The Play's the Thing

Dates and Venue 3 -5 Nov 2014 | Cinematheque, 1131 Howe St., Vancouver

Reviewer Ed Farolan

November marks the 25th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, the non-violent uprising that ended four decades of Communist rule and brought about a rapid transition to democracy. To commemorate the occasion, the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Washington, DC, has organized The Play’s the Thing: Václav Havel, Art and Politics, a film series devoted to one of the central figures of the Velvet Revolution and the artistic and political milieu from which he emerged. All films screen in Czech with English subtitles; many have been translated into English for the first time.

Last November 3rd, I watched three films, two of them documentaries and the third, the only film which Havel actd and directed in together with his wife, Dagmar Havlová. The first film Who is Václav Havel… is a short propaganda film, 11 minutes, produced for the Communist regime in 1977 by Helena Matiášová, showing that Havel came from a rich family and that his plays went against the policies of the Union of writers. The film showed interviews with the theatre director and other members of the Union disparaging Havel and his Charter 77 protest.dealing with human rights.

The next film was a 1996 documentary by Olga Sommerová showing two productions of Václav Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera (a non-musical adaptation of of the 1728 musical by John Gay) revealing the political dynamics of the former Czechoslovakia before and after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The dress rehearsal of the play’s world premiere in 1975 captures the stress of artists who conspired through theatre against the totalitarian regime. The production is contrasted with the relaxed atmosphere of the dress rehearsal of the play performed again in 1995 by the theatrical group Divadlo Na tahu at Havel’s cottage in the village of Hrádeček. Informal dialogue among the artists, Havel, and his first wife Olga offers an intimate view of the changing tides.

The last film is the only film written and directed by Václav Havel, Leaving, an absurdist, tragicomic tale of a national leader leaving office. The star-studded Czech cast includes Josef Abrhám and Dagmar Havlová, Havel’s wife. The film was nominated for 12 Czech Oscars (winning for screenplay and editing) and premiered shortly before his death in December 2011. As the action unfolds on a rural estate, comparisons to Havel’s own life become clear: ‘Before the 1989 Revolution, I had an idea for a character like King Lear, who loses power. It might have been the influence of the 1968 generation — the people who had been party members ... After ’68 they were thrown out and started to live ordinary lives, and pretended they didn’t mind, but they did’”

The film has influences from Kafka and Fellini, with quirky characters, and costumes galore. The Chancellor and his family are dressed in aristocratic early 20th century costumes, while his rebellious daughters are dressed in modern costumes. One daughter is dressed like a dominatrix and her albino husband in gym clothes stutters when he talks. The other daughter is with her ipad and cell phone, typical of teenagers today. The Vice-Premier is dressed in a 1970s funky outfit. And in the end, we have a Mel Brooks coach from Blazing Saddles where the family enter with all their belongings as they leave the presidential estate. And the last comic gesture to the film before the credits are shown is Havel himself, his head popping out of the pool, telling the movie audience that they can now turn on their cell phones because the film is over.


Jodoworsky: El Topo and Holy Mountain

Dates and Venue 11- 19 July 2014 | The Cinematheque, 1131 Howe Street

Reviewer Ed Farolan

Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky came out with these two signature films in the early 1970s. He directed, wrote and acted in these films. Best known for his avant-garde films, he has had a following among cult cinema fans including John Lennon and George Harrison, because of his violent surreal images, blended with mysticism and religion where he combines Eastern mysticism with Catholic rituals.

In El Topo (The Mole) produced in Mexico in 1970, he satirizes Spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood had already filmed The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and we see a tongue-in-cheek version of this genre. Jodorowsky plays El Topo, the mysterious leather-clad gunslinger who rides into a corpse-strewn desert town and then in sections titled Genesis, Prophets, Psalms, and Apocalypse embarks on a quest for revenge and redemption.

His second film The Holy Mountain (La montana sagrada), he was funded by John Lennon to produce this insane, absurd film which ends in another tongue-in-cheek fashion when his characters finally reach the Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky himself plays The Alchemist.where he converts human feces into gold. Really crazy, and some members of the audience were laughing at the absurdity of it all.

This is indeed something unique in filmmaking, and in those years of hallucinatory, hallucinogenic counterculture, he did have quite a cult following.

© 2014 Ed Farolan



A Hard Day's Night

Dates and Venue 4 - 10 July 2014 | The Cinematheque, 1131 Howe Street

Reviewer Roger Wayne Eberle

There is nothing easy about sitting through A Hard Day’s Night. At 87 minutes it is nearly an hour and a half too long. When one is not stifling yawns at the pimped-out-precocious antics of the Sixties antidote to artlessness—a double dose of artless guile—one is fighting back the nausea over seeing frenzied teenage fans (mostly girls) losing their battle with self-respect as they go Ga-Ga over the Fab Four.

It is hard to say what is worse: the hiss-hiss-histrionics of the Beatles as they peddle their cutesy personas to the gullible masses or the ho-hum-hysterics of their none-too-subtle fans. This movie is merely one long series of inter-related music videos: short on plot, long on catchy-if-your-bitten-by-the-Beatle-bug singles. The music admittedly makes viewing this movie feel a little less like an endurance test. But not much.

There are to be sure a few good comic touches. Paul’s stand in gramps and his tomfoolery is not one of them. George’s amusing derogation of the ‘trendsetter’ hired by a local fashionista who mistakes him for a male model is a droll piece of meta-ironic humour. But most of the attempts at cleverness don’t come off as well. It’s like John’s one-liner response to the touchy conservative fall guy on the train who says he fought in the war for the likes of them: “Bet you wish you lost.” The truculence of this flippant insouciance may be pretty close to who John really was, and then again, there but for the touch of fame goes a public persona smothered in some kind of smarmy but biting satire.

Don’t go to this Hard Day’s Night expecting anything more than a feast of gags and shenanigans served up as groovy gravy for groupies, because this is nothing more than an immature response to ample doses of adolescent adulation. And I take that back about the music. These are only a few good songs enlisted in the aid of a bad cause, prompting this reviewer to make a snappy rejoinder to John’s previously-mentioned curt come-back: “Bet you wish you had all become brick-layers.” Then again, maybe that’s the kind of response John and the boys had in mind all along. Maybe now that John knows the answer to the question about whether the Beatles were ever more popular than Jesus, he’s now a Roger Waters fan. Because all in all, A Hard Day’s Night is just another brick in the wall.

© 2014 Roger Wayne Eberle



Poland 1983. Dir: Jerzy Kawalerowicz 108 min.

Date and Venue 21 June 2014| The Cinematheque

Reviewer Ed Farolan

In this Martin Scorses series presenting Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, Austeria looks at a World War I piece of Jewish history as the filmmaker makes an adaptation of Julian Stryjkowski’s novel. At the outbreak of WWI, in Polish Galicia near the Russian border, various refugees — including a group of Orthodox Jews, a stranded Hungarian hussar, and an Austrian baroness — gather in the country inn of Tag (Franciszek Pieczka), a Jewish innkeeper.

Although the film was well directed, there were too many sub-plots. The filmmaker should have just concentrated on one plot. First, you have a Jewish girl killed during the first day of war; then there's the mistress of Tag; then a group of Jews who do their rituals in the inn and eventually go swimming naked in the river and get killed. There are flashbacks of Tag and a Catholic priest swimming naked when they were children. And sub-plots go on and on, causing confusion on what the filmmaker really wants to say. It's as if he wanted to put bits and pieces of the novel in his film. But you can't do that. Film has to simplify a novel, unless you have a well done script like Dr. Zhivago, for example, where there is continuity and lucidity in the plots and sub-plots.

I'd give this film five out of ten.

© 2014 Ed Farolan


Curse of the yellow flowersCurse of the Golden Flower

China 2006. Dir: Zhang Yimou.

Date and Venue 3 June 2014| The Cinematheque

Reviewer Ed Farolan

A strong cast with legendary actor Chow Yun-fat as the Emperor and the Empress (Gong Li) in this epic drama about the Empress who has had an illicit affair with Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), her stepson, who was born between the Emperor and his now dead first wife. Crown Prince Wan is not interested in the throne and wishes to run away with his secret lover, Jiang Chan (Li Man), the daughter of the imperial doctor Jiang Yiru. Meanwhile, Prince Jai becomes worried over the Empress's ill health and wonders why she expresses love for gold-flowers (crysanthemums. A twist comes when Wan finds out that Chan is his half sister and that his dead mother is still alive, married now to Jiang Yu.

This is a Chinese version of a Shakesperean tragedy where all die except the ruthless villain, the Emperor, and the Empress who dies slowly because of a Persian fungus put in her medicine.

Very impressive film. With a budget of US$45 million, it was at the time of its release the most expensive Chinese film to date, surpassing Chen Kaige's The Promise. It was chosen as China's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the year 2006;but did not receive the nomination. The film was however nominated for Costume Design. In 2007 it received fourteen nominations at the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards and won Best Actress for Gong Li, Best Art Direction, Best Costume and Make Up Design and Best Original Film Song for "菊花台" (Chrysanthemum Terrace) by Jay Chou.

© 2014 Ed Farolan



Sweden 1966. Dir: Ingmar Bergman. 84 min. 16mm

Dates and Venue 12 - 14 May 2014| The Cinematheque

Reviewer Ed Farolan

In the 1960s when psychiatry was the mode of the times, Bergman hit the nail on the head when everyone was looking for films dealing with mental illnesses. Nowadays, it's a common thing and compared to 50 years ago, when one watched a Bergman film, he'd be in awe with his experimentation which was the ongoing style for filmmakers in those days. Persona is now considered Bergman’s masterpiece as itt was innovative work then, dealing with themes of dream fantasies/nightmares, identity, and personality,

Today it's nothing new. With all kinds of experimentation into these themes, this is all passe and as I was viewing this film, it was not as shocking as when I saw it almost 50 years ago when one would go to the non-commercial theatre venues, the "arts" cinemas which today is not as chic as it was then.

In this film, Liv Ullmann plays a prominent stage actress suddenly stricken mute. Bibi Andersson is the talkative nurse tasked with her care at a remote seaside cottage. The personalities of the two women begin to break down and merge. Bergman occasionally becomes repetitive and at times boring.

© 2014 Ed Farolan


HiroshimaHiroshima, Mon Amour

France/Japan 1959. Dir: Alain Resnais. 90 min. 16mm

Dates and Venue12 - 14 May 2014| The Cinematheque

Reviewer Ed Farolan

This was the debut feature of French master Alain Resnais, who recently died last March. What might have been shocking to American and Canadian audiences at that time was interracial relationships. For the French, there never was any discrimination. Interacial relationships have always been a a common thing for them which is in today's world a common phenomenon.

But during the late fifties and early sixties, when blacks in the USA were still using bathrooms only for "colored" people and riding at the back of buses in the South, seeing a film like this where a white married woman has and affair with a Japanese married man would have been "Fire and Brimstone!" especially to the bible belters.

Again, as in Persona, the Cinematheque audience found this boring and passe. A lot has happened in the past 50 years in cinema, and looking back at these old experiments in film is like looking at Chaplin in silent pictures. What redeems this film are archive footage of the results of the H Bomb dropped on Hiroshima which ended WWII. This political angle of Resnais is what makes this film a gem. But other than that, his technique of filmmaking which in those days was considered innovative, no longer has relevance in today's filmmaking.

© 2014 Ed Farolan