Giulio Paradisi's The Visitor is a film I would classify as cinematic delirium, an Italian production made for American audiences that features flashy style and endearing oddness, where narrative coherence is far from its strong suit. For those not familiar, in the 1970s European production companies were emerging in the United States, attempting to capitalize on American audiences' thirst for Hollywood type productions. Making copycat-style films, with their own Italian cinematic flair, The Visitor is such an example, telling the tale of an intergalactic warrior? who travels the cosmos to battle demonic possessive forces who tend to reside in young children, most recently a Katie, an 8-year-old girl living in Atlanta. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance, with John Huston's intergalactic warrior joining up with what can only be described as a cosmic Christ who battle with forces of evil, who also have an interest in power Katy possesses. By-far the most ambitious of these types of Italian productions, The Visitor's battle for young Katy is a not-at-all subtle parable about the innocence of youth, with the forces of good and evil contending over her soul. The Visitor is a film that goes for broke, with some fantastic direction and cinematography that give the whole experience a lot of gravitas. There is an early scene in the movie at an NBA Professional basketball team because one of the characters, played by Lance Henricksen's, Raymond Armstead, owns the Atlanta team. The reason I bring this scene up is I'm not sure i've ever seen a more visceral sequence centered around a sporting event in movies, especially in basketball, with the filmmakers kinetic camera work, sound design, and execution capturing the visceral excitement of a close game in sports. While the narrative of The Visitor is rather straightforward, the story is confonding and borderline incoherent at times, though I'd still go as far as to say that The Visitor is a great example of filmmaking that manages to create a lot out of a very little, with the film using image, light, and sound to deliver an outerworldly feeling with energy and vigor. The Visitor is the type of film with a lot of unintentionally funny moments and cheesy aspects but that is what makes the film so endearing, as the filmmaker's passion for the material is felt in nearly every frame. It's extravagant, flashy, and bold, as the filmmakers go all out in creating their supernatural, cosmic experience which draws inspiration from a ton of Hollywood hits such as The Birds, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen to name a few. While few would argue that The Visitor is odd, strange, and somewhat a mess, there is no denying the visceral power of this strange film, a beautiful looking movie that provides a feast of delicious imagery.
Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One is one of the most audacious and magical film experiences of the last few years, an unconventional blend of fantasy and documentary which borrows from the story structure of the classic Arabian Nights to explore the lives of those living in austerity-stricken Portugal. Arabian Nights: Volume 1, The Restless One begins like a semi-conventional documentary, with Gomes documenting the poor state of Portugal, using voiceover of local residents lamenting about the state of their country, which has seen many men and women out of work due to the economic downturn. At one point during this sequence the film takes on a very meta quality, with the filmmaker himself baring his own fears about the film he has set out to create, questioning if he is even capable of making a film that documents the impoverished people of Portugal while simultaneously using fantastical stories to do so. The title card comes nearly 30 minutes into the film, jumping into three fantastical stories, each of which offer underlying commentary on the state of Gomes' home country, Portugal. Perhaps it's the inherent need to settle into such a unique and audacious film, but I found the first of these stories, titled Hard On, to be the least interesting of the three fantastical stories. Hard On is centered around a group of bankers who is attempt to find a cure for their impotence. This is by far the silliest segment of the three, with the Portuguese banker's impotence being a symbolic representation of their inability to save the country from peril. Much of this segment is centered around a serious meeting between the Portuguese government, these bankers, and the European Troika representatives, which quickly divulging into surrealistic episode where Gomes essentially captures the poor communication between the two sides and the lack of vigor necessary from the Portugal side to accomplish anything. The second segment, titled "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire" was my favorite segment, involving the story of a Rooster who is being put to death due to his crowing which keeps waking people up in the morning. The segment uses this strange, surrealistic story, which at one point involves the Rooster defending himself in front of a judge, to capture the need for society as a whole to stand up against the oppressive forces of government. The Rooster is merely a symbolic representation of the need for people to wake themselves up from their political ignorance, and the young arsonist, which is interjected later into the second story, being a character who does what she does out of passion for her country, not hate. This is such a fascinating segment due to its ability to blend folklore, politics, and surrealism, being perhaps up to some interpretation but nevertheless, I found it stunning and powerful. The third segment, The Swim of the Magnificents, is by far the most tender and emotionally affecting segment of the three, a thematic story about the importance of welfare, which in turn captures the dark state of unemployment and the effect it has on the individuals overall psyche. The segment follows a man who is attempting to take care of the less fortunate and unemployed, documenting the social savagery which exists in times of national poverty, where the cruelty and selfishness of man is driven by survival/ security, which unfortunately, at least in Gomes eyes, is defined by money. I'd argue that it's the most straightforward of the three stories, though it's very resonant, capturing the futility felt by the less fortunate in a system that almost feels rigged against them. Miguel Gomes' Arabian Nights, Volume 1: The Restless One is an ambiguous film at times, and i'd be remissed not to mention that I didn't grasp everything the filmmaker was trying to say. It almost doesn't matter though, as what Gomes has created is so rich, so dense, so creative, that perhaps its unfocused nature at times simply speaks to the thematic ideals of its story -the Restless, angry ones who feel powerless due to the failings of their country. Ambiguous, difficult, absurdist, fantastical, affecting, Arabian Nights Volume 1, The Restless One is many things, but what makes this film so special is its brave, unapologetic filmmaking which is challenging but managing to blend local lure, journalistic inquiry, and fury to create a utterly unique film in the realm of political cinema.
Intriguing, artfully-directed, and well performed, Otto Priminger's Bunny Lake is Missing is a pronounced mystery and psychological thriller that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. Bunny Lake is Missing tells the story of Ann Lake, an American woman who has just relocated to England. One day, Ann arrives at school to pick up her four-year-old daughter, Bunny, who is absolutely nowhere to be found. An investigator from Scotland yard, played brilliantly by Lawrence Olivier, is brought in to investigate, but the deeper he digs into the case the more confounded he becomes, unwilling to find any shred of evidence as to not only Bunny's disappearance but also whether she even existed in the first place. Otto Priminger's Bunny Lake is groundbreaking thriller which uses the primal emotions of maternity and a mother's love for her child to explore a woman in Ann Lake, who has slowly began to lose grip on the world around her. The performances all around really stand out, with Carol Lynley in particular delivering a powerful performance as a devastated mother. Lynley's performance certainly evokes the sense of grief associated with any mother who loses her child, but what I found so interesting are the more subtle aspects of her performance which are odd or oft-putting, quirks of this character which do make the audience somewhat question the overall mental heath of this woman. The narrative is never overtly obvious, doing a solid job at never tipping its hat to whether the young bunny is indeed missing or a figment of Ann's grief-ridden imagination, effectively keeping the viewer engaged and intrigued about the final outcome of this story. All of that being said, I'd truly argue that Otto Preminger's direction is what really carries this film, using impressionistic cinematography and lighting that evoke a sense of dread and despair, evoking the emotions of the stories main protagonist in a way that really tells the story visually. Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing is a groundbreaking psychological thriller, especially for its time, being an artfully directed film that is engaging from start to finish.
Probably a more accessible effort, at least from a pure narrative perspective, than many of Seijun Suzuki's more outlandish films, Kanto Wanderer tells the story of two rival Yakuza gangs and a man caught in the middle. Centered around Katsuta, a feared bodyguard for the Izu, Kanto Wanderer paints a portrait of a man who is bound by his code of honor and loyalty, doing whatever is necessary to protect his boss from the overly-ambitious rival crime-lord Yoshida, who is growing desperate to control more of the illegal gambling dens in the area. When an old flame reemerges in his life, Katsuta finds his loyalty tested, as his lust for this femme fatale threatens to derail his oath and allegiance to his master. Kanto Wanderer is a film that deconstructs the advantages and faults of loyalty, most notably the debilitating effect it can have on independence. Through Katsuta, and other young characters in the film, most notably Hanako, a young woman who becomes intrigued by the Yakuza, Suzuki's film truly evolves into a tale of wasted youth, being a subtlety seething commentary on the old traditions, where 'the code', duty, and honor essentially strip away ones independence and their ability to forge their own path. Suzuki does show some acknowledgement to the ethical benefits of honor, but it's hard to argue that Kanto Wanderer is a film about the more negative aspects of these Japanese traditions, especially when considering the fate of Katsuta, who ends up in prison by the end of the film. From a stylistic standpoint, much of Kanto Wanderer is a more subdued effort than some of Seijun Suzuki's well-known films such as Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter, featuring a more subdued style of well choreographed camera movements to tell its story. Towards the end, things ramp up though, with Suzuki bringing his impressionistic imagery out to play in a series of sequences which finds Katsuta following through on his oath to his master, with Suzuki using primarily harsh reds and calming blues to express this lead-characters moments of rage, violence, and ultimately sadness. Seijun Suzuki's Kanto Wanderer struggles a bit with pacing issues in the early going, most notably due to a narrative that is straight-forward but convoluted, but as the film progresses, it becomes an interesting Yakuza film that questions age-old traditions and seems to suggest the need for the youth of Japan to forge their own path.
Hail, Caesar! the latest film from prolific filmmakers, Joel & Ethan Coen, focuses on the life of Eddie Mannix, the Head of Physical Production for Capital Pictures in the 1950s. While "Head of Physical Production" is the label, Eddie's real title should be "Hollywood "fixer", as much of his duties are centered around cleaning up the respective messes of everyone at the studio, most namely the talent which keeps the the studio profitable. When the studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock is kidnapped, Mannix finds himself on a race to "fix" the problem, which seems to become increasingly dire by the second. While this film may not be considered one of the filmmakers' best works, Hail, Caesar is a highly enjoyable throwback to the classic Hollywood days, being an entertaining comedy that certainly draws influences from many of the titans of cinema most notably, Preston Sturges. Fans of classic cinema are bound to enjoy this film far more than other viewers, as Hail, Caesar manages to create a nostalgic experience, as the Coen's love of cinema pumps through every frame of this film. On that note, one of my favorite aspects of the film is how the Coen's intercut scenes of the various productions being shot on Capital Pictures into the overall narrative of Eddie Mannix, offering a charming and breezy collage of classic Hollywood which is well-crafted and effective. Hail, Caesar captures the "magic" of cinema, juxtaposing the characters and image these actors' represent with their true selves. While it's certainly fair to call Hail, Caesar a much breezier comedy than most of the Coen's more esteemed work, I'd argue that the film still has a good amount to say, with the most obvious aspect being its somewhat seething commentary of the Hollywood system, in particular its own self-importance and need for control. Eddie is a character who needs to make sure everything is on schedule, reporting to New York every morning, and through him the film comments on the restrictive aspects of the Hollywood machine which manufactures stars and strangles creatives in an attempt to make as much money as possible. One could argue that the film is almost at odds with itself in this regard, showing such love and nostalgia for classic Hollywood while simultaneously making fun of its own entitlement and self-importance, but I'd argue that speaks more to the overall message of Hail, Caeser! A film that makes the argument that importance is in the eye of the beholder. Hail, Caesar lightly jabs at the military complex too, almost if to say, sure Hollywood's self-importance and capitalist fueled decision making aren't great, but hey! at least they don't directly lead to death and destruction. Perhaps I'm reading into Hail, Caesar a little too much with some of these exertions, but I still take some issue with people writing this film off as overly breezy and straightforward. In the end, Hail, Caesar is a funny, relatively lighthearted romp that features a lot of solid performances all around, making it another strong film in the Coen's seemingly always growing canon.
Taking place in a isolated valley in Iceland, Grimur Hakonarson's Rams tells the story of Gummi and Kiddi, two not-so-close brothers that hardly speak to one and other, who live directly next to each other, each tending to their flock of sheep. Their ancestral sheep stock is legendary in Iceland, which leads the two brothers to continually but heads, as they compete against one and other repeatedly in a annual competition which decides who has the best Rams. When a lethal disease infects Kiddi's flock the whole town becomes effected, as the authorities decide to slaughter all the flocks in the area to contain the outbreak. Unable to part with his flock, not only due to the monetary means but also the simple affection he has for them, Gummi attempts to save the lineage of his flock by hiding them in his basement. Rams is a unique and utterly compelling film, one that uses the borderline absurdity of its narrative to explore a host of fascinating themes. Through effective slow-pacing and expressive cinematography, Rams takes its time establishing this setting which the brothers live, a secluded terrain that is steeped heavily in old farming traditions. When the authorities decide to eradicate the flock, the tension is felt among those effected, as the film reminds the viewer that this is their way of life, their livelihood, quietly asking how you would react if you were forced to destroy everything you spent your blood, sweat, and tears building. The farmers appreciation and care they have for their flock is essentially a religion, and the film does a great job at capturing how this disease isn't just stripping them of their financial livelihood but also their sense of purpose. At it's core, Rams is really to story of two brothers reconnecting over a shared passion for one and other, as the Sheep crisis brings them together in the end. Their relationship throughout the film is never fully described, with the filmmakers leaving their animosity for one and other as a bit of a mystery, which I'd argue only helps elevate the powerful, ambiuous climax. One could argue that both Gummi and Kiddi's affection for their flock merely serves as a replacement for their lack of affection towards each other, and in the end, through potential tragedy, Kiddi realizes the love he always had for his younger brother. While this whole review probably makes the film sound very serious, it's worth noting that Rams is a very comical experience at times, with the filmmakers finding the humor in the absurdity of these two brothers' obsession with their flocks. In the end, what makes Grimur Hakonarson's Rams such a unique achievement is its ability to balance the absurdity and sincerity of its characters and story, being a film that finds the humor and comedy in its narrative while managing to never lose the emotional poignancy of this tale of two brothers.
Nagisa Oshima's Taboo was the legendary filmmaker's final directorial effort, a deeply flawed, but beautiful looking film that is part murder-mystery, part samurai story. Set in Kyoto in 1865, Taboo focuses on a significant part in Japanese history where their 300-year-long self-imposed isolation was coming to an abrupt end. With their traditions and control threatened, the Samurai mobilized throughout the country to fight this new-found foreign encroachment. The film begins with one of these Samurai groups, the Shinsengumi, auditioning new recruits. Two men are chosen above the rest, Tashiro, a rugged typical looking man, and Kano, an effeminate young man whose long wavy hair only exemplify his feminine features. While Kano is an excellent fighter, Captain Hijikata fears that he lacks toughness and resolve, ordering Kano to perform an execution, which he does with blood-thirsty resolve. As the two new recruits, Tashiro and Kano, begin to become close, Captain Hijikata suspects that something beyond mutual male appreciation may be afoot, and when another Samarui ends up mysteriously murdered, both Tashiro and Kano become suspects. Nagisa Oshima's Taboo is a revisionist samurai epic which uses the stringent code of the samurai to deconstruct machismo. In Taboo, the samurai's code of honor and stringent social restriction is used as a device, with Taboo being an evocation of the perceptions men have of strength and toughness, as Kano, one of the most skilled, dangerous Samurai in the entire group is very effeminate. Through this narrative it becomes clear that Kano is a hostile, violent presence, but his looks give him the edge in being able to frame Toshiro for the death of another Samurai, with Kano not fitting the typical perceptions of machismo. The juxtaposition of the murder mystery elements with that of hidden homosexuality is one of Taboo's more interesting elements, exhibiting the dark secrets which lurk behind every every character. Change is subtly amidst throughout this narrative, with Oshima essentially trumpeting the horn for the need to throw out our preconceived perceptions of masculinity, with the story of Toshiro and Kano being one of tragedy where these misconceptions led to the death and betrayal of a good man in Toshiro. The ending is probably the strongest scene in the entire film, with Captain Hijikata recognizing the error of his ways, understanding that Tashiro was a good man, whose love and desire for Kano led to his doom. The big problem with Taboo is that it simply comes off awfully ham-fisted in its intentions at times, feeling cheesy, overly serious, and at times, even hard to watch. I'd be lying if I didn't find myself rolling my eyes at some of the early scenes of the film, with Oshima's juxtaposition of the violent world of samurai and forbidden eroticism simply coming off as self-serious and overbearing. The one aspect of the film that does stand up to Oshima's high standard, at least for the most part, is the visual aspect, with the finale in particularly being a borderline surrealistic treat, featuring rich atmosphere and impressionistic photography. A strange blend of samurai film, murder mystery, and homosexual love story, Taboo is without question Nagisa Oshima's weakest film I've seen, which isn't particularly insulting when given the filmmaker's impressive canon.
René Clair's Le Million is a light-hearted, magical early sound comedy from the well-known French filmmaker that tells the story of Michel, a Parisian artist, who is continuously hounded by various creditors whom he has struggled to repay for various services and products. Facing mounting pressure, Michel miraculously learns that he has just won the Dutch lottery, with the winning ticket being nestled in his old, ragged jacket. When he goes to receive the winning ticket, he learns that his fiancee, Beatrice, has given the jacket away to a stranger in need, setting off a frantic chase to track down the old jacket which holds the answer to all of Michel's problems. Charming, light-hearted, and visually impressive, for the time period, Le Million is a musical comedy that effectively becomes an extended chase scene, with Michel racing through the streets of Paris to track down his lost winning lottery ticket. Chair's direction is way ahead of its time and downright magic, with Le Million featuring a host of surrealistic touches as well as impressive use of sound, which not only aids the comedic aspect of the film but serves a blueprint for future filmmakers. One example of this takes place in a chase scene, where Clair uses the sound effects of a soccer game as a comedic device, capturing the comedic absurdity and stakes of this character, who is racing against the clock to find the ticket. One interesting aspect of Le Million is the negative perspective the town has on artists, with everyone from the butcher, baker, grocer, etc, all being owed money from this "deadbeat artist". Some things never change apparently, but when these townsfolk learn of Michel's winning ticket, the hysteria begins, not only with Michel himself but the community around them, with one young girl exclaiming "Just to know a millionaire". That being said, Le Million is probably not a film in which you should read too much into the characters utter reliance on money, as I don't think Clair's intention was to make a social statement. Rene Clair's Le Million is a film well ahead of its time, having something magical about it that is hard to define. Maybe it's the borderline absurdity of the narrative, or how the music, song, and dance evoke the feeling and mood of its characters so effortlessly, either way there is no denying that Le Million is a pleasant experience that is bound to leave the viewer smiling.
What could certainly be described as an ambiguous endeavor, Marco Bellocchio's Blood of My Blood is a film that focuses much more on theme than narrative, offering up two seemingly unrelated stories that are bound by some familiar themes. The film begins in the 17th century at Bobbio's Santa Chiara convent, where it has been discovered that a young nun Benedetta has been having a sexual relationship with a priest, who recently died. Federico Mai, the dead priest's twin brother, arrives on the scene only to learn that his brother will not be buried on holy ground unless it's proven that Benedetta's actions were the devil's doing. Federico's purpose is clear, to get Benedetta to confess her sins in order to save his brothers' soul. The priests attempt to get a confession out of the young woman, using every tactic imaginable, such as torture and the typical good cop-bad cop routine, all the while Federico slowly begins to fall under the young woman's spell. Quite abruptly, the film then jumps to the second story, taking place in modern day Bobbio, where this same convent is now a rundown prison which is inhabited by Count Basta, who may or may not be a vampire. When tax inspector/con man Federico Mai and Ivan Rikalkov, a Russian Billionaire arrive in town, they attempt to acquire the convent, but find resistance from the Count and a group of town elders. Marco Bellocchio's Blood of My Blood is a film that I struggled to find the meaning behind, with the first half touching on the corruption of the Catholic Church and its overwhelming influence on society, while the second story seems to focus more on the corruptible nature of capitalism. While familiar, I found the first half of the film to be far more engaging than the second half, with Bellocchio and his cinematography leaning heavily on classic Gothic visuals, using dark shadows and tight compositions which illicit a sense of rigid structure and helplessness. The second story is much more comical in tone, but not nearly as engaging, and while I'd argue the film's intentions aren't particularly coherent, Blood of My Blood seems to have something to say about the faults and dangers of groupthink. The link between these stories is they both seem to speak to the intrinsic violence and peril of conformity and/or obedience, with the first story using religion while the second uses economics to get this point accross. Both stories show the susceptibility of the individual under the desires of society, with Blood of My Blood getting to this concept through a very confounding narrative and in all honestly this theory could be a bit of a stretch to some viewers. Blood of My Blood isn't an easy viewing experience, it leaves a lot of confounding loose ends, and it certainly could have benefited from a stronger second half, yet Marco Bellocchio's film touches on some important concepts about the deterioration of individualism under the weight of the collective.
Contemplative, assured, and beautifully-photographed, Hirokazu Koreeda's Maboroshi is a film that profoundly captures the ebb and flow of life and death, sorrow and happiness, lightness and darkness, which finds the filmmaker expertly examining the effect of sorrow on the human psyche through the character of Yukimo. Happily married to Ikuo, a humble and hard-working man that loves her very much, Yukimo cannot seem to shake the stench of death, still haunted by the loss of her grandmother many years ago. Yukimo has recurring nightmares centered around her grandmother's departure many years ago, when she left home suddenly to go to the village of her birth to die. Unfortunately, Yukimo's haunting visions of death foreshadow another tragedy, when the young woman is awoken in the middle of the night by the police who explain that her husband has apparently committed suicide on the train tracks. There is a quiet stillness to Hirokazu Koreeda's Maboroshi, a film which attempts to get deep into the psyche of a character who struggles with tragedy. Using only natural lighting and being minimalistic in style, at least compared to most films today, Koreeda crafts a film primarily of wide angles and static shots, evoking the sense of sadness and isolation of Yukimo, a character who spends years in solitude after the tragic death of her loving husband. Nothing about this film is emotionally manipulative or forced in the slightest, with Koreeda showing a confidence in his direction that pays off, creating a realism centered around one woman's struggle with death that is organic and deeply resonant. There is absolutely nothing sentimental about Maboroshi, a film that shows great empathy for its character while never falling prey to cheap cinema tricks. Koreeda understands that importance of having much of this character's inner torment left unsaid or undefined, as attempting to cheaply have the character speak to such anguish is nowhere near as powerful. We, as the viewer, don't necessary understand exactly what Yukimo as a character is thinking, but it doesn't matter, as her loss and despair is palpable. Evoking Yukimo's inner torment, Koreeda even photographs some of the scenes in almost complete darkness, nothing but the characters' silhouettes, if that, being visible to viewer. As time passes, Yukimo meets Tamio, a widowed fisherman who lives in a nearby village with his daughter. The two fall in love, and Yukimo marries him. While she begins to find a new happiness in her relationship with Tamio, Yukimo still struggles with making sense of the apparent suicide of Ikuo, with the justification of his death being something that continues to haunt her. Just as darkness is used to evoke a sense of feeling early on, Koreeda's use of light is equally impressive. One scene in particular being a scene where Yukimo sweeps the stairs speaks to this. As she cleans, mostly in darkness, bursts of sunlight penetrate the darkness of the stairwell, a visual representation of this character starting to discover some semblance of happiness. Koreeda also uses the children to great effect, with quite a few scenes that find Yukimo's child and Tamio's child playing together, their exuberance and happiness prevalent. There is one incredible sequence that finds these two children running through tunnel eventually emerging from the darkness into the lush, green landscape on the other side - a sequence which visually captures the film's entire message. The juxtaposition of life and death, sorrow and happiness is what I believe Hirokazu Koreeda is trying to capture in this beautiful film, reminding the viewer that death and loss are merely a part of life but that doesn't mean we can let it define or control us. Yukimo is a character who is haunted by death through most of the film, attempting to comprehend or even control something she merely can't. Hirokazu Koreeda's Maboroshi is what I could describe as a perfect film -a piece of art that evokes a mood through visual storytelling that manages to be both deeply intimate and personal, while capturing the ubiquitous, yet fragile nature of life.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.