Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains)

Closely Watched Trains, Jiri Menzel 1966.

Splattered with the dark, yet lighhearted humor that seems to pervade everything Eastern European, Closely Watched Trains is one of those rare films that manages to simultaneously completely entertain the audience while carrying a level of subtext that is rich and pointed.

Milos Hrma comes from a family filled with great men. His great-grandfather got pelted in the head, his uncle managed to stop the invasion of Prague through the power of his hypnotism, and his father was a renowned train operator. This puts a fair amount of pressure on Milos to succeed in his new job as a train dispatcher.

Of course there is also pressure of other sorts growing on Milos. He happens to have no sexual experience, yet as he starts his new job it seems that wherever he turns he is confronted by sexuality. Much of the film centers around Milo, and his difficulties with woman, but it is done in a restrained and subtle (relatively, depending on how you look at it) way.

This story is set during World War II, so Czechoslovakia is currently occupied by German forces. Much of the subtext arises from this area of the film. The Germans are obviously simply symbols for the Soviet's who were occupying Czechoslovakia at the time. In a nice little twist, this is boldly given away by a poster of a twisted hand reaching down from above with a hammer and sickle near the wrist. This could plausibly be explained simply because the German's and the Soviet's didn't exactly get along as the war progressed.

Following along these lines would lead me to believe that Milo's impotence has as much to do with the occupation of the Germans/Soviets than any personal nervousness. It is not until Milo faces the SS that things begin to come together for him on the sexual front. In fact, the character most succesful with women is the character deeply involved with the partisans who are fighting against the occupation.

Its a hilarious film, so if you're looking for a classic comedy I'd give it a shot, but there is also a lot there, so if you're willing its one of those films that would be fun to delve into.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Kabul Transit

Kabul Transit, directed by David Edwards, Gregory Whitmore, and Maliha Zulfacar.

Last night I had the pleasure to attend a special screening of the documentary Kabul Transit at which two of the directors, David Edwards and Greg Whitmore were in attendance.

Coming in at just under a hour and a half, this documentary, shot on location in Kabul over the period of almost 4 months, is a mostly successful and gripping work. Most importantly it offers the viewer a glimpse into a post-U.S. invasion Afghanistan that is rarely seen.

Choosing to avoid any sort of traditional narration, the film is highly fragmented in nature. It jumps from person to person showing little moments of their lives and their surroundings. These fragments are not really tied together by anything other than the fact that it all occurs in Kabul.

Still, through a careful balance of close-ups and momentary wide shots of Kabul and its surroundings, the film manages to keep the audience gripped in what is occuring on screen. It is at times funny, but I found myself most often disturbed by what I saw. There are definitely moments when the film manages to crawl under your skin and really get to you.

However, it also suffers from its structure. The film never really goes anywhere and it while it accomplishes what it set out to quite successfully (present what it is like to be in Kabul) I felt it suffered from a lack of higher purpose or motivation.

It should also be mentioned that the film was beautifully shot, making sure there is not a moment where you are not captivated by something on the screen.

Overall I liked it, and if you have the opportunity I think it is definitely important and worthwhile to jump on the chance to see it. Currently it has not obtained distribution, but I know it has been playing on the festival circuit. If you are curious to learn more you can always visit the official website:

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Third Man

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed 1949.

Generally regarded as a classic of cinema history, I wasn't sure what to expect from Carol Reed's The Third Man. I openly admit I really knew nothing about the film going into it. It just happens to be one of those films that has somehow escaped my notice when it probably shouldn't have.

As the credits rolled I got rather enthused upon seeing that the film starred not only Joseph Cotton, but Orson Welles as well. Perhaps it was due to this excitement that I was a little disappointed that Welles never physically shows up on screen until perhaps the last 30 minutes of film. In a way its a shame because the dynamic tension between Cotton and Welles lights up the screen with its brilliance. But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

The story is a classic suspense/thriller in which the main character, Joseph Cotton, arrives in Vienna only to discover the friend he is supposed to meet with had been run over and killed by an automobile. Cotton quickly becomes suspsicous and starts snooping around in business that will only lead to trouble. Soon enough he discovers there was a 'third man' at the scene of the accident and Cotton becomes convinced that his friend, Harry Lime, was murdered.

All in all the story moves along well enough and at times I really got sucked into things but overall I found it also falters, seriously at times, leaving me with a mediocre taste in my mouth.

Some of this I attribute to the script. There are too many rough edges. Cotton's character is a hack writer who no one has ever heard of. After so much is made of this fact it is almost entirely dropped for the rest of the film. They play on the fact that Cotton is now living out the type of story he himself might have written, except it is not executed very well. The primary scene in which Cotton finds himself launched into the Q&A presentation he forgot he agreed to do echoes Hitchcock's The 39 Steps but failing to be as nearly as effective.

The other aspect that I had issues with was the directing/cinematography. Watching the film it felt like there were literally two people making the decisions behind the camera. At times I would in awe of the images unfolding on the screen but then there were other times I cringed and could only scratch my head at what was happening. Particularly the excessive use of dutch angles got annoying after awhile. At first I figured there most be some active reasoning in the choice of the shots but after consciously following and marking when dutch angle shots were used it became increasingly apparent that it was random. Perhaps Reed saw it as 'edgy' and therefore appropriate for the material that he was working with, and perhaps the audiences felt the same way at the time, but it definitely has not aged well.

There also seemed to be some indecision with the character of Anna Schmidt. For such a significant part I was surprised how ambigous the character actually is. It's as if they couldn't decide if they wanted her to be a femme fatale or not and so ended up just leaving things somewhere in the middle.

All that being said, I did enjoy the movie, particularly when Orson Welles finally arrives. The gravity and presence he commands on screen is almost overwhelming at times. In a few short minutes he is able to communicate one of the most delicously twisted villians I've seen on screen for a while. Please though, don't let my negative comments about the film dissuade you from seeing it. The Third Man definitely has its moments, I just expected more of them.