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Dao ma zei (1986)
After hearing Martin Scorsese declare Horse Thief as the #1 film of the 90s (actually released in 1987) when co-hosting the annual "Best of" show with Roger Ebert, I set out to see this film. Luckily, there was a copy available in the library. Unfortunately, the library would not allow me to take it home. So, I was stuck watching this film on a 10 inch screen television in a cramped cubicle with uncomfortable headphones crushing my ears. Obviously, this was not the way that Tian intended his film to be viewed.
Tian Zhuangzhuang's third feature, Horse Thief, is essentially dialogue-free and is rather slim on plot. The film is reminiscent of the silent-era when directors were capable of manipulating the camera to communicate their desired idea. Basically, the film centers on the banishment of Norbu (forcefully personified by Rigzin Tseshang in an astonishing debut), a local horse thief, and his wife and son. Norbu gives up stealing horses for his wife and sets out to find a more respectable profession. When times get rough, Norbu is confronted with the reality that he must steal again to save his family from the harsh, unforgiving winter.
Tian's film has a striking realistic quality to it that plays like a documentary. In one scene, we are given the chance to watch a ritualistic ceremony designed to please the mountain god. While this scene evokes awe, some scenes may be seen as quite offensive. For example, Norbu comes up behind an unsuspecting lamb and slits its throat. The viewer is forced to watch the animal writhe and thrash agonizingly struggling for its last breaths. This scene, although I cannot deny its accuracy and technical beauty, is distressing to watch. The reality of this scene is not achieved through use of mechanical animals and fake blood; it is achieved by the actual killing of a lamb for the production of this film. Aside from this painfully unpleasant section, Tian's cinematic mastery is thoroughly evident.
Because of the deficient viewing conditions, I was only able to catch a glimpse of Tian's overwhelmingly glorious cinematography: Norbu dolefully places his son's dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow for the gods to take. In deep focus, the camera slowly reveals Norbu's utter aloneness and emptiness. In this one shot, Tian has created cinematic perfection.
Badkonake sefid (1995)
The Adventures of Innocence
In his directorial debut, Jafar Panahi - a devoted pupil of Iranian film-god Abbas Kiarostami - is able to encapsulate the stubbornness and curiosity of a seven-year-old Tehranian girl so authentically (by use of newcomer Aida Mohammadkhani) that we forget that we are watching fiction unfold.
The White Balloon has a continuous feel that is obtained by allowing the story to unravel in real time. An unseen radio informs us that the Iranian New Year is almost upon the town; a tradition for this annual event is to either catch or buy a fish (fish represent life). Razieh, the little girl, is unsatisfied with the selection of fish in the family's pond. She complains that the family's fish are too "skinny." Eventually, Razieh's brother, Ali (Mohsen Kalifi's only role thus far), cons their mother into letting Razieh have a 500 note (Iranian money) to buy the fish that she wants. On her way to the market, Razieh loses the money two times. It is the second loss that is the most serious - the money falls into the cellar of a closed shop through a sidewalk drain. The remainder of the film is devoted to the introduction of various strangers offering either to help retrieve the note or pass the time with light-humored conversation.
Beautiful cinematography (winner of the Camera d'or at Cannes in 1994), memorable characters, and stunning direction backed by Kiarostami's expertly written script make for a great film that was reminiscent of my viewing of John Sayles' Secret of Roan Inish. Like Sayles' film, there is a magical, absorbing quality to The White Balloon that spellbinds the viewer regardless of age.
A Day in the Life
Don't be fooled by the comparisons to Robert Altman's Short Cuts; P.T. Anderson's direction of his own wonderfully original screenplay is like nothing you've ever seen before.
The film opens with three dramatizations of chance occurrences that most people would deem as "just one of those things," or coincidences. From here, there is a cut to a beautiful unfurling magnolia accompanied by Aimee Mann's gorgeous version of Harry Nilsson's "One" (if you look closely, you can see a street sign that reads Magnolia). During the remainder of the song, Anderson introduces us to the dozen-plus main characters. We are fed only a dash of these strangers' lives, but we are instantly mesmerized. Soon, the tempo of the film slows down, and Anderson allows us to relate to the individuals of his superb cast.
In the middle of the surrounding stories lies the story of an unappreciated cop (the under-used John C. Reilly) and a coke-sniffing, self-esteemless girl (Melora Walters) falling in love. Finding love and overcoming fear of rejection are only two of the recurring themes of this film. Among the other ideas that surface are understanding when to help (rather than punish) and making amends for past mistakes.
The third act, which features the entire cast participating in an Aimee Mann sing-along of "Wise Up" and an apocalyptic wake up call from the heavens (br ush up on your Bible knowledge, Exodus 8:3), is where even some Magnolia proponents stray. In my eyes, this section demonstrates Anderson's originality to bring all the characters together through one supernatural event. Its effects are the epitome of all "coincidences."
Magnolia is truly one of the finest films I have ever seen (certainly Anderson's best). Like his previous films (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights), Anderson's Magnolia explores the importance of love and family to give an individual self-worth. As Aimee Mann's "Save Me" accompanies the conclusion of the film, we remember that we do need others to help us overcome adversity, and that we cannot make it through this life alone.
Holy Smoke (1999)
In search of the Truth...
Holy Smoke! follows two lost souls (Winslet and Keitel) over the course of three days. The Winslet character, Ruth Baron, is seduced by a not-so-handsome guru on a trip to India, and she intends to marry him. Eventually, her family tricks her into coming home and hires a famous "cult-exiter" named P.J. Waters (Keitel). Keitel's entrance, backed by Neil Diamond's "I Am, I Said," is priceless. Once Ruth agrees to the three-day exiting (because she doesn't believe that her views will be dislodged), debates on religion, truth, and sex commence between Ruth and P.J. The remainder of the film is an unexpected wild ride. Could P.J. learn a thing or two from a inexperienced but strong willed woman? Don't worry, Holy Smoke! isn't all seriousness. Ruth's wacky family provides most of the laughs in the film. At a family gathering, a sheep serves as a coffee table...no one even comments on it!
Holy Smoke! isn't nearly as grim or open-ended as The Piano or Portrait of a Lady (two films that gained and lost many Campion supporters). Underappreciated Winslet (unfortunately only well known for Titanic), gives the performance of her life. Keitel, too, is absolute perfection (as always). Campion recently said that she wanted to "seduce" the audience into thinking deeper...and she has.
oddly mesmerizing and unique
Make sure that you are not tired when watching this film. Although this film introduces some outstanding performances by some little known actors, the film falls short. One of the three short stories of the film is shot in black and white and is strangely reminiscient of David Lynch's masterpiece "The Elephant Man." When Dr. Graves is ordered out to the fire-escape, I was just waiting for him to shout, "I'm not an animal; I'm a human being." The prisoner story, unlike the black and white story, is full of emotion and intensity. Issues such as homosexuality, abuse, and longing for love are enmeshed in this tale. The third story is shot documentary style. An unseen interviewer questions neighbors, family, and friends about the events leading up to the shooting and death of an abusive father. This movie will intrigue you, confuse you, and bother you. It's worth a watch.