons of the year. But those searching for a more approachable work from Fellini would do well to start with La Strada, Nights of Cabiria or, my personal favorite of his, the masterful 8 1/2.

BONUS: Amarcord Beer?!

So, as I was doing a bit of research through the inter-webs for this post, I stumbled upon images of something I thought was far too good to be true: beer labels bearing character designs from Fellini's film. Upon further investigation, I discovered that there is in fact a brewery called Amarcord Birra Artigianale named after and inspired by Amarcord! The brewery has at least four different kinds of beers named after specific characters from the film (portrayed on their respective labels): Gradisca (Noël); the ravenous town slut Volpina (Josiane Tanzilli); the stacked, heavy-set Tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) and one I can't place called Midona.

What an awesome discovery! For a film geek who deeply loves both foreign cinema and beer, this is nothing short of a slice of heaven. Now if I can only find a way to get my hands on some bottles...

Many thanks to the blog Drink With The Wench for shedding light on this find.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2009)

Director: Momoko Ando
Country: Japan

Haru (Hikari Mitsushima), the character at the centre of Kakera: A Piece of Our Life, is a charming creature who swiftly engraves herself in viewers’ memories with her big eyes, frequently dazed expression and a fat grey scarf that envelops her head. She is unfortunately trapped in a relationship with a boorish boyfriend who only ever meets with her just to have sex. But one day in a café, she meets Riko (Eriko Nakamura), who introduces herself by dabbing away a layer of cocoa from Haru’s lip. She openly states that she is intrigued by Haru and leaves her phone number along with a charming little sketched drawing, thus beginning an affectionate yet sometimes challenging relationship.

Adapted from the manga Love Vibes by Erika Sakurazawa, Kakera marks the debut of writer-director Momoko Ando, who admirably brings honesty and humor to her portrayal of the two young women and their love for one another. Riko carefully explains to Haru that she is not usually interested in women – just certain people. However, she later goes on to describe how much she prefers the softness of women over whatever men have to offer. In fact, touch is very much one of Kakera’s main reoccurring subjects. It is partly explored through Riko’s unusual profession as a maker of prosthetic limbs, in which she affectionately crafts soft and light replacement body parts. The limbs allow people to finally experience reparation and completion, the emotional equivalent of which Haru and Riko try to achieve. But obstacles occasionally prevent them from doing so – namely, Haru’s boyfriend and Riko’s angry reactions to his lingering presence in her life.

Throughout Kakera, Ando sprinkles just the right amount of whimsy into the film’s weightier moments of human drama. An especially memorable scene captures an intimate moment shared by Haru and Riko on a rooftop as they watch a smoky fireworks display. At one point, a bottled drink the two of them playfully toss around suddenly and inexplicably transforms into a two-headed dove that flies away. Another stunning image shows a star-covered night reflected in a mirror-like swimming pool that is distorted by spreading ripples. Then there is the mysterious Tohko (Rino Katase), for whom Riko is constructing a new breast to replace one lost to cancer. The craftswoman and her client share an intense, unusual relationship throughout the film while Haru encounters a challenge of her own in the form of Tetsu (Ryu Morioka), a shy young student with feelings for her.

If there is anything the film suffers from, it is its characters’ jarring mood shifts and overly simplistic traits. The former can particularly be attributed to Riko, whose angry outbursts towards Haru are not unfounded, but still too drastic and over-the-top to be entirely convincing. Haru’s passive nature is, after a certain point, a little overstated, as are her boyfriend’s negative qualities. However, when the characters balance out and express the right emotions in just the right proportions, the results are quite satisfying. Upon leaving the screening room at the Shinsedai Cinema Festival where I saw the film, the word I heard most often from other viewers was “tender,” which is probably the idea term to describe the love story between Riko and Haru and Ando’s skillful, heartfelt depiction of it. Following Masahide Ichii’s Naked of Defenses, which kicked off Shinsedai last year, Kakera: A Piece of Our Life ably continues a trend of high quality for the festival’s opening screenings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Travel Pics: Paris - Miscellaneous

This will be my final batch of pics from my trip to Paris, France last April. It consists of sights from areas both famous and obscure around the great city. Enjoy!

Here is Saint Christopher's Paris, the (excellent) hostel where I stayed. Both the building and the rising bridge are prominently featured in one scene in Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest film.

Behold the strange architectural wonder that is the Georges Pompidou Centre:

Here is the Arc de Triomph (with, it appears, portions of it being renovated behind decorative panels) and the legendary Champs-Élysées.

Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur:

During my visit, I had to visit the world-famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co.

I also visited a building where Victor Hugo lived for a period of his life, today a museum dedicated to the man, his life and his legacy.

I later visited the Seine and, fittingly, the central locale of one of Hugo's most well-known works.

Two of the most peaceful settings I visited: the Montmartre Cemetery...

...and the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Finally, here is a variety of shots I took of the Eiffel Tower, that most Parisian of landmarks, and the Palais de Chaillot which stands across from it (on the opposite side of the Seine):