Saturday 29 November 2014

Songs from the Second Floor [2000]

Songs from the Second Floor, made after a staggering gap of 25 years after his previous feature Giliap, kick-started ‘Grandeur of Existence’ trilogy, Andersson’s darkly funny, quietly melancholic and deeply existential meditation. Though this too was an episodic film like Du Levande, the central story focused on Kalle (Lars Nordh), a rotund, middle-aged furniture seller, depressed that his shop has been gutted by fire, even though, as is eventually revealed, it was a deliberate case of arson for collecting the insurance money; he’s distressed by the mental breakdown of his elder son and is being constantly haunted by the ghost of a man he’d once borrowed money from. The narrative comprised of various other vignettes – a depressive man, who refuses to take a day off for his wife, finds upon arriving at office that he’s been fired; a magic sequence gone horribly wrong when the portly magician ends up accidentally severing the stomach of a volunteer; a young blindfolded girl being thrown off a cliff as part of a religious carnival; a businessman finds his ingenious idea of selling Christ’s idols not taking off; a wealthy but senile former General celebrating his 100th birthday. Meanwhile a massive traffic jam, reminiscent of the Tati masterpiece Playtime, has gripped the city. Andersson covered such diverse themes as religious bigotry, cold-heartedness of corporates, varying repercussions of economic meltdown, frenzy and hysteria surrounding the new millennium, the cruelty of ageing, etc., through the idiosyncratic array of tableaus, for this artistically ambitious film that was simultaneously, hilarious, witty, grim, farcical, surrealistic, poignant, satirical, bitter and mordant, having minimal dialogues, composed by former ABBA member Benny Andersson, and marvelously shot using long, static takes.

Director: Roy Andersson
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Religious Satire
Language: Swedish
Country: Sweden

Tuesday 25 November 2014

The Wayward Cloud [2005]

The Wayward Cloud was a pseudo-sequel to his masterful What Time is it There? as the two key protagonists from the earlier film returned here, even though they were poles apart thematically, tonally and stylistically. Using environmental crisis as the springboard, Tsai made an alternately vibrant, madcap and dreary film that can be classified, in absence of a better word, as weird. Hsaio-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), formerly a street hawker selling watches, is now a puppet in adult films, while Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) is back from Paris; meanwhile Taiwan is in the middle of an acute water shortage prompting the government and media to promote watermelons as a viable alternative. The drab, directionless, vacuous and lonely existences of the two characters suddenly get a kick upon their chance encounter in a park, and a strange liaison that borders between love and lust ensues. Tsai valiantly experimented with form (the dull, muted and colorless narrative, portraying the ‘real’, is regularly punctuated with flamboyant, colourful and farcical ‘musical’ sequences, reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) and content (even those attuned to Tsai’s idiosyncratic style and flair for dry humour would be left flummoxed by the outlandish developments, while moralists are sure to be outraged by the queasy trip). The film reinforced Tsai’s pet themes of urban alienation, ennui, loneliness and longing for human connection, and also made forays into such topics as moral questions on pornography, exploitation, voyeurism and a twisted take on tender romance; however, Tsai’s audacity aside, the end result was rather oblique, unconvincing and bizarre, making this an alternately provocative and confounding watch.

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Musical/Experimental Film
Language: Mandarin
Country: Taiwan

Saturday 22 November 2014

You, the Living (Du Levande) [2007]

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson produced something incredibly unique with his ‘Grandeur of Existence’ trilogy. On first glance they might seem Scandinavian cousins of Wes Anderson’s works on account of the dazzling visual style, quirky humour, serio-comic tone and idiosyncratic characters; but the deep undercurrents of melancholia, existential gloom and mordant take on what it means to be alive, truly set them apart. Du Levande, the highly episodic second chapter in the trilogy (sandwiched between Songs from the Second Floor and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – released 7 years apart on either side), provided whimsical and darkly hilarious, but essentially tragic, portrayals on quotidian life. The loosely connected vignettes, fabulously played by its ensemble cast, chronicled disparate tableaus – a depressed, obese woman (Elisabeth Helender) lamenting to her placid boyfriend on how no one cares for her; a man slyly stealing the wallet of a gregarious and wealthy man, and buying a nice dress with the money; a lonely young lady (Jessika Lundberg), hopelessly in love with a rock musician, dreaming of their marriage post which they reside in a traveling house; a cynical, misanthropic psychiatrist (Håkan Angser) who prescribes pills as opposed to providing therapy to his patients; a xenophobic white collar man who gets a raw deal while getting a haircut from a Muslim barber; a man (Leif Larsson) who has a nightmare about being executed by the state for having destroyed expensive dinner-set at a party. The characters' miseries, bitterness, crises and failures were accentuated by the misty, radiant cinematography using long takes and static, wide-angle shots, a deliberately jumbled narrative that regularly switched between real and surreal, and an upbeat score.

Director: Roy Andersson
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Ensemble Film
Language: Swedish
Country: Sweden

Thursday 13 November 2014

Il Bidone (The Swindle) [1955]

Il Bidone formed the middle segment in Fellini’s ‘Trilogy of Loneliness’, both in terms of chronological placement and darkness quotient. La Strada was incessantly grim and harrowing, while Nights of Cabiria, despite its melancholic air, had an underlying sense of heartwarming optimism. Though it ended on an intensely lonely and bitter note that was completely bereft of any chances of personal redemption, it had its share of lighter moments and humour which wryly commented on the larger societal tragedy that it contextualized. The plot followed the exploits of a group of scamsters who swindle the gullible, ignorant and poor – their cunning ploys, in a sly and acerbic nod to cold corporations that build their wealth through cynical and opportunistic exploitation of the oppressed masses, involve giving hope to the have-nots while milking out what little they do have. The group is led by the middle-aged career conman Augusto (Broderick Crawford), and comprises of the naïve Carlo (Richard Basehart) and the brash Roberto (Franco Fabrizi). The film’s first half devoted time on the group’s inner dynamics and Carlo’s poignant relationship with his loving wife (Giulietta Masina in a smaller role vis-à-vis the two films sandwiching it) who suspects his shady involvements; the second half, however, focused solely on Augusto’s lonely and heartbreaking existence, his palpable weariness, his futile attempts at rekindling his bond with his daughter and the debilitating comeuppance in store for him. Crawford gave a fabulous, poignant and profoundly affecting turn that memorably complemented the film’s somber tone and richly humanistic theme. A party sequence, littered with decadent, hedonistic and vacuous rich folks, provided a terrific peak into the distinctively Felliniesque world exemplified by La Dolce Vita.

Director: Federico Fellini
Genre: Drama/Crime Drama/Psychological Drama
Language: Italian
Country: Italy

Sunday 9 November 2014

Somewhere in the Night [1946]

Somewhere in the Night was one of those lesser-known noirs that, nevertheless, had the necessary wherewithal to keep one engaged through infusion of noir archetypes with a script that was never short of dramatic moments. Its intriguing tale of an amnesiac, who may or may not have committed crimes in his past, putting together the various jigsaw pieces of his lost memories, reminded me a little bit of Nolan’s Memento. George Taylor (John Hodiak), a cynical war veteran and a quintessential noir protagonist who has just woken up from a coma, remembers nothing of himself and his past. A handsome but cryptic some of money left by a mysterious Mr Larry Cravat, who no one knows well but everyone seems to be after, forms the starting clue in his labyrinthine journey to unearth his past, his identity and possibly a huge stash of money with links to Nazi Germany. Along the way he becomes acquainted with beautiful nightclub singer Christy (Nancy Guild), Christy’s overly philanthropic boss (Richard Conte), a slippery and unctuous thug (Fritz Kortner), a surprisingly even-natured cop (Lloyd Nolan), among others. The film painted a downbeat picture of the seedy underbelly of post-War America, with the socio-political context providing a relevant undercurrent to the tale of deceit, double crossings and crime. The excellent B/W photography, with a heavy dose of static expressionism, added to its moody atmosphere, which compensated for the rather lackluster lead performances. Even though the premise asked for an unpredictable storyline, it felt tad too serpentine at times. The length, too, could have been made crisper. On the whole it was a decent thriller served straight up.

Director: Joseph L. Mankeiwicz
Genre: Film Noir/Crime Thriller
Language: English
Country: US