Thursday, 30 March 2017

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Year of Release:  1972
Director:  Werner Herzog
Screenplay:  Werner Herzog
Starring:  Klaus Kinski, Helena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Historical adventure

In the year 1560 a large number of Spanish conquistadors, lead by Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles), and their captives, descend from the Andes into the Amazon jungle in search of the fabled El Dorado, the City of Gold.  Finding their way blocked by a fast-flowing river, Pizarro sends a scouting party downstream to find supplies.  Struggling through the harsh jungle conditions, flooding, hostile natives and a lack of food and supplies, their morale and sanity break down, as the group's second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) becomes increasingly paranoid and plots a violent rebellion.

This is a mesmerizing film, full of memorable images from the opening shots of the procession in single file descending the mist-shrouded Andes, to the hallucinatory closing frames.  Shot entirely on location with a low budget, the production was beset by problems, not least of which were Herzogs frequent clashes with the famously mercurial Kinski, reports of which have entered cinema lore.  This is an intensely physical film, the muggy, humid atmosphere almost seems to radiate out of the screen.  This is a story of a mad dreamer with an all-consuming obsession (a favourite theme of Herzog's).  At times it takes on the qualities of a fable, even though it sometimes feels almost like a documentary.  Above it all there is the star turn of Klaus Kinski, who appears at the start of the film as a man already close to the edge, with his bulging icy blue eyes and twisted stance, seemingly forever buffeted by winds no-one else can sense, he owns the film, alternately ranting and raging at his men, or tender towards his daughter (Cecilia Rivera), who accompanies the party.  The film is very loosely based on a historical character, although most of the characters and plot details are fictional.            
Everything about the film has a hauntingly strange quality, which sometimes becomes almost surreal, partly due to the film's eerie, dreamlike score from the band Popol Vue.

 Klaus Kinski is Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Friday, 24 March 2017


Year of Release:  1997
Director:  Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay:  Takeshi Kitano
Starring:  Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre: Crime drama

Nishi (Kitano) is an ex police officer whose daughter is dead and his wife (Kishimoto) is terminally ill.  He is also heavily in debt to the yakuza.  With options running out, Nishi takes desperate action to get the necessary money to take his wife on one final journey.

Hana-bi (the title translates as Fireworks) is, at first glance, a crime thriller, but in it's approach it is completely different to the conventional cop movie.  Takeshi Kitano is a hugely famous comedian and TV show host, before becoming a one of the most internationally acclaimed Japanese film-makers of his generation.  He not only wrote, directed and starred in this film, but edited it and painted the artwork that features prominently throughout.  Juxtaposing quiet, meditative passages of genuine heart and lyrical beauty with jarring, graphic violence and brutality, this is a film of emotion above all else.  The first part of the film uses a complex, fragmented structure, jumping around in time, before settling down to a more conventional linear structure.  The main character, Nishi, is calm and seemingly placid for the most part, an enigma who moves slowly and deliberately and who rarely speaks, but is capable of lashing out with sudden and extreme violence at any provocation.  However he is also capable of great kindness and affection.  Despite the amount of stabbings, shootings and chopsticks being thrust in eyes, this film is full of beautiful images of nature, and a feel for the transitory nature of existence, and the joy and warmth of family and the power of art (a key subplot in the film involves Nishi's disabled, suicidal ex-colleague taking up painting).  The scenes with Nishi and his wife touring through Japan are both funny and tender and could probably be enough for a movie on it's own.  The film is shot with a largely static camera practically every frame seeming meticulously composed.

This is the first Kitano film that I have seen, although I knew of him of course, and I had seen him in Battle Royale (2000), and I am certainly going to check out more of his work.

    Takeshi Kitano and Kayoko Kishimoto in Hana-bi

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Merchant of Four Seasons

Year of Release:  1971
Director:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay:  Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Starring:  Hans Hirschmuller, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Lowitsch
Running Time:  89 minutes
Genre:  Drama

All Hans Epp (Hirschmuller) wanted was to become a mechanic and marry the love of his life (Ingrid Caven).  However, as a stint in the police and the Foreign Legion, Hans is working as a fruit peddler, selling his wares in the courtyards and streets of Munich.  He is unhappily married to Irmgard (Hermann), and they have a young daughter, Renate (Andrea Schober).  Disliked and regarded with contempt by his family (particularly his own mother (Gusti Kreissl) who seems to hate him), Hans drinks heavily to drown his sorrows, and, after beating his wife in a drunken rage, suffers a near fatal stroke.  After he recovers, Hans reconciles with Irmgard and his business goes from strength to strength, but his inner demons are never far away, and he soon finds himself drifting towards self-destruction.

In a professional career lasting just fifteen years, German film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder made over forty films, several of which are acknowledged classics of World Cinema, before his untimely death at the age of 37.  The Merchant of Four Seasons is widely regarded as one of Fassbinder's best works, and it certainly is one of his most accessible.  This was his breakthrough film both domestically and internationally, and the first of a string of melodramas inspired by the works of Hollywood director Douglas Sirk.  Every shot in the film is carefully composed and constructed, and the performances are deliberately artificial and non-naturalistic, a style he developed during his time as a theater director.  For a melodrama that deals very much with emotion, this has a curious distancing effect, but it is powerful.  The long scene where Hans attacks his wife, filmed from a static camera at some distance, despite not being graphic is difficult to watch, intensified by the camera's dispassionate gaze.  It's a sometimes painful attack on marriage, family and middle-class life, which will certainly not be too everyone's taste.  It is a very good film, that held my attention throughout, and I am glad that I saw it, however I did not enjoy it.  I would say that if you are interested in Fassbinder, this is a good place to start with his work.

        Hans Hirschmuller and Irm Hermann in The Merchant of Four Seasons

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Get Out

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Jordan Peele
Screenplay:  Jordan Peele 
Starring:  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, LaKeith Stanfield, Lil Rey Howry, 
Running Time:  103 minutes
Genre:  Horror, thriller

This is possibly one of the most important horror films of the last thirty years.  Chris (Kaluuya) is a photographer who has a good relationship with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams).  However, Chris is about to head up to the suburbs to meet Rose's parents for the first time, and is worried that she hasn't told them that he is black.  Rose's parents, Dean (Whitford) and Missy (Keener), seem pleasant enough, if a little too eager to prove that they are open-minded liberals, but Chris can't help but detect undercurrents of hostility.  To make things even more uncomfortable, the only people of colour around are the family's servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel).  Are the Armitages clueless and insensitive, but essentially well-meaning?  Are they closet racists?  Are is there something stranger and even more sinister going on?

The film sets up a situation that is awkward enough, and all too relateable to many of us, that of meeting our significant other's parents and family for the first time.  To make matters more complex they are a mixed race couple.  Chris puts up with a lot of low-level awkwardness right form the start, which may just be well-meaning white liberals who don't really mean any harm, or could be much worse.  with every interaction you can see him having to decode the hidden subtexts.  However this is a horror film, and writer/director Jordan Peele (one half of comedy duo Key and Peele) obviously knows his horror onions, and the horror/thriller elements work well, particularly in the final third, where the horror elements really kick off, even if the satirical elements don't always gel as well. Horror films have always taken on the preoccupations and fears of the time and place that they were made, but racial issues have been noticeable by their absence.  This is a film of it's time and is important viewing.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out