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Films of the Month

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Some more films and telly for this month, including many old ones: Professione Reporter, Netto, Volver, Little Britain, Bande à Part, The Wooden Camera, Le dernier métro, Cannabis, Element of Crime and The flavour of Green Tea over Rice.

Professione Reporter

A saw Professione Reporter – aka The Passenger – in a quest to see more of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films after having loved his famous Blowup a lot and being less than impressed by L’Avventura. While lacking the ‘cool’ of Blow Up, Professione Reporter is definitely on the better side. A long, slow film once more. But one in a completely different setting.

We start following reporter Jack Locke – played by a stunningly young Jack Nicholson – on his way to interviewing some guerillas in North Africa. There’s a lot of desert and not much going on. Until an English businessman staying in the same hotel as himself dies. At which stage he swaps identities with that businessman – presumably to rid himself of the dissatisfaction he feels with his job. And after returning to Europe, he starts living by the businessman’s calendar. In the process of which we learn that the ‘business’ in question is selling arms. And we see David follow appointments nonetheless.

While doing so he gets to know a good-looking architecture student in some Gaudí building (holy shit, I never thought they’d look this cool, I have to go!) who joins him on the rest of his way which consists mostly of hiding from various people looking for him and ends in a semi-eternal scene where we see all those people converging in front of his hotel.

While the film again seems slow by today’s standards (and at more than two hours it is quite long), it’s still filmed carefully enough to not be boring. I also really like the way local languages are used extensively in the film without the need to pretend that everyone in the world just happens to speak English.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Netto

Running on TV recently and recommended highly by our daily paper was Netto – according to the paper an ultra low-budget film school film (by a student of the infamous Rosa von Praunheim apparently). It didn’t look too cheap though, and it had quite a bit of drama in it.

We get to know Marcel, Angelika and their son Sebastian. They lived in Eastern Germany and Sebastian was born just before the wall came down. Now he’s fifteen, his parents have split up and he decides to move to his dad’s as Angelika moves in with her new husband. At first he’s shocked at how his dad is still stuck in ‘old’ thinking. How he can’t take things seriously – let alone write a decent application letter for a job. So – after initial struggles – he helps his dad out with that using what he learns at school.

While this doesn’t solve Marcel’s problems right away, we see him gaining both a bit of hope and a perspective for his future as well as establishing a relationship with his son – who in turn is keen on establishing a relationship with a girl he met in his dad’s house. Which means we get to see the guy who self-confidently improved his dad’s application letters, act more like you’d expect a teenager to act in other places.

There’s a lot in this film. It may not be mind-blowing but it’s well done. Worth seeing, I’d say.

Sebastian and Marcel sitting in the corridor

Volver

I quite like Pedro Almodóvar’s films and thus was keen to see his current work Volver when I heard about it in spring. As usual, it took a while to make its way here. It’s once again a film with the wonderful Penélope Cruz and it has once more those Almodóvar looks with rich dashes of colours everywhere and lovingly crafted sets that make you want to watch the film for the wallpapers alone.

With just a single prostitute and all-female protagonists, the film is a refreshing change from the numerous shades of gay or transvestite there usually are in Almodóvar’s films. Instead the good old family-topics of child-abuse and incest are dealt with. The film starts with Raimunda coming home after her daughter Paula has killed her step-father who tried to rape her.

While dealing with that problem in a very matter-of-fact way, an aunt dies back in Raimunda’s home town and in the course of mourning her together with her sister Sole, they discover that their own mother who was believed to be dead is still alive and had been supporting the dying aunt for the past years. This unexpected blast from the past, unravels more history and painful memories.

Shot from the film

I’m still not sure how much I like the film. While I appreciate the greater subtlety in this one along with all the small tragedies that add up, I also found that it starts off many little stories… about the neighbour, about the restaurant, about the singing… which aren’t picked up again and make things like they were constructed in a hurry with too much of the artificial construction shining through.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Little Britain

I watched some episodes of Little Britain when visiting Dan earlier this year. And now my flatmate got the first series on DVD from a friend. The show is just an extremely painful piece of television.

It’s quite funny in some places but just annoying in others. And with a whole season to go through it’s rather repetitive as well. While each characterisation they do is funny the first time around, that wears off rather quickly. Particularly if the people involved do pretty much exactly the same thing in each episode – just in a different surrounding.

But that may just be a German guy not ‘getting’ British humour. I mean, I’m not supposed to, am I? And I really fail to see what’s particularly comic about pretty much everyone in the show playing roles where they are guys who are old, fat, ugly, dressing up as a girl and most likely all of the above.

Uh, and one more thing: While we were at Haldern, someone brought up the topic of MILF (which was apparently popularised by the film American Pie… guess who just burnt his Google record with that search!), which is a topic that’s pretty hard to get rid of once a sufficiently large number of drunk people are involved. And seeing Little Britain afterwards, we so had to think that the Gary and Jason sketches were – err, GILF?

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Bande à part

All right, Bande à part is apparently a classic of the nouvelle vague and I’ve read that it’s supposed to be the ‘most accessible’ film by Jean-Luc Godard. Ah well, thank you very much. Being the ignorant that I am, I only thought about seeing the film after listening to Nouvelle Vague’s sophomore album by the same name as the film with yet more ‘bossa nova’ cover versions of 1980s music (partially sweet but the idea is wearing off, I’d say).

It’s a quiet film from the 1960s in black and white. Two guys, Franz and Arthur want to steal a bunch of money from the house of Odile who attends their English class. Around this many things evolve. But I have to be hard pressed to use the word ‘evolve’, as mostly it seems that things aren’t all that strongly connected. They have some idea here and some other there and they follow some of them. They don’t listen to each other when discussing things and mostly ignore Odile, yet both the guys fancy her and they eventually go through with the robbery but fail at it. [Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

As I pointed out earlier, I seem to lack the historical background to appreciate all that. But besides some nice moments, the film just felt like it was assembled together without a real flow and even the frequent voice-overs which claimed to ‘explain’ what’s going on seemed to be doing nothing like that. So what am I missing out on here?

Shot from the film with Ajax and Omo seen on screen

What surprised me was that in one scene there were what looks like cleared ‘placed’ products in the film. Not exactly what I expected in an old froggy arthouse film. And it was also great to see the scene with the run through the Lovre which was talked about and copied for The Dreamers.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

The Wooden Camera

The Wooden Camera is a recent (2004) South African film. In it we see two boys, Sipho and Madiba find a dead body while playing at the railway tracks. With the man they find a gun and a video camera. While Sipho takes the gun and starts being cool with some gangster types and a lifestyle of stealing and drugs, Madiba takes the camera and starts filming. To hide the expensive toy in their poor neighbourhood they build a wooden case around it to make the filming look like child’s play.

Madiba makes a number of fascinating and cool shots with the camera and discovers the girl Estelle in a store where he films her stealing a book. Being from a rich family it’s not that she couldn’t afford the book, but she’s in a phase of rebellion against her parents who do their best in bringing her up in their own old-fashioned racist ways and hence forbid her to be friends with Madiba.

The two of them meet after all, though – at Estelle’s cello teacher’s place as the teacher also tries to bring music to the homelands. He sees and appreciates Madiba’s films and encourages him to go on filming. Which may be just what he needs.

Perhaps the film is a bit simple in the way it portrays the split up between Sipho and Madiba, between crime and art as a simple choice that the protagonists make. But apart from that it’s a sweet story. And the ‘wooden camera’ footage really is quite interesting and seductive – looking somewhat arty and being nice and rough enough to lack the slick professionalism. Oh, and the film features one of my favourite spots in Cape Town. The place where they started building a bridge for the highway to run on but never finished it (I’ve heard people say that’s due to some property in the gap being owned by someone stubborn, but I have no idea whether that’s true). So for many years now there have been two ends of a half-finished bridge right next to Cape Town’s city centre:

Shot of the ending bridge in Cape Town

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Le dernier métro

Le dernier métro is a highly lauded film about a theatre in Nazi-occupied Paris which tries to keep on running despite the new censors. In particular the theatre’s boss Lucas Steiner who is jewish is hiding in the cellar, while the theatre is being run by his wife and performs one of his pieces with a fake author name.

The film touches many different topics. Such as the artists’ struggle to find the right balance between playing the game of censorship and suppression while keeping their self-respect and life; and the different answers that the various characters find for that question. It also shows us that Gérard Depardieu hasn’t always been old and fat.

In total, I wasn’t too impressed by the film, though, and found it a bit lengthy and conventional. Solid, but not great.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Cannabis

Another supposed classic with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin is Cannabis (apparently also known as French Intrigue or The Mafia wants your Blood). Killer Serge comes to Paris to do some work for his bosses in New York. Things go wrong and his friend Paul comes over as well to sort things out while they’re staying at the place of Jane whom Serge fell in love with on the plane to Paris.

It remains a bit unclear what their real business in Paris is, but instead we get Paul waxing lyrical about being alive and smiling all the time (I bet he was a ‘beau’ of the 1970s) while Serge is mainly occupied with shagging the hot Jane (who’ll even undress for the occasions) every ten minutes or so.

So apart from Jane Birkin this sounds a bit lame, but there are a few fun scenes in the film (most notably Serge and Paul having a gunfight with their enemies in a chicken battery farm – who would’ve thought that chicken farming already looked quite bad back in the 1960s? in France?) and with the Gainsbourg music in places it’s all right to chill out to.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

Element of Crime

I love the band Element of Crime and ever since I learned that their name comes from a film by Lars von Trier, I’ve wanted to see that film. But it still took me many years to actually do that.

Not-so-surprisingly it’s a somewhat weird film. And one with strong visuals as well. It was released in 1985 – i.e. well before the Dogma ‘95 era. But also well before the great TV mini-series Riget (a.k.a. Geister, a.k.a. The Kingdom), which it reminded me of quite a lot in both style and a number of scenes.

The whole film is shot (or edited to be) in very dark and reddish tones. That makes it quite mysterious just from looking at it. And it goes with the story of the cop Fisher (strangely the film and its names are very English while everything else seems Danish or even German) who returns to Cairo from a case he had in Denmark and visits a hypnotist to explore his memories from that job. Hence everything is experienced in a dreamy state and from an outside perspective.

With the main story of the case he has to solve back home being that his mentor had written ‘The Element of Crime’ and describes as a technique for solving a case that the investigator has to follow the criminal’s mind and think like him to figure out what is going on and why. Unlike all these modern ‘profiler’ TV series, von Trier sees this kind of technique more as a way to madness than to well-dressed people solving cases by pressing buttons on computers, using science magic to find evidence and investigating crime scenes with torches in the dark rather than simply turning on the light.

In fact, the lights aren’t turned on in The Element of Crime either, but Fisher follows all the traces in a world where every place seems to be flooded, wet and muddy, where paper coffee cups invariably lose their handles and where none of that appears to be remarkable.

So, yup, it’s a bit strange, but probably worth seeing. Particularly if you enjoyed films like Naked Lunch as well.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice

I’ve heard people say that The Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (a.k.a. お茶漬の味) is a Japanese classic. And in the 1950s black and white sense of the word. So I was curious to see it – although I wasn’t sure I could relate to the vastly different time and culture. In the end I was surprised how ‘Western’ many things looked in the film.

The film is very calmly shot and only uses a few repeating stage setups and the camera doesn’t move between cuts which makes the film look very calm from today’s point of view. The film treats the topic of arranged marriages. Both the existing one of the rich girl Taeko and her hard-working ‘dumb’ husband Mokichi and one that is to be arranged for their niece.

While Taeko lies to her husband to be able to go out and have fun with her friends, he tolerates that to have his peace and live the simple life he prefers – rather than her life full of luxuries which he finds stressful. Once their niece fails to turn up for meeting her potential husband, the situation in their home turns stressul. Mokichi seems to support or at least tolerate his niece’s unwillingness to give in to the arranged marriage, while his wife wants to the rules and good manners to be followed.

Over that they get into a row – which amazingly leads to them finally understanding each other better and something like love or at least understanding entering their marriage… which they find over a meal of green tea over rice.

That’s supposed to be a very simple dish. But now I wonder how to make it…

Uh, and I was surprised that Japanese people sing ‘gaudeamus igitur’. But then again, Chiho learned to sing ‘Sah ein Knab ein Röslein stehn’ at school, which is just evil as the word ‘Röslein’ is pretty much impossible to pronounce for people who grew up speaking Japanese.

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

August 30, 2006, 1:20

Tagged as bande à part, bbc, cannabis, cape town, country:za, dernier métro, element of crime, film, flavour of green tea over rice, jack nicholson, jean-luc godard, lars von trier, little britain, michelangelo antonioni, netto, pedro almodóvar, serge gainsbourg, tv, volver, wooden camera.

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