Waiting For Happiness (2002, Abderrahmane Sissako)

Technology of choice for this movie is electric light (was the telephone in Life On Earth and microphone/loudspeaker in Bamako). Of course there are radios prominent in all three.

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BBC website:

Waiting for Happiness is a film about exile and displacement, based to some extent on Sissako’s own life experiences. Yet what makes it so remarkable is the way in which the director translates the psychological aspect of these issues to screen.

Having left Mauritania to study film in Russia, Waiting For Happiness seems to be Sissako’s therapy for his own time spent in exile. He describes his work as “…a portrait of people in departure, who have to a certain extent already left, without having actually yet moved.”

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Another portrait of a town, like Life On Earth, but poetically far beyond that one. An east asian man sings English karaoke songs and wanders on the beach… a man (Abdallah) returned from another country wears different clothes from everyone else, doesn’t speak the language and tries not-too-hard to fit in… a boy tries to learn an elder electrician’s trade while a girl about his age is learning to be a singer… and on the beach, a man drowns and his death is investigated.

Visually, lot of people looking through windows, some looking through cameras. Static shots of static people who pause before moving offscreen, or sometimes leave the scene silently during a cutaway. The pace never lags and there’s always something interesting going on, even when the characters themselves aren’t too interested.

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New Yorker Films: “Set in Mauritania, in northwest Africa, Waiting for Happiness is Mr. Sissako’s nod to a small hamlet’s ability – no, its need – to greet encroaching advancement with a shrug; eventually, the little place will be overtaken by the currents of modernity anyway.”

If this one didn’t cement A. Sissako as one of the best current African filmmakers, I’m sure Bamako did/will. New Yorker suggests that “Mr. Sissako is also using the movie as a way of dealing with the possibility that he’s being hailed as Africa’s next big thing. It’s a momentous responsibility to shoulder, and like Abdallah, the director is still in the process of establishing who he is.” If that’s true then maybe Bamako was Sissako’s way of accepting that responsibility, and using his status to create something of political importance, since he knew he had everyone’s attention.

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This is the second African film this week for which I’ve read reviews comparing it to Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Slant Magazine says the movie shows the people of this city struggling against foreign cultural invasion. “The old man walks into the desert with a light bulb in his hand. He dies and the bulb gradually lights up: a devastating transference of power between a spirit and the outside culture that sucks on its marrow.”

The same cinematographer shot the other two Sissako movies I’ve seen, along with Little Girl Who Sold The Sun, and a somewhat acclaimed 2004 movie from Angola. All actors were non-professional except for the Asian guy.

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IMDB says it won two awards at Cannes, grossed almost two thousand dollars theatrically in the U.S., and they recommend the similar films Exils (Tony Gatlif), The Intruder (Claire Denis) and Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner).

Sissako also made a 1998 documentary in Angola (it played the New York African Film Fest this year), a 30-min short for television, and a “medium-length feature” called October in 1993 when he lived in Russia, which is available on the British DVD of Waiting for Happiness. There’s one film that predates October called Le Jeu, a short about kids playing at war that hardly anyone online has mentioned (thanks Village Voice).

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Sissako: “Aime Césaire has been a support for me most of my life. He is the author that I read and reread. But another very important author to me was Frantz Fanon. The introduction of Black Skin, White Masks is very close to this new film [Life On Earth].”

Pitfall (1962, Hiroshi Teshigahara)

The photography & video quality on this are so excellent, the story could’ve been about nothing and I still would’ve enjoyed it. But the story is neat too.

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A worker has deserted from the army, and runs off with his son in search of work. He’s lured to a mining town and then killed by a mysterious white-suited man. End of movie.

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But no! First of all, he sticks around as a ghost… second, the same actor plays a lookalike union leader at one of the two mining communities. Nobody figures out who the white-suited man is, or what he’s up to, but he later kills a women shopkeeper also, the last person to see the first man alive. The union bosses flail around and finally kill each other, the dead wander among the ghost community of the town, and the murdered man’s son hides, observes, and lives off stolen candy from the shop as the movie gets quickly darker and stranger. Apparently it’s all a satire about corruption.

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An excellent first feature. Teshigahara had his visual style down, wasn’t injecting as much surreal weirdness into the image as he later would. Reviews mention Antonioni and Resnais as visual influences, and Kafka, Beckett and Carroll as story influences. This came out right after Jigoku, Viridiana, Last Year at Marienbad, The Testament of Orpheus, Eyes Without a Face and L’Avventura, and fits right in with that early 60′s European art film scene.

Eureka says “Teshigahara coined the term ‘documentary fantasy’ for this study of the powerless, impoverished worker in postwar Japan.”

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Abouna (2002, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

Film #4 of African Movie Month (I won’t count West of Zanzibar).

Not as complete and fulfilling a story as the excellent Dry Season, but nicely shot and interesting throughout.

IMDB reviewer: “When Tahir and Amine wake up one morning they find their father has already left the house. When he fails to return for their football match they begin to think something is up and their mother is no help, refusing to help find him and hoping to just move past this useless man. However when the two sons start to look for their father they find that he has not been to his job in over two years and they believe that they have seen him in a film shown at a local cinema. When they get in trouble for stealing the film, their mother sends them away to a Koran school where the boys quickly realise that things will not be as good as they have been told.”

Younger one dies of asthma at the end with his inhaler stolen, older one runs off with the mute girl he’s fallen for.

Movie posters are seen for Yaaba, Chaplin’s The Kid, and Stranger Than Paradise (the latter obviously placed to acknowledge Jim Jarmusch’s influence on Haroun, not because it’s likely to be playing Chad theaters in 2002).

Tilai (1990, Idrissa Ouedraogo)

“The Law”

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Ouedraogo, from Burkina Faso, was a student of Gaston Kabore, director of last week’s Wend Kuuni, and also worked with Ousmane Sembene.

Saga (actor also in Moolaade, Yaaba, Night of Truth) has been away for a couple years, and returns to find that the woman he was promised as a wife is now married to his father. She and Saga are in love and resume their affair, with disastrous results. Saga’s brother is sent to kill him, but allows him to escape, and the illicit lovers go off to Saga’s aunt’s house… but he comes back for his mom’s funeral, exposing himself to the townspeople. The father banishes the brother, who then shoots Saga, oh and the girl’s dad hangs himself for having a part in all this.

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Fine story (a darker Ten Canoes?), fine acting, plays at a good pace, not at all as bleak and awful as it sounds from my plot description. Won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize (a step up from the prize Yeelen won three years before), second place to Lynch’s Wild At Heart and beating out Godard, Zhang Yimou and Ken Loach.

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Little music. A vocalist sings “Tilai… Tilai” a couple times and that’s it. Long shots, but not distractingly long.

“Claire Denis, the director of the autobiographical film Chocolat, set in colonial West Africa, notes that in Tilai every sentence starts with the name of the person who is addressed, in contrast to what she calls the vacuousness of communication among white colonials.”

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Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Movies Transformers Rips Off:

Terminator 2: the car chase scene
Short Circuit: freedom being the right of all sentient beings
Videodrome: O. Prime asking Shia to push the energy cube into his chest
Terminator 2: one is sent to protect him
Pearl Harbor: directly reused some shots, I’ve heard
The Rock: stand on a building with a flare to signal the jets!
Armageddon: lame joke
Terminator 2: the other is here… to destroy him
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: two robots enter… one robot leaves.
Alien vs. Predator: our world, their war
probably Black Hawk Down but I haven’t seen it

There’s a real problem with violating the laws of physics, but that’s just a clean transfer from the bizarre original show.

Marquee on a street theater is showing Paramount studio classics Rose Tattoo and A Place In The Sun for whatever damn reason.

The Transformers learned their chase technique from Jason Vorhees (or Leslie Vernon), because they are giant machines but can’t catch a teenage boy in a foot race. They’re not even as sophisticated as the balls in Phantasm 2.

Too much “comedy”, not enough GIANT ROBOTS FIGHTING.

Harry Potter / Order of the Phoenix (2007, David Yates)

From the esteemed director of The Tichborne Claimant and Sex Traffic comes yet another Harry Potter adventure that I’ll forget three weeks from now. I don’t mind forgetting them though, because I’m looking forward to the mindless six-movie DVD marathon the week before the final movie premieres. So no plot summary.

What We’ve Gained:
Oscar-nominated abortionist Imelda Staunton as a transparently evil teacher.
More Gary Oldman screen time than part 4.

What We’ve Lost:
All the life and energy from Gary Oldman’s performance.
Those broomstick hockey games.
Any sense of art or interest to the proceedings…

A Brighter Summer Day (1991, Edward Yang)

“You women, you know nothing about friendships between men. Besides being suspicious, what else are you good for?”

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Edward Yang died two weeks ago. The least I can do is watch his extremely acclaimed four-hour movie from ’91 that I bought on bootleg DVD almost four years ago and never watched before.

Unfortunately, “there are over a hundred speaking parts in the film and it is necessary to stay focused in order to keep track of what’s going on and to whom, which is a good trick to make sure your audience is always paying attention” (KS Kincaid). And my copy is a fuzzy bootleg disc from a decent-quality print. Not many close-ups and picture resolution is just poor enough that I usually can’t tell who is who. I try to latch on whenever someone says a character’s name, so I struggled somewhat through the storyline and lost many of the side characters and threads. Also there’s the occasional close-up on a letter or page with no subtitle translation. Criterion has done Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, so maybe there’s enough interest that this will get an eventual nice release.

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Set in Taiwan in the early 60′s during military rule, an uneasy time according to the intro text, when many kids formed street gangs to strengthen their sense of identity and security. I sort of lost the gang thread, but kept up with lead character Sir and his family (gov’t worker dad, mom, younger sister, MIA older brother Honey) and friends (Cat & Airplane, girlfriend Ming), so when the bloody nighttime gang war (lit only with flashlights during a blackout) comes a half hour into disc two, I wasn’t sure who was slaughtering who, or how come it wasn’t a big deal to anyone the next day after a bunch of people had been killed. Instead, the secret police round up Sir’s dad and subject him to at least one full day and night of questioning and confessions and statements at an ominous ice factory.

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Ming is actually Honey’s girl, but ends up briefly with Sir. After he gets expelled, she ends up with one of his friends, and is rumored to never have been faithful to Honey in the first place. Sir kills her with young Cat’s sword, a shocking action, but not as senseless as it first seems, given Sir’s history of violence, his idols and friends, everything leading up to the killing.

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During more innocent times, the kids watch a John Wayne movie (?), send tapes to Elvis Presley, and hang out at the film studio next to the school.

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The line “Honey’s dead” was probably not inspired by the Jesus & Mary Chain album of that title.

I’m interested in what people who understood the movie better than I did thought.

IMDB reviewer:

Edward Yang’s own father fled from Shanghai. Artifacts from other countries have great impact in this film, the use of Japanese samurai swords which are ultimately used as murder weapons, Russian novels are read by teenagers and understood as `swordsmen’ novels, a family’s observation that the Chinese fought the Japanese for 20 years only to then live in Japanese houses listening to Japanese music, an old tape recorder that has been left behind by the WWII American forces is used to adapt American lyrics and American rock n roll music for the Chinese, the film features American doo-wop music, first love, cigarettes, casual dress, the influence of Hollywood motion picture magazines and movies, the voice of John Wayne can be heard in one of the movie theaters, the title of the film comes from the Elvis Presley song, `Are You Lonesome Tonight,’ a comment on the dark cloud hanging over everyone’s heads, hardly a brighter, summer day.

“Inspired by a true incident of a 14 year old boy murdering a 13 year old girl, the first juvenile murder case in Taiwan’s history, the film opens and closes with an old, broken down radio broadcasting the lists of graduating students.”

“The film is so meticulous in its construction and its feeling of community (its preparation, filming and post-production took several years) that at the same time its length automatically gives it an epic quality it is a remarkably intimate film that is about as far from an epic in the traditional (Hollywood) sense as possible.”

“Like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness, A Brighter Summer Day is not a political film but a work of art that shows how individual experience is impacted by the flow of time and history.”

“The film is laced with nostalgia, but never at the expense of intelligence. He deftly creates a manifesto here that sums up his volatile, often conflicting, attitudes about his country’s modern history. Watching the film, with its seemingly limitless ability to examine the country, one laments the fact that every developing nation doesn’t have a storyteller as gifted as Yang probing the history of its progress.” (Movie Martyr)

Senses of Cinema on Yi Yi: “The film conveys a magnificent sense of life being lived, of time taking its toll on these characters as we watch them, unmatched in world film outside two of the other pre-eminent auteurs of Third World cinema: Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Yang is gifted with a remarkable sense of framing, alternating between a tighter framing that glimpses into the characters’ interior lives, and a more idiosyncratic framing that removes the characters from the immediacy of the close-up, and inserts physical-psychological-mental space between us and them.”

J. Rosenbaum also compares Taiwanese Yang and Hou with Kiarostami (as well as Makhmalbaf). “Part of what’s valuable about these four directors is what’s also made their films relatively unmarketable here–meditative narrative rhythms combined with a preference for long shots and medium shots over close-ups, an approach that both assumes and encourages analytical distance rather than simple immersion in the action.” “I have no doubt that the 230-minute version of A Brighter Summer Day… belongs in the company of key works of our era. … Indeed, Yang’s film surpasses these other masterpieces in its novelistic qualities, richly realizing a physical and social world as dense with family, community, and other personal ties as any John Ford film, and furnished with more sheer physical presence (including characters, settings, and objects) than any other fiction film I know of from the 90s.”

Oh wow, the actor who played Sir later appeared in Happy Together, Three Times and Crouching Tiger, played Mimi’s boyfriend in 2046 and the lead in Wong’s The Hand.

Hope I get to see this again sometime with better picture clarity… would be worth the trouble.

Ten Canoes (2006, Rolf de Heer)

IMDB and recent reviews don’t list the same credit as the film’s official site & poster: “A Film By Rolf de Heer and the People of Ramingining”.

Young black-and-white Jamie Gulpilil (narrator David’s son) has a crush on his dad’s third wife. He’s joining the older men for the first time on the annual goose-hunt, and along the way, his dad tells Jamie the full-color story of a similar young man (also Jamie) in a similar situation, and how that turned out (father and another man dead, son comically inherits all three wives).

Lovely sidetrack details along the way, like the goose hunt itself (camping up in trees to escape crocs), the sorceror who watches over the town, and the rules that all tribes obeyed to prevent war.

David Gulpilil is humorously telling us the story of the black-and-white movie, which presents the story of the color movie, the hand-me-down nature calling attention to the storytelling itself and the fact that the events are said to have occurred many generations ago. The movie then collapses that sense of endless time by rendering the oldest events, the lesson-teaching ancient story, in vivid color, particularly in the lush greens of the trees and plants.

Apparently the production team strove hard for authenticity, adapting Aboriginal stories to bring the natives’ voices to multiplexes and call attention to the idea that they don’t need the modernization that is being forced upon them. Gulpilil tells us “it’s not your story – it’s MY story”, and so it’s unlike anything else in theaters, in storytelling and in visual style. Great movie, liked it even more than I thought I would. Katy liked, too.

The Unholy Three (1925, Tod Browning)

Pretty good movie with laughably ludicrous plot.

Ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney) teams up with midget Willie (Hans from Freaks) and strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen, oscar-winning John Ford fave) to form the unholy three, an ill-conceived crime group. In tow are cute pickpocket Mae Busch (Foolish Wives, and some 35 movies between 1931 and ’35) and patsy Hector (Matt Moore).

Hans is maybe better appreciated as an actor in a silent film, since his voice is hard to understand in Freaks… he out-acts everyone but Chaney in this movie. Chaney is fun to watch as Granny O’Grady and Hans as Little Willie. Hercules never has much to do. The giant chimpanzee and out-of-focus cockatoo are cool, too, and the visual speech bubbles when Echo makes the birds talk (funny to have a ventriloquist in a silent film). The dialogue contains “echoes” (repeated lines), appreciated by the English students watching along with me. A few good shots of the shadows of shadowy conspirators conspiring.

The movie’s not scary, more wacky/funny than anything else. Their criminal plot is idiotic and doesn’t work. Hercules kills someone during a heist and gets them all in trouble, everyone’s plotting behind everyone else’s back, Chaney and Hector are in love with Mae, and eventually Herc and Willie kill each other via chimpanzee. Hector is about to be framed for the murder when “Grandma” Chaney comes and saves him. Chaney is then set free by awesome-looking judge Edward Connelly (The Saphead, The Merry Widow) for being such a good guy and goes back to the circus, ho hum. Movie’s got good atmosphere… def. a quality lightweight film with that freakish crime-drama Tod Browning touch.

Not to be confused with the non-Browning sound remake from 1930, the last film Lon Chaney made before his death from cancer.