Monday, March 27, 2017

Dekalog: Three (1988)

Review #1,426

Director:  Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast:  Daniel Olbrychski, Maria Pakulnis, Joanna Szczepkowska
Plot:  It's Christmas Eve, and Ewa has plotted to pass the hours until morning with her former lover Janusz, a family man, by making him believe her husband has gone missing.  During this night of recklessness and lies, the pair grapple with choices made when their affair was discovered three years ago, and with the value of their present lives. (from The Criterion Collection)

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize & Children and Cinema Award (Venice).  Official Selection (Cannes).
Runtime:  57min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
Source:  Telewizja Polska S.A.

Dekalog: One
Dekalog: Two

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

There’s bound to be some kind of dip in a ten-parter television series.  This happens in the third episode of Dekalog, a weaker portion of Kieslowski’s masterful work about the human condition.  Maybe this episode inches closer to television rather than cinema.  I don’t imply that it is inferior in any way, but that the plotting and aesthetics are less cinematic than (at least in comparison to) the first two episodes. 

It is Christmas’ Eve.  There’s thick snow and the streets are empty.  Presumably people have gone home to celebrate and be with their loved ones on this holy day.  But we are naive to assume that there aren’t lonely souls, cooped up at home, wanting companionship for the night. 

So we meet Janusz (Daniel Olbrychski), a family man giving his kids a surprise as Santa.  At midnight mass, he chances upon an old flame, a woman whom he had an affair with three years ago.  She’s Ewa (Maria Pakulnis), one of the lonely souls. 

Kieslowski gives us a straightforward story, tailing these two characters through the dark hours as Ewa spouts lies about her missing husband, and Janusz feigns interest (and maybe in the process sees his affection for her reignited). 

There’s still that trademark ambiguity, but there are less shades of grey in this one.  Themes of regret, guilt and love dominate the conversations, but the impetus for the narrative to unfold lies in the innate need for one to reach out to another. 

I would like to regard Dekalog: Three as a ‘Before’-type film (reference to Richard Linklater’s trilogy), only that ‘After’ may be more apt in describing the sombre tone of the work.  The ‘Before’ films are about finding and feeling the bittersweet nature of love and existence; Dekalog: Three a.k.a. ‘After Midnight’, however, suggests a vague reflection of an aftermath, where neither bitterness nor sweetness are felt in their purest forms. 

Kieslowski asks of us to detach ourselves from the past, but bad memories come back to haunt us, almost as if they are inviting us to reconsider regrets as friends.  Even if this episode doesn’t resonate as powerfully as the other episodes, there’s ample food for thought.

Verdict:  The third episode of ‘Dekalog’ is good but not great, and doesn’t resonate as powerfully as the first two.  


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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Swedish Love Story, A (1970)

Review #1,425

Director:  Roy Andersson
Cast:  Ann-Sofie Kylin, Rolf Sohlman, Anita Lindblom
Plot:  Two teenagers fall in love over the summer, in spite of cynical and disapproving adults who dismiss their relationship as being nothing but young love.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won IWG Golden Plaque, Interfilm Award, Journalists' Special Award, UNICRIT Award, nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  PG13 for scene of intimacy
International Sales:  Coproduction Office

Roy Andersson broke into the international filmmaking scene with his first feature, A Swedish Love Story, which nabbed four awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, proving that there’s more to Swedish cinema than just Ingmar Bergman.  Four years earlier, Jan Troell also won awards at the same festival with Here Is Your Life (1966), and followed up with the Golden Berlin Bear winner Ole dole doff (1968). 

Taking the emergence of Troell and Andersson during this time when Bergman was making such films as Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969) and Cries and Whispers (1972), one would be hard-pressed not to find a cinephile excited about Swedish cinema then. 

A Swedish Love Story sees Ann-Sofie Kylin and Rolf Sohlman, both actors making their acting debut playing Annika and Par respectively, two teenagers who fall in love in a love-at-first-sight scenario.  In the first major sequence involving the gathering of families, we begin to marvel at Andersson’s ability to create boisterous interaction while maintaining a series of quiet, fleeting glances between the two leads that hint of romantic attraction. 

It is this interplay between the loud-chaotic and the silent-bliss that gives the film a sense of anticipation, perhaps even of tension.  Annika and Par, lovebirds as they are, operate in a real world of teenage delinquency, but their love for each other gives them emotional support (when their own parents provide none). 

There’s enough humour and ‘70s romantic schmaltz to make A Swedish Love Story a pleasing slice-of-life experience.  The drama is raw and saccharine at the same time.  Backed by a light guitar-and-bass score that nostalgizes the period’s coming-of-age sensibility (somewhat achieving a tonal effect similar to the use of ‘The Sound of Silence’ in The Graduate (1967)), Andersson’s film is about adolescents becoming adults and carving a world for themselves. 

The irony is that the adults in the film are either socially awkward or psychologically volatile, a foreshadowing of what is to come for Annika and Par should they lose patience in the purity of their love.  The climax (which I will keep mum) is bewildering—it is dead serious if incredibly hilarious, and comes full circle through the loud-chaotic, silent-bliss mould.   Must I also say that Ann-Sofie Kylin is so pretty and has huge blue eyes you can’t look away from…

Verdict:  There’s enough humour and ‘70s romantic schmaltz in Andersson’s first feature to make it a pleasing slice-of-life experience.


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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Review #1,424

Director:  Roy Andersson
Cast:   Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson, Bengt C.W. Carlsson
Plot:  A film poem inspired by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo.  We meet people in the city.  People trying to communicate, searching compassion and getting the connection of small and large things.

Genre:  Drama / Comedy
Awards:  Won Jury Prize (Cannes)
Runtime:  98min
Rating:  M18 for sexual scene and some nudity
International Sales:  Coproduction Office

“What can I say?  It's not easy being human.”

What can I say?  This could be the finest work of Roy Andersson’s brief feature filmography.  Winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (that year’s line-up had some serious firepower!), Songs from the Second Floor is the first film of Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy—the other two are You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). 

Peppered with an assortment of wacky, and sometimes, downbeat characters, the film weaves a tapestry of scenarios that border on the ridiculous. Some sequences, outlandish as they are, fall into the realm of visionary filmmaking.  There are too many to describe here, orchestrated with superb comic timing in deadpan style, often involving intricate blocking, and sometimes loads of extras, captured in a single still shot. 

Quite simply, Andersson is one of cinema’s most remarkable purveyors of long-take mise-en-scene.  It’s a wholly inventive and constantly surprising film, and despite being deliberately-paced, there’s enough fascinating material to last the journey, either through the philosophical musings by the characters or eye-popping visuals that recall the whimsical likes of Jacques Tati, only that this falls into the territory of sheer absurdity. 

In fact, ‘Bay Guardian’ wrote that Songs from the Second Floor is like Short Cuts (1993) meets Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Maybe let’s add The Sixth Sense (1999) to the mix as well for the film has some elements of “I see dead people” supernaturalism.  But having these filmic references aren’t really useful for us to comprehend a singular work of unparalleled artistry. 

Symbolic and metaphorical, yet also operating as a realist piece on themes that concern us in the daily humdrum of life (that is, if we even think about them): why are we here, and where are we headed? 

An unforgettable scene that involves hordes of people struggling (and my word, how they struggle) to push their tower-high baggage to a row of check-in counters (presumably in an airport) is one of the most brilliant moments of Andersson’s filmography.  Can we ever pack our lives into a suitcase and run away? 

And where’s God?  Abandoned in a heap of trash because even He can’t help anyone make a living… this in the blasphemous if audacious climax, also a breathtaking example of Andersson’s sense of blocking and dramatic timing. 

Ultimately, Songs from the Second Floor is a film about not being able to connect with anything, least of all, with people.  Even the dead wants to connect, wants to make amends; but the living?  Well, we don’t even know how to self-destruct.  Perhaps that’s why Andersson’s next film, You, the Living, is a gentler piece—it coaxes us to connect despite the spectre of self-destruction looming above us. 

Verdict:  This wholly inventive and constantly surprising first film of Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy is one of the finest contemporary examples of absurdist cinema.


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Monday, March 20, 2017

Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, A (2014)

Review #1,423

Director:  Roy Andersson
Cast:  Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg
Plot:  Sam and Jonathan, a pair of hapless novelty salesman, embark on a tour of the human condition in reality and fantasy that unfold in a series of absurdist episodes.

Genre:  Drama / Comedy
Awards:  Won Golden Lion (Venice)
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  NC16 for brief sexuality and some disturbing images
International Sales:  Coproduction Office

Unashamedly proclaiming in the opening titles to be the last film in his trilogy about being a human being, writer-director Roy Andersson’s Venice Golden Lion winner could not have ended it on a more disappointing note.  It’s an overrated film, and I think some will agree with me that there’s simply no comparison to his more engaging and powerful earlier two films—Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence starts off promisingly with three brief scenes about death, and then goes into the familiar Andersson modus operandi with one vignette after another.  Everything is well, and the first half-hour or so sees the filmmaker in fine form.

After that, the film loses some kind of momentum and struggles to sustain.  It was hard to pinpoint why it didn’t work while seeing it.  But after some reflection, here’s my take: Instead of a free-flowing, plotless film with a myriad of characters that appear, disappear and recur—a style that marked the other two pictures, we get two main characters (they are salesmen selling party items like vampire fangs and scary masks) whom we largely follow through the film.  This, I think, is the movie’s fatal flaw. 

The two leads appear too many times, for far too long, often enacting their same old marketing routine.  Even a break from the monotony of their routine sees them in mundane, defeatist scenarios.  This affects the pacing and interest in wanting to engage with the film.  Soon, one might find the film insipid and lacklustre even if it has some great moments of fantasy and nightmare. 

One outstanding sequence, though it overstays its welcome, sees endless cavalry and foot soldiers (from another time) marching across the glass windows of a casual retro-modern bar.  A high-ranking officer pops in on his horse, chases women out, before the General comes in for a glass of water. 

If you compare this sequence with a similarly shot one in Songs from the Second Floor

An out-of-luck business owner explains to his stakeholder why they are standing in a badly-burnt office with loads of soot and blackened furniture, while outside (as we can see through the glass windows) a horde of zombie-like office workers go on a strike, causing a massive traffic jam.

…you can see that the latter is a much more powerful and infinitely hilarious scene.

Pigeon should be a note of curiosity for those into Andersson’s oeuvre, but it ultimately feels like a glass half-empty rather than half-full.

Verdict:  It has its great moments, but Andersson's ‘Living' trilogy closes on a lacklustre and disappointing note.


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Review #1,422

Director:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast:  Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman
Plot:  A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Fantasy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  118min
Rating:  PG13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language
Distributor:  Warner Bros

“Is that a monkey?”

We had Godzilla (2014), which was pretty good, and I enjoyed it.  I have a soft spot for huge creatures that go on a rampage.  Kong: Skull Island is thus right down my alley, but it is nowhere near the gold standard of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), still the definitive Kong movie in my books, even if the 1933 original had an old-world stop-motion charm of its own. 

The latest one is a setup to a clash-of-the-titans type picture, currently scheduled for 2020, and tentatively-titled Godzilla vs. Kong, well not before Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) makes its way to the big screen first.  As an early blockbuster release, Kong: Skull Island is more than welcome, but you won’t come out of it feeling like you need to see it again.  It is a mildly serviceable movie, and doesn’t push itself to be a great work of screen entertainment.

Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and many more, are part of the ensemble cast, but one would feel that there are too many characters and too little meat to make a pie big enough to feed everyone.  The movie is thin on story and characterization, and you could tell where they wear so thin that convenient plot devices or a muttering of words from a character would turn the tables for the narrative. 

Goodman is especially wasted as a character, who gets the gears rolling in the first act, but grows increasingly redundant as the movie plays on.  Hiddleston and Larson make do with a lacklustre and predictable script, while Jackson’s character is a one-dimensional warmonger.  Reilly, however, is the saving grace.  He plays the most fully-realized character, with an arc worth investing in.  In fact, his is a character very much as important as Kong.

So the story goes: the team, each member with a different motive, heads to an unchartered island and find themselves being battered by Kong and a host of other big, aggressive creatures.  But this is a movie with a pacifist message, espousing the notion of peaceful co-existence.  Kong, brilliantly rendered by CG technology, gives us enough chest-thumping roars to want to root for him.  If you need to get your monster fix, Kong: Skull Island delivers on spectacle and thrills, but expect a lot less in other departments.

Verdict:  A King Kong movie with a pacifist message—thin on story and characterization, but big on spectacle and thrills.


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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

You, the Living (2007)

Review #1,421

Director:  Roy Andersson
Cast:  Elisabeth Helander, Jörgen Nohall, Jan Wikbladh
Plot:  A film about humankind, its greatness and its baseness, joy and sorrow, its self-confidence and anxiety, its desire to love and be loved.

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / Music
Awards:  Nom. for Un Certain Regard Award (Cannes)
Runtime:  95min
Rating:  M18 for sexual scene
International Sales:  Coproduction Office

“Dear Lord, forgive them.  Forgive them.”

You, the Living, Roy Andersson's second film in his absurdist ‘Living' trilogy, is my first foray into his work.  Having eluded me for many years, the works of Andersson were beamed on the big screen as part of the Swedish Film Festival (kudos to The Projector!).  What a treat to savour what critics have regarded to be the gentler and lighter picture of the trio (Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) make up the aforementioned trilogy). 

You, the Living operates in a different world where traditional elements of filmmaking like narrative and structure don’t apply.  Instead, Andersson takes the artificiality of precise, stage-like scenarios, and convey them through cinema's best served tool: mise-en-scene and blocking.  His compositions of people and props are top-notch, often held in long, static shots, and ever so occasionally, tracking shots.

The film features characters engaged in a series of absurd gags, structured in a flowing vignette style.  Despite the absurdity and morose humour, of which there are aplenty, Andersson finds warmth in the dismal, though only just barely, but enough to make the picture work in large parts.  The film's standout sequence involves a newly-wed couple in their house, but the scene transforms into something magical (I leave you to discover if you haven’t seen it).  It is one of the great, purely cinematic moments of Andersson's oeuvre. 

You, the Living captures the doldrums of human existence with a sense of melancholy and repetition.  There’s a kind of ‘deadness’ to how the characters interact with each other and their environment, which is devoid of rich colours and vibrant costuming.  The production design is drab and dreary, best described I think as an antithesis to the films of Almodovar. 

There’s beauty in the lived experience as well, and Andersson asks of us to appreciate being alive, if not to live, then to forgive.  In a scene after a funeral, a woman breaks down and asks of God to forgive those who have sinned and abused their power.  The tone is one of reflection and charity, but it somehow feels like a biting indictment of the damned world that we now find ourselves diving headfirst into. 

Verdict:  The second instalment of Andersson's absurdist ‘Living' trilogy is a gentler but no less incisive take on the beauty and doldrums of human existence.


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