The fantastic Brazilian film Aquarius is out on DVD/Blu-ray now…
Here’s my review over at FM and below…
Aquarius is a resolutely intelligent work detailing a whole lifetime of experience, passion and commitment to the things that matter most in life (not in any particular order): art, family, love and community.
Sonia Braga gives an intensely radiant performance as Clara, a 65-year-old retired music critic and widow born and raised into a well to do family in Recife, Brazil. While enjoying a comfortable life of leisure amongst friends and neighbours, it becomes apparent that a development group has its eyes on the home that has been an integral part of her life for so long – the original 1940’s building the Aquarius. All of her neighbours apartments have been rapidly bought up, leaving her as the only resident left. The unscrupulous modern developers – personified by the young graduate of an American business college Diego (Humberto Carrão) – are dead set on acquiring the whole building and will stoop to any means in order to do so. Clara soon realises she has a fight on her hands, and must incorporate her considerable powers of determination in order to see that a semblance of justice prevails.
As a detailed pinpointing in miniature of many of the demands facing communities across the world, regardless of class, nationality or background, on a social level Aquarius provides an assortment of talking points. Most obviously is the modern fact of neighbourhoods and areas becoming redeveloped creating tensions amongst neighbours and families, often coupled with greed, opportunism or both. The film constantly portrays this threat and the paranoia inducing tension it has on Clara in a creepy ways. This psychological thriller aspect of slamming doors, mysterious noises from upstairs and strangers or workmen encroaching on the privacy of home all leave their mark. Clara has to display a steely toughness in order to stay put and the film is great at chronicling her trials and tribulations while displaying the daily activity of her interactions with family and neighbours. This plus a healthy sexual appetite only strengthen Clara’s formidable realness and humanity.
The passionate encounters – in Clara’s case one very successful and one not-so – serve as a reminder of her aunt Lucia (who we meet in the first chapter set in 1980) who linked a dresser piece of furniture with intense and memorable love-making. Part of the success of Aquarius as a film is this ability to traverse different times through memory and feeling. It is a singularly powerful and poetic film, and has quite rightly already won itself top plaudits in the minds of anyone interested in place, memory and identity.
Pablo Larrain’s Neruda is out on home release now.
Here’s what I thought over at Flickering Myth and below…
Taking the conflict between poet and political senator Pablo Neruda and the anti-communist Chilean government as its background, this latest from Pablo Larrain (No, The Club, Jackie) plays out like a metaphysical chase movie, with the rich imagination of the writer being harnessed as a creative suit of armour to protect him and his interests.
During political congress in 1948, Senator Neruda (Luis Gnecco) accuses President González Videla’s (Alfredo Castro) government of betraying the Communist Party and is then impeached and a warrant put out for his arrest. Police Prefect Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) is assigned to arrest the poet. Fearing for his safety, Neruda tries to leave Chile with his artist wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán) but they are turned back and forced into hiding. This new life of refuge and uncertainty inspires the poet to create new work new myths and new legends.
While the setting and mood of the piece is beautifully represented and there is genuine tension built up with Peluchonneau’s determination to ‘win’ his arrest, the film as a whole is starkly unconventional and all the better for it. Without giving away too many details, the story is partly based on Neruda’s private imaginings, and how much is fact or fiction becomes increasingly unimportant. What is necessary is the power of belief, memory and poetry itself, to build up a workable formation of reality. So, we have a deconstructed – and then re-constructed – biopic.
Review of Holocaust Survivor doc is at Flickering Myth and below…
An in-depth and personal look at one of the bleakest points in history, Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown surveys the human stories at the heart of the events of the holocaust.
Skillfully inter-playing the stories of 12 survivors with archival footage from during wartime, the film allows an insight into the memories, passion and courage of these individuals. The film documents their various routes to escape the confusion and systematic evil of Nazi work camps such as Kraków-Płaszow, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Amongst those interviewed by producer Llion Roberts is Mietek Pemper, who helped Oskar Schindler compile the famous List and save thousands of people. Also featured is a survivor’s tale of meeting the fearful Amon Göth, the sadistic commandant of Kraków-Płaszów.
The struggles to survive did not simply end with the closing of the war. One of the things that the film does so well is highlight the tragic psychological damage that was done to these people, and the pain that does not simply go away after escape, survival or victory. Indeed in the case of Ed Mosberg, who gives lectures dressed in prison uniform, the past and pain of it does not seem to have dissipated very much at all. There is the sense that there is some power in keeping it where you can still see it.
The post-liberation period of the war is dealt with in some detail. The sheer chaos of Europe trying to come to terms with itself in the fallout of the war is given personality and intensity through these people’s stories. Mostly all in their eighties and nineties, the film lets them speak and does so with clarity and vision. A wonderful feature of the film is the energy given off by these survivors. When they have been through so much, it is amazing that they can still laugh and smile and dance. Yet, as evidenced through home video footage and photographs some can and do. And that tells us so much about human strength and resistance.
Destination Unknown is a powerful film and, ultimately, a profoundly moving one.
My review of the excellent Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith is over at Flickering Myth now… also below…
A meditative and blissfully soothing piece of art cinema, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F Percy Smith is a 55 minute tribute to the work of the pioneering microbiologist, inventor, artist and filmmaker. Released on dual format DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI, the release is essentially a Staples’s creatively selected montage of Smith’s defined and elegant films of flora and fauna. Making use of previously untested techniques of time-lapse, animation and micro-photographic elements, Smith was part artist and part scientist, constantly looking for new ways to describe the secrets of nature.
With the true commitment of a hobbyist (Smith initially developed his film techniques part-time while working as a clerk), Smith found brilliant methods of showcasing the world just beyond our senses. The film, sharing that clarity and vision, beautifully brings about the energy and passion of his work. Graceful images of insects dancing and flying about alien seeming landscapes are wonderfully sound-tracked by the composers, and help to create a powerfully relaxing effect. This alien-ness is intensified by the fact that there are no human voices at all in the film and no narrative to bring context to what the audience is witnessing. Simply put, it is life. And as alien and dreamlike as it all is, there is always the knowledge that all of this is around us all off the time. Mesmerising stuff.
Eight short films from the Secrets of Nature series, made by both F. Percy Smith and his fellow filmmaker Mary Field.
Find more information on Minute Bodies at www.minutebodies.com
My review of the documentary film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars screening across the UK on March 7th is over at Flickering Myth..
Just released new Blu-Ray/DVD pack of the Corman/Price Shakespearean vehicle Tower of London…
Find my review over at Flickering Myth and below…
What’s the best way to liven up a bit of Shakespeare? Get Roger Corman and Vincent Price involved of course!
Following the pair’s successful experiments with film adaptations of stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe (The Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum and Tales of Terror) the idea seemed like a pretty good one. It’s certainly one which details many of the reasons why classic chiller fans are so devout to Corman’s genius ability to wring dramatic action out of every available space and dollar, alongside Vinnie Price’s wonderfully entertaining mixture of camp and maniacal performances.
Shot in a sharply focused black and white, the film is a loose remake of the 1939 film of the same title and the English playwright’s Richard III. There’s a bit of the Scottish play in there as well, as Price’s Richard of Gloucester – brother of a dying king – sets about taking out all of his rivals for the throne while also dodging the ghosts of those already slain. Price is, of course, the prime selling point of this movie with the actor at his nefarious best in this ‘drive-in Shakespeare show’.
But does it work? Well yes and no. The film does indeed feature a transfixing Price who is always worth watching and the pace is (usually) high tempo – which was presumably something of a priority when re-imagining Shakespeare. However, some of the scenes seem a bit rushed and conversely far too much time is given over to a disturbing rack torture scene that doesn’t sit too well with the tone of the rest of the film. Horrible yes, and it does set out the ruthlessness of Richard’s pursuit of power but doesn’t fit too well with the pace and takes up a large segment of the total running time.
That aside, much of the film is better judged and aside from a fairly abrupt ending and the scene already mentioned, Tower of London is another release from the Corman/Price stable well worth seeking out for anyone fond of devilish literary inspired goings-on in not so merry olde England.
Wiener Dog review below and at Flickering Myth.
A Weiner-dog (or sausage dog in the UK) is another name for a dachshund, and the variously monikered creature is the common feature in this anthology film of four overarching chapters. Brought to the screen by indie-stalwart Todd Solondz, known for acerbic dark comic dramas Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Wiener-Dog is an oddly unfulfilling affair. Given the themes of depression and disillusionment, this is not entirely surprising, but the project also has the sense of being slightly under-cooked. Without giving too much away, for many the ending will leave a bitter taste, which again, is not too much of a surprise given Solondz’s previous work. It also leaves questions about how much is shock factor and how much is there for its own sake. In response to this, Solondz could simply show the film’s opening credit sequence which displays a Wiener-Dog alone and dejected in a dog pound cage. It’s not as if things started out too well for the character, is it, he may well ask…
In the first chapter, the lonely dog is momentarily freed from her physical imprisonment by a wealthy suburban family looking to offer their terminally ill son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) a new playmate to aid his well-being. Stressed out mom (Julie Delpy) is terrified of the dog messing up their home, which leads dad (Tracie Letts) to soon insist that the dog is kept caged in the basement. Remi is just as imprisoned by his illness as Wiener-Dog is, and the two form a bond of companionship that is bitter-sweet to witness. On a rare release from their cages – Wiener-Dog’s physical and Remi’s emotional – they dance around the smartly decorated home with abandon. Unfortunately, a wrongly proffered granola bar leads to Wiener-Dog getting extremely ill and eventually put down.
In the second act, a nurse, Dawn Wiener, (the protagonist of Solondz’s 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse, played this time by Greta Gerwig), brings Wiener-Dog back to health and takes her home. She meets up with an ex-schoolmate/bully Brandon (Kieran Culkin)who convinces her to go on a country road trip with him to visit his brother and brother’s partner. This is the most successful part of the film to my mind, with great performances from Gerwig and Culkin bringing a believable and genuine disjointedness to interpersonal relationships. Dawn decides to leave Wiener-Dog at the sweet couple’s Ohio ranch and moves on with Brandon down the interstate and the rest of their lives.
The third act follows Danny DeVito’s bored and unfulfilled screen-writing professor as he tries to get his own creative work together. DeVito is great as the pained Dave Schmerz, someone who for whatever reason never got what he was looking for. Instead of artistic success, he gets the sack from his workplace after getting poor performance ratings from his students. In response to life’s unfair treatment he looks to make an artistic statement in the wildest of ways; by blowing himself and his dog up to smithereens.
Finally, the fourth act features another case of unfulfilled ambition provided by Ellen Burstyn’s crotchety old Nana. Always in the company of her own Wiener-Dog, lovingly named ‘Cancer’, she is visited by her granddaughter (Zosai Mamet) and her boyfriend – a visual artist named Fantasy (Michael Shaw). It soon becomes clear that her welfare is not top of the youngster’s priorities and Nana is eventually left alone again (with Cancer) assessing her own missed opportunities and life choices.
A difficult melange of the serious and sarcastic, Wiener-Dog ultimately comes across as an interesting idea that outstays its welcome, like a dinner guest trying to impress with self-consciously ‘weird’ jokes and depressing scenarios. Worth watching for the second act, which strikes the right balance of profundity and touching humour, but otherwise the film plays out like much of the characters’ lives; somewhat disappointing.
Review of feature documentary Francofonia at FM and below…
Francofonia from writer and director Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark) is an inspiring and deeply affecting study of the meaning of art, humanity and memory. Making use of a strikingly original narrative template, the story veers around the entire structure of the Louvre museum in Paris, taking in its history, and specifically, but not exclusively, the building’s experience of Paris’s Nazi occupation during World War 2.
As with Russian Ark, that famous one-take feature, this is art that is not enabled by a quick pitch or solid beginning, middle and end. This is culture and life ringing out as clear as day, and Sokurov’s personal ruminations on the subjects of art, war and society sound out like one of the most fascinating lectures you were ever fortunate enough to receive at college.
The theatrical pieces of French museum curator Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and German Count Franz von Wolff-Meternich discussing the ideas of protecting works of art in the occupied museum offer a chillingly dreamlike sense of heightened realism to the film, which is made only more odd by the spirit of Napoleon Bonaparte roaming around the halls providing an 18th Century commentary on just how things are going.
Sokurov’s personal obsessions are also provided within a strange conversation between him speaking in Russian and an ocean going ship Captain talking in English caught in a trans-Atlantic storm. These sections are presumably telling us something about Sokurov’s ideas about time and space, but the meaning is unclear. What is for sure is that they add to the over-arching weirdness written all over this avant-garde and beautiful film. As with his earlier film, the majesty of the visual flair on show is impressive and allows the audience into the sheer spectacle of great architecture.
Much of what Sokurov appears to be telling us seems to come down to the fact that the best of humanity, kept within museum walls such as the Louvre’s is ultimately extremely vulnerable and open to all sorts of base elements. Francofonia ultimately succeeds as a lyrical paean to art and how in order to survive as humans we must respect it and keep it safe. At times when nothing is quite certain, keeping what’s best safe and sound can offer more comfort than most. With a haunting other-worldliness about the whole thing that is curiously frightening and at time wryly humourous, Francofonia more than deserves its place in the Museum for the Curious.
Review of The Unspoken over at FM and below…
While confusion and mystery is at the heart of all good horror stories, clumsiness and disjointed narrative is not. With this in mind, the question at the root of the many problems The Unspoken has will be voiced and not left silent. It is this – if you have spent building up most of the film to hope for some kind of payoff and are then left wanting, do you have the right to feel disappointment? When viewing this perplexing mishmash of a production I would be forced to say yes, indeed you do.
Focusing right away on the haunted house style of horror film, the story shows us a strangely portrayed sequence of a family’s disappearance from the stock eerie looking homestead. 17 years later a mother and son move into the house, and a teenage care assistant (Jodelle Ferland) agrees to help look after the mute and seemingly troubled boy, Adrian (Sunny Suljic).
What follows never manages to invoke any scares or anything much of any interest. The writing seems to have ignored most advisory rules for a good quality script with banalities rebounding across the boards. The mother truncated figure seems to have been transported from a soap opera with none of the surreal terror that this could have brought in a more trustworthy hand. In actual fact, the performances and most of the scenes feel forced and clash in an irritating and strangely dull manner. Oddly enough it seems to have been put together without any reasonable knowledge of any horror genres at all (which again is strange as the executive production team have credits on Insidious and Paranormal Activity, so someone involved should know their way around a modern horror film).
In any case, the film also involves a strangely truncated lesbian romance story that does not go anywhere and does not serve any purpose as such. As with the disappearance of the family in the past, the writing again draws attention to something and then just leaves it hanging. This seems to go against pretty much all forms of basic creative writing advice. Only Jodelle Ferland in the lead manages to get anything much out of this mess, with her tough but vulnerable lead offering the tiniest shred of light in this turgid plunge into the worst of commercial horror.