This Week at The Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #22

Ju Dou (Zhang Yimou, 1990)

Only a year before he directed the largely superior Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou showed signs of his promising transition from cinematography to directing in the good-looking melodrama Ju Dou, a film about an oppressed wife (Li Gong, who would star in many other films by Zhang) who finds solace and affection in her forbidden relationship with her husband’s nephew (Li Baotian). It’s overly melodramatic and its tragedy unwraps in a by-the-numbers fashion, but Zhang compensates for that with gorgeous cinematography (most of the film takes place in a cloth dyer shop) and patient dedication to highlight the characters’ isolation amid a society of disagreeable and harsh rules. The director would later amplify these ideas in his next film, and both would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in subsequent years.

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

When Zhang Yimou made Hero not long after Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on a $31 million budget and cast five of the most popular actors in modern China (Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi), people felt he was up to something. Hero, a shamelessly colorful and beautiful wuxia film, proved once again that Hollywood has still much to learn with Asian cinema about martial arts and action in films; if American films bring the action to the realm of reality despite its absurdity, Asian films are never afraid to treat cinema as something magical.

Easier than but very similar to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where several stories build up on one another and gets the viewer to question where the film’s reality ends and where it beings, Hero is a showdown of colorful fight sequences, vast armies of extras and appealing and hearty – but questionable – patriotism. As a nameless assassin (Li) is received by the king of the Qin province to tell the story of how he killed the enemy’s most skillful assassins (Yen, Leung and Cheung), his story and the king’s alternate hunches play one at a time before the ultimate reveal. If this reveal doesn’t impress you, the rest of movie certainly will, and you’ll be satisfied.

House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2004)

If Hero focused on one big reveal, deceit and plot twists flows all throughout House of Flying Daggers, an even bigger visual spectacle by one of the kings of its kind – who knew that green and blue could be so warm? A policeman is not a policeman, a prostitute is not a prostitute, north is south and love is not love (or is it, actually?), and the story’s mysteries are revealed so massively one can’t help but feel lost in the film’s overly twisted pacing. This could be a forgivable sin, but the film has very little substance that does not compensate for the uninteresting narrative. In a way, it’s a very simple love triangle story, and only Takeshi Kaneshiro of all three is truly compelling.

M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

Hide your kids, hide your wife: Hans Beckert still wanders around and his film is still a dark, haunting experience. Fritz Lang, in what he considered himself the best film of his career, directs the story of a serial killer that leaves so few traces he manages to set up the whole town against him; both cops and criminals are up to end the madness and whoever gets there first wins. Beckert, played in a timeless performance by Peter Lorre, is more a monster movie villain than an earlier version of the skillful criminal of most detective stories, and like most monsters, he feels like a much more terrifying figure throughout the film. But he’s not the protagonist: the film benefits from all sides, including an all-around great cast, grainy sound design (which turns out to create all the more tension), effective expressionist settings and a whistling tune that won’t get out of your head. And there’s more: the film’s themes of mob mentality, penal incompetence, death penalty and urban insecurity remain just as fresh and important 84 years later.

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)

A film about three innocent men trying to escape from jail easily sounds like some variation of The Shawshank RedemptionThe Great Escape or Hunger, but since this is a Jim Jarmusch film, it’s far from anything of the kind. Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie, much better here than in Stranger than Paradise) were arrested in frame-up scams. Their distress with the world is already established through the act of not giving a single fuck about anything, and in addition to sharing a claustrophobic cell with each other, they never seem to get the friendship factor right.

It’s only when Roberto (Roberto Benigni), a Chaplin-like figure who’s arrested for manslaughter (don’t ask what happened) arrives that they realize things can’t stay as they are. Thanks especially to Roberto Benigni (“it’s a sad and beautiful world” is his greeting card), Down by Law is, first and foremost, a performance vehicle, and a hilarious one. But it’s also a beautiful film, bathing in the landscapes of the Louisiana Bayou and in John Lurie’s catchy soundtrack.

Shot of the Week? Honestly, I could’ve picked practically anything from The Tree of Life. But there’s one shot that says it all, that summarizes its visual brilliance and is literally breathtaking. Make what you will of it, but watch the film for maximum impact.

Irreversible

One fire extinguisher in one scene, one rapist in another: that’s everything Gaspar Noé needed to make one of the most visceral and gruesome, and divisively so, films of the twentieth century. It’s aggressively stylish, and it excels at that in a way that few films can. As a consequence, the film may be either a violent form of modern classic or a despicable piece of overestimated exploitation – hardly something in between. The film’s polarizing nature comes from the way it handles violence: raw, unsettling, “realistic”; it takes violence for what it is. That could be the end of it, since many movies get rave reviews for its realistic and highly contextual depiction of violence, but Noé’s film is so extreme in its violence that to decide whether it’s fair or exploitative becomes an obligatory quest for the viewer. Films like Irreversible make me wonder: is this the most intelligent choice a filmmaker can make for the sake of art?

The film, one of many wild entries of the French Extremity movement, is something of a technical tour de force, a bad boy’s version of sex, drugs and electronic music that blows its narrative arc to bits and flips our frame of reference whenever we feel safe and comfortable in our seats. Told in thirteen episodes presented in reverse chronological order, the film ends at the beginning and begins at the ending, both unnerving, destructive sucker punches that prepare you to enter the film with an adapted stomach and leave it euqally disoriented. The beginning is a series of twists, turns and blinks, an explosive introduction to a film that is even rougher; as far as I can tell, it’s brilliant, and it has no fair adversary at what it does. The middle, the film itself, is the collection of episodes, semi-improvisational and digitally built as unbroken scenes, each creating the necessary context for the next. Each of these episodes is a layer of the vengeful quest of Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who aimlessly look to find the man who raped the former’s girlfriend, Alex (Monica Belucci). The ending draws back to a conflict-free past of tranquility and innocence, a painful contrast to the blood and sweat so pervasive in the rest of the film.

If the film is radical on its narrative style, the camera follows it with uncompromising explosiveness. The only moment of true stability comes in the film’s middle, the traumatizing rape scene that divides the first six-and-a-half brutal episodes from the pre-game that encapsulates the last six. This scene, terrifying to look at the more you think of it and the more aware you are of its brutality, is almost entirely shot from a static shot of pure voyeurism: in every other scene, the camera wildly explores the film’s corridors and endless rooms without ever really giving us a break. While there’s less agitation in Irreversible’s second half, the first half is pure adrenaline and rage. Noé, who was also the camera operator, completely brushes aside any sense of equilibrium that we may have: horizontal becomes vertical, up becomes down, inertia becomes movements and vice-versa. What feels like a gimmick in so many action blockbusters, with their shaky cameras and their pointless cuts, is a triumphant advantage for Irreversible, because the action remains both disorienting and legible. It’s a devilish, unnerving anti-adventure; to put it simply as a crossover of Birdman and Memento would be putting it mildly.

The visual brilliance is further supported by a vibrant use of color and sound to enhance the sense of disquietude that the film so passionately provides. The soundtrack by Thomas Bangalter, half of the Daft Punk duo (which has more than once ventured into film soundtracks), gives the film pulses and beat that trap its subjects in a mixture of psychedelic effusiveness and visceral confusion. From the closing credits to the film’s extended party scene, the film has a remarkable resonance. This resonance is something inherently connected to the social scene which Marcus, Alex and Pierre are part of, and it’s the very reason why raves and parties in general are so entrancing and so lively. The colors, which range from deep red to light greens to blue and yellow party lights, are just as pulsating. It’s only when the calm follows the storm that we get a chance to return to some sort of visual safety, a soothing glimpse of real life.

But with all that visual splendor, one might ask if it’s not a dirty gimmick, one of the many attempts at throwing every trick in the book of non-linear flairs that has given us so much trash in recent years. It’s not, and Roger Ebert makes a solid case for Noé’s reverse narrative: revenge, and the violence it creates, is not the payoff, but the set-up. By starting the consequence of Marcus and Pierre’s quest, the film reveals its stupidity directly, and gradually reveals the stupidity of their solution (which I do find exaggeratedly violent, and I sense some pride in the scene from Gaspar Noé); we’re introduced first to the revenge in ts raw form, separated from its causes, and later we see everything they put at stake and everything they got to lose.

The problem of the film, and the obvious reason why it’s attracted so much criticism, is the fact that the elimination of catharsis is much blurrier when it comes to Alex’s violation. Since there’s no real set-up for the revenge per se, it becomes exactly what it is: a mindless, pointless discharge of anger and hatred that brings no benefits to the avengers involved. But there is a set-up for the rape scene; in fact, it consumes half of the film. By avoiding to introduce Alex anytime before her major appearance, the film leaves us anticipating her defeat, and when it comes, it’s as horrible as we’d imagine it, or even worse. It’s as if we were only waiting for it to happen; the rape scene is horrendous, to say the least. Whether all this helps us feel for her that she only enters the story after her rape or backfires against the film’s intentions by implying that she’s slightly more than a meat bag is up to interpretation, but the divisiveness and the ambiguity of the film is so exaggerate it becomes unwanted.

Another complication of Irreversible is that the film deliberately dumbs down its story by refraining from giving its characters the substance that they so deservedly need to compensate for their animalesque traits. For a filmmaker that clearly knows what he’s doing, Noé is doing us a disservice here; the Kubrick and Nietzsche references are spot on, but the way they’re reference makes them sound like the beginner’s philosophy of a Matrix installment. Out of the three main characters, only Pierre has an interesting character development from the beginning to the end of the story: he oscillates from cold rationality to sexual curiosity to explosive rage, and he has an interesting background that puts him under a new perspective in each and every scene. The rest of the film is the kind of drunk, pointless dialogue that predominates at parties and other social encounters, when the boozed and the tipsy randomly discuss sex and relationships as if they had an instructions manual memorized. But the film could use a more sober script, since that alone only makes for an above-average experience: there’s no exuberance or deep rationality, only sexual desire and nerves. After all, if there’s no brain in the story, isn’t it exactly what its detractors claim it to be – violence and sex?

There’s no denial, however, that Noé is aiming for a vicious critique of the troublesome attitude that defines so many mainstream, that soften male and female rape and treat it with kids gloves. It seems that many directors, even the most talented, are not minding the trauma that it inflicts on these people: think of Back to the Future or Saturday Night Fever, films adored by countless fans in the whole world but extremely offensive in the way they gloss over their rape scenes. Nothing should be clear by the end of the film but that the rape it’s depicting, just as much as Marcus’ revenge, is irreversible, destructive to the core. Its preceding aftermath couldn’t be more painful, and it’s even too sentimental for its own sake – it keeps trying to draw anti-parallels between Marcus and the rapist, most of them for shock value alone.

Irreversible, I believe, means well. I didn’t find it homophobic, as it many critics did; instead, I believe it simply shows another facet of aggressive sexuality among many. I also didn’t find it purposefully exploitative, as much as there’s ground for this argument. But my inevitable conclusion is that the film also doesn’t do much to avoid this label. It could’ve been much more than what it actually is, and that is an unforgivable letdown.

Irreversible

Year: 2002

Director: Gaspar Noé

Cast: Monica Belucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel, Jo Prestia

Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or (nominated)

This Week at The Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #14 and #15

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

The most glorious predecessor of Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance and the most influential and successful of the Italian epics of the early 20th century, Cabiria is a lavishly beautiful work of art, full of enormous, highly detailed sets, breathtaking costumes and fantastic performances, most notably that of Italia Manzini as Queen Sophonisba. Not only it’s a film with a solid place in film history and a thoroughly watchable one, it’s also a fascinating drama that has aged very well. While Cabiria, the Italian child turned teenager who’s kidnapped by Phoenicians in the height of the Punic Wars, is rarely the center of the story and the film exaggerates on its intertitles, the compositions of this film, supported by the production’s dedication to ornaments and luxury and the eery early use of tracking shots (which definitely feels like an experiment from the director, but gives the story an atmosphere of advanced cinematic storytelling), are a marvel to look at. It neither perfect nor timeless, but it has its own brilliance.

O Pagador de Promessas / The Given Word (Anselmo Duarte, 1962)

Brazil’s first and only Palme d’Or winner is cheesy, flagrantly allegorical, and one of the most beautiful and most meaningful films ever made here. Shot in gorgeous black and white in a variation of neorealism, The Given Word tells the tale of Zé-do-Burro (Donkey Joe, played by Leonardo Villela), a poor peasant who makes a promise to the candomblé equivalent to Saint Barbara that if his beloved donkey recovered from a serious injury, he would carry a cross to the church named after her and deliver it before the annual procession. When the priest finds out about the polytheist nature of Zé’s promise, he forbids him to fulfill it and accuses him of blasphemy. In a very simple story of stark clichés and ambiguous supporting characters, Anselmo pays his dues to the original play by Dias Gomes and gives us a powerful portrait of Brazilian society in a nutshell. In every character Zé meets, we see the intolerance (mainly religious intolerance, which seemingly disappeared but has only changed gears) and the greed that disguises as moralism and ambition in people’s actions.

Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Have you ever felt that you got to know less about a film after you watched it? It’s fair to say so about Possession, one of the maddest, most visceral and most confidently weird movies ever made. In this story of a couple on the verge of a final separation that grows inexplicable and phantasmagorical, every color, every camera movement, every face and every expression hits you with a singular strength. It’s radical enough that, in words frequently said about puzzling films, you have to see it to prepare yourself to see it again, and it offers no easy explanations to things. But it’s just as fascinating for those who prefer clear narratives: Possession is at times so shocking and so maddening it works as a visual exercise on its own; in addition to that, it also gives a depiction of a crumbling marriage as rich as there’s ever been one, oscillating between the natural and the supernatural to give images that real life could hardly substitute.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001/2002/2003)

One of the decade’s most beloved successes of the big screen, Peter Jackson’s eternal epic trilogy feels even better now that his other trilogy has come and gone, and we could, in a way, feel good at least for that. (We don’t. One shouldn’t do such a thing to your own greater deeds as he did.) It’s more lyrical, inspirational and powerful in every possible aspect, and it’s not only a greater example of the power of the epic, it’s also an unforgettable depiction of fantasy worlds that is rarely seen in its best forms when it comes to movies. None of the three films are perfect, and the film moves from one set-up to the other much too quickly (this would prove an advantage that The Hobbit Trilogy never used, and explains why it was so easy to watch a LOTR marathon) when it could have given us much, much more. It also abuses our senses by making the close-ups tighter and the wide shots extremely wide (and spinning). But not to love it is to have a heart of stone, because films like these, big, bold, innovative and shamelessly entertaining, are singular events in film history.

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

To revisit an old classic is always confusing, because you keep trying to explain its greatness to yourself, rewarding, because it’s an all-time great film for very good reasons, and inspiring, because you can learn from it no matter how many times you watch it. The Searchers, labeled by critic David Kehr as “the Great American film”, is one of the most acclaimed and beloved of such classics, and watching it in theaters is to watch the Old West itself in flesh, bone, sand and rock. It’s a film with many flaws and many dramatic and comic reliefs that only work as additional information, but it’s also his greatest and one of the greatest Westerns per se. And it’s still a beautiful work of accessible storytelling and moral complexity.

John Wayne, who’s in one of his most iconic performances, stars as Ethan Edwards, an ambiguous man and former Confederate soldier who goes on a quest for his niece after his brother’s home is attacked by Comanche Indians and the little girl is kidnapped. She later grows bright and beautiful, but the film is always about Edwards and his complex hatred, which is many things in one: racism against Native Americans, despise of the new America that started to grow after the Civil War, personal revenge in the name of his family as he knew it and the safety of the Old West he was part of. And he’s not alone in the film: I personally think that because John Wayne’s performance is no surprise for anyone, Freddie Hunter as his searching companion and Vera Miles as Freddie’s dream-like sweetheart are just as charming, and their characters are just as meaningful to the film. They are house people in the film, unlike Edwards, who remains a wanderer and a person pushed to isolation after one of the most memorable closing shots in movie history.

Two Days, One Night / Deux jours, une nuit (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014)

Raw and very emotional, Two Days, One Night is another success from the Dardenne Brothers, champions of blue-collar workers and their sufferings. Sandra (Marion Cotillard in a top-notch performance) has just been fired in a general voting session organized by her boss and her supervisor that imposed that her colleagues had to choose between either her stay or a monthly bonus of 1000 euros. After her husband and closest friends fight for a second voting session after they hear that Sandra’s colleagues were given threats by their supervisor, Sandra marches on and begs that her coworkers be understanding and supportive of her conditions. It’s not as spectacular as the visceral Rosetta, but it’s certainly worth a watch, because every one of Sandra’s coworkers shares different motives and positions on the matter that, as a whole, give the film an interesting portray of factory workers.

This Week at The Hand Grenade’s Headquarters #12

After writing about very few movies in the last two weeks, I wondered whether I should really stop watching films as often as I did, and thus I decided that if I feel I’ve done all the work I needed to do that day, I’d reward myself with a film; if not, then no extra film. I believe that keeps me busy when I’m not out or anything similar and it helps me get to know more about cinema as long as I’m studying it from literary methods.

I also replaced my shot-by-shot analysis of this week by a film marathon of directors I decided would take me an extra time that I didn’t have (considering that I return to Penn in August). I decided as well that I would explore some various films before proceeding to directors I haven’t fully explored: the first director for the month of February is Tarkovsky, cinema’s most poetic filmmaker. Thus here is a much longer list, because movie lists should always be big and rich of material and joy.

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)

Stephen Frears’ The Queen is quite an interesting period piece: while it plays safe in its approach to the incidents following the death of Diana with solid arguments, devoidance of tension and not so subtle points of view on the matter, it also offers a fresh, conscious perspective of the popularity and the modernization of the monarchy in the United Kingdom. Lead by many pieces of footage from the Princess, Helen Mirren’s delicate performance, Michael Sheen’s fine but unimpressive performance as Tony Blair and James Cromwell as an annoying Prince Philip, The Queen, more than anything, feels like a docudrama, a retelling of a much known story in dramatic, theatrical terms. It’s a cold film, but one worth watching.

Kadosh (Amos Gitai, 1999)

Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) is married to Meir (Yoram Hattab), a Yeshiva student, and they haven’t had a children in an otherwise dedicated and loving marriage of 10 years. Malka (Meital Barda), Rivka’s younger sister, is in love with Yaakov (Sami Huri), but is bound to marry another man whom her family accepts and sympathizes with. Both sisters are stuck in an unbalanced situation in the rough conditions for women in a Haredi society, a stream of Orthodox Judaism that sets them as child bearers and housewives. As shown by director Amos Gitai, they don’t exactly think critically of the traditions that surround them, yet such traditions put them into complex situations: one is trapped because she’s in love with her husband and sees this love crumbling down, the other because she wants to embrace her fate but can’t.

Confidently slow and quiet, Kadosh is a slow burner with great performances and a very moving story, never melodramatic in spite of its particular subjects. It’s told with slow zooms, very delicate pans and tilts and masterful, effortless long takes that barely call attention to themselves, and as a result, the film manages to be as spiritual and humble as the characters depicted. I believe it may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a great film.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen’s most iconic and most acclaimed creation, is the king in the castle of risky comedies, brave and respected (it has a score of 89 on Metacritic, a critic’s score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a top critics score of 98%) for standing astonishingly close to the division between satire/parody and gross-out exploitation and remaining on the former side. It’s movie with a very interesting resulting reaction from audiences and critics: most people who hated the movie did so much less because of some of its uglier jokes (most of the too scatological ones… and that naked fight before the final act) than because it’s “shamelessly prejudiced and politically incorrect”, when in fact it isn’t. Some could say that it goes too far (and it does sometimes), and that it creates too big a contrast between the uneducated interviewees of this mockumentary and the film’s viewers (some of them probably deceiving themselves by feeling superior to the others on the screen), but the thing is, this film is still hilarious and it certainly does not defend the racial and social stereotypes it depicts.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Borat (the film) is the mafia film from inside the institution and its fellow insider films: it shows us through the words of those confronted with prejudice the prejudice in themselves – and in ourselves as well. The way Sasha/Borat and the film do it is enough reason to understand that this is a film far above some of the attributions given to them. It’s sort of a trap for those who take political correctness for granted: often you’ll laugh before you can ask yourself whether you should.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983)

The Meaning of Life was one of my first reviews (now updated, as I did with Casablanca), and returning to this film is a pleasure and a reminder that such comedy doesn’t exist in such a strong form as this one. Borat here is an exception, and still it doesn’t feel as universal and artistically brave (one of the reasons is Borat’s deliberate documentary style, but there are others). This is why we’ll always need some Monty Python in our lives, and that’s putting it mildly, since the Meaning of Life doesn’t come near the heights of Holy Grail and Life of Brian.

Beauty and the Beast / La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Strange that a film would have to argue that we must embrace the imaginative vision of children before we watch it, and yet how wonderful it is that it asks us to do so and bravely answers with a beautiful portrayal of fairy-tale storytelling. Beauty and the Beast, in its ultimate version of utmost superiority, is one of the most gorgeous and magical tales and certainly one of the most visually poetic. It precedes the Disney version of the story by 45 years, but it still feels like an art-house reconstruction of the story through practical effects, bold symbolism and smooth, almost fantasy-like camera movements, like the eyes of a poet passing through the universe created. Pure and simply a masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)

The best film of the week (and the best film out of the 30 I saw in January – you can check the list here), Once Upon a Time in America is an all-time greatest, a masterpiece in every possible level that embodies the emotions of a lifetime of art and storytelling on the outside and a lifetime of characters on the inside, thus creating a powerful drama worth every second of its 251 minutes, probably the largest number the film’s going to get. Sergio Leone’s final film, a gangster city epic opposed to its countless masterful Westerns, started at 269 minutes, then edited by Leone to 229 minutes, then butchered by American distributors to 139 minutes, then restored to its original release length and finally to the 251 minutes currently available. It’s a lesson that lengthy efforts should be respected for what they are and what they can be to others.

The film tells the story of Noodles (Robert De Niro), a Jewish New Yorker who emerged as a mobster from a tough, reckless childhood and, along with his friends and acquaintances, rose to uncertain (and perhaps partially unwanted) power and luxury. As the film flashes back and fort through his memories, there’s a sense of friendship, betrayal, loss, violence, greed, and ultimately that of an emotional scar so painful and so moving words cannot describe it. There’s glorious nostalgia and compassion in this film, supported by a fistful of great performances (De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, a young Jennifer Connelly and whoever else you want to pick), a beautiful partnership between Leone and Ennio Morricone (which, I believe, tops Spielberg and Williams, because Morricone wins the race by a nose, and Leone by many more), an indescribable collection of close-ups and some of the most beautiful shots of New York you will ever see. Perfection finds a home here.

Yojimbo (Kurosawa Akira, 1961)

Yojimbo, Sanjuro‘s twin brother, tells the story of a nameless ronin (a samurai without a master) who ends up by fate in a hell hole of a provincial city lead by two rival clans in the end of the Tokugawa period and decides to have them fight against each other for the good of the city. While Sanjuro is lighthearted in its humor and more explicit in its criticism of violence, Yojimbo is far darker and more adventurous on the matter (for starters, I think of the iconic entrance of the samurai in town, and his reaction to the passing dog). It’s cleverly arranged in simple but beautiful horizontal and vertical lines (according to Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie, it’s his most beautifully shot film), and Mifune does a classic performance as the good people’s devil in a city where everything is drenched in greed and self-interests. It doesn’t beat the lesser-known Sanjuro and its haunting finale, though.

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)

A man is found floating adrift in the Mediterranean in the brink of death. He wakes up with no memory of who he is, what he does for a living or what brought him there. After he returns to land, he finds out that he is unconsciously a master of martial arts, a target from local and American police and a highly trained escape artist. He also learns that he has a chip under his skin with a laser that indicates the number of a bank account in Switzerland, full of multiple passports, 4 digits worth of cash and guns. Still, he never even tries to guess who he is, because, after all, there are so many possibilities, including even a spy and an assassin – who knows?

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) hasn’t watched many action movies, but most people certainly have, and I have too. Still, the movie with the most orange-and-blue poster in movie history (curiously, the movie looks more than fine) is well above average in what comes to aesthetics and authenticity, and although it doesn’t crave for much, it’s thoroughly watchable and exciting in many ways. It feels like an exercise for the sequels (which I haven’t seen yet) in its simple-minded action sequences and thrills, but these thrills are well executed and driven by entertaining characters, mainly Bourne and his CIA counterpart, played by Chris Cooper (who would win the Oscar for another 2002 performance in Adaptation). Plus, you get the cinephiliac thrill of watching Jason Bourne AND Franka Potente from Run Lola Run together on the same mission.

That’s it for the month of January! February should be more much exciting, though: short paragraphs for all films from Andrei Tarkovsky (with the exception of Solaris), a generous load of silent films, full reviews for the five remaining Best Picture nominees (I can tell from my first viewing of Boyhood that it’s probably the best film Brazil has seen in 2014), and the eight usual full reviews (two parallel special themes, four reviews each).

Any suggestions of movies to watch or to review? Please let me know in the comments or visit our page on Facebook.

Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg)

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If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. “Russian Ark” spins a daydream made of centuries.

-Roger Ebert

There are boundaries in the way life is drawn upon us that cannot change, because if they did, none of it would make any sense or have any meaning. The most obvious and perhaps most painful one is that one cannot go back in time, and therefore cannot alter the past; it can be omitted, obscured, dramatized, glorified, rewritten or rediscovered, but never altered. Aleksandr Sokurov tells us Russia is like a theater, and his Russian Ark is like a play; the show most go on and editing is impossible, because to edit would be to go back in time. The astonishing idea behind this film is the very reason behind its success, and it proves us with splendor and magnificence that its unique style isn’t just a gimmick.

Russian Ark tells the story of an anonymous man (Sokurov), who claims to have suffered a mysterious fatal accident and wakes up in the Winter Palace of the Heritage Museum in Saint Petersburg amid a history time tunnel. The film starts just as he’s awake, and the spell of this film has already been cast: as the camera follows him (and it does so for 87 minutes of an unbroken point-of-view shot), Sokurov guides us to witness 300 years of art, history and politics. With the help of a friend he meets along the way (Sergei Dontsov), he follows an erratic path through the museum as the distinct figures of yore wander in a dream-like fantasy stuck in the moment of its illusion: the film gives us the opportunity of observing, through Sokurov’s perspective, some of the most important figures in European history as if we were there, watching the beauty concealed by history from behind the curtains of the stage of life.

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The counter-argument against this wonderful film is that if not for its structure, Russian Ark would be a lesser film, something of an experiment lacking the necessary plot and character development for its own benefit. It’s also said that the film, for relying too much on eye-level camera movement, is filled with awkward angles in order to accurately portray the spaces in the museum , and the result if often unsettling. But that’s how it is: Sokurov only had one day to shoot, and thus his ambitious idea had to be adapted to fit the time and space available. I think he succeeds: Russian Ark doesn’t need to be perfect to be a respectful achievement, and if there are hints of gimmickry in his style, it nevertheless always feels like a fully realized work of art.

The involvement of the narrator and his “partner” with the palace and their visitors relates to with society’s involvement with history, and that’s a key point to understand this dreamlike mission. If you think of it, Russian Ark looks like an epic version of a Russian Midnight in Paris): one advises the other not to disturb them or to get acquainted with the guests, in order to remain unnoticed in the room, as if the fourth wall could not be broken (it is occasionally  broken, however, when they interact with minor characters, including museum guides and ball dancers from the last to be conducted in the palace in 1913). Another important thing to be noticed is that the sequence of historical moments we witness are not in chronological order, stipulating relations between key points of the facets of Russia both clear and turbid.

More than everything else, one thing that surprised me is the absence of a more thorough depiction of the 20th century, arguably the most famous period of the country’s history. Russian Ark gives glimpses of it, and calls the day as we reach into the last few years before the Revolution. On one hand, it’s a plot trick that leaves you wanting to know more about the movie, and perhaps even wishing for a Russian Ark sequel (which thankfully will never be done). On the other, it’s a message from Sokurov that follows him from the very beginning of the shot until its fantastic end, 87 minutes later, which I leave for you to decipher. This is one of the most creative premises there ever was, and its execution is magic.

ImageRussian Ark

Year: 2002

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Cast: Aleksandr Sokurov (voice), Sergei Dontsov, and many, many Russians

Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or (nominated)

Sight and Sound’s Top 250: #202 (tied)