Archive for June, 2007

Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)

“Fresa y chocolate” (1994)

Directors: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; Juan Carlos Tabío

Writer: Senel Paz

Genre: Drama / Comedy

IMDb

Getting out to the street

Cinema is an art in itself and not a sum of arts. That is because it has specific things that can’t be made alone by any other art. Now, what exactly can make cinema an art of its own is arguable but will always have something to do with passing anything through moving images (or static images dynamics):

. storytelling
. a mood, an atmosphere
. fact

all three are worth exploring. In Fresa y chocolate, the problem is there is an apparent mixture of all three, which can exist, but not like exposed in here. The device was clear and apparently effective: a simple story inside Story. never mind the simple story, it’s the least important. The Story is the whole Cuba context. Go to the general, pick up an episode (that may represent or not, fact) and from there build the mood, the atmosphere. This last step was what failed. And it was for a non definition on the “eye” of the camera. By giving all the ingredients, all the passwords to the contained world (island) and to its specific context, it should have been shown. I’ve been to Cuba, there was not much lacking for me, i know what i didn’t see in the picture, but by focusing on dialog (that could for its meaning come embedded on the mood) and by not having an eye for the street, for the people, for the city, the project lost a big deal. It had everything to be a film about a city. Story inside space, since the story we are told is clearly typical, one in many. it may have been political issues behind, and it is of great importance that this film could have been made, versing such locally heavy themes. But that’s my main critic, Gutiérrez Alea had an excellent eye for portrait, and for placing stories in context, but he lacked the sense of the place, in terms of senses (mood, atmosphere).

Even though a good document, worth watching, excellent character development, excellent performances also. Diego’s house (and the dialogs that go with it) contain excellent underline thoughts, the dialogs are filled (i didn’t read the original story) with messages, in a not so subtle way. Also a note for the excellent use of the color (very Cuban).

My evaluation: 3/5

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Lisboetas (2004)

“Lisboetas” (2004)

Director: Sérgio Tréfaut

Genre: Documentary

IMDb

Field-Glasses

Lisbon is a city built over hills. You walk by the river, in front of the Pombal illumined downtown, built on the wreckage of 1755’s earthquake and you can view down-up the whole historical centre, protected by the castle. Beautiful view. Go up, reach that castle, and look down, the opposite view, embraced by the river, also great, also gorgeous. The light is special, every cinema lover should know that, Wenders knows it (Lisbon Story). The colors are soft pale yellow, water pink, roofs argyle red. When you get to the castle, pick up a pair of field-glasses, overview the city, look to the other side of the river, and closely the old parts. yellow becomes, vivid blue, you’ll get black and white, high contrasts, and a city that doesn’t come in postcards. Through those field-glasses, you’ll see this film.

Lisbon, multi-cultural, multi-layered city. Many languages, many cultures, many differences. I’m glad i got to watch this one just a few days after Alice. The world depicted here is the world that makes Alice possible. This informs the world of Alice. The depiction of immigration as, at the same time, one of the most natural phenomena in our global times and one of the most system exploited ones is the theme that conducts us through the lives of various immigrants, giving us the full portrait, the unmasking of vanities, feelings of progress and happy futures. Of course this is uneven. It has beautiful art shots, in simple great combination of music, routine sounds, off voice narration and real life shots. But it also has highly zoomed no cinematic quality scenes, useful but artless, or scenes filmed in an almost amateur way. Of course… But it holds a special place for what it shows and for the problems it depicts.

It’s built with boards, episodes, character discontinuity, racial discontinuity, language discontinuity, color discontinuity, mood discontinuity. Such as big cities are today.

This is not artless, and Tréfaut knows what he does. Watch it, and keep Alice on your side, for higher cinematic affairs.

My evaluation: 4/5

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Alice (2005)

“Alice” (2005)

Director: Marco Martins

Writer: Marco Martins

Genre: Drama

IMDb

Blue coat

There is much to be said about this one. It’s fantastic to be able to appreciate such a picture, to live the moment where this finally happened. I don’t know many about M.Martins, i hadn’t heard of him before this one (and practically no one had). i also don’t know what he’ll do next. But i put this one along with a very few number of “difficult to get better” first tries by any director (a list with titles such as “a bout de souffle” or “citizen kane”).

The city is the theme. Forget the story. It is there. Period. It serves the purpose of grasping a city hardly seen on screen before this. Period. that’s all there is to say.

So this succeeds where “Ossos” and “O fantasma” had failed completely; in showing Lisbon out of clichés, of preconceived warmed up imagery’s. Time goes on, cinema has to catch it. This is catching up with time.

This brings the city to zero ground. The screens (how many do we see during the film?) that belong to Lopes’s character are the white canvas where actions draw themselves, in blue. The camera (an experimenting young director, says me) tries to fetch them, tries to make them eternal, all the scenes, everywhere. Lopes (the actor, real life and in this film) tries to get to them, he participates, he can even show up in front of a camera, but he can never control it. So, the actor as a pawn, constantly exposed, never in control. This is cinema, and Mário (Lopes) understands it the moment he sees 10 times his face on the screens of a store. He also performs a play, a comedy, inside the play which is the film. Double manipulation. Great material! He is an actor, manipulated to appear the way this visionary director wants, and he plays an actor, who is forced to perform something he is not the least interested in, to be able to proceed with his other function, which he thinks he controls, but he doesn’t.

The camera can be “god”, a character, or it can grab a character and follow it. The camera can be the spectator, our curiosity moving around. Here, the camera is a mood, a spiritual landscape, such as the music. It’s a dot placed on the infinite. So it doesn’t matter if it focuses or unfocuses, or what it focuses, first or second plan, cars pass in front, also people strange to the scenes (every people are strange here). “Freewill” framing, apparent chaos, apparent “no man” camera. This is the true quality of Alice. All so contemporary, all so apparently chaotic, still, everything controlled we don’t know how, nor by whom. This is Lisbon.

Still, i don’t hold the optimism (nor the skepticism) of the common Portuguese cinema buff. I don’t watch this one as “the new path that will improve Portuguese cinema for good”. One film, especially on this author basis, doesn’t change a hole (inexistent) cinema industry. But i do think that, from a cinematic point of view; this is worthwhile, and has a place on the top of my shelve.

Dialogs subtle, right, rigorous. Music may be the only apparition of the missing Alice. Photos, flyers and even Alice herself don’t count. This is one of the best minimalist soundtracks ever. Glass would make Koyaanisqatsi differently if he could have seen this first. But than again, this is so much better than Reggio’s living-death tail of industrialization.

The city is blue, so is Alice’s coat, he’s always seeking blue… and failing to find it. Think about. You should watch this along with “Lisboetas”. This one first.

My evaluation: 5/5 fantastic cinematic essay.

P.S. – I just feel pity that watching the making of and the extras makes me feel that this was all luck, and no one involved gave a single thought to what i just said. I wish the extra material could be more useful than just curious (it could be both).

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Teresa, the body of Christ (2007)

“Teresa, el cuerpo de Cristo” (2007)

Director: Ray Loriga

Writer: Ray Loriga

Genre: Drama

IMDB

Lucía with a cloth

Perfectionist work, useless in the thoughts depicted.

This one has some interesting elements, from some points of view, despite its (various) flaws. Whoever produced it knew the effect that Paz Vega can have, and places her here with her character of “Lucía y el Sexo” in mind (so, in this sense, this film could only have her in the title role). As Lucía, she was (along with the sexual tension she also helped creating) one of the main agents in the generation of the whole film in the mind of the writer. A somehow satellite character, though essential to the plot. Here, she is brought to the center of that plot, the same sexual tensions are kept, and what is generated is the evolution of her inner fight and the way the world outside Teresa watches those evolutions. That world also includes us, viewers, who put our own (eventually not)religious conceptions in judging her, just like the characters in the film. Anyway, even some aspects of the cinematography reveal some references to Medem’s film (some landscapes overexposed to light, dreamlike, ideas generator mood).

This is built through episodes, almost boards, biographical frescos. Biography facts are not interpreted, the inner fight is chosen. Alright with me, it’s an option (rather contemporary in cinema). Also there is a great (to my view) religious conventionalism which, in spite, tries to strike you as something revolutionary and new. The “DaVinci Code” phenomena brought to a mainstream context the idea of “humanizing” religious characters, once untouched in their sacred biographies. The code did it with Christ (it was not new then, but than again, nobody knew it yet) and his supposed romantic involvement with Madalena. Here we get something flagrant, with assuming “possession” by the Christ as something with sexual connotations (Teresa playing Madalena in the Pietà shot is flagrant). But this is also OK, doesn’t strike me as a new concept anymore, but it’s an option.

What upsets me here is the subtle manipulation that is intended:we get an historical character who became, in her time, one of the most solid symbols of the counter-reformation (the film even refers to the support with which she was granted by the Jesuits, themselves one of the most powerful and efficient agents of reformation, especially in Iberia, founded by the Spanish Loyola). That character, until now looked as a milestone of sanctity, rigor and return to traditions then forgotten, is here transformed in a character of free thinking, revolutionary who, against everybody, would fight for freedoms never dreamed of (woman’s emancipation…). What upsets me is not the reinterpretation, but the incoherence with which she is placed in that specific world. Anyway, interesting to verify how each moment in time rewrites History before introducing it, completely crystallized, in the heads of that moments generations.

What also occurred to me while i was watching this in a cinema room crowded with 8 people was how abstract was the medieval thinking (officialy this is post middle ages, but minds take time to follow). Anyway, death was decided based on the interpretation of completely abstract, non physical beliefs. Art was conquered since then by abstract thinking, but the common minds have evolved to become more and more in need of concrete objects to be guided.

The other very interesting element has to do with cloth. One of this days i was reading a “I need to know” IMDb thread, and Mr. Ted Goranson asked for help to find films that use cloth as a cinematic element. Well this should be quite interesting for that matter. The story and Teresa’s mental evolution and state of mind are told with great precision by the evolution of her cloth (i bare in mind the vivid red she wears as Madalena by Christ, the baroque initial dress and the texture of her final cloth).

Than other not so important incoherences (films are practically all filled with them) such as filming the episodes of the life of a Spanish religious symbol in XVI century using a Portuguese monastery of several dates (including XVII century). This monastery is the spiritual core of temple knights Portuguese (strong) tradition, the one which was once rejected by the same kind of church thinking against which this reinterpreted Teresa fights. Coincidence? probably yes.

The cinematography has a refined baroque quality, always pointing out through light and shadow the most important composition points. This is well crafted (as the overall production), i will always remember the face side line always worked as a light line against a dark second plan. Gorgeous.

My evaluation: 3/5 worth watching for elements referred, though not so well paced.

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Rope (1948)

“Rope” (1948)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Patrick Hamilton, Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, Ben Hecht

Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

IMDB

The birth of an “eye”

I place this one in my list of films anyone should watch. That is, in order to understand some fundamental issues on film-making and films in the last 50 years.

What i’m least interested in here are the technical achievements. Those represent today a curiosity, a museum fact, worth being remembered and credited to those who worked for them, but just it.

I’m also not so interested in the underlying taboo subjects, namely those regarding the homosexuality issue. In respect to that, i even think the whole film construction, from casting to scene writing threw away many things. I’ll get morecontroversial. I think Hitchcock in fact despised those messages (the writers were worried in exploring them, not Hitch), he was not after meanings or controversies, he was after something far more ingenious and influential. I’m talking about his camera eye.

Before this one, all Hitch’s work was something between a classical construction and some exploration of the camera as carrier of a character’s (and the audience’s) emotion/feeling/sensation. The library scene in ‘Shadow of a doubt’, for example, is the perfect example of what i’m talking about. Anyway, that will Hitch had of making the camera follow around characters, sets, and reveal what a character (or “god”) had to reveal was already notable. In here, he made that the theme of the picture. One single set, very few characters, a clear as water story (which he made even clearer by not throwing any doubt about the destiny of the murdered boy). The sexual issues also go to second importance issues. The apartment is at once simple enough to solve the technical difficulties of filming it, and large and divided enough to allow the camera to explore it, searching for elements, for dialogues or for actions. The camera has curiosity, it is almost a character, a character called audience. Years later, in different molds, Hitch would place Stewart behind the camera and definitely assume it as a physical character in the plot (Rear Window). In here what we get is fully a camera that moves to the whishes of the director. The curious, ever searching camera that dePalma would reinvent and Polanski master shows up here.

I believe the work of dePalma, in a way Polanski, Chabrol and even some Godard (Le mépris is filled with this) all derive from what happened here. Hitchcock would probably hit the top with Rear Window, but here is where he becomes an inventor.

My evaluation: 5/5 . one of the cinematic manifestos

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Blood Diamond (2006)

“Blood Diamond” (2006)

Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Charles Leavitt, C. Gaby Mitchell

Genre: Adventure/Drama/Thriller

Link IMDB

Opening the window

I think this is worth watching because something new happened here. Not related to film-making, storytelling or any of those cinematic issues, but because of light and capturing Africa, something the manuals call photography.

Cinematography:.

I’m trying to get to as much of the work of Eduardo Serra as i can. I do believe we are in the presence of one of the most competent and surprising cinematographer’s of current times. And here he exceeded my expectations, for a film vastly filmed in Africa: the continent always represented a challenge for artists, above all for the matters of light, color and landscape, unique there. In cinema concerns, “Out of Africa” was a bold approach, but in the end very “washed out” and empty of emotion. Riefenstahl, herself a master in film debated herself with this fascination in part of her photographer work. None of these or other work was able to become, to my point of view, interesting enough, comparing to what Africa can offer. Recently, “the constant gardener” raised the challenge and got closer, but it went too much over top (the cinematographer was south American, he mixed the two continents, i supposed). In the end it sounds pretty much fake. Every cinema photography is by definition fake, but it should strike you as genuine.

Serra is Portuguese. Portugal was all over Africa and South America at certain points of history and in the first case until very recently. Maybe that would give a Portuguese cinematographer the balance and distance he needs. Recently, in an interview, Serra was asked, regarding “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, how could he have got that light, so natural, so genuine. He simply answered: “i opened the window.” That’s what he made here. He understood the light in Africa, and put all the artificial means he had to bring that light, as untouched as possible, to cinema. So, the merit of this film is, in this sense, to have opened the window to Africa. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, to this point. Until something better comes out, this is Africa.

My evaluation: 4/5 – just photography (and Conelly, great presence, fills her scenes and in addition is beautiful), for all the rest this is a common, even vulgar experience in mass cinema, not worth more than 2 in my scale. If you want something more clever, by someone who cares about film-making, camera-work and storytelling issues, watch “the constant gardener”.

P.S. This one is inserted in the recent tendency for commercial movies to look at humanitarian issues, using entertainment as a channel for “serious things”. I think that’s worth of applause only to the point when this becomes another capitalism global product. this “bono voxization” of humanitarian issues may kill the hole principle of the thing.

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Where (too) many ideas converge, “Gwai wik”

“Gwai wik” (2006)

Directors: Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Chung

Writers: Cub Chin, SirLaosson Dara, Sam Lung, Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang, Thomas Pang

Link IMDB

I saw this one on Fantasporto 2007, in Porto, Portugal.

I went to watch this one without expecting anything in particular from it. I like to go into films like this, quits the preconceptions brought by the excess of knowledge about the people involved. Apparently, i know it now, the directors are part of a new generation in the Hong Kong cinema, and they’ve produced some hits on that basis. To me they were unknown.

The film is complex, but not always for good reasons. It starts with a very smooth environment, borrowed (i guess, but not necessarily) from the psychological “apartment” thrillers by Polansky. This beginning was thrilling and promising, very good moments. The main character played a writer, i was guessing some kind of game with this characteristic (contemporary good cinema loves to explore these things). But no, what we watch are successive radical cuts between sceneries, story, etc. It moves on to present some fantastic scenery, having something to do with Japanese animé, a kind of Miyazaki filmed with live sets instead of animated ones.

But it fails deeply in trying to produce intense drama environment, in order to pass the environmental global message; instead we get a non pretended comedic portion of film (at a certain time laughs were the most heard sounds in the room).

The thing is, to my view, it gathers too many ways of doing it, to many cinematic theories, in a trick of associating the proliferation of materials and waste with the proliferation of cinematic “moods” and so cause the breathless sensation in the line of the intended message. I guess some contention and simplicity would apply perfectly in this case.

Story is completely irrelevant (not necessarily bad), but it is tiring and without motivation trying to follow it or understand it. Nevertheless this is a film with good production values, not always completely believable, but overall solid.

Some imagery is impressive, and well worked out in the relation with the soundtrack (also not bad), but i don’t consider it enough to justify the time it lasts. Unless you ave a very special interest for this kind of movie, i don’t recommend it.

My evaluation: 2/5

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(Un)communication,”Babel”

“Babel” (2006)

Director: Alejandro González Iñarritu

Writer: Guillermo Arriaga; Alejandro Iñarritu

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Link IMDB

Here, once more, as in the rest of the trilogy, the non linear narrative is used, by the over layering of stories that connect at some point. It works here as 4 short stories, which are edited and viewed in excerpts, with a specific order. Each story is clear and easy to get, if analysed without the link to the others. The order of the excerpts is always:

1-morocan kids 2-the Mexican babysitter and the American children 3-the Americans in Morocco 4-the Japanese story

This order repeats constantly but the chronology within each one isn’t synchronized. So, story 1 begins at the end of story 2, which develops in parallel with story 3. Story 4 is more free in terms of time attachment, but some things show that it should happen approximately in parallel with the previous 2 stories.

All the construction, which is rather intelligent, reflects the extreme simplicity of the world it pretends to show, carrying the idea of a new order of values replacing the existing one, the order of mankind replacing the primitive order of nature (the “storytelling” being replaced by complexity in narrative, the spontaneous vs the cerebral). So, it talks about the idea of the individual dominated by a complex system, which, however, everybody helped creating. And the title of the picture gets justified here: the biblical metaphor for the creation of the languages showed the punishment of the growing vanity. Here it shows the inability to communicate as the motivation to violence and fights between people.

Practically every event (bad event) that take place happen as a consequence of failure in communication. The inability to get ideas through goes beyond the ignorance of the languages, causes the isolation of the individual in the global context. And what Iñarritu does is to treat this cinematically. The Japanese girl is deaf-mute (not by chance) and that allows in her scenes to place the camera inside and outside her viewing point, as deaf and mute, either in the absence of communication/reception or in what is not communicated. The scene in the disco is absolutely remarkable in that point. The work of the camera is, by the way, remarkable in every scene concerning the Japanese girl. when she waits for the elevator, back to the policemen, and the spectator gets the whole picture. Than she turns and the spectator becomes her. This is truly cinematic.

My evaluation: 4/5 fascinating experience

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Iñarritu’s cinema, introduction to Babel

Cinematic principles

Cinema, like every other art, is communication. Everything that comes through moving image (or not), with or without sound, is pure communication. Whether you want it or not, whether the artist deny t or not, everything that shows communicates something. The art touch is in controlling what it’s being communicated. So, “Babel” chooses eventually the hardest theme to be worked out by any artistic medium: that of the non-communication. Everything that Iñarritu pretends is to show the absence of communication, and its effects, to put us in a dark hole together with his characters, with whom we all identify a little bit. I believe this picture to be as contemporary as contemporary can be. And i’ll explain: Portuguese director João Botelho once said that the temptation of telling a story is the original sin of cinema, the idea that a film is worth by the succession of facts, narrative, climax and conclusion. Contemporary cinema (as other arts), in its will to move along, is, as a consequence, in a certain state of crisis, trying to get redefined and move forward. Somehow like the world in Babel. Complex, fascinating, but somehow unruled. Iñarritu rejects the story for the story, the linear narrative as a pretext for “hanging” some images. He moves away from “fact”, working on the image (and what image, the photography is fantastic) and on the context, as a medium to communicate. He wasn’t for sure the first to try it, but he’s one of the best doing it, in a mainstream context and consistently. In the same way he is contemporary in the self-referential way in which he approaches the art of film-making itself. This one, like “Amores perros” or “21 grams” is itself a research on the narrative building and cinema. So, a film about other films and, therefore, a film about cinema.

Inside, outside reality, “Sunset Blvd”

“Sunset Blvd.” (1950)

Director: Billy Wilder

Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

Link IMDB

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

This is fantastic writing, great story folding, and very successful in the way it uses the “form” to provide us, the audience, with a meaning. It may not be the first self-referential movies in history but it is for sure one of the first intelligent ones.

Possible spoilers herein. So, what we get is films within the film. The film is what we, the audience, see. In order to really make it look like afilm, we hear the off-voice of the corpse (narrator), even when the corpse is being shown to us. A dead man describing himself as dead (the original intention was to place the speaking corpse in a morgue). Inside this clearly constructed film we find some others. To know:.

-the projection of Queen Kelly, the film directed by Stroheim (who plays the projector in our film) and starred by Swanson, our actress playing an retired actress.

– Demille’s picture, real event, it was happening at the time. DeMille plays himself. i’ll get here ahead.

– Salome. The picture about a mad woman, the leitmotif of our film is the development of this film. The very awareness of the history of Salome will lead us to the events of our Sunset Boulevard.

This is what we see. Films within films. What do they mean?: Practically every character in the film plays in the picture his status in real life:. Holden, playing the broke writer was himself having a down moment in his career. Olson, playing the ambitious potential writer was herself a struggling actress at this moment. The “wax figures” appear as themselves as retired “used to be” stars. The best comes with Stroheim and Swanson. Queen Kelly represented, at the time of its making, a huge polemic film that was no good for Swanson’s career, and eventually ruined Stroheim’s Its projection, by Stroheim, and the pantomime in our sunset boulevard, by Swanson, adds to its decadence feeling. DeMille also worked with Swanson, in Sunset Boulevard he is not talking to any character, he is talking to her. Obviously she was not in real life the character she portrays, but deMille talks to the real people, not the character.

This is a highly intelligent and complex construction, that strikes us as a simple one. Chabrol starts his “how to make a picture” book by saying that if you’re about to make a film, you’ve got to have a reason. In here it’s crystal clear, the reasons. The critics to Hollywood decadent society, through drawing the turning line between two worlds. Wilder uses the relations with real true (outside films) and delivers us something that may be faced as an ambiguous world, inside and outside our real world. Films, and our lives are made of those things.

The criticism it depicts are useless, dated, and a mere curiosity today, but this stands as a very clever construction and, therefor, a worth seeing picture.

My evaluation: 5/5

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