January 31, 2011

L'Âge d'Or (1930)

In the mid 20s, a young and enthusiast Luis Buñuel was decided to get involved in the French film industry after having been fascinated by the works by Fritz Lang. This determination took him to get a job as a production assistant in Jean Epstein's 1926 film, "Mauprat". Buñuel's dedication soon made him assistant director in later works by Epstein and Mario Naplas, where he would learn the basics of the craft. Finally, Buñuel would debut as a director in 1929 with a 16-minute short film titled "Un chien andalou" (literally, "An Andalusian Dog"). Written by painter Salvador Dalí and Buñuel himself, "Un chien andalou" was an experimental film that followed a surreal storyline composed of a series of allegoric (and often nightmarish) scenes based on dreams that Dalí and Buñuel had written. The innovative short film was a success amongst the French artistic community, and increased interest in the Spaniard filmmaker. French nobleman Vicomte Charles de Noailles and his wife, Marie-Laure de Noailles, decided to produce Buñuel's first feature-length film: "L'Âge d'Or".

Known in English as "The Golden Age", "L'Âge d'Or" opens with images that seem like a fragment from a documentary about scorpions, detailing their nature and habits, making emphasis in their lack of tolerance to others and their poisonous sting. Then the "main storyline" begins properly, which presents the efforts of a man and a woman to love each other despite the forces that conspire against them, namely society, authority and religious organizations. This story unfolds through a series of vignettes tied together without any apparent structure; however, these vignettes in fact represent Buñuel and Dalí's own subversive ideas about society, put together in accordance to the surrealist principles they were familiar, pretty much in a similar way to their previous effort, "Un chien andalou". Nevertheless, while "Un chien andalou" works as a nightmare (or better said, a vision) come to life; "L'Âge d'Or", works more like a graphic representation of the train of thought that these two artists had at the time. Is it a revolution or a joke? Perhaps, "L'Âge d'Or" tried to be a bit of both.

Written by director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí (though Buñuel argues that Dalí's collaboration was minimal), the vignettes of "L'Âge d'Or" contain a darkly perverse brand of humor, employing an apparently light-hearted comedy to deliver its sharp, merciless attacks. Nothing escapes from Buñuel's sting, from the Catholic Church to the militia, the happily ignorants and the arrogant intellectuals, the civil authority, the government and of course, at the top of all, the bourgeoisie society. The message being, apparently, that love can't reach its full potential because it suffers under the oppressive moral of society, which represses sexuality while at the same time breeds and propagates vices of worse nature. Violence and its absurdity is also tackled by Buñuel, as violence seem to be the only available escape for the otherwise repressed passions. Violence that goes from the abuse of a little dog to the cold blooded murder of a child. Of course, all this is handled with the same light-hearted tone that Buñuel uses through the film, accentuating its absurdity.

In this his first feature length film, Buñuel certainly showcases his domain of cinema as an artistic expression. "L'Âge d'Or" is a film that oozes symbolism, and practically every vignette was carefully planned to convey a certain, very specific message. Still, while even at this early stage Buñuel's mastery of cinema as a language is out of the question, at the time when "L'Âge d'Or" was made Buñuel was still learning the technique, and it shows in several parts. The disjointed, surreal narrative, while powerful and effective in "Un chien andalou", feels broken and incomplete in "L'Âge d'Or". Buñuel's editing is still abrupt and forced, and some vignettes would benefit of an easier transition (granted, "L'Âge d'Or" was not meant to be a film easy to digest). Albert Duverger's work of cinematography is truly exquisite in certain scenes (the famous scene of the religious statue for example), but there are points in which it feels surprisingly amateurish. Certainly, Buñuel's eye was still developing his very own style, but as a whole, it feels a work a tad amateurish at first glance.

Acting through "L'Âge d'Or" is for the most part effective, considering the goals of the film, as it should be noted that given the nature of the film, the performances tend to be hammy, overacting every emotion and expression. It's after all, a parody of self-righteousness, and a film done in the style of silent cinema. As one of the two protagonists, Lya Lys plays the young girl (the characters lack names), and she basically portrays an archetype of femininity (feminity as understood by Buñuel of course). The young girl is fragile and elegant, yet at the same time full of passion. Gaston Modot, delivering a truly remarkable performance, plays her counterpart, the equally unnamed man (as if was to represent all men). Modot's character is also filled with passion, but as the authorities oppress him, his passion finds an outlet in violence, and begins his struggle to satisfy his love (or is it lust? Both are equally important in "L'Âge d'Or" as purer expressions of humanity). The rest of the cast is effective, for the most part, though nothing particularly surprising.

Certainly, "L'Âge d'Or" is quite an ambitious film, with its cruel yet humorous attacks to social order and its complex symbolism; nevertheless, I personally found it a bit too full of itself for its own good. Some of Buñuel's targets are pretty obvious and, since the attacks are anything but subtle, the film can feel less witty and more childish than what was expected. Of course, the disjointed narrative also becomes a bit of a problem as the movie, being of a higher complexity and longer runtime than "Un chien andalou", tends to lose its point at several parts, and some vignettes do feel forced within the narrative. It's clear that Buñuel had in mind something big with the making of this project but, it seems that it was a project still too big for his creative mind at that moment. Granted, "L'Âge d'Or" was designed to be more symbolic than explicit, more an experience than an entertainment, and definitely more emotional than rational; but the overall experience is one of an unfulfilled mission.

Of course, Luis Buñuel would tackle surrealism later in his career, with the crowing pieces of his surrealist oeuvre being his 70s films, "Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie" ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie") and "Le Fantôme de la liberté" ("The Phantom of Liberty"), which would earn him the title of master of surrealism. While probably not entirely satisfying, "L'Âge d'Or" was a clear signal of the interests of the young Buñuel and, despite its many flaws, shows that even at this early stage of his career the vision of Buñuel was already developed (His technique would improve and blossom later, during his exile in Mexico). "L'Âge d'Or" or "The Golden Age", is a difficult film to watch (personally, it wouldn't be my first choice for an afternoon), but truly a key one that has to be experienced to discover the origins of Luis Buñuel and the core of surrealist cinema.

Watch "L'Âge d'Or" (1930)

January 11, 2011

W-Cinema's Brief top of 2010

Well, 2010 is over and, while here at W-Cinema things have gone from erratic to barely alive, it's still time to make the classic post about what was good (for W-cinema's standards) in the year. As with every list, you may agree with it, you may disagree with it, or you may perhaps send a good anthrax-filled letter to our door for not giving enough praise to González Iñárritu; all I can say is that this list reflects only the few 2010 releases I managed to see through the year, and that it also reflects W-cinema's taste in films. As expected, the list follows our somewhat established belief in genres and auteurism, including nice incursions in science fiction, heist films, fantasy, a meditation on superheroes and two nice case studies on the classic way of making a thriller. Two (ok, three) of W-cinema's all-time favourite directors do appear in it, two Mexican directors make the cut, and one Portuguese film made by the oldest living director. I know it's nothing but a small glimpse of what 2010 had to offer, but what the hell, here's W-Cinema's Top 10 of 2010 (and some certain honorific mentions).

10) O Estranho Caso de Angélica (2010, Manoel de Oliveira)

After 79 years of active career, Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira has seen a lot of the world, and that includes, a lot of cinema. In "O Estranho Caso de Angélica", known in English as "The Strange Case of Angelica", Manoel de Oliveira tells a simple fantasy of a man in love with a ghost, but behind the romance theme, it's also the tale a man in love with the past. And while the film takes place in modern times, Oliveira's style is also in love with the past. Perhaps, in love with his past. Classy and restrained, "The Strange Case of Angelica" feels like a window to a style that, like Angelica, can not remain dead but is in fact, very alive.

9) Kick-Ass (2010, Matthew Vaughn)
Comic book artists Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. hooked up with scriptwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, and conceived the story of a teenager who becomes a superhero out of his love for comic books and a comics-influenced sense of justice. The result was a comic book published by Marvel, and an independently financed film directed by Matthew Vaughn. Flashy and hip, "Kick-Ass" looks like another cheap superhero parody, but it's actually a nice, fun analysis to the themes of idealism and the masked vigilante. Classic comic book concepts and motifs are viewed with a darkly humorous eye (and a taste for good gratuitous violence) that may put off someone expecting a David Zucker parody.

8) El Infierno (2010, Luis Estrada)
In Mexico, the open war against the drug cartels that the government has started has taken the violence to the civilians; and while the results of the Mexican Drug War are still to be seen (and we won't get into politics), the open acts of violence has turned towns and cities into branches of hell. Or that's what filmmaker Luis Estrada states in "El Infierno" (literally, "The Hell). Telling the story of a naive man whom gets deeply involved with the drug cartel that rules his town, only to discover the crude hell behind all the riches and fortunes; Luis Estrada brings back the raw aesthetics of the classic Mexican low budget action films with Mario Almada (who even has a cameo) and adds his brand of acid, satirical humor to make harsh criticism of the drug culture, the Mexican government, and everything in-between.

7) Biutiful (2010, Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Mexico again, but this time only via its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, as "Biutiful" locates us in Spain, specifically in Barcelona, where Javier Bardem offers a tour de force in terms of acting as the film's tragic hero, Uxbal, a man who knows he is going to die. Living in poor conditions, working in the underworld and with a terminal illness over him, Uxbal begins to walk his last road, looking for redemption and attempting to ensure a slightly better future for the family he'll leave behind: his two kids. While I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, it is truly a great achievement, and also, probably González Iñárritu's most human film.

6) Hereafter (2010, Clint Eastwood)
Death and what comes after is what director Clint Eastwood explores in his 2010 film, "Hereafter", narrating three stories of people touched by death in some way, the legendary filmmaker makes a warm, subtle and classy meditation on the after life. A French reporter with a near-death experience, a real psychic who considers his gift as a curse, and a young boy desperately trying to find a message from the dead, all collide with an elegance that brings back memories from an older style of crafting drama films. And Eastwood opens his film with a quite powerful scene.

5) The Ghost Writer (2010, Roman Polanski)
Like Eastwood, Roman Polanski is a favourite here at W-Cinema, and fortunately, Polanski's adaptation of Robert Harris' novel of the same name, is quite a thrilling ride. Ewan McGregor and a terrific Pierce Brosnan star in this story of politics, lies and books; in which Polanksi once again demonstrates a talent for creating interesting tales of conspiracy. Sure, "The Ghost Writer" is far from being a reinvention of the political thriller genre, but the classy way the mystery unfolds makes this a truly enjoyable experience. Slow and subtle, the film begins with a certain tranquility that only begins the construction of a strong sense of urgency and paranoia in a way that Polanski knows very well.

4) The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)
Showcasing a great talent as a storyteller, David Fincher tackles on the story about the early years of Facebook. While it may or may not be an entirely accurate description of Mark Zuckerberg's life, it is an extremely well crafted story that manages to capture the essence of a generation. Fincher makes captivating this tale of young entrepreneurs breaking the rules and then breaking themselves. In the end, seeing it as an artistic expression, I guess it doesn't matter if it's a sensationalizing or not (although who knows how the real Mark Zuckerberg must have felt), it is a great story, told masterfully with great care and powerful talent.

3) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010, Edgar Wright)
Talking about films that capture the spirit of a generation, Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" takes pop culture by the horns and fully captures the aesthetics of video games better than any video game movie. Based on the comic books (ok, graphic novels) series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is a surreal fantasy where indie rock, martial arts and 8-bits video games collide in a pastiche that's not only a flashy spectacle beautiful to look at, but also a fine example of a fun yet thought-provoking coming of age film. Along "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz", this movie consolidates Wright as a master storyteller for this generation.

2) Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese)
Haunting, dark and atmospheric, Martin Scorsese's adaptation of "Shutter Island" feels like a throwback to the days of Val Lewton's somber horror-noirs of the 40s. In a mystery involving memories, paranoia and insanity, Martin Scorsese doesn't attempt to reinvent the genre, just toys with its elements building a thriller in the most classic sense. Now, this doesn't mean that Scorsese plays it safe, it's more a conscious recreation of a style of filmmaking that, while probably out of fashion now, still works effectively. Slow in its pace, and ominous in its atmosphere, "Shutter Island" is a thriller that goes back to the roots in gothic horror and Film Noir's emphasis in suspense; delivering a haunting tale of madness with a classy touch.

1) Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)
Amongst the most recent breed of filmmakers, Christopher Nolan stands out as a director being able of churning out big Hollywood productions without losing his very own trademark style (in the same lines, only Del Toro and Fincher come to mind). After reinvigorating the "Batman" franchise, Nolan earned the chance of making his own film and the result is "Inception". A heist film for the 21st century, "Inception" shows Leonardo DiCaprio gathering a team of specialists to make a heist inside a man's mind. The mission? To enter the subconscious mind of a dreaming state, to implant an idea, and return alive to tell the tale. With this concept in mind, Nolan plays the rules of heist films, bending them to his will, resulting in a quite entertaining and though-provoking thriller. It's certainly not without its flaws, but certainly, "Inception" ended up being the most interesting film of the year.

And now, some honorific mentions:
- Piranha (2010, Alexandre Aja)
With great knowledge of the genre he loves, Alexandre Aja unleashes a powerful non-stop roller-coaster of nudity, blood and gore in a glorious old school style. Almost as if it had been made in the late 70s or early 80s.
- TRON: Legacy (2010, Joseph Kosinski)
While showing a good deal of respect to the original film, Kosinski's sequel fails to reach full circle and leaves one with the desire of revisiting the original. Still, it's quite a ride and the music (by Daft Punk) is perfect.
- La Pantera Negra (2010, Iyari Wertta)
Inventive, quirky, and fun (despite having a severely disjointed storyline), this walking tribute to film noir, Bergman and Mexican wrestling films shows a promising future for director Iyari Wertta.

Well, that would be all for 2010 (so far), at least, what W-Cinema could watch through the year (as always, I won't be able of watching some important releases, such as Aronofsky's "Black Swan", for a while). We'll see what does 2011 will have to offer, certain films do call my attention, like "Cowboys and Aliens", and I must admit to have a certain interest in Aronofsky's take on the "X-Men" films (as the last couple have not been entirely of my liking). As usual, the same annual promise of writing more in this place and bring back a constant flux of ideas. Until then, good night, and good luck!