Friday, February 28, 2014

Film Atlas (Ethiopia): Harvest 3000 Years

Country: Ethiopia
Film: Harvest: 3000 Years / Mirt Sost Shi Amit (1976)
Harvest: 3000 Years borders on documentary. It begins leisurely with shots of a family going about their daily routine in the Ethiopian countryside. Their lives are structured around ceaseless toil: plowing fields, planting trees, cutting grass, carrying loads, shepherding cattle, washing clothes, grinding flour, etc. But we also see, occasionally, children at play, men bragging about happier days, women dreaming of better futures for their families and always the richness of the enduring land. A few stories slowly emerge from these scenes. There is Kebebe, a politically-minded 'madman' who talks to himself (or perhaps to us), describing the perfect home where he lives: fresh air, running water, wide open doors at the front and back. The camera zooms out to reveal he shelters under a bridge. Kebebe has an ongoing verbal vendetta with the local landlord, a lazy Western-clad despot who rarely rises from his front porch and then only to berate his silent sweating servants. Chief amongst these is Kentu, an obsequious underling whose family struggles to make ends meet. During a flood, Kentu's daughter drowns trying to rescue one of the master's cow, but callous and greedy as ever, the landlord only adds to their troubles by demanding an even larger share of the year's harvest. Kebebe snaps and beats him to death with a stick, leading to a police standoff around 'his' bridge. When the dust settles, the military seizes the harvest anyway, but the last shot implies that a new generation of active resistance may've been born from out of the incident.

Harvest: 3000 Years is not an easy film. It's slow, long, shot on rather rickety 16mm black and white, and takes a distinctly abstract approach to storytelling. One has to keep in mind that director Haile Gerima shot the film in the tense interim of bloody military coups that took Ethiopia from a stagnant monarchy to an equally ineffective socialism, with the director successfully evading unwanted attention from either side. It is also one of the few African films I've seen willing to put its poetic sensibility ahead of purely narrative concerns, and the result is emotionally honest and moving even if, at times, confusing. It is full of quiet moments where the camera tracks the rhythms of rural Ethiopian life, but its political agenda is never very far away. The children especially, through dreams and visions that portend a change, are beginning resist their lot, even to radicalize, a transition that Gerima situates as a natural consequence of the country's economic divide and low standard of living. And then there is the film's central mouthpiece, Kebebe, who has half-chosen half-been-forced-into insanity as the only sane thing to do in an insane world. His monologues, freestyle rants full of wily humor, sober truths and political lucidity, are some of the film's highlights and a stinging contrast to Harvest's predominantly silent observations.

Gerima camerawork favors shooting from extreme distances leaving us with tiny figures on large canvases that emphasize the smallness of human endeavor and yet the universality of their struggle. He frequently uses long zooms where he can keep movement in frame by pivoting the camera using only slight nudges. These long shots are punctuated at a few rare but key points, including the start and end of the film, with extreme close-ups that literally put a human face on Africa's battle for independence, equality and the basic necessities of survival.

My Favorites:
Harvest: 3000 Years

Major Directors:
Haile Gerima

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Film Atlas (Egypt): Cairo Station

Country: Egypt
Film: Cairo Station / The Iron Gate / Bab el Hadid (1958)
Madbouli, our oft-absent narrator, is a newsagent in Cairo's bustling central train station who claims to have seen many stories strangers than those he sells. This one began when he took in Qinawi, a crippled street urchin without a past and little hope for a future. Qinawi defends himself with a desperate sense of humor, but he's lonely, sexually frustrated and the butt of many jokes cast down from the higher social strata. He longingly spies on a pair of young lovers that rendezvous at the station, and dreams of marriage with Hannouma (Hind Rostom, the "Marilyn Monroe of the East"), a fiery, flirtatious eye-catcher who sells cold drinks without a permit. She strings Qinawi along so he'll hide her beverage bucket during police raids and because she considers him essentially harmless and amusing, but in reality she is engaged to Abu Serih, a handsome labor organizer and born leader on the cusp of winning better pay for the station porters.

Unable to accept the growing reality that Hannouma will soon marry another and leave, Qinawi loses his grip on reality and latches onto a murder story of grisly dismemberment being covered by the very papers he peddles. He clumsily lures Hannouma to the station warehouse, but she senses something is up (she thinks he is trying yet again to seduce her) and sends a friend, who Qinawi, in the dark, stabs and stuffs into a trunk. He later tries to blame Abu Serih, but his erratic behavior doesn't allow him to fool anyone for long. As night falls, he corners Hannouma in the rail yard and chases her among the trains as the police surround the area. Madbouli steps forward and tries to calm down Qinawi, now totally insane, by describing his imminent wedding festivities. Asking him to don his bridegroom robes, several men slip on a straightjacket.

Egypt was already one of the centers of Middle Eastern cinema by the 1930s, but few had any interest in challenging the prevailing popular comedic and romantic formulas until prolific director Youssef Chahine emerged in the 1950s. The result of his interest in sordid tragedy among the lower castes, Cairo Station, was a domestic failure but a rare international breakthrough. Chahine himself took on the difficult and rather unflattering role of Qinawi, a character too pathetic to hate, but too ominous to like; something between a scrappy underdog and a creepy stalker (a fresh and shocking character type in 1958). Chahine builds up an ill-omened tension around Qinawi by, in keeping with his tendency to lurk, conspicuously not revealing his face for the first ten minutes. In the shack where he lives, Qinawi pins up images of scantily clad women cut from the papers he sells, an ordinary enough act of sexual sublimation that grows darker as the film progresses; he later draws a bucket on the arm of a favorite picture and finally, after hearing about a sensational killing, almost absent-mindedly clips off the head and limbs of a pinup. His conflation of image, imagination and reality and his tendency to escape into voyeurism and fantasy, makes him something of a prototype for the deranged antiheroes of the 1960s and 70s (think Peeping Tom, Psycho or Taxi Driver), but it's a credit to Chahine's minimal-dialog performance and the carefully selected class-conscious scenes of his daily routine that he remains oddly sympathetic.

Chahine also proves himself one of the most interesting cinematographers of the era, with extremely dynamic compositions that incorporate camera movement, staging along criss-crossing diagonals and constant interplay between foreground and background elements. He frequently shoots through windows, around corners and in shifting crowds, always keeping the essential information clear while pushing the boundary of what he can fit in the frame. One of my favorite examples is Qinawi buying a knife at a cutlery stand (the first screenshot of this post), a scene sliced up by the verticals of dangling, swaying blades in front and the prison-like iron bars of a gate behind. Another winner is the climactic nighttime chase, with its chiaroscuro lighting and metallic labyrinth of engines, carriages and rails, shot with all the noirish authority of an Orson Welles finale.

My Favorites:
Cairo Station
The Nightingale's Prayer / The Curfew's Cry
The Mummy
The Square (2013)
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story

Major Directors:
Henry Barakat, Youssef Chahine

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Film Atlas (Ecuador): Ratas Ratones Rateros

Country: Ecuador
Title: Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (1999)
Salvador is a punk, but he’s more or less an OK guy. He lives in a rundown complex with his preoccupied parents and paralyzed grandmother and runs petty cons with a neighborhood pal and his none-too-bright girlfriend. He’s small fry and he knows it, but he can’t quite commit to playing it smart and keeping his head down. Enter Angel, Salvador’s cousin. Angel is a thug, a selfish irresponsible low-life careening from person to person leeching money however he can and whatever the consequences. He’s a little bit smart, a little bit charming, a little bit whatever he needs to be to get what he wants and leave someone else holding the bill.

When Angel shows up, men are already on his trail from a former deal gone sour. He convinces Salvador to let him lay low in the gated villa of Carolina, a rich and beautiful relative. Carolina discourages Salvador from getting involved with Angel, but hangs out with assholes that are Angel’s upper-middle class equivalents. Before long Angel has Salvador caught up in grand theft auto and worse. Salvador, mistakenly idolizing Angel, never fully realizes the mess he’s being drawn into until he’s already deep in over his head. Angel, though, does what he always does: he runs away.

Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (also known as Rodents) is a movie about quicksand; the way one gets trapped by the belief that going a few steps further is better than turning around and beginning the long haul back. The worse it is to face what’s behind you, the easier it is to make the next bad decision ahead, the one that will make it that much harder to turn back at the next crisis. Rodents is also a movie about contemporary Ecuador with the guts to air a lot of dirty laundry that many countries would've censored: juvenile delinquency, salty regional slang, the lack of positive role models, the widening gap between rich and poor, the proliferation of drugs and prostitution. But most interesting, for me, Rodents is also a rather creepy character study centered more on Angel than on Salvador. We need Salvador as our surrogate, our (semi-)sympathetic introduction into the story, but Angel is riveting and begins systematically stealing scenes and steering the narrative towards a cliff. He is pathetic and infuriating but also capable and exciting. Yup... he's an asshole, and one of the best in cinema, in part because he is as expert at lying to himself as to others, in part because actor Carlos Valencia brings him to life body and soul and in part because director Sebastián Cordero is generous enough to let him hijack the film.

Expect to hear more from Cordero as his recent U.S. debut, Europa Report, a hard SF thriller which makes cool use of split-screen, has helped him establish a much bigger profile.

Major Directors:
Sebastián Cordero

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Movie Game 3.0: Categories!

Though my main focus right now is the Film Atlas project, during the last week or so I've also been working on a major update to the Movie Game. (Playable for free on the right-hand sidebar of this blog. If you are having trouble viewing it on a mobile device, try switching to desktop view.)

If you haven't played it yet, the rules are simple:

1. Click the "Draw Cards" button. Cards can be plots, sets, props, characters, etc.
2. Think of a movie that fits both.

It's that simple! Best if played with a group (but you can test your skill alone), taking turns and with no real point system.

Version 1.0 introduced the classical game, which is designed for everyone, even those who don't know actors or directors by name. If you've seen a few movies and have either a good memory or a bit of creativity, you'll do just find.

Version 2.0 added a bunch of options for advanced players who want cards to include specific actors and directors (like Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Connelly or Alfred Hitchcock) either individually, in batches or in themed sets. It also introduced difficulty settings so you can play at your own level.

Version 3.0 (RELEASED TODAY) introduces CATEGORIES! When you select a category the first card is always guaranteed to fall under this general topic. Categories include Genres, Time periods, Styles, Filmcraft, Villains, Transport, Love & Death, Nature, Wardrobe & Makeup, and many more. It's not a precise science, but you'll get the idea.

Some of the categories might sound a little odd, but experiment a little and you'll find lots of fun ways to create specially themed rounds. Some of my favorites include:

  • Games - Each card in this category requires you to get another player to guess the movie you're thinking of (which still has to fit your other card), under specific rules, like playing charades, describing only the costumes, or by quoting dialog.
  • Connected - When playing using this category, each movie will be connected in some way to the last movie used as an answer. For instance, the title might be required to start with the same letter or the film may have to share a cast member or a similar plot.
  • Challenge - Challenge cards require you to think of a movie where you can remember something specific about it, like who did the music, what the poster looked like or who recommended it to you.
I've also upped the total number of cards in the main game to well over 900. Including the cast, crew and special sets there are now over 3000 cards in the movie game! The combinations are endless (well, not technically, but it's in the vicinity of 10 million).


Film Atlas (Denmark): The Celebration

Country: Denmark
Title: The Celebration / Festen (1998)
Wealthy patriarch Helge Klingenfeldt-Hansen is celebrating his 60th birthday with his extended family at their sprawling hotel estate. Tension is already high among his grown children which include Michael, a volatile adulterous family man, Helene, a globetrotting career woman whose liberal attitude and black boyfriend bristles the stiff-necked guests, Christian, a troubled loner and Linda, his twin sister, recently dead by her own hand. At the big dinner that evening Christian shocks the gathering during a dramatic toast in which he reveals that Helge sexually abused him and Linda when they were children. His accusations fail to register for some and are treated as tasteless jokes by others. Even his sibling Michael responds with, in order, skepticism, anger and violence. But the façade of family mirth and cohesion is too rotten to survive the long-delayed blow and once it starts crumbling all the secrets, grudges and bigotries shake loose.

The Celebration was the first and, in all likelihood, the best of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish-led return to naturalism whose manifesto advocated handheld camerawork  and a rejection of special effects, studio sets and lighting, post-production audio and the worn-out crutch of genre conventions. The film launched director Thomas Vinterberg onto the international stage, but he followed it up with a decade of critical failures while his coconspirator Lars von Trier (whose only Dogma 95 film is, ironically, one of his worst films) went on to enjoy a career of challenging, provocative breakthroughs. 15 years later, however, Vinterberg has happily returned to form with The Hunt, a film that revisits the theme of child abuse from a very different angle, this time following a teacher accused of an incident that didn’t happen, proving that he still has plenty to say. And while The Celebration has all the jolting outrage of an angry young filmmaker out to rewrite the rules, The Hunt takes a more mature and thoughtful approach, tapping a wider emotional register with an arguably lighter touch.

The film community later soured on Dogma 95, which set itself up for the inevitable backlash, but the raw talent that went into The Celebration still holds up. With all the brash energy and angry antiauthority of a newborn movement it’s hardly surprising that its proudly low-fi shot-on-digital aesthetic was a major influence on young filmmakers in Europe and the states. Vinterberg cleverly marries the grungy underlit cinematography to suitably dark material and presents the story in a faux-improvised manner that uses documentary intimacy as a way to get around our defenses and under our skin. All the same, the intention here, or at least the outcome, isn’t quite realism. Vinterberg’s moral indignationat the corruption within the sacred institution of the bourgeois family and the hypocrisies of ugly old-world conservatism has a gleeful edge of hysteria that threatens to overwhelm the mannered microcosm he’s concocted. Perhaps its OK that underneath the intense discomfort he stirs up he's either giving us the finger or winking at us impishly (it makes up for all the film’s glowering), or maybe it’s dangerously symptomatic of a today’s post-sincerity filmmaking where stylized individual cynicism is the weapon of choice against society’s impersonal cynicism. I’m not sure. Either way, The Celebration is interesting, vital and emotionally charged; a reliable recipe for heated discussions worth having with your friends and coworkers.

My Favorites:
The Word / Ordet
The Elements of Crime
Dancer in the Dark
Breaking the Waves
The Celebration
The Hunt (2012)
Terribly Happy
Hunger (1966)
Brothers (2004)

Major Directors:
Susanne Bier, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Per Fly, Nicolas Winding Refn, Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier

Monday, February 24, 2014

Film Atlas (Czech Republic): Case for a Rookie Hangman

Country: Czech Republic
Title: Case for a Rookie Hangman (1969)
The opening credits announce that Case for a Rookie Hangman is adapted from Part 3 of Gulliver’s Travels (notably the least popular section) and admits that Jonathan Swift would’ve likely “turned over in his grave” had he seen the results, which bear only a passing resemblance.

Lemuel Gulliver is standing before a roadblock. He takes an unpaved detour and finds himself lost in a tranquil forest while his car drives on without him. With a misleading sense of familiarity, he comes upon a solitary decaying house littered with forgotten emblems of his childhood and catches a glimpse of Marketa, his first love, who drowned twenty years earlier. Reality gives way under Lemuel’s feet, and, after being gunned down by mysterious intruders, he plunges into Balnibarbi through a door in the floor. There a professor holds up a flashcard reading “I’m sorry, but this is not a dream,” and an eerie silence prevails. Lemuel is arrested by the rather ludicrous Academy of Inventors for possession of a watch he purloined from the corpse of a well-dressed rabbit (the first of many Alice in Wonderland references) and the next day he is used as a case study for a college class on interrogation. Later he’s called before the childlike governor and learns that Balnibarbi is beset by the flying kingdom of Laputa, which blots out the sun for long periods. He meets a succession of rather unhelpful characters, joins a dubious band of poet rebels, witnesses a water riot at some sort of refugee camp and has other adventures, but primarily busies himself with chasing the elusive Marketa. Her real identity is in constant flux and it doesn’t help that as whenever he makes any romantic progress he wakes up in a bed, naked, with another woman entirely.

As things come to a head, Lemuel is led to a circus-sponsored execution contraption but is reprieved by a special invitation to Laputa. There he receives a cold welcome until the ministers learn that he once visited Monte Carlo. It soon becomes clear that their king, absent now for 11 years, works there as a hotel porter at the Carlton. The city and its hapless staff have drifted aimlessly since his departure. When Lemuel returns below, he finds that the Balnibarbians are unreceptive to the news that their god-like Laputian masters are actually unaware of them and indifferent to their plight. The governor and the rebels resort to violence. Lemuel flees. He reunites with the village idiot, encountered earlier, and they move on to the lands beyond the roadblock. Lemuel notes that the rabbit’s watch is now running backwards. “Be happy,” the idiot tells him, “that it’s still ticking.”

Case for a Rookie Hangman is an exercise in surrealist dreamlogic that, at first glance, may seem totally impenetrable. The film has an episodic structure potholed with disorienting ellipses and impossible geographic transitions that threaten to shake us loose, but director Pavel Juracek leaves just enough breadcrumbs to keep the viewer on track. Often, though, the film feels more connected by implications, echoes and symbols than by conventional narrative so your mileage, and interpretations, may vary. That said, even at its most confusing it’s still a highly satisfying film. The tone is kept predominantly light and entertaining by the fanciful cinematography, sporadic sex appeal and absurdist humor (scientists eliminate November to reduce flu epidemics, bureaucrats carefully shred a mural so that each fragment can be precisely cataloged, a nut-cracking statesman plays ‘the floor is lava’ on newspaper islands) while the accrual of indirect hints and satirical jabs (targeted at censorship and silence, bureaucracy and mismanagement, coercion and collaboration) allow a more serious political undertone to peek through, enough so that Juracek was banned from Czech cinema for life. 

At the heart of the film’s fertile imagination and haunting imagery is Juracek’s talent for scouting out locations bound up in otherworldly enchantments and dressing baroque sets in dilapidation rife with lost history, but it wouldn’t have worked without cinematographer Jan Kalis’s unique combination of seductive nostalgia and noir menace. Case for a Rookie Hangman is a rare film, even within the context of the underappreciated Czech New Wave, but it has a unique, timeless brilliance.

My Favorites:
The Cremator
The Ear
Marketa Lazarova
Baron Prasil
Who Wants to Kill Jesse?
Case for a Rookie Hangman
Diamonds of the Night
The Fifth Horseman Is Fear
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Carriage to Vienna
Alice (1988)
Valley of the Bees
Happy End (1966)
The Devil's Trap
Ikarie XB-1
All My Good Countrymen
Lemonade Joe
Tomorrow I Will Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

Major Directors:
Jiri Barta, Vera Chytilova, Milos Forman, Jaromil Jires, Pavel Juracek, Oldritch Lipsky, Gustav Machaty, Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec, Ivan Passer, Jan Svankmajer, Frantisek Vlacil, Vaclav Vorlicek

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Film Atlas (Cyprus): Akamas

Country: Cyprus
Title: Akamas (2006)
After rudely insulting a teacher who is droning on about Cyprus’s status as a British colony, Turkish Muslim student Omer drops out of school and is sent to the Akamas peninsula to work as a shepherd for a Greek Christian family. He immediately takes a shine to their daughter, Rhodou. By the late 1950s Omer is stuck firmly in the friend zone, desperately longing for a chance to prove his heroism to Rhodou. An opportunity presents itself when he provides a hideout in the mountains to the EOKA (partisans fighting British rule, but typically opposed by Turkish Cypriots for seeking reunification with Greece). After accompanying the resistance cell on a mission in which they assassinate a traitor, Omer finds he is repelled by their violent methods. A rift forms between him and Rhodou, culminating in his discovery that Rhodou is having an affair with one of the EOKA leaders. Soon after, the rebel group is betrayed and Rhodou’s lover is killed. Although Omer is suspected, he is guiltless. More years pass and Omer and Rhodou put aside the past and their difference. The begin meeting in secret and fall passionately in love. However, their families and communities find out and reject the relationship, separating the couple. They endure, finally finding happiness in Omer’s hometown of Vasilia, but their lives become harder during the 1970s, as the tension between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians turns to all-out war.

Akamas is an evenhanded history of three decades in Cyprus’s struggle for independence (successful) and unification (unsuccessful), couched in the form of a cross-cultural romance. I say evenhanded because when both sides declare the film as propaganda for their opponents and the government censors the finished product, odds are you’re actually pretty close to the middle ground. Director Chrysanthou shows both Greek and Turkish Cypriots as a mix of good and bad, reserving his condemnation for nationalist extremists of either faction and portraying their escalations as counterproductive at best, violently destructive at worse.

The film’s politics find natural parallels in the love story, including its central themes of forgiveness (Omer getting over Rhodou’s relationship with the EOKA member), compromise (both are willing to enter the other’s religion to allow a wedding) and serenity (Omer gives up his gun after a friend convinces him that violence will only play into the hands of his opponents). This is nontrivial stuff considering that, while most films pay lip service to these values, they predominantly focus on their more cinematic and presumably exciting opposites: revenge, unwavering convictions and violent aggression. This doesn’t make the heroes of Akamas weak (although I like that Chrysanthou is willing to risk that judgment), because they don’t lack for courage, determination or passion (e.g. several steamy scenes shot amid Cyprus’s inordinately photogenic geography including Avakas Gorge and a waterfall where Aphrodite was said to bathe), they just channel their efforts into romantic rather than patriotic pursuits. Not everyone, certainly not all Cypriots, would agree with that philosophy and the films ends on a mixed note as Omer and Rhodou come to accept their loneliness as exiles from both communities. Well, at least they have each other.

My Favorites:
The Last Homecoming (2008)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Film Atlas (Cuba): The Death of a Bureaucrat

Country: Cuba
Title: The Death of a Bureaucrat / La muerte de un burócrata (1966)
“Whereas immediately following, you will begin the film…,” reads a typed standardize form containing, in laughably stiff legal jargon, the opening credits of Death of a Bureaucrat.  The film proper opens with a funeral for Paco, a sculptor and ‘proletariat hero’ who invented a machine for churning out busts of Cuban icon Jose Marti. So much was his work ethic admired that his family symbolically buries him with his work card, only to discover directly after that his widow needs it to apply for a pension. Paco’s nephew, our protagonist, must enter a nightmare labyrinth of bureaucracy to clear up the irregularity. Encountering endless technicalities that prevent him from exhuming the coffin, he resorts to an under-the-table arrangement with a trio of gravediggers, but once he recovers the necessary card runs into more paperwork trying to get the body reburied. 

All he needs is to get one more document stamped, but after waiting in line all day, the whistle blows and the worker on duty, his arm suspended in mid-air stamp in hand, grabs his coat and goes. Our hero stealthily stays behind to finish the job, but gets trapped in the office and has to sneak out on a ledge where he’s mistaken for a suicidal man (which isn’t far from the truth by this point). He eventually resorts to political pull, begging help from his powerful boss, Mr. Ramos, who runs a propaganda agency (think bulging biceps, capitalist octopi, etc.) currently designing a campaign touting the defeat of bureaucracy. Finally everything is in order, but the funeral director balks at burying a citizen already buried three days earlier. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The film ends with another funeral, this time for the death of a bureaucrat.

Not only a trenchant commentary on faceless bureaucracy and the petty men who hide behind it, Death of a Bureaucrat is also a darn funny film. Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Cuba’s most famous director, attacks bureaucracy on multiple fronts and while his salvos may lack coordination, his shots are rarely off the mark. In the film’s centerpiece scene the nephew bounces around a cavernous gallery of numbered desks trying to obtain the proper paperwork. Each functionary displays his own brand of office-bred obstructionism, but my favorite is a near-silent routine in which a bureaucrat slowly searches for a pen and fastidiously tears a strip of paper along a straight edge. In the background we can hear a man with small feet trying to acquire a dispensation for children’s shoes and an armless man being chastised for failing to sign a form. These details emphasize the film’s class conscious heart, showing how exception cases (the poor, illiterate, handicapped or just different) fall through the cracks while the rich and powerful bypass all trouble by ‘exercising influence’.  We also see, of course, how large institutions are inevitably first in line to denounce waste, inefficiency and red tape without seeing the irony.

Alea is clearly in love with film history and his film abounds with explicit references. A funeral parade traffic accident becomes an escalating exchange of mutual destruction straight out of Laurel and Hardy. Dream sequences parody imagery from Bunuel and Bergman. At one point the nephew finds himself hanging by a clock hand like Harold Lloyd. All the aforementioned are thanked by name in the film’s dedication, but I think Alea’s original material, combining serious, morbid subject matter with slapstick and satire, works best. Death of a Bureaucrat has itself influenced other works, most notably Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’. Alea’s use of low framerate cutout animation (in a notable sequence that serves as Paco’s eulogy) and other manipulations like fast forwarding through a rambling list of procedures became hallmarks of Monty Python.

My Favorites:
I Am Cuba
Death of a Bureaucrat

Major Directors:
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

Friday, February 21, 2014

Film Atlas (Croatia): H-8

Country: Croatia
Film: H-8... (1958)
At 8:33 pm on April 14, 1957 along a stretch of highway between Zagreb and Belgrade a car driven by an unknown driver caused a wreck between a bus and a truck carrying sheet metal. 8 people were killed. The car shut off its lights so that no one could read its license plate beyond "H8..." and then drove off. Director Nikola Tanhofer takes this true life incident and begins in reportage style, giving us times, statistics, weather conditions and all the other known facts. We are told that the vehicles will crash. We are told how many people will die. We are even told which seats belong to the casualties. The only thing he holds back is who will be sitting in them. What follows is an extrapolation of the final two hours aboard the vehicles as we get to know the passengers, their pasts, personalities and plans. We learn to like some and not others. We find ourselves understanding, rooting for or wondering about them as the tension of knowing what hangs over them builds to an unbearable pitch.

Tanhofer plays a tricky, macabre and potentially tasteless game: he shows you most of his cards, tells you what's going to happen and then asks you to care for a large cast of characters despite knowing that some subset of them will be killed for no fault of their own. There are a lot of characters to develop and relatively little time for us to form opinions and emotional connections concerning them, and at the same time this has to be merely a typical bus ride without excessive drama, unmotivated seat-changing or misguided symbolism. Thankfully, and impressively, the acting, writing and directing all rise to the occasion. This is a fantastic example of efficiency, nuance and variety, with a knack for choosing which little moments to leave in and what long expositions can be cut out. Tanhofer never includes a flashback. Important elements from the past are implied or come up naturally through conversations, observations and interactions are also serving other purposes. The forward continuity also preserves the morbid tension, the sense of a implacable countdown that makes us lean in at every glimpse of a clock or mention of the time.

Crafting this suspense is undeniably exploitive, but Tanhofer actually cares for his characters and has more on his mind than just a genre exercise. The ending, a poetic montage of consequences and what-ifs, drives home the arbitrariness and cruelty of death. Tanhofer dedicates the film to the unknown driver, unharmed and unseen, almost as if he hopes his film will restore a conscience, a sense of responsibility, or at least guilt, to those who can cause death and then move on. H8 works superbly as a suspense film and ensemble piece, but it also strikes me as, on a deeper level, an anti-war movie, a troubling exploration of who dies and why and what does that mean.

My Favorites:
Don't Look Back My Son
Fine Dead Girls
The Birch Tree / Breza

Major Directors:
Branko Bauer, Nikola Tanhofer

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Film Atlas (Colombia): A Man of Principle

Country: Colombia
Title: A Man of Principle / Cóndores no entierran todos los días (1984)
A Man of Principle is set between 1946-1958, during the period of political attack and reprisal known as The Violence, during which more than 200,000 were killed. The title refers to Leon Maria Lozano, an unassuming conservative in the liberal-dominated town of Tulua, Colombia. Most of the town openly disdains him, but even-handed local matriarch Gertrude Potes, though a passionate liberal, gets Lozano a job at a cheese shop. After the death of liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan triggers rioting, Lozano steps up to defend the conservative-leaning church from a mob and finds himself an overnight hero. He capitalizes on his popularity to strengthen his connection with party leadership in Bogota and receives support, including money, weapons and protection. He sends his daughter to an expensive reform school to preempt her budding romance with a young liberal and begins to violently assert his control over the city.

Soon Lozano is known as The Condor, the most feared of the Colombian assassins known as Pajaros, or birds, willing to kill all who oppose them. Only Gertrude is spared, and though an old lady, she struggles bravely for peace. Liberals attempt to poison Leon Maria Lozano and as he receives the last rites a spontaneous carnival celebrates outside his window. But Lozano recovers, and the musicians from the festivities are found dead the next day. Eventually even the Condor loses control and the systematic killings give way to unbridled chaos, with torture, rape and wholesale massacres sweeping the countryside. When political power shifts back to the liberals, Lozano accepts a pension and goes into hiding, but he cannot escape his reoccurring nightmare: to die alone in the streets.

A Man of Principle is a curious biopic. It works as a chronicle of a notorious assassin, but without offering much in the way of psychological insight or polemic condemnation. We see, primarily, the way in which a ‘principled’ man, embittered by discrimination and disrespect, leverages the opportunities that come his way to solidify a power base. The fact that murder becomes his stock in trade is almost morally inconsequential to the outwardly plain and unremarkable Lozano; it is simply the most effective tool at his disposal. Unusual for a gangster saga, most of the violence is off-screen (Lozano himself rarely gets his hands dirty) with the focus, instead on the machinations, manipulations and intimidation. Lozano’s inevitable fall is portrayed less as a result of reach exceeding grasp than of letting the genie out of the bottle and not being able to put it back in. The film can be occasionally hard to follow; the abstruse political minutia and the rather too coolly detached directing require the viewer to connect a lot of the dots themselves, but for those interested in the legacy of pre-cartel Colombian crime or fans of history without histrionics, this is essential viewing.

For a less grim Colombian film try The Snail's Strategy, a comedy about tenants who find a creative way to avoid eviction, or a recent guilty-pleasure favorite, The Hidden Face, a sexy thriller whose twists and turns would've been spoiled if I'd written a review. (If you are interested, don't even watch the trailer!) Easily the best Colombian film I've seen is the recent Embrace of the Serpent. In fact, I may replace this review with one for that film.

My Favorites:
Embrace of the Serpent
Birds of Passage
The Hidden Face
Maria Full of Grace
A Man of Principle
The Snail's Strategy

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Film Atlas (China): Raise the Red Lantern

Country: China
Title: Raise the Red Lantern / Da Hong Denglong Gaogao Gua (1991)
Raise the Red Lantern takes place during the 1930s, entirely within the compound of the wealthy Master Chen Zuoqian and follows the plight of the newly arrived Songlian (Gong Li), his latest concubine. Songlian was partway through a college education when her father died, leaving her with few options. She marries Chen, thirty years her senior, and moves into her own house within his walled estate. Red lanterns are lit at the house of the wife where Chen plans to sleep on a given night. The wife so favored, usually little more than a well-dressed prisoner, receives a modicum of power and influence, including the right to a special foot massage and the option to the set the menu. Songlian, now referred to as 4th mistress, immediately clashes with 3rd mistress, a former opera singer, and her own sullenly jealous servant Yan’er, who nurses an aspiration to be a concubine too. The elderly 1st mistress, who is content with the old traditions, ignores her, but Songlian meets and develops an imprudent crush on her son, the flute-playing Feipu. Her only consolation comes from the “Buddha-faced” 2nd mistress.

As the seasons of her first year turn over, Songlian finds it difficult to endure the stifling, empty life of a concubine and the relentless household intrigues. Outmaneuvered at every turn, she falls from favor and vents her anger by cruelly avenging herself on Yan’er. This last petty attempt to assert herself backfires, leaving her guilt-ridden. Chastened and depressed, Songlian celebrates her 20th birthday by wallowing in wine and self-pity, but a slip of the tongue while drunk sets in motion a final disaster. The film’s ending mirrors the beginning: the household welcomes the arrivals of a 5th mistress.

Raise the Red Lanterns is a film that works on a lot of levels: as a compelling narrative, an aesthetic spectacle, a historical snapshot, a feminist critique and a political statement. Its richness comes from the streamlined adaptation of author Su Tong’s book and Gong Li’s central performance, a delicate balancing act of suppressed emotions and sudden outbursts that reveal the psychological toll of concubine servitude without reducing her to mere ‘victim’ status. Though the loveless sexual duties are left off-screen, it can be little worse than the mistrust, jealousy and spite, the subtle but pervasive fear and the choking solitude and boredom that dominates the limited sphere of the mistresses’ lives. The risk of censorship means that the film is officially without agenda, but it’s no secret that it lends itself easily to comparisons with the dark side of China's recent history: the suffocating rigid hierarchy, the use of tradition as a form of control, the loss of both privacy and community in an environment where every friend can be an informer, the systemically encouraged competitiveness that directs aggression into in-fighting rather than rebellion.

But for all that the film is also a triumph of the visual arts. Acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s strict architectural compositions and ruler-straight angles, not to mention the absence of any exterior shots beyond the compound, enforce the shackled atmosphere, and yet all the while he's also seducing us. The meticulous art direction, from silks to shingles, plunges the viewer into luxury and elegance that is hard not to admire (though some critics have accused Zhang of pandering to foreign demand for Orientalism). Red, a color already deeply associated with both China and Zhang personally (see his debut film, Red Sorghum) takes on a spectrum of meanings too plentiful to analyze here, but its sheer visual impact in the hands of his cinematographer is reason enough to see the film.

Zhang Yimou is easily China’s best-known director abroad, introducing the world to the so-called Chinese Fifth Generation: the first wave of filmmakers to emerge following the Cultural Revolution (other members include Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang). However, since the turn-of-the-millennium The Sixth Generation, who tend to focus on gritty urban settings and contemporary issues like crime and globalization, have captured the spotlight. I considered Sixth Generation masterpieces like Jiang Wen’s ‘In the Heat of the Sun’ and ‘Devils on the Doorstep’ or any of several great films by the sly slow-cinema maverick Jia Zhangke for my review, but ultimately I came back to ‘Raise the Red Lanterns’. It is long overdue for a blu-ray release and a resurgence in popularity.

My Favorites:
Raise the Red Lantern
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Devil on the Doorstep
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Lust Caution
A Touch of Sin
The Goddess (1934)
Still Life (2006)
In the Heat of the Sun
Summer Palace
Farewell My Concubine
Red Sorghum
Suzhou River
The Story of Qiu Ju
Blind Shaft
City of Life and Death
The World (2004)
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks
Hibiscus Town

Major Directors:
Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen, Jin Xie, Lou Ye, Zhang Yimou, Jia Zhangke, Tian Zhuangzhuang

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Film Atlas (Chile): The Maid

Country: Chile
Title: The Maid / La Nana (2009)
The upper-middle class Valdes family consists of permissive mother Pilar and fastidious father Edmundo, their teenage children, their maid Raquel, a dog and most recently a kitten. They live in Santiago in a large two story house complete with a walled-off backyard pool. Raquel has raised the kids (favoring the jokester Lucas over Camila, with whom she maintains a stealthy vendetta), kept up the household and continues to wage a personal crusade to keep everything obsessively ordered and spotless (in the first scene she even insists on cleaning up her own surprise party before going to bed). But the Valdes’s are concerned about her dizzy spells and speculates that she is having trouble managing such a large estate alone. Pilar hires a second maid to ease the load, but the move threatens Raquel and her already compulsive and irritable demeanor worsens. Feeling  increasingly undervalued, expendable and bitter, she systematically terrorizes the new hires into leaving, beginning with easy game like a quiet young Indian maid and eventually squaring off against Edmundo’s bearish no-nonsense ex-nanny Sonia. Raquel ends up in the hospital after another dizzy episode and returns to find a new maid, Lucy, installed. Raquel tries her usual tactics, but Lucy, kind, good-humored and understanding, is not like anyone Raquel has ever met.

Director Sebastian Silva filmed in his own childhood home and based the story on his family’s maids (also Raquel and Lucy) and the complicated web of love and power, authority and rebellion, intimacy and inaccessibility he felt towards them growing up. He has a deft and even loving hand for shaping character-driven observational comedy (and it is funny, despite both vicious and heartbreaking moments) with surprising psychological depth, emotional honesty and underlying compassion. Almost any other director would have taken the story in a less interesting direction: a satiric caricature of upstairs-downstairs relationships, a Marxist critique of bourgeois exploiters and oppressed servants, a horror-tinged class-based revenge story. What we get instead is refreshingly natural and human and only occasionally absurd (as life is). Characters’ aren’t pat or predictable, but they make sense, and their quirks give us insight into personalities easy to misjudge. The handheld digital camerawork adds to the intimacy of the familial setting and foregrounds the film’s strongest suit: performances. Catalina Saavedra, as Raquel, is ultimately what clinches the movie, providing a nuanced, convincing emotional anchor that is unique, unforgettable and, I’m tempted to say, near definitive.

My Favorites:
The Maid
Nostalgia for the Light
Jackal of Nahueltoro
The Club
Julio Begins in July

Major Directors:
Patricio Guzman, Pablo Larrain, Sebastian Lelio, Miguel Littin, Sebastain Silva

Monday, February 17, 2014

Film Atlas (Chad): A Screaming Man

Country: Chad
Title: A Screaming Man / Un Homme Qui Crie (2010)
An African pool, Adam, works as an attendant at an upscale Western hotel in N’Djamena. Though his job is relatively simple, he does it well and with pride, as he has done for decades. It entitles him to respect, a crisp white uniform and access to a vehicle. His coworkers, like the cook and security guard, call him “Champion” in deference to his former glory as a professional swimmer. Business, however, is slumping. The Chadian Civil War is in full swing and rebel forces are approaching the city. Tourism is drying up; the white guests leaving for safer regions. The hotel is sold to Chinese managers who immediately begin consolidating. The final blow comes when Adam is demoted and his handsome headstrong son, Abdel, given his job. Meanwhile, the district chief makes it clear to Adam that he must contribute to the war effort, either by paying a war levy or enlisting his son. Filled with bitterness, shame and anger, Adam puts his son on the draft list, a decision he immediately regrets, and the youth is soon after dragged off to fight. When Abdel’s pregnant girlfriend arrives, seeking shelter and support, Adam resolves to rescue his son.

Despite the wartime setting, this is less a war film than a morality play. Adam and Abdel are essentially apolitical; their interests and aspirations middle-class. It is the generational conflict that director Mahamat Saleh Haroun is really curious about, and he develops this theme with patience and sensitivity. Youssouf Djaoro, as Adam, delivers a quietly restrained, but inwardly screaming performance that captures the stress and strain that precipitates a tough decision and the guilt and anguish that follows a bad one. We watch battles play out behind Adam’s façade of courteous servility. His dignity, even his very identity, is destabilized even as his country, too, falls into chaos. The visuals tie Adam to water, showing him cool and calm when he is tending to the pool and letting him flounder in the dust and sun when he moves physically or symbolically away. Yet it is only when he finally severs his connection to the pool, with its foreign and artificial associations, that he is able to think clearly and, though it may come too late, to finds a measure of peace at a riverside, a body of water that is natural and indigenous. Haroun imbues this simple arc, from a pool to a river, with an enduring emotional impact.

Also check out Haroun's Dry Season, which also tackles father-son relations with similarly unexpected and powerful results.

My Favorites:
Dry Season
A Screaming Man

Major Directors:
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Film Atlas (Canada): My Winnipeg

Country: Canada
Title: My Winnipeg (2008)
Director Guy Maddin tries to escape his beloved and behated hometown of Winnipeg and, thereby, his past, by riding an impossible somnambulistic night train in this largely-fictional, highly-fantastical “documentary.” Trapped in quasi-nostalgic reveries full of mixed emotions he tries to “film his way out” by reenacting the mildly traumatic minutia of his childhood using his mother (actually actress Ann Savage in her final role) and a crew of hired actors to play his siblings and pets. His dead father, deemed unnecessary to the experiment, is exhumed and placed under the living room rug.

This loosely anchors Maddin’s guided tour through Winnipeg’s local history which encompasses events both real and surreal, drawing as much from dreams and distorted memories as from newsreels and history books. Highlights include visions of sleep-walking strollers jingling the keys (which they are legally allowed to keep) of their former residences, the Winnipeg General strike, corrupt ‘man pageants’, a three-story pool, a romantic stroll past horrifically frozen horses, the failed amusement park Happyland, a strange compromise between rival taxi companies, the television show ‘LedgeMan’ about a suicidal jumper getting talked back to safety week after week and much more.

Maddin’s fervent imagination never fails to surprise but two things remain consistent in his work: his obsessive and stormy relationship with Winnipeg and his adherence to archaic silent-era film styles. My Winnipeg is his tribute to the ‘city symphony’ genre although there are sequences in the style of German expressionism, gothic surrealism and silhouette animation. Yet sharing Maddin’s encyclopedic knowledge of historical film techniques isn’t necessary to appreciating his unique sense of humor which plumbs the absurdity of our desire to mythologize our personal and communal pasts.

Maddin’s tongue-in-cheek revelations about the city’s supposed supernatural affinity (municipal séances, the ghosts of hockey players, his oft-repeated incantation of “the forks, the lap, the fur… the forks beneath the forks!”) is his desperate escape pod from the banality of documentary truth. He’s equally fast and loose with biographical honesty in his overtly-Freudian dissection of his relationship with his mother, comically failing to disguise a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing while highlighting the suspect quotidian details that shaped him. Most successful of all is the blend of sincerity and satire, reverence and ridiculousness in his treatment of Winnipeg; lavishing it with the kind of monumental cinematic treatment usually reserved for the likes of New York City or Paris. The result is both a heartbreakingly touching love letter and a hilariously vibrant send-up unlike any other film.

Sharing a language with their conspicuous neighbor has been a mixed blessing for Canadian cinema, providing it a readymade audience but also making it highly susceptible to cultural imperialism. Perhaps that’s why Canada has so often distinguished itself by fostering oddball auteurs. In addition to Guy Maddin’s docufantasia, my Canadian shortlist included films by body-horror maven David Cronenberg, challenging provocateur Atom Egoyan, prolific animation pioneer Norman McLaren and structuralist experimenter Michael Snow. I'd also recommend the sociologically and emotionally confrontational documentaries of Allan King, like A Married Couple, which similarly deconstructs family life, and, more recently, Sarah Polley's very different but equally original take on the autobiographical investigation of family called Stories We Tell.

My Favorites:
The Sweet Hereafter
The Saddest Music in the World
Possible Worlds
My Winnipeg
Jesus of Montreal
Stories We Tell
Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould
Good Riddance
Dead Ringers
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Away from Her
The Adjuster
The Central Region
The Decline of the American Empire
A Married Couple
Goin' Down the Road
The Silent Partner
The Red Violin
Family Viewing
Atlantic City
The Brood

Major Directors:
Denys Arcand, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Claude Jutra, Allan King, Zacharias Kunuk, Sarah Polley

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Film Atlas (Cameroon): The Child of Another

Country: Cameroon
Title: The Child of Another / Muna Moto (1975)
Ngando, a chiseled young woodcutter, plans to marry his childhood sweetheart Ndomé, but can't afford the dowry demanded by her family and local tradition. Ndomé becomes pregnant with Ngando's child, but instead of forcing her parent's hands, they find another suitor: Mbongo, Ngando's own uncle. Mbongo is a rich and self-serving, but sterile. He already has four neglected wives and is desperate for a child to continue his family name.  One day while Ngando is out chopping wood, Ndomé is abducted and forced into a shotgun marriage. Enraged, but increasingly hopeless, Ngando resorts to desperate measures. He kidnaps his own child during a feast day celebration, but every avenue of escape closes before him.

Muna Moto begins with a 12-minute sequence showing a festival in Cameroon occasionally interspersed with what we will later find out are flashbacks. It isn't clear who, if anyone, is the main character and we are given no intertitles or narration to explain the plot, let alone the rituals we are seeing. Partly, I think this is director Jean-Pierre Dikongue Pipa intentionally throwing us into the deep end, but it's also a way of having a single character's emerge from the crowd in a way that puts it into context: this could be anyone's story. It's a classical example of doomed love, the popular triangle of a beautiful woman sought by both poor peasant and rich cad. What makes Muna Moto transcend its well-worn premise is the striking blank-and-white cinematography and poetic editing. Pipa's images (much crisper than the poor transfer I had to use for my screenshots) are densely layered and blocked out into intricate textures of grey and black. The resulting compositions pull us into the settings (village, forest, beach, etc.) by giving us a sense of place, three-dimensionality and even intimacy. The camera is restless, constantly sliding along or reframing our leads. The edits dive in with inquisitive insert shots of plants, insects, animals, hands and faces. Though not strictly necessary to the plot, we come to know Ngando and Ndomé's world through the accrual of these details, rather than dialog, and we root for the lovers even knowing their inevitable fate.

My Favorites:
The Child of Another
The Great White of Lambarene

Major Directors:
Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Bassek Ba Kobhio