Thursday, May 31, 2012

Euro 2012: Irish Films

Entry #7 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Irish films.

The Guard (2011, John Michael McDonagh)

The Guard

John Michael McDonagh offers a welcome variation on the overdone buddy cop comedy by setting the action in Ireland and having Brendan Gleeson’s politically incorrect character of Gerry Boyle inject some razor sharp humor. Boyle is not afraid to speak his mind and that lands him in some tricky situations. However, Boyle is also honest and willing to fight for certain values which makes him a lone hero in a corrupt world. Don Cheadle’s by-the-book FBI agent character is a worthy foil to Boyle’s unorthodox characteristics.

Kisses (2008, Lance Daly)

Kisses Irish Film

A coming of age tale that also doubles as a journey film involving two young kids, Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neill), who run away from home to escape domestic violence and abuse. Dylan and Kylie end up spending an eventful night in Dublin where their initial hours offer them a magical world full of possibilities and new delights. However, when night falls they are forced to face the underbelly of Dublin’s street life and have to survive on their own wits. Despite the harsh subject matter on display, Lance Daly has created a tender film lifted by incredible performances from the two young actors.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Euro 2012: French Films

Entry #6 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two French films.

L’Apollonide (House of Tolerance/House of Pleasures) (2011, Bertrand Bonello)

L'Apollonide Bonello

Films set in a brothel often depict similar stories by incorporating a range of familiar characters from a young to an older prostitute and from a miserable to a romantic person. The clients that visit the brothels also appear to be cut from a similar template such as a young male after his first sexual experience, a rich man who falls in love with a prostitute and wants to rescue her and an older male simply looking for a friend. Therefore, a lot of credit must be given to Bertrand Bonello who manages to craft a unique film despite working in the confined framework of a brothel. Many of the characters shown in Bonello’s film are familiar from previous films set in a brothel but Bonello also adds elements of horror and fantasy while layering everything with a stylistic touch. For example, the recurring images of a panther and the tragic disfiguring of a prostitute’s face (“the woman who laughs”) are not only haunting but linger long in the memory. The films also contains delightful moments, such as the sequence of money being counted which perfectly illustrates the financial side of sexual transactions. Music also plays a key part in L’Apollonide while the visuals evoke sentiments of an underground world of drugs and sex. Even though the film does not depict rich colors, it exudes a bit of the sensuality found in rich supply in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. As it turns out, Bonello mentions Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film in an interview with Cinema Scope:

One of my uncertainties was the atmosphere of the brothel in my film. I didn’t want that French, 1900s [makes a fanfare noise]… Moulin Rouge, etc. etc. So I went directly to that opium den mood in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film, because it keeps the sensuality but is not hysterical. There’s an explicit homage in my film to Flowers of Shanghai: the Chinese violin.

Also, the final scene is a perfect way to end the film as it creates a bridge between brothels of the past and modern day prostitution. That crucial scene also illustrates how a film like L’Apollonide will never age and will always be relevant in our society.

Rapt (2009, Lucas Belvaux)


A rich man gets kidnapped. The kidnappers demand a ransom from the victim’s family. The family want to do whatever is possible to get their beloved back.

At this point, Lucas Belvaux’s Rapt tears up the familiar script found in cinematic kidnapped stories and goes off in a completely different direction with surprisingly powerful results.

The first deviation from conventional kidnapped stories is the realization the kidnapped man Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is not as rich as everyone initially thought. He has a lot of debt and did his utmost to maintain an illusion of an extravagant lifestyle. Investigation into his life reveals his multiple affairs which alienates his wife and daughter. Stanislas’ company and board of directors are not too happy with his lifestyle and are reluctant to part with any funds for his release. As a result, Stanislas is cut adrift from the outside world and the only people who end up caring for him are his kidnappers who still believe they can get some money from his capture. With the exception of a few torture scenes, Rapt does not feature any of the action or heroic scenes often found in kidnapping tales. Words are the weapons of choice in Rapt and character assassinations are the only kinds of attacks that take place.

Same Same but different

Both L’Apollonide and Rapt show that in the hands of a talented director, a familiar setup can yield a completely different end product. Therefore even though one day stories may dry up, cinema will always continue to surprize as long as creative personalities stand behind a camera.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Euro 2012: Danish Films

Entry #5 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Danish films.

Applause (2009, Martin Zandvliet)

Applause Danish film

Thea (Paprika Steen) is a woman clinging on the last threads of normality while her life is on the verge of collapsing. She is a supreme theatrical artist, confident and fiery, but is the complete opposite outside the stage, venerable and tame. Thea desperately wants to stay in touch with her two sons, who are in sole custody of their father, and tries to prove that she is a worthy mother. However, one step forward for her results in two backwards steps as her emotional pitfalls are never far away. The film splices scenes in between her plays and her non-professional life thereby gradually erasing the line between her theatrical persona and real personality. This style makes for an engaging character study with Paprika Steen putting in a career defining performance. The intense focus on her character and theatrical setting reminds a bit of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night.

Terribly Happy (2008, Henrik Ruben Genz)

Terribly Happy

The story and setting of the Danish film Terribly Happy, including the town and the bar, could comfortably exist in any of the Coen brothers’ films. Full credit to Henrik Ruben Genz for crafting a fine noir film, packed with a steamy affair and a murder, that maintains a tight tension until the end. Also, the film features a remarkable drinking stand-off sequence meant to literally determine the last man standing.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Euro 2012: Spanish Films

Entry #4 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Spanish films.

The Last Circus (2010, Álex de la Iglesia)

The Last Circus

An alternate film title for The Last Circus could easily be “The Beauty & The Two Beasts” as Natalia (Carolina Bang) finds herself in a tug of war between Javier (Carlos Areces) and Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), two men who transform into monsters as the film progresses. Javier, the ‘sad clown’, and Sergio exhibit shades of jealousy and violence to begin with but those emotions are partially masked. However, their facial disfiguration allows them to unleash their inner demons thereby liberating them from shackles of shame and humanity. As a result, Natalia finds herself having to choose between the lesser of two evil monsters. The love triangle story is an allegory for the Spanish political state and how love for one’s nation causes a person to resort to extreme measures. In that regard, Natalia represents a beautiful Spain forced to choose between different political ideologies, with each ideal being equally oppressive and evil.

Manuel Yáñez-Murillo’s Film Comment review excellently sums the film up.

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo (2009, Isabel Coixet)

Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

The story of a female Japanese assassin falling for the Spanish man she is hired to kill sounds promising but unfortunately Isabel Coixet’s film fails to deliver beyond a few tantalizing moments. The chemistry between Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi) and David (Sergi López) lights up the screen but unfortunately those seductive pleasures are limited. The real star of the film has to be Tokyo, a city that almost steals every moment when the camera is not focused on the actors.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Euro 2012: Polish Films

Entry #3 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at the two Polish films.

The Mill and the Cross (2011, Lech Majewski)

The Mill and the Cross is literally a living breathing work of art. Lech Majewski’s camera dives into Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary and expands on some of the painting’s tiny details. The film also depicts Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) and some of his inspirations in crafting such a complex work. It is easy to miss some of the details by quickly scanning the painting but Majewski’s technique of mixing live action and special effects ensures that the viewer is able to properly appreciate the beauty and sometimes brutality depicted in "The Procession to Calvary". The film’s initial moments shows a blown up version of the painting which brings the figures to life while the finale shows a static painting hung on a museum wall. As the camera moves away, the painting diminishes in size in a similar manner to how the planet diminishes at the end of Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris.

Even though the painting starts to disappear from view, Majewski’s film ensures that the painting and ordeal of its subjects will remain long in memory.

In Darkness (2011, Agnieszka Holland)

In Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness the camera dives underground to depict the true life story of how a few Polish Jews avoided being captured by the Nazis. Some of the Jews manage to hide in the sewers where they encounter Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a man who knows the sewer system better than anyone else. Initially, Socha agrees to help the Jews in exchange for money but eventually helps them out of humanity. Holland's film, aided by Jolanta Dylewska’s remarkable cinematography, highlights some of the challenges the survivors faced living in tight and dark quarters.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Euro 2012: Dutch Films

Entry #2 of the Euro 2012 Book & Film Spotlight looks at two Dutch films.

C'est déjà l'été (2010, Martijn Maria Smits)

C'est déjà l'été

The Dardennes style of filmmaking is often used to describe films that evoke the Belgian brothers' cinematic techniques. That technique usually involves an intense focus on a character struggling to make ends meet while stuck in a bleak urban landscape. However, in the case of C'est déjà l'été, the Dardennes style is a bit close to home because Martijn Maria Smits’ film is completely shot in Seraing, the industrial city that is home to the Dardennes and their films. Yet Martijn Maria Smits manages to stamp a unique imprint on his film because unlike the films of the Dardennes, C'est déjà l'été does not focus on a single character but instead features three generations in need of help and guidance. Jean (Patrick Descamps) is an unemployed father who isolates himself from his family and prefers to leave his two kids, a teenage son and elder daughter, on their own. The daughter also has a baby who she leaves with her younger brother when she goes on her screwing/drinking escapes. The multiple focus adds depth to the story and allows one to see the cyclical nature of the character's lives as each generation will inevitably fall into the same trap as the previous one leading to empty, unhappy and wasteful lives.

There is misery written all over the film but thankfully the worst imagined things don't occur, such as a death when a gun enters the story. Also, the bleakness does not become too overbearing mostly because the film is shot with a HD camera which renders the dirty surroundings of the industrial city with a poetic beauty.

Winter in Wartime (2008, Martin Koolhoven)

winter in wartime

The setting of a coming of age story in World War II manages to throw up plenty of ethical and moral hurdles for its young protagonist Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier). When Michiel finds a wounded British soldier, he providers shelter and food for the soldier. Helping the soldier feels like a right decision for Michiel but since he is surrounded by Germans, his kind gesture puts his life in danger, especially since he is unsure about who to trust. As per the title, there are plenty of sequences in the snow and some of these snowy shots offer the best moments of the film. A bridge crossing near the end is one such sequence where equal amounts of tension take place in both the foreground and background of the frame.

Summer to Winter

The title C'est déjà l'été, which translates to "It’s Always Summer", is clearly ironic given the lack of joy in the character’s lives. Of course, if summer means misery for the characters, then one dreads what winter would bring. As it turns out, the answers are provided when the dreaded snow arrives in Winter in Wartime.