Monday, October 22, 2007

Death at a Funeral: cheap and clever humor mixed together in a film that manages to entertain

A good comedy is really hard to find. Especially for me that I find rather difficult to laugh crude jocks and stupid people who manage to get themselves in impossible situations and face ridicule. Irony, sarcasm and wit make me laugh much more and sincerely than anything else. As a result I usually go for a Woody Allen film like Deconstructing Harry or Mighty Aphrodite or even Manhattan Mystery Murder. Still this film has managed to win me over and make me laugh. As I have said on other instance seeing a movie in a theatre is a unique experience. The spectators influence greatly the experience. If their quiet, if they participate in the correct way in the viewing, if they make annoying noises … everything matters. When I saw this particular movie two rows further down was sitting a fat middle aged man who was laughing hysterically. I have to admit that if he wasn’t in the same room with me I might have laughed less with the film.

The father of dysfunctional British Family dies. At his funeral a stranger visits the family and threatens to reveal some shocking truths about the diseased. He blackmails the sons. The propriety is thrown to the dogs as more and more awkward and extra ordinary incidents take place. The family goes through a crisis but in the end manages to re establish its balance. The script mixes the irony and sarcasm against a proper middle class country British family and a hint of sexual and scatological humor with some success. The sobriety and awkwardness of a family funeral is transformed into a hilarious instance.

A small production film offers the advantages of all the economical independent production. A good written script with clever lines and lots of not-so-famous actors who manage to impersonate perfectly all the characteristic personas of the film. All the film is based on their acting skills and they manage to support it properly. Atmosphere, sytlish mise en scene and impressive directing are lacking but are not needed.

In the whole no one could say that Death in a funeral is masterpiece. It remains however, an interesting film and a rather good comedy. It is pleasantly watches and manages to provoke the spectator’s laughter and mirth with some genuine humor and even some well rather cheap tricks. One can rarely ask much more from a comedy.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Ratatouille: A perfect recipe for a cartoon that leaves you smiling

A twist of the unexpected, a table – spoon of humor, a cup of graphic magic, and a pinch of moral meaning and we have the recipe for an almost perfect cartoon that will satisfy both adults and children.

A twist of the unexpected: Ratatouille is based on a surprisingly clever idea, on a surrealistic paradox that most good fairytales content. A rat, one of the most dirty and disgusting creatures in our conception, has a passion for good food and fine cuisine. A rat is creature that most adults with very strong pre- conceptions have a natural objection of ever meeting anywhere near food or even worse in a restaurant’s kitchen. Still this rat Remy washes his upper foot and refuses to walk on four because he doest want to contaminate his food with the dirt and the smell of the things he steps on. Moreover he refuses to eat just to eat. He savors every good taste and gets excited by the right combination of taste and smell. He is presented as an artist, someone that would endanger his life and abandon his family in order to be able to do his art and be praised for it.

A table-spoon of humor: The jokes in this cartoon can satisfy both children and the more rigid adults. Remy’s first visit in the kitchen where he nearly escapes from exposure or death a thousand times reminds us a scene of an old good Charlie Chaplin slapstick comedy. The laugh derives from the body movement, the exquisite timing of an orchestrated sequence that resembles a perfectly executed dancing or even an acrobatic number. In other scenes the humour is much more subtle and intellectual catching the attention of the adult audience. Catchy lines offer wit. The rats are considered thieves so in Remy’s dialogue with his father a joke is played on our way of thinking.

Remy: We're thieves, and what we're stealing is, let's be honest, garbage.
Django: It's not stealing if no one wants it.
Remy: If no one want's it, then why are we stealing it?

Some of the character’s lines convey hints on our preconceptions on French culture (Colette: I hate to be rude, but, we're French!), high cuisine and even contemporary politics creating the opportunity to appreciate the under run irony of the cartoon.

A cup of graphic magic: Pixar has done an amazing work on the computer graphic animation. It has managed to resolve on of the biggest defaults of the new technology. While the cartoon remains realistic and exploits the benefits of the new 3d technology flawlessly, it succeeds in remaining romantic and atmospheric. In the past the 3d perfection gave the cartons a feel of plastic and it rendered them a little kich.

A pinch of moral meaning: As a good American cartoon film Ratatouille (allas!) has to have a moral meaning which is obvious in all the film. In case someone misses it Anton Ego (=the evil food critic) sums it up in the end: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere”. This motto unfortunately reminds me too much of the American ideal of opportunity where everyone no matter how poor, humble and insignificant can become famous, rich and successful. "If you risk enough, work hard enough you are bound to make it" Americans say. Still this is a little bit too clean cut, naive and optimistic. On the other hand this is a kid's movie.

The second theme that runs through the whole picture is very much on discussion these days. Both in England and in America the habits of nourishment especially for kids are being discussed. The ethnic food of Americans, Fast Food, is severely judged and found guilty for many of the health problems of the nation. When Remy says: If you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff, he sums all the debate on health and food.

As for myself I would choose to keep this line:

Django: This is the way things are; you can't change nature.
Remy: Change is nature, Dad. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.
Django: [Remy turns to leave] Where are you going?
Remy: With luck, forward.

Or even better perfectly suited for me would be:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cinema Festival of Athens: 1. Show some love you losers, 2. The Voyeurs, 3. Lola Montes

Every year I swear that I will try to make the most of the film festival watching even two films per night. Unfortunately reality caches up with me and I manage to see only few. To make things worse this year I manage to get a cold which means that I caught even fewer films than usual. Anyway, I still managed to see three very different films. Firstly the Show some love, you losers! - Daihachi Yoshida, secondly The Voyeurs- Buddhadev Dasgupta and finally Lola Montes-Max Ophüls.

Show some love, you losers! - Daihachi Yoshida
Daihachi Yoshida describes the complex relationships of a Japanese country family. When the parents die in a car accident the elder sister returns to the village for the funeral. The film describes the relationships focuses mostly on the relationship of the two sisters. The elder in her aspiration in becoming a actress even if is completely untalented has manage to blackmail and torture all the family. The younger one has found inspiration in her sister to crate an extremely violent comic. When her comic becomes famous her sister blames her for her failure claiming that the comic has undermined her confidence. When she returns to her ancestral home she spends her time torturing her younger sister. The more she tortures her the more inspiration her sister gets. In the end the younger sister undermines her efforts for acting career in order to get more material for her comic. As the film evolves the spectator gets the whole extension of the dependence and hate that both the sisters share. As their battle gets stronger and stronger the casualties increase. Their brother dies in a fire accident.
And his wife is left alone without a family. Both victims and aggressors damned by their family connections leave the village for Tokyo.
The film is not very ambitious. Low key directing without many impressive shots and scenes manages to serve efficiently well a strong script. Even if the situation that is described is rather bleak everything is described with a strong sense of humor and irony that makes differentiates the film from a typical melodrama and elevates it. Even if it couldn’t be said that the Daihachi Yoshida has created a masterpiece, his film is a good and interesting example of what an independent film industry can offer with its modest means.

The Voyeurs- Buddhadev Dasgupta
Buddhadev Dasgupta admits that for this movie he was influenced by two real incidents that were on the news in his country. The first was the arrest and the conviction of two young men who through a secret surveillance camera ware watching a woman in her apartment. The second was the assassination of the Brazilian man Mentes in the metro by the British Police.
Truly in this film Buddhadev Dasgupta attempts two political commends. The first one refers to the police brutality and mistreatment with the justification of the fear of terrorism. In the second one he declares that we live in a voyeuristic society where everyone has a voyeuristic role to play. As a beautiful young woman goes into the big city in her attempt to become an actress she becomes the theme of the voyeuristic pleasure of everyone around her. Her neighbors try to get glimpses of her in her apartment from the windows, people stare at her on the street, the policeman fantasize seeing her naked through x-vision cameras at the train station and so on. Her next door guy who fells in love with her places a camera in her room and starts watching her. In the end he gets arrested tortured and imprisoned for a crime that as Buddhadev Dasgupta claims everyone in a modern society commits. The character of the young woman is surprisingly self conscious and dynamic. Even if she wants to become an actress and thus she seems to want to be looked at she never accepts her role as the theme of a gaze pathetically. Contrary to many western supposedly emancipated woman characters of fiction she battles to control the way in which she will be looked at and returns earnestly and equally energetically the gaze. When she finds out that someone has been secretly watching her, she refuses to feel shame and be victimized. She refuses to feel ashamed of herself and feel less about herself. Instead of that she returns the gaze at the camera and leaves a message for those watching her.
The voyeuristic act of the men is presented almost as a misbehavior of a young boy that even id it is not commendable still does not such a severe punishment as torture, death and imprisonment. There is a sharp contrast between this little crime and the crimes the police does in her effort to find and convict the terrorists who blew up the train.
Unfortunately Buddhadev Dasgupta tries to make a solid and serious comment on political reality using rather naive and simplistic means. As a result both the comment and the film loose some of their worth and gravity. On the other hand naiveté has its own attractions. There are many scenes with a feeling of magic realism manage to describe the sheer pleasure of living even in a country like India where life conditions are harsh. The scene where an old friend, bus driver, who offers the heroes a lift after the bus service abandoning his bus on the streets of the poor neighborhood and all the inhabitants come to enter a bus probably for the first time in their lives is a scene of beauty and nostalgia. The scenes of the men transferring a sofa on their heads with a small boy sleeping on the sofa have a surreal magic in it. There are many small details that little to the script but make all the difference to the atmosphere of the film. Maybe to someone who knows well India and the way of living there these scenes are banal and have nothing special to offer but in the eyes of a western there is a romance here and a magic that make this film worth seeing.

Lola Montes-Max Ophüls.
The films best finding is that the life of the protagonist “Lola Montes” is re-enacted and narrated in a circus act. In this circus Lola has ended up as a special freak show, a woman of scandal. While the circus is actually a metaphor for life’s irrationality, ups and downs. In the same time he takes advantage of the graphic potentials of the circus in order to create a luxurious and colorful mise an scene.
Lola Monters is a film of a specific era and shouldn’t be judged with today’s criteria. Made in the 1955 it is a film created on the sunup of the color cinema. If someone considers that, one will be able to fully appreciate the boldness of the director who manages to make film based on the orchestration of colors and costumes. To be truthful the copy of the film makes it difficult to appreciate the intensity of the colors and their balance. Still one behind the patina of time can still see the effort that was made to create a luxurious mise an scene.
As a script Lola Montes is a typical melodrama of the era. It describes the file of an unconventional woman who chooses to be true to herself rather than being respected. She leaves her husband, who is unfaithful to her and ends up the mistress of a king. When the king faces rebellion and destruction she saves him by leaving him and abandoning also her only chance of happiness and security.
The film has not much to offer to a modern viewer. It remains however an important piece of film history and as such it was an experience to have seen it in a big screen