Monday, 28 July 2014

A film review: "Frozen City" [2006 Finland]

Writer-director Aku Louhimies' melodrama "Valkoinen kaupunki" [Eng. Title: Frozen City] looks at the break-up of a marriage and its aftermath from a viewpoint rarely given airtime, either in law or practice - the husband's. The film - a depressingly less-than neutral version of a Kramer vs. Kramer, goes to great lengths to focus on the male partner's tribulations following a separation.

Janne Virtanen in Frozen CityVelu's Janne Virtanen and Susanna Mikkonen in Frozen City
Juha Veijonen and Janne Virtanen in Valkoinen kaupunki Janne Virtanen and Susanne Mikkonen in Valkoinen kaupunki

Velu's (Janne Virtanen) profile would probably tick all the right boxes for a woman looking for an ideal husband - he's hard-working, dutiful, level-headed, and adores children, apart from being a handsome hunk with a libido to match. And what does his wife Hannah (Susanna Mikkonen) do! She disappears for months, presumably 'discovering' herself somewhere in France, and turns up at Helsinki airport one day, not quite expecting to see the family she'd ignored welcome her with placards.

It doesn't take long for Velu to gather that their marriage is finished - that he needs to move out, but that will only be the beginning of his miseries. Velu, a taxi driver, could barely make ends meet even during the best of times. He'll move into a cold, dingy apartment in an unpleasant corner of the city, for that's all he could afford after his other commitments. However, his biggest challenge would be to counter the extraordinary measures that Hannah will undertake to deny him equal parenting rights.

Whilst slugging it out with social care authorities and preparing for court battles, Velu, juggling three shifts, will be forced to contend with a decidedly mean-spirited Hannah in order to gain access to his children, who're only too glad to see him when they get a chance. For related reasons, he's also under pressure to keep his job, and a belligerent neighbour's frequent taunting only adds to his existing woes.

Things come to a head one day, and a drunk Velu ends up in prison for grievous assault, throwing a spanner into whatever chances he had of sharing custody of the children. Hannah will visit him occasionally, pretending that she cared for him, but in effect only prolonging his pain. During one such visit, she tells him that she's moving to France with the children, and won't be visiting him any more...

The film has a lot going for it - the performances are convincing and truly heartfelt, and the cinematography, dialogues, and sound engineering imbue a gritty realism to the drama. But I have a problem with the characterisation, because things are never as black and white in the real world. It is henceforth hard to reconcile with a character as cold and unsympathetic as Hannah's - surely no normal mother of three would be as heartless without apparent reason. But to its credit, the film opens up debate and raises some important issues concerning a father's station and parental rights in society - too many of whom have been forced to surrender without a fight due to prevailing dominant wisdom. At least for this reason, it is Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Janne Virtanen and Susanna Mikkonen
Two scenes feature nudity - the first is in the sauna when Velu and Hannah come to terms with their separation and try to establish ground rules for having access to children - despite arguing, they end up having sex. The second is in prison when Velu is shown changing into civilian clothes, in preparation for a 'conjugal' visit.

Janne Virtanen and Susanna Mikkonen in Valkoinen kaupunki


Sunday, 27 July 2014

A review: "Ocho apellidos vascos" [2014 Spain]

Emilio Martínez Lázaro's recent box-office hit "Ocho apellidos vascos" [Eng. Title: Spanish Affairs] is a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy that draws on but discredits some widely held prejudices between Andalusian and Basque people, against each other.

Clara Lago in Ocho apellidos vascos Clara Lago, Karra Elejalde, and Dani Rovira in Ocho apellidos vascos (2014, Spain)
Clara Lago in Ocho apellidos vascos (2014) Clara Lago in Ocho apellidos vascos (2014 Spain)

The film begins with Basque girl Amaia (Clara Lago) getting drunk at her hen night party in a flamenco bar in Seville - she'd after all just been dumped by her fiancé. She picks a fight with barman Rafa (Dani Rovira) after hearing him crack unsavoury jokes about the Basque people. He promptly throws her out - much to her chagrin, but they'll soon end up in bed together, and also pass out.

Amaia slips away after waking up, but Rafa had by then fallen in love with her already. She'd forgotten her purse, whose return Rafa will use as an excuse to go all the way to País Vasco, and hopefully convince her of his love. Not bad for a Sevillano who'd never left his home province once!

His visit will coincide with Amaia's reunion with her long-disappeared fisherman-father Koldo (Karra Elejalde). Catching wind of her impending marriage, Koldo wants to reconnect with his daughter, and do the father-thing by personally evaluating his future son in law. Amaia, not wanting to disappoint dad by declaring that her wedding had been cancelled, persuades Rafa to pretend to be her Basque fiancé for the duration of her father's stay. That's when the comedy takes off.

But this is also where those not well acquainted with Spanish culture and/or purely relying on subtitles might loose out - even as a seasoned visitor to Spain, some of the nuances peculiar to Spanish people escaped me. More often than not, I just about managed to capture the gist, thanks to fine interpretations by Karra Elejalde and the ever-so-delightful Clara Lago.

There's also a cameo appearance from the pop-duo Los del Río (of the famous 90's hit-single Macarena, if you're old enough to remember), and the film even has a clichéd Hollywood-style ending. Granted - it is after all a comedy, and its main purpose is predominantly entertainment, but I also think it is charming and doesn't set out to insult people's intelligence that much - and henceforth, Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Clara Lago
The film only contains brief nudity - two instances where they may have also been editorial mistakes. The director isn't particularly renowned for featuring nudity in his films, even if some of his scenes are erotically charged. They will however appeal to those who love a bit of 'traditional' romance, and of course, the growing number of Clara Lago fans.

Clara Lago nude in Ocho apellidos vascos (2014)


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A film review: "Le milieu du monde" [Switzerland, France 1974]

With his romantic drama "Le milieu du monde" [Eng. Title: The Middle of the World], Alain Tanner signals a marked shift in the style and content of his film-making, one that'll also usher-in the most productive and creative phase of his career, featuring cinematic gems such as Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Light Years Away, In the White City, and A Flame in My Heart, among many others.

Olimpia Carlisi in "Le milieu du monde". Olimpia Carlisi and Philippe Léotard in "Le milieu du monde".
Olimpia Carlisi and Philippe Léotard in "Le milieu du monde". Olimpia Carlisi and Philippe Léotard in "Le milieu du monde".

Set in an idyllic but simple Swiss village, Tanner's film examines the intense but short-lived life of a romantic love affair - between married businessman Paul (Philippe Léotard) and Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi) - a recently arrived Venetian widow who works as a waitress at the local railway café. The film is presented like a video diary with a straightforward narrative, and uses the Swiss landscape as its backdrop.

Paul has everything going for him - he's successful, charming, and has just been chosen as an electoral candidate to represent a conservative party. He falls for Adriana from the moment he sets eyes on her, and wastes little time in asking her out on a date that she too will accept. After a few dates, he will profess his love for her, and claim that he is now at the centre of the world.

Adriana appreciates his affections, but is nevertheless also happy on her own - about herself, her job, and also the modest room that she lives in, while Paul tries to persuade her into quitting her 'crummy' job, and move in with him into a more luxurious apartment. Paul brazenly embarks upon the affair despite remaining in public gaze during his electioneering - it's as if he wants his affair to be known to everyone.

The party bosses aren't too happy when they find out about his affair, and even his close childhood friends take a wager on him loosing in elections. Paul indeed looses - perhaps he wanted it this way all along, so that he could regain his privacy and divorce his wife without the press kicking too much of fuss. He asks Adriana to accompany him in his globe-trotting plans, assuming that it is something she too would enjoy - but she turns down his offer.

There in lies Paul's problem - the business-like manner in which he approaches relationships, renders him incapable of truly getting to know the woman that he thinks he's in love with. He readily admits seeing himself at the centre of the world (hence the film's title) around whom others interact, and is consequently at odds with Adriana in one crucial respect - while Paul talks a lot and says very little, Adriana is verbal economy personified, but what little she does say is as insightful as it is telling. Paul might have nonchalantly dismissed and changed the topic after hearing Adriana say, "If a man sees a woman naked, he thinks he knows her already - and starts defining her so and so. That's why I want this room to be dark", but her words succinctly points out why their relationship will also fail. Adriana may seem just as unfathomable to the viewer as the director, but that doesn't stop us from being drawn to her enigmatic character.


A scene from Alain Tanner's "Le milieu du monde" A scene from Alain Tanner's "Le milieu du monde"

The fascinating character study is set against the desolate beauty and magnificence of the Swiss landscape, frequently juxtaposed with the mood and state of the couple's relationship. Some of cinematographer and Tanner-regular Renato Berta's stunning compositions - shot in aesthetically pleasing full-frame, impart an abstract, 'architectural' quality to scenes that would've easily won the approval of an Antonioni or Angelopoulos. Ms. Carlisi was nominated for BAFTA for her magnetic performance in the film, but Berta too ought to have been in the list for his evocative cinematography. Alain Tanner, of course, is in fine form in this masterfully put-together drama. I, for one, could sit and watch gems like these all day long - Highly Recommended Viewing..!


Amazon 2-Disc DVD Link [PAL]
As with most Tanner films, this DVD too is difficult to get hold of, and it is about time that this changes. For the moment, I add a title to my wishlist and wait for an alert mail when they become available. The DVD is otherwise immaculately restored with rich colours, whilst retaining their grain texture. The other disc contains another of Tanner's classics - Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000.


The Nudity: Olimpia Carlisi
The classy Italian actress appears nude or partially nude in a handful of scenes that are just as beautiful as they're tasteful, and as a bonus, her Italian-accented French is charming even for a foreigner like me. Most of the nude scenes happen when her character is shown in the comfort of her own room, whether alone or with her lover. There's just one scene when she's nude while not in her preferred surroundings - in a room at a tourists' hotel - and she refuses to sleep in the bed or have sex with Paul there.

Olimpia Carlisi nude in Alain Tanner's "Le milieu du monde" (1974)


Friday, 11 July 2014

A review: "Volchok" [2009 Russia]

The title for Vasiliy Sigarev's début feature "Volchok" [Eng. Title: Wolfy] refers to a spinning top, but it can also mean a wolf cub, and a way of also describing a feral child. The depressing film is about the relationship between a mother not fit for purpose and her neglected daughter.

A scene from Volchok (Wolfy) Yana Troyanova and Polina Pluchek in Volchok aka Wolfy
Yana Troyanova and Polina Pluchek in Volchok aka Wolfy (2009) Polina Pluchek in Volchok aka Wolfy (2009, Russia)
Yana Troyanova and Polina Pluchek in Volchok aka Wolfy (2009) Yana Troyanova and Polina Pluchek in Volchok aka Wolfy (2009)

The film is told in flashback through a woman's voice, narrating the relationship she had with her mother (Yana Troyanova) from the age of seven (Polina Pluchek) - the time when she first met her, arriving with her arms around a drunk 'uncle'. The girl knocks the man down with a jar of milk the following morning after he starts a fight with her mum. The mother was arrested when she was pregnant (for killing a love rival), and is presumed to have served a sentence before getting to meet her daughter for the first time, but she has no maternal feelings for her even if the girl instantly starts pining for her affection.

Many more 'uncles' turn up and leave, and the mother also often disappears for days, leaving the little girl looking through the window and yearning for her return. During one of her fleeting returns, the mother brings her a spinning top as present, which she'll cherish. The only person who cares for the girl is her grandma, and she keeps encouraging her to make up with her mum, even if it was the girl who's repeatedly put down and stamped upon by a woman who believes she's too young to be mother and deserves to have more fun than she could manage.

One of their frequent painful-to-watch parleys takes an evil turn when the mother tells the child that she didn't give birth to her, instead, she was picked up as a wolf cub, wrapped inside a bag that was left abandoned in woods near the cemetery (and apparently she plucked out the fur to make her look more human). From then on, the girl starts frequenting the cemetery, believing that is where she belonged, and starts having conversations with surrounding graves. She even develops puppy love for a boy buried there, for whom she will sing, dance, and decorate his grave with candy bars, leaves, and flowers.

When the grandmother dies, what little semblance of family there was, disappears. The mother runs away after abandoning the child at a railway station, and even the police would be unable to track her down. They give the girl to her disabled aunt, where she'll grow to become a shy and withdrawn teenager, but at least attending school which she didn't manage earlier. One day, a bedraggled and wasted mother walks back into their lives...

Beautifully filmed, it is visually as sumptuous as watching a Tarkovsky - of course, without nearly trying to be as poetic. The production design and formal compositions focus on visual details that may or may not have been necessary to propel the film, but it is very pretty to look at. They stand in stark contrast to the bleak coldness of proceedings - emotionless rather than heartless, of a selfish mother who finds her daughter a bore, whose presence a burden, and whose hugs a nuisance. We however see an attempt at presenting the mother-daughter relationship - impressively performed by Yana Troyanova and Polina Pluchek - as an allegory for an 'uncaring' present day Russia, just as the surreal 'relationship' that the girl has with a dead boy can be seen as a critique of some modern day relationships. Thoroughly depressing stuff, and I wouldn't seriously recommend this film to everyone - it's perhaps only for those who have a bit of a masochistic streak in them (like me).

Netflix DVD Link


The Nudity: Yana Troyanova
There's a lengthy scene when Yana Troyanova's character, lying naked in bed after she'd been sleeping with a woman she'd newly brought home, is decidedly being mean towards the little girl - telling her daughter that she was born a wolf. In a later scene, she pushes the child away for unbuttoning her shirt and begging for a hug.

Yana Troyanova in Volchok aka Wolfy (2009 Russia)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

A film review: "Oh, Serafina!" [1976 Italy]

If it's time to indulge in some guilty-pleasure, what better way than revisiting the seventies. The decade - in Europe, America, and almost certainly worldwide, had a pop-culture that is now officially described as 'classy', where artists began to express themselves freely without worrying too much about consequences, and when women demanded their rights returned after millennia of misogyny. These new found freedoms, perhaps, may have also allowed people to momentarily escape from and forget their daily grind, alongside the various atrocities committed around the world at the time by despots and democrats alike. But that's a different topic altogether and let's not go there.

The seventies was also 'the golden age' for nudity in cinema, when even the most conservative of societies made the odd film that dared to reveal a few more centimetres of skin above the allowed norm. However, none of them quite matched the Italians - theirs was after all a 'Roman' thing that has been carried through renaissance and everything else in between. And at a time when its film industry happened to employ actresses with some of the most exquisitely sculpted features ever to appear before camera, it was no wonder that Italian cinema was in a league of its own. Dalila Di Lazzaro (of gems like La ragazza dal pigiama giallo) was one such beauty.

The reason for the waffling about the seventies is because there's really very little to talk about veteran film maker Alberto Lattuada's mundane sex comedy "Oh, Serafina!" - he settled into this ends-meeting genre after commendable experiments in Italian neo-realism. And Dalila Di Lazzaro (alongside the redoubtable Renato Pozzetto) is co-star of the film, where she's also seen at her stunning best.

Dalila Di Lazzaro in Oh, Serafina! Angelica Ippolito in Oh, Serafina!
Angelica Ippolito in Oh, Serafina! Dalila Di Lazzaro in Oh, Serafina!

The film is about Augusto (Renato Pozzetto), a kind-hearted and ass-obsessed young industrialist, who also loves chatting with birds (real birds) in his garden. After he takes over the business from his father, he falls for the derriere of the ever-knickerless Palmira Radice (Angelica Ippolito), a woman working in his packing department. After several attempts at fondling and (implied) sex, she becomes pregnant, and he decides to make her his wife.

Troubles for Augusto start after he discovers that his wife is also a practising 'slut', who wouldn't hesitate sleeping with anyone (anyone heterosexual) to get whatever takes her fancy. She now wants to take control of Augusto's business, and after his fallout with some of the executives at the company, she colludes with staff and the local mayor to get him confined to a mental institution.

That's when he meets wild looking, designer-haired Serafina (Dalila Di Lazzaro) - daughter of a mafioso, who like himself has been consigned to asylum under false accusations. And you guessed it - Serafina's just as allergic to panties as his wife Palmira. He falls in love with her not only for this detail, but also because she's prettier, and equally in love with him!

As suggested, this film is typical escapist fare - it's like a generous helping of deep fried chicken - sickening if eaten too often, but a great little treat once in a while. Dalila may be a delicious treat to watch, but the ingredients that make up the film is certainly not for the health-conscious. DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Angelica Ippolito, Dalila Di Lazzaro, and others
The film's choice of shots and editing throws into question the authenticity of the nude scenes, and one is not sure if some of these may have used a body-double. The film's credits don't mention the complete cast, but there is plenty of female nudity, including some close-up shots, relating to Angelica Ippolito (she's also a talented actress), and the stunning Dalila Di Lazzaro. Two other uncredited actresses appear nude - as a lesbian lover, and nurse of Serafina. Dalila Di Lazzaro nevertheless, appears frontally nude in at least one scene.

Angelica Ippolito, Dalila Di Lazzaro, and others nude in "Oh, Serafina!" (1976, Italy).