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Kiraware Matsuko no isshô (2006)
Visually Stunning but Sadly Unmemorable
At the beginning of "Memories of Matsuko", Matsuko Kawajiri, the eponymous heroine, is found murdered in a field under mysterious circumstances. She has died alone and estranged from her family. It is the task of her young nephew, Shou, to piece together the details of her extraordinary life, which we witness first hand in the form of vivid flashbacks to Matsuko's past, from wide-eyed childhood to disenchanted middle age. The result is something of a Japanese "Moll Flanders", by turns tragic and comic.
The freedom with which writer-director Tetsuya Nakashima delves between past and present is the film's most satisfying aspect, coupled with a playfully thin boundary between reality and illusion: one moment the film is insistently realistic, with a limited, dark palette, the next it soars into Technicolor dreamscapes full of songs, flowers, butterflies and other recurring motifs. The cinematography is exquisite and endlessly creative. While this is an ultimately tragic biopic with a number of distressing scenes (not least the repeated incidence of domestic abuse), it is equally full of comedy, particularly during Matsuko's youthful stint as a schoolteacher. This freewheeling mixture of presentation and narrative tone will be quite unfamiliar to most English-speaking audiences, and better parallels can be found in French cinema "Love Me if You Dare", for instance or closer to Japan in the work of South Korean Chan-wook Park. At points "Memories of Matsuko" certainly recalls films like "I'm An Android, But That's OK" and the superb "Oldboy". After all, is anyone's life truly sad *or* happy? Our lives are full of joy and pain, elation and tragedy, and in that Matsuko's is little different.
Yet Nakashima's visual fireworks are both a blessing and a curse. All too often the montages and singing substitute for proper characterisation and dialogue. At a number of points his cinematic shorthand leaves much to be desired: Matsuko's lengthy jail term, for instance, in which she is supposed to have formed a close friendship with Megumi, is reduced merely to a two-minute music video. Similarly, while Matsuko has various lovers whom she clings to, not once does she share a meaningful conversation with them. Nakashima seems to relish in depicting the dramatic, violent conclusions to these relationships, but the more prosaic task of day-to-day interaction the real, quotidian essence of life is almost entirely overlooked. Many of the characters populating the movies's vibrant surface feel two-dimensional, and Nakashima's screenplay shows less interest in taking the time to flesh them out, than it does in jumping forward to the next episode of Matsuko's life.
For this reason I found it difficult to really identify with Matsuko and her world by the end, and I was left with a series of stunning vignettes that did not combine into a memorable, convincing whole. The last 10 minutes, indeed, are something of an embarrassment for Nakashima. His screenplay loses all sense of emotional verisimilitude and descends into an overblown, saccharine festival of nostalgia and string-sections which embodies the worst excesses of Japanese cinema. Its simplistic, quasi-religious moralizing is tacky and hollow: Matsuko's character and story really deserved a more complex ending, and certainly something more befitting of the movie's underlying uncertainty. The simple fact of her terrible murder in itself, which is almost unbearably realistic and difficult to watch, would perhaps have been the best place to fade-out.
Fabulously Violent, Hurt-me-Plenty Cinema
Before writing anything else, I cannot resist a small spoiler: Rambo ends with the greatest cinematic nosh-up this side of Saving Private Ryan, in which Stallone demonstrates that the best place to be in a firefight is behind a 20mm cannon. In fact, this 20-minute piece de resistance is so explosively violent (quite literally) that the rest of the film pales in comparison. I can't even recall what happened before. Something about missionaries? Trapped in Burma? Rescue team of ex-military hard men?
Who cares, really? The Rambo franchise jettisoned the ethos of First Blood so long ago that nobody in Hollywood remembers what the point was. However unjustly, Rambo became fixed in the popular consciousness as an agent of mindless destruction and vengeance, and in the fourth instalment art has clearly imitated life, simultaneously setting a new bar for on-screen gore.
In times gone by the measure of an action movie was in how many blood bags you could stuff under an actor's shirt. Rambo 4, surely, has instituted the era of dismemberment: so many CGI arms and legs and heads catapult off in every direction, followed by great torrents of blood, that the only apt comparison I can find is Japanese anime in its more bloodthirsty moments.
Make no mistake, this is a trigger-happy, back-to-basics shooter in the vein of Arnie's Commando. Get your grandmother out of the room and tell your girlfriend to close her eyes. And for pity's sake, don't get on the wrong side of John Rambo.
In Bruges (2008)
An Odd Little Movie - by turns Funny and Inarticulate
Isn't anyone else getting tired of movies that seek to psychoanalyze hit men? From Leon to Collateral, what makes cinema's hired assassins tick has provided mileage for many a screenwriter. The more we are secluded from violence and crime, the more our fictional fascination with hit men and gangsters as agents of retribution and honour has perversely increased. In Bruges, I think, belongs to this trend, allegorizing its ethical concerns through Hieronymus Bosch's famous 15th Century triptych The Last Judgement: a demented vision of damnation which, in the movie's final scenes, spills out onto the screen in the form of a surreal backstreet carnival.
The problem with these studies is that film-makers are chasing their own shadow: because cinema created the amoral hit-man, his character has no real-world location, and no portrayal of him will ever be fully convincing.
Martin McDonagh's script, for better or worse, barely dips its feet into this psychological subject matter, and Farrell's turpitude is only suggested by his despicable acts of violence. Those aside, he and Gleeson seem like thoroughly likable blokes and serve well as foils to one another. Had the film been an out-an-out comedy, their routine would have worked admirably, but time and time again it oscillates toward a half-baked moral agenda - which only serves to disrupt the tone of the movie. This is yet another film showing how the combination of gangland gore and comedy - perfected in Guy Richie's early work - is so difficult to pull of satisfyingly.
In Bruges is, consequently, an odd film that leaves an uneven impression. By no means without laugh-out-loud moments of gallows humour, it retains that penchant for self-deprecation and the absurd characteristic of British comedy. Bruges itself is naturally gorgeous. But nothing ever really rings true; the various themes of the story are not adequately developed, and the script barely scratches the surface of its dysfunctional characters, essentially a gallery of grotesques. It is perhaps fitting that the audience is left in a sort of interpretative limbo - Bosch would certainly have approved.
Amos Kollek clearly had a premise for a movie: an abused woman must find enough money to settle an old debt and buy her estranged son from custody. But he didn't really have a plot to go with it. Bridget lurches from one relationship to another, and Kollek hopes that the idiosyncrasies and perversions of her acquaintances - a closet-lesbian spinster, a psychotic Vietnam veteran, a mentally disabled stalker and his terminally ill father - will patch over the tenuous, if non-existent links between them. No event is too improbable to work its way into the storyline, and Kollek keeps a straight face throughout, as if this is a portentous work demanding intense structural analysis.
The performances are generally sub-standard. Anna Levine, as Bridget, is alone able to communicate something of her character's desperation. That much of the plot depends on Bridget's supposed beauty, though, sits at odds with Levine's gaunt, pallid face and bony frame. Throughout the film Bridget looks unwell and disturbed. David Wike is laughable as the retarded Pete. Lance Reddick is on the wrong side of melodrama as hit-man Black. Julie Hagerty and a sinister Mark Margolis are well cast in their respective roles, but the threadbare narrative jumps beyond their characters before we are able to gain a greater insight into them.
Barely a scene rings true throughout the film, and the consistently hollow dialogue immediately suggests an imperfect grasp of English on the director's part. The delivery and intonation in many conversational scenes is uneven, and none of the characters convincingly relate to one another. Technically, too, the film disappoints. The lighting is off (particularly in external shots) and the sound is tinny - all testament to a meagre budget. The editing is just as careless - a shot near the end of the film shows Bridget's son as an infant, despite that fact that he should be well into adolescence by that point.
Kollek certainly had a couple of interesting if unoriginal ideas for this movie, but at every turn he is undermined by a preposterous story.
Event Horizon (1997)
Confused and Horribly Clichéd
Event Horizon is a movie that can be neatly divided into two halves. In the first, the screenplay is to all intents and purposes a scene-by-scene facsimile of Alien, 20 years later, with no discernible improvement. The sets and special effects, if anything, look worse.
In the second half, the script dispenses entirely with the mildly absorbing haunted-house-in-space conceit and delves into the murkily opportunistic realms of psychological horror, a get-out-clause by which director and writer alike are able to incorporate any arbitrary plot twist and remain unaccountable to the audience's incredulity.
This movie's claim to any kind of critical respectability within the field of science fiction is frankly laughable. It is an amateurish rehash of a dozen better films, two-dimensional and neutered for the mainstream multiplex crowd - whom it failed to impress back in 1997.
Casino Royale (2006)
James Bourne is Better, but Not Good Enough
A lot has been made of Casino Royale's new direction. Out with the nonsense, back to basics, enter James Bourne. Q is agreeably absent, and the nearest thing to Moneypenny is a control-room full of 20-something CSI wannabes. In cleaning up his act, however, Bond appears to have misplaced his licence to thrill.
That Casino Royale constitutes a 'back to basics' reincarnation (a 'reboot' of the Bond timeline, in comic-book argot) speaks volumes about how far the series had lost its way sort of like a drunk waking up after a twenty-year bender and learning to put one foot in front of the other again. Like bourbon or vodka, pyrotechnics and body counts are kept firmly out of the repentant screenplay's reach. Nothing happens in Casino Royale that could not conceivably happen in real life, which for a Bond movie is an astonishing and dubious accolade. Simply put, action movie 'basics' explosions, tension, effective pacing and straightforward characterisation are not in place. The latter is a moot point, for Bond's fling with Vesper Lynd is meant to be the romantic affair to end them all, her death the wound that never heals. Yet all the script can offer is the kind of clunky, unremarkable dialogue that Bond fans will recognise from the slow bits in Goldeneye. The power of Bourne's relationship with Franka Potente is never matched; there are, in fact, far more memorable romantic interludes in earlier Bond: Her Majesty's Secret Service and the Louis Armstrong sequence, for instance.
Casino Royale is both boring and complacent enough to assume its audience will forgive its boringness through their fondness for all things Bond. Undoubtedly better than Die Another Day but that's hardly grounds for comparison.
St. Trinian's (2007)
St. Trinian's Doesn't Make the Grade
The perennial problem facing cinematic depictions of schools is that they can never be made to appear wholly realistic. While there is an outside chance that you had the pleasure of attending Sweet Valley High, it is far more likely that your scholastic memories are a chiaroscuro of brief successes and heart-breaking failures, of best-friends and bitchiness, of humbling obedience and flagrant rebellion. Adolescents can be the most amoral, violent, foul-mouthed and sexually deviant creatures of all.
This latest incarnation of St. Trinian's enjoys a comparatively angelic student body: "a Hogwarts for pikeys" quips new-girl Talulah Riley; nor do the teachers have it so bad, save for the odd shower of paintballs. Some of the gags have been updated, with a peculiar emphasis on surveillance: web cameras, hidden shower cameras, dog-collar cameras and cameras disguised as hockey sticks all combine to keep the crafty girls updated. This aside, the screenplay can offer little else more ingenious than a bog-standard "Dennis the Menace" episode. It could only be expected that Ronald Searle's famous cartoons would have aged significantly by now, relying as they did upon the audience's familiarity with a conservative educational ethos dominated by ritual, tradition and dictatorial tutors. Even today's privately educated children will only recognise this environment from the films that attempt to satirize it. Yet this provides no excuse for excising the spirit of Searle's gleeful black humour. The 2007 imagining is tame, insipid and bland, dragged along by a clutch of forgettable characters who appear, ironically, to have been parachuted in from a dime-a-dozen American high school comedy.
Contributing in no small measure to the film's difficulties is the absence of the school itself from the proceedings. No sooner have we undergone the obligatory meet-the-cliques initiation scene (which has not been improved upon since "Clueless") than St. Trinian's is facing both financial ruin and the reformism of Colin Firth's preening education minister. A mixed bag of cameos from Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and an execrable Mischa Barton can do little to save the horrendously formulaic David and Goliath storyline that follows. A movie that ought to be intimately about a school goes out of its way to escape it.
Far from being subversive, risqué or consistently funny, "St. Trinian's" is best received as broadly conventional children's tosh, half Dahl and half Anglicized Disney. There are bright points: Talulah Riley shines throughout and is probably destined for bigger roles, while Brand's one-liners elicit the odd smile. Rupert Everett, too, cross-dressing as headmistress Camilla Fritton, seems to enjoy every moment it's only a shame the audience aren't in on the joke.
War - What is it Good For?
Beleaguered action-thriller writers of the late 1980s must have thanked their lucky stars when it emerged that the straightforward substitution of Triads or Yakuza for Italianate Mafia could revitalize any given gangster plot. Those workhorse sagas of honor and retribution were given new Oriental clothes and sent out to collect our cash. Yet, whereas the traditional Mafia movie can stand alone, Hollywood has generally accorded to the established Western mode of presenting the East as a mysterious otherness requiring exploration and explanation by an outsider. Hence Mickey Rourke in 'Year of the Dragon' or Michael Douglass in 'Black Rain'.
In the case of 'War', our guide and hero is a cavalier cop played by Jason Statham an actor whose continuing fame is in itself an enigma surpassed only by that of Keanu Reeve's career. After his partner is murdered, Statham vows to bring San Francisco's ethnically murky underground of Chinese and Japanese crime syndicates to justice (that's right why choose Triads or Yakuza, when you can have both!). Jet Li, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his role as the traitorous go-between attempting to stoke up the titular war between the rival gangs. The film's various shoot-ups and car chases supply the moving and generally bloody background to this game of cat-and-mouse between Statham and Li.
Nobody pays to watch movies like 'War' for striking performances, and this is just as well. Statham by turns exhibits Mockney posturing, hyperbolic Shakespearian rage and laconic sarcasm, almost as if he is in on the joke. Li is as impassive as ever, although once the plot begins to unravel the perpetual smirk lining his face speaks less of Machiavellian pride than rapidly advancing insanity.
There's no getting away from Li's age. The fight choreography on display here is not a patch on his Wushu epics or even distant crossover outings like 'Lethal Weapon 4'. That said, he is given scant opportunity to try his art director Philip Atwell cut his teeth making Gangsta' pop videos and stays true to form here. Guns and explosions predictably take center stage; now and then somebody flashes a samurai sword; dumbfounded police officers demand to know what the hell is going on; Statham pins an informant's head in a bathroom door; Devon Aoki dons a trouser-suit. And all the while 'War''s relentlessly violent action scenes have neither the louche charm of Tarantino nor the authenticity of Scorsese. There's even a surprising lack of the slow-motion gunplay ubiquitous to Far Eastern cinema.
Li fans will likely be disappointed, while others will remain unimpressed by the film's lurching between a genuine revenge story and a trigger-happy slug-fest. In the first case both leads are unconvincing and the plot too strictly rail-roaded down a lazy sequence of shoot outs to generate any dramatic momentum, irrespective of a clever twist towards the end; in the latter there is nothing on offer here that has not been done better a hundred times before, even by the two leads themselves.
Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007)
ITV evidently imagined that they were breaking new ground with this sassy combination of prostitution and Billie Piper; in reality this series is a re-hash of everything from Sex And The City to Footballer's Wives.
If Secret Diary of a Call Girl can claim have instigated any 'controversy' whatsoever, it is only among ITV's sexually repressed prime-time demographic who will still baulk at the broadcasting of an underexposed nipple or a glib f-word (uttered in Piper's objectionable mockney accent). This is, put bluntly, television for those whose viewing habits extend little beyond Coronation Street or The X-Factor. Certainly, anybody familiar with a typical E4 sex drama such 2005's Sugar Rush, which Call Girl's post-feminist trappings obviously ape will fail to be impressed by high-class escort Belle de Jours's attempts to reconcile her alternate career choice with a 'normal' life. While a show like this year's Skins, another sex-fuelled romp, could comfortably exist in an absurd world of drugs and drama, Call Girl's affectedly serious moments sit unevenly with Belle's lightweight sexual exploits.
The much-touted sex scenes are staggeringly unerotic. One need only sample a few minutes of Andrew Davies' recent Fanny Hill on BBC4 to see how comedy and sensuality can be effectively combined. Davies, admittedly, has wiled away much of his career perfecting a method of injecting sexual activity into moribund period dramas, but Call Girl's sex surely the selling point of such a series is perfunctory to a point. It gives one the impression that neither Piper nor anyone on either side of the camera is at all comfortable, and would far prefer to be filming an episode of Heartbeat. ITV's decision to shoe-horn Call Girl into choppy thirty-minute episodes further demonstrates their counter-productive adherence to the soap format and its banal production values.
Unimaginative, complacent and irredeemably passé, Secret Diary of Call Girl will only be remembered for show-casing Piper's not particularly photogenic breasts. While some outspoken critics have recently sought to raise a moral panic by highlighting it as an example of sexual liberalisation in mainstream television, the average Channel 4-produced show remains more offensive and certainly more enjoyable.
Pretentious Nonsense - far better is available
'Marebito' is certainly better than your average US slasher flick, but don't expect much more than that.
At the start, with the emphasis on voyeurism, recorded death and vicarious experience, it teeters on becoming something impressive and somehow relevant to the omniscience, nihilism and anonymity of the digital age.
But the 'horror' aspects of this film completely ruin it. What begins so intriguingly becomes suddenly farcical, more akin to a sub-par episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both the 'discovery' of a fantasy underworld, and then the clumsy Frankenstein narrative, are irredeemably hackneyed story lines that the director attempts to conceal behind portentous dialogue, edgy security-camera footage and a naked young woman.
Like a lot of style-over-substance J-Horror films, the plot eventually comes to rely upon inexplicable twists and mysterious appearances that may excite some people's interest but in reality are the signs of bad writing and a half-baked story that can be modified with ease because nothing significant is taking place anyway.
As for the 'hollow world' philosophy - it begs belief how pretentiously the film takes this, as if it has hit upon an entirely new idea. 'Underworlds', however, are a staple of horror movies; backing this one up with the obscure work of an early 20th century sci-fi writer doesn't make it any more exciting or screen-worthy.
Overall 'Marebito' is disappointingly poor. Beautifully shot, atmospheric in places and all that, but artistically inert after the first twenty minutes and no more enjoyable than countless films that cover similar ground with much more panache and cinematic touch. It is the work of a complacent director and the product of a genre that all too easily loses itself in its own idiom.