Tag Archives: documentary

Häxan – Review

1 Feb

For this review, let’s get a little weird, and by a little weird I mean a lotta weird. I’ve recently had the odd experience of watching a movie called Häxan, a 1922 Swedish-Danish film made by Benjamin Christensen. I’m not even gonna try and think of things to say about this movie, and instead I’m just gonna write whatever jumps into my mind about it. So without further ado, let’s dive into some insanity.

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To call Häxan a documentary would be a hilarious mistake, even that’s if Christensen originally intended to make. At the beginning and throughout the films are paintings and historical tidbits about witchcraft in order to better explain the topic that is being explored. Everything in between that are fictionalized scenes of witches holding ceremonies in the woods, cooking up potions in their homes, and the church torturing and burning those who are accused of such atrocious deeds. There’s a very memorable depiction of the devil (played by Benjamin Christensen himself). While a lot of it is fictionalized, it’s important to remember that Christensen put in a lot of time for research, which means beyond all the extravagant costumes and effects is some truth.

For a movie that’s about 94 years old, a lot of what I saw really blew me away. There are certain silent movies that floor me when it comes to their special effects, and Häxan is certainly one of them. There’s one excellent scene in particular that shows witches flying over a city, which was done by filming a model of a city that was rotating and the superimposing the “witches” over what they already shot. There are also some costumes that succeeded at supremely giving me the willies. With all of these effects and costumes and outlandish sets made this the most expensive Scandinavian film to be made at the time.

There’s so much fun to have with Häxan with all of the costumes, history, and creativity that Benjamin Christensen put into it. It’s also pretty fun to know that when this movie was first released, it was banned in America for the scenes of torture and nudity. All of these scenes are so laughably tame by today’s standards, but it was clearly a very controversial movie back in 1922. Now, I can admit that Häxan certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I think the amount of people that would really like some of this tea is pretty limited. If you’re interested in silent film or film history in general, Häxan certainly is a trip down the rabbit hole.

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Man Bites Dog – Review

2 Jun

A triumph of film, no matter how big or how small, is still a triumph nonetheless. Seeing enormous spectacles of grandiosity that lays their budget out for all to see is great, but it’s equally great watching a much smaller effort that turned out to be something truly special, and in this case infamous. Man Bites Dog (or C’est arrivé près de chez vous, which translates to It Happened in your Neighborhood) is a controversial film made on a shoe string budget that is recognized now as a cult classic (depending on how you look at it) and also registered in the Criterion Collection, which is all the more note worthy. On its own, it’s also just a phenomenal, brilliantly evil movie.

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Rémy (Rémy Belvaux) and André (André Bonzel) are two documentary film makers who are in the midst of making a movie about a psychotically pleasant serial killer named Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde). The film makers feel honored to be let into Ben’s life as he shows off his family, friends, and girlfriend. On the other hand, he also takes them on a tour of his brutal side where he finds joy and money in killing men, women, and children of all races and ages. As the documentary crew go on more and more trips to kill, they soon become fascinated with all of the work that goes into murder and soon find themselves gleefully becoming part of them. Before too long it seems that Ben is now making the movie and the film makers are his key players.

There’s many different ways that one can analyze this movie. Some say it is an examination on violence in the media, others say it’s about the way society finds beauty in horror, and others say it poses the question of “how far is too far” in terms of documentary film making and reality television. Well, to put it simply, André Bonzel wrote in an introduction for the Criterion Collection DVD that it’s simply a movie about making a movie. Belvaux, Bonzel, and Poelvoorde wrote, starred, and directed this movie together with a budget that pretty much didn’t exist and calling in favors from friends and family just so they could get the movie done. No message or theme can ever shine through this film more than the thought of the perseverance throughout the entire year it took the film makers to complete this film, and now have it honored as much as it is.

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If Man Bites Dog was made with a good sized budget and beautiful lighting with actors that we all know, I’m absolutely positive it wouldn’t be as affective as it actually was. The black and white film makes it look gritty and real and keeps with the cinéma vérité style that the film makers were trying to recreate. Sure, this movie isn’t pure cinéma vérité, but it recreates it very well and makes it feel like these two documentarians went out, found a serial killer, and got mixed up in his gruesome business. There’s also a hefty use of long takes in this movie, and anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows how much I adore the use of long takes. I just can’t stop thinking about how much the style lends to the success of this movie.

All of this style would be out the window if it wasn’t for a good screenplay and good performances. In a film made like this, these two factors may not be as strong as you’d want them to be. Even in Clerks, the writing is great, but some of the acting redefines the word “iffy.” That’s not the case in Man Bites Dog. All three of the main actors give great performances, but the one that really stands out is Benoît Poelvoorde. He brings the character of Ben to life with such cartoonish realism, it’s almost scary. In fact, there are times when it is scary. The times when he is spouting his bullshit philosophies on religion, race, and architecture, I can’t help but laugh. When he’s anyway around people, it gets scary. This movie may be scary and brutal, but it’s also laugh out loud funny, and that’s saying something.

Man Bites Dog is brutal, hilarious, and surprisingly effective film that hasn’t left my mind since I finished watching it. Seeing a group of film makers go out with almost no money or resources and make a movie that has become praised by film buffs and critics is always great to watch. It’s pretty much on the same level as Clerks but on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is a very dark film that may or may not want to make you analyze it. Personally, I don’t feel the need to analyze it. I take it as what André Bonzel said it was: a movie about making movies. If you think you can stomach the unflinchingly awful content, check out Man Bites Dog.

The Qatsi Trilogy – Review

5 May

Ok, this is gonna be a weird group of movies to review. The Qatsi Trilogy are not your everyday documentary films that show life with either a voice of God narration or interviews throughout. Godfrey Reggio, the director of all three films, simply documents and puts the beautiful images that he captures to the music of master composer, Philip Glass. Without a single word of dialogue, these three films will make you think about the world and your existence like you may have never thought of it before, and will definitely open your eyes to different aspects and places while completely changing your view on the familiar.

Let’s start in 1983 with the first film of the trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi.

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Koyaanisqatsi translates to “life out of balance.”  What this film shows first is beautiful and monolithic images of nature. The transition is quick as these stone monoliths start being destroyed with the culprit being mankind, and the reason being so that we can construct our own manmade structures. Life of humanity is shown in fast motion photography with symbolism and allegories that can be seen in the editing and the photography itself. Finally, the film ends with a warning against our obsession and reliance on technology that won’t soon be forgotten.

This is one of, if not the most, beautiful and hypnotic films that I have ever seen. The fast motion photography is the most obvious way of showing the speed at which our lives move. We are a civilization that almost seems to never sleep or even slow down. In one particular scene in a train station, we almost seem like insects moving around our mound of dirt. Another scene shows highways with red lights flying through them, which reminded me almost of blood cells traveling through veins and arteries with the city being the hear that keeps it all moving. Images like this really stick out and make the viewer think about what they are seeing, and that’s what makes Koyaanisqatsi so excellent.

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I feel like this is more than a film, it’s a cinematic experience that will leave your brain in constant thought and bewilderment. You’ll ponder your existence and the effect that your existence has on the world around you. You may even be torn on the true meaning of the movie, whether it’s a good or bad one. That’s part of the brilliance of this movie, the ambiguity mixed with the power of the visuals and fantastic music. This is definitely one to check out and be amazed.

In 1988 the sequel was released, Powaqqatsi.

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As the poster shows, Powaqqatsi translates to “life in transformation.” This film is about life in multiple third world and developing countries, and how they are growing and constantly evolving. There is also a theme that can be noticed about the west’s cultures effects on these more eastern civilizations. The film starts out slowly with tribal rituals, and small villages in their own everyday lives. A train is a transition to urban development which is quicker than what was shown before, but still nowhere near as fast as the photography in Koyaanisqatsi.

The reason why it is so slow is to show the contrast of more modernized society. The lives these individuals live seem to be more focused and, in our view, slowed down. The photography is still beautiful and the music by Philip Glass is still great. This is definitely not as great a movie as its predecessor, however. Nowhere near. I understand the need for the slow motion, but it didn’t keep me too interested for the entire run of the movie. It also seemed very haphazardly edited. Koyaanisqatsi almost had a narrative that was hidden in the fluidity of the movie. Powaqqatsi seemed more like a film that was thrown together. It made it much less interesting than it could have been.

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Powaqqatsi was still an engaging and beautiful movie with powerful music to match. It still makes you think about your life, but this time with the knowledge of how other people live. It’s jarring and strangely inspirational. The only thing that could have improved this movie is better pacing, a shorter run time, and a more strategically constructed narrative. This isn’t a necessary film to watch, but I can understand why it was made.

Finally, in 2002, Godfrey Reggio released the final film of his trilogy: Naqoyqatsi.

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Naqoyqatsi translates to “life as war.” This is the black sheep out of the three films with a lot of its footage coming from archival videos and television. The themes that are tackled range from the follies and plasticity of celebrity life to the tragic apex of technology and life: war. Phillip Glass’ music still plays a big part in this film, but the footage itself is much more digitized with a lot of special effects to really stress the notion of technology.

I’m really torn over this one. Part of me wants to like this one more than Powaqqatsi, but the other part of me tells me that  that’s impossible. It certainly kept my attention more and the themes constructed more of a narrative, but the work that went into both of its predecessors completely seems to outdo the work put into this film. The effects were really cool, but soon got to be a bit overdone to the point that it was distracting. Glass’ music is also completely unmemorable. I can hum some parts from the other two films, but can’t seem to remember any of the music from this one.

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My main problems with Naqoyqatsi are that it seems overblown with cool effects and it is altogether just not as powerful. It certainly doesn’t match the beauty of Koyaanisqatsi and PowaqqatsiIt still does have a powerful message that can be connected to the messages of Koyaanisqatsi, so in that way, it’s a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, but is the weakest in my opinion.

The Qatsi Trilogy is an incredible cinematic experience that is very difficult to explain, and is something that really must be seen. While I do have some gripes with the second and third entries, they still provide a powerful trip into different parts of the world and different parts of our minds. They are a perfect combination of music and images and experimental and documentary. I can’t recommend these movies to everyone, because it’s certainly not going to appeal to a national audience. For the people who find themselves interested in these ideas, check them out if you haven’t already.