Orfeu Negro

A confession: I had not heard of this movie because it was a classic of South American cinema (although it is!). I had heard of it because Shiina Ringo covered the theme song “Manhã de Carnaval”. Well, it got me to notice it when campus had a screening, so I view that as a success. So, anyways, Orfeu Negro is an imaginative take on the Orpheus myth. Recasting myths in the modern day may not have been original in itself, even in 1959, but I think the sheer energy associated with this production would’ve been mindblowing then. There is a lot of dance and a lot of music, and the myth (which itself is quite caught up in music and dance) is captured in the frenetic energy. The music and dance are excellent. The camera-work less so, but to a certain extent I’ve been spoiled by the last half-century of cinematic improvements. Scene-setting is effective at creating a mood, from festive riot to quiet intimacy to the disturbing desolation of an office at night. Plotwise there’s not much here: it is, after all, based on a fairly simple myth, but the cinemacraft in this one is fantastic, carried forwards chiefly by the music and mood.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


孤男寡女/Needing You

[Screenshot]I probably should’ve been warned off by the romantic-comedy aspects. Continental European romantic comedies are frequently better than their American counterparts; east Asian ones can be a bit more of a crapshoot. Needing You is not actually all that bad, but it does not, for the most part, distinguish itself. There’s a certain color-by-numbers feel to the setup, with a womanizing office manager, his scatterbrained assistant, and a lot of conversations in which people insult others while they’re covertly listening. Seriously, that’s one speakerphone incident away from an American sitcom. It does it all with good enough grace to be watchable, though. Plus it’s shot through with occasional elements which lift it away from its mundane office setting. There are recurring scenes of dining, and while it’s easy for an outsider to be horrified by what a culture eats, there are at least two scenes of people in-scene being horrified by the food, so I think it’s permissible to find the culinary experiences presented here a bit regrettable. Of the two major characters, only Andy actually appears to develop: Kinki is more or less the same character at the end as at the beginning, just presented in a more charming light. I’m not sure if that says something alarming about gender, but I used up all my indignation of Decameron ’69, so I’ll let this one slide.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Slumdog Millionaire

[Screenshot]So, Slumdog Millionaire. I always feel unequal to trying to write something original about these extravaganzas that everybody has watched. I view my niche as obscure stuff most people haven’t heard of. I too liked Slumdog,but I don’t know what it was exactly that made it work for me. It didn’t bowl me completely over, but it kept me absorbed and interested. Some things which hit the right spots for me, though, were the nonlinear narrative, and the sense of the ordinary melding with the extraordinary: the story seesaws crazily between fantastical elements (whose extraordinariness is itself in some doubt) and the mundane life of people who are, in their own way, rather ordinary. Thematically, there are some open-ended games on what defines the characters: are they products of their experiences, or pawns of fate? Danny Boyle wants very much to suggest the latter, I think, but just because the director says so doesn’t mean I have to agree.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Decameron ’69

[Screenshot]I was interested in seeing Decameron ’69 because I figured a modern take on medieval bawdy tales might be interesting. Alas, D69 is a disappointment in all my expectations. It’s not actually an adaptation of the Decameron so much as inspired by it, and the inspiration is (with the notable exception of the first segment, which feels a bit like a Decameron story) pretty tenuous. And most of the stories in it aren’t actually bawdy. Sex-obsessed, yes. Bawdy, no.

In fact, with two exceptions I would identify the Decameron as pretentious trash. The first segment, whose director I don’t know and whose title I’ve forgotten, is, as mentioned previously, moderately true to Decameronic plot-styles. It’s an unambitious story of seduction, sexual disappointment, decisive reaction to disappointment, and blithely continuing on without having learned a lesson. Boccacio could’ve plausibly written something like that, and it’s done with a minimum of frills. The other story is not actually Decameron-like, but it at least engages with something interesting: it’s called “György”, and I’m fairly certain it’s Miklos Jancsó’s segment, between the Hungarian name and certain thematic similarities to Jancsó’s tales from various revolutions. It’s not Jancsó’s best work, but in its attempt to actually engage the political climate of the 60’s, it comes out as a lot more mature than the other segments.

The blood-boilingly awful thing about D69 is its relentless objectification of women. Jancsó is as bad as the others on this front: his female roles serve only as a catalyst for the title character’s artistic or political impulses, not as humans in their own right. But the direness of this film didn’t come into tight focus until the final segment, which professed to look at four women: a career woman with a young paramour, a prostitute, an older man’s mistress, and a lesbian. Suffice to say, none of them are defined except by their sexual activities. They are all presented extremely unsympathetically, and the overall effect is highly offensive. And the film isn’t nearly good enough in other ways to justify its pervasive misogyny.

See also: IMDB.


[Screenshot]This one is unmistakably Szerelem-era Makk. Quick-cuts and repeated visual motifs, strong epistolary elements of the plot: these are all familiar parts of the experience. But in many ways, it feels like a more mature attempt than Szerelem was: while the former really only had one source of dramatic tension, which it wore thin by the end of the film, Macskajáték is mining a rich vein of character interaction, between Erzsi and a well-fleshed-out cast of supporting characters. The range of interactions is a relief to the viewer, giving us a welcome sense of variety, and also manages to point up the principal character’s foolishness and shortsightedness without it seeming, as in Szerelem, to be a single aberrant blind spot.

Anyways, this all boils down to a simple summary: in cinematic style and technique, Macskajáték is deeply reminiscent of Makk’s earlier work, with all that entails. In other respects, including plot and characterization, it is more satisfying and substantial.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Egy hét Pesten és Budán

[Screenshot]The only other Karoly Makk film I’ve seen is Szerelem, and this one is a few decades later, which has significant implications both for cinemacraft and political tone. This makes less use of the quick cuts and semi-subliminal flashes of apparently unrelated scenery which made up much of the visual spectacle of Szerelem and relies on much more straightforward cinematic methods: in fact, it represents almost a complete revolution in Makk’s temporal methods, since despite its focus on time past, the camera stays firmly in the present, only infrequently resorting to flashbacks. And the emphasis on the present is one of the more intriguing things oabout this film, since it’s set in a present beset to a certain extent by chaos, a counterpoint to the authoritarian nightmare of the principal characters’ youth: this is the democratic Hungary of the immediate aftermath of revolution, the disaster area which Atilla Ambrus preyed on with ease, a nation drunk on freedom, disjointed by oppression, and above all dysfunctional at all levels of governance. The crisis of the fledgling state is not actually the film’s focus by any means: the focus is of course the family drama which unfolds when Drégely returns to discover his old flame’s secrets, but the muddled present they find themselves in, the unbridled freedom which Drégely himself struggled for, stands in contrast, not entirely favorable, to the authoritarian regime which persecuted him.

See also: IMDB.

アリア/Aria: the Animation, episodes 1–4

[Screenshot]Sometimes a story set in space is an extremely thin masquerade for a similar terrestrial situation. From Gankutsuou‘s Carnival of Luna to Firefly‘s outer worlds mired firmly in the early 19th century frontier, even to the original Star Trek‘s Cold War morality tales, sometimes a space scenario is very clearly evocative. So it is with Aria. The Canals of Venus may well be a space-opera cliche, but put the Canals on Acqua (a terraformed Mars), in the city of Neo-Venezia on the Neo-Adriatic Sea, and fill them with gondoliers and tourists… well, that’s just an Italian story, inexplicably set in space.

Setting definitely provides one of Aria‘s most conspicuous assets. As the principal characters escort tourists, most episodes revolve around the wonder and beauty of the city and planet. The art in the show is actually up to this challenge, and frequently presents gorgeous panoramas. Big plus on that front: the setting, despite being, as mentioned above, a transplant of a familiar one, feels fresh and wondrous. On actual plot, however, Aria seems, at least over this short exposure, to fall down a bit. It’s an episodic series, and one with extraordinarily little dramatic tension. The characters, while quirky in ways that bounce off of eachother interestingly, are not actually nearly antagonistic enough to actually create any sort of character-driven plot, and the city itself is presented in so Utopian a light that situational plot doesn’t emerge much either. The story is so gentle as to be nearly insubstantial: it’s a lot of nice people doing nice things episode after episode (there is a notable exception in the fourth episode, which has something of a downer reminder of what a frontier really is). All in all, it reminds me a fair bit of one of the villainless Miyazaki stories (e.g. Totoro, Kiki) with the dramatic tension dialed down even further.

And yet: Aria is not too saccharine. It teeters on the edge sometimes, but there seems to be just enough grit to the principal characters to keep the story from sickly-sweetness or boredom. It’s a danger that seems omnipresent, but thus far the story’s avoided falling into the trap.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network.