Friday, May 27, 2011


Possession, France/Germany, 1981
Dir: Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Heinz Bennent

“There is nothing to fear except God.”

Possession is a film set in Germany, starring a French actress, a British actor, and directed by a Polish filmmaker. This eclectic mix of personalities combined to make a brilliantly, head-scratching and bizarre horror film in the early 1980s.

The film opens with such gusto, and verve you experience a double-take and wonder whether or not you walked into the movie thirty minutes too late. There is no introduction to the film, rather it hits you in the face like a bucket of water immediately as it begins and delves into the complex state of being of its protagonists.

A married couple, Mark and Anna, played by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani, having just taken a break from each other, reunite only to separate again once it is revealed that she has had a lover for over a year. This shakes Neill’s character to the core and he goes on a month long binge of alcohol-drinking and isolation which drives him to the brink of insanity and to the point where he is unable to even speak properly.

The camera roves around locations and characters like a fly buzzing through a room. The film moves at a quick pace and we soon enter an arena more suitable for filmmakers such as David Lynch or David Cronenberg. Possession transforms itself from a melodrama a la Kramer vs. Kramer, and into a surreal and bloody horror film a la The Exorcist, with mysterious doppelgangers and elusive conspiracy theories abound.

Suddenly, Adjani’s character turns into a woman literally possessed, by what we are unaware of, but certainly some sort of evil spirit that drives her to madness and to commit violent acts of murder. There is also a particularly disturbing scene where she experiences an excruciating mental and physical breakdown in a subway station, a seizure of sorts, which her character later describes in the following way: “What I miscarried there was sister faith, and what was left was sister chance.”

is such an utterly bizarre film that it is quite difficult to put into perspective the experience of watching it. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to it, in fact, I suppose there must be, there is so much going on, your eyes are not given a break until the closing credits make their appearance. The ending is an unexplained nightmare, a conclusion that suggests a hostile takeover by another planet, theoretically offering one sort of answer to the sordid puzzle that the audience are thrown into. Many viewers will find the film disgusting, alienating and cold. But that is perhaps the purpose of such a film, to alienate its audience, to disturb them, and to unnerve them.

Ms. Adjani does a magnificent job as a troubled housewife gone crazy, and won a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Academy Award) for her performance in the film. Also great is Heinz Bennent, who plays Adjani’s cool but eccentric lover. Possession is a love it or hate it type of movie that breaks all the rules there are to break and is unapologetic about it to boot. It is a work of art that could only have been delivered by a European filmmaker and remains one of the best cult horror films of all time.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Nostalghia, Italy-USSR, 1983
Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Oleg Yankovsky, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

Great artists typically take painstaking measures to ensure their work is carefully measured out and executed before being delivered to audiences. In the late 1970s, Andrei Tarkovsky, a noted filmmaker who might be Russia’s most beloved of all directors, was essentially kicked out of his native country and forced to work in other European countries. He was only able to direct two films outside of the USSR, before his untimely death in 1986. The first of these films is Nostalghia, filmed in Italy, and released in 1983.

It is clear from the opening image, that the film would be another soul-searching, thought-provoking effort by Tarkovsky. The change in landscape and language did not affect his ability to direct a film which you could literally pause at any moment and find yourself staring at a painting created by a major artist.

Tarkovsky’s facility to combine sounds and images is a gift very few filmmakers have possessed. His early work such as 1962’s Ivan’s Childhood and 1966’s Andrei Rublev show an emerging talent who had reached a level of maturity far beyond his age. His talents culminated in the 70s with haunting works of art such as Solaris, Zerkalo (The Mirror), and Stalker, his final films in the USSR. Nostalghia is a continuation of the themes Tarkovsky visits and revisits in his work – memories, death, nature, adolescence, God, faith, and motherly love.

The story is about a Russian poet and his female colleague who visit a small Italian town. There, they encounter an aging Italian man who lost his mind years prior and locked himself and his family up in their house for seven years, until they were finally discovered and taken away from him. The poet befriends this man and is asked to fulfill a great deed – to enter a sacred body of water with a candle in hand, which the old man believes will save his town from damnation.

Tarkovsky’s films are sometimes reminiscent of work of other acclaimed filmmakers. Solaris can be seen as the Russian answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nostalghia remains very much Bergman-esque, very dark and very surreal. The lead character, Andrei, is haunted by dreams and nightmares of a past life which seem to intersect with the controversial past of the man he befriends. Frequent Bergman collaborator Erland Josephson, stars as the deranged old man. Josephson would also star in Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice, released in Sweden in 1986, the year of Tarkovsky’s death.

Italy has always been known as a historically rich country, and Tarkovsky manages to elevate the splendor and beauty of the country by carefully photographing characters and well-chosen locations. He also manages to highlight otherwise insignificant objects such as a puddle of water or a lit candle or a bottle standing on the ground growing lonelier as time passes. He takes objects that are usually taken for granted not only in film but in life, and puts them in the throes of the spotlight, as if asking the audience to give their attention not only to the things we typically expect to see in a film, but also these little things, the things we never pay attention to in life, the things that hold a lot of beauty when taken out of context.

Also starring Oleg Yankovsky as the poet, and the beautiful Domiziana Giordano, in her film debut, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia takes us on a spiritual trip that makes destinations at the bottom of our souls and at the top of hidden mystics we were unaware existed. This is the work of a master filmmaker, and the culmination of a brilliant career cut short a mere three years later.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


The Tree of Life, USA, 2011
Dir: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken

What is The Tree of Life? In biblical terms, it is the plant from which Eve was enticed to eat the apple from, who later seduced Adam into breaking God’s first request of them, which was not to touch apples from the tree. In modern terms, it is the title of renowned director Terrence Malick’s new film. The Tree of Life is many things. It is a quiet and unnerving movie experience. At some points it is magical and at others it is at a standstill. The film finally showed its face last night at the Cannes Film Festival, a screening that has been highly anticipated and consistently postponed for several years. Filmed in 2008, Malick chose to take his time on post-production, working on several complex sequences that featured CGI.

The Tree of Life
, in simple terms, is a simple film disguised as a multi-layered one. Malick has been directing since 1973, yet this is just his fifth film. He broke out onto the scene in the 1970s with Badlands and Days of Heaven and then didn’t make another film until 1998, when his epic Vietnam-set film The Thin Red Line garnered seven Academy Award Nominations, including two for Malick. His next film didn’t take quite as long to make, although it was seven years before he released The New World, a visually-stunning and lyrical variation of the tale of Pocahantas.

The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents bringing up their three boys in the 1950s. We learn early on that one of the children dies at nineteen, and then we are transported back to the beginning of it all. And I mean, literally, the beginning of the world and life itself. What follows is the highlight of the film, and what I would call the cinematic equivalent of pre-ejaculation. It is a fifteen-minute long sequence that will remind audiences of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that dealt with the origins of life and the meaning of time and space. Malick uses this amazing, mind-altering sequence to tie together his meditation on God and faith with the story of fatherhood, and adolescence.

Unfortunately for the audience, once the sequence is over, the film continues by going back to the beginnings of the family at the center of the film, and does not return to more ambitious storytelling. Malick, after all, is a visionary, not a storyteller. He is the intellectual’s version of James Cameron, a filmmaker who wants to amaze you with beautiful images never seen before. If this was his goal in the past, then he succeeded with flying colors. He has succeeded again, presenting a film that has such rapturous, dreamy cinematography, one must remember to completely clear one’s mind before entering the theater, in order to make room for the dizzying array of images one is about to encounter. The Tree of Life is a film that requires patience and, more importantly, an open mind from its audience.

Disappointment came when the film immensely slowed its pace down, and when it was clear that Sean Penn, despite being in all the posters and trailers for the film, only had the most minor role in the film. Don’t be fooled by his name in the credits, he is featured in the film for about ten seconds, and has absolutely no lines. Call it a silent cameo, if you will. The real stars of The Tree of Life are Chastain, who plays the mother of the boys and Pitt, who plays a disillusioned husband and father. Pitt’s character is a manager at a factory who had ambitions to be a musician that dissipated over time, and whose various patents are continuously rejected. He raises the boys with an iron fist and is undermined routinely by the eldest boy, the one who eventually dies years after the action in the film concludes. Chastain portrays the emotional, young wife and mother of three with poise and elegance. In between the action, we see images of Sean Penn, one of the sons all grown-up, presumably in present day, working at his office, and then wandering around a desert, perhaps in a dream-state, looking for his brother and parents. Hunter McCracken is also excellent, playing the younger version of Sean Penn's character.

Malick has always been known to be a perfectionist, a filmmaker who focuses on what the eyes see and the ears hear. The music used in the film, all classical, is beautiful and makes one feel like they are watching a film from another time period or another planet altogether. The fact that Malick had the audacity to make such a film is commendable. It is slow, thought –provoking, surreal, and enigmatic. Of course, Malick, being from another generation of filmmakers, uses his name and recognition from the past to create a film that encompasses more than the sum of its parts. I am excited to see the reaction of the public and critics once it is released. It will certainly stir emotions and create debates that will last a lifetime.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Eyes Wide Shut, USA, 1999
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

In the twelve years since its release, Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut has developed a substantial cult following, in spite of, or maybe thanks to a rocky reception from critics and audiences during its release in July 1999.

It is an incredibly complex film, but screams out to be picked apart like a piece of meat devoured by vultures. I read Michael Herr’s brief memoir “Kubrick” recently and outside of the fact that it is an incredibly positive and optimistic view of Kubrick and his personality and particularly his films (Herr practically jerked himself off to every single one of Kubrick’s films, attempting to hide his overwhelming prejudice by calling several of his movies ‘flawed masterpieces’), he also commented heavily on Eyes Wide Shut in the last chapter of the book. His comments were interesting, particularly because I am a fan of the film, so its nice to see someone defend it, but he also said that Kubrick undoubtedly would have continued to fine tune the film even until the week of its release, because that’s just how he edited his films, until the last possible moment.

There are some who say that Kubrick loved Eyes Wide Shut and considered it his best work, others say its an impossibility that he would have held it in such high regard because it was unfinished and the first official final cut was completed days before his death, meaning in the months between this initial completion and the time of its release four months later, its unquestionable that Kubrick would have made further edits, cutting it down from its 159 minute release length to possibly something in the 140 minute range (similar to what he did with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film originally running at a 160 minutes, and ending at a 141 after cuts following test screenings).

Kubrick was too smart, and more importantly, too much of a perfectionist, not to make further edits. The film that stands is indeed a flawed masterpiece, because it is a film that contains too much detail, and too much detail creates false tension, and false tension only drags the story along like a carriage dragging a dead body behind it through a dusty city street in the old west.

It is most definitely a Kubrick film. It’s a mind bogglingly enigmatic movie, with more questions than answers, perhaps because there are no answers to the questions that Kubrick invents for the audience. Whether he did this intentionally or because, as an artist, he was past his prime, is up to debate. It has been twelve years since the film’s release, and while there has been much debate over the film’s mystery and intrigue, it still has not generated the interest that his previous films have, such as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick never lived to respond to his critics or to audiences after the release of Eyes Wide Shut. Nor was he around for the backlash to the movie and its lack of sex, which is what everyone expected out of the film. The interesting part is that there is plenty of nudity and sex in the film, and it is highly erotic. Even though there are no sex scenes between its stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Kidman is nonetheless nude for half the time she is on-screen. There are countless scenes of female nudity, and even an extended sequence of non-stop fucking at an underworld orgy party held for the rich and famous at a secluded mansion.

Kubrick’s main mistake during the making of this film is excess. Even though he had employed extreme measures in the makings of all his films since he moved to England in the 60s and started making movies there. He had spent four years making 2001, he spent three years making Barry Lyndon (his consolation project after the failure to make Napoleon, dubbed “The greatest film never made”). He shot The Shining, a movie set in Colorado, in England, his choice of place for filming. It took Kubrick nearly seven years to direct Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnam war film that he once again painstakingly shot in England, where he literally transformed a sect of London into a Vietnam look-alike.

It was a dozen years before Eyes Wide Shut was finally completed. Filming took place over the course of an excruciating 18 months, an insane amount of time for a movie’s filming. The movie takes place entirely in New York City, a very distinct, and unique and large metropolis that cannot be duplicated, not even by the greatest master of filmmaking and art. This was one of the most common complaints by critics, that the sets were poorly designed, and the city landscape was not believable enough.

Of course, that might just add to the surrealistic tone of the film, the fact that the whole city set was only two or three blocks, so you would see the same street signs and stores in the background even though the character has supposedly traveled many miles to a different location. The film is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, and dreams are a theme that runs constant during the film. Many say that the movie is entirely a dream; some argue it is just a skewed, somewhat unrealistic version of reality. The only person, who can properly answer this question, and others, died nearly half a year before the film’s release.

Stanley Kubrick was 70 years old when he passed away. Kubrick was not a big believer in God, but he was born Jewish and in Jewish history, the number 70 has a large significance. Most importantly, it is the age at which King David, a savior of the Jews, died at. In fact, David was not supposed to live at all. Adam, the first man created was supposed to live forever, but after sinning by eating the apple, God only granted him 1,000 years of life. Adam foresaw a great man who had the potential to save the Jewish people but was going to die at birth, and decided to give this man 70 years of his own life. Thus, Adam lived to be 930 years, and allowed David a life until 70. This is not meant to be a comparison to David or Adam or any religious figure, or man of God. It is simply a coincidence that the two men both lived to be 70.

Stanley Kubrick is probably the greatest filmmaker that will ever exist. It is because there exists more questions than answers, not only in the filmmaking world, but also in the world of the general population. But for Kubrick, it was the other way around. He had more answers than questions, and it’s a reason why he tortured his writers and actors during the production of his films. He knew something they didn’t, and that’s the entire issue at hand. We want to know exactly what it was he knew that we didn’t. It might explain his movies a little better. It might also explain this world a little better, a world that perhaps he figured out, and was trying desperately, and frustratingly to explain to us through his work.