Death by Hanging

Oshima’s Death by Hanging has masterful cinematography and great acting. Loosely based on a real crime, Death by Hanging attempts to argue against capital punishment and prejudice against Koreans.

The director directly states statistics of Japanese approval of capital punishment, before introducing the story. Oshima believes if he shows his audience an execution they’ll come to oppose punishing murderers with death. The story begins with all the protocol of an execution. The criminal named R has been convicted of raping and murdering two school girls. R has a champlain, gets a last meal as the officials in charge go through the usual procedures.

However, when R is hanged, he doesn’t die. Now what?

The doctor finds that R is still alive and soon he comes too. But R insists he isn’t R, which means they can’t hang him again. (Evidently, in Japan if there’s a botched execution, they could try again.) Now begins the long process, mainly led by the Education Chief (not sure why someone with this title is part of this process — it seems he has to make sure the felon has understood why he’s getting punished and agrees that he’s guilty). The black farce is turned up to “high” as the film proceeds. It’s full of dark humor as well as the logic behind ending capital punishment or it’s meant to be.

The film goes down some bizarre rabbit holes, which are pulled off by an outstanding cast. The Korean-Japanese actor who played R should have won an award. It’s amazing how he maintains this impassive presence amidst madness.The story drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality and the plot twists and turns and is full of surprises till the last second. I sure did not expect the ending.

I applaud Oshima for presenting the injustice against Koreans living in Japan so directly and thoroughly. Usually such cultural faults are well hidden.

However, the film felt long and was confusing at time. When R’s sister appears from no where and her relationship with her brother takes an incestuous turn, Oshima lost me. The arguments that followed against capital punishment weren’t convincing and in fact made me think, perhaps execution is acceptable since these arguments are the weakest I’ve heard. So in that respect Death by Hanging, while an example of dark humor and powerful imagery, fails. Because it’s incredibly original, I do recommend the film, but I imagine some people will have problems with some of the foolishness of the officials, the sister or the logic. It is a film you’d want to discuss afterwards.

 

Cléo 5 to 7

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Agnés Varda’s 1962 film Cléo 5 to 7 focuses on a beautiful, young singer during the two hours she’s waiting to hear whether she has cancer or not. She’s had her tests and the doctor said to call him at 7. How do you occupy yourself right before you’re going to get such a diagnosis?

Cléo first goes to a fortune teller. She gets her cards read, but the fortune teller gets upset when asked to read Cléo’s palm. Things do not look good. From there Cléo and her maid go shopping and we see how much more grounded and practical her maid is. Sure anyone would be on edge and jumpy at this time, but we figure, given her purchase of a winter fur hat, bought purely to annoy her maid, that Cléo is capricious.

The film made me sympathetic to Cléo. She’s a rising star, but she’s surrounded by men who have little time or respect for her. It’s not till she’s in a park right before 7 when she meets a fellow that she might be able to trust. Her maid and friend are reliable and trustworthy, but really, when you’re about to learn if you have terminal cancer, you are pretty alone.

There’s a lot of attention given to the strangers Cléo passes who’re living as if they have forever (though one stranger certainly does not). These little snippets of action and conversation spice and show what life really is like and how we aren’t the center of anyone’s drama.

The lead Corrine Marchard does a fine job as Cléo bringing her to life in a way that we see her as more than a dizzy singer with a bit of bad luck. Yes, she’s got privilege and doesn’t understand fully how much, but we still want to learn more and understand Cléo better.

The camera work in the film is inspired and masterful, creating a look that remains fresh today.

It’s Not the Time of My Life

It’s Not the Time of My Life focuses on a married Hungarian couple whose son, Bruno is a little devil and not in a cute Dennis-the-Menace sort of way. Young Bruno’s obnoxious, anti-social and at times violent behavior is dividing the couple. As the wife E observes, they were able to be a good twosome, but as a family of three, they’re failing. Eszter is lenient and loving believing that employing the right contemporary child psychology is best for Bruno. Farkas, her husband, is going nuts with Bruno and believes some old school discipline is needed before Bruno grows into a teen who’s spending time in and out of jail. (I tended to agree with the dad.)

As if this weren’t enough, late one night,Eszter’s sister, Ernella, and brother in law Albert and their daughter Laura surprise them with an open-ended stay. They’d been living in Scotland and left so now they need a place to stay. E and Albert are unsuccessful and nomadic. They seem to go from failure to failure and often need money.

Both couples are questioning where their marriages are going and reflecting on how life has changed them.

The film is smart, emotional and at times intense at times depicting realistic couples questioning and confronting their problems. A lot is packed into the film, which makes for a steady pace. I also appreciated seeing a film set in modern Hungary. I’m afraid when I think of Hungry I think of the Cold War and poverty rather than yuppies barely coping with a boy who’d think nothing of burning the house down or one that’s discovered their sullen 10 year-old daughter has stolen as an attempt to help with the family’s money problems. The tone and look of the film is very natural and real making it very compelling.

What’s even more surprising is that the director stars as Farkas, he used his own apartment and family members for the film.

Certified Copy

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Certified Copy intrigues and perplexes as it shows us a man, who’s a writer, and a woman, who’s an art dealer, who look at life and marriage in very different ways. I can’t say it tells a story because the film breaks with the fundamental conventions of storytelling. By the end, you’re unsure whether the characters are married or not. Most of what you’re told about them, about what they say about themselves, proves to be untrue or questionable.

Yet because the director switches things up as the woman, who’s unnamed, and James Miller, the hero, spend a day flirting and testing each other. Throughout the film I was intrigued and its one that still makes me think about life and films.

This trailer is misleading. It promises a flirtatious romance, but Certified Copy is a challenging look at expectations and relationships.

If you can’t take a film that plays with your mind, that gets curiouser and curiouser or deviates from the well worn path of story structure as set in stone by Hollywood, Certified Copy isn’t for you. But if you like to be intrigued or enjoy compelling performances, it just may be.

The Artist

I was curious how a silent feature would do in 2012. It’s extraordinary that one even got the green light. The Artist is innovative in a very retro way. Ironique, n’est pas? The performers manage this jaunty style that does harken back to the days of silent film and the black and white film is soothing. It’s a fun story about a silent film star whose marriage and career hit the skids as times change, but he doesn’t. Along comes a rescue boat in the form of a talented dancer in the guise of a girl next door.

Throughout the film, I noted how clever it all was. Yet I confess there were times I nearly dozed off. I miss dialog, good old fashioned dialog. Also, by the end of the film, disappointment hit me. The protagonist was sort of a jerk from start to finish. The cute, upbeat starlet would be better off with a better man. Just like in earlier silent films, the characters were absolutely flat, jaunty, but flat.

So I can see the Academy awarding this film with some awards for its chutzpah, I’m surprised it got so many Oscars. I didn’t see that many films in 2011 that were excellent and can’t say any particular film was robbed, but I wouldn’t have voted for The Artist. I’d have thought of voting for it, but wouldn’t have done so for that many categories.