REVIEW: A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan and Wang Bao

Tiger, ox, snake and rooster- these four animals, symbols on the Chinese Zodiac calender, are key to understanding the central character in each of the four chapters in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.  It illustrates the clashes and cohesion of tradition and modernism as it applies to those people, who operate in four distinct areas of that industrial and economic superpower.

It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is regulated by the government.  The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.

The first is the story of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled miner.  Confronted with poverty after corruption and greed privatizes his mine, he becomes a working-class avenging angel, wielding a shotgun and a pitiless dead-eyed gaze.  That gun is wrapped in a tiger-imprinted cloth, and a loud growl precedes his rampage.  Wu is a commanding, ferocious screen presence.

Next is the ox, a gun-loving migrant worker who returns to his family in the southwestern city of Chongqing.  His act of violence is the murder of a wealthy couple so he can snatch the woman’s purse.  In fact, nearly all of the carnage in A Touch of Sin is spawned by economic injustice.  There is the snake, a spa receptionist bullied to brutality by a rich man looking to use her for sex.  And, finally, there is a young man searching for economic opportunity, unaware of endless dead ends and vast corruption.

This is my first encounter with Zhangke’s work, and the boldness and skill he executes each chapter is astounding.  His characters are not defined by their respective zodiac animals or by their violence.  Both of those are overt contrasts with their attempts at normalcy in modern China.  There are glimpses of labor factories, train crashes and ruthless economic disparity; things that do not make headlines in state-run newspapers but that Zhangke clearly wants to the world to see.

Grade: B+

REVIEW: Vincere

Vincere
Directed by: Marco Bellocchio
Written by: Marco Bellocchio & Daniela Ceselli (screenplay)
Starring: Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Corrado Invernizzi, and Michela Cescon

Benito Mussolini and the exploits of Fascist Italy are criminally underfilmed in the annals of WWII films when compared to Hitler’s Nazi regime.  Because Mussolini took a back seat, his atrocities appear to somehow be less atrocious in the eyes of history and film.  Vincere, an astounding Italian film from Marco Bellocchio, does not show us his direct rule, but rather slims its focus on his horrendous treatment of his first wife, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno).

Dalser falls in love with him from the moment she sees him challenge God in a crowded forum.  It’s the beginning of his revolution, when he still had time for love between the killing.  This isn’t a movie about Mussolini, though.  This movie is about Ida, who he abandons for another woman after he goes to war.  He leaves a son and a woman scorned behind.

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REVIEW: White Material

White Material
Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Marie N’Diaye, & Lucie Borleteau (screenplay)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and William Nadylam

When viewed through an American lens, the new film by French director Claire Denis has an almost eerily identifiable allegory to our society.  It follows Maria (Isabelle Huppert) as she tries to cling to her way of life as the French colonial society in Africa crumbles.  The economy and the very fabric of society are tanking, and she and her family’s wealthy coffee plantation are at stake.

Maria is not solely sympathetic.  Her stubbornness and white arrogance have led her to a place where she thrives while many around her are left to suffer in poverty and death.  Denis gets this point across not just by putting Maria in the midst of this chaos, but by showing us first-hand the toll of poverty in the form of child soldiers.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmark
Written by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (screenplay)
Starring: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, and Ulrich Tukur

Voyeurism, as it turns out, is one of the leading topplers of totalitarianism.  At least that’s what Florian Henckel von Donnersmark suggests in his Oscar-winning foreign drama The Lives of Others.

The film tackles both of the aforementioned “-isms” with a formal technique that is amazing from a first-time director.  Suspense fills almost every bleakly muted frame, generated not by constant cutting but by focusing on actor’s facial expressions and the many twists of the story.  Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an interrogator in East Berlin circa 1984 (yes, like the book) is tasked with listening in on the lives of a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress muse (Martina Gedeck.)  At first, we see him interrogate an earlier subject with relish, and the film cuts to him as an instructor lecturing eager students with a recorded copy of the same interrogation.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: A Christmas Tale

A Christmas Tale
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin & Emmanuel Bourdieu
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, and Jean-Paul Roussillon

The French movie character, with its wildly shifting eyes, deep self consciousness, and ever-looming misery, never ceases to be endlessly thought-provoking.  Throw a bunch of these creatures together in the days preceding Christmas, and you’ve got the emotional bloodbath equivalent of Kill Bill.

A Christmas Tale is the typical American holiday drama done elegantly and boldly in the French fashion.  It is a dysfunctional family coming together during the holiday, and yes, mother is dying of cancer.  The movie succeeds because disease is a theme and not a plot point.  Cancer of one form or another has eaten away at this family’s soul for years; Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is suffering from the same form of cancer that killed her four-year-old son decades ago.

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REVIEW: I Am Love

I Am Love
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parente, Edoardo Gabbriellini, and Alba Rohrwacher

Amid the beautiful interiors, finely prepared meals, and meticulously planned out wardrobes, a human element emerges.  I Am Love, the beautifully written, filmed, and acted drama from Luca Guadagnino, is obsessed not only with its elegant, finely tuned surface, but the emotions that boil just beneath it as well.

The age of the horrific Katherine Heigl rom-com doesn’t exist yet in this film, which chronicles the Recchis,  a wealthy Italian family, and the Russian black sheep who married into it at the turn of the millennium.  Every day, Emma (Tilda Swinton) must suit up in a differently colored, yet similar-looking dress and perform the functions of an everyday aristocrat.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Amélie

Amélie
Directed by: Jean Pierre-Jeunet
Written by: Guillaume Laurant & Jean Pierre-Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Serge Merlin, and Clotilde Mollet

Deep despair, insightful narcissism, impossibly cultured people- these are all things associated with French cinema.  Though our overseas friends gave us the new wave, these things rode the surf as well.  American cinema has tried since the birth of the French new wave to implement it as carelessly as such French staples as Breathless and The 400 Blows.  What a strange, wonderful phenomenon it is that French filmmaker Jean Pierre-Jeunet turns French cinema on its head yet again with Amélie.

Amélie is as free-spirited, uplifting, and gracious as the protagonist its title speaks of (Audrey Tautou).  Rarely does a movie tackle optimism as straightforwardly as this, and it’s something new for the often dark and brooding films associated with French cinema.  During its more than two hour run time, Pierre-Jeunet’s film manages to make a mundane, normal life seem enthralling thanks to a hilarious, charming and original screenplay and some of the best visuals the cinema has ever seen.

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