#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


#95 - My Name is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)

Nobody’s Genre

As the 70’s came along the spaghetti westerns became somewhat self-parodying and the popularity of films like “They Call Me Trinity” marked a new, more comedic, direction for the genre. This also brought new faces to the forefront of the genre, the most notable being the dynamic duo of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. So of course Sergio Leone, the man who made the genre so popular in the first place, had to have a say in this new direction of the genre, which brings us to “My Name is Trinity”, a film directed by Tonino Valerii based on an idea by Leone.
But many still consider this to be 7th “unofficial” Sergio Leone film, as the core idea for the story was his, and he served as a producer and even directed a few scenes in the film. For instance the opening sequence of this film is obviously Leone’s. This is also to a fault of the marketing that followed the release of the film, which presented it as Leone’s. I personally find that very disrespectful towards the man who did most of the work, but it is what it is and it kind of adds to the themes of the new replacing the old that the film plays with.

Anyway, “My name is Nobody” is a light and funny western that follows Jack Beauregard, an old gunfighter that is looking to avenge his brother. But Jack is being trailed by a young gun only known as “Nobody”, who is basically a more comedic spin on the nameless gunfighter that is now so commonly associated with Italian westerns. However Nobody is a big fan of Jacks and all he wants to do is see Jack go out in style, facing the infamous, 150 men strong gang known as The Wild Bunch.
In a lot of ways this plot is like a parable for those changing trends in the western genre as well. Henry Fonda plays the old gunfighter that is being sent off with honors while Terence Hill plays his successor, and this theme is also reflected in the world of the film because it starts with dusty towns and ends in a city. It marks the end of an era, and even though it passes the torch to a new generation, it is very telling that this torch is passed to nobody. So the inevitability of change is a core concept in the film, and the film even gives a few shout outs to the man who portrayed the struggle with the changing times the best, Sam Peckinpah.
Still, the main quality of this film is the humor and there are many great and bizarre gags that elate this potentially mournful story in to something that is uplifting. This lighthearted tone is further accentuated by Ennio Morricone’s amazing score that’s halfway a parody of his old western scores and on the other half some of the most joyful stuff he’s ever written – “Nobody’s Theme” being an obvious highlight of the soundtrack.

And then there’s the absolutely fantastic Terrence Hill, who may not be much of a dramatic actor but he has this effortlessly playful and naïve aura about him that he can turn to cool in a heartbeat. On the other side is Henry Fonda who is in his icon mode and fully lives up to his status, and “My Name is Nobody” proves to be a competent send off for him as well, since it was the last western he’s ever done. Together with the theme of old vs. new this gives the film much weight in the genre, a weight that seems to be unfortunately ignored because of the film’s more humorous tone. However even if this film is a bit marginalized nothing can deny its quality and the entertainment value it provides so effortlessly.

Original title: Il mio nome è Nessuno 


Henry Fonda -  Jack Beauregard
Terence Hill - Nobody
Jean Martin - Sullivan
R.G. Armstrong - Honest John
Geoffrey Lewis - Leader of the Wild Bunch

Original language: Italian

My Name is Nobody on IMDb


#94 - Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

The Beauty of Dying

The films of Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu all have certain commonalities. So far they’re all contemporary films dealing with contemporary issues like globalization, immigration and poverty, and all have obvious aesthetic similarities. But as anyone knows their biggest commonality is that they’re all, well, kind of downers. Of course this does not mean that they’re bad film, in fact I am very fond of all his films so far (including this one) but this is starting to worry me simply because it is becoming a bit predictable what kind of film one can expect from this obviously gifted filmmaker.
But with that said he did change up things enough with his last film, “Biutiful”, to make all those familiar interests seem fresh enough. Now instead of a fractured narrative with multiple protagonists we have a single protagonist in a linear narrative, and even the overbearing realism of his style is penetrated for the first time with the glimpses of the fantastical, as our protagonist seems to posses supernatural powers (he can see recently deceased people). And this element has been handled in the best possible way in my opinion because it is completely secondary to the story and only serves a thematic and character driven purpose, allowing the human drama to take the front and center of the film.

The film takes place in the poor neighborhoods of present-day Barcelone and follows Uxbal (Javier Barden) a small time street entrepreneur that’s trying to organize immigrants and provide them with black-market work like peddling goods on the streets and hard labor work in a Chinese handbag and DVD piracy shop. It’s the best he can do and it’s the best they can get. So despite the grimness of all this business it is clear that he is a good guy that’s struggling to make a life for himself and his kids, while dealing with the problems of these immigrants, his bi-polar ex-wife and the news that he has terminal cancer.
So it’s totally an Inarritu film in that it’s a downer, but it’s somehow also his most hopeful film in that Uxbal meets his struggles head on and does his very best to do right and leave this place the best he can. And death is a major theme of the film and the message that is coming across through all its pores is that, first of all, we all die. It’s a simple thing that everyone knows but very few people seem willing to face, and the stance of this film is that the sooner we face the limits of our existence on this earth the sooner we will start really living. And second, that no matter how bad life can get there’s always beauty to be found. Yes it’s a downer but it’s presented with a sense of absolute sincerity and honesty.

But if there was one thing to be criticized is the film’s certainty in an afterlife, in which to a large degree our protagonist finds strength to carry on because it is also reaffirmed by his supernatural touch. It is my opinion that the film’s power would be amplified if he managed to find this reaffirmation of life in an exclusively earthly form - but this is a reflection of the director’s beliefs, and a criticism by a person that doesn’t have the same convictions. In any way it did not prevent me from enjoying the film or the message it carries which is universal no matter of one’s beliefs.
On a technical level we get pretty much what we’ve come to expect from an Inarritu film, the great handheld camera work brings out the realism and the colorful lighting gives the film a poetic and modern touch of cinematic style. Beyond that “Biutiful” may be even my favorite film of Inarritu’s, in part because the whole is not artificially made complex by editing wizardry and trusts the power of the story and the characters and the actors to carry it. It’s not that the other films were hampered by their exuberant editing but it did in my opinion call too much attention to itself (especially in “21 Grams”) even to the point where it was distracting from the story and the characters. However there is a certain power in that kind of filmmaking as well, but that is not this film anyway. “Biutiful” does feel more personal to me and it has a central performance that is a wonder in its own right.


Javier Bardem - Uxbal
Maricel Alvarez - Marambra
Diaryatou Daff - Ige
Taishen Chen -  Hai
Eduard Fernandez - Tito

Original language - Spanish


#93 - Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau)

Childlike Wonder

The source story of “Beauty and the Beast” is probably the best knows French fable of all time. As such it has found its way many times on the screen, and most popular is probably the animated film from 1991 by the Walt Disney studio. However that is hardly the definitive cinematic adaptation of the story - this title would easily go to the 1946 masterpiece by Jean Cocteau as his film is a perfectly presented cinematic fairytale.
Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens with a request for sympathy, for the audience to try and find some childlike wonder in the magical concepts of this story. However if anything this request proves to be absolutely unnecessary because the film portrays those magical concepts with such visual finesse that the wonder comes naturally. If anything the film inspires childlike wonder. And the effects work in this film may be simple by today’s standards but the execution of the camera trickery like reverse motion shots and fade ins and repeat exposures is impeccable and completely mesmerizing.

These effects together with the amazing make-up work, costume design and production design give the film a sublime and dream-like, almost hypnotic, quality. Apart from the make-up work the best effect of the film is the magical castle of the Beast. It’s both fantastical and foreboding, as statues seem to be following Belle’s every move and hands sticking out of the walls are lighting her way in the corridors. There is a strong surrealist touch to all the scenes in the castle, a touch that is just further reinforced by the Beast that inhabits these chambers.
And as in any other incarnation of the story the Beast is the star of the show, as he is not only the most visually astounding character but also the best defined one. He is actually the only truly complex character, a character that changes throughout the story and that uncovers new and surprisingly layers of personality. Other characters are mere caricatures, like Belle’s sisters, or even mythic symbols - Belle being an incarnation of goodness and beauty. But Cocteau’s film gives the Beast a magical aura as well, not only in the form of powers but also visually. He can conjure up jewels for Belle, and when he does bad deeds he is covered by fumes of smoke. Thankfully these magical elements are never blatantly explained which gives the film a consistent layer of the unknowable, and that is exactly what magic needs to be.
Apart from being a superb romantic fable with truly wondrous effects there is also a layered subtext underneath the visual and aural dazzle. The most obvious is the moralistic tale of not judging by appearances, but if we dig a little deeper there is also a cautionary tale about greed. However the most interesting thematic thread may be the disparity between the two settings of the film and how these two worlds relate to one another. These two worlds are of course the household from which Belle comes from and the Beasts fantastical castle. They almost seem to be mirrored as there are many overlaps. For instance Belle is imprisoned in both worlds, in one serving to her needy and cruel sisters and in the other being a literal prisoner to Beast but also having no real responsibilities. Both existences are solitary and often do relate to one another as a dream would relate to the waking world - in small increments and glimpses of convergence.

Furthermore the film is filled with numerous symbols associated with the Roman Goddess of the hunt, Diana (often represented by dears and hunt dogs – images that litter the screen of this film). She is also associated with the moon and birth, and is herself a symbol of feminine strength. This just further reinforces the dream thematic and certainly relates to Beasts more predatory instincts, even when he’s interacting with Belle. But as we all know the tables turn eventually and the Beast fulfills his role in that mythological pattern, becoming the prey himself and dying, only to be saved by Belle and rise again in a new form.
“The Beauty and the Beast” is one of those films that has a spellbinding quality that just sucks me in. It’s a film that demands nothing but a little childlike wonder, and in return it is happy to provide a tale as fantastic and complex as you want it to be, which in turn makes it one of my favorite cinematic fantasies.

Original title: La belle et la bête


Jean Marias - The Beast / the prince / Avenant
Josette Day - Belle
Marcel Andre - Belle's father
Mila Parely - Felicie
Nane Germon - Adelaide
Michel Auclair - Ludovic

Original language - French


#92 - The Woodmans (Scott Willis)

An Introduction

This is a documentary film about the Woodmans, the family of one of the most renowned avant-garde photographers - Francesca Woodman. But even though the film is called “The Woodmans” its primary focus is of course Francesca, it is about her life, her work and of course her suicide at the age of 22, and its told primarily through interviews with her family and friends.

First thing to note is that it seems that this film falls in to the same trap as every other piece about Francesca. What the film does is that it almost mystifies Francesca to the point where she seems beyond human, but then again the only thing that Francesca has left behind is her work and her family – which just further fuels this image. Her work is of course the hauntingly eerie and fascinating photographs that are usually self-portraits and nudes. If anything they really show that Francesca was indeed a great and unique talent and had a wonderful eye for composition, texture and light. I should note that it’s her work that brought me to this film in the first place. Then there are also her journals and video recordings, which I can only describe as poetic insights in to her mind and together with the photographs they suggest a personality that seems very self-absorbed and attention craving. Maybe even narcissistic.

This notion is somewhat supported in the interviews with her friends and family. We learn that Francesca was the neglected child, as her brother suffered from diabetes as a kid and got most of the attention from his parents. We learn also that Francesca had a very flirtatious and provocative nature, if that was not obvious from her work. But who knows really? This film doesn’t, as I said it does its utmost to mystify Francesca and it kind of fails to humanize her as it shows only the testimony that elates her as an artist and mystifies her inner workings. It even avoids asking some obvious questions like if Francesca would ever even have been noticed and celebrated if it was not for her tragic end? It’s a question that is barely touched upon by this film because of its obviously insensitive nature. And I’m not sure how right it was to avoid asking it.

But it’s not all about Francesca as we are also introduced to her parents and brother, all of whom are artists themselves. However I found it a very telling fact that they all work in different fields. The mother is a sculptor, the father a painter and the brother a video artist. Only after Francesca’s suicide and her posthumous rise to fame did her father, George, pick up photography. The film does note the resemblance of George’s photographs to Francesca’s work but it also avoids asking the tough questions here as well. What we do find out is that there indeed was a certain sense of competition within the family, and that living in the shadow of someone as big and enigmatic as Francesca can carry its burdens as well.

As documentaries go “The Woodmans” is a serviceable outing only saved by its fascinating subjects. But it’s a bit tragic how a film that deals with such distinct art and has such a fascinating artist at its core is just so bland and uninspired visually. However it does serve as a competent guide and introduction to the life and works and family of Francesca Woodman, even if it barely reveals anything new.


George Woodman
Betty Woodman
Charles Woodman
Francesca Woodman (archive footage)


#91 - The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola)

Of Guilt and Paranoia

Coming off the first two “Godfather” movies it seemed that Francis Ford Coppola could do no wrong. He further reinforced this sentiment when he delivered “The Conversation”, a small character focused paranoia thriller. So this is a film that is nothing like Coppola’s great crime saga and apart from the first person character narrative and presentation it is a film that primarily plays with tension and suspense, and a bit with the audience’s head.
The film follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who is a surveillance expert, a bug man. He is basically hired by corporations or whoever to listen in on other people and record their private conversations. And that’s where we meet him for the first time, on a job where he and his team are tracking and recording a couple as they have what seems to be the most mundane of conversations. However when Harry goes to deliver the tape to his client things start going wrong, the client’s assistant is there to pick up the tapes, and as Harry was specified to deliver the tapes to the client only he refuses to deliver.

But the trouble for Harry started well before this failed exchange because it is clear from the first minute of the film that Harry is a strange guy. He is secretive and paranoid and throughout the film we discover that Harry was on a similar job before and the people he was listening to turned out dead. So Harry doubts if he should even deliver these tapes.
This all sounds like an excellent setup for a fantastic genre thriller but “The Conversation” is more than that. Like I said it’s about this central character first and foremost and about his state of mind. As he is a surveillance expert he is very well aware that no conversation is safe, that anyone can be listening anytime, and this starts playing with Harry’s head as well as the head of the audience. His paranoia becomes infectious. This makes “The Conversation” a sublime exercise in tension and suspense cinema, but the interesting thing about the design of this film is that it builds up tension throughout only to be released at a single point, the climax of the film.
And that climax is unforgettable and haunting because at that point the whole film feels like it’s converging in on itself, the plot that was seems reversed, and the reasoning that leads to this point seems doubtful. Even Harry’s sanity becomes doubtful as well as what he bears witness to.

“The Conversation” is like a Swiss watch, it’s precise, it has a singular purpose and it executes it with perfection. Gene Hackman is maybe in his best outing in this film, which is a high praise indeed and he is joined by a wonderful cast that includes the great John Cazale and a young Harrison Ford. And this sense of excellence only further extends on the breathtaking cinematography of the film as well as the great score and sound design. I always loved the works of Francis Ford Coppola, both his great films as well as most of his misses, and I think that with “The Conversation” he came closest to perfection, because there doesn’t seem to be a false or questionable note about this film.


Gene Hackman - Harry Caul
John Cazale - Stan
Harrison Ford - Martin Stett
Frederick Forrest - Mark
Cindy Williams - Amy

The Conversation on IMDb


#90 - Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)

The Specter of Capitalism

When I started writing this blog I knew this would happen sooner or later. A movie will come along that is impossible to penetrate after a single watch and competently write about the very day after seeing it. It seems that “Cosmopolis” is that film. So of course my first thought when I sat down to write this article was that maybe a cryptic movie deserves a somewhat cryptic write up?
Sure I could describe the plot or go on a tangent about the actors, about the technical aspects of the film or whatever other superficial observations I may have. And this is sometimes the only thing you can write about a movie, but movies like that are usually very shallow experiences for me. However this is not a shallow movie. There is not a shallow bone in its body.

The thing is that the very nature of “Cosmopolis” demands that this film is engaged on a deeper level, and yet that deeper level seems somewhat impenetrable under these circumstances. It is obvious that this film on a certain level is an examination of modern society, and it feels like the film points out the major flaw of this system that we are all living in, but what is it? I can’t tell. There is something important within its clinical, distanced, psychological and philosophical observations. Or maybe there isn’t and it just feels like that.
What gives “Cosmopolis” this sense of weight is in the very design of the film. It does not only tell a story of a billionaire on his way to get a haircut, but it also portrays the self induced deterioration of his world through a series of episodes with different personalities along the way. They all show a different facet of him and present a different observation of our money driven society.

There’s the brilliant young analyst who can’t take his eyes off the screen, and the language in this scene is as cryptic as the data that these guys are wrangling. Their talk, as our billionaire risks his fortune, seems to penetrate outside the fabric of the film itself to the point where it breaks the 4th wall – a line from this scene: “Any assault on the borders of perception is gonna seem rash at first.” How very self-aware. Then there’s an art-dealer from which our billionaire demands to buy an unsellable work of art – which seems to be nothing but three large black panels set up side by side. Then his Oracle-like philosophical adviser visits him as his limo drives through a riot, a man sets himself on fire outside and the only comment that they seem to have is how unoriginal such act is. They mention the Vietnamese monks setting themselves on fire, just to be heard. But this limo is sound proof.

The film points out the disparity between the super rich of our times and, well, everyone else. Our billionaire hardly even seems human, especially in his interactions with his uninterested young bride that are as cold as they are absurd. Every other line said is a comment on how regular people behave and they’re trying to copy normal human behavior. He is trying to make contact in the most ordinary ways, but he doesn’t know how. This gives the film a sublime sense of strange and absurd humor. However he has an asymmetrical prostate.

And that seems to be at the core of it all, the answer to why he is destroying everything he’s built. Why he has daily medical check-ups. Why he wants to be tazed and goes towards his would-be assassin. Because despite his removal from anything human he discovers that he is human after all and all the rational and logical talk and reasoning and all the money in the world cannot deny that single fact. Because he didn’t read the “Yuan” correctly. Because he has an asymmetrical prostate, and that is the only thing he shares with the man who represents all the disgruntled people who became his victims. The man that is his final judgment. The man who knows how to solve the “Yuan” issue. The man who he hides from in his stretch limousine.
There is a moral weight in here that looks in to something that affects us all in some way, and I don’t know if I’ll ever fully see it in “Cosmopolis”.  One thing is for sure, this is the kind of film that I obsess over and it is a film that will most certainly provide me with many rewarding viewings. Its closest relation to me is “Crash” - that other Cronenberg obsession of mine. However just like “Crash” this is a most divisive film, a film that could prove to be as frustrating as it is smart, and a film that cannot leave anyone ambivalent. 


Robert Pattinson - Eric Packer
Sarah Gadon - Elise Shifrin
Kevin Durand - Torval
Paul Giamatti - Benno Levin
Samantha Morton - Vija Kinsky
Juliette Binoche - Didi Francher

Cosmopolis on IMDb