Category: Foreign Film

Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev

Seen: On 35mm at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge.

Medieval art has always been one of my semi-blind spots within art history. Russian art draws an even greater blank in my mind, with little knowledge of art before the twentieth century. With the HFA screening some Tarkovsky this month, it seemed like a fine time to get a bit of art history in with my classic film viewing. Andrei Rublev depicts several (mostly imagined) scenes in the life of the titular artist, a medieval master about whom little is actually known. Played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn, he is a thoughtful, creative monk who struggles with both his artistic subject and his faith. He hopes to spread joy and divine inspiration through his work, but the church enforces terrifying representations of the Last Judgment. He witnesses violent horrors when the city of Vladimir is besieged by a Russian prince and his Tatar army, becoming so traumatized he takes a vow of silence after he is forced to kill a man. His excitement about artistic creation wanes as he witnesses more grief and pain in the human sphere, but eventually the trials of a determined young bell-maker help restore his faith in art, and in himself.

In the medieval era, the convergence of art and religion was almost absolute within European (and, I might guess, Russian) cultures. Almost all artistic practices were done in service of the church, or god himself, and most known fine artists were holy men and women, with others being secular craftspeople. I’ve always thought it was kind of too bad, since there is a lot of really visually interesting medieval art but for me most of the subject matter isn’t appealing. That being said, the importance of faith to the icons, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations created cannot be denied, injecting these works with a kind of intimacy as the makers’ devotion shines through. Though there is not much we actually know about the real Rublev’s life or character, Tarkovsky’s fictional one offers a compelling enough study to pair with the man’s artwork.

Interestingly enough, we rarely actually see any artwork on film. So often the subject of discussion, it is at times in the background, or briefly shown being pondered by some characters. For the most part, however, it is the ideas behind it and its connection to Rublev’s religious beliefs that is given focus. The episodic nature of the film give it a disjointed feel, especially as some are only tangentially (or not at all) related to the title figure, but there are certain threads running through the segments that unite them into a whole: freedom, faith, doubt, loss, creativity, individualism, and both physical and emotional struggle. Made under the Soviet regime, the film was highly controversial for its depiction of Christianity as a central element in early Russian life, but Tarkovsky strove to present a realistic portrait the time period. His approach is pensive, slow-moving, revealing small moments and details within his cinematic world. However, he does not shy away from more violent scenes, incorporating several shows of intense brutality and squalor.

As with other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen, I was most struck by the visual qualities of Andrei Rublev. His use of crisp black and white, meditative takes, sweeping natural vistas, striking materiality, and inventive framing is phenomenal. His camera loves the sullen, craggy, expressive faces of his cast, lingering over particularly distinctive actors like an artist fixating on his model. Also as with his other films, I don’t think I quite “got” it, though I know I was very taken in by it. The more I think about it, the more I think I loved it. I cheered for the man in the opening scene who flies away in his home-made air balloon. I was fascinated by the strange pagan fire rituals Andrei witnesses in the forest. I gasped at the intense scenes of violence when Vladimir was sacked. I rooted for the bell-maker boy, Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), in his massive task to create the perfect bell for a new church. I was absorbed by the philosophical arguments and discussions between Andrei and his companions, including the cynical master Theophanes the Greek. I absolutely loved the sudden switch to color at the end, as Rublev’s work is finally shown in wordless close-ups, set against dramatic classical music. For all the talk about art and creation and god’s grace, Tarkovsky ultimately lets the artist’s work speak for itself.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I haven’t seen it yet but this reminded me that I’d like to give Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision a watch, since I did a paper on Hildegard von Bingen last year and she was a very interesting medieval figure. Might be a good pairing, if you can deal with another movie after this super-long one.

Movie Review: Haute Tension (High Tension) (2003)

high tension

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

When two best friends, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), visit Alexia’s family farm while preparing for their university exams, they’re expecting a quiet stay in the countryside. The only signs of possible discontent seem to stem from Marie’s secret crush on her friend, and jealousy of Alexia’s many affairs with men. The very night they arrive, a mysterious stranger breaks into the house and silently slaughters Alexia’s father, mother, and little brother. Marie hides any signs that she’s even staying there and surveys the carnage while in hiding. The killer kidnaps Alexia and Marie manages to sneak onto his truck, and the rest of the night unravels into a deadly game of hide-and-seek as she tries to rescue her friend while avoiding the monster’s gaze.

I didn’t know much about High Tension going in, but multiple people had recommended it to me given my recent forays into horror. Though its basic set-up is the stuff of standard slashers, I enjoyed writer/director Alexandre Aja’s tactic of keeping the protagonist hidden from the villain, but tied to him through the kidnapping of her friend. The added complexity of their relationship found in Marie’s hidden (but hinted) affections is also an interesting component. The first two-thirds of the film are so well-choreographed, tense and bloody and fast, that I became more and more engrossed as it went on. It is a decidedly gory affair, but manages to blend sentimentality and exploitation weirdly well. I found a compelling, sympathetic protagonist in Marie, and cheered her ingenuity and fortitude while holding my breath in fear every time I thought she’d be caught.

But then. The Twist. If you don’t want to know it, stop reading now, because I’m forging ahead and revealing it. SHOCK. Marie is the killer! SHOCK. The twist just takes this movie from a taut, engaging slasher into a kind of ridiculous metaphor. Marie’s unspoken love for Alexia pushed her to the point of breaking, resulting in a split personality and a homicidal jealousy for anyone else in her life. It’s not that the conceit is wholly impossible- there are some indications early on that something’s not right, sure. Marie is cold around Alexia’s family. While chained up and gagged Alexia seems confused and scared whenever Marie talks to her about rescuing her. Also the movie opens with a close shot of a woman in a hospital or institution, later realized as Marie after the main events of the film. Plus she dreams about it. I mean, I do still have questions, like who was driving the second car during the chase, or was that completely in her mind?

What really bothers me, however, is the implication of this twist. If all of these brutal killings and violence stem from Marie’s secret love for her friend, it kind of suggests an association between lesbianism and mental illness. I know Aja is obviously not saying all lesbians are homicidal maniacs, but there’s a certain parallel between this split personality thing and ideas of “closeted” homosexuals hiding their sexuality. And when queer characters are already so under- and mis-represented in film, it’s frustrating that a queer woman who starts off as a really great protagonist then turns out to be the vicious antagonist, and that her violent tendencies are a product of her love for a woman.

Twist aside, I really enjoyed High Tension for the most part, and it’s put together so well that I have to admire Aja’s style and approach. I guess the climax was just a little disappointing, since it was strong enough on its own with the big reveal, and then the twist itself wasn’t very satisfying. But I would see it again for all the badassery on display from Cécile De France, and to see if everything actually fits together.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The twist reminded me a little bit of that Audrey Tatou movie He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which I haven’t seen in many years so I don’t really remember if it’s good. Or if you want another good thriller with a rad lady, there’s A Lonely Place to Die.

Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012) at 366 Weird Movies

Evangelion-3.0-Big-Rei

Though I’m finding the whole thing rather baffling, I am set on finishing the Evangelion reboot film series. Mostly because I lost interest in the show itself and feel like this is a faster way to find out what happens at the end. Plus the animation is better. The third entry in the film series is the most inscrutable yet, but so beautifully animated and so god-damn weird that I guess I liked it. I GUESS. It shifts the action 14 years in the future where everything is terrible, more terrible even than before, and punctuates the snippets of exposition with big robot battles. For my full review, head over to 366 Weird Movies!

And if you need to catch up, here are my reviews of 1.0 and 2.0.

Movie Review: Hoshi o ou kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices) (2011)

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Seen: On blu-ray on our projector set-up.

I realize I’ve never actually reviewed any of his films on here, but know that I really love and respect the films of Makoto Shinkai. He’s a terrific animator and visionary artist, and I like how his works are all kind of sad and tinged with longing. It gets to me. His latest feature, Children Who Chase Lost Voices (aka Journey to Agartha) is a bit of a change for him in that it is mostly high fantasy, and works much more in the Miyazaki vein than his other films, but it still retains some of his signature as a storyteller and artist. The plot revolves around Asuna, a hardworking preteen loner who briefly befriends a mysterious stranger. She discovers he is from a mythical land known as Agartha, a kind of underworld where all the old gods fled after people stopped believing in them, along with some human groups who followed them. Asuna unintentionally breaks into their world with her grieving teacher, who hopes to resurrect his dead wife with the land’s power. He and Asuna move through Agartha, generally unwelcome among the locals but managing to pick up a couple of friends (and several terrifying enemies). Asuna is unsure of her ultimate goal, but feels it is important that she somehow find closure for both recent and long-ago losses.

It can’t be avoided: this movie feels derivative of Miyazaki. Its imagery, its setting, its overall story and characters- they can all be easily related back to the influential Ghibli director. And I’ll admit that was a little frustrating, coming from a filmmaker like Shinkai whom I associate with individuality and experimentation. It is also, however, in keeping with his general themes and mood, though aimed at a younger audience than his earlier films. Amidst the fantastical visuals and mythological creatures, the film dwells thoughtfully on issues of mortality and loss, and it is clear that Shinkai is using this somewhat over-familiar concept and unreal setting to underscore the realities of his characters. Their situation is unreal, but their resolution born out of grief feels true. Moving along at an easygoing pace, Shinkai develops their stories gradually while peppering in action sequences and memorably surreal surprises. For the most part, though, I think he just really wanted to paint the sky. There are a lot of lingering shots of breathtakingly gorgeous day- and night-time vistas here, and it just blows my mind how beautiful it all is and how soft and inviting and detailed Shinkai makes his worlds. It’s the kind of film you can drink up and keep within you for a bit, instead of just watch.

Admittedly I didn’t all-out love this film, it’s overlong and just didn’t have the spark of originality I was hoping for. I’ve seen some people calling it a rip-off, but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more just influenced by Miyazaki and they are both pulling from similar mythological/cultural sources. Overall it is a beautiful film, but the plotting is a little clunky at parts and a few narrative points didn’t quite come together (like, where did Asuna’s dad get the crystal key thing?). I do think it’s an interesting addition to Shinkai’s filmography, mostly because with Miyazaki’s retirement there’s some question as to how that void in critically-acclaimed, family-friendly fantasy anime will be filled, and I hadn’t really considered him a candidate for that area. But he can obviously do it, and still add his own adult themes and visual flair. I’m definitely interested to see how his work advances, and will be revisiting his earlier films soon.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: A like-minded Miyazaki would be good, especially Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, or Nausicaa. Alternatively there’s always room for more Shinkai, like The Place as Promised in Our Early Days or 5 Centimeters Per Second.

Movie Review: Cronos (1993)

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Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Way back in October 2011 I took a trip to Toronto for the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and it remains one of my absolute favorite vacations because everything was fun and everyone was AWESOME. I feel like the Toronto film blogger/writer community is collectively enticing the rest of us to move there, and it’s totally working. While there I got to see Guillermo del Toro speak at the TIFF Lightbox, and he sort of tracked his whole career through film clips and anecdotes, and I learned a bit about the two I’d never seen: Cronos and Mimic. Ever since catching a glimpse of a mysterious older man licking blood off the floor of a sparkling white marble bathroom, I knew Cronos should be a priority. Yet somehow it took me until now to see it, thanks to the Brattle‘s del Toro retrospective. The film concerns an antiques dealer and loving grandfather, Jesús (Federico Lippi), who stumbles upon a device that can give its user immortality, but with the unfortunate side effect of bloodlust. A sickly American millionaire (Claudio Brook) and his antagonistic nephew (Ron Perlman) have been seeking the device for years, and will stop at nothing to claim it from Jesús, who’s been using it despite not fully understanding its capabilities.

Del Toro’s first feature film, Cronos is an impressive indicator of the filmmaker’s strong storytelling skills and visual innovation already in play. (It also reveals his interest in steampunky clockwork at an earlier juncture than I thought!) With stark, meticulous shots and a script that relies more on its premise’s implications for its horror than outright scares, the film is a dark but entertaining venture. I loved Ron Perlman’s performance, playing a comedic but grossly violent character who resents his abusive uncle but does his bidding anyway, presumably out of greed for the sick man’s money. He’s obsessed with getting a nose job, but he keeps getting punched and his nose just gets worse. He adds a nice dose of humor in an otherwise strictly dramatic film, and played well against Federico Luppi’s confused desperation. There is a streak of melodrama running throughout the story, highlighted by the intense visuals and emotional story, but the actors keep things grounded enough to not overwhelm the audience. There’s an unfortunately sappy element in Jesús’s wordless granddaughter, who was very cute but so obvious in her status as a plot device.

I loved the blood and guts, the extreme color contrasts, the weirdness, the grubby mortician, the dancing, the subverted religious imagery, and, of course, the vampirism. It’s at times off-putting in its pacing, and I can’t quite get over the eye-rolling sentimentality with the granddaughter, but all in all it’s a seriously strong debut from del Toro. Its themes of aging, sickness, and immortality seem out of place in the writing of a twentysomething filmmaker, but he handles them adeptly and maturely, and set the stage for the fantastical and moving films to come.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: We all know my favorite weird, dark vampire movie is Thirst, and I will always recommend that over almost any other movie in general, really. Other good pairings would be The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s dramatic ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War, or Phase IV, which came to mind with all the weird bug stuff in Cronos.