Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cria cuervos (1976)

I was totally enthralled by Victor Erice’s Spirit of the beehive. For reasons that are plentiful, while watching Cria cuervos, I imagined that it must be directed by Erice, too. But it is Carlos Saura who made it. Both films share a mysteriousness with which they approach the world of a child – a mysteriousness never even coming close to the cliché about children’s fairy-tale-like perception. Instead, the sense of mystery has to do with a world that, for the child, is barely comprehensible and is, in its lack of intelligibility, traumatic. These films delve in murky waters, attending to insecurity, eeriness and dissonance. And artistically, they have much in common as well, working with an almost painterly sense of composition of the image, where much of what is going on is half-hidden, half-obscured. A third link is the actress who plays the young main character of both movies, a puzzled outsider kid – the great Ana Torrent.

Ana grows up with her two sisters. After both her mom and dad have died, their aunt takes care of them in a gloomy house they also share with a housekeeper and a silent grandmother. The aunt treats the kids with a cold rigidity; she is stern, but somehow well-meaning, and strangely fragile. The sisters tend to each other, listening to music, just being. In several memorable scenes, we see Ana and her sisters listen to a proto-disco tune, a tune that is both catchy and strangely insistent. In another scene, we see them play dead, then coming back to life again, Ana being the person who commands and re-enacts traumatic scenes.

The death of the father is seen in the dramatic beginning of the film, when we see him having sex with some woman (that is not his wife) – and dying. Ana, an enigmatic child, feels guilt about the death of her mother. The film plays out as a dreamy tension between scenes that depict the mother, the sisters’ mundane life and Ana as a grown-up whose past is still present in her life as a menacing shadow (this is emphasized also by the fact that the adult Ana is played by the same actress who plays her mother). The perspective could be called ‘subjective’ – it is Ana’s experiences, her fantasies, her feelings we share. But at the same time the film treats the other characters as persons in their own right. The dynamic between the people in the film is never clarified – it is only shown in suggestive scenes, in which we can only guess at what is going on, and what it means. The same could be said about the sense of fear and guilt. The film is like a question: what was it all about? This question has a glimmer of hope in it, as a bewildered, staggering process of healing and recovery.

The film has often been read as a comment upon the last days on the Franco regime. These hints are obvious, especially with regard to the fact that Ana’s father is a general. There are plenty of ghosts that haunt this movie, and Franco is definitively one of ‘em. The film's paradoxical hopeful sense of foreboding is remarkable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Rams (2015)

Two scraggy Icelandic brothers are involved in a bitter long-standing quarrel. This is the set-up of Rams, what one could call a pitch-black, tender comedy, directed by Grimur Hakonarson. Gummi and Kiddi haven't talked to each other for ages. They live in a small community in which the major event that everybody wait for is the early sheep-award. The film sticks to the brotherly feud that gets increasingly dangerous. Somewhere, the film loses touch with the story it tries to tell and some of the turns just feel like results of a writer that tries hard to make a dramatic movie about a small community. But somehow, regardless of its sweetness, there is no singular vision here, no urgency, and after a while, even the sweetness comes out a bit artificial. Which is a shame, because Rams has clear potential - not to speak of the grand landscape on display here.

Good men, good women (1995)

I've been quite impresed by the contemplative, slow-moving films I've seen by the Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien. Good men, good women was for some reason somewhat disappointing for me. Its part of a trilogoy that very much engages with the history of Taiwan, and at times I felt the stupid viewer who doesn't really get the subtleties of the depictions of change.  The film contains several layers, one of which is a story about a married couple in the forties who go to China to fight against the Japanese. After the war, they return to Taiwan, where they are politically active, but end up as victims of the political repression of the Chiang Kai Shek regime. The other level is about an actor living in an anonymous flat in present-day Taiwan, grieving her boyfriend & drinking booze. Mysteriously, she receives entries from her diary on her fax machine. The parts are related through the actor's preparation of a role where she plays the woman we see in the other story. For me, the two level weren't really satisfactorily intermingled and I tried to guess at the point of having them both. I remember the film for its neat scene composition that often gave very minute descriptions of a life situation by briefly presenting it - and successfully conjuring up not only political tensions but also strong emotions; the scenes capturing the lively atmosphere among intellectuals making a newspaper are especially memorable, and so are the scenes from the gruesome political prison. The film exudes a deep sadness about the traumatic history of Taiwan and the image we get of the present (the 90's) is a country stricken with corruption and commercialization.  

The secret in their eyes (2009)

Lots of films revolve around unsolved crimes that some eccentric is haunted by, perhaps taking one last shot at getting at the truth. The secret is in their eyes is a film that quickly draws the viewer into its own very tense and also very solemn universe. The main character is a legal cancellor who once almost had an affair with his superior. The attempt to solve an old case sparks old memories of their almost-affair, and they meet again. - - But beyond its tense atmosphere, I agree with the reviewer who compares it to a Law & Order episode with a few frames of nudity thrown in for good measure. The problem with the film is that the case is not that interesting, nor is really the tension that is still present between the retired law types. The cinematography is excellent, though. Some political dimensions of Argentina past & present are hinted at, but, sadly, they remain - for me at least - mere hints that aren't really developed into something to get hold of.

A remake has apparently been made of this movie, but I haven't seen it.

The Westerner (1940)

The Westerner is about the encounter between a drifter, Harden, accused of stealing a horse, and a somewhat morally corrupt judge Bean who hangs every man he convicts, on shady grounds, for crimes. The relation between them is not only defined by the drifter's supposed crime, but also by an English actress the drifter says he knows, and whom the judge is infatuated with. William Wyler's romantic western is also about the conflict between cattlemen and homesteaders, where the drifter acts as a kind of peacemaker, but the film never really rises to the level of penetrating analysis of cultural change. The good thing about this movie, if I were to say something in praise of it, is that one of the main characters switches back and forth between villain and good guy.

Our little sister (2015)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is a master of family drama and he shows that in the subdued, yet subtle, film Our little sister. I remember that I felt that the film he made before this contained a few misteps in the direction that submitted to formulaic storytelling. This film may also have touches of that, but it didn't bother me too much. Kore-eda's interest in interpersonal resolution rings true, does not feel contrived. But still, Our little sister wasn't completely satisfactory. The story is about three sisters who adopt their younger stepsister, who come to live with them. The younger sister seems worried in the beginning that they will not adopt her permanently. She also seems shy in their company, showing respect for sisters a few years older than her. This is basically the film - the gradual intimacy between them, and how that intimacy grows out of everyday activities, like preparing food or going for a walk. Kore-eda is good at evoking small nuances of personal relations, the worries and joys that are there without being expressed verbally. An interesting feature of this film, and other films by Kore-eda, is how warm they are - focusing on family not as a place of nightmarish claustrophobia (nor as a conservative utopia). The braveness of Our little sister consists in how dedicated to ordinary life and its sometimes overwhelming, but still small, joys, it really is - to the small changes that develop between people who know each other very well, or who are coming to know one another. I don't know why Our little sister didn't grab me in the same way as some of Kore-edas other films. Maybe I just had the wrong expectations - that I, perhaps unconsciously, hoped for some kinde of climaxtic turns of plot? This is for sure a film I would love to watch again!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Away from her (2006)

Based on a short story by Alice Munro, Away from her is a gentle and, one could say, graceful, yet heartbreaking film directed by Sarah Polley. A marriage changes when the wife gets Alzheimer - but rather than predictable tearjerker, the film develops as an existential drama about what it means to see the person one loves slip away, become unreachable. And the film also choses not to lead us into a narrative that goes from health to sickness and deterioration. When the film starts, a dramatic change has already started. This is a bold move. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent are both excellent as the married couple. Their roles exude frailty, but in radically different ways. One could say that Away from her focuses on the grieving husband, who is trying to cope with his wife's sickness and also with her attempt to 'spare him'. He feels left out. The film succeeds in making that pain very tangible - it does this in quiet scenes including car rides and trips to the nursing home, to which the wife has moved. Polley does not shy away from the ordinary life of alzheimer's, what living with a person who has it means in the context of ordinary life and routines. The visual style evokes wintry landscapes and harsh light. But, luckily, it does not indulge - I thought - in explicit symbolism. Most of the time, Sarah Polley focuses on sickness in a way that is intermingled with the strange tangle that life is - a tangle of disappointment, joy and grief. She focuses on complexity and relationality, rather than a fetischized attention to the deterioration a person goes through.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Carol (2015)

Todd Haynes moody take on Patricia Highsmith's bittersweet story about closeted love exudes a remarkable dedication to the characters and the story. The languid aesthetics conjures up chilly 50's atmospherics with a fascinated attention to the details of decor and clothing. The slightly grainy cinematography adds some much-needed edge and grit to the slinky dresses and alluring cigarettes.

I haven't really been a fan of Cate Blanchette before, but maybe I just haven't understood her strength. Here, as Carol, the depressed housewife who falls in love with a young shopgirl, here acting has a brave sense of fragility, not to mention a leathal, heavy elegance. The shopgirl, Therese, is subtly played by equally terrific Rooney Mara. We see her intimidated by the older woman, but we also see her acting, being independent, fierce, even. She is very much a young person trying to know herself. These two manage to make us re-consider what is going on in the film, makes us re-consider who these people are. One of Carol's strengths is that, despits its framing in classical melodrama (Sirk), builds upon very unconventional characters. Neither are 'typical' in any sense.

Carol and Therese get involved and from the get-go, the film shows their mutual desire in an extremely powerful way. That desire is, for both of them, intermingled with loneliness. Carol is in the middle of a process of getting divorced, and is scared of losing her daughter. Theresa hangs out with boyfriends, increasingly tired of their prattle and plans. However, Carol is not a film in which we see the lovers hesitate and doubt each other. Yet, they feel lonely and they are scared. The film shows their emotions both directly - focusing on yearning gazes and lines full of secret meaning - and indirectly, for example through how Carol talks to her ex/friend (a Beautifully crafted character, so full of life), or through Therese' bored interaction with her boyfriends.

Sure, there are a couple of one-dimensional characters here. All of them are male. But one might defend this lack of depth with the heart of the movie all the time being the relationship between Carol and Therese. The male characters mainly shed light on the intimacy between the two women.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Rio bravo (1959)

Rio bravo is full of western artificiality but it succeeds, somehow, in filling its limited (this is almost a 'chamber western', no great plains here) world with life and even, a bit surprisingly, sweetness. Sweetness is not perhaps the description one would usually assign to a western movie and here I was also taken aback by this peculiar character of the film. It does have its quota of macho bravura - this is, after all, a John Wayne move - but even Wayne is a bit peculiar in that his role as a sheriff is very physical in a quite unusual way. Physical in the sense not of showing the standard range of masculine posture, but rather in displaying how toughness is suddenly broken down by tenderness. Howard Hawks directed the film and he uses a long format to tell a rather banal story about people gathered in a prison: a drunk, an old guy and a kid gunslinger (bunch of misfits, basically) who all try to protect the town against outlaws that are trying to free a bad guy from jail. Then there is a female gambler for whom the sheriff falls, played by Angie Dickinson with a beautiful range of emotions: she is a woman who shows a resiliant desire for the man, and it is she who pursues him, not the other way around.

However, Rio bravo offers standard fare when it comes to ideology. John Wayne's character is the all-American authority figure protecting the community and above all its female members against external threats. He is brave and he is manly and he is solid - but at least he cannot act on his own, but needs help from figures who might seem weak, but are shown not to be that. This lends some much needed complexity to the story. He is the man who wants to be independent, but this is shown to be a weakness, not a sign of brave strength. The sweetness I talked about is present in the relation between the sheriff and his flawed friends.

The representative of the law, the sheriff is also an image of civilization and social mores. But as I said, the film also shatters the common images of the stone-faced man a bit, and that, perhaps, saves it. (Some moments of random crooning by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson provide some good cheesiness.)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The quiet roar (2014)

A woman goes to a clinic to undergo a sort of meditative treatment - a sort of hypnosis. She remembers her life, her younger self, scenes of emotional tension. She is diagnozed with life-threatening cancer; she has three months to live. She has a need to reflect on what her life became. The quiet roar quickly established a slow, searching pace. Henrik Hellström has focused on existential matters also in previous films - Man tänker sitt - but here the film somehow never succeeds in inviting the viewer to a quiet place of reflection. The material never really becomes a coherent way of approaching the topic. I have no problem with a shift of tone and uses of different moods and techniques, but here, the effort seems strained. I never really feel involved in the main character's inner journey. However, the acting is often good. Evabritt Strandberg plays the woman who knows she will soon die with dignity and calmness. Hannah Schygulla is the therapist, most of all present through her authoritative voice.