February 24, 2007

HOTEL (2004) - Lynchian German mystery

(2004, Austria/Germany)

Reviewed from the Thai PAL DVD (Mangpong)

(UPDATE July 2010 - Hotel is now out on region 2 DVD in the UK)

Note that this is not the 2001 Mike Figgis comedy, starring Max Beesley!

Once again I was drawn to a film by the TwitchFilm website, which teased me with the poster. I found it on DVD in Thailand, one of the few countries it’s been released in. I went into the film knowing nothing more about it than the cover art and the images in the DVD menus.

Young, blonde Irene (Franziska Weisz) starts a new job at a large hotel deep in a German forest. As she slowly gets to know the other staff, she discovers that her predecessor has disappeared and the police are still investigating. Is there a murderer in the hotel, or is the answer connected to the local legend of a witch who lived in the nearby Devil’s Cave?

The many worrying shots of pitch blackness in the surrounding woods and in the cave brought to mind The Blair Witch Project, which could just be the mental trap that the director, Jessica Hausner, wanted to lead viewers towards. The disconcerting sound design adds a layer of tension to almost every scene, reminded me of Eraserhead. Not something that happens very often, as that David Lynch film is pretty unique. The awkward and cold characters who also work at the hotel added to the Lynchian feeling.

The film’s theme could easily be darkness. The hotel manager likes to keep unneeded lights turned off. The outside of the hotel is kept dark, thick curtains keep light in, meaning that once anyone steps outside the hotel, they’re standing in almost pitch blackness. Strangely, characters walk into the woods and enter the Devil’s Cave without even using a torch. Irene keeps walking into darkened corridors… They all seem to welcome the dark.

The mood is also generated by the intensely colourful and contrasty cinematography, with some disconcerting handheld camerawork and the occasional dizzying, swooping tracking move to keep the viewer off-balance.
Even though we see most of the film through Irene, it’s not as if we get to know her terribly well. Even when she literally lets her hair down at the local pub (which plays deafening techno music), she’s still looks pretty reserved. We get clues about her and what’s going on all through the film, and then… 

After watching it, I was scrabbling around to work out “what just happened?”. I looked to the trailer and thought I found a few more clues, or were they red herrings? The film is far more subtle than I’d anticipated, offering a very Lynchian film which you can carefully analyse for answers, or just enjoy the ride, which I did. The whole film constantly keeps you in suspense, from almost the very start. It’s ultimately enjoyable as a moody experience, rather than a story, despite making you think it might have one.

Tantalisingly, this film was cut by the director by around 7 minutes (after it’s initial festival screenings) – I’d like to see these missing scenes for more clues. But next time I’ll be ready for the ending. 3am would be a good time to watch this film – for it’s downbeat setting and mood. Then you’d think that you had succumbed to sleep and missed the end of the story.

Apparently the Hong Kong DVD of Hotel is only in Stereo, while my Thai DVD has the German soundtrack in 5.1 surround, which really added to the experience. The picture is non-anamorphic widescreen, with good English subtitles. You can get one here from eThaiCD.

February 01, 2007

BASTARDS (2006) teenage Russian DIRTY DOZEN

BASTARDS (2006, Russia, Svolochi)
Region 5 Russian PAL DVD (Paradise)

The cover artwork for this made me think this was going to be a Russian Lord of the Flies, but where in Russia are there islands hot enough to walk around half naked? An advanced
news article on the TwitchFilm site (which includes a link for the trailer) slightly misdirected me into thinking the plot was more of a Battle Royale scenario.

But this is actually a gritty wartime drama set in Russia in 1943. Young orphans turn to crime and kill for food. A few are caught by the police after a fierce and bloody struggle.

Teen and pre-teen crime is getting so bad that the authorities now treat all criminals equally. The boys are no longer protected from the death penalty by their age. Instead of being executed, some are given a chance to join a special operations Army squad.

The main story is the gang of boys going through arduous training in a remote mountain camp. They try to break the rules, escape, shirk, but at least they are alive. The finale is the special mission itself...

This teen Dirty Dozen was gripping enough, though it was severely let down by sub-standard visual effects at the climax - Night Watch this isn't. It looked like the animatic storyboards had been left in!

I was quite impressed with the film until I read
here on KinoKultura that it most probably wasn't a true story at all. There had been a huge fuss in Russia about the country being portrayed as using children in the army in WW2.

What's left is an insubstantial story that recounts events that never happened, as if they had. As a fictional allegory about using children as soldiers, it's insubstantial.

Still, the sweeping location photography is very impressive, as is the acting and the soundtrack.

The final mission looks way too easy, and didn't really need children to do it at all, severely compromising the premise. The writers should have watched a few episodes of Joe 90 and thought of a more convincing mission. After a great start, it runs out of steam.

This Russian DVD has good English subtitles for the dialogue, but many location captions are not translated, including the opening blurb that originally claimed that the story is based on truth.

The 16:9 anamorphic picture is crisp, showing off the locations nicely. However, the aspect ratio in the trailer and documentary clips is framed tighter vertically, inferring that the theatrical release was cropped closer to 1:2.0.

The extras include an extended look at the production - but aren't translated, rendering the many interviews useless. However, the behind-the-scenes footage shows off the location stuntwork - where they were using cardboard boxes instead of airbags to cushion the stuntman's high falls - a noticeably low tech, low budget method. The remote camera crane is also a nuts-and-bolts contraption, but it works beautifully.

I bought my DVD here on AllDVD, (a great tip from Twitch - it's hard to find good Russian sites). Make sure you order the version with English subtitles.

Do you want to know more?
Loads more stills from the film here.

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