Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fish Tank (2009)

Director: Andrea Arnold
Country: United Kingdom

Fish Tank was one of the most celebrated films of last year, making a particularly deep impression at the Cannes Film Festival, where it tied with Park Chan-wook's Thirst for the Jury Prize. Remarkably, director Andrea Arnold has now won that very award twice, the first time being on the strength of her first feature film Red Road. Having also won an Oscar for her 2003 short film Wasp, she is clearly a fresh talent in contemporary cinema worth keeping an eye on.

Fish Tank revolves around fifteen year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, an inexperienced newcomer), a tough misfit who lives with her little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) in a shabby apartment building in the Essex area of London. Her independent nature is asserted early on when she bickers with a group of scantily-clad girls practicing dance moves, breaking one's nose. One of her few safe havens is the empty room with blue walls where she practices her own dancing alone, often resting to look upon the world out the window. Music and dancing serve as means of escape for Mia, eventually offering some hope for the future in the form of a notice for an audition for female dancers. Noticeably, there is no music on the film's soundtrack, though songs frequently play from CD players and televisions (mostly hip-hop), surrounding the characters. Another distraction soon arrives in Mia's life: Connor (Michael Fassbender), Joanne's new boyfriend. A tentative friendship slowly forms between him and Mia as he encourages her to send a video for the dance audition and lends her his camcorder. As she visits him at work and becomes more comfortable in his presence, an underlying sexual tension becomes more apparent between them, testing Mia in ways both foreshadowed and unexpected.

Arnold's portrayal of Mia's life is rendered in an observational, fly-on-the-wall manner using hand-held camerawork and sharp attention to detail. Mia's apartment is a space that looks and feels lived in, a sensation reinforced by such elements as the tiger poster that adorns Mia's door, cluttered living room where Mia and her sister watch television, various knick-knacks, framed pictures and stickers and sketches that cover walls and furniture. Soft light and colors often fill the frame, casting dreamy hues of yellow, pink and blue on the actors' faces. This look offers a contrast to the rougher sequences shot outside of the apartment when Mia wanders on her own. An eerie junkyard, busy roads, empty fields, menacing storm clouds and the roaring sea all provide the impression of a hazardous, unfriendly world through which the young heroine must navigate. She visits a gray horse chained in a barren lot and makes repeated, increasingly risky efforts to free it. Her actions are often rash and impulsive (particularly in an agonizingly suspenseful passage towards the end), consistently reflecting the raging storm of feelings that swirl inside her.

Carrying on the legacy of films like The 400 Blows, Fish Tank is an uncompromisingly gritty portrayal of youth. Arnold refuses to dip too far into clichéd territory as she tells Mia's story, but when she uses familiar elements, they nonetheless feel fresh and honest. Her vision is a unique and invigorating one perfectly suited to the story material, nicely accommodating strong performances (particularly the remarkable Jarvis) amid a vivid assertion of setting and mood. With an adaptation of Wuthering Heights billed as her next project, Arnold is certainly on a roll that hopefully won't let up anytime soon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saraband (2003)

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Country: Sweden

Back in 1982, Ingmar Bergman's magnificent Fanny and Alexander was released (my review here). That film was widely presented as Bergman's "official" final film - a summation of his cinematic career and loving good-bye note to the medium. Afterwards, he kept himself busy by writing screenplays for television and film projects and directing plays. However, he couldn't quite keep himself out of the director's chair. He worked on some television projects as a director in his post-Fanny and Alexander career, yet the one that is most popularly known as his return to film is 2003's Saraband, which truly was his final directorial work before his death in 2007. While not as grand, rich or definitively conclusive as Fanny and Alexander, it still serves as a fitting final word from one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.

Saraband returns to two characters last seen in Bergman's 1973 work Scenes from a Marriage: Marianne and Johan, portrayed once more by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Although some describe this film as a follow-up or sequel to Scenes, it in fact stands quite solidly on its own. I myself have yet to see Scenes, but I had no problem getting into and enjoying the story being told in Saraband. It sufficiently establishes the impression of the deep, troubled history between Marianne and Johan, establishing the nature of their relationship in such a clear and complete fashion that the viewer is given all that is needed in this film alone. In any case, a major factor of the film is the thirty year gap since the two last saw each other, their reunion after so much time just one of the many ways in which the film touches upon the spectre of the past.

The central story of the film doesn't focus on Marianne and Johan, but rather Johan's nineteen year-old granddaughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius) and her father Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt). Both of them are cellists, though Henrik's professional career is steadily winding down. He lost his wife, Anna (represented by a frequently shown photograph and based on Bergman's wife Ingrid Von Rosen, to whom the film is dedicated), two years previous, leaving him with little more than a ferocious, obsessive devotion to Karin. He spends most of his time preparing her for her musical career, often subjecting her to long, stressful practice sessions that take their toll on the young woman. Eventually, circumstances arise that pose a difficult decision before Karin: should she act for the sake of her father, or herself?

is very much a film about parents and their children, explored not only through Henrik and Karin, but also Henrik's relationship with Johan, who fathered him from a marriage before Marianne. This father-son bond is rotted to the core, with the two men on the bitterest of terms. Johan cares a great deal about Karin, but is ultimately dismayed at the failure his son has made of himself. Both Johan and Henrik reveal unpleasant qualities, but it is ultimately the older man who is the more formidable one, subjecting his son to scathing contempt. As he has done before in films like Cries and Whispers, Bergman masterfully explores the darker side of family relations.

Marianne submerges herself in this poisoned atmosphere, essentially an outside observer to the drama surrounding this family, sometimes acting as a confidant. The film is set in the secluded rural area where Johan lives, with Henrik and Karin occupying a nearby cabin. The title refers to a Bach cello suite for couples, which perfectly fits the structure of the film. Its scenes focus on the four characters conversing with each other in pairs: Marianne and Johan, Marianne and Karin, Johan and Henrik, and so forth, made constantly engaging by the power and subtlety of the actors' performances. Bergman's gift for raw dialogue remains fully intact as each of the main characters reveal layers of themselves with magnificently delivered exchanges and monologues weighted down with emotion and honesty.

With its secluded setting and focus on character, Saraband very much resembles a play, yet is still cinematically engaging and visually sumptuous. Working with five cinematographers, Bergman delved into the digital realm with this film and managed to produce images so smooth that they could easily pass for ones shot on film. As one would expect, Bergman makes the most of the human face, holding long close-ups on his actors, further uncovering their characters' layers of feelings and conflicts. The framing and lighting remains as top-notch as one would expect from a Bergman film (particularly a late Bergman), allowing the viewers to seamlessly slip into the story that is unraveling before them.

For one last time, the master successfully proved his worth. Any fans of him or simply great cinema will likely be pleased by what Saraband has to offer them.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Tropical Malady (2004)

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Country: Thailand

I recently took it upon myself to seek out Apichatpong Weerasethakul's highly celebrated Tropical Malady, motivated by his Palme d'Or win in Cannes for his latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the fond memories I had of seeing his Syndromes and a Century at the TIFF Cinematheque this past January. Like that film, Tropical Malady made it onto a lot of critics' lists of best films of the decade - and I can certainly see why.

Like Syndromes, Tropical Malady is divided into two very different parts, but while the former "reboots" its narrative, the latter could be seen as one continuous narrative journey for Keng (Banlop Lomnoi), its central protagonist. Keng is a soldier who meets a young man named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and soon forges a close bond with him. The film's first portion is set within the safe haven of civilization, dwelling in the Thai countryside and a busier city setting. When not amidst the peaceful outdoor settings of the village, the film ventures into distinctly urban locations flooded with florescent light, including a sterile veterinary clinic, an internet cafe and an eye-poppingly colorful karaoke bar. The slow-burning love story between the two men is portrayed in such a way that its homoerotic situation is not overly stressed. Instead, in a universal fashion, it simply portrays two people expressing affection for one another.

The second part, entitled A Spirit's Path, offers a significant departure from the first and almost feels like its own separate film. Onscreen text tells the folk tale of a shaman with the power to turn himself into a tiger. Having changed from his casual short-sleeved shirts to his camouflaged uniform, Keng pursues a tiger that is killing villagers' animals, putting up with the heat and blood-sucking leeches while making puzzling discoveries, including tracks that change from those of a man to those of the beast. One possibility is that Tong is the very shape-shifting tiger that Keng seeks. Barely any dialogue is spoken or music played, allowing Apichatpong to heighten the purely sensory experience of the jungle through the sounds of birds, insects and other wildlife and a spellbinding array of images.

In the programme guide for the Cinematheque's Best of the Decade series, Apichatpong's work is accurately described as a cinema of generosity, invested with a joyous desire to share moments pleasing and wonderful to behold. This idea is solidly reinforced in Tropical Malady, which is chock full of memorable sights and sounds. The first part alone features workers at an ice-making plant, gorgeous sun-drenched landscapes, warm communal gatherings in the nocturnal hours, an excursion to a cave, an outdoor mass aerobics class and the delightful karaoke scene. The second half contains elements that are just as stimulating, but of a completely different order. So mystifying and strange are they that it would be a crime to reveal them here in mere, crude words.

Like few other films, Tropical Malady forges a unique connection between it and the viewer, taking him/her on a mysterious, unpredictable journey of discovery ripe with pleasures. Seductive and beautiful, it is all but guaranteed to provide a different experience for each person who watches it, and a world apart from any other film you will watch this summer. If you're looking for something fresh, challenging and rewarding, something to truly lose yourself in, then seek out Tropical Malady first chance you get.

Below, I've included the trailers for Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.