A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Simple Stories, Sublime Scenes

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

Director: Roy Andersson

3/5

Roy Andersson’s final part to his Living trilogy is a gentle bedtime story about the most primitive intricacies of the human experience. Stylistically consistent with its predecessors, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is composed of simple, at times minimalistic, portraits of the moments in which we’re most beautifully and sadly human. The film begins by several title cards including “Three Meetings with Death” which is followed by three different death scenarios. The “meetings” range from spontaneous (a man falls dead while uncorking a wine bottle for dinner) to comically grave (a dying hospitalized mother tightly clasps to her jewelry-filled handbag as her three kids try to yank it away from her). Later the film mainly follows two salesmen, attempting to sell vampire teeth, silly masks, and other gags, and their travels among indebted and uninterested customers.

Interspersed amid the salesmen’s adventures are small side stories, limited to a shot or two, about distinct human qualities. The side stories personally intrigued me more than the main plot line. Bare of dialogue, if not sound altogether, the side stories paint lovers sharing a cigarette by a window, a dance class led by a lustful older woman yearning for a younger student, a cleaner on her knees talking on the phone quietly. We no longer wonder who these people are or why Andersson is telling, or more accurately showing, their stories; we simply absorb the subtle images and enjoy the bliss, longing, or loneliness reflected off the screen and deep into us. Nevertheless, when characters voice their thoughts, the dialogue they share can be just as effective as silence. The characters usually get into juvenile debates, even if lightheartedly, about important issues such as emotional maturity and manipulating people as well as more commonplace discussions like the importance of keeping track of time.

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Key motifs throughout the film include money, status, and sadism. In one scene, black prisoners are forced into a huge cylindrical container which then rotates over a lit fire. An eerie image, not-so-subtly reminiscent of Nazi “ovens” especially that as the container is rotating with smoke rising in the background, a curtain unveils a group of aristocrats, on the opposite side, in formal dress being served wine as they watch the smoke dance around the container. The notion of atrocity as entertainment reinforced by apathetic spectatorship is demonstrated silently with no expressed anguish or panic. A scene that tells so much about today’s heartless society in two shots and zero words.

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Andersson’s shots can be easily identified by their simplistic composition, pale color scheme, and static camera. At first alienating at high doses, this style has a rather numbing effect on the audience however after getting acquainted with it, other prominent and elegant features come into focus. Andersson is a master of deep staging and his trilogy is an epitome of utilizing the frame to its maximum capacity. Deep focus is almost always used in every single shot but that’s not the only technique employed to create the signature depth which characterizes Andersson’s style. His shot design typically includes hallways, windows, doorways, and reflections with movement in the background all of which are elements that provide a beautiful visual depth to the shot. In addition, Andersson’s camera is never positioned centrally, his shots are asymmetrical; instead he places the camera slightly to the left or to the right so that room corners are at the center of the frame – another inventive technique to embed his shots with an almost tangible dimensionality.

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Roy Andersson’s film may not be everyone’s cup of tea since it’s no blockbuster or innovative indie but perhaps it’s precisely because of its unique natural portrayal of reality that it’s not mainstream, afterall not all of us find real life appealing or enchanting but we’re thankful someone, an artist, Roy Andersson does.

How To Become An Adult

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Once upon a time there was a tree.
It was called Martha and it lived alone on the top of a red hill.
One day, Human #825 and Human #962 walked by it and admired its beauty.
They sat down at its roots and sang The Alarm Has Gone song.
Martha danced along their song.
Looking up, Human #825 noticed a strange purple flower on one of its branches.
Human #825 pointed to it and asked Human #962 if he ever saw one like it before.
Human #962 said he never did.
Martha felt special and waved her branch to greet her new friends.
Human #825 and Human #962 sat all day watching the purple flower until the sun set and Human #082 called from afar.

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Human #082 said it was time for the night shift.
Human #825 and Human #962 were sad and wanted to stay by the tree some more. They sat still and ignored Human #082.
Without knowing, Human #825 and Human #962 fell asleep by Martha and forgot about work.
Next day, Human #825 and Human #962 woke up and were shocked.
The purple flower was gone!
Human #962 looked around and found a pale flower by their feet.
Human #825 and Human #962 cried and cried as they stared at the dying purple flower.
By sunset, they went back to work.

Oldboy – The Ultimate Epic

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Oldboy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

4/5

Low angle camera, a hidden dark face, and rushing music: this is how Park Chan-wook chooses to open his masterpiece Oldboy and this is how he chooses to kill us. The film follows Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), a man imprisoned for fifteen years without knowing why. The audience witnesses his release and journey of vengeance in a two-hour adrenaline-infused epic of suspense and violence. The film is a vision of brilliant cinematography and editing. There is no single camera technique which highlights the filmmaker’s talent instead he masterfully utilizes a wide range of shots, movement, and angles and that is exactly how he shows us his talent: he can do everything. Most prominent is the fluid camera movement that feels like a free wandering eye sometimes racing from one place to another thus conveying a dramatic effect and at others gliding between bodies and faces thereby demonstrating the interconnectivity of characters. Not only camera movement but close-ups, focus, crane shots, and long takes are all key stylistic elements employed to their full potential throughout the film.

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However, the film wouldn’t be the same without its magnificent editing style. The cut is skillfully used not merely as a tool but as language, speaking to the audience and revealing only what should be revealed; the necessary and the beautiful. Furthermore, the editing techniques used – including jump cuts and match cuts – weave together events from the past and the present, from different places and points of view; it is done seamlessly and the audience is immersed in every moment. Unlike the standard action movie, Oldboy does not use a thrilling score with a fast tempo; on the contrary, most of its musical score is classical, fitting perfectly in the atmosphere of the film’s suspense.

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The film’s shocking reveal is beyond anything we can expect or imagine that it leaves us as devastated as Oh Dae-su, if not more so since we can do nothing but watch from afar as he and his captor battle till the very end. The film succeeds because of its technical excellence but also because it addresses universal themes and clicks into our innermost fears of humiliation, shame, and loss of love. With elegantly terrifying images that capture and transmit fear, the film kills us over and over again with every close-up, scream, and camera jerk.

Thank you for listening to a terrible story till the end,” writes Oh Dae-su and to Park Chan-wook we reply, “Our pleasure.”

The Assassin – An Aesthetic Experience of Atmosphere

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The Assassin (2015)

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

4/5

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is an exhibition of visual splendor. With a simple premise and few turning points, the film conveys atmosphere more than it does plot. Its carefully composed shots and crisply edited sound makes it a striking film experience. The story takes place in seventh century China and tells of a skillful female assassin who returns to her home village with a mission to kill her cousin: the village’s leader and the man to whom she was betrothed many years ago. Typical of Chinese martial arts movies, the action sequences are elaborately choreographed and shot in slow motion. However, Hsiao-Hsien distinguishes his work by setting such action in the midst of immense natural scenery which overshadows the fights and shifts our gaze to the beauty of nature. One of the most memorable of such sequences is the stand-off fight between the assassin and her sister in a sea of white trees. In addition, the action sequences are brief and end abruptly whether within the frame as characters stop fighting and walk away or intentionally by a cut to the next scene. For example, one of the assassin’s earliest missions is rapidly edited and takes only a few seconds on-screen, on the other hand, another scene where a servant prepares a bath for the assassin is shot in real time and is over a minute long. Such manner of directing action downgrades the importance of physical battles by drowning them in natural settings or reducing their on-screen duration. Hsiao-Hsien seems to be completely enamored with nature that not only is most of his film set within its embrace but he also includes several shots of mountains, fields of wheat, and waterfalls as serene interludes, one of which is a tracking shot of flying birds in the sky.

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The film’s key stylistic element is the slow moving camera. Hsiao-Hsien shoots his scenes at a leisurely pace as the camera gradually moves from one side of a room to another, from one face to another, at times even replacing editing where a cut would be appropriate. This deliberate movement evokes a feeling; the audience feels that the camera is no longer grounded at set points but rather floating between and around the characters. Another curious technique used is filming from behind veils and translucent curtains. In one of the film’s longer scenes, the camera is positioned behind a curtain and watches as a couple converses together. The dialogue is long and almost tedious to listen to, however the unique camera position away yet aware of the couple conveys a certain feeling of distance. The couple end up sharing an emotional moment and this moment is wrapped with a dancing curtain that we can see in the foreground, one that partially veils our vision and distances us from the couple, giving them privacy at this sensitive time. Additional elements such as shot composition and sound editing make the film an immersive aesthetic experience. Besides the stately presence of nature, the saturated colors of the film give it a vibrant look. But it’s not only color which makes Hsiao-Hsien’s shots beautiful, components such as light add to the aesthetic value of the film. The shots almost always include a source of natural light, be it sunshine or candlelight. Furthermore, several scenes are beautified by the flowing movement of permeating steam or smoke. In fact, smoke becomes a character in one of the film’s dramatic scenes. The embedment of frames within frames also adds visual depth to many shots.

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As for the sound of the film, the score is usually faded in the background with the diegetic sounds of horse hooves and swords more pronounced and louder. What is most articulated is the sound of fights as the audience can clearly hear the crispy slice of swords and their motion in the air. Nonetheless, all sound falls silent at several points in the film. Silence is used as a means of emotional expression by the two main characters. The assassin’s face is covered as she cries silently and her cousin rages in a council meeting but only stands up and throws a book on the floor without uttering a sound; no sobs or yells.

All these elements of cinematography, editing, and sound bestow a distinct aesthetic feel to Hsiao-Hsien’s vision and it is in the very end of his film when the assassin fails her mission and chooses not to kill her cousin that a message surfaces and unites form with content. The assassin’s master – standing at the top of a mountain and surrounded by white mist – reproaches her apprentice, “Your skills are matchless but your mind is hostage to human sentiment.” Only then do the overwhelming presence of nature, the degradation of action to fleeting fights, and the unusual staging of emotional scenes all come together and make sense to the audience. Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a tale of human nature and instinct that guides us to see what runs in our blood: understanding, forgiveness, love.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the Best Director award for his film at Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Suicide Squad – A Mess That Could Have Been Masterpiece

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sdfgSuicide Squad (2016)

Director: David Ayer

2/5

The idea to make a team of bad guys or super “meta-human” criminals and channel their destructive powers into a fight for the greater good is one worth exploring. As a premise for a superhero movie, it totally takes off and hypothetically has the potential to challenge the status quo in the world of superheroes. The problem with Suicide Squad is that it’s not a premise, it’s a movie and somewhere along the way from turning that premise into a movie, things went a bit haywire. Where is the fight? More accurately, why is the fight? Throughout the first hour, all I kept wondering is, ironically, why so serious? Built on hypotheticals and scenarios based on fearmongering, the story is catapulted into motion by FBI agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and her persistence to protect America against…well we have no idea. But we must take her vision for granted and trust her intuition that soon enough a meta-human villain will strike down the land of the free and threaten its freedom. And boom! it happens but the villain the squad is up against is poorly explained, their motives unconvincing, and the whole thing seems to have been rushed as if it was the villain who was created to fight the squad and not the other way around. Writer-director David Ayer fails to execute a premise with so much potential because he got all riled up by its promise and forgot to do the work to make it a proper production of plot instead leaving us with a poorly plastered ploy.

As for the performances, the movie is pretty solid. Surprisingly Will Smith ranks highest with a great turn as Deadshot followed by a manic Margot Robbie as the iconic Harley Quinn. It is important to note that despite her success, Robbie can’t help bring more to a character that’s hypersexualized and demoted to the Joker’s “baby” in a tight see-through shirt and sleazy underwear. What wasn’t as solid was character design, character development, and..anything to do with character really. It all starts at the beginning where instead of showing us who the “bad guys” we’ll be siding with are, Ayer spurts one-minute videos that feel like trailers for each character’s origin story movie rather than windows into their minds. And even later, all character details – if any since until the end of movie I had no idea who Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) or Katana (Karen Fukuhara) were, their pasts and dreams, what they’re really made of – are revealed through dialogue or flashbacks. Flashbacks can be effective but when abused they become a bad trick merely employed for expositional purposes.

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But let’s say we can accept all these slipups and forget them amidst our laughter and sympathy, what cannot be forgotten or forgiven is the major fuckup that is The Joker. First of all, I’ve only read a single Batman comic but it’s important to mention that it was The Killing Joke, so in case you were just about to doubt my knowledge of The Joker’s identity, that should at least reassure you that I know how he came to be and why he is who he is. Based on what I read, The Joker is not a killer obsessed with guns and knives. He’s not a criminal whose drive is bloodlust. The Joker is an elaborate mastermind who plans destruction where he believes destruction is necessary. He sends a message, he is a message. Yet what Ayer gives us is a deformed joker, a clown who does nothing but laugh incessantly and chase Quinn. In fact, The Joker’s character almost feels like a forced afterthought only there to provide background for Harley Quinn’s story. And even then, he just sits around making plans to save his damsel in distress and no more. There is no substance to his character, substance true to his comic book origin. Secondly, what a performance. What a terrible, meagre, shallow, empty performance. Mr. Leto – who throughout the marketing campaign for the movie and during interviews was said to have been immersed in the role, a “method actor,” “The Joker come alive” even when the cameras were off – fails miserably. And I’m not even comparing him to Heath Ledger. Surely with a travesty for a role, Leto can’t do much to save our beloved genius. However, he must take part of the blame as well. Somehow Leto decides to take it upon himself to make The Joker a laughing matter because that’s literally what he does. Whether he’s supposed to be intimidating, flirting, or breaking and entering, Leto must add his squeaky laugh into the scene one way or another. Not to mention his exaggerated stares and irritating voice which only aggravate the audience even further. Who told him he needed to change his voice like that? Sure, get into the role but don’t let that impede vocal clarity. Was it him? Or was it the silly make-up team that decided to add their lovely touch and give The Joker silver teeth that seem to be uncomfortable but also a nuisance distorting speech? I’m not sure but it’s definitely a mess.

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All actors, including a mediocre Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag, a moving Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, and a strangely appealing Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, deliver. And of course, my personal favorite: Jai Courtney as Boomerang. However, it’s important to distinguish between good performances and weak characters. Does David Ayer chisel his characters to present an in-depth look into their psyches and histories? No. But do the actors still pull it off? Yes.

Now we all go into action movies expecting deafening sound effects but we don’t expect noise. For some reason, the sound editing team thought the movie would be better if transformed into a prolonged remix music video of a gazillion songs, because that’s what it becomes when the audience is bombarded by no less than four songs in the first half hour of the movie. Even on the acoustic level, the movie tells rather than shows for instrumental music – actual music and not techno shit – can aid in creating an appropriate atmosphere, alas they decide to cram words into our ears every chance they get.

But does Suicide Squad give the people what they want? Maybe. To an extent. The movie does suffer on several frontiers but it’s not an unbearable experience. It entertains the audience because all they want is some fun, explosions, and of course Margot Robbie’s ass. The movie provides all three in palatable portions with a side of satisfactory performances. Unfortunately, performances alone cannot carry an entire movie. And as far as progress goes, this one is surely a step-up from Batman vs Superman, so there’s that for DC Comics.

Blue – Beneath a Color, Beyond a Film

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Blue (1993)

Director: Derek Jarman

4/5

What do you think of when you see the color blue? The sky? The sea? What does blue mean to you? The cold? The calm? Regardless of your associations and memories, Derek Jarman’s avant-garde ­film will refresh your perception of the color drastically.

A blank screen of blue, for 79 minutes, that’s all we’re looking at. But it’s not all that we see. Overlaid with narration, music, and various recorded sounds, the film blatantly goes against the show-don’t-tell rule but subtly shows more than we expect. Despite the static blueness, we “see” Jarman’s agonizing experience with AIDS through his lyrical voiceover which varies in tone and volume as the story progresses. Yet Jarman’s voice doesn’t just recount doctor visits and drug side effects – succinctly likening hospitals to tombs and describing waiting rooms as “Hell on Earth” – he renders his true life events interspersed with poignant lines of what cannot be anything but poetry.

The Gautama Buddha advises me to walk away from illness. But he wasn’t attached to a drip.

His laconic lyrics reveal the toll a disease like AIDS takes on a man who fights against more than just a physical affliction but all the demons that accompany it, inside and out. Jarman explores social issues like stigma and charity but also discusses philosophical questions triggered by the everyday life of an AIDS patient: transience, image, and reality. However, Jarman does not present us with blue haphazardly. He chooses it. Throughout the film, he personifies the color as a divine entity of bliss, power, and love. One that he trusts and believes in more than any of the medications he receives.

Blue protects white from innocence / Blue drags black with it / Blue is darkness made visible

The coupling of the blue screen, one devoid of everything except hue, and different sounds convey a wide range of emotions that ambush the audience and transform the sensory experience of watching the film to an intoxicating trance. At several points in the film, words are vocalized by an angelic choir of women – at others by a single woman, namely Tilda Swinton. For the most part, Jarman himself narrates the film as he whispers softly into our ears – and our eyes – his most sacred secrets. Embroidered with alliteration, powerful, if not overpowering, imagery and metaphors, the screenplay is delivered in an intense vocal performance that compensates for the lack of visual scenes. Nevertheless, the film still manages to be a work of art with form that reflects content not only because the color blue takes a life of its own in Jarman’s world but due to the other ideas that inhabit that same realm. A filmmaker, an artist, a human being riddled with pain and suffering, both physical and psychological – he refers directly to his closeted homosexuality in a satirical honest song – is burdened by his image; an image that limits, tortures, and alienates. Therefore, it is understandable and appropriate to strip the audience of all image and give them nothing but a naked color, the bare minimum, and guide them through stories and poetry alone, to “release” them – and himself – from its suffocating grip.

The Image is a prison of the soul. From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from Image.

Despite its relatively short duration, the film may still leave some of us jaded not only due to its lack of visual stimulation but also due to its overwhelming atmosphere of gloom. But the film is not a film. The film becomes the artist because of the highly personal experiences and thoughts Jarman shares with us. Jarman invites us to look beyond blue, to see something more, and we gladly accept. We can almost “see” his tired face, his damaged eyes, his desperate soul.

Only four months after the film’s release, Derek Jarman passed away due to AIDS-related complications and we can only hope that he no longer feels “trapped by the facts of the world.”

I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.