Thursday, 30 October 2014

A film review: "Time of Darkness" [1991, Russia]

Occasionally we bump into a film only when looking for something else. An exploration into early post-Soviet Russian cinema led me to Vladimir Alenikov's medieval drama "Time of Darkness" [Russian Title: Fiofaniya, risuyushchaya smert], made originally in English. Produced by an American company, and even starring George Segal, it was also a general indicator of the US-Russia bonhomie at the time.

Tamara Tana and George Segal, 'Time of Darkness' A scene from Fiofaniya aka Time of Darkness (Russia 1991)
Tamara Tana as Fiofaniya in Time of Darkness (1991 Russia) George Segal in Time of Darkness (1991 Russia)

The low-budgeted film is set in eleventh century Russia, a period when many rural communities still practised their old pagan faiths, and newly arrived Christian missionaries were trying to convert them (which they achieved, but pagan ideas such as witchcraft and babkas (spiritual healers) are still fairly popular today). A spate of crimes erupt in a remote village after a summer festival, and young women newly converted to Christianity begin to get killed. While village chief Grigory (George Segal) attributes these attacks to a werewolf living in the woods, Fiofaniya (Tamara Tana), the healer-woman, after examining their bodies, believes that they were raped and killed by someone in the village.

Fiofaniya also has the ability to have 'visions'. It will help her piece together events leading up to the murder, but she wont be able identify the killer itself because he'd donned a carnival mask, like many other men in the village, during each attack. The heady mix of superstition, myth, and religion will make any effort at solving the crimes impossible, until Fiofaniya stumbles across a clue that'll lead her to the killer. She'll soon face mortal danger herself; with villagers fearing that she might be a witch, and the killer inciting the crowd to lock her inside the house and set it ablaze, almost replicating the fate that befell her own mother at a different village...

Its historical setting and the pagan-Christian conflict may be vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Rublev, but this is certainly not a Tarkovsky - and to its credit, it doesn't even pretend to be one. This is just a good ole American B-movie, more accurately, a Russian attempt at making one, that has every right to share the same shelf as the Conan epics in your friendly neighbourhood VHS library. The director has later gone on to do more memorable work, but this film is all comic strip-style material with a dodgy screenplay, B-movie style.

And yet, it couldn't help itself trying to be artistic at times, in a minimalist sort of way. Given its budget, it has managed to recreate authentic-looking sets and especially the corpses, but I have reason to believe that they might have also killed or maimed a real wolf while making the film, possibly for added authenticity. Either that, or it must've been a surprisingly clever piece of filmmaking for its time. Nevertheless what kept me engaged, were the bevy of undeniably beautiful actresses appearing in the film, and often in various stages of undress. These may or may not be the right reason for watching the film, but the extra spice certainly enhances the exotic storyline and lends it historical legitimacy (although I'm not sure about the extent to which Slavic pagans practised witch-burning). DVD Link [PAL]
There is a much cheaper DVD available as well, but it is German dubbed. I also can't attest to the DVD's quality because mine is an older non-remastered NTSC edition, not available in Amazon at the time of posting.


The Nudity: Tatyana Novik, Tamara Tana, Mariya Korolyova, Zoya Simonova, & others
The film features nudity in a variety of public spaces; when people conduct medieval fertility rituals,  bathe in the lake, are pursued through woods, and also features a Lady Godiva-style stride through the village, sans the horse.

Tamara Tana, Tatyana Novik, Mariya Korolyova, Zoya Simonova and others nude in Time of Darkness, aka Fiofaniya, risuyushchaya smert


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

User-generated entertainment: "Steekspel" [2012 Netherlands]

Having had his break after Zwartboek, Paul Verhoeven eases back into film-making mode with "Steekspel" [Eng. Title: Tricked], by using it as a 'creative-battery-recharging' project. It's a moderate success because, despite its meagre fifty minutes, the pint-sized featurette manages to package a coherent narrative with several twists and turns.

Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked). Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked)
Peter Blok in Steekspel Ricky Koole and Peter Blok in Steekspel (Tricked).

It is Remco's (Peter Blok) fiftieth birthday and his dutiful wife Ineke (Ricky Koole) has meticulously organised a party at their home. However, an unexpected visitor comes calling - his former mistress Nadja (Sallie Harmsen), with a very visible baby bump, which raise eyebrows all around and sets tongues wagging in hushed tones. After all, his affair was known to everyone, including his grown-up children and Ineke herself. It sets the tone for a series of soap-operatic events that'll follow.

Remco had been a serial philanderer all through his marriage, which Ineke had only been too aware of. She tacitly tolerated his numerous affairs because they never last for a long period, and he invariably also returns home every night. However, she couldn't tolerate Remco being the father of Nadja's child, and has threatened to leave him if it turned out to be the case.

That is however what Nadja will claim to Remco in private - that he is the father, and his business associates will use this pretext to blackmail him into selling the company in which he and Ineke have a stake. To complicate matters, he's also having an ongoing affair with his daughter Lieke's (Carolien Spoor) best friend Merel (Gaite Jensen), whom his son Tobias (Robert de Hoog) also fancies...

Kim van Kooten penned the first few pages of this topsy-turvy script before it was put up online, for crowd-sourcing input from public for the remainder of the film. Nearly 700 scripts were received, and van Kooten and Verhoeven sifted through a shortlist to pick and choose elements that gelled with the initial pages for completing the film. As a result, three other writers also appear in the film's credits. The unusual project has apparently been one arduous exercise, and is highlighted in an accompanying documentary titled "Paul's Experience", where Verhoeven talks about the creative process and how it was a unique cinematic project - a glorified 'Making-of' if you will, which is presented alongside the film.

If employing too many 'cooks' could've easily ended up as mishmash in the wrong hands, Verhoeven uses it to his advantage by accommodating the additional twists and turns in the plot whilst retaining their connection. Besides, shooting each scene in succession, with the actors and even he not knowing what happens next, make them all the more credible, and encourages audience engagement. While the overall tone of the film is that of a typical 'mainstream' TV sitcom, it nevertheless entertains as much as it intrigues the viewer. We see Verhoeven make a film after a hiatus, and that at least is reason enough to watch it - Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL] | Blu-ray Link


The Nudity: Gaite Jansen
By Paul Verhoeven's own standards, the nudity in this film is relatively mild, consisting of two scenes that feature a cute and topless Gaite Jansen - her character is the object of interest for father-son duo Remco and Tobias. In the first scene Merel flashes her breasts for Tobias's camera, telling him that he could now jack-off without having to photoshop her face to someone else's. The second is when Remco and Merel jump into bed while discussing the reappearance of Nadja. But I wonder - among all of them who submitted script for the film, didn't anyone even consider for a moment that Tobias might perhaps be interested in something more than Jansen's modest little titties, alluring as they may be! Blimey, did I just complain there?! :-)

Scenes of a nude Gaite Jansen in Paul Verhoeven's Steekspel aka Tricked


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Jodorowsky's self-therapy: "La danza de la realidad" [2013 Chile, France]

After nearly a quarter of a century, Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Swiss Army Knife among provocative artists, conjures up a deeply personal film by adapting portions from his recently published autobiography. "La danza de la Realidad" [Eng. Title: The Dance of Reality] is also a family affair, with his wife and sons also chipping in for the project. His son Brontis, who many will remember as El Topo's little son, plays Jodorwsky's father Jaime, and his character is pretty much the main focus of discussion in the film.

Brontis Jodorowsky in El danza de la realidad Jeremias Herskovits in La danza de la realidad
Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, and Jeremias Herskovits in The Dance of Reality Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, and Jeremias Herskovits in La danza de la realidad

An autobiography with a difference, the film isn't strictly a literal interpretation of events from childhood, but does contain factual details within a larger Jodorowskian canvas. It shows the early years of Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up as a shy, white Jewish boy in the Chilean coastal town of Tocopilla. Giving insights into how he perceived the world around him back then and particularly his relationship with his parents, the now older Jodorowsky, as himself, enters scenes intermittently to comment on proceedings and mentor his younger self through his growing-up pains.

The film, while making several knowing references to his earlier work, is presented as a fairy tale - like a nostalgic look-back, Amarcord-style. But that's where comparisons with Fellini end; because this one is a different kettle of fish altogether - almost every scene is a visual attack on your senses - it's a wild fantasia, ranging from the lyrical to the exquisitely profane. As anyone who'd seen his earlier works should know, Jodorowsky doesn't pull back anything if he's out to make a point. He will use any means at his disposal to load it with layers of mystic metaphors and other hippie-delights. You see police throwing protesting limbless miners to the back of a truck, circus clowns bullying a child, a hunchback woman die for love, a buxom mother show her son how to go unnoticed by others in public - in the nude, and a loving wife healing her husband by urinating on his plague-infested body.

Here's just one example of the many metaphor-laden scenes we get to see - after a stone that little Alejandro throws in anger at the sea unexpectedly results in thousands of fish getting stranded and perishing on shore, seagulls appear from nowhere to feast upon the sudden glut, and Jodorowsky muses, "I felt confused: should I suffer the anguish of the sardines, or should I delight in the joy of the seagulls...". Jodorowsky's mother Sara (Chilean soprano Pamela Flores) sings in the film instead of talking - while the reason was because it was his mother's long-held wish to become an opera singer, and he was merely trying to fulfil her ambition symbolically, it is even more moving if you interpret it as the mother's voice in itself sounding as music to young Alejandro's ears.

A therapy:

The film has a personal mission too. Jodorowsky, heavily involved in his psychomagic, in effect workshops his film project into an elaborate therapy session, with family, to come to terms with a difficult past. He'd mentioned (separately) that he was traumatised in childhood by an overbearing father who expected him to be as manly as he was, one who he opines was also a hypocrite in facing up to his own ideology. Through the film, Jodorowsky not only highlights his father's flaws, but also enables him to redeem himself and regain his humanity towards the end, which of course, didn't happen in reality. Children in town back then made fun of him because he was white, and circumcised. He was often harassed by people because he was a (relatively) rich Jewish boy, and effeminate looking with his long blond hair, which was nurtured by his mother to remind her of her own father. It's because of these reasons that the film was also shot in the very place he lived - in a Tocopilla that's barely changed over the years. But since his childhood home was destroyed by fire, he built one again to resemble the original home for this film. He also repainted all the run-down homes in the vicinity to recreate his childhood landscape, in order to put to rest his demons. The film set, and everything that went with it, was gifted back to the town after the shoot.

The film isn't a straightforward work of fiction or even a strictly fictionalised biography - the thoughts in the film aren't that of Jodorowsky as a child growing up in the 1930's, but that of an octogenarian looking back at it using present intellect. And since everything is seen from a vastly different viewpoint, there is no point in poring over its historical accuracy, let alone delving into the narrative. Regardless, it is engaging and life-affirming in its own unique way. The performance from actors playing the mother-father duo and the son, particularly Brontis Jodorowsky, is brave and 'real' to say the least. Jodorowsky's other son Adan handles the soundtrack and music with panache. The film was also the result of a reunion of sorts between Jodorowsky and his co-producer Michel Seydoux - they'd stayed apart after a doomed 70's project (Dune, the one that never got made but nevertheless inspired sci-fi cinema the world over). However, it is an altogether personal film and should not be compared like-for-like to Jodorowsky's earlier works, and certainly, Highly Recommended Viewing..! Blue-ray & DVD Purchase Link


The Nudity: Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky
Brontis Jodorowsky throws himself into his character headlong, and opera singer Pamela Flores - much respected and loved in her home country, doesn't hold back either, which also reflects in the eye-raising frankness of their respective nude scenes. Wholesome Flores barely flinches while singing in the nude, and Brontis is as at ease with his naked self as he was, as a child in El Topo. There are at least four scenes featuring frontal nudity, male and female.

Pamela Flores and Brontis Jodorowsky nude in La danza de la realidad aka The Dance of Reality


Saturday, 4 October 2014

Disrupting harmony: "O Lobo atrás da Porta" [2013 Brazil]

Director Fernando Coimbra's promising feature-film début "O Lobo atrás da Porta" [Eng. Title: Wolf at the Door] starts as a suspense-thriller but pretty quickly veers off into a drama. Set against the backdrop of down-town Rio de Janeiro, the suspense associated with the kidnapping of a child is relatively short-lived, the film thereafter delves into the motive behind the kidnapper's actions.

O Lobo atrás da Porta - 2013, Brazil Milhem Cortaz and Antonio Saboia in O Lobo atrás da Porta
Leandra Leal in O Lobo atrás da Porta Leandra Leal in O Lobo atrás da Porta

Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento) arrives to pick her child from the nursery as usual, but the surprised staff member reminds her that it was she who called earlier to allow her friend Sheila to collect the kid, since she was unwell and wont be able to make it.

When the police interview staff members, it becomes clear that whoever impersonated Sylvia's friend was well known to the child, because she instinctively ran towards her for a hug. But Sylvia doesn't even have a friend named Sheila, and husband Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) is brought in for questioning. As soon as he learns of his daughter's kidnapping, he blames it on Rosa (Leandra Leal), the woman he'd been having an affair with over the past year.

As the detective questions Rosa, she initially denies any involvement in the kidnapping and comes up with a different version of events on that day. When grilled further, she admits that it was she who kidnapped the child, and opens her back story and her affair with Bernardo. It touches on how they met, and how she was misled into believing that he was not married. She also mentions his physical abuse for befriending Sylvia, how she had an abortion forced upon her, and Bernardo's general unpleasantness...

The drama is a pretty good first effort by Coimbra - one can see stylistic influences from the likes of Bruno Dumont and Carlos Reygadas from his long, almost static camera takes, and frequent use of close-ups. It is just as well that he had the right actors to help, particularly Leandra Leal who handles the sharp contradictions within her film-character with aplomb - at one moment she's the vulnerable, suffering, and innocent girl, and in the next she's a doggedly determined woman with a strong appetite for sex. The camera work is good, but I couldn't help feeling that the grungy-industrial soundtrack might have been overdone a bit. My main problem with the film however, is its unmistakeable moral overtones. The 'wolf' in the title refers to disruption in a family's harmony - as in this case, by the extramarital affair - the clear message being that infidelity is wrong, and abortion is cruel. Having said that, Coimbra does exceptionally well in holding the viewer's curiosity for the most part of proceedings, and also manages to insert an unexpected twist in the plot towards the end - a promising début that's Recommended Viewing..!


The Nudity: Leandra Leal
There are two instances of brief nudity from Leandra Leal playing Rosa, the second of which is a bit longer. There is also a brief backside flash from Fabiula Nascimento who plays Sylvia, while getting out of bed.

Leandra Leal nude in O Lobo atrás da Porta