Saturday, 30 May 2015

A film review: "Das wilde leben" [2007 Germany]

It is difficult to know the extent to which director Achim Bornhak had a say in the creative rather than technical aspects of his film biopic - about the model, actress, groupie, and legendary sex-icon of the '1968 generation' Uschi Obermaier, "Das wilde leben" [Eng. Title: Eight Miles High]. This is not only due to the script's reliance on Ms. Obermaier's autobiography "High Times", but also because the very icon was even involved in the film's making. Since I'm neither from her generation nor have read her biography, I'd rather restrict my observations to the screenplay, performances and production values as witnessed in the film.

Uschi Obermaier with Rainer Langhans Natalia Avelon in Das wilde leben (2007)
iconic photograph - Das wilde leben Alexander Scheer and Natalia Avelon in "Das wilde leben"
A scene from "Das wilde leben" (2007) A scene from Das wilde leben
Natalia Avelon and David Scheller in "Das wilde leben" [2007] Uschi Obermaier and Natalia Avelon

The two-hour long drama starts off with a teenage Uschi (Natalia Avelon) leaving home with her pal Sabine (Friederike Kempter), after the former has a row with her strict parents following their discovery of professional nude photos of their daughter. The girls hitch a ride with a group of hippies on their way to Kommune 1 in Berlin.

That's where Uschi meets Rainer Langhans (Matthias Schweighöfer), right in the middle of shooting the iconic photograph that Kommune 1 will henceforth be associated with. They become lovers and Uschi, already a well-known model, inadvertently becomes the 'face of the revolution' and figurehead for a political ideology in which she had little interest in. What she liked most was the Bohemian lifestyle that came with living in the commune - one that saved her from "turning into her parents".

Uschi's personality and good looks will draw the attention of famous rock stars such as Jimmy Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and especially Keith Richards (Alexander Scheer) - with whom she will have more than a passing fling. Soon she'll be spoilt for choice between groupie high-life and the commune.

That is when she learns about a wealthy adventurer named Dieter Bockhorn (David Scheller) and instantly falls in love, the same way that he too does after looking at her pictures in a magazine. They get on like a house on fire when they eventually meet, and Uschi leaves Kommune 1 to live with Bockhorn soon after.

After a brief separation following an argument, they reunite and set-off around the world in a customised Mercedes bus that'll keep them on the road for the best part of a decade, with photojournalists catching up with them wherever they went. From here on, the film also takes a more serious turn by focusing upon some poignant moments in their relationship.

Particularly so after their 'symbolic' marriage in India - while Uschi reluctantly agrees to the wedding as some kind of 'performance' to appease their Royal hosts, Bockhorn certainly appears to have taken their marriage more seriously. Uschi will have a miscarriage, and their journey together will come to an end after Bockhorn is killed in a road accident while in Mexico. Much of the film is told as flash-back against a grieving Uschi watch Bockhorn's burning pyre float into the sunset.

The actors portraying the three main characters; Uschi, Rainer, and Bockhorn give a good account of themselves, and Natalia Avelon, the babe that she is, even emanates the sexual charisma that Uschi was renowned for. She could do much worse than improve over time as a seasoned actress. While the cinematography is appealing, it is the excellent attention to set design, costumes, and that awesome bus that lingers in our memory. Even though she's now a best-selling author and successful jewellery designer, Uschi Obermaier's former life was nevertheless as eventful as any worth bringing to cinema, and that's what the film focuses on, from her own perspective. The Making-of documentary features a present-day Uschi revealing her thoughts and involvement in the making of the film. However, the star of this above average film is Natalia Avelon, and at least for her naked splendour, it is Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]
Among the featured DVD extras are a Making Of documentary, some deleted scenes, and the official music video for a version of 'Summer Wine' recorded by Ville Valo and Natalia Avelon herself - and she can sing..!


The Nudity:
Matthias Schweighöfer, Heike Warmuth, Natalia Avelon, Alexander Scheer, & others
The film features intermittent scenes of male and female nudity, but none in as many scenes as the gorgeous Natalia Avelon. However, the longest continuous frontal exposure belongs to a brave Matthias Schweighöfer.

Natalia Avelon, Matthias Schweighöfer, Alexander Scheer, Heike Warmuth, and others nude in "Das wilde leben" aka "Eight Miles High" [2007]


Saturday, 16 May 2015

A film review: "Corn Island" [2014, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Hungary]

Birds chirping, water flowing, and intermittent rain pouring, make up most of the audio in George Ovashvili's exquisitely lush drama "Simindis kundzuli" [Eng. Title: Corn Island] - there are hardly any dialogues, and yet it sends viewers on a soul-searching exercise through the sheer eloquence of the messages that it conveys visually. This is profound and purposeful cinema, pure and simple!

Geopolitical backdrop:
The river Enguri flows from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea, forming a de-facto border separating the breakaway republic of Abkhazia with the rest of Georgia. Little islands spring up in the river between the end of spring and summer, before rains and floods arrive to wash them away. These temporary river islands with nutrient-rich soil aren't contested by any of the parties involved in their long-running frozen conflict; the Georgian, Abkhazian, and Russian soldiers mainly patrol the river to try and prevent (or facilitate) militants crossing the border. But some poor peasants use the natural phenomenon to claim, plant, and harvest a corn crop while these islands last.

A scene from "Corn Island" aka "Simindis kundzuli" (2014) A scene from "Simindis kundzuli" (2014)
Mariam Buturishvili and Ilyas Salman in "Simindis kundzuli" aka "Corn Island" (2014) Mariam Buturishvili and Ilyas Salman in "Simindis kundzuli" aka "Corn Island" (2014)
A scene from "Simindis kundzuli" aka "Corn Island" (2014) A scene from "Corn Island" (2014)

The film observes an elderly Abkhazian man (Ilyas Salman) in engaging detail, as he lays claim to an island by constructing a shack upon it, and plant and tend his crop on a tiny patch of land in the middle of the river. He labours at his task with an air of stoic heroism, given his age and necessity. He is assisted in the endeavour by his granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili), who's probably also his only remaining relative.

Their relationship is as pristine and natural as the majestic landscape surrounding them, both of whose tranquillity are only momentarily disrupted by the reality of cracking gunfire and patrolling boats. The girl, in the throes of puberty, catches the eye of young soldiers and militants alike who venture near the island, and even though still a child, she could sense that there's something different about the way men look at her now, and begins to like the attention directed at her.

The film, whilst depicting the protagonists confront the odds to reap their harvest, ponders deeply into the temporariness of our very being; the notion of 'owning' a piece of land, the idea of nationhood - distinguishing us from the rest, and nature's abundant capacity to recycle, rejuvenate, and propagate life in all its forms unabashedly, and unsparingly. The Georgian film might have been intended for an audience close to home, but it also carries a universal, existential theme.

The film pits man at his elemental state, devoid of trappings such as nationality, kinship, and entitlement, against the forces of life and nature. Elemér Ragályi's breathtaking cinematography provides the grand canvas in which Ovashvili creates his meditative poem, that in a manner evoke the works of a Theodoros Angelopoulos or Béla Tarr. If you could muster the patience to sit through a hut being built in almost real-time, a patch of land being dug up for cultivation, and two characters lying down and staring into the sky without saying a word, you'll gradually but surely become convinced that you'd been watching one of the finest and most 'engaging' films ever made in the year. This simple yet beautiful production from Georgia, Germany, France, Czech Republic, and Kazakhstan is without a doubt, Highly Recommended Viewing..!

The Nudity: Mariam Buturishvili
There is brief nudity from Mariam Buturishvili when changing out of her wet clothes, and while taking a dip in the river.

Mariam Buturishvili nude in "Simindis kundzuli" aka "Corn Island" [2014, Georgia]


Thursday, 7 May 2015

A film review: "Cargo 200" [2007, Russia]

The allegorical Soviet drama "Gruz 200" [Eng. Title: Cargo 200] is one of Aleksey Balabanov's most important and uninhibited films to date. It is also lesser known than his highly acclaimed "Brother" duology for the very same reason - for being unsparing to his audience in a Gaspar Noé kind of way.

Cargo 200 (2007, Russia) Agniya Kuznetsova in Cargo 200
Agniya Kuznetsova from Cargo 200 (2007, Russia) Cargo 200 (2007, Russia)
Aleksey Poluyan in "Cargo 200" (2007, Russia) Agniya Kuznetsova and Aleksey Poluyan in Aleksey Balabanov's "Cargo 200" (2007, Russia)

Set amongst the industrial wastelands of 1984 Soviet Union, and apparently based on some true events, the film is a scathing critique of a system and society as Balabanov recalls it from his younger days. Meant as much as to shock as remind a growing number of Russians who have begun to look back at the past through rose-tinted glasses, the film minces no words in highlighting the rotten state of terror, corruption, and depravity that barely lay concealed behind its thin veneer of socialism.

At first glance, the main plot might vaguely resemble your average American slasher from the eighties, but this film takes it a step further by making a pointed observation of a nation's sadness and collective impotence that drowned itself in alcohol and madness. Two sub-plots cross paths one after the other in a bootlegger's farm on the outskirts of Leninsk - just as a corrupt professor of Scientific Atheism (Leonid Gromov) fixes his broken down car and leaves the farm after a heated religious debate with its owner (Aleksey Serebryakov), a happy-go-lucky youth (Leonid Bichevin) drops by to buy some booze for the night. He'd also brought along a girl he'd picked up at the nightclub, a Government official's daughter named Angelika (Agniya Kuznetsova).

A murder happens that night, and Angelika is sexually assaulted and kidnapped by a psychopathic police captain named Zhurov (Aleksey Poluyan), after the youth and owner of the farm have passed out drinking. The owner's wife Antonina (Natalya Akimova) does little to intervene in both the crimes owing to a secret pact between her husband and the captain dating back to the time they served time together in a Gulag. And her kidnap is only the beginning of Angelika's ordeal...

'Cargo 200' is euphemism in Police parlance for the unmentionable reality of coffins arriving with dead soldiers from the war in Afghanistan. Balabanov makes a direct connection of wasted lives to the prevailing sense of social and moral decay, and accuses people, including the audience, of being part of the problem. In a telling scene, we see a platoon of young soldiers briskly climb aboard an IL-76 from which coffins are also simultaneously unloaded. Perhaps, it requires a nationalistic film maker like Balabanov to drive home the message that nostalgic eyes do tend to retain a blind spot for finer but essential details when recounting a 'glorious' past.

The film is exceedingly well directed and put together, and its thoughtful, carefully period-graded cinematography and superlative editing misleadingly make it appear all too easy. Balabanov clearly knows what it takes to tell a story rather well. But whilst this menacing and dreary film isn't exactly easy-viewing, it nevertheless emanates a strong whiff of dark humour even during the grizzliest of moments. In a memorable scene, Zhurov's alcohol and telly-addicted mother complains to a visitor about flies in her apartment, where Zhurov was also holding Angelika captive.

And I have barely touched upon the gloriously grimy set-design, magnificently brooding industrial landscape, and the jarringly anachronistic but true-to-period pop-music soundtrack - their combined effect will haunt you for days after you've put away your DVD. Needless to say, this horrifying masterpiece is Highly Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [NTSC] | Instant Video Link


The Nudity: Agniya Kuznetsova
Two hysterically morbid scenes feature nudity; it goes without saying that neither of them are pleasant to watch. The first is when Capt. Zhurov brings home a prisoner to sexually 'please' Angelika because he couldn't do it himself. The second, longer scene shows Angelika chained to the bed totally nude and lying next to the decomposing corpses of her soldier-fiancé and the prisoner who failed to please her enough. Zharov will be reading back to Angelika the letters that her fiancé sent her when Antonina comes barging in.

Agniya Kuznetsova nude in "Cargo 200" aka "Gruz 200" (2007, Russia)