Sunday, 28 April 2013

Persepolis (2007)

Of the animated films I've so far watched - 'Yellow Submarine' (1968), 'Up' (2009) and this, 'Persepolis' is comfortably my favourite in animation style and in content too.  This is an adaptation of Majane Satrapi's graphic novel, and co-director Vincent Paronnaud borrows her occasionally Hergé-esque 'ligne claire' style and puts it in motion.  Most of the film is told in monochrome flashback.  The individual shots are clear, handsome and often striking.

I understand the original book was at least semi-autobiographical.  It's a story of young Marji growing up in Iran of the 70s and 80s, a country torn by war and revolution.  The children don't take it especially seriously, accepting only that people get arrested, soldiers march around with guns, and it's a fine time to lark around.

Things get grimmer as she grows older.  People die, or are imprisoned, and nobody can openly speak the truth.  It's still not a bad place to have a party, but it can end badly.  The revolution makes matters worse, not better, and the new government obliges women to wear veils.  A lonely education in Europe seems the only escape.  She grows up, endures a number of unenjoyable romances, and is left without any clear idea where she can call home.

It's sad, and difficult, and often great fun, so feels very much like real life.  The animation style is excellent, fascinatingly watchable, giving a stylised, childlike view of the world.  It's a very good film, and I found it to be quite an education.  'Persepolis' gives a picture of an interesting country of real, ambitious people, marred, oppressed and set back by a theocratic government of extremely conservative Islamic fundamentalists.  I've realised my knowledge of modern Iran is terribly limited, and though I used to work for an Iranian woman, I never really asked about the country she seemed glad to leave behind.

I'd be curious to seek out the original comic from which the film was adapted, and Marjane Satrapi's other writings, to learn more.  Since she co-directed the film, I can well believe it captures the spirit of the original.  I'd recommend it to almost anyone, though some of the language is sufficiently strong, and the themes mature, that I'd err away from showing it to a weakly child.  And since it's animated, you have the choice to watch it with either French or English audio.  Both seem equally legitimate, and I only went with the French because so much was actually set in France.

I'd say it was worth your time.  Someone's borrowing my copy at present, or I'd lend it to y'all myself.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

GoodFellas (1990)

This is a story about a guy who gets into crime - organised crime and killing people crime - not reluctantly or through necessity, but because he thought that life would be cool, fun and easy.  And it turned out he was entirely right.  It's an appealing story, and a true one.  He and his wife would have gotten away with it for as long as they lived, had they not grown so very careless and full of drugs.

Rob Reed gave me his copy of the film at the same time he passed me 'Taxi Driver' (1976), and since I've also watched 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988), Martin Scorsese joins Peter Jackson, Peter Greenaway and Fritz Lang in the circle of most-watched directors on this blog.  This is probably the longest of the three films, and the one with the most humour and the most violence.  It's a toss-up, though, which of the three is the bloodiest.

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) borrows a knife from his mother (Catherine Scorsese)
Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, who throws himself into the criminal lifestyle, and finds that it pays exceedingly well.  Unlike 'The Baader-Meinhof Complex' (2008), there's no suggestion here that the crimes are particularly benign or well-motivated, but it's clearly a better career move than brick-laying.  For the most part he seems a nice guy, but he laughs too long at acts of unprompted brutality - indeed, he seems to laugh almost deliberately at these, not with mirth, but to be seen laughing.  He works his way up from errand boy to crime boss, reluctantly goes on an awful date with a woman called Karen (Lorraine Bracco), who, since she's far more bold and interesting than she first appears, goes on to be his partner in crime and wife.

Like Hugh Griffith in 'Ben-Hur', Joe Pesci got the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor here simply by being fantastically entertaining.  His role seems at times like the comic relief, but is really more exciting and disturbing than that.  He's persistent, almost flamboyantly vicious, and enjoyably short, and seems to speak constantly and magnificently.  As you may tell, I found him to be the film's great highlight.  Robert de Niro and Samuel L. Jackson are in there too - indeed, it's a very good cast all-round, made up of people who are rightly famous, or ought to be more so.

It's directed with pace, style and tension, of course, and the script finds some exciting ways to tell the story.  I'm sure I could have gone on for another four paragraphs, had I written this up immediately after watching it, but you got lucky as I left it so long, dear reader.  Most of what I now remember are twists, lines, images.  In short, the things you'd be better off discovering for yourself by watching the film.  I try not to spoil these things for you.

P.S. I'll be back this weekend with 'Persepolis' (2007), and then I'll probably have to watch some more movies, or I will have run out of stuff to tell you about.

P.P.S. This isn't strictly-speaking true.  I could tell you about 'The Last Remake of Beau-Geste' (1977) or 'The Baby of Macon' (1993) or 'Das weiße Band' (2009) or 'Ted' (2012), but we've done those years already, and I'm keen to push on towards the hundred-different-years goal.

So, yeah.  Here's the bit where I show you how you can legitimately watch the thing.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Das Boot (1981)

It was a lovely, sunny day yesterday, so I stayed in and watched 'Das Boot'.  There's a whole genre of submarine films, apparently, and I've seen a couple of them, but 'Das Boot' is the only one that has so far won my affection.  By dint of not being set in the 80s, it doesn't get in on the old almost-firing-nuclear-missiles schtick, and so refrains from melodrama.

When it was first screened in America, I'm told some of the audiences applauded the slide at the start declaring that, of the 40,000 U-boat sailors in the second world war, only 10,000 survived.  I have a dislike of war-films, or of the older, more jingoistic sort of war film that the 40s and 50s produced, which invite the viewer to cheer the goodies and shout condemnation at the evil villains.  'Das Boot' is something very different, as it shows us the men of a German submarine, not as villains, but as people.  We see them going about their everyday lives, which just so happen to take place on a u-boat, and involve the pursuit and torpedoing of British freighters.

The inside of a German sub is a setting that's entirely alien to me, but it's rendered so believably here, and apparently so true to life, as to be quite revelatory.  This is what cinema is for, or is one of its functions at least.  As for believability, well, this is a beard film.  That is to say, if you find beards interesting, you'll find delight here.  Since the film was shot in the order that we see it, the crew of the submarine start clean-shaven and grow full beards over the film's three hours.  One particularly officious character apparently keeps shaving until the film and the voyage are almost over, giving in and growing stubble only when survival becomes improbable and his spirit is broken.

At one point, the u-boat makes a stop in Spain, and thereafter
bananas and pineapples linger at the back of each shot.
It's long, claustrophobic and at times extremely tense.  There are few rooms, and small, in the submarine, and a lot of crew.  Long stretches pass without shots of the water's surface or the outside of the submarine.  We get to know the characters very well, as most of their time is spent waiting, for orders to come, for ships to be sighted, or waiting in silence for the enemy destroyers overhead to stop depth-charging and move away.

They're good men, quite ordinary, very genuine.  Not, as one might imagine from their pursuit of Nazi Germany's military aims, evil killers.  Like the British, or like any nation, these sailors are just men doing their job, fighting for their country in a time of war.  At one point they torpedo a British freighter, then hide under water for six hours until the area clears of enemy ships.  When they resurface, the ship they shot is still burning, and its un-rescued sailors cry out for help and jump from the burning deck, hoping the German submarine will rescue them, as their own forces haven't done so.  It's a harrowing scene, and the sub's officers are clearly distressed by this, but know they can't take any prisoners, so the Kapitänleutnant gives the order to drive away, leaving the British sailors to burn or drown.  Towards the end, the sub's dishevelled officers are called ashore in a Spanish harbour, where smartly dressed officials hail them as heroes, and throw an embarrassing buffet, giving fancy fruits and accolades to men who need, instead, rest, consolation and peace.

Several times, the submarine and its crew come close to obliteration, being fired on and depth-charged, sinking too low, to where the pressure outside threatens to crush the ship entirely.  Theirs is a truly perilous, often awful life.  After getting very close to the crew, and seeing how they suffered and how much exhausting work they put into their ship and their survival, I became very upset when I first saw this film, the shocking injustice of its conclusion.  They survive so much, work so hard to scrape escapes from grim and desperate situations that when the terrible end comes for them at the close of the film, it seems entirely unfair.  I'm won't spoil the end for you, but I will say again, when it came it was so far from my hopes for the characters that I was troubled for a long time.  It seems ridiculous to wish a better fate for fictional characters, but I know their real-life counterparts, our enemies, must have had very similar stories.

A brief note on 'Das Security Bathroom' (2006):

I find I spend a lot of time advocating 'Das Boot'.  It's a favourite film of mine, and like so many films I care about, I try to persuade people it's worth the watching.  To date, I don't believe I've been particularly successful, but I did the next best film, and made a tribute film to it.  That's right: when I was at university, and before I saw this fine movie, I wrote and directed a short film called 'Das Security Bathroom', which I based on what I thought 'Das Boot' would be like.  It's a Biblical submarine epic set entirely in a bathroom, and is full of water, shrieking and very-obviously-ketchup blood.  Watch it on Youtube, if you dare!

P.S. 'Das Boot' isn't pronounced like 'boot', but like 'boat'.  Having once heard this fact, I've found it's taken a lot of time to adjust to.

'Das Boot' is a fine film, and, since sound is so hard to record inside submarines, the audio was all added in post production, so when the actors recorded their dialogue in the original German, the same actors recorded an English soundtrack, meaning that even those of you most opposed to subtitles or foreign-sounding films can watch this film, if you've the time to do so.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Miś (1980)

A cat, dressed as a rabbit
I was urged to watch 'Miś', and informed only that it was a Polish comedy, and a cult film.  I've been keen to see some Polish comedy, as everything I've seen from that nation has made it out to be entirely miserable and wretched, and I thought something with a lower body-count than 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1977) or 'Dekalog' (1989) would give me a brighter perspective.  That it was a cult film, I found marginally less encouraging, as that occasionally means it's a treat, but sometimes denotes something nobody could like accidentally.

I'm reluctant to use the English language title, 'Teddy Bear', as I can't believe it's a very accurate translation.  The giant straw animal, which has no effect on characters or plot, may be a bear but resembles no teddy I've ever seen, and I suspect it hails from a different tradition entirely.  The movie regards a man called Ryszard racing his ex-wife Irena to Britain and withdraw a small fortune the pair lodged in an English bank.  At the start she damages his passport, making swift passage through the iron curtain almost impossible, and the body of the film shows his elaborate but almost feasible plan to get to Britain, a scheme which requires him to find his exact double, and cause that double to lose his hair.

Distressingly, the subtitles were all in yellow comic sans.
The film was interesting, rather than enjoyable, which isn't ideal for a comedy .  Actually, I'm afraid it's interesting, rather than interesting, as it didn't keep my attention as well as I'd hoped.  Since amazon reviewer Richard J. Brzostek describes it as 'a hilarious comedy', I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, though, as it's possible I just don't get it; it's a satire on a political situation of which I'm almost entirely ignorant.  There are several scenes either presenting ridiculous exaggerations of aspects of life in communist Poland, or else giving a rye, unexaggerated look at exactly what happened in those days - and I couldn't tell which of these was being presented.

Either way, this is a Poland of austerity, cunning, and government excess, the latter to present a propagandist suggestion of prosperity, hence the giant toy bear.  In this picture of Poland, meat is so hard to come by that people have to go to the theatre to see a joint, and restaurants chain their cutlery to the table, but in such a way that only one person can use a spoon at once, as when one person pulls to make the chain longer, their partner's chain gets shorter.  I've been told this latter point was a real feature in some Polish cafes, but I'm not sure I believe it.

A teddy-bear?
The film does one thing that I like very much: I've long enjoyed foreign films' portrayals of Britain, which offer a surprisingly rare chance to see what stereotypes the world has of us.  Here, the British seem very calm and placid, in stark contrast to the manic Ryszard; bank clerks in London are prone to going on strike, but do so very politely and very meticulously, sitting quietly in their booths until the exact second their strike is due to end, before carrying on with their business.  Also, the British speak English, but with Polish accents.  For anyone else curious to see British stereotypes in European films, I'd recommend 'Laissez-Passer' (2002), a fine French movie set in the film industry of occupied Paris in the 40s, which surprised me with a sudden trip to England and a trio of petulant interrogators who won't stop making unwanted tea.  Ah, but now I'm talking about the wrong film, so shall stop here.

P.S. Wikipedia claims this film was out in 1980, but IMDB says 1981.  I've gone with the earlier date, as it suits my purposes.  I have two pretty exciting possibilities for 1981, but my backup for 1980 is famously awful.

This isn't the version of the DVD I saw, so the quality, not least of the subtitles, may be higher

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Everybody smoked constantly in the 60s.
On this occasion it's Ulrike Meinhof

This film regards historical events of which I was wholly ignorant, but which would be far more familiar had I ever lived in Germany.  There's certainly enough here to make sense of it all to an outsider, though I was rather caught off-guard to find so overwhelmingly sympathetic a presentation of this violent terrorist group.  If I was simply given the resumé of the RAF (the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) I might have counted them as plain villains, but this film gets into why they did what they did, and makes an extremely compelling case.

In short, Germany in the late sixties was a troublesome place, with its politicians supporting dubious American wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, and their police extremely violent in their dealings with peaceful protestors (a suggestion corroborated by 1992's 'Die Zweite Heimat').  People who where children during the Nazi government and World War II can see their parents' generation once more equipping the boots of oppression, a resurgence of those old terrors.  When it becomes clear that peaceful protests won't change the minds of the country's leaders - a realisation that eventually reaches everybody who's been on a protest march - people start to take up different forms of protest.  Bombs are harder to ignore.

Andreas Baader lights up a cigar at his trial

Since peaceful protest and violent action seem to be met with the same police response, the latter begins to look the more credible.  Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, whom you may have seen in 1998's 'Run, Lola, Run') is firmly entrenched in the life of a pretty damn cool violent criminal (and hot-tempered jerk, to boot) when the film starts, but Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is a journalist, a pacifist, a writer who uses words rather than actions, at least until Baader's circle condemn her for this, and give her a chance to be of more practical use.

Hers is the most fascinating role, and the most exciting performance, and I shall happily add Gedeck to my list of German actors for whose sake I actively seek out other films.  As to Meinhof, I place a lot of faith in the ability of a free press, online as much as on paper, to change minds and change society for the better; I can see, though, how somebody in Ulrike Meinhof's position could eventually resolve that words alone weren't changing society, that a gun would be louder.

For a good third or half of the film, the gang's actions, while increasingly extreme, with creeping body-counts, are presented as, if not a benign solution, at least a reasonable one.  I can't quite think how it worked now, as it seemed a logical progression while I was watching, and over the following week, but seems absurd and frightening now that I think back on it, a month later.  For instance, it's almost unthinkable that anyone would make a British film sympathetic to the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army, a violent order closer to home.  But, so far as I'm aware, the IRA's work was more about revenge, about who you were related to and how you were brought up, while the RAF's attacks were much more a response to the international political situation.

Police brutality

Bruno Ganz (oh, you know, Adolf Hitler) plays Horst Herold, a notable historical figure who doesn't even get a page on English-language Wikipedia.  Herold was in charge of the German anti-terrorist squad, and despite being innovative and capable, the nation's worst terrorist activities happened on his watch.  What Herold is keen to stress, at least in this film, is that there's no point in trying to track down and stop established terrorists without enquiring into their motives; more than once he out and says that the RAF have some justification, and that what must change is the activities of politicians - that American wars in the East are the reason for violent unrest at home, and that this problem won't go away.

It's surely a deliberate piece of casting, to see the man now so famous for playing the Führer in 'Downfall' (2004) voicing such controversial, relevant and liberal sentiments.  It's certainly a message worth listening to.  I still feel I've no idea why the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks occurred, since the way they were reported focused on inherent foreign villany, or religiously-motivated insanity, rather than enquiring into what the terrorists were so angry about, and how these desperate measures were reached.

Ulrike again, at the trial

The second half of the film regards the trials of the gang's surviving members, Baader and Meinhof chief among them.  The trial is presided over by judges unwilling to listen to or engage with the defendants, and it's uncomfortably reminiscent of the trial at the core of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928).  Both films were able to work directly from court transcripts, and both seem grotesque travesties.  In each, the authorities are angry, rather than just, and the defendants are sure from the start to suffer at length, and to die, but not be forgotten.  What St. Joan lacked, which the RAF unfortunately did not, is a second and third generation of increasingly extreme and murderous terrorists in the outside world, inspired by their acts but entirely outside their control.  Actually, thinking about it, Joan may have had something like that too, but it's more of an issue here than in her film.

What came back to me several times in the week after watching this film was how the country rallied to the RAF's support.  When the police and the anti-terrorist department step up their search for the Baader-Meinhof gang, our heroes are forced to go under-cover, and though they already have a reputation for robbing banks (sort of hooray), blowing up office buildings and shooting policemen (markedly less hooray), a sizeable minority of the German public, when asked, proffer support for the gang, many saying they would shelter gang members from the authorities.  This wasn't just a violent gang threatening the nation, they were standing up for the people and against a malign state, and the people were glad of this.  It's certainly a more inspiring, more intelligent Crowd than we get in 'M' (1931) or 'Julius Caesar' (1950).  What I have since been asking myself: would I shelter gang-members, if they stood up in this way to authorities so cruel and wilfully ignorant of their electorate's needs, a state that needed to be stopped?  Maybe.  I'd like to think so, even.  Would I end up making bombs for them?  I hope not, as I'm terribly clumsy.

P.S. Oh, it's a good film, by the way.  A strong script, direction, hurdy-gurdy, hurdy-gurdy.  As happens on occasion, I seem to have found myself talking about the message and the ideas, and not about the film under consideration.  That probably means the film works very well indeed.

P.P.S. With 'Die Baader-Meinhof Komplex', 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' (1933) and 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), I've achieved a pointless mini-goal of mine, to see films starting with the masculine, feminine and neuter German words for 'the'.  A complex, it seems, is masculine, a Testament is neutral, and a Nibelungen?  Well, actually that's plural in this case, so I haven't strictly speaking achieved what I sought, even if I did get a Die, Das and Der.  Thankfully homelands are feminine, at least in language, and 'Die Andere Heimat' (2013) is in cinemas this October, at least in Germany, and I'm very keen indeed to see it.

This is a film worth watching.  It is, as you may expect, violent in a number of ways, though not gratuitously so - but if you think that may be a problem for you, steer clear of it.  Otherwise, give it your full attention.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

...and incidentally, a merry Easter Octave to all of you at home

I've been on holiday this week, or should I say holiday has been on me?  Either way, I've neglected to write up any Pencilton-shaped comments on films, or to watch any films, but I've notes and memories enough to resume this coming Wednesday with 'Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex' (2008), and carry on from there.

Just, y'know, reassuring y'all that the blog hasn't been abandoned.

P.S. I could absolutely write you a short set of notes on a film this evening, but I can't be bothered.