Black Coal, Thin Ice – Could Have Been a Cliché, But Wasn’t

Indeed, Chinese filmmaker Diao Yinan wrote and directed the story following an inspector, Zhang Zili – played by the outstanding Liao Fan – who from 1999 (year A) to 2005 (year Z), got divorced, was fired from the Police force and became an alcoholic; a detective-evolution cliché.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.19.55Everything started in year A, when Zhang sees his wife – who asked for divorce – for the last time and the year when a first dismembered corpse was find in a coal refinery. This is a starting point of a series of murders, all of men.

Yin’s camerawork is breathtaking, some shots are extremely poetic, not to mention the transcendent photography. A sensitivity continuing, accentuating, getting warmer and darker as the movie goes.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.22.38 Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.23.03 Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.24.37Zhang along with his colleague Wang (Yu Ailei) found a lead, which turned very wrong – into a blood bath – causing the detective his termination.
With a same amazing style and light, the director offers a real pleasure for the eye; the neons of a suspicious underground.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.29.33 Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.29.44 Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 9.31.37An ellipse flash-forwards us to 2005; a new similar murder happened. Zhang, who was in bad shape, aimless, fell into Wang, who got promoted with the years. Lucky for Zhang he got the most important info, about the case, and lead him own investigation.
What saves Black Coal, Thin Ice, from turning into a cliché, is the relationship between Zhang and the woman who’s husband was the first murdered ; Wu Zhizhen (Gwei Lun-Mei). One of the best exploration of ambiguous desire.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 8.32.32Zhang follows her, from where she works to where she lives, until they finally start to sew a weird relationship. Their evolution is combined with desire, love-like, and duty; Zhang wants to catch her in every way possible, catch a woman as cold as ice, expressionless, passive and yet very imposant.
In a very Nicolas Winding Refn-like atmosphere, the two characters are evolving around a sensitive police case, that distorts the genuineness of what, us, spectators, observe.

Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 10.28.49 Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 8.28.43Black Coal, Thin Ice, is a very poetic thriller, with overwhelming beauty wrapping up some scenes. It will more esthetically captivate you than catch you with its story (which is fragile), and yet, the cinematography will pushes you to focus on Zhang/Wu duo, and get the essence of BCTI.

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Insomnia – Guilty Conscious

I loved Christopher Nolan‘s debuts. Following, Memento and then Insomnia.
He showed all his great potential, flabbergasted us with his elaborated technique in the thriller genre.
And Insomnia gathered all the elements previously seen in his movies, elements of light, structure, and the use of human memory, or brain, through images well handled.

This 2002 film has created another layer though, something profound and complex. Insomnia deals with a feeling hard to get over to; guilt.

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Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is a brillant cop, but he is discharged from a case and sent to Alaska with his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) in order to solve a “casual” homicide.
A 17 years old girl is found on a pile of garbage, dead by strangulation. From that established situation, or point, the whole movie is going in circles around that growing little sphere of suffocation.

Quickly enough we’re caught in a chase between potential killer and Will. However, chases there in Alaska aren’t really easy, they are full of obstacles, if it is not rocks and fog, its wood and water. It isn’t going to be easy.
Indeed, in the first chase in the fog, lacking of sight, Will shoots to death an armed silhouette. Unfortunately it isn’t the killer, no, it is Hap, and the killer? He saw everything.

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Insomnia really begins here. Will won’t be able to sleep until the end of the movie. He said once that a good cop can’t sleep because he misses some pieces of the puzzle, and a bad cop can’t sleep because he’s lugging something in his conscious, well now he is caught between those two situations.
The murderer, Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a poor writer is thus going to blackmail Dormer, and suggests a partnership; a kind of “if you don’t say a word, everything is going to be okay, and I won’t say a word”.

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What Nolan did wonderfully is in drawing thin lines marking off the difference between those two men. Lines of morals, values and ethic. A tiny little silk determining that border differentiating a cop from a criminal; when both didn’t mean to kill, but each one had a particular situation to respond to. Nolan added an equation to the movie to which we may consider two options. One would be -x + (-x) = -x and x – (-x) = +x. Are they both guilty? Or just Walter?

The director worked on a perfect composition with flashbacks, present images and effects of insomnia. The cop is subjected to hallucinations, auditive and visual. Then sounds are louder, flashbacks of Hap’s death are popping here and there, and sometimes Will sees him. Nolan updated Hillary Seitz‘s scenario (already adapted from Erik Skjoldbjaerg‘s novel) thanks to visual aids, and did a more than a respectable job.

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The graduate suspense of what each character will do is keeping you alert, and curious, even though some things are pretty predictable, you might be inclined to questioned the plot anyway.

What is useful to retain from Insomnia is that sleeping is when your conscious in cleared, but death is when your conscious is purged.

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Film Noir: Translating A Post-War Fear and Instability Among Americans

From the rise of crimes due to prohibition during the 1920’s, through the poverty caused by the Great Depression in the 1930’s, until the blurry reasons why America entered the Second World War and the growing fear of the USSR holding the atomic bomb, the country went through a lot of change, with no longer clear gender roles and a lot of psychological suffering. Change became the first cause of an irrational anxiety and paranoia among the population. This was translated in movies, and in film noir movies in particularly. Those were the result of a society whose principles and values were no longer unquestionable.

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In 1946, Nino Frank, a French movie critic, attributed the name of “film noir” to the wave of American dark crime films, that appeared during and after World War II. Actually, they proliferated a lot between the 1940’s until the end of the 1950’s, and were characterized by specific features, linked to what inspired those films to be constructed the way they were. Indeed, film noir is the fruit of the German expressionism and hard-boiled novels, or more commonly called, pulp fictions. Film History students of the University of Florida said on their online blog, The Museum of Film History, that “expressionist used the visual arts to create a look into the emotional and psychological state of being by use of distorted images and irregular shapes.” Thus, some scenes in 1922 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, such as when Count Orlok climb up the stairs and his nonhuman shadow is being projected on the wall, is pretty much symbolical of film noir. A low key lightening, or chiaroscuro, introduced by the German paintings and movies, provided those types of shadows and this technique will be strongly used in future American film noir movies. As for the pulp fictions, some authors,such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain or Cornell Woolrich were icons of the detective novels in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and a lot of their work was later adapted in movies; Hammett’s Maltese Falcon in 1941, is one the most famous, directed by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, later symbols of anti-hero, and femme fatale of those movies. But also, James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity put into the screen by Billy Wilder in 1944 is really emblematic. But film noir gathers also other characteristics such as, filmmakers tightened by low budget, black and white photography, and story related elements such as a narrative. Tim Dirks said on his website film site about film noir that “storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting”, taking place in cities such as New-York or San Francisco, full of “murky and dark streets”, where it rains a lot and with characters living in low rent apartments or hotel rooms. And to generalize, the themes approached are often close to sex, violence and crime perfectly illustrated by Touch of Evil directed by Orson Welles in 1958. However, directors were bound from 1934 to 1966 by “the Motion Picture Production Code commonly called the Hays code which censored taboo subjects” as mentioned John P. Hess from FilmmakerIQ in a video called Introduction to Film Noir. Tim Dirks adds that “film noir is not a genre, but rather the mood, style, point-of-view, or tone of a film”, which reflects a historical time period.

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Indeed film noir is the reflection of a dark and pessimist period in the United States of America. Fear has taken every space in citizens’ minds, and in different shapes. The A-bomb, known between the hands of the Russian communists was threatening, and was the catalyzer of movies like The Lady from Shanghai directed by Orson Welles in 1947. Political turmoil is rising from the traumas caused by the atrocities of the war, including genocides and rise ofdestructives weapons. J. J. and S. L. M. Blaser (2008) said in their essay “noir films generally question social and governmental institutions”, and according to Westcombe (2003), they narrate a “post war malaise” of the end of the 1940’s which was a combination of disappointment and frustration. It was actually a wave of disenchantment that led to “questioned the fundamental optimism of the American dream” as said by Mayer (2007). All this, created characters, heroes, or more anti-heroes, who had a not so good relationship with their society, and felt the need to escape it, just like the protagonist of Killer’s Kiss directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1955, felt the urge to leave his lousy apartment and actual city where murders and corruption reigned. The feeling of entrapment highlights the need of putting into action, doomed heroes, left to Westcombe ‘s “noir’s spider web of fate”. Those heroes were most of the time psychologically troubled, developing mistrust towards everything, and subject to paranoia and confusion, reflection of the war’s psychological consequences on the American population.

However, it is important to clarify one aspect belonging to those film noir movies; the hero was always a men. Women were eroticized and villainized; a misogynistic view was adopted, and a message pro- “nuclear” family was conveyed. Indeed, after the men returning from war, women, who were, during the whole time, in the workforce and doing what their husbands were doing before the war, had a hard time renouncing their jobs and, sort of, independence. This frightened Americans. The women had to go back to her housing chores and duties, while men returned to their status of breadwinners. There was a clear crisis of culture, where there was an urge to find a place for women. Film noir movies were here to question but also promote an ideal; the “femme fatale”. The spider woman, as named by Westcombe, was dangerous, source of problems, and here to distract the hero. Film noir movies, made sure to punish “bad” women, just like they did in The Maltese Falcon or Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing directed in 1956. As J.J. and S.L.M. Blaser said “these women are destroyed, punished, or converted to more traditional roles after learning that their independence was a mistake”. “She reinforces film noir’s fatalism” adds Westcombes, and might be compared to “the vamp” of the 1920’s, threating the concept of “nuclear” family. Therefore, it is showed what woman is supposed to be; supporting the men, being a little ignorant, and focusing on her house and children. The hero is supposed to resist to the femme fatale and choose his stable women, or he will be punished also, which led us to think that if you play your role you’ll be okay, otherwise, you’ll be punished. This is the reason why, it is rare to have happy endings in noir films. Marginal, murky streets, and dark cities, are compared to the uniformity of suburbs, and a “cult of domesticity” is conveyed. Noir films were established to scare the viewer of a change in gender roles and showing how women’s independence could be harmful and destroy the family institution, basis of the society.

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Film noir, is the creation, fruit, of all fears American citizens experienced from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Dark period of trouble, disorientation and trauma, those movies translate the consequences of change in their country, on citizens’ mind, adding the mistrust held against the government and the corruption maintained in an underworld. From different influences, filmoir, never died, and gave birth to contemporary movies, such as Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino in 1994 or Sin City directed by Robert Rodriguez in 2005.

Reference list: 

Blaser J, J. & Blaser S. L. M. (2008). No Place For A Woman: The Family In Film Noir. Retrieved from http://www.filmnoirstudies.com/essays/no_place2.asp

Bousel, M. (Producer), Kubrick, S. (Producer) & Kubrick, S. (Director). (1955) Killer’s Kiss [Motion Picture]. United States: United Artists. 

DeSylva, B. (Producer), Sistrom, J. (Producer) & Wilder, B. (Director). (1944) Double Indemnity [Motion Picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures & Universal Studios

Dieckmann, E. (Producer), Grau, A. (Producer), & Murnau, F.W. (Director). (1922) Nosferatu [Motion Picture]. Germany: Prana Film.

Dirks, T. Film Noir. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html

Harris, J. B. (Producer) & Kubrick, S. (Director). (1956) The Killing [Motion Picture]. United States: United Artists.

Hess, J.P. Introduction to Film Noir. Retrieved from http://filmmakeriq.com/lessons/introduction-to-film-noir/

Horsley, L. (2002). The Development of Post-war Literary and Cinematic Noir. Retrieved from http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Film%20Noir.html

John Abbott. Influences of Film The Noir. Retrieved from http://eng3122.wordpress.com/group-6-main/influences-2/influences-of-film-noir/

Mayer, G. & McDonnell, B. (2007). Encyclopedia of Film Noir. Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Schmidlin, R. (Producer), Zugsmith, A. (Producer), & Welles, O. (Director). (1958) Touch of Evil [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures

Wallis, H. B. (Producer) & Huston, J. (Director). (1941) The Maltese Falcon [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.

Welles, O. (Producer) & Welles, O. (Director). (1947) The Lady From Shanghai [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Westcome, R. (2003). What is this thing called film noir anyway?. Retrieved from http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/RW-ThingCalledNoir.html

Sound of Noise – When music becomes a crime

I never thought of playing music as a crime, I never thought of art in general as illegal. On the contrary, I always believed that art was a peaceful weapon.

I was advised to watch this swedish movie, Sound of Noise, directed by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärme Nilson. I found that the concept was horribly original and intelligent; mixing, criminal case and music was genius. Therefore, it was raising a very specific question: to which extent music becomes illegal?

The story, in a nutshell, is about a detective, Amadeus (notice the affiliation to Mozart) Warnebring (played by Bengt Nilsson) born and raised among musicians, but who experienced this counter-effect of hating music.
One day, a patient in a hospital was musically attacked, that is to say, used as an instrument, in a surgery room by a bunch of people. That event, was the intro, prelude, of a mad symphony, orchestrated by unknown percussionists, seeking sounds by bringing them out of objects or even humans in that case.

But it is only when reaching the final, after hard efforts to catch the noisy demented musicians, that Amadeus, finally understood the fact that, to be able to put a hand on them, he had to abide to music. He had to turn into a bandmaster, leading the last part of the symphony.

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Now, it is often said, that the beautifulest melodies, the most amazing piece of art music, and the most extraordinary sounds we could hear, were coming from nature, environment and Earth themselves. And I couldn’t help it, but thinking of, a musician named Amon Tobin, who once was leaving next to a industrial firm, hearing the machines working, the mechanisms interacting with each others, and producing noises that the DJ, had decided to use in his music. So basically, it is about catching the right note with random objects, and producing a melody.
And what the band in the movie is doing, and especially in the scene of the hospital, is just so catchy, breathtaking and hypnotizing. Passion is palpable.
An other important aspect of the movie, would be that, even though Amadeus doesn’t love music, we humans, have in ourselves, a gene, a musical gene, allowing us to intercept, and hear music, at a different levels. Thus, even though he totally withdraws music, he still hears it, he still has to hear it.

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The movie is well structured, mixing a lot of genres, including the musical genre, the criminal genre and a sparkle of comedy. It might be the first detective movie, including those types of crimes, but however raising the controversy of defining the actions orchestrated by the band, in the movie, as felonies.

Music is everywhere, so why are we stuck with just few instruments, specially defined and conceived following norms? Why aren’t we using the infinite instruments offered all around us, and expanding music into reaching a highest point in the Musical History?