birthdaynoodle

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Reviews

Mundo fantástico
(2003)

Behind the looking-glass
I was pleasantly surprised by this Spanish film about two young artists trying to make ends meet in Madrid. They share a comedy act that they perform in bars, for which they improvise costumes themselves, using cheap materials and means. The result is rather shabby, but that's part of its charm. Unfortunately, their creative project isn't very financially rewarding, so they each depend on other side jobs. Charleen (Carmita Morales) performs naked behind a window at a seedy peep show club called Mundo Fantástico (Fantastic World). Susana (Sonia Barba) works as a clown at children's parties and as a drawing and photography model. Both seem professionally unsatisfied and try to figure out how to improve their situation. Like their comedy act in the movie, the film Mundo Fantástico is a low budget production that relies on the way that Susana and Charleen's characters compliment each other. The former has a magnetic, charismatic personality, while the latter successfully projects an aura of despondence, getting her share of attention in the shadows of the peep show club, a place where she seems to bask with a certain artistic freedom in her depression. Figuratively speaking, if the two formed a band, Susana would play the lead guitar and Charleen the bass. Morales is one of the producers of the film, which perhaps gives this story of artistic ambition a meta quality. The gritty, naturalistic style of the film reminds me a bit of John Cassavetes' aesthetic, but it's even more bare, less glamorous. It all feels extremely real and unpolished. I don't believe it would work as well as a Hollywood remake or even in the hands of a glossier, more exuberant Pedro Almodóvar. It's a little gem and I'm glad to have run into it.

Liberté
(2019)

The logic of the night
'Liberté' is an arthouse film that's meant to provoke and perhaps even shock. It's about desire taken to the extreme, beyond the niceties of society and reason. It features a group of people of different social classes and ages, who surrender themselves in the darkness of the forest to pleasure and pain, concepts that become indistinguishable from one another. The story, if one may call it that, starts with naughty insinuations and escalates into an all out sadomasochistic extravaganza. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it doesn't deserve the low rating that it has received so far on IMDb.

Then again, Catalan director Albert Serra never meant to please the audience. He cheekily claims to have been upset by the warm reception of his previous film, the somewhat more accessible 'The Death of Louis XIV'. So he tried to redeem himself this time around by creating something less palatable. He complains that today, most films are made only to gratify the audience and that self-censorship keeps artists from saying anything that may be regarded as too dark, too ambiguous or too offensive for the collective. Fiction is supposed to "break taboos" and show "what's worst about human beings, as a form of catharsis. That's how Greek tragedy was born," he explains in an interview.

The title can be interpreted as ironic, as this absolute "liberty" that the protagonists engage in seems like madness and it isn't clear to what degree they actually enjoy it. Emotion here is expressed with animalistic grunts and sometimes agonizing screams. What I think is important is that it's all done consensually. All the participants voluntarily submit to this strange ritual and share an unspoken moral code. When one of the characters keeps asking for more whipping than he can physically take, the others deny it to him, as if they thought that he was being too greedy. The director believes that "in order to have a true communion between bodies" one must give up the sense of individuality and devote oneself to giving and not only receiving pleasure. What I found most interesting is that beyond a certain point, as the director puts it, "it ceases to matter whether the other person is tall or short, thin or corpulent, young or old, beautiful or ugly." Desire can level the field between "masters and servants, the rich and poor, the handsome and ugly, men and women..." At least in this picture, it seems to reduce human culture to very basic primitive needs, in a way that is egalitarian. There's something grotesque about the imagery in the film, yet at the same time, it looks like these libertines in the forest may be on to something.

"'Liberté'", Serra offers, "is a poem about the logic of the night, unproductive and sterile." Indeed, what is lacking in this deranged orgy is any hint of tenderness, of caring, or constructive contemplation. There is only desperate, burning desire and chaos. There is no trace of the Apollonian and the Dionysiac reigns supreme.

"Liberté" could be viewed as a celebration of artistic freedom. I'm thankful that we live in an era in which someone like Serra can dream up a beautiful nightmare like this, and that at least in some countries, we can view it in cinemas and later comment on it on IMDb.

Dolor y gloria
(2019)

One of Almodovar's best
Less bombastic than some of his previous work (which I also love, by the way), this bittersweet film shows the maturity of a director that's been around and seen it all, someone who's experienced both pain and glory and is asking himself what's next in life. In this partly autobiographical narrative, his most personal so far, Almodovar expresses some frustration with aging and with loneliness, but also his appreciation for the path that he's had the privilege to make for himself and continues to work on, and the people who are important to him. He succeeds in exploring nostalgia without succumbing to sappiness. If anything, Almodovar's senses and craft are sharper than ever. He's able to be critical and loving at the same time. I like how has evolved through the decades and that he keeps experimenting with different styles of storytelling. Antonio Banderas' award-worthy performance as the director's alter ego is understated, yet bold. Almodovar said in an interview that the choice was obvious, as Banderas is to him what Marcello Mastroianni was to Federico Fellini. And indeed there are some similarities between this film and '8 1/2': both films deal with the creative process. But whereas Fellini approaches the topic as a gladiator confronting obstacles with whip in hand, Almodovar is more low key and seems to point to tenderness as his weapon of choice.

Estiu 1993
(2017)

A quiet storm
This is the story of a little girl from Barcelona who is adopted by her aunt's family in the countryside, after her mother passes away. Largely autobiographical, "Summer 1993" is filmed in a very naturalistic style and almost feels like a documentary. The director, Carla Simón, pays special attention to the kind of small details that can make a big difference to a young kid. Although not very much seems to be going on in the surface, one can see that a very important drama, charged with intense emotions, is going on deep in the lives of this little person and the family that has welcomed her. The acting is all very effective and particularly Laia Artigas, who plays the main character, is surprisingly strong and charismatic for someone her age.

"Summer 1993" is one of many Spanish films that observe the world through the eyes of a child. Other examples include the classics "Cría Cuervos", "The Spirit of the Beehive" and "El Sur". The contemplative gaze and relatively slow pace remind me of "En Construcción", a documentary by another Catalan filmmaker, José Luis Guerín.

Loubia hamra
(2013)

Liberation, through the eyes of innocence
'Bloody Beans' is a minimalist, very loose reenactment of the Algerian War of Independence, performed mainly by children. Rather than retelling the history in specific detail, the narrative playfully describes social situations and events through a kind of dream logic. Director Narimane Mari, who is of French-Algerian origin, worked with a budget of only €7,500 (or under $10,000). But her bare bones approach to plot and production has a poetic, surreal quality that is generally absent in more elaborate large-budget films. The electronic music soundtrack provided by the French duo Zombie Zombie is fresh and adds another layer of texture. With the exception of a few adults (including the director herself), the cast is mostly composed of untrained children, who address one another quite naturally, with typically Algerian expressions and mannerisms. The camera observes these kids being kids, which is perhaps why CPH:DOX, one of Europe's most important documentary awards, gave 'Bloody Beans' its top prize (despite the fact that it actually tells a fictional story inspired by historic events). In any case, this is not your average film. If you're open to somewhat more experimental work, you may find it quite rewarding.

Gatica, el mono
(1993)

Sorry, this is no Raging Bull.
Based on some of the enthusiastic reviews that I read here (including one claiming that this film "makes Raging Bull look like a kindergarden film"), I was expecting a very raw, potent biopic about José María Gatica, also known as "El Mono" ("The Monkey"), a popular Argentine boxer who fought in the 40s and 50s, whose personal life was undone by excess and decadence. Instead, the film feels stagey and melodramatic. The music is too sentimental. Much of the acting, especially Eduardo Nieva's in the main role, feels forced. I think he tries a bit to imitate Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, but his constant screaming isn't visceral, just annoying. Gatica does come across as an out-of-control nouveau riche (who reminded me a lot of a certain Argentine football legend), but his portrayal of the character isn't compelling enough to keep one interested throughout two hours. I think Erasmo Olivera, who plays the younger Gatica, has significantly more presence on the screen. The photography is sometimes quite powerful, while other times it risks being overly nostalgic. Probably the movie's strongest point, it seems inspired by some of the films of Francis Ford Coppola or Bernardo Bertolucci. I was disappointed by most of the fighting scenes, with one exception, a surreal moment that combines unakin visual and sound elements: on the one hand, slow-motion shots of two boxers resting between rounds, panting heavily, sweating and bleeding profusely, and on the other, the voice of a priest delivering Mass in Latin. It happens unexpectedly and, although hard to explain exactly why, it works like magic. Somehow, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wish there had been more surprises like that, more unpredictability and mystery. To be fair, this is an undeniably ambitious, probably fairly expensive period film with great production (costumes, cars, etc.) But perhaps the project became too large and complex for the director to pay attention to the details and give life to the characters. Gatica's story is unique and sad, worthy of a biopic. But the film lacks punch, if you'll pardon the pun. I actually found it painful to watch – unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.

The Way
(2010)

Come On Pilgrim
I watched 'The Way' right after having walked the Portuguese road to Santiago de Compostela from Porto. It was a beautiful trip and I felt emotional about it, so I wanted to reminisce and get another perspective. The film takes place in the more traditional road to Santiago, which goes across the north of Spain (also known as the French road, because it begins in the border with France), but I could still relate.

The production feels appropriately low budget, considering that the pilgrimage is traditionally meant to be an inexpensive experience. More important than the cost, however, is whether the film has soul. And I have to say, I was very moved by the basic storyline: an older man decides to walk to Santiago in order to feel closer to his adventurous, freewheeling son, who died while doing the pilgrimage. Both Martin and Emilio Estevez (real-life father and son) achieve good performances. Dutch actor Yorick van Wageningen also conveys emotion and adds some comic relief. Even before I read that the project was inspired by Martin and his grandson's (producer Taylor Estevez's) trip to Santiago, I could tell that there was a strong personal element and that is what I liked best about 'The Way'.

On the other hand, many parts of the film feel forced. One example is the scene in which James Nesbitt's Irish character, Jack, is introduced. He tries too hard to be quirky and this feels disconnected from the Camino experience. The pilgrimage is all about getting in touch with your true self, so any sign of phoniness feels especially out of place. There are other wacky, eccentric characters that are unbelievable or badly rendered, which distract from the more genuine portions. There is also a part in which a gypsy gives a speech about how it is wrong to stereotype his people as thieves, when in reality so many of them are very proud and dignified. I understand that director Emilio Estevez means well and wants to defend the gypsy ethnic group, but the message lacks subtlety and feels too didactic.

I can't quite say that I loved 'The Way', but it certainly has its merits. If you're interested in the pilgrimage, I recommend that you wait and watch it only after you have finished your trip to Santiago, so that you can compare it with your own personal memories.

Trudno byt bogom
(2013)

Medieval horrors in outer space
Beautifully shot in black and white, 'Hard to Be a God' presents a spectacular procession of grotesque medieval imagery. For nearly three hours, its characters battle, spit, fart, urinate and grimace, while bird droppings fall from the sky amidst a curtain of foul steam rising from the ground. This visual vocabulary is used insistently, relentlessly, like a mantra, to the point that it nearly becomes hypnotic. The result is, nevertheless, a tasteful, even elegant, and superbly crafted product.

'Hard to Be a God' is inspired by the novel of the same title, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which I'm not familiar with). Technically speaking, this is a science fiction story, but expect nothing like '2001: Space Odyssey' or 'Star Trek'. If anything, its aesthetics have more in common with Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 'Andrei Rublev', which is set in 15th century Russia. The plot goes something like this: In the future, a number of earthlings go to planet Arkanar to observe its culture, which is in a similar state to what was once the Earth's Middle Ages. However, they are not allowed to teach the locals any progressive concepts that might help them reach their own Renaissance. At best, they can protect a few, specific Arkanarians who may be instrumental in the advancement of their society. Some of this is explained in an introduction. The rest, one has to more or less guess, based on the sometimes disorienting action and sparse dialog. There is a lot to take in at once, so I believe a second viewing would be helpful.

The surreal parade of people fighting one another and marching through the mud like madmen is so overwhelming, that it is almost comical during some instances. This said, it is grim to see human beings reduced to pointless violence and physiological functions. The visitors from Earth are more scientifically advanced, to the point that they are perceived by the locals as gods; but they despair as they confront the seemingly endless chaos. Thus, the title. Most Arkanarians are primitive and superstitious, while the scientists are false gods, lacking hope or divine inspiration. Not exactly uplifting, but it's a sight to behold...

Director Aleksei German spent many years working on this elaborate production and died before completing it. His wife and son took over that task and finished it in 2013.

Jauja
(2014)

The voice of the desert
I went to see director Lisandro Alonso's 'Jauja' especially because his earlier trilogy blew me away. 'La Libertad' (2001), 'Los Muertos' (2004) and 'Fantasma' (2006) each observe a solitary man – a survivor – roaming through the jungle wordlessly, like a wild animal. (The setting of 'Fantasma' is urban, but can also metaphorically be regarded as a jungle.) A decade later, I am still amazed by the power of those films and by how little they rely on plot, dialogue or props. Alonso's 2008 effort, 'Liverpool', is also minimalist and follows a similar theme, but tells a slightly more specific story.

'Jauja' is more elaborate than any of Alonso's previous work. As in 'Liverpool', there is something like a plot and very limited, but significant dialogue (in Spanish, Danish and French, in this case). A gorgeous, more sophisticated cinematography presents landscapes that bring to mind 19th Century oil paintings. This is a period film that involves realistic costumes and the kind of beautifully crafted tools used by explorers and the military in the 1800s. Also, 'Jauja' features a famous actor, Viggo Mortensen of 'The Lord of the Rings', who co-produced it and co-wrote the musical score. I think this was all a great way for Alonso to try something new and fresh, without giving up his very unique style and aesthetics.

Don't expect a linear, mainstream film or you may be disappointed. This is an art-house Western – a strange, slow-paced ride through the vast, open space of the Argentine Patagonia. It addresses the exhilarating sense of adventure, but also of violence and dread, that one might experience in the hinterland. The story reminds me of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', in that it depicts a struggle between the forces of "civilization" and the primitive, while also drawing a parallel between the wilderness of outdoor nature and our subconscious. (Alonso's film 'Los Muertos', which shows a man travelling along a river, may also have a link to Conrad's short novel.) The film's tempo, surreal situations and the use of places as a reference to states of mind are reminiscent of Tarkovsky's 'Stalker' or 'Solaris'.

We are explained that "Jauja" is a mythical land of abundance, something akin to paradise, whose search in the old days drove many to ruin. Dinesen (Mortensen) aims to establish order in a distant, foreign land, but keeps running into unruly behavior, left and right. It's as if the indomitable spirit of the desert possessed everyone around him and suggested to him – with its dreamy voice, sometimes forcefully, sometimes playfully – that his stubbornly controlling approach towards life is misguided, a lost cause. Perhaps more than in any other film he's made, the director achieves communicating something magical and ethereal, pointing to the deep, enigmatic wisdom that we each hold inside, but are afraid to listen to. The ending may imply that all these characters are, in fact, interconnected, showing different sides of the same stone (much like the "animus" and "anima" in Jungian psychology describe the male and female aspects in every person, for example).

Like Alonso's earlier trilogy, 'Jauja' poetically hints at the magnificence and mystery of human life in God's garden. Its images and sounds seem to come from far, far away, yet somehow feel eerily familiar and close.

The Shadow
(1994)

Silly fun
If you're looking for an entertaining superhero movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, 'The Shadow' might just be it. The film is based on a character created in 1931, who first appeared in pulp novels and then in a popular radio show. Alec Baldwin plays Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow, a mysterious hero in 1930s New York City, who has psychic powers that allow him to control people's minds and appear invisible – except for his shadow. It's a cool concept. He's confronted by the villainous Shiwan Khan, descendant of Genghis Khan, (played by John Lone, of 'The Last Emperor') who shares similar powers with Cranston and has a plot to conquer the world! Baldwin is smooth as The Shadow, but less so whenever he wears a long hair wig... I spent much of the time wondering whether Lone's beard was real or not. Either way, he looks a bit ridiculous as Khan. 'The Shadow' ventures into camp territory and is plain silly at times. But it's funny. Much of it is an exercise in absurdity and I was half expecting the actors to suddenly burst out in laughter. The bottom line is that I enjoyed watching it. The cast also includes Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen and a typically kooky Tim Curry.

Guest
(2010)

Travel diary of a poet
When Catalan director Jose Luis Guerín was invited to several film festivals around the world for his movie 'In the City of Silvia', he took the opportunity to document his experiences as a guest in the places that he visited: Venice, Colombia, Cuba, Peru, Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine.

'Guest' offers quiet moments of solitude. We also get to see a bit of the action at some of the festivals. But the main focus is on regular citizens, which Guerín actively engages in conversation wherever he travels. Most of them are poor and destitute and many of the discussions revolve around politics or religion. We are introduced to advocates of both the left and the right and it's not entirely clear whether we're supposed to be more persuaded by one or the other. Instead, I understood the message to be that the poor have it tough everywhere, regardless of the political system. Most of the interviews are powerfully poetic, while a few, in my opinion, could have benefited from a little more editing. In an article for twitchfilm.com, the director explained that while he's no expert in sociology, ethnology or politics, his main goal was to express his solidarity to these people and to just listen. The contrast in lifestyles between the traveling filmmaker and the subjects of his documentary helps add perspective. At some point one of them asks him about the price of his hotel room and he replies that he has no idea, as it's all paid by the festival. Not everyone gets to enjoy the relative luxury and glamor of the film industry.

Guerin (best known for his excellent 2001 documentary, 'En Construcción') has a special talent for producing lyrical images in black and white of a universe that seems remote, yet very real and authentic. It's a very low-key movie, but one that I will never forget.

Paco de Lucía: la búsqueda
(2014)

Soulful. Guaranteed goosebumps.
Guitar legend Paco de Lucia agreed to collaborate with director Francisco Sanchez Varela on this documentary about his life and some of the lessons that he learned throughout six decades of devotion to Flamenco music. (He began to play the guitar at age 7 and died at 66.) The film features a series of intimate, sometimes hilarious interviews with the Andalusian master, and plenty of his amazing music. We learn about his relationship with other Flamenco greats, like the singer Camaron, and jazz musicians, like John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Chick Corea, among others.

De Lucia plays down the concept of 'genius' and attributes success to hard work and dedication, and to learning from those around you. This is one of the main themes of the film. Another one is the tension between him and those Flamenco purists who were upset by his excursions into jazz territory, for example. By the end, however, it appears even his harshest critics had no doubt as to the unique, superlative quality of his music.

The film's production values are top notch, even if the format is rather conventional. You don't have to be a hardcore Flamenco fan to enjoy it. Even if you're a very casual listener like myself, you will find yourself inspired, perhaps even on the verge of tears. Make sure to watch it with good sound!

Kawaita hana
(1964)

Lolita / Elegant Japanese noir
Muraki is a middle aged yakuza fresh out of jail for murder. Played to perfection by Ryô Ikebe, he's quiet, disciplined, smokes his cigarettes with style, sports a smart suit and a Johnny Bravo haircut. When a woman from a past affair (Chisako Hara) desperately pleads for his love, he shows no interest in yielding. If anything, he seems almost embarrassed by her need of affection. His mind is only preoccupied by a sense of duty toward his gang and some casual betting. Enter Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a beautiful, young girl with the face of a doll and big, daring eyes. She has the look of someone who has nothing to lose. A wealthy, spoiled brat, a nihilist bored with life, she kills time by gambling away her money. Muraki is immediately drawn to her. At first, he's flattered by her attention, but he soon discovers he's too decent and safe for her, not quite extreme or dangerous enough. His pride is wounded, yet he becomes addicted to her youthful foolishness and decadence. Doom is around the corner.

Everything about this film is superbly elegant: the acting, the art direction and black-and-white photography, the avant-garde music composed by Toru Takemitsu, the man responsible for the soundtrack of any number of Japanese classics, including Teshigahara's 'Woman in the Dunes', Kurosawa's 'Ran' and Imamura's 'Black Rain'. Directed by Masahiro Shinoda, 'Pale Flower' belongs in the pantheon of great films noirs alongside the likes of 'The Big Sleep' and 'The Postman Always Rings Twice'.

***** Spoilers *****

Part of what's most interesting about the relationship between Muraki and Saeko is that it is so Platonic. There's no sign of sexual contact between them. Muraki wants her physically, yet fails to have her. It's a kind of impotence that he experiences. In turn, he becomes more of a protective father figure. After all, Muraki's probably over twice her age. (When they made the film, the actor was 47 and the actress 21.) So there's a sexual tension, an Electra complex (like the Oedipus complex, with the male and female roles reversed). But she saves herself for Yoh, a younger, wilder, more exotic yakuza and this drives Muraki crazy. (This reminds me of Nabokov's 'Lolita', published only a few years earlier.) By the end, a despondent Muraki volunteers to take down the boss of a rival gang, knowing well that this will put him back in prison. But he accepts to do it because he hopes it will excite and impress Saeko. He is sacrificing himself for her pleasure. When he thrusts his knife into the body of his victim at the restaurant, he's projecting onto the act of murder the violence of his frustrated desire for her. Fascinated, she watches from a distance. However, we later learn that Yoh has killed her in an act of passion. So it is Yoh who actually penetrates her with a knife (obviously, a phallic symbol). Muraki has been one-upped again. He has come up with a concept that Yoh ultimately takes to the next level. Saeko's relationship with Muraki remains ideal, while with Yoh it is carnal.

Similarly, Muraki is tormented by the prospect of Saeko doing drugs with Yoh, partly because he wants to protect her as a father figure, but also because that could involve Yoh penetrating her with a needle (another phallic symbol).

Letyat zhuravli
(1957)

Casualties of war
Director Mikhail Kalatozov's 'The Cranes are Flying', winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1958, seems to boast confidently, "This is how you make a classic!" It tells the story of two young lovers who are separated by the arrival of World War II. The film commemorates the lives that were lost in the Soviet Union during the war (between 22 and 30 million, more than in any other country). It observes patriotic self-sacrifice and heroism, but also builds a compelling anti-war message by illustrating the suffering and trauma that the Soviets had to endure during those years of human tragedy. Certain scenes even betray a hint of cynicism towards the government's official discourse. Apparently, this sort of nuance only became possible under the Communist regime after the death of Stalin in 1953.

The director operates in two different modes: one is a form of melodrama that feels a bit rigid and contrived; the other is a daring display of inspired, almost surrealistic flares in which the imagery takes off deliriously, as if suddenly propelled by a boost of adrenaline. This latter style is more lyrical and sets the film apart from the standard.

Kalatozov is also famous for his 1964 effort, 'I am Cuba', a piece of Communist propaganda that I find overrated. The camera-work, carried out by the same cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, is again exceptional and I can see why people like Scorcese hail its virtuosity. But unlike 'The Cranes are Flying', 'I am Cuba' is ruined by bad acting and the use of political caricature. Even in Havana, the film was criticized by the audience upon its original release for giving a stereotypical view of Cubans.

'The Cranes are Flying' may have some flaws, but it's still quite impressive and relevant today. I can honestly say that I was shaken by it.

Rosetta
(1999)

Searching for a way out
Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote and directed 'Rosetta', winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes in 1999, a film about an adolescent girl who's existence is being crushed by the weight of her mother's depression and alcoholism. Rosetta carries the burden of what little is left of her dysfunctional family and aspires to get a job, her own place, to live a normal life, to find freedom; then one day, she meets a young man who is willing to help her. This simple story is put together with an intimate, naturalistic style. Rather than resort to any kind of crude symbolism, the directors apply minimalism and keep their focus on the girl's tender needs and desires, and the roughness of her upbringing. The film soars thanks in great part to the excellent performance of Émilie Dequenne, who won the prize for Best Actress at Cannes that year. Her facial expressions, her posture, even the way she scurries around from place to place, like a raccoon or some other wild animal, all convey the pain, despair, anger and shame that are eating her. While the film is emotionally demanding, the economy of its narrative provides a certain lightness. Also, it's nice that it clocks out at 95 minutes, so it doesn't feel overly long.

Die Ehe der Maria Braun
(1979)

Wunder Woman
'The Marriage of Maria Braun' is German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's best-known and most financially successful movie and it's not hard to see why: it's a big event, a tour de force. This melodrama tells the story of an audacious, beautiful woman who puts her survival instinct to use during the early post-war era, when capitalist West Germany arose from the ashes. The film begins as she's getting married amidst the chaos of the last day of World War II in 1945, and much of what follows has to do with the peculiar way in which she devotes herself to her absent, yet somehow always present, idealized husband. The character of Maria is fascinating as a person, but it also serves as an allegory for Germany during this period of reconstruction, now generally referred to as the "economic miracle" ("Wirtschaftswunder").

Hanna Shygulla gives a perfect performance as the gorgeous and strong-willed Maria. She and Fassbinder were close and had worked together in many plays and films, including 'The Bitter Tears of Eva Von Kant', in 1972. By the time they made 'The Marriage of Maria Braun' in 1979, four years had passed since their last collaboration, so they both regarded it as a special reunion. To me, the film is a testament of the director's nostalgia and adoration for his diva. He was infamously difficult with many of his actors and actresses, yet is said to have treated Shygulla with a special kind of tenderness, and I believe it shows here.

Fassbinder was openly gay, but married twice to women. His relationships with his first wife, Ingrid Caven, and Moroccan male lover El Hedi Ben Salem, both important actors in his films, are known to have been especially tempestuous. This pattern of love/hate may reflect on some of the characters in his work. He was accused (perhaps unfairly) by some feminists of being misogynistic and by some gay critics of being homophobic. I haven't watched enough of his films to have an opinion on this. But I sense there's a very particular, mixed energy projected onto the character of Maria Braun, who is both hero and antihero, someone who has an admirable tenacity to overcome adversity, yet is willing to stop at nothing in order to accomplish her goals. It's this complexity that makes the film interesting. Nothing here is easily spelled out as right or wrong.

'The Marriage of Maria Braun' is the first part of Fassbinder's BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) trilogy, along with 'Veronica Voss' (1982) and 'Lola' (1981), which is made available as a set by the Criterion Collection. ('Veronica Voss' was filmed last, but is meant to be viewed as the second part of the trilogy.)

The Act of Killing
(2012)

The horror! The horror!
I'd be hard-pressed to name any film I've watched that is as strange and disturbing as 'The Act of Killing' (brought to you by executive producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris).

When Indonesian president Sukarno allied himself with communists in 1965, he was toppled by a military coup and a bloody, anti-communist purge followed. Ethnic Chinese, deemed disproportionately wealthy and corrupt by other Indonesians, were targeted as well – or at least this is how some pretended to justify the genocide of so many innocents. A million people were killed. The same paramilitary death squads that carried out the assassinations are politically strong today and count with government ministers among their members. They proclaim themselves national heroes and boast loudly about their "achievements". Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews some of these gangsters and invites them to reenact the murder scenes by adapting them to their favorite movie genres (Westerns, musicals, etc.)

I initially wondered whether such a bizarre concept wasn't disrespectful to the victims of the massacre, but I realized that it was precisely this format that enabled the director to revisit history and unearth its truth. Oppenheimer had to stroke the gangsters' egos or he would have never been allowed to film. Some of them, including the main character, Anway, started their criminal careers by scalping tickets at a local cinema and were big fans of Hollywood films. In an article from The Australian newspaper, Oppenheimer explains the documentary's theatrical approach this way: "Killing always involves some kind of distancing from what you are doing. Maybe that always means a kind of performance and acting, some kind of storytelling. Maybe it can just mean drinking first. But for Anwar, in part, it comes from the stories that he would imbibe in the cinema, the images and roles, the process of cinematic identification. The act of killing, for Anwar, was always some kind of act."

The result is both chilling and surreal. It is shocking to see these men proudly celebrating their monstrous crimes, including rape. Have they no empathy? How ignorant, demented and evil can humans be? This reminds me of the BBC documentary mini-series 'The Nazis: A Warning Story', in which former Nazi members speak coldly about their ideology, indifferent to the suffering they have caused. These Indonesian gangsters, however, are still in power and are applauded on national TV, their insanity still shared decades later by a significant portion of the population.

There seems to be a disconnect between these people and their feelings, as if all the violence had somehow rendered them numb. This is most evident in Anwar. While a few of the thugs express some awareness of the harm they have done, Anwar is in a state of denial. He blocks his emotions and appears to bury any remorse for his acts under a fabricated storyline that absolves him. Yet, toxic memories stubbornly surface every night in the form of nightmares. As the film goes on, he slowly wakes up from the cloud of illusion that he has created around him and realizes the horror that he's participated in. This is one of the film's big successes.

It's frightening to picture this kind of cruelty emerge from a marginal, uneducated, third-world environment. But we have to ask ourselves how different we are from them. Don't we turn a blind eye on the killing of civilians carried out by drones in other countries, for example? Don't we also glorify national heroes who wiped out entire populations? As a Venezuelan, I think of the revered Independence leader Bolivar, who ordered the systematic murder of all Spanish civilians with his decree of 'War to the Death'. Every country has its stories. We seem to rationalize these inconvenient facts by telling ourselves that the war was merciless on both sides or that the end somehow justifies the means. Like gangster Adi suggests, history is written by the victors and war crimes are defined by the winners.

At two and a half hours long, the film could use a little more editing, in my opinion. I feel like it would be even more effective if it were stripped down further, removing any hints of sensationalism. I'm confused, for example, as to why Herman, the obese gangster, is dressed in drag during each reenactment. Did he find it comical? Was he aiming for the grotesque? Did he do it out of his own initiative or did the filmmakers encourage this? It gives the impression that someone was trying hard to make things look even weirder, which is completely unnecessary. Maybe there's a good explanation for this. And then again, everything in this film is so bizarre that it often resembles a work of pitch-black satire. Its terrifying strangeness, however, is no joke.

Rough Magic
(1995)

Whimsical and unpretentious
When I accidentally caught this on HBO many years ago, I wasn't paying very close attention at first; but as the movie continued, I became increasingly intrigued by its quirkiness. Based on the 1944 book 'Miss Shumway Waves a Wand', the story takes place in L.A. and Mexico, and follows magician Myra Shumway (played by Bridget Fonda) as she escapes from her sleazy, wealthy fiancé and falls in love with detective Alex Ross (played by a young Russell Crowe). Things become more surreal as elements of film noir begin to mix with magic realism.

Much of the focus is on what Myra describes as "that terribly empty space between my heart and my head" – that is, the balance between the power of intuition and emotion on one side and calculating rationality on the other. Practical thinking alone, we learn, leads nowhere good. Love, on the other hand, is a liberating force. Unfortunately, in an effort to invoke 'magic' in the film, the word is repeated too many times with an irritating lack of subtlety, especially by a snake-oil salesman played by Jim Broadbent. And that's the film's main weakness: too often it spells out its intentions and gives away its tricks. This said, I was still charmed by director Clare Peploe's daring playfulness. While the film isn't perfect, it has a lot of heart and feels a bit like a strange dream at times. The story takes some wild, unexpected turns and I was entertained throughout, even upon a second viewing. I couldn't disagree more with those who suggest Bridget Fonda isn't right for the role. She's fantastic! I find her quite believable and sexy as Miss Shumway. Russell Crowe is appropriately suave and Mexican American comedian Paul Rodriguez occasionally steals the show.

'Rough Magic' doesn't take itself too seriously. Its kind of fantasy feels both mainstream and eccentric in a way that reminds me of HBO's Tales From The Crypt, only it's romantic, rather than macabre. Check it out one lazy evening, perhaps with the company of some magic potion.

Holy Motors
(2012)

Anything is possible in film!
French director Leos Carax was born Alexandre Oscar Dupont. His current name (an anagram for Alex Oscar) is a pun for what reads in French as "Le Oscar à X", which translates to "The Oscar goes to X". Clearly, the guy is passionate about movies and he pays loving tribute to the different genres of cinema with his film 'Holy Motors'. Life is full of drama, laughs, suspense and perhaps, he seems to propose, no other medium better captures all this than film.

Part of what makes watching 'Holy Motors' such a unique experience is its many unpredictable turns. You never really know what's going to happen next, which is why the less you read about it in preparation for watching it, the better. If you're not familiar with the film yet, do yourself a favor, stop reading about it and rent it right away! Watch it by yourself, with a date or with friends and get ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Some parts of the film may be a bit more successful than others. Personally, I'm not too convinced by Kylie Minogue's performance, for example. What really amazes me, though, is how much of it actually works so perfectly. Denis Lavant is brilliant in the main role and Edith Scob (best known for the spooky 'Eyes Without a Face') does a great job as well. Eva Mendes helps pull off one of the most instantly memorable sequences.

'Holy Motors' is packed with references to other films (including Leos Carax's own 'The Lovers on the Bridge' or his segment 'Merde' in the film 'Tokyo!'). Some of them are evident, while others are more subtle. As a viewer, it's tempting to put on the detective hat and try to figure out which scenes are linked to which past works.

Beyond the story's commentary on filmmaking and, in particular, on acting, there's something almost metaphysical about the way the characters change roles. It makes me think of reincarnation and of how we seem to act out the different situations that destiny holds for us. We try to live up to expectations, even as we make our best to live in the now.

Ikebana
(1957)

Flower power
Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara ('Woman in the Dunes', 'The Face of Another', 'Rikyu') was the son of Sofu Teshigahara, the founder of the Sōgetsu School of Ikebana flower arranging. Sofu, who learned flower arranging from his father, regarded Ikebana as an art (as opposed to mere decoration) and his Sogetsu School taught "that once all the rules are learned and the techniques mastered, there is an unbounded field for freer personal expression using varied materials, not just flowers." (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

The film focuses on the way Sofu incorporates the sculptures he makes with his flower arrangements. It never occurred to me that these two art forms would be applied by the same person, but it only makes sense. In his case, the resulting combination has a powerful, very graphic and masculine, 50s-style aesthetic. It's an interesting mix of traditional Japanese and Modernist (one could say Western, I suppose) flavors. He's an eclectic sculptor, as he uses many different materials, including wood, metal and glass. It's quite impressive. Sofu comes across as an intense man. He wears funky clothes and much of his work is charged with a particularly expressive, even neurotic energy. It's not hard to imagine that he must have had a big influence on his filmmaker son.

The documentary itself feels conventional in comparison to the director's more experimental, slightly psychedelic works from the 60s, or even his 1985 documentary about Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. This actually reminds me a bit of some Disney films from the 40s and 50s. At only 32 minutes, it doesn't go into depth on specific Ikebana techniques or anything of the sort, but it offers a nice taste of the possibilities and points to the passion with which Sofu approached art.

Pluk, naufragé de l'espace
(1979)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...
This is the first movie that I have any recollection of ever watching! I must have been 4 or 5 years old when my parents rented this on Betamax. And I can still remember being blown away by it!

The story's about a young couple and their zany dog, who are asked by a robot from another planet to help him find his way back home. They take off in a flying saucer and run into many a challenge. The dog is completely neurotic, while the robot is coolly rational and has drawers on his chest, which seem to have an infinite amount of space in which to keep all sorts of practical tools (much like Felix The Cat's magic bag of tricks).

I re-watched this decades after my first viewing and found that I was still amused by much of it. Many of the jokes still made me laugh. This said, some of the humor is dated and politically incorrect. For example, there are some aliens who are referred to in the English version of the cartoon as "gringos", in reference to their green color. When the robot uses his translator machine to understand what they're saying in their strange language, they sound like Mexicans speaking English. And the leader of the green aliens is called The Big Enchilada, ha ha... (THAT made me laugh.) Other aliens are referred to as "rednecks", only because of their red color. It's all extremely goofy and nonsensical, but offensive terms like 'gringo' or 'redneck' wouldn't be used in today's cartoons and I doubt aliens would be made to sound like Mexicans. Another detail that caught my eye is that only the boy gets a medal in the end, even though his girlfriend participates in the same adventures. That would be unthinkable these days.

Again, I'm describing the English version. I'm very curious to know what the original script in French is like. I'd imagine in the French version the young couple isn't from Miami nor is there any talk of enchiladas. Maybe the green aliens speak with a German accent? After all, some of them carry spiked helmets like those worn by German soldiers during World War I. In English, the best line is the robot's recurrent "Yeah, man!" I can only wonder what he says in French!

If, like me, you have vague memories of having watched this as a kid and are curious to see what it was all about, you can find the entire film on YouTube. It will feel like traveling through time!

Akai satsui
(1964)

When the going gets tough...
Yet another excellent film by Japanese director Shôhei Imamura! I'm amazed by how much great work he made!

'Intentions of Murder' revolves around Sadako, a plump woman with a peasant background who is abused by her loveless husband and in-laws and is raped by a degenerate thief. Her life is so full of bitterness and suffering, that she constantly contemplates committing suicide. Unbearably heavy as that may sound, the film is very artfully carried by Imamura's skill, inventiveness and great wisdom. The director never makes fun of Sadako's tragedy – on the contrary, he shows the deepest sympathy for her (much like he does for the female lead in his previous film, 'The Insect Woman') – but he handles the film's material with a relatively light touch by making use of a playful soundtrack and by highlighting the absurdity of its situations in a way that sometimes verges on black comedy. This is the story of an underdog who, while devoid of any wit, much wealth or classic good looks, is possessed with the strongest mettle and tenacity.

A recurring theme in his work (and particularly in my favorite film of his, 'Profound Desire of the Gods') is the clash between the structured mores of society and our unruly human desires and emotions. Inconvenient as it may be, our animal nature doesn't always accept the order that we try to impose on it rationally. This contradiction between different impulses can cause confusion, embarrassment, distress, violence... And yet, to some extent we're left with no choice but to somehow come to terms with that wild, anarchic aspect of our humanity.

I think it's fair to say that beyond our survival and animal instincts, the director points to love (both self-love and love for those around us) as the best compass in life. In this case, Sadako's love for her son serves her as a guiding light, even when it all seems hopeless. Imamura, despite populating many of his films with despicable, selfish characters, in the end seems to show some faith in human kind. It's a welcome spark of optimism in what would otherwise be a very darkly cynical perspective.

In an interview provided as an extra-feature by the Criterion Collection, Imamura explains that he needed to loosen up after having finished his 1960 film, 'My Second Brother', which won international acclaim but was too strait-laced for his taste. His style began to change after that, and I believe it's with 'Intentions of Murders' that the director began to play with surrealism, something that would become more prominent in later films like 'The Pornographers' and 'Warm Water Under The Red Bridge'.

It's true that a few of the metaphors in this film are a little too obvious (particularly the hamster in the cage). But there's so much more going on here, including beautiful black and white photography, a powerful story in general and really solid acting. This is a film that I highly recommend watching.

Kûki ningyô
(2009)

Saccharine, but has its moments
Director Hirokazu Koreeda boldly took on the challenge of making a film about a sex doll, a story based on an original manga series. The main character, Nozomi, starts out as a woman who's never been treated as anything other than a sex object. She is sometimes embodied in the film by an actual doll and other times by Korean actress Bae Doona, a combination that works out very nicely. As she begins to gain more awareness of herself and the world around her, she realizes how human relationships can be infinitely more fulfilling. I don't want to give away too much, but in essence, she seems to discover the link between love and beauty. The notion of a character in search of its human soul is reminiscent of 'Pinocchio' and 'The Little Mermaid' (which is directly referred to in the film). To replace such traditional figures with a sex doll is an interesting concept and I thought Koreeda would get away with it... until I got about halfway through the film, at which point, unfortunately, he lost me.

Koreeda's 2004 film, 'Nobody Knows', is one of my all-time favorites, so I have to admit that I approached 'Air Doll' with very high expectations. The director's style is quiet, delicate, meditative, even feminine, something that is more commonly found in Asian cinema and art. As a Western man, I appreciate it when directors like him provide that sort of aesthetic, which is all too rare on our side of the globe. But as much as I enjoyed that quality in 'Nobody Knows', for example, I felt that 'Air Doll' is excessively sweet. At times, Bae's performance as a doll is very effective, particularly when her facial expressions seem most strange and awkward; but too often, she plays her role in a way that's just too "kawaii" (Japanese for "adorably cutesy") for me. Personally, I find that style more appropriate in animation, and rather too tacky on (live-action) film. The symbolism in 'Air Doll' also seems too heavy-handed and ultimately sinks the film from that wonderful lightness that it achieves in some parts earlier on.

Muhômatsu kokyô ni kaeru
(1973)

The Living Dead
'Muhomatsu Returns Home' is a TV documentary about Matsukichi Fujita, a 55-year-old former soldier who settled in Thailand after being deserted by his platoon during World War II. Director Shôhei Imamura met him in Thailand and they agreed to document his return to Japan. The presentation of the film, which runs for 47 minutes, is unembellished, even dry, but the story's very intriguing.

Fujita isn't welcome back upon his return. He's a Japanese Rip Van Winkle. The world has moved on in his absence, while he was believed to be dead. Particularly unexcited to see him is his brother, who appears to have engineered the story of his death in order to inherit his pension. Fujita becomes sentimental in a few instances, but mostly expresses anger and bitterness as he walks around, sometimes shirtless, looking like a fossil.

He and his family are residues of Japan's war and post-war years. One of his sisters was killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He fought and lost as part of an army known for its brutality abroad. At some point, he briefly refers to the murderous quality of his job as a soldier, but shows no signs of regret. In fact, he complains about having been betrayed by the Emperor, who ultimately surrendered. Imamura films him with the curiosity of an entomologist. This is reminiscent of the director's approach towards the characters of his 1963 feature film, 'The Insect Woman'. His only judgment comes at the very end, as he criticizes Japan for deserting its people in the wake of prosperity: "Their voices cry out against the country that abandoned them as if they were trash. 236 million yen will be spent to collect their bones and 4.630 billion yen will be spent on arms." Can this be interpreted as an anti-war message? He certainly presents Fujita as a product and victim of a larger machinery.

I have read elsewhere that in the end, Imamura had doubts about his involvement in a film of this kind: "During the filming, my subject Fujita asked me to buy him a cleaver so that he could kill his 'vicious brother.' I was shocked, and asked him to wait a day so that I could plan how to film the scene. By the next morning, to my relief, Fujita had calmed down and changed his mind about killing his brother. But I couldn't have had a sharper insight into the ethical questions provoked by this kind of documentary filmmaking."

Painters Painting
(1972)

Painters (talking about) Painting
'Painters Painting' is a collection of interviews from 1973 with some of the most influential modern artists alive at the time. You should expect to mostly hear them 'talking' about their work, rather than seeing them in action. (There are a few, brief exceptions, but it's not like the documentary 'Gerhard Richter – Painting', in which he's mostly shown moving paint around). It's a real luxury to be presented with so many talented people, whose work I love. A number of important art critics and collectors also participate in the film and, in some cases, share personal anecdotes involving the showcased artists.

Not everything that is said is fascinating. Some parts are a little bit dry and boring. But the parts that work (for example, the interviews with Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons) offer great insights into their processes. Another IMDb reviewer complains about what he/she regards as Andy Warhol's "tricky" attitude. It's true that he often avoids responding to questions with a straight answer, but I think he's just being playful and tongue-in-cheek, which is something that reflects on his work anyways. And there are also instances in which he seems very candid.

I agree with another reviewer who criticizes the sloppiness of the camera work and the sound here and there. I wouldn't say it's horrible, but it could be sharper.

I don't necessarily recommend this film as an introduction to Modern Art (to people who know very little or nothing about it), but it's well worth a watch if it's a topic that you're already familiar with and interested in.

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