Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
ListsAn error has ocurred. Please try again
Laissez bronzer les cadavres (2017)
Bang bang! Tell me the time again...
It's always a bad sign when you're sitting in the theatre thinking about how much longer you have to endure a movie for. I actually enjoyed the duo's previous offering, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, which was a great giallo homage, but this one just felt hollow. There's an emphasis on visual impact and style; the film is shot through with primary colours and a constant barrage of images, but that's pretty much all there is. There's very little plot and next to no character development (heck, I couldn't even tell you the names of any of the characters by the end of it, much less care about anything that was happening to them) and for some reason, the film insists on telling you the time every few minutes: screen cuts to black, 17h28 in block red letters, back to the action, screen cuts to black, 17h33... etc.
The plot, such as it is, centres around an artist in her Mediterranean retreat, who seems to have something of a cult following. Three men staying with her pull a heist on a gold truck, and take the bullion back to the retreat. One proceeds to double-cross the others and the rest of the film is basically one big shoot out in a fight for the stolen gold. There are lots of stylized flashbacks to the artist's earlier life and many self-consciously arty camera angles deployed to convey the action, maybe to distract the viewer from noticing that it's otherwise just endless gunfire interspersed with being told the time. I'm really not sure what Cattet and Forzani were trying to do here, but whatever it was, it really missed the mark with me.
Small Town Crime (2017)
Top-notch low-budget crime thriller
A crime thriller from brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms (who I must confess I'd never heard of before) based around an alcoholic ex-cop who stumbles across a new trail and can't give up the scent, becoming embroiled in a seedy affair that shouldn't concern him. It doesn't really break any new ground - there's shades of the Coens and early Tarantino in there - but also never puts a foot wrong: tightly scripted and well acted throughout, with a great eye for detail and enough of its own identity to stand out from the crowd. It's by turns funny and dark, but the shifts of tone are all perfectly judged and as with watching a Coens film, you always feel you're in safe hands.
The Austrian Alps provide the dramatic setting for this dark tale of persecution and derangement in 15th Century Europe. Albrun lives with her mother in an isolated hut, high up on the snowbound slopes. Her life is a dark one, having to contend with her mother's failing health and erratic behaviour, as well as the stigma of being branded a witch's daughter by hostile locals. This snapshot of Albrun's early life comprises the first chapter of the film; the remaining three show her as a young woman, deeply troubled and living a lonely life as a goat herder, still struggling to come to terms with the damage of her childhood.
There are parallels with Von Trier's Antichrist - in the themes as well as the look and feel of the film - I think it's obviously a big influence on director Lukas Feigelfeld. As a first full feature, it's remarkably accomplished. The atmosphere created by the visuals is sublime, evoking a strong sense of the Gothic through beautiful photography of the naturally ominous environment, and is complimented by meticulous sound design and an intense, brooding drone score.
It won't be for everyone, it's not an easy watch: there's minimal dialogue, the narrative structure is loose and the darkness doesn't let up. Anyone looking for a straightforward story will be disappointed, as it's as much an exercise in tone as it is storytelling. The pacing is very measured throughout, almost to the point of being excruciating, but that only seems to add to the exquisite torture of this dark gem.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Feast for the senses
A true epic in every sense of the word. The cinematic realization of the story of Col. T. E. Lawrence's involvement with the Arab Revolt towards the end of WW1 is a feast for the senses. From Freddie Young's spectacular cinematography through to Maurice Jarre's unforgettable score and star turns from Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, it's a film that demands to be seen on the big screen - I watched the 70mm print, that would surely have stunned audiences in 1962 with its sumptuous technicolor evocation of the harsh but beautiful landscapes of the Arabian deserts.
The first half of the film charts Lawrence's attempts to galvanize disparate Bedouin tribes into insurgency, culminating in the Battle of Aqaba. The second half focuses on the push north to Damascus, and at this point, the tone begins to shift, becoming colder (literally too - the parched desert gives way to snowy peaks) as politics take centre stage. The backdrop of the taking of Damascus is the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which saw Britain and France carve up southwest Asia into spheres of influence and control with the ultimate aim of defeating the Ottoman Empire. This shifting of scope, from the arena of battle to politics, is reflected in O'Toole's nuanced depiction of Lawrence, who begins to seem increasingly conflicted, failing in confidence and conviction as he is sidelined by his superiors, having outlived his usefulness.
It's a film that operates both on a grand scale and a very human scale, with Lawrence's compassion for individual lives and his personal capacity to inspire devotion counterpointed with the colonial remoteness of his puppet masters, General Allenby, Dr. Dryden and Prince Faisal, pulling the strings at a safe distance, far above the bitter reality of insurrection on the ground, and the human cost.
Le deuxième souffle (1966)
Stylish, sprawling heist movie
Le Deuxieme Soufflé follows a week or so in the life of career criminal Gustave "Gu" Minda. The film opens with Gu escaping from jail, fleeing to Paris, getting involved in a gangland killing, and subsequently one final job - a platinum heist. On his trail the whole time is the mercurial inspector Blot, who seems to know he will get his man in the end and is remarkably relaxed about the whole thing.
This is one of those films that if you're not paying attention, will leave you behind - it takes no prisoners in the exposition stakes. It introduces most of its principal players (and there a lot!) inside the first 15 minutes, also jumping around chronologically. It left me with questions well into the second half of the film, although I did put all the pieces together in the end!
There's no doubt this is accomplished film-making but its achilles heel is possibly that although the characters are intriguing, you don't really care about any of them. Gu has a certain roguish charm but also shows himself to be a cold- blooded killer, having no qualms about taking people out just because they're in his way. In the end, Blot is probably the most sympathetic character - he gets the audience on side in his opening scene, with an amusing skit about why there are no witnesses to a crime and ultimately, in giving Fardiano's confession to the press, signals his own disgust with the corrupt system he operates within. One scene was cut from the film at the insistence of the Censorship Commission at the time - a brutal police interrogation, which is now only hinted at. Its inclusion would undoubtedly have added to the film's power, but was probably too close to the bone at the time for the powers that be, in the wake of the real life Ben Barka scandal.
As with Le Samouraï, there's a strong theme of honour among thieves - a Melville staple apparently. The point is driven home when Paul Ricci's treacherous brother Joe is gunned down by Gu, who calls him a 'jackal'. It's one thing to be a criminal, but a criminal without honour is the lowest of the low. Also a bit like Le Samouraï, I find this to be a film that's easier to admire than to love - it maintains a cool distance at all times, but I can't deny its clever plotting, stylish camera work and ambitious scope; it's like Melville wanted to combine the best of American thrillers at the time with a New Wave sensibility and he pretty much pulls it off.
Salem's Lot (1979)
Small town with a big vampire problem
As with It, another latter-day TV miniseries turned into a 3-hour film. Apparently there was a lot of difficulty in getting this one off the ground, with numerous submitted screenplays for a feature being rejected before Paul Monash hit on the idea that Stephen King's rather lengthy and complex book would be better served as a miniseries. The plot is pretty simple - the arrival of the mysterious pair of Straker & Barlow to the small town of Salem's Lot coincides with a growing number of disappearances and increasingly odd behaviour among the town's population, leading them to realize they have a vampire problem...
Of course it's showing its age a bit now, feeling a bit hokey at times, but it's given more credibility due to accomplished direction by Tobe Hooper and the acting chops of James Mason, in the role of Straker. It is just a spin on the Dracula mythology really, with the addition of an infestation element (a nest of vampires) but it's well done and fleshes out the many characters in enough detail that you start to feel you know the town; its residents, and their stories. Being a made for TV movie, the effects aren't always top notch but I think scenes like the floating vampire outside the window, scratching on the pane, are still spookily effective. It's also nice to go back to a time when Vampires weren't all pale faced emo kids mooning around sadly, and were more interested in sucking blood than in getting to know you romantically. The vampires here are properly savage - Barlow in particular, being more monster than man.
David Lynch: The Art Life (2016)
Lynch beyond film
Jon Nguyen's second documentary about the mercurial director is focused more on Lynch's formative years and as the title suggests, his engagement with the plastic arts rather than his work in film. Anyone going in expecting to see a blow- by-blow account of his filmography will be left disappointed, despite the fact the trailer might lead you to expect this: in the trailer, the titles of all of his films are flashed up, but actually, only Eraserhead is given any real screen time, marking as it does, a new phase in Lynch's creative life. 'The Art Life' is a phrase that Lynch himself uses throughout the film, and it seems to be his guiding principle in life - essentially, it's his idea of the idyllic existence, spending as much time as possible giving license to his creative urges, whether that be behind a camera or, as it seems he has always preferred, in his studio. It also involves drinking a lot of coffee and smoking a lot of cigarettes! You're left with the feeling of a remarkably creative being - his films, his painting, his music (which isn't even touched on); he's even a competent woodworker, the film reveals.
I must confess I'm not great fan of his mainly mixed-media artwork, but this film is much more about his creative process and the impulses, past and present, which drive him. There's a lot of family archive footage, both grainy home movies and stills, accompanied by Lynch's narration. He isn't a great raconteur - often trailing off in the telling of an anecdote, or seeming to have no real point to a story, beyond the memory of it - but it's absorbing nonetheless and you're left wanting more. The opening line to the film concerns the huge influence of his own past and his personal history in his films. One anecdote, about a strange event that happened in suburbia, could almost be a storyboard sequence for Blue Velvet. His account of his time in the industrial hinterland of Philadelphia makes you realize how much of what he saw around him went into Eraserhead.
The camera work in this documentary is very nicely done, and directors Nguyen and Barnes allow their subject to speak for himself - no sycophantic talking heads, just Lynch on Lynch (to recall the title of his book), which is probably the only way he would allow a film like this to be made. As you might expect, it's frustratingly oblique at times but still a fascinating insight into Lynch's early years and a fitting reflection of his life's work.
Youth Without Youth (2007)
Metaphysical hokum on a grand scale
This is the kind of Fabergé egg of a film that irritates the bejeezus out of me. Whilst not as insufferably overblown and sentimental as something like I Origins or Mr. Nobody, it's in the same ballpark. The script is too clever by half (as evidenced by the poster), trying to weave into its tapestry ideas about metempsychosis, linguistics, orientalism, dualism and determinism at the same time as being an old-fashioned romance. The result is, put simply, a mess. Tim Roth plays cunning linguist, Dominic Matei, who is struggling to complete his life's work; a book charting the origins of language and consciousness. It looks as if he is destined to fail but one day, is struck by a bolt of lightning and instead of dying is 'super- charged'; rejuvenated through the splitting of his consciousness, with super-human mental faculties and a seemingly limitless capacity for languages. The first part of the film charts Matei's recovery and his flight from Nazi persecution to neutral Switzerland; the second is his chance meeting with Veronica many years later - a doppelganger of his lost love, Laura, whose soul has transmigrated. 'Veronica' proves to be a conduit not only for Laura's soul, but for souls through the ages and each regression she undergoes reveals a speaker of an older language (I had to laugh at one piece of unintentionally preposterous dialogue when Matei hears her speaking in tongues and says "that's Sumarian!", "No. Babylonian", his double corrects him matter-of-factly.) Over the course of several weeks, she hosts successively more ancient souls, like some kind of Babel fish flip book, which is a convenient device for enabling Matei to finish his life's work. Unfortunately, he runs up against the age old duality of heart vs head as Veronica ages with each regression and he must decide whether finishing his work is worth the cost.
If I were being kind, I'd say there are the seeds of some interesting ideas, but they haven't germinated into a coherent whole. A big problem with making a film on such a grand scale is that the characters are likely to come off as ciphers and so it is here. Roth isn't terrible, but is strangely lacking in charisma for such a supposedly remarkable man and his chemistry with Alexandra Maria Lara (Veronica) is non-existent. WW2 forms the most cursory of backdrops to the drama and the scene showing Nazis experimenting with electricity looks like something off a Hammer Horror set. The cinematography is technically slick, as you might expect, but that highly stylized, epic form generally leaves me cold when used in modern films and this was no exception. It just about held my interest for the duration but was simultaneously too convoluted and too superficial to really hit home.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
A missed opportunity
Based on David Grann's book of the same name, James Gray's adaptation tells the story of early 20th century explorer and cartographer, Percy Fawcett. Fawcett disappeared on an expedition to Amazonia in search of what he believed to be the remains of an ancient civilization which he called 'Z'; a euphemism for the discredited notion of El Dorado. Grann endorses the film, and I haven't read his book, but I personally found the telling of the Fawcett's story to be a bit literal- minded. It's something of a throwback to the classical historical epic and although well made, seems strangely anachronistic in this post-modern age.
It chronicles Fawcett's life from his time in the British army, at the turn of the 20th Century, his first expedition to the Amazon to map the border of Bolivia and Brazil at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society up to his final, privately funded expedition in 1925, still in pursuit of his lifelong obsession, the lost city, 'Z'. The key events of Fawcett's life are relayed in a very linear fashion, and it ends up feeling more like a series of vignettes than a coherent narrative. The choice to shoot on 35mm stock also lends the film a nostalgic air through the soft focus and golden tint. Even Fawcett's stint in Flanders is rendered anaemic: he is seen sending his men over the top, which is unfortunately a bit of a visual cliché by now and recognisable short hand for WW1 action. It doesn't really hit home - a bit like wandering through a museum where a small section is given over to the recreation of 'the sights and sounds of the trenches'.
Apparently the film was picked up by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company almost ten years ago and I can imagine it was originally intended as a Pitt vehicle. Charlie Hunman plays Fawcett with a kind of stoical heroism, and I could easily see Pitt in the role - he even bears a passing resemblance to him. Despite Fawcett's generally positive dealings with native tribes, I think the film manages to avoid the pit trap of white saviour complex, but at the same time, doesn't really expose the immorality of Empire ambition. The hidden agenda of the RGS is hardly even hinted at. And that's the film's main shortcoming: it's just too safe. It doesn't give you the grim reality of Fawcett's jungle travails or military exploits; too much time is spent on domestic melodrama, and not nearly enough on politics or the psychology of the man and his obsessive belief in an archaeological grail. It's classical film-making on a grand scale; impressive in its way, but also rather dull - which is a shame, given the potential of the source material.
The Breaking Point (1950)
Unsentimental noir take on Hemmingway
A gem of a film noir, directed by Michael Curtiz. Based on Ernest Hemmingway's To Have and Have Not, it's always been overshadowed by Howard Hawks's film made for the same studio a few years prior but by all accounts, this is the more faithful adaptation of the book. Its lack of popularity at the time may have had something to do with the fact that John Garfield's star was seriously tarnished, having been accused of Communist sympathies as he was caught up in McCarthy's witch hunt. He only made one more movie, and died a year later. It certainly isn't down to the quality of the film, which is tightly plotted, well-paced and very nicely shot, in the expressionist style typical of noir.
There is no room for sentimentality here - Garfield is excellent as Harry Morgan, a washed-up sea dog who turns to smuggling illicit cargo to make ends meet. There's a rawness to his performance not common for films of this era. As might be expected from a Hemingway story, no-one comes out smelling of roses. Even Harry's long-suffering wife ultimately turns a blind eye to his ruthless venality. The only upstanding character in the film is the Sea Queen's first mate Wallace Park (Juano Hernandez), who acts as Harry's conscience. But his proves to be a voice in the wilderness, as Harry chases the dollar at the expense of friendship, loyalty and logic. The ending is a poignant reminder that actions have consequences often unseen by all but the sufferer.
Apartment Zero (1988)
True cult classic
Adrian LeDuc is an eccentric loner who runs an art-house cinema and lives in an apartment complex in downtown Buenos Aires. His business is struggling and in need of some extra cash, he decides to rent out a room in his apartment. This leads to him taking in a boarder in the form of mysterious and charismatic Jack Carney. The film explores their burgeoning relationship, as it spirals inexorably into ever darker territory. Adrian is played by a young Colin Firth and I have to admit I had no idea this guy was such a good actor! I know his face from a host of British dramas I've never watched (costume dramas mainly), but the uptight, severely repressed and borderline Adrian is played to perfection by Firth. Equally good is American Hart Bochner in the opposite lead role. Jack is a coiled spring - exuding a menace and ever-present threat of violence beneath his charming, taciturn exterior - referred to by the perceptive LeDuc as his 'mask'. Together they make for a very odd couple.
As with the actors, Martin Donovan is not a director I'd come across before either, but he's clearly a film buff. The movie is very cine-literate, full of references (not least a clip from Touch of Evil). It trips the scale from Compulsion to Repulsion, and also owes a big debt to Lynch I think - not just in terms of the look and mood of the film, but also in the way it's populated with fringe characters who are all in some way alarmingly off-key. Adrian even bears a passing resemblance to Henry Spencer!
The film is set in Argentina in the late 80s, in the aftermath of the coup d'état which saw the installation of a military junta to replace deposed president Isabel Perón. The legacy of the 'dirty war', the right-wing death squads and Argentina's "disappeared", forms the backdrop for this film, but politics isn't placed front and centre; the film is more focused on escalating tensions between Adrian, Jack and his neighbours in the apartment complex. The atmosphere is paranoid, but electric; the humour jet black.
There are plenty of pitfalls for the unwary but if you're up for a dark ride, it plays out as a fascinating psychological thriller; a cult classic if ever there was one.
Minimalist home invasion film
Assured directorial debut from Chilean writer / director, Jorge Riquelme Serrano. It's a home invasion movie with a twist or two, that relies mainly on extracting vibrant, naturalistic performances out of the three lead actors. The film tackles the class divide in Chilean society through the interactions of (upper) middle class couple Paula and Paulina and the outsider, Gaston. Gaston would be the obvious chameleon of the piece, adapting his behaviour to suit the situation and disguising his true nature, but I think it's actually Paula. In the eyes of Gaston, she has betrayed her roots and is living a lie with Paulina.
It's an interesting film - tiny budget of course, and according to Serrano, shot in a total of four days, which is impressive. If there's one criticism, it's that he doesn't go deep enough into the characterizations; Gaston's motivations are sketchy to say the least. It's quite raw and brutal in places, which I think works well, but will doubtless offend some (for at least a couple of reasons!)
Notably the two questions from the audience during the Q&A following the screening of this film at LFF 2016 related to violence against women and violence against the LGBT community. This was wide of the mark, for me - Serrano was interested in dramatizing the events of an actual home invasion case he read about, and also in drawing attention to the issue of violence in South American society; I didn't detect the kind of political agenda in the film they seemed to be accusing it of having.
A high water mark for Korean horror
Memories of Murder meets The Exorcist, with a splash of Gu! Complex and sprawling, it's a weird and wild ride. It moves from quirky police procedural and murder mystery through to occult horror, going from comedy at the start to full blown darkness by the end, taking in questions of faith - both personal and institutional - along the way. It's not a straight transition though; even in Jong- Goo's darkest hour, some humour is allowed to seep through. I particularly liked 'rake-head' and the way the shaman, Il-Gwang, appears on Jong-Goo's mobile phone with caller ID "Shaman".
The significant tonal shifts in this movie might threaten to destabilize the whole thing if it wasn't so deftly handled. Great performances all round and the cinematography is excellent throughout - some spectacular scenes, particularly the parallel ceremonies of Il-Gwang and The Stranger (which is also an exercise in the fine art of misdirection). As the film picks up pace towards the end, the twists pile up and you're never sure which way it's going to go, keeping you on the edge of your seat right to the end. For such a long film, it fairly flies by!
I had thought Train To Busan might be the crowning achievement of Korean genre cinema in 2016 but this one probably tops it. It's the second film I've seen from Hong-jin Na, following his impressively brutal debut feature The Chaser, and I think he's set a personal high water mark with The Wailing.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
On a dark and stormy night...
The everyday story of one man's quest to get his truck back (it really tied the room together). One of those goofy FX-heavy adventure films that are as much parodies as straight action films which only seemed to get made in the 80s. Along with Ghostbusters, it's one that always puts a smile on my face. The ridiculousness of it all is anchored by sneering, world weary trucker Jack Burton - played to perfection by Kurt Russell - he's a legend in his own mind but is, in reality, a bit of a schmuck.
I just picked up the Blu Ray, released in the UK by Arrow Video. The interviews with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are quite revealing as they both disclose how much the studio disliked the finished product, how little publicity it received prior to release and how it's since become a cult classic; finding its audience after the fact. Carpenter sounds particularly weary talking about it - he's clearly still proud of the film and had a lot of fun making it but the studio really ground him down. He says they wanted a straightforward actioner and didn't get where he was coming from at all; one exec demanded all the funny parts be removed, only to later request they all be put back in. They didn't get that Carpenter wanted to make an East meets West B-movie on a decent budget (not huge, but not inconsiderable either) with a lead who wasn't really a proper lead - maybe because it hadn't been done before, but more likely because they just lacked imagination. Either Way, Russell says, the studio buried the movie unceremoniously and it flopped at the box office.
It's not quite on a par with Carpenter's best for me (The Thing), but it's close - albeit it's a very different kind of movie. It was different at the time and still seems pretty fresh now. Some of the set design, wire work, FX and prosthetics no doubt show their age, but that just adds to the charm. And it's good to meet old friends again - Jack Burton, Gracie Law, Lo Pan and the Three Storms - on a dark and stormy night...
J-Horror channels Lovecraft
One of the weirder offerings from the dark continent of J-Horror - a documentary maker, Masuoka, ventures into Tokyo's underground and records his explorations on a hand-held camera. There are a lot of ways this film could be read, from being entirely symbolic, literal or a mixture of the two. Depending on which way you go, the events that unfold would probably be more or less disturbing...
The choice to shoot in digital will put some off, but it could have been a case of needs must, given Shimizu's fairly extreme budgetary constraints. In any case, I think it works - it further blurs the division between reality and fantasy; whether what is being seen is through the director's camera eye or the agency of Masuoka's. It's also fair to say that as a character, Masuoka is your classic unreliable narrator so just how deep his madness runs is hard to gauge.
In summary then: a messed-up guy goes to the underworld with a craving for terror and comes back with a Lovecraft take-out... it's a strangely fascinating, if at times uncomfortable ride. Recommended for sick puppies with a taste for the unusual.
I Am Here... Now (2009)
Dolls heads.... in the desert
Neil Breen is a multi-talented man.... writing, producing, directing and starring in this frequently hilarious train wreck of a film. Breen plays an amalgam of Jesus and Eddie from Iron Maiden, who comes to Earth in a paperweight to observe the failings of humanity (played out in a series of vignettes) with the air of a sanctimonious idiot savant.... unfortunately it seems the budget didn't stretch to hiring actors. With stilted delivery that actors in instructional language videos would be ashamed of, such classic lines are delivered (paraphrasing here) as "now that we have bribed the relevant officials, we can stop that climate change bill being passed and our evil corporation can continue being evil".
It might not be absolutely the worst film I've ever seen.... but it's high up in the running. So bad it's hilarious.... for about 20 minutes. Unfortunately it goes on for 1 hour and 20 minutes. It's never explained why there are a series of dolls heads in the desert.... possibly a premonition of the film's potential audience.
Bizarre dystopian sci-fi is a fascinating mess
Going properly off the map with this one! Try to imagine The Prisoner, re-shot in Renaissance Germany with a script that plays out like a badly translated J.G. Ballard novel. I think it's broadly supposed to be an allegory about how utopias always fail due to man's inherent vices, but this long film is so unfocused (and I'm not just talking about the camera work), it's hard to tell! The whole thing feels like a Dadaist Happening.
A struggling artist is persuaded by a mysterious stranger to move from Munich to a town of perfect freedom, a city of unfettered dreams - bizarrely, a brick-for-brick recreation of a German town somewhere in the Middle East (a neat way of cutting down on production costs - film a few scenes in the desert, then it's back to Germany for the rest of the shoot!) Florian duly packs his bags and heads with his wife for this promised land, created by his old school friend Klaus, who bizarrely (again - bizarre is the key word with this film) now resembles the Pope. The spectre of Klaus hangs over proceedings like Kurtz and finds further parallels in the death cult that underlies the apparent civility of the town. Klaus's appearance towards the end as a figurative - and literal - straw man ties into a sub-plot centred around Hercules Bell, a rabble-rouser who leads the crowd into a violent coup d'état as the town is blown up around them. The ending sequence sees Florian raping Olimpia against a backdrop of chaos, no doubt another allusion among many.
There are too many problems to list with this film and it's not hard to see why it remains in the wilderness - a sprawling mess that no amount of time in the editing room could fix. But in a way, I wouldn't want to fix it anyway; it's fascinating as it is and for all its faults, I'm glad stuff like this is out there.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
On the lighter end of the Coen spectrum
Hail, Caesar! offers a wry look at the 50s studio system through the eyes of key 'fixer' Eddie Mannix (a re-imagining of the real life version). It takes aim at numerous targets, from the ludicrousness of religious doctrine to the hypocrisy of political manoeuvring, but it's ultimately less cynical than other insider flicks like Altman's The Player. It's as much a homage to the golden age of Hollywood as it is a satire of it. The film has all of the Coens' cleverness and movie savvy on display, full of references; some of which I got, many of which went over my head!
One thing I think the Coens do better than most is in exposing the absurdity in the details of life; the minutiae of human behaviour - such as when Mannix is briefly distracted from his conversation with a headhunter in a Chinese restaurant by a gurgle from a nearby fish tank, or Whitlock sitting on his prop sword. It's just a flick of the eyes or a momentary struggle with reality, but often leads to some of the film's funniest moments. One in particular, Hobie Doyle's interaction with studio director Laurence Laurentz, is laugh-out-loud funny in a way I haven't really seen from the Coens since Lebowski.
Hail, Casear! evokes HUAC-era Hollywood, but not in depth or in seriousness - it doesn't buy into the idea of writers as a persecuted bunch; quite the opposite in fact, sending up the Communist writers group with their pompous philosophizing and showing them to be as absurd and self-serving as everyone else (another of the film's funniest scenes). No-one is safe from ridicule - the hubris of the writers, the egos of the stars, the venality of the system itself - and yet it's one of the Coens' lightest films to date.
It all works well enough, but plot-wise, doesn't really go anywhere. Sub-plots like the kidnapping spin off but don't evolve into anything more than a minor distraction, unlike in The Big Lebowski, where the shaggy dog story drives the film forward. Some of the characters are quite peripheral too; particularly Scarlett Johansson's DeeAnna Moran, whose relatively small turn doesn't have the same impact as Julianne Moore's in Lebowski.
Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Great animation, so-so story
Another anime based on older source material; in this case, Yasutaka Tsutui's 1967 novel of the same name.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an undeniably charming piece of animation, with a deceptively simplistic visual style. Deceptive because your first impression is of how clean and uncluttered it feels, almost minimalist, but then you gradually become aware of subtle layers of detail, which never compete for your eye's attention but are there if you allow your gaze to drift around the frame.
The plot, concerning a high school girl, Makoto, who discovers the ability to leap backwards through time, is quirkily entertaining, if slight. It's got a kind of 80s feel to it - the sort of movie you could easily imagine getting made back then, when literally everyone was leaping around time in Air Jordans and drainpipe jeans - sort of like Quantum Leap meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Temporal back flips and metaphysical wizardry aside, it does basically boil down to a teen romance played out across time and space. It verges on being schmaltzy, and suffers from the same gaping plot holes that beleaguer any film concerning time travel. Nevertheless, it's quite entertaining and the animation is something to behold.
Unusual anime - worth unearthing
The Svankmajer-esque Midori-ko uses some excellent hand-drawn animation (relatively static, but stylish) to tell the story of a young girl who discovers an extraterrestrial seed pod. The pod hatches what appears to be an alien vegetable but she detects a face on it and it later grows appendages. Analyzed through her handy USB cat scanner, it does appear to be vegetable in composition and everyone who encounters the strange plant- being wants to eat it. This appalls Midori - until she accidentally licks it herself and discovers how delicious it is...
Whether the film is pro- or anti-Vegetarian is quite hard to tell, but it doesn't really matter - some surprisingly grotesque, visceral imagery compliments a weird and wonderful story. Kind of like finding Miyazaki's demented cousin locked in a cupboard under the stairs.
One for the eyes - send your brain on vacation
Metropolis is based on Osamu Tezuka's unfinished manga from 1949, itself inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film of the same name. The central theme of both manga and anime is the hubris of Man and his inevitable downfall, symbolized by the fall of the Tower of Babel, as it is in Lang's film.
There are also character analogues - Duke Red could be John Fredersen, Dr. Loughton echoes Rotwang, the mad professor, and Tima, created at the behest of Metropolis's ruler, the robot Maria. Beyond this though, any similarities in plot are superficial at best; Rintaro's Metropolis is about a militarized Ziggurat, Duke Red's own Babylonian tower, through which he plans to consolidate his power base. The Ziggurat is designed to be the ultimate weapon, realized by its integration with Tima - a robotic super-human; the tower's 'brain'. This is where the hand of screenwriter and Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo really shows itself: Tima, only human in outward appearance, carries within her a potential for transformation that is far more destructive and all-encompassing than her creators could have imagined.
Despite being relatively multi-faceted, however, the story is hardly original, riffing on everything from Tezuka's original Metropolis, Akira, Ghost in the Shell... through to Ghostbusters even (the old Gozerian paradigm). Behind this furious hotchpotch of narrative elements, the film is scored by a strangely ill-fitting Swing Jazz soundtrack (which morphs alarmingly at one point into what can only be described as Jazz Trance). But then there's the visuals - and what visuals they are. A combination of beautifully modelled CGI and hand-drawn cell animation, that reach an apex of immaculate, fluid detail in the destruction of Duke Red's tower; the symbolic liberation of Metropolis. It's a credit to Rintaro that he perceives digital animation as merely another tool in his armoury and does not, as other directors have done, abandon his artistic principles for technology fetishism.
Exploding into oblivion
Hana-Bi is a bridge between Kitano's earlier yakuza films like Boiling Point and Sonatine and artier fare like Dolls. It still has moments of explicit violence but is essentially a subtler, more meditative film - albeit a less tightly focused one. Once again, Kitano is lead actor as well as director, here playing Nishi; a cop who quits his job to go on a road trip with his dying wife, Miyuki. Running parallel to this is the story of Horibe - his old partner on the force, who was shot in the line of duty and is now semi-paralysed; wheelchair-bound and alone. Horibe tries to find new meaning in life through painting, taking a different path across the wilderness to Nishi but ultimately arriving at the same bleak point.
In the scenes with Nishi and his wife, there's a convincing sense of long-abiding intimacy, but little dialogue between them - perhaps because there's nothing left to be said at this point in their lives. The comfortable silences and Nishi's compassion (made all the more striking by his violent run ins with the yakuza loan sharks who haunt his final days) have an emotional resonance that doesn't really need any exposition. There's a quiet, understated beauty to the film that's unusual to say the least. Hisaishi's evocative, elegiac score has its own pull on the heart strings as well.
As is always the case with Kitano, the imagery of the film is meticulous and exquisite. The lingering stills of his own paintings are mysterious signifiers. What exactly do the stamen-headed creatures symbolize? It could be a reference to 'Hana-Bi', whose literal translation is 'Flower Fire'. Passing by a flower shop provides Horibe with an epiphany, re-igniting in him a dormant vein of creativity. The painting of fireworks, echoing the bittersweet sentiment of the film's title, seems to be about the lives of the protagonists - transient, vibrant, exploding into oblivion.
Bleak and opaque
Raigyo is sold as 'Pinku Eiga' ('Pink Cinema' - Japan's surprisingly creative take on Erotica) but there's not a lot of sex, and virtually no eroticism to justify the tag. Instead we get a bleak, but engaging journey into mental illness, disconnection and psychopathy. If I'm honest, after watching the yawn-fest that was Kokkuri, I didn't expect much from Zeze, but here he proves himself to be a filmmaker of some skill. Raigyo perfectly captures a sense of desolate liminality - the action taking place in a part-marshland, part-industrial hinterland. The characters too, hover somewhere between intrigue and inscrutability; misfits, like the snake-headed fish of the film's title.
Given its short run time, Raigyo, is, if anything, a little too opaque for its own good. The violence is explicit - and shocking in its banality - but the protagonists' motivations and back stories are barely fleshed out at all. We're plunged right into the here and now, and, like the police in the film, left to fill in the blanks. The final CCTV tracking shot brings this point home, as Yanai and his strange companion disappear into the crowd. In a way though, its refusal to explain is a large part of the film's appeal.
Yoidore tenshi (1948)
Film Noir in a Tokyo slum
Kurosawa's first collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune, is a Film Noir set in a Tokyo slum. The Drunken Angel of the piece is an alcoholic doctor who is drawn to young yakuza hood Matsunaga - subsequently diagnosed to be suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis. When Matsunaga's old boss, Okada, returns from a stint in jail, he pretends to fall back in with Matsunaga but is secretly preying on his weakened condition in a bid to take his territory for himself.
I can imagine this being too slow-paced for some, but I found it to be an engaging insight into a bygone era of dapper gangsters and smoke- wreathed speakeasies, a curious melange of East and West, symptomatic perhaps of the American occupation of Japan at the time of the film's production. The main intrigue lies in the relationship of the doctor and Matsunaga; the way he sees his own failings magnified through his patient's plight and feels compelled to help him despite (largely hypocritical) misgivings about his lifestyle. In a sure sign of the times, the blame for Matsunaga's condition - and the ills of society in general - is laid squarely at the door of the demon drink. No-one, including a man dying of tuberculosis, gives a second thought to chain smoking their way through every scene.
Once again the bleakness of the film and its central theme of Man's inherent vampirism of spirit is mitigated somewhat by a slightly jarring, upbeat ending - although the fact it feels jarring might have more to do with my own taste for dysphoria, typical of the modern viewer, than it does with an excess of sentimentality on Kurosawa's part. That said, American Noir of the same era tends to be darker and more uncompromising.
Ai no bôrei (1978)
A quietly effective ghost story
There's a lot to be said for a simple story told well. In the Realm of Passion is a classic ghost story from masterful director, Nagisa Oshima. For a Japanese film made in the late Seventies, it's surprisingly Film Noir. The characterization - the femme fatale and jealous lover plotting to kill the unsuspecting husband - the cinematography - the wonderfully dark, bleak world Seki and Toyoji inhabit - In the Realm of Passion comes from the pages of hard boiled pulp fiction, relocated to Nineteenth century Japan.
But it's also in the tradition of Japanese ghost stories - hence the familiar archetypes of the vengeful spirit and the well; a symbol of repressed fear. The way the action is framed by narration gives a slightly unreal, allegorical feel to the film; a welcome respite from the relentless realism of modern cinema.