Monday, 14 September 2020

A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding)

This is a very interesting film which I picked up recently on Film4, so doing the rounds. It's a film full of social systems observations interspersed with acts of violence between people who, generally, are the poor folk trying to scrape a living together in modern-day China. 
The film is sort of split into four stories.

The first one is about a man who lives in a village and is looking for revenge on the elected officials of the village for corruption and fraud. He has no money but sees them using the funds which were raised by the selling of village resources to buy jet planes and live the life of luxury. We follow him as his anger grows and finally erupts into a plethora of revenge.

In the second, we follow a man who is discontent with the boring life in his village, his boring marriage and nothing ever happening, so he regularly hits the road to try and find excitement and danger. This often ends up in acts of violence towards those who cross him, but also even those who don't! He's happy to commit violence against those who have wealth as a reaction to his poverty and boredom.

The third part is about a woman who is involved with a married man. She wants him to leave his wife and start a new life with him. He's not so sure and there is anxiety between them on the topic which leads to an ultimatum being served by her and a resulting act of violence which comes from a rather unexpected source.

Lastly there's a young man working in a factory who is larking about one day. As a result of this, his co-worker cuts his hand badly and needs two weeks off. His boss says that it is the young man's fault and so he must pay the injured party his wages for the time he can't work. So our character does a bunk, leaves town and heads for new employment elsewhere. He takes a job in a hotel where around him clients are paying for sex with the 'massage girls' who have been recruited in large numbers. He can't stand this for long so takes a job in another factory which ultimately leads to more violence.

It's hard to get to the bottom of what's really being said here by the film's creator Jia Zhangke but I think it's about inequality, social status, unfairness of the system and a dramatisation of what lengths he thinks people might be willing to go to, to fix this. Or at least bring comfort to themselves within a hard poverty-driven environment where nothing is fair and most of it corrupt or immoral.

There's a warning on Film4 ahead of the screening about violence towards animals and sure enough, there are two or three scenes where this is depicted graphically. The incidents looked very much like they were actually filmed as-is, unlike the violence between humans, but maybe (I hope that) I'm wrong and it was just filming techniques. We know how actors act and special effects work, but maybe we're not so sure how much protection animals get in various countries around the world, making these scenes the most harrowing of the film. From what I read, the film seems to have been banned from release in China, probably for a combination of the above.

The photography is excellent throughout with dramatic sweeping long-focus but also deeply intrusive close-ups. And an intelligent mix of the two. This feels very much like a arthouse film beautifully produced. I have to admit to not knowing any of the actors involved, all of whom seem very experienced in the Chinese film scene. None of them put a foot wrong and executed their characters admirably. The stars of the show seem to have been Wu Jiang, Baoqiang Wang and Tao Zhao.

It's compelling viewing that I'm not sure that I would recommend really. There is so much to admire about lots of it, but also much which is disturbing and on the face of it maybe didn't need filming. I'm pleased that I have seen it however, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more Chinese films.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Anomalisa (2015)

Having just recently watched I'm Thinking of Ending Things and trying to get my head round what it was all about and understanding what was going on, I thought I'd try another of Charlie Kaufman's challenges! This time it's simpler, but just as interesting and with depth.

This one is from 2015 and a short punchy stop-start animation which has been beautifully filmed with the finest of detail technically throughout. It has a style and creates a mood, not designed to be perfect but purposefully removed from reality, reflecting one of the film's central themes.

Michael Stone is an author, expert in Customer Services and depressed soul reflecting on the futility of existence, regretting previous and current decisions and detesting the boring place in which he finds himself. Think Reggie Perrin without the comedy. The story starts as he arrives to give a speech at a conference in a hotel where many of his followers, fans and supporters have flocked to hear him.

He's on the phone to the family, he's trying to look up old flames, he's trying so very hard to inject something into his mundane life. He's disillusioned, drinking too much and not really interested in anything. Then suddenly, something presents itself and he meets a girl he falls in love with, or so he thinks, who could change his life around. This was the spark of energy he had been waiting for. It's really important that he doesn't blow it and let his mental state leading up to this point get the better of him.

David Thewlis plays the voice of Michael and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the girl, Lisa. Tom Noonan voices many of the other characters and they all do that ably well. The significance of a male voice taking on most of the female characters as well as male becomes apparent later on. Well, you didn't expect it to be straight forward did you! Having said that, this is nowhere near as complex and twisted as I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Compared to that, this is simple!

There are messages through this film about people living in bubbles of isolation as they appear to be living an ordinary life. There is much sadness portrayed in our central character and also an insight into how that misery can infect those around the person. It's about people and how they interact on different levels but also about how easily one in their midst can slip away into a world of their own dissatisfaction.

It's an excellent, well observed film which I thoroughly enjoyed. Uplifting it is not, but there are pockets of fine humour to enjoy as well, thrown in for good measure. Recommended.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Detour (2013)

After watching Centigrade recently, I got the flavour of trapped/survival films and was able to track this little Indie down which is similar, at least in theme. This time it's a landslide/mud and not snow and ice and there's only one person in the car instead of two.

Jackson is on his way to a meeting when suddenly there's a deluge of mud which sweeps him, in his car, away off the road and buries both of them! He's got really limited supplies, much like the folks in Centigrade, and starts to realise that if he waits to be rescued, he'll die first.

The tension rises as the mud starts to harden and get heavier on his car. It starts to creak and groan under the strain. He must take smart and measured actions to survive and work out how on earth he is going to get himself out.

It's another short film, but with this one director/writer William Dickerson has not been brave enough to spend the whole time with Jackson, but rather relies on flashbacks, dream sequences, thoughts and memories of the life from which he has been separated. Perhaps it was easier with Centigrade to stay with the couple as there were the two of them. However, I thought Centigrade was stronger for this element, as it was for Locke, Buried and 7500, previously considered.

However, the star of the show Neil Hopkins does a good enough job. The character's a likeable chap and the audience can instantly root for him in his quest and want him to get out and survive. The question is, though, are the filmmakers brave enough to do the dirty on him or provide us with a nice cosy ending. You'll have to work a bit to get hold of this as the DVD is hard to come by. Looks like a US import only, or MusicMagpie is your friend for used.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

This is now available on NetflixUK as I write. I watched it last night and had been looking forward to it. I think I should have read the book! I was too thick to work out what on earth was going on through most of it but thankfully there were people reviewing on IMDb who were offering analysis aiding understanding.

Surreal and mind-boggling, now understanding what was going on, I realise that I was kind of picking up on some of it, but you really need an open mind and maybe think on another level to get it, cold. At least, for me that was true. Which I didn't, enough, obviously!

I was confused enough by Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich and to a lesser extent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I'm now looking to tackle Anomalisa! At least it is interesting and different, not boring spoon-fed mindless film junk we're so often served.

David Thewlis, Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley and Toni Collette were excellent throughout, can't take that away from the experience, but yes, just wear a Salvador Dali hat whilst watching and try to think under the skin, where most things might not quite be what they seem!

IMDb: Full of misgivings, a young woman travels with her new boyfriend to his parents' secluded farm. Upon arriving, she comes to question everything she thought she knew about him, and herself. Based on the book by Iain Reid.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Radioactive (2019)

Most of us have some idea about the mark in history made by Marie Curie, radiography and x-rays, but I certainly didn't know much of the detail of her professional and personal life, personality traits and troubles she faced from challenges from the establishment in achieving what she did a century ago until I watched this film.

Based on the book by Lauren Redniss, it tells the story based on fact (the Marie Cure Wiki Page does seem to present similar facts and timeline of events to this film). Born Marie Sklodowska-Curie in Poland to scientific-minded atheist father and a mother who she had to watch die at a young age from TB ensured that she was interested in the understanding of science and not anything with no evidence. This theme is returned to throughout the film, particularly surrounding seance which was popular at the time and some claiming to be 'science'.

Marie moved to Paris where she could avail herself of better scientific opportunities and whilst there met Pierre Curie, another scientist. They married and had two children throughout the course of the film's timeline. The pair worked relentlessly to make their discoveries - and the film depicts the sexist way in which the establishment tried very hard to honour Pierre with the discoveries instead of Marie. We know the history of the Nobel Prize awards and these are reflected appropriately in the film, anxiety demonstrated in keeping with the above.

Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Die Another Day, Jack Reacher) plays Marie as mostly the unlikeable, cold, scientific, emotionless woman that she has appeared to have been for real. Tormented by her childhood memories of her mother's death, she found it near-impossible to go to a hospital, making her science and discovery even harder. Pike does all this in her stride, depicting the person admirably. Sam Riley (Control, Maleficent) plays Pierre passively which, again, from the background looks mostly like the man's temperament. They are clearly deeply in love with each other, reflected by both throughout, but mostly when family tragedy strikes.

As for the science, I think I kept up! Understanding at the atomic level distanced me, but to be fair the presentation, though technical in a few pockets, was largely made layman-friendly. The film depicts both sides of the good and bad effects of Curie's discoveries. How it has helped, and still helps, medicine and health for people to this day, but also the timeline leaps back and forward (outside of her lifetime) to also remind the audience of the negative sides and how nations and governments have used the learning for destruction.

Talking of timeline, there are times when this has been compressed and compacted - for example during Marie's two pregnancies - only really focusing on the fact that she refused to go to hospital to give birth - and that because of this one of them was nearly lost. We jump to her deathbed in 1934 now and again, then back to her childhood and spend some time in and amongst the trenches of WWI. But this is done clearly and captions keep viewers clear about where they were.

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, The Voices) keeps order and ensures that the sets reflect the poverty-stricken and glum darkness of the interiors and streets of Paris from a century ago where filth was abundant and sickness prevalent. The orchestral and solo piano music behind the scenes reflects the mood beautifully, much of it slow and dark, like the sets. Photography has been experimented with as wild vignette techniques have often been employed for flashback scenes. In these dark settings, lighting was key as it was often low and brought out deep shadows, which has been executed with ambience.

Various Brit actors turn up throughout, with varying degrees of screen-time, including Simon Russell Beale, Sian Brooke, Aneurin Barnard and Katherine Parkinson. All the performances are convincing. It was hard to find fault.

I found this to be a deeply moving story at times and an education regarding the background and achievements of this scientifically-minded woman. It has been shot very nicely and the times at which the pace was slow were countered by the compression at others. As I write, it's included in Amazon Prime - and is indeed an Amazon Studios creation. Well worth watching.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

#Alive (#Saraitda)

This little Korean Zombie film from newcomer director Il Cho is a cut above most of the genre. Mainly because actually it's more of a survival tale.

While the whole world outside of an inner-city apartment block complex gets zombiefied, our central character has no alternative but to stay put and hope for help coming. The chances of this dwindle as time goes on, food runs out, water supply gets cut off - though strangely the electricity survives throughout. What is he to do!

I do find Zombie films generally more funny than anything - I think it's the way that they move which is, well, just comic! But fortunately, they play second-fiddle to the survival story, which I now come back to. Eventually, after about 3 weeks, he realises that there's a girl in the flat across the quadrangle, in the same situation as him. Shin-Hye Park plays the very pretty girl who then tries to work out a survival plan with our main character played by Ah-In Yoo.

This is where the action starts as they have to firstly somehow get together, so down their flats, across the quadrangle infested with zombies, and up the other side - then what? Well, the battle begins as they slash their way to a pretty crummy ending, frankly, but we'll forgive that!

Much of the film is about high-tech, drones for practical personal use, social media and how, of course, it will all be instrumental in the survival of the species if zombies took over the planet! It's all good fun and certainly worth a watch if you get the chance!

Après Vous (After You)

A beautifully delivered romantic comedy/farce which the French just seem to do so well. A well-crafted story full of quirky and interesting characters in near-absurd situations as they unravel the ins-and-outs of ordinary life mixed up with disaster, hope, joy and fun wrapped up, of course, in a love-triangle!

Writer/Director Pierre Salvadori, who later penned the fabulous Priceless (Hors de Prix) in 2006, delivers the mix with style and class, bringing out the best from the excellent cast. Daniel Auteuil (Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, The Widow of Saint-PierreUn Coeur en Hiver) is Antoine who is maître d' at a posh Paris eatery and living with his girlfriend who has designs on a wedding ring. He's late leaving for home one night and cuts through the park, where he stumbles on a stranger Louis trying to hang himself from a tree. José Garcia (Now You See Me, Bastille Day) is Louis who is suffering after a split with the woman who is clearly the love of his life.

Antoine starts to go to ludicrous lengths to get Louis back on his feet, turning his life, pretty much, over to the project! He risks everything for this man, including his own relationship, professional reputation, money and belongings. We're never quite clear why he should make such rash decisions, except, as he says, it's the decent thing to do! He can't seem to say 'no' to anyone. He tries to get Louis' love to think again, but in doing so falls for her himself, and she, him. Enter the love-triangle!

The centre of the love triangle is the flower-girl Blanche, who is played delightfully by the unknown to me but hugely experienced French actress Sandrine Kiberlain. Things go from bad to worse in a Woody Allen type way as the players dance around one absurd situation after the next, chase dreams, u-turn in cul-de-sacs and leave the audience smiling and wincing throughout!

This is just a lot of fun - a good film for a rainy bank holiday afternoon which puts many English-speaking romantic comedies to shame because, well, I say it again, the French just seem to do better than anyone else. It's full of really likeable and charming characters and actors. Nobody puts a foot wrong and the setting is so typically French throughout feeding the Paris middle-class stereotype. The only thing missing is Audrey Tautou! Don't miss it when it comes round!

A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding)

This is a very interesting film which I picked up recently on Film4, so doing the rounds. It's a film full of social systems observation...