Last Train Home. A hard life metaphor in China

Last Train Home (2009), directed by Lixin Fan, is a Chinese documentary, or possibly a docudrama. According to the film, over 200 million factory workers, who have left their homes to work in the city, attempt to return home for the Chinese New Year holiday. The film shows a couple’s conditions of slavery at work and the family life fragmentation, in the (vain) intent that their children can achieve education to access a better life.

When you ‘undergo’ the film that keeps track of the effort of the Chinese for export, it comes to my mind what Deng Xiaoping evoked: « It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. » It is true that in 1978, at the beginning of Deng’s reforms, China exported in a year what it now sells abroad in one day. But this success in catching mice – in other words, the transformation of China into a global largest exporter – is being done through an unsustainable human and social cost.

Last Train Home is touching, really inspiring, and documentary film-making at its best. Director Lixin Fan forces no comment, on no occasion partisan, as he tracks the lives of two Chinese migrant workers over a gap of two years. The camera is merely an observer- it’s this kind of focused observational film-making that makes this film so moving and poignant.

Inside Job – White collar mafia

Inside Job (2010), American documentary by Charles Ferguson on the financialization of the economy that led to the crisis of 2008 and that just received the Oscar for best documentary.

Beyond the director’s unrelenting demonstration, and the very accomplished mise en scene, the framework gravitates around film noir where mafia plots — this time white collar — are replacing  one another. Relying on true images, Ferguson’s work shows that deregulation of the economy, which began in 1980 with Reagan, was continued by Clinton, then by George W. Bush and now by Obama — the last avatar of a president who has forgotten his promises to reform Wall Street.

A lukewarm record of greed that caused the collapse of Wall Street.
On the downside, the movie oversimplifies the causes of the crisis. It focuses primarily on deregulation and Wall Street’s incentive structure and culture of reckless risk-taking and lax morals and ethics. It also briefly mentions poor risk assessments by credit rating agencies and predatory lending, without really explaining what it was or getting into any depth on the matter.

Sub-prime lending was mentioned only in a very cursory manner. There was no mention of the Clinton Administration’s push for sub-prime lending to expand mortgage loans to low and moderate income people.

There was no mention of the Federal Reserve’s contribution to the housing bubble as a result of its policy to ease credit conditions in the early 2000s to soften the impact of the collapse of the dot com bubble and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There was no mention of the shadow banking system; how it contributed to the crisis and how it greatly amplified the losses.

The film has the merit of showing how little has changed the U.S. financial world, despite Obama’s rhetoric. Rather than being held accountable for their role in the collapse, many of its architects remain in key positions of power. Recommended.

Cold Souls by Sophie Barthes, a refreshing proposal of surreal comedy

>> Haga click aquí para la versión en Castellano

Cold Souls is an off-beat intelligent, imaginative story that combines elements of magical realism, drama and mystery. It’s hard to describe this  surreal comedy. It doesn’t really fit in any specific category. It’s funny and sad at the same time.

Paul Giamatti delivers a beautiful and credible performance as, well, Paul Giamatti. Mastering a broad range of emotions and making his character delightfully amusing and sometimes heartbreaking. Exasperated with his general outlook on life, he does some research into the company who removes the soul from those like him. David Strathairn is the doctor at the soul removal clinic and he plays the knowledgeable, caring professional to perfection.

At different times, this one will remind of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind, and Total Recall, it never really delivers the depth or entertainment value of any of these. It’s almost as if first time feature director Sophie Barthes has so many ideas that it became more important to include them all, rather than refine the best. The tone reminded me of Kafka, Julio Cortazar and at times Woody Allen and Kaufman.

Some might believe it is a science fiction film. I would rather talk of an existentialist film, a delightful chronicle of the absurd in the style of Albert Camus, dressed with Anton Chekhov sauce.

Go and see. Your soul will thank you.

Coppola’s Tetro a Surrealistic Treasure

Francis Ford Coppola’s (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) most recent film Tetro is positively an improvement upon his last independent production Youth Without Youth. Where that film felt indulgent and disappointing, this one has an emotional tide that hits like a hammer to the heart, the central relationship one full of highs and lows so uncompromising and generous trying to assess them all and give them meaning takes more than a single viewing.

With obvious echoes to Vittorio De Sica, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini and Pedro Almodóvar, Coppola has composed a sublime interpersonal familial masterwork that can sometimes feel like a slap to the cheek. Tetro and Bennie’s relationship is never quite anticipated, their ultimate destination one of beautiful yet unnerving simplicity. There is a profound believability to it all that shook me up, the destination so fantastical the journey getting there almost didn’t even matter.

On a technical side the film is luminously shot. The Mihai Malaimare’s sublime use of black and white is magnetic and poetical. While the director mixes in a few color moments here and there (Coppelia doll-like dances on the edge of the fantastical), it is the main narrative that retains the most weight, the cinematographer’s magnificent ability to bring it all to such pure realization a testament to both his skill and the Oscar-winning director’s storytelling abilities.

It helps that actors as Alden Ehrenreich (Bennie) and Maribel Verdú (Miranda) are more than up to the challenge. Ehrenreich is a discovery: he photographs like a young Marlon Brando and under an exceptional direction makes miracles in his role. There are however some over-indulgent moments by Vincent Gallo. And that is not a minor obstacle (is there a less appealing actor than Gallo?). Acting aside and frequently cliché, Gallo often remains peripheral and inexpressive.

The first 20 minutes drag a bit too much and are filled with cliché’s, yes some dialogs may seem a bit flat and insincere, but then the drama picks up, the relationships evolve and the story becomes so baroque, melodramatic and enjoyable.

The film, for all its beauty, can feel a bit like a vanity project, and especially towards the end there were sequences where I almost couldn’t help but wonder what in the world Coppola was thinking. Overall, however, these moments did not bother. You simply don’t care about them, the central storyline revolving around Tetro, Bennie and Miranda is so strong and the emotional investment so high.  And the captivating city of Buenos Aires is a fabulous character that breaths a life of its own. Buenos Aires has an old fashion, a seductive kind of elegance nowhere better found than here.

Coppola has chosen to take a completely unorthodox road to depict the most unusual of his Italian family sagas. In the manner of Almodóvar. The result is a baroque, exaggerated, convincing, visually dramatic movie, which I am sure I will want to watch soon again.

Julio Medem’s Chaotic Ana

>> Haga clic aquí para la versión en Castellano

>> Cliquez ici pour la traduction en Français

 The come back of a psychiatrist who turned into a devoted admirer of woman’s beauty

“My sister Ana Medem was a painter, and she still remains it through her paintings. I’ll enlighten the beginning of this trip without setting the feet on the floor, above enough to suffer as little as possible. On 7 April 2001, my sister celebrated her largest exhibition of paintings at a winery resort in Carignan, south of Zaragoza, Spain. Arriving by car to this wine region I again recognized the reddish hue of the landscapes of Tierra (Earth), my third film that I shot there five years back. My sister should meet us, relatives and friends, at the entrance hall of the exhibition. That is, the people she most wanted were waiting for her, by a closed door that she should open. A few minutes before the fixed opening time, three kilometers away, my sister died in a car accident. We did not enter the exhibition. I have in my mind a full moon in the sky in late afternoon, almost red, and almost over the highway, while driving my car to Zaragoza
The next day, before they closed my sister’s coffin , I decided – and I told her – that one day I would shoot a film on her. ”

[My journey with Ana, Julio Medem, El País, 12 August 2007]

chaotic ana indexAna is a free spirit who turns her passion for life in painting. Justine, a cosmopolitan patron, invites her to complete her training in Madrid with a group of artists she sponsors. It will be the beginning of a journey, not only physical, which will lead her to discover new continents, past lives and ancient myths. Ana attempts to break the chain of ancestral violence looming on doors painted in a wall, and at the end of the adventure she will choose if she becomes a monster or a princess.

Medem still retains much of what I admire in the storytelling way of a camera movie. Recurrent elements, if you may, always pull on the emotions and sadness that turn into beauty, like Ana´s image at sea, a resource that Medem already used in Sex and Lucia –whereas on this occasion it is brought to mind through young actress Manuela Vallés.

This appeal to aesthetics – and the use of music, wind sound or photographic colors as part of the plot – makes many of us love this film director with the same force as many criticize him for the same reason, turning Medem into the objective of the same worn arguments that were pointed against Kieslowski or the Dogma filmmakers.

We face first and foremost a good artwork – sometimes very close but not yet a masterpiece – that does not achieve the freshness of Sex and Lucia and Lovers of the Arctic Circle. In my opinion, the best films of Medem are those who have delved into the intimate territory and madness of human beings without needing to explore beyond their natural environment for survival. Whatever the case, and after having been attacked by the fascists for the documentary The Basque Ball: Skin against Stone, the come back of this unique psychiatrist, that has become a devoted worshipper of woman’s beauty, is good news.

After the wonderful Lovers of the Arctic Circle and his masterpiece Sex and Lucia, Chaotic Ana is an intense and ambitious film, beautifully acted – though some characters are undeveloped (Charlotte Rampling’s).

It is noteworthy that the British composer and pianist Jocelyn Pook is the person behind the original soundtrack.


Okuribito [Departures] by Yojiro Takita

A masterpiece about an odd job tale.

Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards.

okuribito2Plainly and simply, the best film I’ve seen in a while. Without revealing too much, it is the story of how an ordinary man unwittingly becomes a Okuribito – a person who prepares the dead for their ‘departure’, literally the person who “sees off”.

As often is the case of films about death, Okuribito knows much about life. A moving drama, imbued with incredible sadness, but at the same time director Yojiro Takita has far managed to combine humor, without losing sight at the film’s message. I found the film to be “educational”  in many ways.

Film strength lies in the ability to keep playing without being too melodramatic or sentimental (some may disagree on this point). Much of the credit should go to surprising (and unfamiliar to Western viewers) casting: each character has a story to tell. Even the secondary characters are plots that probably leave lasting impressions.

A film deserving Oscar in every point.

Martin Provost’s Séraphine

Genius and madness are occasionally linked, and this beautiful and sad film offers yet another example. A pure full masterpiece.

French have been blessed for many years with great artists. Now a brilliant filmmaker finally has brought a little-known painter, Séraphine de Senlis, to life.

seraphineSéraphine is a visionary artist. She paints, with anything she can find – wine, mud, a mixture of fruits and flower, and transform it into colours and pigment. But as Séraphine paints her most inspired canvas, the power of her work leads her into the realms of madness.
The accurate photography and camera work, plenty of shades, both emotional and plastic are in line with the very emotive Séraphine’s character, lovely shaped by Belgian actress Mrs. Yolande Moreau. She carries out a gritty but tidy and sensitive performance.
She is not classically beautiful, yet clearly she is an actress of great stature.