#101 - Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme)

Burning Down The House

The connection between music and cinema is a natural one, and many films would not be what they are without the music that accompanies them. However when it comes to concert movies it is usually the music that carries the film more than anything else, but that is not the case with “Stop Making Sense”. And I am not trying to downplay the quality of the music of the Talking Heads because in my opinion they are one of the best bands of the 80’s, however I am trying to say that concert movies in general are usually not very cinematic. But not “Stop Making Sense” as I find it a sublime marriage between music and cinema.

Concert movies tend to give you the concert experience first and foremost from the perspective of the audience and that is a laudable endeavor to pursue, but that is not “Stop Making Sense”. What this magnificent film does is to try and give you the on stage experience as it attempts to share the immediate energy of the performers with the viewer. And this makes it an inherently better concert movie than most because a second hand audience experience is exactly that, second hand, and nothing can replace the real thing which is to go to the damn show and see it live.

So instead the audience experience is of little concern to this film and most of the concert is filmed and presented from the stage itself and most of the experience feels to be orchestrated for this presentation. Early on we see the stage being built while the songs play, then there are many different presentational sets that the band goes through that feel like they are set up more for the camera than the audience viewers. But this is only how it feels like and it is mostly because the sublime editing of the film and the wonderful camera-work.

And dear God is it all staged well, it’s like clockwork and the lighting is visually engaging and perfectly fits the songs. It is fair to note that the cinematographer of the film is Jordan Cronenweth, he of “Blade Runner”, and the lighting is oftentimes quite evocative of that seminal Sci-Fi film with its impressionistic qualities. But the main brain behind the stage designs seems to be the genius behind the band on stage, David Byrne. And it makes sense as it is the perfect visual interpretation of his music and his goofy stage antics. He is a fascinating presence on the stage with his dances and vocal acrobatics - he’s just utterly fascinating to watch.

Then there’s the music itself, and for a Talking Heads fan like myself this is heaven as I just can’t help myself but to sing along to this film, and this is who the film is the easiest to recommend to - the Talking Heads fans. The director of the film, the great Jonathan Demme, seems to be also one of those fans as there’s no way that he’d be able to encapsulate the core of what the band and their music is about otherwise. And the final product of his and the band’s labors is rightfully considered one of the best concert films of all time, if not THE best. 


David Byrne
Tina Weymouth
Chris Franz
Jerry Harrison
Bernie Worrell
Steven Scales
Alex Weir


#100 - Holy Motors (Leos Carax)


Living Cinema

Just a few days ago I wrote about “Cosmopolis”, a movie I said was impossible to penetrate after only one viewing and competently write about the very next day. And here I am again, facing the exact same problem with “Holy Motors”, the new film by Leos Carax. However the similarities between these two films do not end there as both have a surprisingly similar design. Both films follow a protagonist through a day made up of a set of encounters and episodes, while said protagonist cruises through a modern metropolis in a white stretch limo.
But that’s where the similarities seem to end and the films diverge on thematic, presentational and tonal grounds. “Cosmopolis” seems to be a more topical film of the two with its absurdist look at our capitalist society, while on the other hand “Holy Motors” strikes me as all encompassing in its design and the language of the film is cinema itself. Some critics call it a journey through the history of cinema and it’s easy to see why.

Early on in the film there is a sequence set on a mo-cap stage that by its design seems to spit in the eye of the modern CGI loaded blockbusters. It’s visually awesome and it bluntly shows that what these people do in mo-cap stages and the raw performances they give are way more fascinating than the computerized end product of their labors. It is further telling that Oscar, our protagonist, climbs up a factory to enter the stage, which may very well be a statement on the current assembly line moviemaking of Hollywood. And this is only one facet of this sequence which can also be seen as a critique of the digitalization of life itself (a recurring theme of the film) but it also goes beyond its imminent surrealism and becomes performance art of the most captivating form.
And every episode in this film is like this, they all seem to have multiple threads of thought going through them and each has a cinematic backbone of its own. One is a surrealist monster movie followed by the music from “Godzilla”, where a grotesque incarnation of Oscar kidnaps a model and takes her to his lair. And there things turn even weirder with a combination of both sexual and religious images. But isn’t that something all great monster movies play with - ancient Gods and sexual curiosities? Another episode seems to be a gangster film, and another seemingly the most honest and personal turns in to a musical which Oscar disapprovingly interrupts. They’re all their own worlds in a way, their own movies, and they only have one constant, Oscar, who is played to amazing effect by Denis Lavant. A once in a lifetime performance. 

But what does Oscar even do? He seems to have a job that boils down to him being driven around from episode to episode only to play his part. And the only constant for him is his driver Celine, a mother figure, a guardian angel. So life and art meet in this film in the most surprising of ways, and a big pointer seems also to be the name of the protagonist, Oscar. The film director’s birth name is Alexandre Oscar Dupont. Is this an incarnation of Leos Carax himself as he’s struggling through his existence with art and life?
Maybe but I wouldn’t know for sure, as this is my first Leos Carax movie and I do not know all too much about the man either. However it got me more than curious to look up his other work as “Holy Motors” is probably my favorite film of 2012, at least so far. But then again I do not think that there is a single all encompassing interpretation as “Holy Motors” feels like a work of surrealist automatism, which is a form of surrealism I usually would find obtuse in cinema. However in the hands of a supreme craftsman it can be a sublime experience, and in the hands of Leos Carax the result is a film that is a living and breathing cinema. And that is what “Holy Motors” is, an unforgettable cinematic experience and as such it is one that no other film can provide, or will ever be able to repeat.


Denis Lavant - Oscar
Edith Scob - Celine
Kylie Minogue - Eva Grace / Jean
Eva Mendes - Kay M
Elise Lohmeau - Lea / Elise

Original language: French


#99 - The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)

A Misdirection

So “The Brothers Bloom” is the second film of Rian Johnson and as his other two films it plays with the tropes of a well established genre, and this time the genre is caper films. More specifically the story deals with two brothers, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody), who are extraordinary con-men and their scheme to swindle a obscenely rich and complicated woman (Rachel Weisz) by performing the perfect con in the shape of a romantic globe-trotting adventure. However Bloom, who wants out of the game, falls for their target.
That’s the simple set up of the story, however once the film takes off from there it gradually starts falling apart and drowning in contrivances and a convoluted plot and twists that at a certain point I felt like the movie was rewriting the core motivations of its characters just so it can stay one step ahead of the audience. The movie was so busy wrangling out of shape a story that should have been quite simple only in order to arrive to its surprising ending. But in this process it forgets the important stuff, to stay engaging and to at least be easy to follow.

An element of all films of this kind is to have that witty surprise at the end of the film but that does not mean that you have to sacrifice your audience’s emotional engagement. Many successful caper films keep their audience engaged through a secondary plot that serves as misdirection while the twist of the central plot is being prepared and wrangled in to submission. Like in “Ocean’s 11” the misdirection is the plot with George Clooney’s and Julia Roberts’ character which is also the films core emotional story, while in the background the team is preparing to rob the casino. Or in “Matchstick Men” you have Nicolas Cage’s con-man training his newly returned daughter for in the arts of the confidence game, while in actuality he is her mark all along. Simple misdirection that makes sense throughout the film and it is used as the emotional hook of the film.
But there is no such storytelling misdirection in “The Brothers Bloom” nor anything resembling it. So all we see is the bare bones of the raw plot and the film compensates with a series of contrived twists that have no real emotional value and once the film came to its oh so clever ending all I could do is scoff. Because even if I saw what the film was doing, and it was obviously smart, I simply did not care anymore.

And if anything this makes “The Brothers Bloom” a frustrating film because the opening is so great, it's a fantastic little short film in it's own right and the first act of the film follows suit. But then the characters are charming as well, and the cast is perfect (Rinko Kikuchi is a scene stealer) and the look and feel of it all is spot on for a hipster revisionist caper film. There is potential here, however it fails for me in its attempt to be a good caper film, especially a revisionist one. Rian Johnson shows an understanding of the tone of this genre as it has all the main ingredients for an outstanding genre film of this type, but I feel that with “The Brothers Bloom” he’s like the high-school overachiever kid that fails to see the tree from the forest simply because he’s trying too damn hard. It's a passable film but thankfully he goes on to better things.


Rachel Weisz - Penelope
Adrien Brody - Bloom
Mark Ruffalo - Stephen
Rinko Kikuchi - Bang Bang
Robbie Coltrane - Curator
Maximilian Schell -Diamond Dog


#98 - Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Amor Omnia

In my previous articles on Dreyer’s films I’ve been fascinated with how visually varied his output is, and the same is again true of his last film “Gertrud” as it also has its own visual identity. But despite these stylistic differences all his films also have similar thematic and conceptual interests. For example they’re not only psychological dramas but they also explore grand concepts like religion, faith, superstition and, in the case of “Gertrud”, love. Furthermore all the films of Dreyer’s that I’ve seen so far have been primarily chamber dramas - films set mostly in interiors.
But the unique thing about “Gertrud” is it’s emotional neutrality, which is very contrasted with the plot, dialogue and even the theme of the film because, as I said, the film deals primarily with love. The whole plot revolves around Gertrud and her relationships with men. There’s her separation from her distant husband, her affair with her young lover, the return of her famous ex and the only man that she is not romantically linked to, which at the end of the film is presented as her only standing relationship.

And in that sense Dreyer presents a very fatalistic aspect of love, and worst of all for Gertrud a finitude, because she is presented as a woman devoted only to love. And in the text of the film we also find out why love has an expiration date, because, amongst other things, a woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies. And the men around Gertrud who desire her with sincerity are refused by her because they do not meet her idealized needs which shows Gertrud as uncompromising, stubborn even. Her young lover is the only one who she desires but it turns out that he sees her as just a cheap conquest. And he is the only one who is critical of her and aptly points out her stubborn flaw to be a one of pride.
Actually people talk very frankly in this film and most of their observations about each other are correct, but it is also correct when Gertrud says that they do not talk the same language, which is true because they all want different things from one another. And this emotional bluntness and lack of sappy romance may be responsible for the film’s emotionally distanced nature but it also makes it a perfect examination of love as it shows a truthful side of it that one does not find in romantic melodrama or comedy. That as much as love is birds and butterflies and happy endings it is also dry unhappiness.

From a technical side the film is, as I’ve come to expect from Dreyer, exquisite in its meticulousness. One thing that I’ve noticed is the costume design in which Gertrud’s wardrobe is completely monochrome (apart from the epilogue scene) and the wardrobe of her men very contrasted, accentuating that even visually none of these guys match with her. As for the cinematography it is contrasted in lighting except in the two key flashback scenes that are over-lit with harsh highlights and monochrome lighting – both however portray Gertrude at ease with love, the concept that she is struggling with in real time of the film. So the lighting here fits her wardrobe and her disposition, which is not despaired but more upbeat. As for the camera it is probably the most static and stilted camera that Dreyer worked with so far. All shots are very long and any camera movement is there for a specific reason.

So it is of little wonder why many criticize this film as slow and boring, as its emotional neutrality and obsessively restrained presentation make it very alienating. But then again this is all purpose driven and the single mindedness of the film is what perseveres for me, although I would agree that “Gertrud” doesn’t quite reach the perfection of Dreyer’s masterpieces. However this is still clearly a work of an absolute master and maybe the ultimate cinematic examination of one of mankind’s most enduring mysteries. Love.


Nina Pens Rode - Gertrud
Bendt Rothe - Gustav Kanning
Ebbe Rode - Gabriel Lidman
Baard Owe - Erland Jansson
Axel Strobye - Axel Nygen

Original language: Danish


#97 - Hadewijch (Bruno Dumont)

note: article contains spoilers


 A Mirror

“Hors Satan” made enough of an impression on me that I had to look up more films of Bruno Dumont, and by no real logic I picked “Hadewijch” to watch next  - I think the only real reasoning for picking this one was that I kind of liked the poster. But also the odd title spiked my curiosity a little, and after watching the film last night I still didn’t know what it exactly meant. I noticed that both a major location and the protagonist where sometimes referred to by the name of Hadewijch in the film, but after the film was over a quick Google search revealed more.
It seems that Hadewijch is a name of a female medieval poet who probably came from wealth, was not a nun but had an obsessive love of God that she displayed in her poetry. All this is also very descriptive of Celine, the young protagonist of this film, only that Celine seems to be the contemporary incarnation of this character. And we meet Celine as she is living in the cloister with nuns who soon expel her because of her obsessive devotion to God that goes beyond the convent’s rulings, as she was endangering her own well being with religious penance. And as the film goes along we learn the nature and the extent of her religious fanaticism.

So even very early on it is obvious that Celine’s faith has a fanatical side to it but her struggle (something that every fanatic needs) seems to be purely psychological and primarily in the form of sexual repression. Celine meets a young Muslim boy named Yassine, who she likes quite a bit but refuses his more intimate advances. She proudly says that she is a virgin and plans to remain as such, declaring her love only for Christ and that she’s here for him. However Christ never comes.
I am very tempted here to go on a tangent about the film’s ending and what I think it all means, but as it’s the case with “Hors Satan” it is a very contemplative ending that can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, both serving religious and atheist views. And for me the most fun part, and to a certain degree the point of a film like this, is to find your own interpretation of what it all means. But then again the fun part is also to discuss the meaning and hear what other people think of it. So in the spirit of discussion I will say what I got from this film, but I stress that this is by no means a definitive answer. I actually think that there is no such thing as a definitive answer that will serve all comers and that everyone will take away something else from a film like this. Anyway, what follows are of course heavy spoilers.

So my interpretation of the film is that Celine finds kinship in the religious zeal of Nassir (Yassine’s more radical brother) and interprets a sunny patch in the sky as a sign of God to help him. But there was no real sign of God and even when she does perform the terrorist act she is still lacking the closeness to God and (sexual) fulfillment that she thought she’d miraculously get, so Celine decides to kill herself. The blunt point here being that there is no God. However once she drowns she is rescued by David, meaning that you can’t have faith in God but can have faith in humanity. Because David did not only rescues her, which her God failed to do despite heavy duty prayers, but he can also give her what she actually needs (wink wink, nudge nudge).
Of course David’s last minute rescue could be interpreted as an act of God, but I guess that my more religiously skeptical convictions lead me towards this kind of interpretation. It is also worth noting that the only music that plays in this film is during these end scenes, giving them a more spiritual and a more emotional texture, which stylistically removes them ever so subtly from the bare realism of the rest of the film.

But as I said that was only my interpretation of a film that is by design meant to be like a mirror that reflects the values of the person that is watching it. And this means that just like “Hors Satan” this is a film that demands to be met halfway, you need to engage it and think about what’s going on, otherwise it will all seem pointless and frustrating. Personally I am loving these films, and my appetite for films like “Hadewijch” is only growing the more I am exposed to them.


Julie Sokolowski - Hadewijch / Celine
Yassine Salime - Yassine Chikh
Karl Sarafidis - Nassir Chikh
David Dewaele - David

Original language: French


#96 - Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini)

The Vital Growth

Even though all of Fellini's films that I've seen so far carry very similar subtextual values they seem to stylistically fall in to two camps. There’s the more stylistically exuberant approach like in “Amarcord” and “8½” and the more restrained and realism oriented style from his earlier films, like this film and “La Strada” (“La Dolce Vita” seems to fall somewhere in between these two camps). However all these films have roots in the Italian neo-realist movement, and upon closer inspection it is obvious the further Fellini’s career went along he diverged more and more from the limitations of this style.
And although I love every movie of his that I’ve seen so far, I find that restrictions of this kind on the imagination of any artist are somewhat ridiculous, unless they're self imposed. So in my eyes it is quite thrilling to see a director’s growth in the abilities of his artistic expression, and the five films of Fellini portray real stylistic growth and maturing. This is why I was so critical of Wes Anderson’s work in “Moonrise Kingdom” and more recently (and to a much more limited extent) of Inarritu as well in my “Biutiful” write-up. They simply seem to be in a rut with their films when compared to this - although Inarritu has made a clear step away from his prior films with “Biutiful”. However this is a somewhat unfair comparison because I am comparing them with a master director whose career spanned decades and they’re still very much in the middle of it.

But even in Fellini’s more stylistically similar films (and films that he made in close proximity) like “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria” there is obvious stylistic growth. Because when one compares “Nights of Cabria” to “La Strada” from a stylistic perspective it is clear that Fellini makes his first real steps towards that stylistic transition away from Italian neo-realism. It is still very much a film that is heavily influenced by the neo-realist sensibilities but the episodic narrative format of “La Dolce Vita” is already present here, although the episodes are much more tied together. But the most obvious divergence from any stylistic limitations is of course the unforgettable final shot of this film, which he reused in “La Dolce Vita” but in a completely different context and for a different impact.
However “Nights of Cabiria” is not just a vital film in the grand framework of Fellini’s oeuvre, it’s a film that more than ably stands on its own terms. It follows Cabiria, a lively prostitute on the streets Rome, through a series of episodes that lead to a masterfully built up and subtly telegraphed climax. It’s a climax that is crushing in the most somber neo-realist way but also, characteristically for Fellini, absolutely life-affirming.

Like “La Strada” this film also features another bravura performance by Giulietta Masina in the title role of Cabiria. Her performance is again a balancing act between the dramatic and the comedic, but the humor of her role in “Nights of Cabiria” is much more farcical and dialogue driven. Her energy is the lifeblood of this film and she’s an absolute joy to watch, which makes the hardships she goes through so much more involving.
Anyway, I don’t know what else to write for now but fellatio my way out of this write-up. So “Night of Cabiria” is another amazing film by Fellini that features an amazing central performance and a gripping story. Warmest recommendations.

Original title: Le notti di Cabiria


Giulietta Masina - Maria "Cabiria" Ceccarelli
Francois Perier - Oscar D'Onofrio
Franca Marzi - Wanda
Amedeo Nazzari - Alberto Lazzari
Dorian Gray - Jessy

Original language: Italian