Monday, May 26, 2014

Film Atlas (Haiti): Moloch Tropical

Country: Haiti
Title: Moloch Tropical (2009)
Moloch Tropical follows 24 hours in the life of fictional Haitian dictator Jean de Dieu Theogene (unbeknownst to him, they will be his last as president), while he prepares for a sumptuous Independence Day celebration at his palatial mountain fortress. Jean’s day gets off to an ill-omened start when he steps on a shard of glass during his austere, lonely morning ritual, sustaining a minor injury that will leave him limping the rest of the film. American celebrities arrive (predictably commenting, with vacuous sympathy, that it’s “such a beautiful country, but so poor.”) though, one by one, ambassadors from various countries back out and send their regrets. Jean, incensed, perceives these cancellations, particularly from his white ex-allies, as personal snubs that undermine his political legitimacy. He fails to realize the full seriousness of his situation, discernible on the televisions and radios around him, namely that a popular uprising is underway in the capital.

Michaelle, who despite her stunning good-looks is clearly a lot more than the trophy wife Jean signed up for, has seen the writing on the wall. A former American lawyer, her high-ranking connections have hinted that Washington plans to drop Jean and advises them to evacuate immediately along with their children. Michaelle has long since become estranged from her husband (not to mention objecting to his politics), but fears his violent rages. Jean gets his sexual gratification from various maids, a habit which is clearly well established by this point in their lives. His latest prey is, at least, savvy enough to demand he pay. She’s saving the money in the hope of escaping the country with her boyfriend, a dopey saxophonist who is, likewise, pressured into a sexual liaison with a high-ranking cabinet member. 

Jean surrounds himself with a conspicuous majority of women (the only two males being his most fawning yes-men), including the sadistic ‘Mother Theresa,’ general of a bloodthirsty paramilitary horde. It’s perhaps all part of Jean’s revealing conflation of sexual and political authority, his meticulously built defenses against his own insecurities; his fears of disempowerment and emasculation, of receiving hatred instead of the love he demands, of rejection by his people and peers.

One grows to appreciate that Jean, beyond the crimes and compromises in which he only dimly recognizes his own responsibility, is also the victim of larger forces. He discusses his lapsed idealism, his disappointing term as president and his humiliation at being an American puppet with a recently captured and brutally tortured prisoner, a former comrade turned anti-regime radio host who, through pre-recorded broadcasts, is leading the revolution outside. Meanwhile Jean's mother, a peasant ignored by pretty much everyone, sits with the cynical kitchen staff and wonders what it all means. The next morning the CIA arrive and force Jean, who has stopped taking his medication and spent a surreal splenetic night scampering about his jungle castle in the nude, to sign a prepared resignation and pack up his family into exile. As he drives away he passes his maid hitchhiking and hears a single gunshot as his doggedly loyal bodyguard shoots himself.

Moloch Tropical is a big, bold, thoroughly brilliant ensemble film led by veteran actor Zinedine Soualem as Jean and Sonia Rolland as Michaelle, both of whom deserve to be better known. The same could be said for director Raoul Peck, who’s been making tough take-no-prisoners political films in both his native Haiti (The Man by the Shore) and his adopted home in the Congo (Lumumba), but getting more-or-less ignored by Western audiences and critics. With his earlier films I think I understood why they hadn’t caught on. They were maybe a bit too earnest, literal, topical and geographically specific to reach international appeal. But with Moloch Tropical he has made his best work: a multi-layered multiple-perspective and yet economical deconstruction of power, corruption and collapse. The number of characters he juggles is impressive, and even more so that each actor turns in an excellent performance, makes larger-than-life figures psychologically accessible and contributes something new to say on a spectrum of complicated topics.

And yet there is also time for quiet character moments, too, where Jean, clearly an intelligent man despite his many faults, struggles with his conscience, his emotions, his longings, his speeches, his state duties, his broken family, his slipping sanity. A favorite moment is when Jean looks over his parapets at a corpse, a former friend turned critic, and almost falls before being saved from himself by a bodyguard. We never know whether he is truly suicidal, temporarily emotionally overcome, or just off-balance from stress, lack of sleep and his injured foot. We never know quite what ratio of sorrow, regret and guilt plague him. There are only these sad glimmers, visible through his official facade, that even he would welcome assassination.

The title, in addition to its referencing the cruel Biblical monster-god of the Phoenicians, is also a nod to Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s totalitarian trilogy: Moloch, Taurus and The Sun about, respectively, Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito. Peck’s decision to extend this series to a Caribbean dictator (and Haiti has had its share, though the film’s most obvious targets are Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean-Claude Duvalier) is a stroke of both intertextual genius and an insightful, innovative way to modernize our understanding of authority, and those who wield it; abuse, and those who perpetrate it. 

Major Directors:
Raoul Peck

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Film Atlas (Zimbabwe): The Legend of the Sky Kingdom

Country: Zimbabwe
Film: The Legend of the Sky Kingdom (2003)
In this visually distinctive stop-motion adventure, a trio of orphans team up with a pair of accented eccentrics to escape the underground gold mine where they're enslaved. After their first attempt fails they come across Telly, essentially a talking Bible, who helps guide them out of the city via an invisible bridge (a scene which introduces the gang to the film's central catchphrase: "Believing is seeing"). Once in the open air above ground, the group is aided by a variety of new friends: a teleporting bird, a forest full of kindly monkeys and a hooded man who supplies them with magical weapons and armor. They proceed to overcome a battery of obstacles and enemies, including a hungry crocodile, a smooth-talking chameleon, a sword-fighting baboon, a snobby professor and The Emperor of Evil himself. They triumph largely through their faith in the Sky King and his only son Ariel, eventually ascending to heaven in a chandelier spaceship.

The Legend of the Sky Kingdom is reminiscent of Veggie Tales, both of which are animated, targeted at kids and informed by an unambiguously Christian agenda. I've got extremely mixed feelings about children's movies that push specific religious beliefs (see my full length review and discussion from a few years back), but I'm unequivocal in my love for the film's artistic design. Director Roger Hawkin's didn't have much budget to work with, so he invented a technique he calls 'junkmation,' literally dumpster diving for the materials to make his characters and sets. His resourcefulness is staggering.

TV remote pirates!
You can't help noticing endless smile-inducing little details, which range from the cleverly practical to the creatively bizarre: arrow fletches made from origami playing cards, hyenas with alligator clip jaws, a spider villains made from an expandable tool kit with monkey wrench limbs. The latter's progressive shrinkage, due to his waning powers, is accomplished by switching in successively smaller caliber wrenches. And that's not even mentioning the more obvious set pieces, clearly labors of love: a baffling maze made of circuit boards, a tempting forest of candy wrappers, a beach umbrella island in an undulating plastic sheet sea and a desert whose cacti are melted toothbrushes.

The visual are sure to impress anyone, but the plot less so. By focusing on such an overwhelmingly metaphorical journey where each clearly defined chapter teaches a specific spiritual message, the story ends up feeling preachy and schematic. However the colorful characters, with their expressive if somewhat dodgy voice acting, makes it easy for kids to root for the plucky heroes.

The Legend of the Sky Kingdom, despite laying almost certain claim to being Africa's first stop-motion film, has never attracted much attention. At the time of this review it has only 25 votes on IMDB. I had to order the DVD from the makers when I first watched it in 2009, but nowadays you can stream it for $2 on Amazon (in the US), so if you're at all interested in the medium you should check it out. Similarly South Africa's little-seen claymation dramedy Tengers, aimed at a considerably more adult audience, is currently also available.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Film Atlas (Vietnam): When the Tenth Month Comes

Country: Vietnam
Film: When the Tenth Month Comes / Bao Gio Cho Den Thang Muoi (1985)
Duyen, a young Vietnamese actress in the local community theater, is ferried home in the waning months of the Vietnam War after heading to the mountains to visit her husband, a soldier. She bears a letter informing her of his death. Still in shock and overwhelmed by bottled-up emotions, she faints and slips into the river. We learn later that she was rescued by Zhang, the village teacher and an aspiring poet. He afterwards unwittingly discovers the letter while drying out his poems that tumbled overboard in the excitement. The two begin spending time together and strike up an unusual relationship, with Zhang forging fake letters home for the widow to help spare her child, Tuan, and dying father-in-law from the learning the tragic news. 

Duyen, haunted not just by vivid memories but by literal ghosts, is slower than Zhang to realize their growing love. Having vowed to keep her secret, Zhang can't defend himself when the village begins suspecting a scandalous affair (from their point of view she is still a married woman with a husband loyally serving his country), alienating him from the town and especially his well-meaning girlfriend. Zhang, dejected, goes into self-enforced exile. Duyen's father-in-law sinks into the final stages of his illness. Tuan runs away from home to find his dad.

Low-key and touching, When the Tenth Month Comes is a film about healing, a tough topic in the aftermath of a painful war, which nevertheless finds delicate romantic expression in Duyen and Zhang's unconsummated love. The film is also about learning to balance the sorrows of the past with the necessities of the present with Duyen's instincts pulling her in two directions: her undiminished feelings for her late husband compel her to keep his memory sacred and endure a sort of survivor guilt penance, while her youth and vitality draw her back into life and love. The film, though dealing with the heaviness of loss and recovery, guilt and innocence, honesty and secrecy, treats its characters gently and, though they are never free of problems, they are unanimously endowed with good intentions. In the hands of a less talented director this would, perhaps, have too great a flavor of official nationalist rhetoric, but instead it feels like genuine compassion and gives us a rare post-war film devoid of anger or moralizing. 

The characters manage to have a simplicity of spirit that doesn't rob them of the full range of emotional experience or the need to question and soul-search; they are given the time and dignity to work through their pain and confusion over the natural progression of day-to-day trials, and their transition is felt in scenes as explicit as Duyen's tearful breakdown during an all-too-close-to-home play or her dream-time search through an eerie ghost market, and in moments as quiet as a mother and son guiding the ascent of a handmade kite. The films is shot in black and white, with expressive camerawork that, along with the music, captures the warmth of daylight and the melancholy of nighttime with a lucid poetic grace reminiscent of Ozu or Renoir.

My Favorites:
The Scent of Green Papaya
When the Tenth Month Comes
Owl and the Sparrow
Buffalo Boy

Major Directors:
Tran Anh Hung

Friday, May 23, 2014

Film Atlas (Venezuela): Araya

Country: Venezuela
Title: Araya (1959)
For 400 years Araya has been the site of one of the world’s largest salt mines. A small Venezuelan town sits on tip of the Araya peninsula overlooking a vast stretch of sand, salt flats and lagoons where no trees or crops can grow. The community survives on fish and the meager income from their endless toil harvesting, transporting and washing salt. 

Araya the documentary begins in the small hours of the morning and follows a handful of families through their harsh, thankless daily routines. One family sifts, dries, carts, carries and bags the salt leaving it in 40 foot high pyramids that line the coast and await boats to ship it around the world. They walk barefoot and develop ulcers on their feet. The sun beats down on them and by midday they must take the long trek home for the only sleep they’ll get. In the night, they will begin again. Throughout the day the camera leaves them to follow a father and son harvesting chunks of salt from a lagoon, a group of fishers drawing in nets full of sea creatures and the women’s labor selling fish, collecting kindling and cooking.

Margot Benacerraf’s film is a major work, transcending the confines of the ethnographic documentary through its poetic sensibility. The lives of the people of Araya are intrinsically fascinating in themselves, and the task of mining salt, too, is interesting stuff, thoroughly explored by the film. Benacerraf ‘single-day’ structure not only clearly lays out all the steps in the process but gives us an insight into the mind-numbing repetition and taxing difficulty of labor. But the film itself is never mind-numbing or taxing, because Benacerraf’s graceful cinematography captures the alien beauty of the region while her editing gives us a holistic view of the community’s bare subsistence. 

She allows her camera to wander; to take breaks from its implicit ‘job’ to follow tiny but unforgettable details like a child collecting seashells for a graveside bouquet. The narration attempts neither scientific detachment nor angry condemnation (but make no mistake, these salt mines are exploitation at its most soul-crushing), and instead adopts a compassionate, lyrical approach towards understanding a voiceless corner of the world.

My Favorites:
The Smoking Fish / El Pez que Fuma

Major Directors:
Roman Chalbaud

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Film Atlas (Uzbekistan): Man Follows Birds

Country: Uzbekistan
Title: Man Follows Bird / Chelovek ukhodit za ptitsami (1975)
On a Central Asian mountain Farukh, a kind and sensitive boy, witnesses the blossoming of an almond tree and rushes home shouting with joy. The townspeople, less than enthused at being woken by news of this minor miracle, give Farukh a thrashing, but he’s rescued by a travelling beggar. 

Later that day we see that Farukh is the object of Amandyria’s love. Amandyria is a passionate and sensual girl who desperately wants Farukh to elope with her, but Farukh lacks the confidence to take the initiative and has his drunkard of a father to look after. Besides, he isn’t entirely sure he reciprocates her feelings. One night Farukh’s father passes away and during the funeral his creditors strip their home of valuables. Meanwhile, Amandyria is locked into an arranged marriage, and can offer the newly orphaned Farukh nothing but a little charity. He decides to hit the road with his best friend Khabib and the two hike across the countryside as travelling entertainers. Throughout their journey, roving bandits plague them. 

They finally stumble upon a paradisiacal mountain lake and settle in for the summer. After a flood upstream, they rescue a girl named Gulcha, a fellow orphan, and the three enjoy a few precious months of leisure and happiness. Both Farukh and Khabib develop feelings for Gulcha, until Farukh, sensing Khabib and Gulcha’s mutual attraction, bows out and continues his walkabout alone. Soon after departing he sees a dying peacock (their symbol of a happy life and a powerful premonition) and, too late, rushes back. Khabib is slain by a dishonorable bandit lord in an underwater duel and Gulcha, horrified, drowns herself. Grief-stricken once more, Farukh despairs of coexisting in a world where cruelty and callousness reign, until he again meets the beggar who rescued him from bullies a year earlier. The man turns out to be a great warrior and Farukh becomes his disciple, committing himself to a life dedicated to defending his country.

Ali Khamraev, a prolific Uzbek director best known for comedies, osterns (Soviet westerns shot in the Great Steppe) and documentaries, departed from his usual material to make this historically-set coming-of-age drama. Man Follows Birds begins as a neorealist slice of life, transitions into a fantasy tale, is shattered in the fashion of classical tragedy and finally ascends into the realm of national myth. Farukh’s journey can be seen as a metaphor for both the passage into adulthood and the rocky road of Uzbekistani history. Farukh is constrained by the demands of community, tradition and poverty. He breaks free by running away to live in harmony with nature and other like-minded children. Their inevitable fall from Eden is precipitated by internal tension, as their friendship grows into an untenable love triangle, and is ultimately destroyed by outside forces beyond their control. The final scenes, with their abrupt shift to militancy, imply a renewed sense of personal and national identity.

Khamraev was clearly influenced by Sergei Parajanov in his use of tableaux compositions, folkloric themes and surprising bursts of color (Khabib and Gulcha sleeping on a bed of yellow apples is one of many superb examples). He regularly shows us startling imagery from Farukh’s dreams, including an otherworldly motif of characters on black backgrounds lit by projections of flowers and ferns. The climactic underwater battle, devoid of dialog, is also quite wonderfully disorienting; a scene of beauty, confusion and tragedy all stirred together.  The film is thick with these visual flourishes, but Khamraev’s underlying compassion for the children and the genuine emotion in their performances, saves Man Follows Bird from feeling like a purely aesthetic exercise. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Film Atlas (Uruguay): The Silent House

Country: Uruguay
Title: The Silent House / La Casa Muda (2010)
Laura and her father trudge through a lightly wooded stretch of backcountry until they come upon a dilapidated house. While Laura explores the perimeter her father, Wilson, chats idly with the estate’s owner, a man named Nestor. (Pay attention! This will be one of the last sequences of dialog in the film.) Wilson is an old acquaintance whom Nestor has hired to clean out the first floor so that the place can be sold. It’s already late and the building has no electricity, so Wilson and Laura bed down for the night on antiquated armchairs and plan to get started at dawn. But Laura is uneasy, and so is the house. Noises from above frighten and disturb her. She wakes her father. He goes to investigate, but the sounds become more ominous and he doesn’t return. When she finds him he is unconscious, bound and bloody. The keys to the house are missing from his pockets. As Laura tries to suppress her panic and search, we see more of the house, strange polaroids and half-glimpsed figures. The house’s secrets, we gradually sense, are inextricably tied up with Laura’s own.

One of the advantages to very low-budget films is that they can be more innovative and risky than mainstream releases and The Silent House is a good example. First-time director Gustavo Hernandez takes a gamble by employing a difficult technique: shooting the film in one continuous 86 minute take (or, at least, the impression of one), a fact that will either have you dismissing the film as a gimmick or racing out to see it. While admittedly a contentious film, the single-take device works because it operates hand-in-hand with the mood and suspense of the film. It maintains a sort of parallel tension to the conventional fear of what will happen next and, in a way, closes off an avenue of escape. Knowing that the film cannot cut away or jump ahead is almost like being told you can’t close your eyes. It also helps that the technical virtuosity doesn’t cease with just the initial idea of the continuous shot: the choreography of camera and actors is fluid and smart. Florencia Colucci, who plays Laura, is almost always on camera, which is high-pressure enough, but it’s even more nerve-racking when she isn’t. And the cramped spaces, minimal lighting (including a breathless sequence lit only by camera flashes) and a few carefully-placed mirrors, while adding to the claustrophobic terror, notably make the shoot as hard on the camera operator as the actress.

While the single-take has hogged the lion’s share of controversy the story, too, has divided viewers. Writer Oscar Estevez intentionally leaves the audience almost totally starved for information for the bulk of the film. Knowing nothing about the characters is essential to the way the plot evolves, but also makes Laura rather uninteresting and inaccessible, hindering our ability to relate to or care about her plight. The upside is that the pervasive uncertainty allows the film to shapeshift so that even the genre isn’t clear until the end: Is this a supernatural haunted house? A serial killer mystery? A psychological thriller? And it’s nice that the clues, true to the title’s ‘Silent’ promise, don’t usually come from exposition and dialog, but from the detailed mise-en-scene and art direction that runs the gamut from creepy dolls and old photos to Laura’s blood-spattered tank top and erratic reactions. 

As usual with this type of thing, stay away from the American remake.

My Favorites:
The Silent House (2010)
Bad Day To Go Fishing
The Pope's Toilet

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Film Atlas (USA): Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Country: United States of America
Title: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch and Sundance are two outlaws in 1890s Wyoming, members of the successful smalltime Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Butch is the brains and Sundance the crack shot. Despite differing personalities, the two are best friends and irresistible thieves. However their latest scheme, robbing a Union Pacific train both coming and going, makes them the target of an unprecedented manhunt. Finally cornered on a cliff, the pair memorably leaps into a river below and absconds to Bolivia, with Sundance’s schoolteacher girlfriend in tow, where they reboot their career as bank robbers. For a time their life of romanticized crime is idyllic and their moods improve, but the nagging threat of being tracked wherever they go eventually wears down their morale. They try going straight for a while as security guards on a payroll route, but Mexican bandits give them their first taste of real violence. Finally forced into a showdown surrounded by the Bolivian army, the two antiheroes, still cracking jokes, go out in a blaze of glory.

The United States is home to Hollywood, headquarters for many of the oldest and best-known studios like 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Universal, Columbia and United Artists. Despite competition from India, Hollywood still dominates, for better or worse, the cultural mindshare of the movie-going public, setting trends, establishing stars and breaking records at international box offices. The US has also fostered a thriving network for independent and experimental film in cities across the country.

I’ve seen almost ten times as many films from the US, my home country, than any other country which makes it even more impossible than usual to think of a single film to represent it. But Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid encapsulates a lot of the trends associated with American cinema: it’s a western, a star vehicle, an action-comedy hybrid, a buddy film, a revisionist history and a glorification of outlaws who nevertheless get their due in the end. Though made by a relatively lesser-famous director (George Roy Hill), it’s an early example of New Hollywood, a movement that brought rejuvenating technical, thematic and narrative sophistication and European art film influences to the mainstream and made household names of American auteurs like Stephen Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and George Lucas.

Crucial to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s success was the onscreen chemistry of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the central roles. Wisely discarding stuffy old historical accuracy, the film depicts them as handsome, charismatic, classy, droll, good-humored and non-violent. The fact that they are on the wrong side of the law only increased their allure and tapped into the zeitgeist’s love affair with anti-authority rebels.  The script’s judicious blend of gruff banter and gritty action gave life to the well-worn trappings of the western genre, and maintained a pace of unflagging entertainment. That said, viewers are divided over the film’s famous scene featuring the Academy Award-winning song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” which serves as a sort of intermission or, less kindly, a jarring  interruption. 

However this sequence, along with an oddly tinted montage, a fade-to-sepia freeze-frame ending and frequently stylized editing that has you laughing one moment and mutely tense the next, are testaments to Hill’s willingness to explore the medium despite making what is ostensibly popcorn cinema. Meanwhile his ambiguous treatment of modernization, mistrust towards the anonymous ‘Establishment’ and unabashed glamorization of criminals gave audiences food for thought and marked an influential shift in the perennially refashioned metaphor and mythology of the American West. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Film Atlas (United Kingdom): Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Iconic bunny scenes in faux-Arthurian legend.
Country: United Kingdom
Film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
King Arthur and his loyal squire Patsy ride through Britain in search of worthy knights to join him at Camelot. The low-budget is immediately apparent from the lose interpretation of "ride;" Arthur mimes a steed while Patsy bangs coconuts together to produce the sound of clomping hooves. This fits in with Arthur's dubious authority, quickly undermined during his first encounter: a mud-wallowing peasant-dentist who demonstrates a dismaying degree of wit and contrariness in an impromptu political debate deconstructing the backwardness of monarchal rule by divine right. 

Embarrassed, if to proud to admit outright defeat, Arthur moves on to assemble key members of the Knights of the Round Table such as Sir Bedevere, Lancelot, Robin and Galahad before receiving a quest from God to seek the Holy Grail. They come across a castle where they are ruthlessly taunted by a Frenchman with a ridiculous accent who claims his master already has a "vice nice" grail and, after a failed siege involving a Trojan Rabbit, our knights split up to cover more ground. Their further adventures include the botched rescue of an effeminate prince-in-distress, bizarre shrubbery-loving druid knights averse to the word 'it', a castle full of virgins who lure in men using a grail-shaped beacon, an enchanter named... Tim, a shockingly vicious rabbit that can only be destroyed with the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, a riddle-spinning bridge-keeper and, finally, one of the funniest anticlimaxes to ever grace the screen.

The Monty Python comedy troupe was hot off the success of their multi-season television show, as evidenced by their finely-honed comic tone and timing, but it wasn't a safe bet that their skit-based comedy routines would translate well into a feature-length narrative film, especially one satirizing such a long-shot topic as medieval British legends. But part of Monty Python's brilliance is their unexpected sources of humor and unpredictable absurdities that stick to an overarching theme without getting lost in the details (except for comedic effect). 

Such stern topics as witchcraft trials, duels to the death, the recovery of stolen relics, disposing plague-ravaged corpses and even the very sanctity of history itself (not to mention the BBC's coverage of it) are playfully mocked, deflated of pomp via slapstick, skewered with wordplay and broadly parodied through excessive violence and overturning clichés, earning some of the biggest laughs in cinema and permanently ensuring the reputation of British comedy. 

The script deserves a great deal of credit. It's among the most quotable works in the English language and gains points for style, variety and dexterity, but it's the pacing that keeps it together: as soon as it fires off a verbal volley or a silly sight-gag it's already nimbly charging into the next scene. It hardly matters if not every scene works for every viewer (the experimental animation sequences and an anachronistic police investigation are often cited as weak points), but with such abundance, breadth and depth of humor it remains a genuine pleasure even after many viewings.