16 Nov 2011

Playing Catch Up - Best Films of 2009 - #46 Tales from the Golden Age

As part of ongoing series I continue my countdown of the best films released in UK Cinemas in 2009.
#46 - Tales from the Golden Age (Constantin Mungiu/Cristian Popescu/Hanno Hofer/Ioana Uricaru/Razvan Marclescu)

"Humour is the absence of terror, and terror is the absence of humour."

Did you hear the one about the Romanian village committee that got trapped on a carousel, or the one about the doctored photo to make Nicolae Ceauşescu taller than the president of France?  No?  What about the one about the chicken farmer and the egg scam?  Come on, you must of heard of the chicken farmer and the egg scam, it's a classic.  Of course you would have to be Romanian and have lived through the despotic reign of Ceauşescu to totally appreciate the series of folk tales, myths and urban legends that arose throughout this tyrants reign, as a sort of rebellion, a joke that every one was in on, comedy as black as the regime that presided over it, as a way of coping and making sense of the insanity that prevailed.

Welcome to the world of 'Tales from the Golden Age' a reliving, a riposte to the days of the disastrous Ceauşescu era through the mediation of 'local legends' regarding the often quirky and far out acts people were reduced to in order to tow the party line or simply to survive its tyranny.  Broken down into six separate chapters, short films, each chapter pre-fixed with the title 'The Legend of..' each story underscores the often irrational regime, the absurdness of it all and the sadness that defined an era, yet the tone of these stories never dwindles on the heaviness, abject seriousness of the consequences but rather laughs at it, pokes fun at the ridiculousness that the regime held itself, the way it made people act and the very fact it existed at all.

Overseen by Cristian Mungiu, the talent that brought wider attention to the 'Romanian New Wave' with his bleak but brilliant masterpiece and Palme d'or winner '4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days', he wrote the screenplay for all six stories and directed two of the segments, yet 'Tales from the Golden Age' is a different beast from his internationally acclaimed film, less austere, despite the context and lighter in tone.  The structure of the chapters is to the films advantage, many anthology films suffer from the too many cooks dilemma, often with too many conflicting stories and styles that the whole gets lost in translation.  Mungiu's anchorage is the important element here, at the helm he has managed to stamp his aesthetic on the entire project, all chapters follow the same sardonic, droll line with a deep dark humour punching through the pure absurdity of it all.

The styling of 'Tales from the Golden Age' is in keeping from one story to the next, all of them prevail with a twisted nostalgia, a baroque aesthetic that cuts to the core, exaggerated in style, reduced to parody in content but with all black comedy, it's the truth that makes us laugh and wince the most.  However in it's strength also lies weakness, as one chapter passes into the next, stronger segments stand out and unfairly one can't help but compare and contrast, although all chapters revel in black humour some are more cohesive and funnier than others.  Yet, despite length or impact, such as 'The Legend of the Zealous Activist' and 'The Legend of the Party Photographer' each segment remains a part of the whole, there are no wild cards here, each director pulls in the same direction, all point a finger at the regime and say 'Look at what you reduced us to and see how we laugh in your face'.

Probably the film that represents this 'laugh in your face' attitude the most is the films first chapter, 'The Legend of the Official Visit,  which stands tall as a bastion of farcical comedy, akin to Milos Forman's 'The Fireman's Ball', where incompetence and the ludicrous expectancies of the regime meet head on.  A motorcade is arranged and a village prepares in a fever of activity, painting houses, erecting banners, forming welcoming committees, only to be told their pigeons aren't white enough and that the motorcade is no longer coming.  Angry and then hugely relived, the villagers get drunk and end up on the village carousel, only to realise that everyone got on at the same time and there is no one to turn it off, so they must remain on the carousel until morning, when at last the motorcade actually does arrive.

Whereas a chapter like 'The Legend of the Greedy Policeman', albeit farcical in subject; a policeman is given the gift of a pig from Christmas, when meat is hard to come by and his family face the problem of how to slaughter the animal in their small flat, without arousing the suspicion of their neighbours, the rage feels more palpable albeit muted, black comedy standing in for anger and the chapter feels more effective in its execution.  Also 'The Legend of the Air Sellers' about a young couple, spurred on by a showing of Bonnie and Cylde con people out of their water bottle to sell on at local depositories, has the same mix and both tell of the absurdist levels people were reduced, committing crimes, in order to get around the bureaucratic nightmare of Romanian society.  Air Sellers also demonstrates how any form of authority, even one as ludicrous as an air inspector, was adhered to and rarely questioned in fear of reprisals.

Each chapter follows the same lines and in amongst the black comedy, the ridicule and unveiling of the Ceauşescu regime, lies an open wound that the Romanians are beginning to explore in their films, their culture and in everyday life.  In comparison with the gems already from Romanian shores, alongside Mungiu's Palme d'or winner, such as '12:08 East of Bucharest, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Police Adjective, Aurora', Tales from the Golden Age' can appear a lesser work when compared to those starlets.  It may not have the punch of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or the introspection of 12:08 East of Bucharest but a more intelligent and entertaining; whilst also managing to uncover the years of pain, disillusion, anger, resentment and tyranny with both grace and bold humour, you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

15 Nov 2011

Snap-Shot #2 - One Movie, One Shot

A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1946)

"Position - nil, repeat nil. Age - 27, 27, did you get that? Very important. Education - interrupted, violently interrupted. Religion - Church of England. Politics - Conservative by nature, Labour by experience. What's your name?"

14 Nov 2011

The Week Measured in Film

If only...
So both Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy have gone, surely that's a good thing?  I can't see how either of those two misanthropes, one a throwback and the other a shock jock groupie, could have added anything of any value to Oscar night but what's this?  The Muppets?  Oh, wait a minute, no, it's a no go, Billy Crystal is doing it.  Again. The old order is once again established.

There was an excellent extract from Roger Ebert's book 'Life Itself : A Memoir' in The Observer.

I can't get enough of the artist Scott Jason Smith and his excellent series sketching the auteurs - I want these on the walls in my house.  Although a huge Roman Polanski may just give me nightmares.
And Borat is the final link in Tarantino's Django Unchained - the film I'm most looking forward to and silently dreading at the same time.  Weird.

New releases this week see Andrea Arnold's return with her uncompromising take on Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights', which I happened to catch on it's opening day and you can see what I thought below this paragraph.  Other releases see the return of Bruce Robinson with 'The Rum Diary', for which Johnny Depp has laid blame on the lack of intelligence in America's rural lands for it's lacklustre take at the box office, as well as Errol Morris' latest documentary Tabloid and Aardman have dropped the plasticine and gone all 3D with their latest offering, 'Arthur Christmas'.

Kaya Scodelario as Cathy in 'Wuthering Heights'
On the viewing front this week I caught J. Blakeson's debut feature The Disappearance of Alice Creed and despite starting out with some promise, two composed, robotic men, emotionless and driven with purpose, perform a series of tasks in quiet union: sound-proofing a basement, changing their clothes, buying utensils from a DIY store and so on, all done without a word and with a regimented discipline, it soon veers off in to farcical nonsense.  The same applies to another debutant Gustavo Hernandez and his feature The Silent House, a well worked little horror, with long takes and real tension which is spectacularly let down by an ending to defy all bad endings, I can handle ambiguous, in fact I prefer it to be honest but when it makes no sense, well I pretty much get annoyed by that and it unfairly negates all that went before it.   

I will be writing about Otto Preminger's film 'Laura' in an upcoming feature but what a moody, witty and styled gem of a movie, I'm pretty new to Preminger's work and this one sets him apart from the majority of peers working in Hollywood studio system of the 40's, highly recommended.  I was really looking forward to Tetsuya Nakashima's latest offering Confessions, a film with much praise attached to it but one I found rather overcooked, substituting style for substance and taking itself way to seriously, however despite it's many flaws I can't help but admire it, much to my own chagrin.  Mummuth, yet another film with flaws and a bit too loose by large can't help but generate smiles of both appreciation and joy at seeing Depardieu play his big idiot role again.

Andrea Arnold's new film, an adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights' is sublime, for my worth her best yet and has certainly sparked debate with her vision of Bronte's wild novel.  Stripping the book to the bare bones, Arnold has caught the aesthetic; the brooding violence, the love/hate dichotomy of Heathcliff and Cathy, the raw and unforgiving terrain, the wildness of the moors and how wonderful, freeing, they appear to the young.  It's been said that the second half is not as affecting as when the characters are young and there's some truth to that but it doesn't take from what proves to be a raw and unflinching piece of work.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Martin Scorcese's in depth and well researched documentary on the life of George Harrison: Living in the Material World was shown on BBC2 over two night.  With a fair proportion of archival material, some of the backstage and in studio footage is incredible, talking heads, old interviews, letters and documents, Scorsese's team put together the life of a truly remarkable, flawed but ultimately beautiful human being.  Recommended for fans and non-fans alike, of either Harrison, or Scorsese, for that matter

Finally but nowhere near least, Patricio Guzman's cinematic essay 'Nostalgia for the Light', set in the remote, barren lands of the Atacama desert lies astronomers wondrously gazing at the clearest skies the world has to offer and alongside the widows, relatives, of the political prisoners 'dissapeared' during the brutal regime of Pinochet.  Guzman knits a world of memory, of past, of history, of wonder together into a superb easy on the search for truth whilst working in the past, the astronomers look at the past in the sky, the relatives look for the past in the sand but both seek bigger pictures, both want clarity and understanding.  Using space and scale, Guzman ties this all together with beauty and humility, he forges a path of hope through understanding, through truth and it's in that message that the film will leave you reeling, elated and hopeful of a better tomorrow.

Have a good week everyone and check out the trailer for Guzman's startling film 'Nostalgia for the Light' below.  

6 Nov 2011

And on the 7th Day, God Created...

...The Story of Film

Mark Cousin's epic 15 part film series has to be one of the finest TV series I have ever had the pleasure to watch.  Put aside the fact that I am a film nut to the very bone, Cousins has managed to put across how vital and wonderful our film history is, how countries, people and eras have used film to represent, depict and capture the unique cultural, social, political, economical and emotional aspects of their time, space and place.

Cousins covers 120 years of this unique and beguiling art form, his views are very much his own in many regards to favourite films and in the selection of archival footage but even if your pleasures differ to his, I admit I find some of his choices odd to say the least, his approach and reasoning for such films are valid, his structure supports such claims and his introduction to each film era, movement, director or location is second to none.

Each chapter is broken down in years and in chronological order he charts the rise of film making around the globe, we watch how countries like Russia, China, Iran, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, India, South Africa start picking up cameras and start pointing them inwards, charting and recording their lives, history and cultural differences.  We follow the 'romantic' cinema of America;  Cousins rejects the term 'classical', and how silent film took box offices by storm, how the studio system rose, prospered and died, the free independent spirit of the 60's ,the rise of the movie brats, the almighty takeover of the blockbuster, the digital era and so on.

It's the focus on film makers I know little of and film movements in places like czechoslovakia and Senegal that really stand out for me, Cousins has a way of explaining not only their importance and significance but also their beauty and uniqueness; as soon as an episode has finished I will have another dozen films added to my must watch list. Each episode is an hour long and focus is evenly split among the more well known cinema and their players as it is for lesser known countries, avant garde film-makers and independent underground spirits, quite simply this is a cinephiles love letter. 

Beautifully crafted, lovingly made and educational to boot, this is a must for any burgeoning cinephile, I leave you with the excerpt above about one of Cousins heroes, Yasujiro Ozu.  Enjoy

31 Oct 2011

The Week Measured In Film

The BFI London film festival came to a close this week with Lynne Ramsay's mesmerising and haunting 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'; a film I caught on it's opening Friday night, scooping the top prize for best film.  Jury president John Madden said of the film it 'is made with the kind of singular vision that links great directors across all the traditions of cinema', having now seen the film I couldn't agree more with the statement.  It's gratifying to see Lynne Ramsay back in the director's chair, ever since watching the magnificent Ratcatcher all those years back and then a couple years later Morvern Callar, there hasn't been a year where I haven't mourned her absence, a singular talent like Ramsey should never been hid away for too long.  Nine years is a long time to wait but as 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' has shown she hasn't missed a beat and I can only hope she will once again be a more permanent fixture on the film scene. 

At the UK cinemas this week we saw the release of the much hyped Steven Speilberg directed and Peter Jackson produced 'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' which has been met with nationwide indifference from the film critics of the leading broadsheets and journals with Peter Bradshaw's lambasting review from the Guardian being my favourite read.  Elsewhere, new releases I will be watching include Gerardo Naranjo's 'Miss Bala', though I found his last film 'I'm Going To Explode' disjointed, Paul Julian Smith article for Sight & Sound has certainly whetted my appetite, George Clooney's thriller 'The Ides of March' and the intense German crime thriller 'The Silence' which offers 'no easy answers', as surmised by John A. Riley in his review for Electric Sheep Magazine.

It's been a slow week for me film wise, having just come back from a two week holiday I'm finding life back in the real world a bit sluggish, however I'm continuing my enjoyable box-set binge watching 'The Killing (Forbrydelsen)'; from the heaps of praise thrown at this show I sometimes feel as if I'm the last person to watch it and trying to avoid spoilers is proving stressful.  I'm halfway through the epic crime saga and no closer to guessing the murderer, which makes it all the more enjoyable, and it has me pointing the finger at nearly the whole cast.  It's certainly one of the most well-executed crime dramas, whodunnits, I've ever had the pleasure to see, from the underlying immigration issues that are rife in Denmark, the slow procedural jigsaw puzzle of Nanna Brik Larsson's final hours, right down to her grieving family who find their lives turned upside down by the murder of their daughter, The Killing is riveting stuff and highly recommended.

Films I did manage to catch include the disappointing 'Norwegian Wood' which despite some stunning cinematography, a real sense of space and time, brilliant understated acting with moments of real pathos and beauty can't help but feel a bit padded out, less than the sum of it's parts and therefore underwhelming.  Tran Anh Hung does a fine job of catching the emotional and sensual connection between the two protagonists, the yearning and loss of a dear friend but it's at the expense of the viewer who feel very little for the pair and their lives.  Then there is the other end of the spectrum with the almighty tour de force that is 'We Need To Talk About Kevin', I shall write more on this film another time but suffice to say that alongside 'Meek's Cutoff' this is the best film to come out of America in 2011, highly recommended.  Lastly this week I got my first taste of Jacques Tati's world with the sublime 'Mr Hulot's Holiday' and it's a place I care to visit as often as I can, bring on PlaytimeEnjoy your week folks and here's some Tati to start the working week with a smile.

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