Fri 28 Oct 2016
Thu 27 Oct 2016
The landscape plays a central role in Dogs (Caini) the first long feature film of Romanian director Bogdan Mirica. Visuals, actually, together with acting play the most important tasks in this film, which is very different from many other features that can be seen on commercial screens or in festivals. One may say this is at the expense of story telling, although there are a few very interesting elements in the story as well. It takes place in a frontier land, at the Eastern border of Romania, where wild fields burnt by the sun meet the Danube at the end of its trip across Europe. As many frontier spaces, it’s a place with its own rules, where applying state laws and even morality or simple human laws implies risks. It is also a space which is far from cities and civilization, but not from the side effects of urban crime and especially of corruption which seems a recurring theme in all Romanian movies (it was featured in all the three Romanian films I have seen at the International Film Festival in Haifa).
There are two sources of inspiration for this combination of strong drama and violent thriller. The first can be found in the deep hisotry of Romanian literature which had a distinct naturalistic trend at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, with tough stories and characters in short stories and novels about family feuds, conflicts about owning land, and erotic passionate intrigues, mostly located in the Romanian rural space (which was at that time the dominant social environment). The second one is from the gangster and horror movies of the last two decades. I do not know whether Tarantino has seen this film, but I am pretty sure that Mirica has seen Tarantino’s, as well as some of the Korean horror movies. The combination of the two sources of inspiration together with the excellent sound and image work, plus a dose of humor, make some of the toughest scenes that I have seen lately surprisingly palatable.
Acting is in many cases the strong part in Romanian films, which owes so much to an excellent local school of theater acting. I will start with the relatively weaker role – the one of the young man from the city who inherits his grandfather’s property and comes in the strange area, triggering the events. Dragos Bucur fights with a role that is incompletely conceived, maybe intentionally. This weaker part is compensated by the splendid role of the old policeman (Gheorghe Visu), dying of an incurable disease, whose last and pathetic fight to fix things that have gone wrong so many years, a role which brings together moral fiber, emotion, and humor. The trio is completed by the local gang leader played by Vlad Ivanov, one of the top actors of Romania today, if not simply the best, an actor who cannot do wrong.
‘Caini’ belongs to a new phase of the Romanian cinema. No more ‘New Wave’, no more Communism or transition as principal themes. Another type of story, a different approach to film making. Aesthetics are at least as important as the story. There are many good reasons to see this film, quite different from many other. Go for it.
Mon 24 Oct 2016
The Romanian ‘New Wave’ is not that new any longer. For the last decade Romanian directors succeeded to surprise viewers and juries with their films dealing with hardships of life under the Communist dictatorship, and about the period that followed immediately, a time that carried the sequels of the dictatorship in the difficult transition that the country has undergone. It’s kind of a revenge and recovery both from an artistic but also an attitude point of view, because Romanian cinema was deeply affected by censorship, and the directors of the previous generations enjoyed less freedom than their colleagues in other former Communist countries, having to either compromise, or had their movies severely chopped of, if not simply interdicted. The result was that with very few exceptions both the value and the message of the Romanian films before 1989 was null. More than a decade had to pass, and a new generation of film makers to appear in order to fix and start the recovery process. Results are however briliant. Cristian Mungiu is one of the best representatives of the new school of directors, maybe the best. All his projects are followed with interest, and they do not disappoint, including ‘Bacalaureat’ (Graduation)
Interestingly enough, the films are differently perceived by the Romanian and foreign audiences, and this was clear in the reception and commentaries at the Haifa International Film Festival where I saw the film, as well as in the questions that lead role actor Adrian Titieni was asked from the audience after the screening. He was quite careful in pointing that the film should be taken as what it is, meaning one film representing maybe one facet of the Romanian reality, but not all of it.
There are two main themes in the film: First it’s about the generation gap, about parents sacrificing everything for what they perceive as best for their kids – but is this ‘everything’ the best or even good? Same as in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the film that brought him the Palme d’Or, the hero of Mungiu’s latest film crosses the borders of law and buries his own moral rules in order to help. It’s just that here it’s not about helping the best friend, but his own kid (same them as in another Romanian production that I liked – Child’s Pose) but by doing this he becomes the master of her destiny – is this really for her good? His goal is to save her from the generalized atmosphere of corruption, from the endless chain of relations the Romanian society and life seem to be built upon, but in order to save her from the system he needs to become part of it. This is the second important theme. The Romanian director seems to look around in anger, at his own broken dreams, at the lost opportunities of his generation who could have made a difference but did not have the courage to do it, ending in compromise.
The role of Adrian Titieni is very similar with the one in Illegitimate which I had seen in the previous evening at the festival, but more complex, and the direction style is very different. Mungiu seems to control very tight his actors and makes sure that all intended nuances are there, while Adrian Sitaru, the director of Illegitimate gave much more freedom to the actors, who could improvise and build their own version of the characters. The result is impressing in both movies, confirming Titieni as one of the best film actors of his generation.
Interestingly enough, the two movies end both in similar manners, with a still snapshot photo – in this case the traditional picture of the high-school class at the end of the graduation ceremony. Everybody smiles to the future, but what all the film told us is that the future is uncertain. Will the next generation have the courage and the luck to be the generation of the change?
Thu 20 Oct 2016
‘Ilegitim’ (or ‘Ilegitimate’ in English) starts with a very normal family scene. Around the family table we see the father (Adrian Titieni), a man in his late 50s (we’ll soon learn that he lost his wife one year and a half ago), and his four children, the elder in the 30s, the younger (brother and sister twins) just out of their tween-age. Father gives a small conference filled with platitudes about time, which the kids seem to follow jokingly, less than half interested. They speak quite vulgarly for a family of intellectuals (father is a surgeon, the elder brothers follows the same professional path) but this is normal in today’s Romania as I hear (I do not live there for more than 32 years). The end of the movie is again very normal, a still family photo where everybody is smiling happily to the camera. However, nothing is normal with this family between the opening and the closing scenes of Adrian Sitaru‘s film.
There are several reasons not to like this film, which does not avoid shocking its viewers, although I would say it’s doing it not in an ostentatious manner. I have already mentioned one – the high amount of profanities. The other one is certainly approaching one of the last taboos not yet completely explored by cinema – incest – although there are precedents (for example in Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers). But then, the Italian maestro was not afraid to take risks and to shock in several key (and top) points of his career. I can understand people who are inhibited by these reasons when watching ‘Ilegitim’ but I believe that they are losing quite a lot. The film is very well conceived, interestingly made, and continues some of the themes already taken upon by the Romanian cinema (forced aborting during the communist rule and the dilemma pro life – pro choice after the change of the regime, responsibility for the attitude or lack of attitude during the previous regime, the children’s right to question the behavior of their parents). There also is here a beautiful although twisted love story, which is again to understand and maybe sympathize, or to hate.
The script is co-writen by lead actress Alina Grigore and by director Adrian Sitaru who created the background and the situations, while letting the actors decide on the exact words and gesture that translate those into life. The result of this script writing and directing style is a spontaneous, natural, and sometimes naturalistic screen rendition, which looks fresh and authentic. Actors enter well the game, and the mix of professional actors mixed with non-professional works well. Best are Alina Grigore again who creates the portrait of the young woman whose feelings and way of life are put to a hard test and succeeds to enter the role with a winning combination of fragility and determination, and Adrian Titieni who plays a role quite similar in the general linesto the one in Cristian Mungiu‘s ‘Bacalaureat’ (Graduation), and a similar terrible choice to make between his moral convictions and the perceived ‘good’ for his child.
There is a breaking point in the story telling, just at the place where in more ‘traditional’ scripts the climax of the action slides into the solution (which can be a car chase, or gun shooting, or the heroes living happily together. You need to see the film (which I highly recommend) in order to learn what the writer and director decided to pick, I will just say that this is one of the possible solutions, and not necessarily the most obvious. The film could have ended in tragedy, in happy end, or something in-between which is called life.
Mon 17 Oct 2016
It’s a small and dull city as many other in Belgium and Europe. It is inhabited by a mixed population, ‘local’ Europeans, more recent but well integrated Europeans (some of them are police inspectors), recent immigrants, some legal, some not. Again, as in many other cities of Belgium and Europe. This quite typical landscape of a place like many other in an Europe in change is the setting for ‘La fille inconnue’ the most recent film of brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne and as in many of their recent movies the characters fight not only the dullness of life and problems in communication but also face moral choices and need to assume responsibility for their acts.
The lead character is a young doctor in the community, who deeply cares about her patients. Being just a professional is not enough if you are a physician, this kind of message is quite obvious and smartly developed, as the best scenes in the film are the ones where we see doctor Jenny Davin interacting with her patients, taking care of their bodies but also of their life conditions and eventually of their souls. When faced with the guilt of not having answered a ring at the door much later than her work hours, which led to the tragic death of a young woman apparently followed by some bad people, the feelings of guilt will lead her to run her own inquiry with the main goal of discovering the identity of the victim and ensuring her family knows her fate, and that she is properly put to rest. This will let to the eventual discovery of the murderer, in a case that involves a non-negligible dose of shared responsibility of the people who surrounded her.
The film is very much based on the lead character, one of these people who are capable of showing compassion and giving almost everything in there personal lives in order to help their human fellows. From this point of view it resembles another film of the Dardenne brothers which I liked a lot - The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au velo). There are bad people in this world, but there are also good ones, and it’s worth making films about them – this seems to be the shared message of the two films. ‘La fille inconnue’ however lacks the magnetism of The Kid and although Adèle Haenel gives a remarkable performance, this is not enough to fill in for the lack of pace and the rather unconvincing ending. Brother Dardenne’s characters may seem to good to be true, and they do not owe anybody an explanation for being so – that’s fine, but in the absence of a solid motivation there need to be more dramatic substance in the story. This is exactly what is missing in this film, just seeing good people in action in a difficult community may be enough for a documentary, but not for a full feature.
Wed 12 Oct 2016
Works by Romul Nutiu (1932 – 2012), a formidable Romanian artist influenced by Abstract Expressionism, carrying it further and developing it into a flamboyant and solid corp of works.
From the Wikipedia article dedicated to the artist:
‘Periods and Styles of Nutiu’s oeuvre Following Nutiu’s oeuvre through the decades helped to define the different stages of his artistic unfolding. The first steps towards abstraction were the modular compositions from the early 60s, all of which were paintings on canvas. At the same time he also created objects called assemblage, by using different canvases stuck on each other which created a three dimensional effect. Nutiu was always tempted to expand his works beyond the canvas, by leaving the bi-dimensionality. He referred to the works of this period as Utopias. After composing these objects he returned to painting and began a theme called Dynamic Universe; these paintings were made in the 1970s. In this period Nutiu got the idea to build several vessels with dimensions of about 160×160 cm having a depth of 10 cm, which he filled with water and industrial paints that were usually used to paint cars. These colours could not be absorbed by the water, and floated by their own inertia creating unforeseen shapes. The artist influenced those shapes by intervening with a bar until he liked the outcome. Subsequently he arranged a canvas on the water’s surface. The canvas absorbed the paint composition which was a moment earlier in the water. Generally the canvas was covered entirely of these “risky effects” produced in print. In some cases Nutiu intervened with a few brushstrokes or he erased some areas. The very innovative object in space “Sapte forme pictate” (means seven painted shapes) from 1969 was also achieved with this technology transfer in water, while some areas have been painted over. In the 1980s Nutiu was inspired by vegetal structures, especially roots and he subsequently labelled this phase of his artistic production as Sections through Fertile Soil. This title clearly reveals that his abstract works were inspired by nature. Further to this title he was also a passionate fly fisherman and he confessed that the roots of the plants and trees he observed on the other side of the shore inspired him. In the 1990s Nutiu entitled his body of work Beyond Appearances. The paintings became more graphic and symbolical which is evidenced seen in the artwork Blue Universe from 1999. The paintings were of course abstract and in the 1990s extremely colourful, sometimes colour spots surrounded by a line like a cloisonné. At the end of the 1990s he was attracted by water – running in rivers or falling in cascades and until the early 2000s he was extremely engaged with this subject. In the last years of his life Nutiu returned to his earlier themes, one of which was Sections through Fertile Soil. For Romul Nutiu the source of inspiration is especially the plant, its stem and root, as it feeds from the soil and returns fertility to it and in this permanent struggle for survival it is akin to man. He re-explored painting the element of water as he had done at the beginning of the 2000s. In 2011 Nutiu achieved his largest painting called Dionysiacal Space which was almost 3 metres long and 2 metres wide. This monumental work is although structured also directed by spontaneous intuition and reveals the semantic complexity of the artist. Throughout his life Nutiu’s art always evolved and challenged himself to try new paths and develop new techniques. Although Nutiu used different dimensions of canvases, in his eyes, any surface could become a territory and was able to involve any kind of shades, plans, volumes of colour and different tonalities. This means that he did not need a certain type of canvas or a size as he used his colours and geometrical forms in a way that fit onto every surface. Nutiu had always expressed interest in objects and the objectual space as it could offer him a new field to reveal his spirit. While making objects in space he used the same attitude towards colour, but complicated the conformation so the objects would gain individuality. Sometimes the object could be perceived from all sides and therefore had a higher autonomy. Nutiu above all remained a painter in everything he did whether he used wood panels or sheets of paper; colour was always one essential dynamic that kept all his works together. He liked to play with colour and transferred all his emotions and tensions into it; this can be seen when one observes the canvas directly. He always painted abstract, gestural resulting in experimental art. Nutiu also thought about the objectual reality of the image he painted, that there should be a sensitivity to grasp it. His art could be described as a synthesis between lyricism and rationalism. Most of his works have allegorical meanings.’
Tue 6 Sep 2016
I liked many things in ‘Oblivion‘, actually more than I expected. I am no fan of computer games, certainly not of these that are dominated by machine guns and laser guns, by cars races and space-ships races – and there are plenty of those in the film directed by Joseph Kosinski. I disliked many of the films that bring to screen heroes and action inspired by comics or graphical novels, and ‘Oblivion‘ is based on one written by the director. And I am not too sympathetic to the action heroes roles that Tom Cruise picks almost exclusively lately, the main reason being that by doing this he buries in the past an excellent actor (hopefully just puts him to freeze). Despite all these wrong starting points, I liked a lot (but not all) in this movie.
The story conceived by director, script writer and games creator Joseph Kosinski happens in an uncertain future. The world as we know it ended in 2017. Earth came under attack, Moon was destroyed and the nuclear weapons of Armageddon were used in self defense. Mankind won the war but lost the planet Earth now inhabitable, and will soon be moving to a new home, one of the satellites of Jupiter. It’s only that almost nothing of what we see in the first 15 to 30 minutes of the film is what viewers are actually made to believe. ‘Oblivion‘ starts like a very standard comics-inspired film, and as we got used to its world, something happens that is quite unusual in routine movies of its genre. Characters start to develop, they learn about themselves, they ask questions about their own identity. Eventually the movie will turn into the action thriller that it was advertised to be, but this will happen in a smart manner, and the heroes end by being something very different from our initial guesses.
A few words about acting. Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman are two names that do not need any introduction. Cruise gets more opportunities for an interesting role and deals with them honorably. Freeman has a much drier part and cannot make too much to enrich it. The real surprise is Olga Kurylenko, not only fit to the action role, not only looking good, but also acting appropriately in a key role.
There are two interesting aspects in which ‘Oblivion‘ breaks the rules of the genre and helps being more than just another adaptation of a graphical novel. One aspect is that the viewers discover together with the heroes that the world where the action is located is something very different from what they thought it is. This complete change in their systems of reference and values doubles with a story line that has clear ecological and political references to the present, although the action takes place in a not very immediate future. The dangers of the new technologies like AI and cloning when they fall into the wrong hands are clearly articulated. The second aspect is that the graphics fit well the idea of the two intersecting and interchanging worlds. In the beginning the film has a very computer graphics game look which describes at perfection the apparently ordered world. Later the border between the artificial and idyllic worlds and the complex realities of the future begin to blur, we see the ‘monsters’ and realize that they may not be what they seem to be. There is also a political saying about a world where drones play such a central place from fighting the wars of the humans to protecting and saving their lives. ‘Oblivion‘ has many quantities that make if different from the crowd and is definitely worth a try.
Sat 3 Sep 2016
Music documentaries can be fascinating in many cases. This is the case of The Music of Strangers, the documentary produced and directed by Morgan Neville which tells the story of the wonderful musical adventure and inter-culture experience which is ‘The Silk Road’ ensemble and organization started in 1998 by the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The documentary deals both with the initial phases of the project (based on filmed material from their first encounters around the year 2000) and its later evolution. While the value of the cultural interaction is quite well presented, there is less mention if at all about the novelty of the approach of gathering together artists with very different backgrounds and having them play music in a fusion mode that was maybe acceptable in jazz, but much less in classical music where many of them (including Yo-Yo Ma) came from. Actually Ma is a pioneer from this perspective, using his almost pop star reputation to bring classical music to the wider audiences, but also the music of people and peoples to the classical musicians world.
There is no central story telling in the film which mainly builds itself by the interleaved personal stories told by Yo-Yo Ma and a few of the musicians, their own perspective about the work in the the ensemble, the interaction with other musicals, and their philosophies about the scope and the benefits of the project. We have the opportunity to meet Chinese lute virtuous Wu Man and hear her speaking about the challenges of learning and making music in China immediately after the Cultural Revolution, and Spanish bagpiper Cristina Pato about building her path as a woman artist in a less developed area of Spain, we see Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh talking about his feelings about making music while his country is torn by war, and Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor telling the story of his family broken by the political situation in his country and by exile. Most of all we see their opening to dialog and artistic collaboration, their passion of talking and especially playing music. A few of the meetings, concerts, family reunions and activities of volunteering with refugees are caught also on record.Watching them is a fascinating and beautiful cultural and musical experience.
Fri 2 Sep 2016
I know that it’s some kind of an unfair comparison, but so it happens that I have seen Jiri Sádek‘s The Noonday Witch (the original name is Polednice - Midday) at the Czech film festival, and then Pedro Almodóvar‘s Julieta in an interval of less than 24 hours. What do the two films – one the debut long feature of a young Czech director, the other the latest production of one of the best-known contemporary directors – in common? Well, there is actually a central theme to both – mother-daughter relationships as their are hit by the tragedy of the disappearing of the father but also mostly by the lack or incapacity of communication of the two principal characters. While there cannot be any doubt about which film is better (I liked immensely Almodovar’s film, one of the best I have seen in recent years) there are enough interesting elements also in The Noonday Witch which make it worth a look.
The story is one of falling into madness. A mother and her daughter return to the village were Thomas, the disappeared father and husband has grown up and lived. It’s a drought period and nature is threatening (similar background with the one in Schmitke, another Czech production that I have seen a few days ago, but in a different manner and palette), the small rural community have to face not only nature but also the presumed presence of magical forces around. This meddling of threatening nature and magic seems to be a recurring theme in the Czech cinema, as is the incapacity of the community to face threats through rational means, and overall their failure to communicate and get together. Lack of communication and the rebellion of the daughter against the mother who tried to protect her by hiding the truth is the source of the crisis and of the sliding into insanity of the mother.
Until now we have quite a parallel track with the story in Julieta. From here on it’s an execution problem, and the path that was chosen without too much effect is trying to build a magic thriller story. Maybe the problem is with the director having seen too many horror movies of the kind inspired by Stephen King‘s novels and short stories. He tries here (and on us viewers) all kind of old tricks and relies less on the assets at hand – the team of actors and especially the kids and the wonderful Anna Geislerová. Instead trusting her and her colleagues the director recycled all kind of ‘classical’ horror editing (flash images doubled by strong sound impact) and makeup (blind eyes) effects. The result is a very average horror movie, as not too much happens for the second half of the film. With some more daring and less cinematographic quotes this could have been a much better film.
Thu 1 Sep 2016
I loved ‘Julieta‘. Pedro Almodovar’s 2016 production is one of those films that captivates the viewers during the whole duration of the screening because of the mastering of story telling and by using human emotions. Other directors may do the same thing by making recourse to thrills or horror or intellectual curiosity but it’s hard to keep the attention alive for the whole duration of a long feature film. It’s not the case here – as a viewer in a cinema hall I lived every moment of this story together with its (mostly female) heroes, and I keep thinking and caring about the characters hours after the screening finished. I believe that the conditions are met for the first 10 out of 10 grade on my IMDB scale in years.
Many of the previous films of Almodovar are about love and loss, about communication with and without words, about death and passion and the fragile border between them. What seems to be different in ‘Julieta’ is the more tender approach and also a message that seems to be more assertive that in many other movies of the Spanish maestro – there are dangers in being lonely and in not being capable to communicate with those you care about.
The social landscape where the film takes place is the same Spain in evolution from the democratic awakening of the late 70s and early 80s with its breaking of tradition and liberation of passions until the today with its cold and antiseptic kind of connections in the bourgeois or intellectual circles. The family cell is the one that seems to perpetuate not necessarily the traditions but also the cheating and domestic crises in a repetition that one can accept or revolt with all the risks taken. Julieta’s profession – a teacher of Greek and mythology, and a good one – puts her in the position to connect between the day to day banality of sentiments and the greater forces of destiny, but her problem resides mainly in the lack of communication with her daughter. Are the walls between generations unavoidable? Is it us who build these walls or is it just destiny that rises them in each generation? Can anything but time turn these walls down?
As in any great movies there are several levels of story. There is a story of relationship between mother and daughter, and of coming of age. There are threads about family relations that perpetuate for generations, about men who cheat, women who try to balance marriage, mothering, and their own realization, young maids who steal husbands, old maids who talk too much, social differences that can only be hidden but not erased. Death seems to be around the corner at many moments, so is physical incapacity and the pain of coping with the decay of the dear ones – these are some of the recurring themes in the movies of the Spanish master.
As in many of Almodovar’s films its the women characters who share most of the load (although this film also features one sensitive man as a key supporting character). The two actresses that play Julieta at the two stages of her life – Adriana Ugarte as a young woman, Emma Suárez as her elder self are both superb in taking turns to tell the story of a woman who loves and fears, loses all and searches back to find her compass in life. The way the story is written we learn about many of the details and discover some of the hidden threads together with the character. This helps us feel and resonate with her. The elegant casting and direction help us understand that while guilt may pass in between generations, there is always hope, and reconciliation is possible sometimes when not too many questions are asked. Beautifully filmed, deeply moving, superbly acted – what else can we ask?