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Conte d'automne (1998)
Low-key and light weight, but immensely enjoyable
Lars Von Trier and his Dogma95 crowd could learn a few things from the work of Eric Rohmer. This film also boasts a largely improvised script, is shot using available natural light, and has no post-dubbed score. I would imagine it cost a good deal less to make than Thomas Vinterberg's 'Festen', with its huge cast and 64 hours of rough footage to be edited down. But Rohmer's emphasis is on naturalism rather than a forced faux-naif, and the cinematography, though simplistic, makes good use of the natural beauty of the Ardeche landscape and its clear blue skies. There is also a story here, some beautiful performances, a slight whimsical humour rather than an ironic smirk, and warm, well-rounded characterisation. It is a sedately paced film, with no major themes, revelations or insights, but a bold and realistic portrayal of a host of characters who are seldom depicted on the cinema screen; the middle-aged rural bourgeoisie. Those whose cinematic demands consist of an endless barrage of sensual stimulation will be disappointed, but for a soporific Sunday afternoon viewing, it is very hard to resist its charms. Rohmer has been making films like these for decades (Pauline a la Plage, La Raie Verte), so the film is less conceived as a fist in the face to contemporary cinema than as another quietly confident offering from an established auteur of a truly alternative cinema with nothing more to prove.
Watchable but compromised period drama
My sources tell me that this biopic of the one of the few influential female artists of the time has sacrificed a lot of historical veracity in the name of dramatic license. The film focuses on the earlier part of her life, specifically the relationship with her tutor Tassi, ignoring her rise to prominence later which is revealed in a pre-credit titles coda at the end of the film. Given that Artemisia Gentileschi is hardly a household name, even in the art world, I for one was looking forward to at least some degree of enlightenment towards the subject. That Tassi murdered his wife and child and had an incestuous relationship with sister is ignored by the film, instead playing him as straightforward love interest of little other dimension. The featured painting of 'Judith and Holofernes' was also painted some eight years after the events portrayed. Some concessions to cinematic narrative structure are understandable, but to totally disregard key facts is unforgivable. As for Artemisia herself, there is little surviving information other than a basic outline of her life, but dramatically director Merlet doesn't seem to know which way to play this. Little insight is provided for her as a person, nor for her motivation as an artist, other than that as a martyr to the patriarchal order of the day archetype. As such, she is never truly convincing as the child prodigy artist. Instead her relevance is reduced to that of a cipher in a bog-standard romantic tragedy, and the overwhelming thought as one leaves the cinema is 'So what?' On a visual level, the film is colourful, if a little conservative, at its best when taking in the rigorous working methods and assorted paraphernalia of the artists practising at the time. Unfortunately this is the sum of the informative merit in what amounts to no more than another polished yet undistinguished costume drama with the odd dash of titillatory nudity. For all that, Artemisia herself (Valentina Cervi) is certainly a little cutie and the film is never a chore to watch, but at the end of the day it merely whetted my appetite for more knowledge on the subject.
Pâfekuto burû (1997)
Wow! I've never seen anything like this before!
Mimi, singer in a prefabricated Spice Girls-styled trio by the name of 'Cham', announces her ambition to leave the band to pursue a career as an actress. Her initial role of a one-line part in a daytime soap is unpromising, until she is coerced by her avaricious manager to move further away from her original squeaky clean image. She is soon doing nude photo-spreads and agrees to play a graphic rape scene in a new film. At the same time, someone is documenting her every move on the 'Mimis Place' internet fan page in the guise of her personal diary, and various people in her surrounding life are being brutally murdered. As her image becomes more and more manipulated by those guiding her career, the lines between her personal, public and imaginary identity become increasingly confused as she is tormented by a delusionary manifestation of her former pop persona.
For a straightforward Psycho-thriller, 'Perfect Blue' already stands head and shoulders above much of the genre. It may lack the self-knowing humour and big-name US soap stars of the likes of 'Scream' and its current gamut of emulators, but in terms of intelligence and focus it is far more effective. It's hallucinogenic spiralling descent into madness is perfectly paced and gives an obvious nod towards Polanski's 'Repulsion'. Even more remarkable then, is that it has been realised as a anime/manga film (such as 'Akira' or 'Legend of the Overfiend'). I'm no great expert on Japanese animation, but here the expressionistic editing style seems distinctly more cinematic than that of standard animation techniques, and the non-fantastical nature of the script is a departure from the usual genre material. As such, the atmosphere created is unique and otherworldly, whilst at the same time providing more graphic nudity and bloodshed than would be allowed if it were all real. 'Perfect Blue' was an exclusive presentation by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the UK, so whether it gets any wider video release remains to be seen. If it does then I shall certainly be tracking down a copy.
Another fascinating work from a fine director
I initially saw LePage's third feature at the London Film Festival last November, but got the opportunity to see it again during its recent very short run in London. Like its predecessor, 'Le Polygraphe' (96), it is a far more rich and satisfying film than a single viewing suggests. The initial scenes are academic and slowly built up, giving no real clue as to the films agenda or tone, and in this light the rest of the film may appear a little confused first time round. For the most part, 'No' is ostensibly a slapstick satire which takes place during one night in 1970. Its narrative is split between Sophie, an actress playing in a French farce at the Canadian pavilion of the Osaka world fair, and her boyfriend back in Montreal, involved in a Quebec separatist plot to plant a bomb in protest against the Canadian governments introduction of martial law (these scenes are shot in black and white). The themes involved are similar to that of his earlier films, calling into question the notions that cultural identity is tied in which language, and whereas the issue of Quebec separatism is clearly the focus for the story, LePage's approach remains admirably balanced and anti-didactic. Stylistically, 'No' shares similar motifs with the rest of his oeuvre as well; the seamless melding of dual narratives, (as 'Le Confessional' (95) alternates between the past and present, 'No' does between Montreal and Osaka), the subtle visual gags and the intricate scripting all pinpoint this to the work of LePage. Unfortunately, as a political satire, much of the humour will be lost on those with no prior knowledge of Quebec politics, and this will no doubt limit its audience. Certain scenes seem stagey and protracted (the improvised feel of the drunken restaurant scenes between Sophie and the Canadian cultural attache, for example), betraying LePage's theatrical background. Visually the film is less impressive than his earlier films: Compared with the majestic snowscapes of 'Le Polygraphe' or the sheer opulence of the 'Confessional', with its predominance of interior scenes, the latest simply seems smaller and low key. 'No' is a film which demands a lot intellectually from its audience, though ultimately there is still a lot of humour and enough stylistic flourishes to impress. Similar to the rest of his work, it is a flawed yet fascinating film from a highly individualist film maker, and I for one can't wait until the next one.
An easy way to get people to watch sub-titled films.
The second UK release from the Dogma manifesto sees von Trier resting on his laurels as one of the most respected contemporary European film-makers. Pre-publicity focus has dwelled on the taboo-breaking set pieces rather than the theme of the film itself, so traditional audiences will no doubt be drawn by the prospect of their first glimpses of erect penises and penetration shots on British cinema screens - a watermark in British censorship, but can the film really justify it? The initial half of the film is merely an accumulation of such scenes, clearly aimed to shock bourgeois sensibilities, but British arthouse crowds are more liberal than von Trier gives credit for. (It is interesting to note however, that the BBFC passed this one completely uncut, yet saw fit to digitally obscure the hardcore penetration scene in 'Seul Contre Tous'). By the time of the hardcore 'gang bang', the film has travelled about as far as it can down this path, and after this a more conventional narrative is introduced as the dynamics within the group of 'spassers' begins to be explored. This feels almost like a cop-out to lend the film a purpose other than that of trying to be as 'groundbreakingly' offensive as possible, and it is around this point that the film really begins to drag. Here von Trier fails on both counts, as the Dogma manifesto forbids the use of 'genre-based narrative contrivance', yet the denouement is also perfunctory and ineffective. The change in tone as the film directs itself towards an artificial degree of closure is probably easiest to put down to the hurried nature in which the film was conceived and shot (it was apparently written in four days). He also fails on the 'absence of post-production effects', as a non-diegetic harmonica soundtrack intrudes at several points. Elsewhere his adherence to the Vow of Chastity seems forced and self-conscious beyond the call of amateurism or ease of production, such as in his insistence on unnecessary jump cuts. Given the seemingly restrictive nature of the movement, Thomas Vinterberg's film 'Festen', was far more entertaining than that of his mentor. That film remained watchable, albeit conventional, and the restrictions resulted in a unique visual style of its own. 'The Idiots' is a mish-mash of half-baked ideas and talking-point gratuity, with little interest other than to see how far the cast will go in front of the cameras.
Das Wissen vom Heilen (1997)
How not to make a documentary!
I remember being quite gutted on missing this one's limited release in November of last year, so once again, thank God for the Brixton Ritzy's European matinee's unearthing it for the week. The subject of this documentary is the use of as herbal remedies to cure serious illnesses as outlined by a series of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, These techniques are currently being used by Dr Tenzin Choedrak, personal physician to the Dalai Lama, and are beginning to arouse interest in the West, specifically in Austria, Switzerland and Israel. The area itself is a fascinating one, but the leaden approach adopted by this film ignores all documentary conventions, eschews any sort of structure and drowns the viewer in a barrage of information. The film could have done with setting out its agenda from the offset. As it is the initial scenes of Choedrak treating his patients seem both obscure and overlong. Some sort of voice over would have helped here, but instead any explanation is revealed in great torrents during the brief interview interludes with the various practitioners and researchers within the field. Without any sort of hook into the subject, one is left to derive interest from the periphery details captured on film, such as the decor of the Mongolian living room where one of the patients is treated, or the landscapes of Northern India. By the time we are introduced to the fundamentals of photochemistry by an Austrian researcher I was completely lost. Unfortunately this was about halfway through. One wonders how this ever got a theatrical release in the UK. It is the sort of thing which is done so much better by British television documentaries such as Equinox. This sort of 'point and shoot' style does the subject no justice at all.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
A unique mish mash of styles
This absurd American Gothic melodrama, Laughton's only feature as a director, was critically panned upon its release in 1955. It's now recognised as a classic, and has been recently re-released in the UK, where I saw it at the Metro Cinema, Rupert Street. There is much to recommend this film, which is a shot as a bizarre mixture of children's fantasy, biblical allegory and cat and mouse thriller - a sort of Hitchcockian 'Wizard of Oz'. Shot in expressionistic, high grade, monochrome, the film makes a powerful impression; one of the most visually rich films of its age. Low key lighting and low angles predominate, interspersed with scenes of a more fantastical nature: The discovery of the murdered mother at the bottom of the lake, hair billowing in the current like sea-weed; the fairy tale imagery of the children's escape by boat under the stars, with a host of woodland creatures such as toads and rabbits framed in the foreground. We are whipped through the introductory scenes and straight into the heart of the story with considerable energy. Mitchum, as the renegade Preacher Harry Powell, creates an imposing presence, shot from a child's eye view and introduced in looming silhouette. The later scenes, as he tries to extract from the children where the $10,000 is hidden are full of incredible suspense, making great use of framing and the depth of screen in a way that is seldom used any more. It is during the final third where the film begins to fall apart. The claustrophobia of the early scenes with the children holed up in the house with their new surrogate father is lost as the film opens out, and the tone changes to that of mawkish sentimentality with the introduction of Shelley Long's character. The tension has all but disappeared by the time of the anti-climactic confrontation with Mitchum at the end. Whilst the film stands out amongst others of its era due to its mix of fantastical imagery and dark allegory, ultimately its never quite as good as the first half promises.
Is mere taboo-breaking a legitimate approach to comedy?
Solondz's higher budget and epic-length follow up to Welcome to the Dollhouse' provokes much the same confused response, in that you are never sure if you are meant to be laughing or not. It traces a few days in the lives of some of the most piteous characters ever committed to celluloid, dysfunctional in their relationships with one another, their sexuality and their aspirations. The number of characters involved are responsible for the lengthy running time, because aside from a dominant story involving the paedophile activities of one of them, the actual sub-stories which occur are generally low key and trivial. This is not a criticism, because Solondz has obviously set out to portray a suburban milieu which is poorly represented by the US mainstream. What is questionable is whether subject such as paedophilia should be treated as comedy. Given the brouhaha which arose over the release of Adrian Lyne's Lolita' last year, I'm amazed that the subject has come up in so many recent films. Similar to Class Trip' and Festen', Happiness' treats it more as a plot device than a serious matter, but it is not clear what sort of reaction Solondz is trying to elicit here. The scenes with father and son discussing masturbation were met with stony faced silence and a few embarrassed sniggers in the audience with which I was sitting: There must be more to black comedy than mere taboo breaking? On the whole though, the rest of the film is funny and well-made, and succeeds because the characters are recognisably human, something which Neil LaBute should take note of after the depressingly unamusing misanthropy of Your Friends and Neighbours'. Aside from a few instances where it just goes too far, Happiness' is an entertaining film, but I'd like to believe that this schadenfreude' approach to comedy is going to soon run out of mileage.
Like a Japanese Tarantino
I'm always intrigued by Japanese films, but somehow never really engage with them fully. This is undoubtedly down to the sheer difference between cultures and the evolution of film making practice between the East and West. Whereas a film like Shall We Dance' succeeds because it provides characters that we can identify with, the Yakuza lifestyle portrayed in this film is so alien that it never really hooked me (a similar complaint I can level at the same director's Kids Return'). No doubt a lot of the humour is lost in the rather half-hearted subtitling of the film. Nevertheless, for the most part I didn't really have a clue what was going on. Individual scenes play well, but there seemed to be little continuity between them, and the story was conspicuous by its absence. On the other hand, the imagery is arresting, as is the simple yet effective shot composition and use of colour. I'm no fan of films that overtly glamourise violence however, and I found that the cruel detachment of the bloody action scenes gelled badly with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the film.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
The lost art of American Cinema
Adapted with director Bogdanovich by Larry McMurtry from his own novel, this film remains true to its source. A modern adaptation would no doubt have adopted the voice-over approach of narrative, but here each scene is played out from a more objective point of view. The book consists of a series of events played out over a protracted period of time, with McMurtry's sparse but effective prose acting as a bridging device between scenes. The translation to the screen loses these links, giving the film a slightly episodic feel which runs counter to modern Hollywood film making practice. This is no bad thing, and in every other aspect the film follows the book almost literally, but watching it now does highlight the difference between the formulaic approach we are now accustomed to, with mise en scene, plot turning points and climaxes crudely and obviously spelt out, as opposed to that of Hollywood's final golden age, where the director was given more of a free reign to stamp his own identity on the film, and audiences were more receptive to different styles. Here the spirit of the novel is captured perfectly; that of the desperation and claustrophobia of small town life, where generation after generation undergo the same rites of passage, living out the same lives of frustration and unrealised dreams. The films strength is that it never forces us to identify with any one character, evenly distributing the amount of screen time over the different generations and, almost like a fly on the wall documentary (though heavily stylised in its powerfully expressive monochrome cinematography). Coupled with some sturdy performances from all of the members of the cast, and some memorable images, The Last Picture' comes across as an enchanting, evocative and accessible portrayal of a lifestyle most of us have never and will never experience. Now surely this is what the art of cinema is all about?
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
A near perfect character study
This incredibly strong film is driven by the hypothesis that genius can be ultimately alienating. Jacqueline du Pre is show almost as a slave to talent; a talent which both sets her apart from her family and introduces her to new glamorous world of celebrity. This is then tragically taken away from her with the onset of MS. It's classic drama anyway, but even more distinguished for the following reasons. Firstly, the screenplay divides the film neatly into two halves; Hilary's point of view, and then Jackie's. It's an interesting approach; with our initial perceptions of Jackie's devisive prima donna becoming more sympathetic throughout the latter half of the film as key events are repeated from a different perspective (the dirty laundry scene, for example). Secondly, music is used thoughtfully and continuously throughout the film, giving it an almost orchestrated rhythmical structure. Finally, the acting is just superb. Emily Watson's virtuoso performance is nothing short of stunning, flowing from spoilt brat to kittenish flirt to little girl lost fluidly and with subtlety. Rachel Griffiths provides a solid and effective counterpoint, yet her character develops also throughout the course of the film. It's this strong development of such complex characters that makes this film such an emotional tour-de-force, and if I have a complaint, it's that it does seem to drag a little towards the end. However, 'Hilary and Jackie' is immediately engaging, thought-provoking, meticulously scripted, outstandingly and ultimately, uplifting. Best film I've seen so far this year?
from small acorns...
This po-faced sci-fi thriller overcomes a miniscule budget admirably with its ingenious concept and slick pacing. True, there's some embarrassing 'kick-ass' dialog at times, and the acting is a little sketchy, but despite a slow start, the script begins to get more interesting once the more metaphysical aspects are introduced. As the film progresses, there are some genuinely gripping scenes which forgive the occasional lapse into melodramatic cliché (and the rather confused mathematical premise on which the escape from the cube is exercised). Natali inventively overcomes the limitations of the cramped environment, keeping the whole film dynamic looking and visually interesting throughout. Sad it has to resort to a 'Magus'-style cop out ending. What is the purpose of the cube? What is the meaning of life? Who are we, why are we and where do we come from? Nevertheless, if Lucas could progress from 'THX 1138' to 'Star Wars', then I'm sure we'll be seeing some fascinating work from this guy in a couple of years.
The Wisdom of Crocodiles (1998)
Slick and glossy, but silly and pretentious
The trailer is what attracted me to this film, and you can see how it was easy to pick out some stunning shots for it. Obviously fresh from film school, the makers try and pull off every cinematic trick in the book, and with every single shot so painstakingly conceived, it generally looks impressive, though a little self-conscious at times. This contemporary horror fantasy is primarily a visual film, for the most part playing like an extended pop-promo, and almost devoid of dialog for the fist 20 minutes or so, which is just as well, as the dialog is pretty ropey once it does start. As with Lyne's 'Lolita', it is impossible to maintain this sort of atmosphere for the entire duration of the film. Good scripts build up to climaxes then give the audience a chance to wind down before the next. This tries to keep them at a level for the entire running time, and interest begins to wane in the final quarter. More than this, the film comes across as a little forced in its representation of contemporary London, with unconvincing characters and a plot which sacrifices a hell of a lot in the name of artistic license. The script doesn't give the actors much leeway, and quite where Ellen Lowenstein is meant to come from, I'm not sure. Though the film never quite achieves any sort of real cohesion or tension, it does possess a certain oneiric quality, like 'The Hunger', and is one of those films that probably looks better in hindsight than it does when you are actually watching it.
Whimsical but Structureless French comedy
With such a great concept as two guys hitching around France seducing women and getting into various scrapes, you'd wonder how you could go wrong, but despite its moments, this comes across as a rather half-baked affair, of interest mainly due to some impressive acting and the way they've made use of an obviously miniscule budget. The main problem is in its arbitrary plotting, which consists of a number of lengthy sequences, the majority of which seem to have no evident role within any larger narrative arc, and at times seeming like they are just there to make up time. Some of these scenes are impressive in their own right (the double-date dinner party, and the game of 'Bonjour a la France'), but it soon becomes apparent that the film is going absolutely nowhere. That's not to say that the scenery along the way isn't impressive, and the repartee between our two protagonists is generally amusing.
Ta'm e guilass (1997)
Iranian home movies don't do it for me
There's something rather pretentious in the way the cinematic academia have championed this film. Let's face it, who would want to watch a British or American film about a man driving around trying to find someone to assist him in his suicide? Flatly paced, minimalistically plotted, and excessively protracted, I was checking my watch every five minutes through this one. It is basically little more than a one and a half hour drive around the suburbs of Tehran: interesting scenery, no doubt, but I prefer my rides a little more exhilarating. Forget the in depth analyses of 'Sight and Sound' and 'Time Out'; elliptical reads as a synonym for unengaging in this case, and the 'twist' ending is not very clever at all. There is really no excuse for this; 'The White Balloon' also suffered from a miniscule budget and being produced in a country with a short cinematic history, yet it worked against these odds to produce a fascinating look at Iranian culture through fresh eyes. This film is almost completely artless, still rooted in a cinema verite which attempts to rationalise a lack of talent, but does not in my eyes excuse it.
Insomnia- The Perfect Cure!
Another terse Scandinavian thriller, coldly lit and artlessly directed. It's the sort of thing we British do rather well on television - it plays like a Nordic Inspector Morse (Inspector Norse perhaps?), as Skansgard plays the role of the strong silent cop from Stockholm, out of his depth in a smaller community. The glaring absence of any sort of plot makes this a real chore to sit through though. Really, I'd be fascinated to see more films of Scandinavia, but most of the ones that have been released over here recently come across as amateurish and rather pointless (Love Lessons and Nightwatch spring to mind). Obviously lack of funds is a problem, but how about some inventiveness rather than these half-hearted strivings at cinema. The whole exercise just seems redundant. Credit where it's due though - the opening murder scene was pretty well handled, though I'm not sure about its relevance to the plot.
Odd Norwegian black comedy
A twisty-turny narrative that ultimately leads nowhere, avoiding both exposition and explanation at the end of the day. Like a Nordic Coen Brothers film, this is more concerned with portraying quirky characters and odd scenarios, but despite some nifty camerawork, it is a rather ugly film, revelling in its depressingly squalid milieu without making any real point at the end of the day. The anti-hero remains a complete enigma throughout, but funnily enough, despite my reservations at the beginning, it was rather hard not to be won over at the end of the day. There were some marvellously taut action and suspense sequences, and some hilariously humourous scenes. Rather similar to most Scandinavian films I've seen actually. Dark grey and depressing, but blackly comic.
The Big Swap (1998)
Flawed but watchable low-key character study
With full frontal nudity from every member of the cast, this ranks amongst one of the more explicit British films to hit the big screens. Like 'The Ice Storm', though far narrower in scope, this film uses the dramatic device of the 'key party', in this instance as the catalyst for the subsequent breakdown in the relationships between a group of friends. The scenario is ideal for a low-budget, character based drama, but the Big Swap's fundamental flaw is in neglecting to show the relationship between the friends BEFORE the actual key party. With so many characters, we haven't got to know any of them well enough for the ensuing events to have as much resonance as they could. Instead, the script resorts to the lazy device of an introductory voice-over, with the main body of the film parenthesised in a similar denouement which perfunctorily ties up the loose-ends. The build up, as the characters conceive of the idea of the 'big swap', looks like a cross between Reservoir Dogs and an After Eights advert; the obtrusively mobile camera's only virtue is as a distraction from some truly awful dialog, as the character's 'candid and liberal' views on sex are expounded. After this, the film starts getting interesting, though for the most part characterisation is with broadly painted brushstrokes, further highlighted by the closed world which they all inhabit. With the only interaction we ever see between them being related to the aftermath of the swap, it is never quite clear how they all became friends in the first place. None of them are particularly appealing, and the timely dramatic ending is rather contrived. A good idea, poorly executed. Fairly depressing viewing, but strangely watchable and never boring.
Le polygraphe (1996)
Quebecois thriller - high on style, not so high on thrills
Coming across as rather less flaccid on its second viewing (the first being at the LFF 1996), Le Polygraphe still impresses more as an exercise in style over content. LePage himself stated that after the narrative and filmic experimentation of Le Confessional, Le Polygraphe is more concerned with exploring character. To this end it is only partially successful. In giving almost equal time to each of the main characters (especially ones that initially seem to have little bearing on the story), the film lacks a focus. Whilst Patrick Goyette's Francois is too withdrawn to elicit much sympathy in the central role, he is also lost amongst the swamp of sub-stories, and thus the audience is not really given a suitable hook into the main narrative. The film does seem to meander, often threatening to spin off in another direction at any point, though it does so through some interesting territory, and LePage's stylised visuals, despite often treading the line of mere gimmickry, work well. Whilst certainly rather obscure upon first viewing, this is still a respectably well crafted film; atmospheric and certainly not one without interest.
The Disappearance of Finbar (1996)
Amateurish mish-mash but not without its charms
A real oddity, this mixed bag of a film. The early establishing scenes are so ineptly handled, and so protracted, yet the film suddenly springs into life in the second half, when we get across to Finland. Here we have some stunning scenery and an interesting look at a part of the world that doesn't often appear on the cinema screen. Even here it falters occasionally, in that the main story is all but forgotten in what amounts to little more than a quirky travelogue. If the opening half had been a little more engaging, then the ensuing developments would have had far more power. As it stands, we are left with a film not devoid of charm. The humorous moments seem a little forced and not always successful, and the overall impression is of the amateurishness of the entire enterprise. Shame, because there was a lot of scope here.
Mizu no naka no hachigatsu (1995)
Imaginative but slackly plotted film which never quite fulfills its potential
There's a new girl at high school, Isuku (Rena Komine), whose arrival as a high diving champion creates quite a splash. Her appearance coincides with a double meteorite strike in the forest outside the town, which inexplicably acts as a catalyst for a drought and a local epidemic which causes ones inner organs to turn to stone. Taking in the whole spectrum of pre-Millennial New Age phenomena, Ishii's bizarre film is a bit of a mixed bag. Thematically, its a real inspiration: The X-Files notwithstanding, this sort of imaginative pseudo-scientific fantasy stands uniquely amongst contemporary cinematic output. To my mind it evokes the more imaginative sci-fi pictures from the 60's or 70's, such as Quatermass and the Pit' or Doomwatch'. ). Unfortunately in execution it is often unfocussed and confusing, lurching from one idea to the next (Gaia theory, Chaos theory) but never quite drawing any satisfying conclusions. It has a detached air about it which I personally find to be the case in a lot of Japanese films. This is often down to the cultural and linguistic differences, though in this case it is the plotting which is most likely the cause. It perhaps suffers from trying to fit just too much into its running time, and the finale is rambling and unnecessarily protracted. Stylistically the film admirably eschews expensive visual effects or CGI in its portrayal of the assorted esoteric ephemera, settling for natural lighting, brightly lit exteriors, rapid multiple-angle edits, and abstracted close-ups of natural phenomena (much akin to Pi'). Ishii certainly has an aesthetic eye, and the film possesses an oneiric quality that will remain with the viewer for a long period afterwards.
Lucio loses the plot again
Rather strange that this ended up on the British video nasties list, as it had just finished run in the cinema prior to its ban. This version I saw at the ICA last year was the old British X cinema release, with a couple of cuts left in it, but nothing like as many as the 18 cert video release I used to have. As the violence is so comic book anyway, one does wonder what anyone could have possibly found offensive about this film. A case in point is the scene in which the bat attacks the father's hand, and he attempts to remove it by stabbing it repeatedly, as he flails his hand around spraying everyone in showers of blood; it's simply ridiculous (the shots of his son being spattered in blood were definitely excised from my video copy). The jarring way in which scenes are edited into each other notwithstanding, the film itself is well shot, with some gloomy atmospheric imagery, most prominent in the long tracking shots around the house itself. Fulci's approach does tend towards melodrama however, especially in the repeated reaction shots of close-ups of the characters eyes. Despite this, the brooding gothic atmosphere leads to a genuinely frightening film at times, and if the script hadn't been so trivial, derivative and devoid of any internal logic, this might have been quite impressive. As it is, it's fairly passable for the genre.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Nasty Videos or Nasty Governments?
This was my first ever video nasty, originally viewed in the mid 80's, and for that reason it shall always have a special place in my heart. The first thing that struck me was that the budget must have been relatively high. Fulci was never a great one for narrative coherence (this is probably his most conventional film) and typically for the Italian films of the time this must have been pitched as a sequence of set-pieces (the shark battle, the fiery finale, and of course, the infamous eyeball scene). Unfortunately for the most part these are fairly flatly directed and fall short of their potential for tension. The earlier expository scenes are especially protracted, and throughout Fulci has a tendency to leave shots hanging well past their sell-by date. That said, the film is not completely artless, and whereas it lacks suspense, it does have a degree of atmosphere about it. After the political correctness of the 80's and the 'post-Modernist' knowingness of the 90's, Zombie Flesheaters, with its excessive gore and its leering nudity, its risible dubbed dialog and its a complete lack of humour, with its simplistic plotting and comic-book characterisation, is probably most interesting if viewed from the perspective that firstly, that there was ever a market for this sort of thing and secondly, that people thought that films like this needed suppressing. Yes it's true, they don't make them like this anymore!
Zombi Holocaust (1980)
A Cut and Paste Hack and Slash Job
Blimey! Did this really use to pass as entertainment? A real cut-price job of all the most cost commercial aspects of early 80's Italian exploitation cinema incoherently tacked together. Here we have zombies, cannibals and a mad doctor, and a script whose only purpose is to act as a tenuous link between each cheap, splashy gore or full frontal nudity scene. It's the sort of film that after the first 15 minutes, gets bored with itself and wanders off somewhere else. Atrocious dubbing; dialogue which makes Fulci's 'Zombie Flesheaters' look like Mamet; Italian exteriors ludicrously masquerading as Philipino jungle and the usual inherent racism of the cannibal movie sub-genre, this film is just plain awful even by the low-standards set by the rest of this cycle of Spaghetti splatter. The version played at the ICA was titled 'Dr Butcher MD', so I assume it to be the full US uncut one.
The Driller Killer (1979)
This is probably best looked at in the context of Ferrara's other work, rather than in the context of the rest of the British video nasties list, because it is actually a surprisingly good film. Rather than a mere body count movie, Ferrara's first movie is a Repulsion-style portrait of a man's descent into psychosis; a bleak yet darkly comic urban paranoia movie with actually far less graphic bloodletting than its detractors would have us believe. Despite the obvious low budget, the acting and cinematography are all perfectly competent in evoking the claustrophobically squalid milieu which leads to the breakdown of the protagonist (played by the director himself). The film's power lies in its accumulation of individual scenes and images, though unfortunately it fails to maintain the tense atmosphere, as interest begins to wane towards the end. This is an interesting and technically accomplished film from a first-time director, introducing the same distinct visual style and themes which have dominated his later films. As a piece of late-70's low-budget independent exploitation cinema, it is head and shoulders above the rest.